04 September, 2010

Day 57 - Battle of Britain

The big news in the British Press was the agreement between Britain and the USA on the exchange of 50 obsolete American destroyers for US bases on British territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Churchill had been obliged, as part of the deal, to give personal assurances to Roosevelt that, if the British Isles were overrun, the British Fleet would not be surrendered or sunk, but sent to other parts of the Empire for its defence.

Readers, however, were misinformed about the condition of the ships. The Mirror claimed they were all "fully armed" and "ready for action", while the Daily Express  claimed that all fifty destroyers "will be brought unto service almost at once". All needed additional equipment and fitting out, and it was to be November before the first came into service.

Nevertheless, the propaganda worked. Many of the public saw in the transfer of the destroyers a sign that the USA might be about to join the war on the British side. Home Intelligence found the public "still in a comparatively cheerful state of mind", largely accounted for by "the continued success of the RAF both at home and abroad".

The same edition of the Express had Hubert Knickerbocker replicating a report that had been published in New York the previous day, giving the "full facts" of the bomb casualties. “Britain is bleeding, but unbowed,” he wrote. "Hitler's air attacks on the south-east coast have been going on now for three weeks, and the German Press boasts that the Luftwaffe has utterly destroyed most of the cities and ports on this crucial stretch".

But, said Knickerbocker, the fate of this island and the decision of the war depends on whether enough destruction is wrought to mean blockade. Nowhere, he stated, could I find any important damage to any important ports. Ninety-eight percent of all the damage has been done to innocent civilians and their property. The Germans have failed to blockade.

So to assert may have been premature. The blockade was a long-term option. Not so the invasion. In England, War Minister Anthony Eden had warned that it would be foolish to suppose that because the autumn approached, the threat of invasion was already past. “The contrary is the fact”, he had said. His words reported by the Daily Express, but became the lead story for the Daily Worker.

"There is no shred of evidence to show that Hitler has abandoned his declared intention to seek to subdue this country by invasion. There is plenty of evidence to cause us to be especially watchful during these next few weeks," Eden was reported as saying.

The Secretary of War was not misleading readers. Across the Channel, over 4,000 craft had now been requisitioned, including 1,600 motorboats. Most had been assembled at the embarkation ports, or were on their way there. The whole fleet would be ready for use by 19 September. However, the vital minesweeping programme was well behind schedule, delayed by bad weather. The area west of the Dover–Calais line was giving some concern and doubt was being expressed as to whether the mines and obstacles close to the English coast could be located by the target date.

Captain Gustav Kleikamp had his own problems. As commander responsible for the Calais group of the transport flotilla, he was worried about the lack of large-scale exercises. The "inadequate training of personnel and deficiencies in the material assembled", he complained, could not be made good in the time available. There would have been the very greatest difficulty getting a transport fleet to the landing area, especially at night. Captain Scheurlen, commanding the Le Havre Group, was also extremely dubious about the fleet capability. Among his problems, crews of the motor sailing vessels were almost entirely boys under 17 years of age.

The Luftwaffe was continuing its attacks on RAF airfields. Four were badly hit, including the Coastal Command station as Eastchurch. But there were also raids on aircraft factories. Short Brothers at Rochester was attacked. Among other sites bombed were Canterbury, Faversham and Reigate.

The Vickers Armstrong factory at Brooklands (pictured in 1926), where Wellington heavy bombers were being made, was also attacked. This one was caught by low-level Me 110s (type pictured below) in a surprise raid in the early afternoon. No sirens had sounded. One of the bombs crashed through the stairwell leading to the first floor canteen. It landed on top of a heavy press in the machine shop and exploded next to the time clock, killing many workers. In all, 83 were killed and 419 were injured, the worst casualty toll of the war so far from a single raid. Wellington production was halted for four days.

Concerned at the vulnerability of his industrial base, Dowding ordered maximum air protection for Hurricane and Spitfire production centres at Kingston, Langley, Brooklands and Southampton. But despite the casualties, Beaverbrook was getting increasingly concerned about the effects of air-raid warnings on aircraft production. There were as problematical as the raids themselves, accounting for more aircraft losses than the Luftwaffe.

