06 September, 2010

Day 59 - Battle of Britain

With only four days to go before the countdown for Seelöwe is due to start, Grand Admiral Räder is summoned to meet Hitler in Berlin. At the meeting are Generals Keitel and Jodl, the naval adjutant, Commander von Puttkamer, and Admiral Schniewind. The invasion is not the only item on the agenda though. Räder seeks and gets permission for the "strict execution" of submarine warfare. This entails the removal of all previously agreed restrictions on operations.

As to Seelöwe, Räder observes - making it clear that he means no criticism - that owing to weather conditions and "the situation in air warfare" the planned minesweeping has been delayed until now and is still greatly hampered. Nevertheless, he states, the new deadline of 21 September can be met. Barges are already in position and all the transports will be in place in time for embarkation. The invasion appears possible "if attended by favourable circumstances regarding air supremacy, weather, etc."

In his book Silent Victory, Duncan Grinnell-Milne argues that the "etc" refers to command of the sea, placing on the Luftwaffe the responsibility for something which cannot be achieved by air power alone and which the Kriegsmarine is incapable of achieving. In effect, despite the apparently positive note, Räder is actually saying that the operation cannot succeed. Emphasising that point, he says: "The crossing itself will be very difficult. The Army cannot rely on being able to keep the divisions together".

Given that the operation is now drawing so close, with no hint from Hitler that it is anything but the highest priority, the Grand Admiral then does something rather strange. He asks Hitler what the alternatives to Seelöwe are, re-affirming his own belief that that Germany should continue to give the appearance of invasion but resources should be redirected to industry through the release of personnel and shipping engaged in preparing for the invasion.

Räder's alternatives match those offered by Jodl in mid-August - taking Gibraltar and the Suez Canal to exclude Britain from the Mediterranean area. Preparations for an assault on Gibraltar, he says, must be begun at once so that they are completed before the USA steps in. The operation should not be considered of secondary importance, but as one of the main blows against Great Britain.

Orders to preparations for an attack on Gibraltar are eventually formalised in Führer Directive No. 18, issued on 12 November, but, for the time being, Hitler still places his hopes in Seelöwe. Räder tells his staff that a landing is regarded by the Führer as the means by which an immediate, "crashing end" can be made of the war. Yet, says Räder, "the Führer has no thought of executing the landing if the risk of the operation is too high."

Overnight, the Luftwaffe has had about 190 bombers abroad - less than the number of aircraft flying during the day. But since so many of the day formations are fighters, the capacity to do harm during the night is greater. One small example of that occurs at precisely 01:13hrs. Sunderland Central Station is hit by two HE bombs, smashing craters 30ft across and 15ft deep. So violent is the blast that a carriage is lifted clear off the rails and thrown across platform.

Another part of a carriage is hurled across the street, wrecking the frontage of a long-established toy shop (below). Yet, fortunately - because of the hour - no one was physically injured. However, an enemy aircraft crashes on a house in Sunderland causing fires which were soon extinguished. Casualties are reported, but it is not easy to get a clear idea of the number.

Pride is another thing. Home Intelligence is dutifully to record that there are still complaints that "important provincial towns have to hide their identity even from themselves", while London still receives "excessive publicity for its raids". That problem is about to get a whole lot worse when the London blitz starts. Already low profile, much of the rest of the country, its hardship and suffering, becomes invisible.

And, with the number of bombers roaming the land, it is inevitable that significant mayhem is caused. Although in "penny packets", by the end of the day 58 civilians are killed and approximately 298 are injured. The activities include raids in parts of Durham and Yorkshire. In Lincolnshire, damage to property is caused by HE at Horncastle and many incendiaries are dropped in other parts of the country. Only by the speedy intervention of citizens is damage avoided.

In Essex, a number of HE bombs and incendiaries are dropped and damage is caused to overhead electric cables, a small amount to property and the main road near Rayleigh. Surrey, Oxford, Bucks, Somerset, Dorset and Devon are subjected to attacks, as are areas in South Wales.

The Midlands reports bombs dropped over a limited areas with damage to gas, water, electric light and telephone services. Liverpool is bombed again. Some houses are demolished and water mains were severed. At Spellow Station all lines are blocked by HE explosions and at Lime Street Station, all lines were temporarily closed.

Prescot, St Helens, Rainhill (Mental Hospital), Wallasey, Birkenhead, Bolton and Wigan are also bombed. A trickle of fatal casualties is reported, alongside localised damage.

Buckinghamshire gets fifty incendiary bombs, dropped near a military camp at Iver. Only slight damage to property is reported. In Kent, service mains are damaged in the early morning at Orpington and Shoreham. Worcestershire sees damage to mains. Other property damage is reported from Dudley.

In Scotland, a mine is dropped near Kinghorn, but no damage is recorded. In the South Eastern region, areas near Hastings and Brighton get the attention of the Luftwaffe. Wye and Ashford suffer slight damage to property and telephone wires. Other bombs are reported in parts of Sussex and Kent.

There is nothing dramatic here and, apart from Sunderland, very little photographic evidence. But there is next to no media attention. People are being asked to "take it", but many feel their sacrifices are not being recognised.

The day is yet young, however, as the secret weekly résumé of the naval military and air situation makes its way to the War Cabinet. This is the day, according to legend, that the RAF is on its last legs, smashed by the incessant, unrelenting attacks from the Luftwaffe, to the point that Fighter Command is near collapse. But, if this is the case, there is not the slightest hint of it in the War Cabinet briefing.

As to the previous week (06:00hrs 29 August to 06:00hrs 5 September), it claims 168 RAF losses, of which 148 are fighters, against 310 Luftwaffe "definites" and 128 "probables.  That is an exchange rate of approximately 3:1 whereas the actual rate, as far as can be ascertained, is closer to 1:1

So great is the disparity that one might think that the British authorities are keeping two sets of figures, one for public consumption and the other, more realistic set for themselves.  There is no evidence, however, that this is the case, and every indication that the public and the war leaders are seeing and using the same, single set of figures. This is self-delusion on a grand scale.

And herein lies an almost impossible conundrum, in trying to determine not how much but how little the principal actors know, or how inaccurate their appreciation of events might be. It is not what they know of the events days, months or years after the events that matter, it is what they know at the time.

Of yesterday, the RAF claims in its official communiqué that 54 raiders were downed, compared with a loss of eleven aircraft, with five pilots being saved. For today, the claim is 39 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed against 20 RAF fighters lost. The British, according to their own measure, are winning hands down.

In its 1941 account of the battle, the Air Ministry asserts that, though the enemy has done damage to aerodromes both near the coast and inland and "thus put the fighting efficiency of the Fighter Squadrons to considerable strain, they fail entirely to put them out of action. The staff and ground services work day and night and the operations of our Fighting Squadrons were not in fact interrupted.

According to this legend, by the 6th September, the Germans either believed that they had achieved success and that it only remained for them to bomb a defenceless London until it surrendered, or, following their pre-arranged plan, they automatically switched their attack against the capital because the moment had come to do so.

Dowding is later to say in his August 1941 "despatch" that the damage done to fighter aerodromes, and to their communications and ground organisation, is serious, and was generally under-estimated. Luckily, he writes, the Germans do not realise the success of their efforts, and shift their objectives before the cumulative effect of the damage becomes apparent to them. He then argues that the most critical stage of the Battle occurs on 15 September.

That notwithstanding, it is difficult to argue convincingly that the most recent activities of the Luftwaffe have any particular relevance to the invasion. Damaging and even spectacular as it may be, the disruption of Sunderland railway station is going to have a limited impact on Channel shipping operations.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread