09 September, 2010

Day 62 - Battle of Britain

Londoners this morning were confronted with a savagely remodelled landscape. Familiar landmarks lay in ruins, the latest St Thomas's Hospital in Westminster (pictured above).

A problem for the editors of the Monday newspapers was how to deal with the great raids of the Saturday, running into the Sunday morning, with a further set of raids on the Sunday evening. The Manchester Guardian and the Daily Express both handled it by giving the headline lead to the events of the Sunday night but then devoting most of the copy to the Saturday raids, about which there was now considerable detail. The headlines, however, concealed the trauma. Home Intelligence reported that the strongest feeling was "one of shock amongst all classes", who have lulled themselves into a false sense of security, saying: "London is the safest place", and "they'll never get through the London defences".

Centre page in the Guardian was the tragic story of "Bomb's havoc in crowded public shelter", after a bomb had penetrated a ventilation shaft. Fourteen deaths were admitted, the location – as always – unnamed.

This had been the Columbia Market Shelter in Bethnal Green, a large area previously used as storage under the market square on Columbia Road. Built in 1869, the enormous Victorian building's cellars had been providing shelter for perhaps as many as 1,000 people on the night of the 7th. It had been a 50kg bomb that had found its way through the air shaft. The recorded death toll was fifty-eight, and many more people had been injured.

In Whitechapel, however, a much greater tragedy had played out. One of eight blocks of flats on the Peabody estate, sandwiched between the Royal Mint and East Smithfield's Goods Station, had also taken a direct hit. The entire building had collapsed onto the basement where tenants and their guests had been sheltering. There had been no survivors. Only long after the war was it publicly acknowledged that seventy-eight people had died, when the site was marked by a memorial plaque.

Blocked by the censors, nothing of this got into the media at the time, despite the knowledge of the tragedy being widely known locally.  In the tight-knit community of the East End, the story of the disaster spread like wildfire. This fuelled what Home Intelligence was constantly noting – a growing cynicism over official casualty reports. That in turn fed rumours of mass casualties and exaggerated numbers of deaths.  Most of all, though, it revealed the lethal inadequacy of the official shelter policy.

Home Intelligence nevertheless demonstrated it limitations, claiming that there were "no signs of defeatism" except among a small section of elderly women in the "front line" districts such as East Ham, "who cannot stand the constant bombing". Districts sustaining only one or two shocks soon rally, said the day's report. But in Dockside areas, it remarked: "the population is showing visible signs of nerve cracking from constant ordeals":
Old women and mothers are undermining morale of young women and men by their extreme nervousness and lack of resilience. Men state they cannot sleep because they must keep up the morale of their families and express strong desire to get families away from danger areas. Families clinging together, however, and any suggestion of sending children away without mothers considered without enthusiasm. People beginning to trek away from Stepney and other Dockside areas in families and small groups. Many encountered in City today with suitcases and belongings. Some make for Paddington without any idea of their destination.
It was clear that nerves were raw. There were "many expressions of bitterness" at the apparent impossibility of stopping German raiders from doing what they liked. This issue was "bewildering and frightening people", and the opinion of anti-aircraft gunfire was "astonishingly small".

Most newspapers played down the effects of the bombing, but not so the Daily Worker. Emblazoned across its front page were the stark casualty estimates.  Less than officially expected, they nevertheless represented a disaster of cataclysmic proportions for the communities of East London, where the bulk of the deaths and injuries had been incurred.

This did not stop the Guardian noting that London, as a whole, had had its first big raid and had come out of it well. It could "hold its head up now with those heroic towns of the South-east which had stood up to repeated battering". A journalist who had toured the damaged areas in the East End of London claimed he had seen nothing to show that the raids had daunted the spirits of the East End. In other papers, there were laudatory accounts of the sang froid of the nurses at St Thomas's. The Daily Mail in an Illingworth cartoon (above), made great play of the fact that Goering has taken personal charge of the air offensive. A constant theme also was the promise of revenge, although the Mail chose a curious form of words:
We prefer to put it another way: that the British Forces, the RAF especially, will pursue a steadily increasing campaign against Germany for set purposes to victory, and that object will in time become overwhelming.
Many authors attested that this restraint had been "guided" by the Ministry of Information's preferences on reporting the public responses to the bombing. The calls for revenge were played down. The preferred image was one of people "stoically heroic and stolidly good-humoured". This was characterised in the catchphrase, "London can take it", assiduously promoted by the Ministry of Information, later becoming the basis for a number of newsreel titles covering different towns and cities in the UK.

Adding to the overnight damage in London, daylight raids continued, hitting widely dispersed targets, which included south London suburbs such as Weybridge, Kingston and Croydon. As bombers met fighters, they jettisoned their bombs. Considerable damage was done to suburban homes. Kingston and Surbiton suffered heavily. Then Southampton and Rochester were targeted again. Through the day, though, the East End was toured by the Prime Minister and the King and Queen, in an attempt to raise morale.  At one point, the royal couple was booed by the crowd.

Entry for 10 September 1940
According to the Metropolitan Police War Diary (right), before the evening raids started, a very large band of survivors had had enough. Having lost confidence in the official shelter provision, they had attempted to storm the unfinished Tube station at Bethnal Green.  In bland officialese and written in the neat handwriting of the age, the Police diary recorded: "On evening of 9th (before the raid) some 5,000 persons attempted to rush the entrance of the new Tube Station at Bethnal Green – order restored by Police and Home Guard".

Nothing of this was ever to get out at the time, and not even the slightest hint of this event was published by the "popular" press. But here were British police and armed troops preventing fellow citizens from taking shelter, after some of their official shelters had been destroyed. Furthermore, there could not even be the excuse that the presence of shelterers might disrupt the trains. The station was in the latter stages of construction and was not to open as part of the Central Line extension until 4 December 1946.

It was six in the evening when the first of the Luftwaffe night shift had crossed the Sussex coast, heading to for London, for another night of pummelling. Somerset House and the Royal Courts of Justice were among those hit. The newly completed surgical wing of Great Ormond Street Hospital was narrowly saved from complete destruction when veteran stoker William Pendle braved flooding and fire to turn off the hospital's damaged boilers before they exploded. He was awarded the George Medal. By morning, three more main line stations were out of action, another 370 Londoners were dead and more than 1,400 were injured.

And, of course, the RAF's battle had continued – but to the population at large it had been distant noises off, rather than centre stage. Despite that, Fighter Command had lost twenty-one aircraft. Bomber Command added five to the toll, bringing losses to twenty-six. The Luftwaffe lost twenty-seven to all causes, including at least five accidents. Twelve of the losses were Me 109s, shot down during the day fighting. Bomber casualties were minimal.

Overnight, the Royal Navy sent five destroyers to sweep the French coast from St Valery north-eastwards towards Le Touquet, seeking to locate and destroy enemy small craft which had been reported on the loose. Two destroyers had proceeded towards Calais and three towards Boulogne. MTBs also had carried out a sweep between Ostend and the mouth of the Scheldt. Only one small craft was found out of harbour. Reconnaissance aircraft reported "a fair number of vessels of small size" still entering the ports of Flushing, Ostend, Calais and Boulogne.