At the Castle Bromwich Spitfire plant in Warwickshire, Beaverbrook had been appalled to find that on 31 August 700 men had quit work at lunchtime without authorization, and a further 700 at five in the evening. There had been 3,500 men at work over the weekend, but there had been "a marked disinclination" to continue at work after an air-raid warning had been sounded. Production had fallen off and prompt action was necessary if the situation was not to deteriorate further. He wanted the sounding of the sirens discontinued, and asked the Cabinet to consider compulsion to keep men at work during air raids.

Led by Churchill, in an evening session, the Cabinet debated the disruptive effect of air-raid warnings on war production, at some length. The meeting offered changes to the warning system, to minimize production losses. Everybody engaged in useful work, and not in a position of special danger, should continue his or her work on receipt of the "red" warning, and should not seek shelter until specific instructions were received (or until guns or bombs were heard).

Fighter Command on the day flew 678 sorties, losing 19 aircraft. Three Bomber Command aircraft brought the losses to 22, with exactly the same number lost by the Luftwaffe, including 2 He 111s to a Blenheim night fighter, aided by searchlight batteries. By night, the Germans were back on the prowl with nearly 200 bombers in the air. Liverpool was hit again. The attack was directed mainly at Edge Hill goods station and Lister Drive power station. There was damage to surrounding houses. The Dunlop rubber works and Tunnel Road Cinema were damaged. Overnight, progressing into the next day, there was a heavy raid on Bristol, with 47 aircraft attacking.

Alternatively provoked and humiliated by Bomber Command’s pinprick raids on Berlin and other German cities, Hitler made a surprise speech in the Sports Palace in Berlin. The occasion was the opening of the Winterhilfe – winter relief – campaign. "I have tried to spare the British", he said, then complaining that "[t]hey have replied by murdering German women and children". He taunted the "blabbering" of their leaders Churchill and Eden; Duff Cooper he ridiculed as a "Krampfhenne" (nervous old hen). Then he went on, referring to the RAF raids on Germany, declaring:
And should the British Air Force drop 2000 or 3000 or 4000kg of bombs, then we will drop 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000, 400,000kg, yes, one million kilograms in a single night. And should they then declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, we will erase their cities. We will put these night time pirates out of business, God help us! The hour will come when one of us will break – and it will not be National Socialist Germany!
William L. Shirer, commenting on the speech in his diary, wrote of it being "grim and dripping with hate" for most of the evening, but he nonetheless picked out a "humorous, jaunty" moment: "In England they're filled with curiosity and keep asking: ‘Why doesn't he come?'" Said Hitler: "Be calm. He's coming! He's coming!" But it was the British who came first. RAF bombers were over Berlin just before midnight. That was also noted by Shirer, who had earlier witnessed the "hysterical applause" of Hitler's audience – mainly women nurses and social workers.

The wildly enthusiastic reactions of the audience lent some weight to a secret assessment written by the British Chiefs of Staff. Collapse of the German Government had earlier been considered the means by which the war would be brought to an end, but the Chiefs were now saying that there was no likelihood of this happening. They wrote:
In Germany, in the absence of a serious military disaster, there is no likelihood of any serious risings against the Nazi regime by March 1941. The situation beyond that date is conjectural, and will depend on the extent that we are able to increase our air offensive and upon the effects of economic pressure. It is improbable that any large scale rising will occur from below, but internal security will become a growing commitment and disaffection within the army and the Party may arise.
In their 74-page document, they also "assumed" that any enemy attempt to invade would fail. The best probability of success and the greatest economic advantages would arise, they argued, from a naval and air attack on shipping and ports with a view to cutting off supplies, combined with air attack on industry and morale, and an intensification of the propaganda campaign.

Germany will, nevertheless, they added, "not lose sight of the possibility of invading the United Kingdom and will complete all preparations so as to be able to strike when she considers conditions are suitable". The Chiefs made no attempt to assess the effect on Germany of an abortive attempt to invade England. But abortive they believed it must be.

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