01 September, 2010

Day 54 - Battle of Britain

In what were clear signs of the tempo speeding up, the Sunday Express featured the raids on its front page, with another banner headline, this one reading: "Hitler throws fiercest air attack against us". Stung apparently by the most terrific air-raid Berlin has ever experienced, the narrative ran, Hitler yesterday "disregarding all losses, started a series of heavy raids from the coast towards London".

In theory at least, the invasion of England is two weeks and one day away, weather permitting. Lord Lothian, in the Sunday Express, in fact says Hitler must attack within the next fortnight.

Further, we know from the historical accounts of the Allied invasion of Normandy what it takes to mount an invasion, and the sort of air activity that goes with it. The most important tasks include knocking out the enemy air power and infrastructure, degrading the land defences and then, all importantly, knocking out the communications - road and rail - to isolate the battlefield and prevent reinforcement.

Given a dangerously short timescale and barely sufficient resources, it does not seem logical that you should dedicate 160 of your bombers to hitting random targets in the north of England and elsewhere, especially when they have no tactical relevance and precious little strategic relevance either.

Thus, you would not send in the early hours of a Sunday morning a number of aircraft to Bradford in the centre of the West Riding, to destroy the one of the largest department stores, to make a big hole in the local cinema (pictured below) and to knock out the local fruit market. Entertaining though this might be, it does less damage to the city than is occasioned by the post-war developers and is not calculated to bring the country to its knees.

Similarly, attacks on Liverpool - the fourth night in succession, with some bombers dropping their loads on Bristol as an alternative - do not seem to be geared specifically to furthering the success of an invasion. Nor does the considerable aerial activity all over the northeast seem to have any relevance to the invasion. One does wonder what was to be gained from the raids on Wallsend and Sunderland, especially as little damage is caused and there are few casualties.

And in addition to Bradford, Leeds is hit again - Marsh Lane goods station (above) and yet more residential properties (below). Leeds is relatively lightly affected by the war. It suffers "only" nine bombing raids, with 77 people killed and 197 buildings destroyed.

In this raid, in what is described as "an industrial area of a North East town" by the local newspaper, bombs fracture a gas main and start a fire which causes "a brilliant blaze" until subdued. A modern inn nearby is severely damaged, and older premises on the opposite side of the road are demolished and the ruins set on fire. A lock-up shop nearby is hit and burnt out. One civilian is killed, and among other casualties is an air-raid warden who loses a leg.

The fronts of a row of shops, with dwellings above, are blown out but only minor injuries are sustained by the occupants. Flying glass causes slight injuries when thousands of window-panes are shattered in Quarry Hill flats. Fourteen families are affected by the damage and others rendered temporarily homeless. St. Patrick's Roman Catholic church, school and presbytery sufferes damage. A warehouse is also affected by blast and a cartage office in the yard completely wrecked.

A bomb is dropped on the York to Leeds arterial road and Durham is hit. Other targets hit include Rotherhithe, Portsmouth, Manchester, Stockport, Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. In addition to Liverpool (picture below), Birkenhead is also hit, the two communities now locked into a nightmare of several years duration.

By the time the nightmares have finished, in Liverpool alone 2,000 people have been killed. Many more have been badly injured and the city centre is left looking like a moonscape (below). This is yet to come but Liverpool, of course, is one of the main entry points for goods from the United States. Had it ceased to function as a port, Britain might have starved. Never in the field of human conflict did so many rely on so few?

In area after area in Britain, people are picking themselves up and dusting themselves off. Some 44 civilians have been killed the previous day though, with 250 injured. The larger numbers of 110 killed and 585 injured are to be recorded today. The RAF lose three on the ground with 11 injured. Exceptionally, the previous day - after the Biggin Hill raid - they lost 44 killed and 250 injured on the ground. The RAF though, is in the front line. In theory at least, the civilians are not. In fact, they are. They are the "many" and the are participants in the battle.

While this is going on, however, Sgt William Rolls of No. 72 Sqn experiences his first scramble from Biggin Hill. No contact is made with the enemy and the squadron is then relocated at Croydon Airport, away from the bombing. There, one of his concerns is that the dispersal consists of large bell tents on the west side of the airport offices, lounges and bars. But these are not available to sergeants, only officers.

His quarters, with the other non-commissioned officers, are two semi-detached houses bordering on the airfield - no furniture and only the old iron bedsteads with straw palliasses. Breakfast is brought to them in the tents. And while the officers had the use of the restaurant, they were restricted to the canteen for lunch and dinner. The sense of tragedy is almost overwhelming.

Nevertheless, Rolls had a point. From his lumpy palliasse that evening, he might have been slightly comforted by the words of J B Priestley drifting from the radio – had he been given one. "The true heroes and heroines of this war, whose courage, patience and good humour stand like a rock above the morass of treachery, cowardice and panic, are the ordinary British folk", said the Yorkshire sage. This was the first opportunity Priestley had had to respond to Churchill's "few" speech. Meanwhile, another newspaper carried a large advert for War Bonds, with the pull-quote from the Prime Minister: "Never in the field of human conflict ... ". A legend was in the making.

However, the airmen had not delivered anything by way of spectacular victories this day. In a day of scrappy fighting, Fighter Command had lost sixteen aircraft, including a Hurricane destroyed by a direct hit while on the ground at Biggin Hill. Bomber and Coastal Command between them lost six aircraft, including two Wellingtons, bringing total losses to twenty-two.

The Luftwaffe loss returns for this day were incomplete. Nine were officially reported but at least seven Dorniers were shot down in southern England, and an Me-109 was also lost, none of which appear in the official returns. On balance though, the Luftwaffe might have come out ahead, with seventeen losses.

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