08 September, 2010

Day 61 - Battle of Britain

Now here it must be very definitely stated that the objectives in London at which our Air Force aim are all of either military nature or of those industrial categories pertaining to England's war effort.

Hamburg broadcast, 8 September 1940

The residents of East London emerged from their shelters – those that had access to them – dazed and shattered, some of them later to see Churchill on a carefully orchestrated tour. The Ministry of Information men had been out in force, planting the message that the prevailing mood was one of stoicism and weary resignation. With rescue workers still clawing away at the wreckage, however, the mood in some places was much uglier. People wanted revenge. They wanted explanations from the government as to why they had been left so vulnerable to attack.

Even as the bombs had started falling the previous day, the Conway Hall in London had been packed with people listening to the firebrand Independent Labour Party MP John McGovern. He had been telling his audience that the war was not a struggle between democracy and dictatorship. It was, he had said, a capitalist-imperialist war, a fight of have-empires against have-not-empires. The man had a following – and with good cause.

Far from the cheerful "Blitz spirit" which the BBC was later so keen to foster on behalf of its Ministry of Information masters, many people felt trapped between their own government and the government of Germany. It was a "bosses' war" and they were pigs-in-the-middle. F. R. Barry, a cannon of Westminster and vicar of St John's, Smith Square, was appalled at the lack of support of the people in the bombed districts. He sought an interview with Brendan Bracken (Churchill's Parliamentary Secretary), telling him that, if this continued, there would be anti-war demonstrations which the government might not be able to contain.

The more immediate problem was the need for protection. Many of the worst raids were now happening at night and once the sirens had sounded, families sought whatever shelter they could find. Public facilities remained inadequate. The so-called surface shelters not only afforded no protection from a direct hit, they were not designed for prolonged occupation, nor equipped for sleeping. At best, they were cold and draughty, and stuffy when sealed. Few were heated. In low-lying areas they were easily flooded, and many were perpetually damp. But people, either had to make do with them, or flimsy Anderson shelters (below) which they dug themselves in their back gardens, if they had them. Failing that, many people crouched beneath kitchen tables or under the stairs.

Others seemed better provided for. Those who could afford it were able to book seats in a luxury sleeper train which left a London terminus each evening and parked up in an isolated country siding, to afford its guests an uninterrupted night's sleep. Each morning, as the train returned to London, breakfast was provided – off ration – in the restaurant car.

Information Minister Duff Cooper and Lady Diana were able to rent a penthouse suite in the then ultra-modern Dorchester Hotel. This gave them access to the cellars, formerly used as Turkish baths, which had been converted into a luxury shelter, known by its inhabitants as "the dorm". There was a neat row of cots, spaced 2ft apart, each provided with "a lovely fluffy eiderdown". Nine peers also slept there each night. Lord Halifax had his own personal space reserved.

Although the shelter was advertised as bomb proof, even against a direct hit, Chief of the Air Staff, then Charles Portal, discussed its safety with Robert (later Lord) Boothby. "Don't tell them", he said, referring to the well-heeled shelterers, "but in fact they are not under the hotel at all. They are one foot under the pavement outside. If a bomb falls on them, they will all be killed".

For the less well endowed, the Underground stations were the obvious refuge. But those seeking shelter found the entrances locked overnight, and often during air raids. Police moved people on if they attempted to shelter, and many attest to the unpleasant and unhelpful attitude of station staff and officials.

US Ambassador Joseph "Joe" Kennedy was openly dismissive of Britain’s chances of survival, saying that if war continued, the present capitalist system would crack. It would be better to accept a semi-defeat now than lose all later.

And on this very day, an enigmatic German by the name of Albrecht Haushofer, latterly associated with the German resistance, wrote a letter to the Duke of Hamilton in Scotland, requesting a meeting "somewhere on the outskirts of Europe, perhaps in Portugal". Haushofer was a long-time acquaintance of Hitler and a close confident of Nazi Party deputy chief, Rudolf Hess, with whom he had met on the last day of August. In his letter, he referred to people whom the German Government believed wanted a "German-English agreement". They included Samuel Hoare in his ambassador's residence in Madrid, and Rab Butler, both supporters of Chamberlain's appeasement policy.

