10 September, 2010

Day 63 - Battle of Britain

Liverpool St Station after the raid
By morning, no less than 148 German bombers had visited London. Liverpool Street Station was among the landmarks hit and a number of others suffered badly.

A Luftwaffe bomb breached the northern outfall sewer, the great work of Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgetti, which carried the bulk of London's sewage.

Freed from their bounds, the contents poured into the River Lea, adding a pungent stench to the already overloaded atmosphere. The metaphor was somewhat fitting.

The headlines told the story, not that anyone in London needed telling. On the third night of the Blitz, the bombing had been heavier than ever. The London correspondent for the Yorkshire Post called it, "the worst terrorist air raid yet inflicted upon London and probably upon any part of the country".

Much was made of the royal tour, with the Daily Express headlining its report: "They'd lost their homes, but could still raise a cheer", marking the reaction of the locals to the visit.

Clearly, the King had been enlisted to assist with the propaganda effort, the paper having him pointing to Anderson shelters among the wreckage, and remarking on the protection they gave. Then, said the paper, "Homeless East Enders crowded round the King's car to cheer. Police had to force a path for him. But the people climbed on to the running boards to tap the windows and wave".

The contrast between Left and Right on the political spectrum could hardly have been greater. The Daily Worker (above) focused on the bombing, also reporting "angry and determined" working people taking direct action, "forcing unwilling and mean authorities, employers and property owners" to meet the needs of the people for deep bombproof shelters.

A sombre War Cabinet met at the usual time, just after midday, when Home Secretary John Anderson had to admit to a "difficult situation" arising for the homeless in the East End. This matter, he said, had not, perhaps, been very well handled by all the local authorities. Arrangements had been made for the London County Council to take over and a special organization was also being set up in Whitehall. It was proposed to transfer the homeless to districts further west.

This was going to be too late for Canning Town in the centre of the docklands area, where tragedy was to reach almost unbearable proportions. Prior to the nineteenth century, this had been largely marshland, accessible only by boat or toll bridge. The high water table was not amenable to digging shelters and, for the same reason, there were no underground railways. Now, the hundreds made homeless by the bombing had gravitated to a "rest centre" set up in the now vacated South Hallsville School. With no shelter from the bombing, they were promised transport away from the heat of the battle.

Journalist Ritchie Calder visited the school. He described it as "a bulging dangerous ruin" which had already been damaged by a bomb and had survived the raids only by a miracle. He was distinctly uneasy. "It was a calculable certainty", he wrote, that it would be targeted again. Yet the promised transport failed to show up.

According to some, it had been mistakenly diverted to Camden Town in North London. The refugees thus settled down to spend another night in the unprotected buildings – one of the most dangerous places on earth, under the flight path of German bombers making their runs on the docks. And, at 3.45 a.m., the predictable (and predicted) tragedy struck in the form of a large calibre bomb.

Rescue workers dragged seventy-three bodies from the wreckage. But as they worked, a cordon was thrown around the area to keep people from seeing what was happening. The censor, or so we are told, warned the press there were to be no reports or pictures of the tragedy, so devastating would be the effect on the morale of an already shattered population. In fact, a brief report appeared in next day's Guardian (see below right) and the incident was reported in detail by the AP.

Rescue was then expected to take at least twenty-four hours. The work seems to have been gone on for three days. Then, according to legend, by "government order", the origin of which is not known – the search was abandoned. The wreckage was limed and razed to the ground.

Locals are convinced that the authorities concealed the full death toll, which was far higher than the official figure. Some say it might have been as high as 400 or 450. The Guardian of 12 September reported the casualties of Monday night for the whole area being 400 with 1,400 injured, but with "the majority of the fatalities occurring when an elementary school in the East End of London … collapsed".

There was bitterness that no effort had been made to discover the identities of the many for whom this illusory refuge had been their final resting place. The incident became a festering sore in relations between the much-troubled people and the authorities.

Given the huge pressure on resources, civil defence squads were not infrequently having to make such dreadful decisions, so there may not have been anything particularly sinister about abandoning the site.

The full horror had yet to be fully realized as this September day dawned. It revealed a blanket of low cloud across much of northern Europe. Large-scale daylight operations were out of the question. Air activity was confined to sporadic "nuisance" raids. However, across the Channel, more than 3,000 barges and other vessels had been assembled with a view to transporting a German army to England. A decision had to be made on whether they were going to be used. The weather was poor, limiting air operations over England, and the forecast for the next ten days offered unsettled conditions. Hitler decided to delay making up his mind until 14 September.

The Naval Staff recorded other concerns, the diarist writing: "It would be in conformity with timetable preparations for the operation of Sealion if the Luftwaffe concentrated less on London and more on Portsmouth and Dover, as well as on the naval forces in and near the operational area, in order to eliminate the potential threats of the enemy".

Nevertheless, it went on: "But the Naval Staff does not consider this a suitable moment to approach the Luftwaffe or the Führer with such demands”. Hitler thought the major attack on London might be decisive. Thus a systematic and prolonged bombardment of London could result in the enemy adopting an attitude which would render Sealion superfluous. "Hence the Naval Staff will not proceed with the demand".

This, effectively, acknowledged what had been the case for some time. The air operation was a strategic bombardment. Bremen Radio this day broadcast: "It is a question of time – a few short weeks, then this conflagration will reach its natural end". A Nazi communiqué stated that the air offensive would be "pressed relentlessly until the British capitulate”. New waves of German bombers flying against London would “carry out remorseless and relentless warfare until the smoking ruins of industrial and military objectives, decimation of the British Air Force and shattered morale of the British people bring into power a government that will accept German terms".

Bomb damage in the City of London.  Visible is the twisted wreck of a double-decker bus - one of many to be damaged, to the extent that buses had to be brought in from the provinces to make up the shortfall.  To the left (background) is a London Taxi in use as a fire appliance with the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS).

This was a remarkably lucid declaration of the German war aims and it would have been entirely logical for the Germans also to be exploring diplomatic channels to present their terms, as they had following Hitler's peace offer on 19 July.

Thus, on this day, Karl Haushofer sent a letter to his son, Albrecht – whom we met only two days ago. He referred to "secret peace talks" which were going on with Britain. There was talk of "middlemen" such as Ian Hamilton (head of the British Legion), the Duke of Hamilton and Violet Roberts, whose nephew, Walter Roberts was a close relative of the Duke of Hamilton and was working in the political intelligence and propaganda branch of the Secret Intelligence Service.

Violet was living in Lisbon. And Portugal was said to be one of the four main places where secret peace negotiations were taking place, the others being Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these things may have been connected – and may not have been. But there is no doubt that another "peace offensive" was in progress.

In the air war of the day, the casualty rate was well down, reflecting reduced air activity. Only two Fighter Command aircraft were lost, neither to combat, plus four RAF bombers. The Luftwaffe lost six aircraft, including two He 111s on the ground to a bombing raid on Eindhoven. Eight more were very badly damaged. However, much of RAF Bomber Command's efforts were focused on destroying invasion barges.