11 September, 2010

Day 64 - Battle of Britain

Filtering downwards was Beaverbrook's concern about the amount of war production being lost as a result of workers taking cover when sirens sounded.  A new scheme was being announced, whereby the air raid warning siren was no longer to be treated as a signal to down tools, but simply an "alert".  Spotters positioned on the roofs of factories would then warn when hostile aircraft were in sight, and there was an imminent danger of attack.

This made the front page of the Daily Mirror and other popular newspapers, alongside news of the continuing Blitz.  Only on page two of the Mirror was there the news of the the Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations demanding the opening of all Tube stations at night and the requisitioning for the public of all good private shelters. It wanted this as "a temporary measure to meet the problem arising from the wholesale bombing of London".

Even then, the main page news was that Londoners were "hopping mad". But they were showing no signs of defeatism, the paper also said, citing a message sent by a United Press correspondent to New York.

The Daily Worker took a completely different tack, once more highlighting the number of casualties, distancing the people from the conflict by writing of "the battle between British and German Governments".  It repeated from the previous day its story of the "angry and determined" workers and their quest for shelter, then offering a lead editorial entitled: "The People Must Act".

The call was from the Communist Party, replicated in hundreds of thousands of leaflets throughout the land. "The people are seething with anger and are demanding action", the paper said, adding: "The time has come for a great united campaign of action supported by the wide masses of people and embracing all sections of the Labour and trade union movements.

"If the rulers of this country had ears to listen to the cries of the people, they would have been deafened by now by the tremendous demand for shelters", the paper continued. "But they are not being built and will not be built until the people themselves organise and force their vital requirements on the Government".

Drawing attention to the seriousness of the situation confronting the people and protesting against "the frivolity of the Press and the authorities", the paper then noted - the Mirror report of that day notwithstanding - how the mass demand for shelters was "carefully suppressed". It was on everybody's lips, "but it never gets a mention in the millionaire Press". Said the paper:
All of Fleet Street's sob-sisters (of both sexes) are on the job of whooping up morale. Only when a calamity happens, such as an air raid or a pit explosion, do they discover that the workers are brave, calm and self-reliant. Thank you for nothing, say the workers, when they read this (sic) glowing tributes, churned out according to the instructions of the Ministry of Information, but what about our shelters?
In the calmer atmosphere in the German capital, this was the day that Goebbels addressed a group of Czech "intellectual workers" and journalists who were visiting Berlin. "The greatest historical drama that history has ever known is being played out at this moment", he told them, offering them the opportunity to reorganize Europe, "at the moment when British power is collapsing".

Churchill, on the other hand, had been very much in evidence in the bombed areas, but he might not have learned a great deal from the crowds who followed his progress. Certainly, he felt the need for more information, sending a minute to is military aide, General Ismay, asking for reports on "whether any serious effects were being produced by the air attack on food supplies and distribution, and on the number of homeless".

On the latter, he might well have referred to that vital asset, the daily Home Intelligence report. It noted substantial "unplanned" evacuation from the East End. Families in the Deptford area were making for the hop fields of Kent, taking with them "such of their belongings as they can carry". Others were simply making for the nearest mainline station, with no apparent destination and no objective other than to "get away from it all".

Many more, especially in South London, found shelter in the chalk caves of Chiselhurst. Those who moved west became a serious problem. Towns such as Reading, Windsor and Oxford found themselves unwitting hosts to thousands of refugees who had spent their very last pennies on getting as far from the conflagrations as they could afford. Local authorities, churches and voluntary groups found them accommodation. In Oxford, the university colleges acted as clearing houses. Five hundred to a thousand people were sheltered for nearly two months in the Majestic cinema on the city's outskirts.

In other areas, notably parts of Essex, residents displayed considerable hostility to the incomers. There were ugly scenes and even violence. Something had to be done. Taking the cue from J. B. Priestley, Home Intelligence advised that, as these people were being referred to as "soldiers in the front line", this sentiment should be encouraged. "It would undoubtedly help", it said, "if the public were made to feel that their friends and relations had died for their country, in the same sense as if they were sailors or airmen". The dead from air raids were soon being buried in flag-draped coffins, reflecting their status as "killed in action".

The Wednesday report told of morale being "rather more strained than the newspapers suggest". There had been an increase in the number of people listening to "Lord Haw-Haw". Rumours, mostly "exaggerated accounts of raid damage and casualties" had increased considerably.

Just after midday, the War Cabinet met. In a crowded session, it considered the text of telegrams exchanged with His Majesty's Minister in Stockholm, together with the note from Lord Halifax. The telegrams were to and from Victor Mallet, concerning the peace offer which had emanated from Ludwig Weissauer on 5 September.

As instructed, Mallet had refused to see Weissauer. "I could see no useful purpose in the suggested meeting in view of the express views of His Majesty's Government on continuing the war", he wrote. Ekberg, the intermediary, had begged him not to refuse as it would "certainly be reported to Hitler". Dictated on 9 September, received and deciphered in time to put in front of the Cabinet, was a further telegram from Mallet.

This was the "last chance", the Minister had been told by Ekberg, at the behest of Weissauer. The alternative to peace was the continuance of the war on an intensified scale; special mention was made of the loss to Great Britain of Egypt, the Middle East and ultimately India. So concerned had Halifax been about the exchange that he, with his Permanent Under-Secretary Alexander Cadogan, had twice visited Churchill on 9 September. There was no disagreement between the men. It was a question not of what to, but how to reply – whether there was anything to be gained by playing for time. As a measure of how much sentiment had changed and confidence grown, the mood was for a rejection without delay.

Halifax informed his Cabinet colleagues this day that the offer was "essentially the same as that made to us recently through the King of Sweden" – to which Churchill himself had suggested a response. He proposed an immediate reply which followed the line adopted on the previous occasion: it "lies with the German Government to make proposals by which the wrongs that Germany has inflicted upon other nations may be redressed". And not only did the Cabinet approve Halifax's action, it authorized him to tell Roosevelt of the exchange, on the basis that it would score political points with the president.

The Cabinet also discussed measures being taken to counter the threat of invasion, when they were told of a telegram from Hoare in Madrid, who had picked up from a German source that the real enemy objective was Egypt. From Stockholm and Madrid, therefore, sources were pointing to the Middle East. Churchill thought it "by no means impossible" that the Germans would decide not to invade, "because they were unable to obtain the domination over our fighter force".

That evening, Churchill broadcast to the nation in an attempt to boost morale. "These cruel, wanton indiscriminate bombings of London are of course a part of Hitler's invasion plan", he declared. "He hopes by killing large numbers of civilians and women and children that he will terrorize and cow the people of this mighty Imperial city and make them a burden and anxiety for the Government, and thus distract our attention unduly from the ferocious onslaught he is preparing".

Churchill continued: "Little does he know the spirit of the British nation or the tough fibre of the Londoners". It was their forebears who had played "a leading part in the establishment of Parliamentary institutions and who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives". Hitler became, "This wicked man", and then: "the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul destroying hatred, this monstrous product former wrongs and shames". He had now "resolved to try to break our famous island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction". In his finest rhetorical form, the Prime Minister then said:
What he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts, here and all over the world, which will glow long after all traces of the conflagrations he has caused in London have been removed. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the Old World and the New can join hands to rebuild the temples of man’s freedom and man's honour on foundations which will not soon or easily be overthrown.
In the reference to "the Old World and the New" there was a direct appeal to the USA to join the war. London’s agonies were sufficient reason for this to happen. His message was spread throughout the world but, in the USA as much by the network of hundreds of "local" papers, such as the Florida-based Sarasota Herald Tribune (below). Often relying on agency or syndicated copy, their collective audience measured in tens of millions. And the message they conveyed was stark. Hitler's invasion fleet, poised on the other side of the Channel, was ready to strike.

The daily air war, however, was taking on a direction of its own. All of a sudden, there were several different wars going on – seemingly unrelated. Fighter Command was still battling away against the daylight elements of the Luftwaffe which, in the morning comprised one Henschel 126 on a reconnaissance mission near Dover and one machine bombing the radar station at Poling. After lunch, the Germans put up a series of raids.

The first was aimed largely at London, with bombs falling on the City, but also on the docks, Islington and Paddington. Others fell on Biggin Hill, Kenley, Brooklands and Hornchurch. A second raid, despite the best efforts of harrying fighters, managed to dump bombs on Southampton and Portsmouth. Then a force of Me 109s appeared over Dover on a barrage balloon shoot. Another force attacked a Channel convoy, disabling the escort Atherstone, in a throwback to an earlier phase of the fighting. While that was happening, there was a progression of single-aircraft raids heading off to bomb inland RAF aerodromes.

On the day, Fighter Command lost thirty-two aircraft, while Bomber Command again concentrated on the invasion fleet, losing five aircraft on these and other operations, bringing the total to thirty-seven. The Germans only lost twenty-six. And, after his first escape on 25 August, Sgt Mervyn Sprague was shot down again – by another Me 110. South of Selsey Bill, his Spitfire crashed into the Channel. This time there was no "Digger" Aitkin to rescue him. His body was washed ashore at Brighton on 10 October.

Meanwhile, London's defences were being beefed up. On the orders of General Pile and his officers of AA Command, guns were on the move. By late afternoon of 10 September, thirty-five additional 3.7in guns were in London. By this night, more were ready – their objective to worry the enemy and hearten the civilian population. The result was an orgy of what General Pile described as "largely wild and uncontrolled shooting", a barrage of 13,221 shells averaging 378 rounds per site, with the star performer firing 805. No enemy aircraft were shot down.