Some hint of how the Germans saw the situation came from the Naval Staff war diary entry of the day. It stated:
From a series of reports, sent by the Military Attaché in Washington, on the morale of the population and the situation in London, it emerges that the will to fight of the London population is considerably affected by lack of sleep. This physical weakness is regarded as the worst danger to morale. As regards damage, he reports that twenty-four large docks were totally burnt out and four gasometers were destroyed. The stations, Sherrycross (sic) and Waterloo, and several underground stations are damaged. Of ten good airfields round London, seven are almost completely unusable.
Other reports in a similar vein provided reason for the Germans to believe that Britain was being badly damaged by the air attacks. Forcing her to conclude a peace was believed to be within the realms of the possible. Churchill was unlikely to be thinking in these terms. According to his official biographer, after he had returned from his visit to the bombed areas of London, he had been told of an Enigma decrypt which "made it clear that the German invasion plans were so ill-advanced that even the training was not complete" and that there had been no "hard and fast decision to take action in any particular direction".

For the many millions of ordinary Britons not directly affected by the bombing, and without the inside track, there were the papers to read. The Sunday Express had a three-line banner headline across the full width of the front page. "500 Nazi bombers strike at London: train, theatre, dog track and works hit", it proclaimed.

The Germans, "driven into anger by the RAF attacks on Germany, threw everything they had into the biggest air attack of the war on London yesterday and throughout the night", the story went – under the subtitle: "Fighters and guns crash 65 raiders down in flames". Thus, the report concluded, "There is no reason whatsoever for dejection or depression. The RAF is more than holding its own".  Determinedly upbeat, there was no mention of the casualties in the headline block.

Sunday Express readers were, by coincidence to enjoy a column from J. B. Priestley, who had been given a regular slot by Beaverbrook. He chose for his title, "The two most dangerous people – those who care but don't know: those who know but don't care". The task of the people of this country, he wrote, was to destroy Nazism abroad and also to create at home a new, thorough and militant democracy. The blockage, stated explicitly, was "Tory Britain", coming into the category of "those who know but don't care". It was a mistake to think the "fifth column" is a foreigner, he wrote. It was this group, with "no particular friends anywhere, simply because it has been regarded for some time now as being short-sighted, fumbling, greedy, reactionary and about to decay".

And in the evening, Priestley was back, this time on the airwaves with another BBC Postscript talk. It was a pity, he said, that in the earlier months of this war, the authorities were so emphatic that we were civilians, a helpless passive lot, so many skins to save, so much weight of tax-paying stuff to be huddled out of harm’s way. We see now, when the enemy bombers come roaring at us at all hours, and it’s our nerve versus his, that we're not really civilians any longer but a mixed lot of soldiers – machine-minding soldiers, milkmen and postmen soldiers, housewives and mother soldiers – and what a gallant corps that is – even broadcasting soldiers. Now and then, we ought to be paraded, and perhaps a few medals handed out.

Of course, very few of these "soldier civilians" were going to get medals, and then only under exceptional circumstances. Yet every one of the 2,937 British and Allied airmen who qualified as "the few" gained a campaign medal and the coveted Battle of Britain clasp. But the civilians were by no means the only ones to be excluded. The sailors guarding Britain's shores did not qualify for the clasp. Nevertheless, during the night when most of Dowding's airmen were safely tucked up in their beds - through no fault of their own - the Navy was out on the narrow seas.

In one action off Ostend, three MTBs damaged two ships, one of 2,000 tons and one of 1,000 tons. The light cruiser HMS Galatea, (above) escorted by destroyers Campbell, Garth and Vesper, plus light cruiser Aurora with destroyers Hambledon, Holderness and Venetia were despatched to shell German shipping concentrations off Calais and Boulogne. In the early hours of the morning, an Anson dropped flares over both ports.

No shipping was found in Calais Roads and Galetea did not conduct a bombardment. However, Aurora bombarded the Boulogne harbour area. Destroyers Atherstone, Berkley, Bulldog, Beagle and Fernie swept along the French coast from Le Touquet to the south-west up to five miles north of Cape Antifer. The cruisers arrived back at Sheerness on 9 September. On her return, Galatea struck a mine off Sheerness and repaired at Chatham until 8 January 1941.

Fighter Command finished the day with six aircraft lost. Bomber Command, flying over 130 aircraft on anti-invasion raids, brought the total to 21, against 16 Luftwaffe losses. No less than ten Blenheims were shot down.