02 September, 2010

Day 55 - Battle of Britain

Despite the previous day's losses, the Daily Express was still in triumphal mood, devoting another front-page banner headline to RAF successes. This time it was the proclamation: "WE'RE WINNING IN THE AIR". The RAF, it added, was "mastering [the] Nazi criminals". This was actually a message from Churchill, crafted on the instructions of the War Cabinet and released to the press. But, while Fighter Command was battling for supremacy of the skies, the message was addressed to Bomber Command and its then Air Officer Commanding, Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal.

The specific purpose of the exercise, The Express told its readers, was to congratulate the bomber squadrons "who have been engaged in the recent long-distant attacks on military objectives in Germany and Italy". It was "very satisfactory", wrote Churchill, "that so many tons of British bombs have been discharged with such precision in difficult conditions and at such great distances and that so many important military objectives in Germany and Italy have been so sharply smitten".

Privately, the record of his separate communication marked "Secret", Churchill told the War Cabinet of his exploits at No. 11 Group HQ on 31 August. He then reviewed the results of the last month of hard air fighting. "We had every right to be satisfied", he said, "our own Air Force was stronger than ever and there was every reason to be optimistic about the 1940 Air Battle of Britain".

Nearly nine years later, this same man was to write of the events of this period: "In the life or death struggle of the two Air Forces this was a decisive phase". He continued: "We never thought of the struggle in terms of the defence of London or any other place, but only who won the air".

Only then did Churchill convey that "[t]here was much anxiety at Fighter Headquarters at Stanmore, and particularly at the Headquarters of No. 11 Fighter Group at Uxbridge". This, he had not said at the time – not to the War Cabinet, at any rate. "Our own Air Force was stronger than ever", he had said on this day, then going on to ask for – and get – permission to tell parliament on 5 September that the results of the air battle were "generally satisfactory".

Also on the agenda had been a proposal to send further armoured units to the Middle East, and this gives rise to a short discussion on the likelihood on invasion (CAB 65/15/1). Here, Churchill himself raised the issue of fog saying that it was more likely in the autumn, arguing that it was "a great ally to an invader", especially was usually accompanied by a calm sea.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound, observed that the "indications pointing to invasion had never been more positive than they were at the present time", but he thought the use of barges and small fishing craft for a winter invasion was "out of the question".  Such small craft "could only be used on so few days that they could not form part of any expedition which started on a pre-formed date". It would be difficult, said Pound, to give any date after which the weather would deteriorate seriously, but after the equinoctial gales about 21st September, the weather was uncertain.

Back on this day, however, that Hitler issued orders that "retaliatory attacks" should be carried out against London, whenever weather conditions permitted it. Hitler and Göring had already conferred on this, and by the end of August, Grossangrift auf London was common gossip, the operation to be named Loge (the German for theatre box). Even while Plesman was still pursuing his peace initiative, Luftwaffe bombers were ordered to move to advanced bases in northern France. Something of this was picked up by the British, Colville writing that the movements were thought to indicate an intensification of air attack towards the end of the week. "It is already on a sufficiently large scale!" he added.

For the moment, though, there were the more immediate dangers of the sea war, the Express also carrying news of a ship, which it did not name, being torpedoed on its way to Canada, carrying 321 children. This was the SS Volendam, which had been hit on 30 August. All had been saved. Throughout the previous month, the Ministry of Information had been encouraging wall-to-wall media coverage of RAF exploits. But, at this "decisive phase" in "the life or death struggle of the two Air Forces" the Daily Mirror ran the SS Volendam as its lead story and devoted its political cartoon from Zec to a spontaneous tribute to the Royal Navy (left).

On this day alone, sailors had far more contact with the enemy than the RAF. Notably, HM Submarine Sturgeon had a singular success, torpedoing the German steamer Pionier fifteen nautical miles north-east of Skagen, in between Denmark and Norway (pictured below). The ship was heavily laden with a "mystery cargo". It had 753 men aboard, many of them troops on their way to posts in Norway. Some sources suggested 230 had been lost – others claimed that nearly everyone on board had perished.

Sturgeon was not the only submarine in action. HM Submarine Tigris was another, although less lucky when she unsuccessfully attacked U-58. And the Fleet Air Arm was active over Flushing. An Albacore of No. 826 Sqn from RNAS Peregrine was shot down. Three crewmen were captured. In a separate action, U-46 sunk the steamers Thornlea, with three survivors, and Bibury with the loss of all hands. Canadian destroyer Skeena and Norwegian steamer Hild rescued the Thornlea survivors. U-47 then sunk Belgian steamer Ville de Mons.

The entire crew was rescued. The battle with the Luftwaffe also continued. German bombers attacked convoy WN 12. The steamer Lagosian was damaged thirteen miles east-south-east of Peterhead. Her survivors were rescued by anti-submarine trawler Southen Gem, steamer Ashby and the Dutch Delftdijk, both off Rattray Head. Destroyers Duncan and Holderness provided further anti-aircraft protection.

And, after so many apparently pointless raids of the previous day, the Luftwaffe targeted the oil tanks at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Llandarcy near Swansea. Overnight, five tanks, each holding 10,000 tons of petroleum products, were hit. So intense were the fires that they were left to burn out. The refinery works were closed down because of unexploded bombs. Lt. Bertram Archer of the Royal Engineers defused the most dangerous, despite explosions and blazing oil. He was later awarded the George Cross.

The bombers also hit the town's shopping centre in what was a major raid for the period. They killed thirty-three people and injured 115 in a blitz which lasted several hours. Some 251 bombs and over 1,000 incendiaries were dropped. The deadly mixture caused a red glare in the sky as a number of buildings burned to destruction. One shopping street in particular was badly damaged and other buildings were gutted. Parachute flares silently and menacingly hung in the area lighting the devastation for miles around. Rescue efforts were carried out using torchlight only to avoid further targeting. The new Great Western Railway station was seriously damaged, necessitating the diversion of traffic. Four wheat warehouses were damaged. Two were completely gutted with a loss of 8,000 tons of stock. Incendiary bombs also fell on the ICI factory at Upper Bank. Production was held up for twelve hours.

As people found their way into work that day, they were confronted with broken or charred ruins instead of familiar places of business or pleasure. Debris and rubble cluttered the streets, broken furniture and damp and peeling wallpaper stared forlornly from the wrecks of houses. As the Llandarcy refinery spewed out a huge column of smoke by day and red flame by night, people became concerned that it would act as a beacon for further attacks. This led to a form of "public nervousness" known as trekking, the nightly migration from the centre of the town to nearby rural areas. The village of Mumbles and the rural Gower peninsular, visited for pleasure in pre-war days, now provided a place of refuge as people slept in tents or huts around Gower Bay and in parked cars or lorries on open land around Swansea.

As for the day as a whole, even the New York Times referred to a "familiar pattern" of attacks as it reviewed the activities, churning out the propaganda figures produced by the British Government. Fighter Command losses were put at thirteen instead of the actual twenty-three. Forty-two enemy were claimed downed, as opposed to the thirty actually lost by the Luftwaffe, a figure that included several accidents. Thus, the combat losses for each side were close. By the time the Swordfish and seven Bomber and Coastal Command losses – which included two expensive Sunderland flying boats – had been factored in, the Germans were actually ahead.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread