13 September, 2010

Day 66 - Battle of Britain

Overnight, 105 bombers had raided the capital. Casualties were said to be "relatively light", with 110 killed and 260 injured in the London area. There were harassing raids in the Home Counties and East Anglia, while four bombs fell in a "Lancashire coastal town", identified by the Germans as Liverpool. The raid killed seven, injured fifteen and destroyed ten houses.

While Londoners and others were emerging from the night's bombing, the nation was regaled with stories of impending invasion, matched by tales of derring do, as Nazi convoys in the Channel had been bombed and "barge concentrations" attacked. The Guardian led with this news and The Daily Mail (below) ran the banner headline, "RAF counter the invasion".

The Glasgow Herald had its Naval correspondent write that the Nazi leaders had hopelessly underestimated the difficulties of an invasion. Nevertheless, General Alan Brooke wrote in his diary, "Everything looks like an invasion starting tomorrow from the Thames to Plymouth! I wonder if we shall be hard at it by this time tomorrow".

German preparations were, in fact,  proceeding apace, with barges building up in the French ports, but were by no means complete. Most of the steamers needed had been transferred to the invasion ports, but there were still thirteen of them en route from the French Atlantic ports.

Hitler was hosting a gala lunch for his newly promoted colonel generals, twenty of them, attended also by Keitel, Jodl, von Brauchitsch, and Göring. Expansive about the favourable air situation and fortified by the glowing reports of the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe, he told his generals that the invasion was no longer necessary.

The Führer thus agreed with von Brauchitsch that Sealion should no longer be regarded as a contested operation. It would only go ahead as a mop-up operation, once the enemy had been "seriously damaged”. But he and the High Command were also coming to the conclusion that mid-September was too soon to expect such a result. In the interim, the risks were too great to proceed.

Back in England, the Daily Worker was not prepared to play along the invasion "scare". Getting to the heart of the growing disaster in the East End, it led on plans by London Communist Leader Ted Bramley to take a deputation that afternoon was to present demands to No. 10 Downing Street, calling for better shelters and "full relief" for the wounded and homeless. The London District Committee of the Communist Party had issued a proclamation under the heading: "They need not have died" and a mass poster parade through Central London was also planned.

The paper itself passed its own comment on the British propaganda line, of attempting to offset the air assault  on the civilian population with the efforts by the RAF to visit similar misery on the population of Berlin.  A pointed cartoon, with a caption "cold comfort", reproduced an "authoritative statement" which emphasised that "neither Germany nor ourselves have solved the problem of intercepting the bomber at night".

Air activity was of little strategic importance on the day. RAF and Luftwaffe losses were light, each force losing seven aircraft. Some damage was done to the Chatham Naval Dockyard. But there was one raid which had massive propaganda implications. With poor weather over the south-east, major daylight operations had been ruled out and Luftwaffe resorted to "nuisance" raids. One aircraft dropped a bomb on the garden of Downing Street and then a stick of five bombs on Buckingham Palace, damaging the Royal Chapel.

At the day’s War Cabinet, the Minister of Health spoke at length. This was Malcolm MacDonald, son of Ramsey – the first ever Labour prime minister. It had been an astute move of Churchill to appoint him to this key post back in May. MacDonald told his colleagues of "a remarkable improvement in the morale of the people during the preceding 36 hours". He put this down to the heavy anti-aircraft fire. Perversely, it had had the effect of slowing down the evacuation of the homeless. People who earlier had clamoured to be taken away were now reluctant to leave.

Another big problem was the fracture of the Northern Outfall. A vital part of the sewage pumping machinery had been damaged and the main sewers broken in several places. Sewage was draining into the River Lea instead of into the Thames. Repairs would take several months, it was said. And the Silvertown district, which had been at the epicentre of the bombing, had been evacuated owing to the water supply being cut off. The supply had been restored, but people would not be allowed to return.

But the far bigger problem was the shelter issue. People in certain parts of London were "showing reluctance" to use Anderson and street shelters. They preferred underground shelters, such as the basements of churches, schools and public buildings. These were getting overcrowded, and outbreaks of infectious disease were feared.

The London Evening Standard reported that "hundreds of people" had used Tube stations as air-raid shelters. "From Earl's Court to Leicester square (sic), for example, every platform was lined with people sitting on newspapers and leaning against the wall", it reported. Few, the newspaper observed, appeared to make any effort to catch the trains, although the services were still running.

That brought the War Cabinet to discuss increasing the amount of air-raid shelter accommodation in London. The use of the Tubes for this purpose "was proposed”, but by whom was not recorded. Oblivious to the efforts of the London Communists outside, the Minister of Transport intervened to reject the idea.

This was John, soon to become Lord, Reith. He had been first director-general of the BBC and then Minister of Information under Chamberlain, before being exiled to the transport portfolio by Churchill. He told his colleagues that he had examined the question, but agreed with the conclusions of the committee which had examined the question before the war. It was more important to keep the Tubes available for transport.

John Anderson chipped in, telling the Cabinet that the Commissioner of Police "strongly deprecated the use of the tubes as shelters". The public had been educated to use shelters and there was broadly sufficient shelter accommodation available for the majority of the population. Advice urging the public to use shelters was continually being given, and new shelters were being built as soon as material was available. Materials for air-raid shelters did not, however, enjoy a very high priority, and the supply presented some difficulty.

Whatever members of the Cabinet may have privately felt, they agreed on a common line: It should, they said, "continue to be impressed on the public that they should take shelter during air raids", and that the shelters provided, while "not affording immunity from a direct hit", offered the best protection available.

The attack on Buckingham Palace then was discussed, from which it is clearly evident that the propaganda value was quickly appreciated . The Cabinet rallied round to "invite" the Prime Minister to send a message on their behalf to the King. "The War Cabinet offer their hearty congratulations to their Majesties", it said, "on their providential escape from the barbarous attack made on their home and Royal Persons". The Cabinet also agreed that, "subject to His Majesty's consent", the fullest publicity should be given to their message.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread