05 September, 2010

Day 58 - Battle of Britain

Less than twelve hours after Hitler's charge that the RAF had been "murdering German women and children", a Luftwaffe bomb hit West Hill Hospital in Dartford, Kent. It demolished the maternity ward block, killing two nurses and twenty-two new and expectant mothers, trapping many more. One of the nursing staff, Sister Mary Gantry was quickly on the scene. Still in her nightclothes with an overcoat hastily thrown over them, she crawled in and out of the wreckage, giving morphine injections to trapped women.

In response to Hitler's speech, readers of the Daily Mirror were treated to account of how London's anti-aircraft guns had "roared into action and flung up a wall of flame against German raiders … only a few hours after Hitler had threatened new night after night blitzkrieg in answer to the RAF's raids".

"Hitler screams threats" was the offering from the Daily Express. The speech made the front page of the New York Times. References to Hitler dropping "hundreds of thousands of pounds" of bombs on England even found their way to New Zealand where, in the Evening Post, the story was given front-page lead. Closer to home, the Irish Times not only ran a front-page lead item, which noted that "Bombing of England to be intensified", it embedded in the story a box, with the more or less precise quote from Hitler: "If the British attack our cities we will simply erase theirs".

The speech was covered in the Guardian. The two-column headers told the story: "Hitler threatens bombing night after night", followed by the line: "Revenge for RAF raids". Then there was the Hitler quote in capitals. Curiously, though, when it came to the British paper of record, The Times, the Hitler speech was not the main item. It got a down-page single column headed: "Hitler's new bluster". There was no mention of the threat to eradicate British cities.

This day, Kesselring launched twenty-two raids. Biggin Hill was on the list again, but an attack around eleven in the morning did no damage. However, the main railway line between Charing Cross and the coast was blocked by a salvo of bombs at nearby Chislehurst. Oil tanks at Thameshaven were set on fire, the pyre of smoke providing a convenient navigation marker for Luftwaffe crews for the days to come.

Already, bombers from the Fifth Air Fleet in Norway and Denmark were being moved to airfields in Holland, to maximize the impact of the attack. Army High Command thought it should be coordinated with the invasion timetable, but the OKW staff conference was told that Göring was not interested in the preparations for Sealion. He did not think the operation would actually be carried out.

And if Göring was doing his best, in the open, to make the invasion unnecessary, behind the scenes there was another attempt to achieve the same thing, by a different route. As with Hitler's speech of 19 July, peace feelers followed the day afterwards. They came via Victor Mallet, the British Minister in Stockholm. The British Government was told when he telegraphed the Foreign Office with details of a proposal received from the President of the Swedish High Court of Appeal, Professor Lars Ekberg.

He in turn had received it from Dr Ludwig Weissauer, a Berlin barrister who had come to Sweden, a man "with very important connections" and "understood to be a direct secret emissary of Hitler". This would have been the basis of the Chicago Daily News story. Mallet asked whether he should meet Weissauer. "I should of course say nothing to encourage him but it might be of interest to listen", he wrote.

In the afternoon, Churchill had been in the Commons to give his now routine monthly "war situation" report. Initially, his speech focused on the fifty geriatric destroyers from the USA. He spoke at some length about them. At last turning to the air war, he stated, "We must be prepared for heavier fighting in this month of September", then telling MPs: "The need of the enemy to obtain a decision is very great, and if he has the numbers with which we have hitherto credited him, he should be able to magnify and multiply his attacks".

He did not mention Hitler's speech, but did add that: "Firm confidence is felt by all the responsible officers of the Royal Air Force in our ability to withstand this largely increased scale of attack". Our Air Force to–day, he said:
... is more numerous and better equipped than it was at the outbreak of the war, or even in July, and, to the best of our belief, we are far nearer to the total of the German numerical strength, as we estimate it, than we expected to be at this period in the war.
Only then did he take on the prospect of imminent Armageddon, with a warning for his audience. "No one must suppose that the danger of invasion has passed", he said:
I do not agree with those who assume that after the 15th September – or whatever is Herr Hitler's latest date – we shall be free from the menace of deadly attack from overseas; because winter, with its storms, its fogs, its darkness, may alter the conditions, but some of the changes cut both ways. There must not be for one moment any relaxation of effort or of wise precaution, both of which are needed to save our lives and to save our cause. I shall not, however, be giving away any military secrets if I say that we are very much better off than we were a few months ago, and that if the problem of invading Great Britain was a difficult one in June, it has become a far more difficult and a far larger problem in September.
In making this statement, Churchill had been fortified by a memorandum from the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee (JISC), issued on that same day, warning that "available intelligence has shown and still shows that invasion or raids against the United Kingdom may be attempted in the near future".

However, the JISC had gone on to say that: "successful invasion of any sort … depends on sea and air superiority and there is no indication that this superiority is or can be gained by the Germans" (CAB 40/18, COS (40) 713). At the highest levels of the British military, doubt was being expressed about the German capabilities,

Nevertheless, Churchill was acting entirely in character, talking up the invasion threat, as he had done since mid-July. But he went on to tell the House that the government had been sending a "continuous stream of convoys with reinforcements to the Middle East", including "sending some of our most powerful modern vessels" to reinforce the Mediterranean fleet. War supplies had also been sent to Malta, including a batch of modern anti-aircraft guns which could well have been used in England.

That day the aircraft carrier HMS Argus had arrived at Takoradi on the West African coast. It had on board thirty Hurricanes and their pilots, ready to fly overland to Khartoum the next day. Furthermore, the New Zealand Division, only recently arrived in England, had been earmarked for the Middle East. General Alan Brooke thought they would be "a great loss to the Home Forces". Remarkably, with Fighter Command supposedly on the brink of collapse and with invasion imminent, one of the best units in the Army was on notice for deployment overseas and the government could afford to send thirty Hurricanes, with pilots, to Khartoum.

Back in the Commons, there was a debate on the coal industry. Mines Secretary David Grenfell admitted there was a problem of transport, "not an easy problem". Internal consumption of coal had been very much higher than in recent years, and more had to be moved on the railways than before. There had been the restrictions on coastal shipping but a record number of trains had been sent from the extreme north to the south. Never before had so much Durham and Northumberland coal come by rail into the London area and into the south.

Thus offered was a picture of a system under enormous strain. It gave adequate reason why the "Coal Scuttle" convoys could not be stopped. In its weekly review of the air war, Flight magazine observed that the Germans had been changing or developing their tactics. Rather reluctantly, it would seem, "they have begun to indulge more than at first in night raiding".

That night, the Luftwaffe roamed freely, hitting over forty towns and cities. Shops and buildings in Clifton, Bristol, were hit and four people killed. Liverpool Docks were bombed and Dunlop's Walton works were hit. Domestic premises and shops in Bootle were damaged, and Rainhill Mental Hospital was hit. At Prescot, St Helens, four were killed in an attack. Other incidents included bombing at Wallasey and at Wigan where a Methodist church was destroyed. And the day's fighting also had the Luftwaffe ahead on aircraft losses, with twenty-two down, compared with the RAF's twenty-eight, including six bombers.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread