14 September, 2010

Day 67 - Battle of Britain

Over a hundred Londoners lay dead from the latest raids, but there was no confusion in the British media about the most important story: Buckingham Palace. This was the second time the palace had been hit, but this was the incident that really made the headlines. The Daily Mirror splashed across its front page, "King and Queen in palace, bombed", with the Daily Express offering a more lurid: "Dive bombers try to kill the King and Queen". Famously, the Queen was said to have remarked that she was glad to have been bombed. She could now look the East End in the face.

The estimated number of casualties in London alone now exceeded 6,000 and the Daily Worker was recording that tens of thousands of shelterless Londoners were seeking to "camp out" in the Tubes.

London Communists, the previous day, had sent a deputation to see the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street, "to present to him a true picture of the real situation in London, the real suffering of the people". The paper recorded that the deputation handed in a memorandum but the Premier's Secretary had later returned it with a covering letter asking the deputation to take it to the Home Office.

Thus bidden, the deputation complied, where they had remained for two hours, "pressing the demands of Londoners". Their memorandum had complained of many families in Anderson shelters having been "wiped out by direct hits", while bad weather made all-night use of them impossible. Others had been forced to depend on dangerous basements. Others again were reliant on surface shelters "built of brick that crumbles in the hand".

Not one other newspaper had yet seriously addressed the shelter issue, or got near to portraying the extent of the disaster that had befallen the "Cockneys" in the East End.  The Daily Worker was unimpressed, using a sharply focused cartoon to highlight the behaviour of what it called the "sunshine" Press.

Under the signature of Neville Chamberlain, a sombre report was reaching the War Cabinet, analysing the overall extent of the bombing damage to London. None of the news was good but, in particular, the authors regarded the railway situation with some anxiety. If the damage was to increase, the position might well progressively deteriorate, they wrote, and lead to serious traffic congestion in a short time.

Further, the supply of coal to the south of England, which was already difficult owing to the great reduction in the seaborne coal traffic to the south coast, was bound to be aggravated. We think, concluded the report authors, that the position on the railways is one which should be closely watched.

Unsurprisingly, the "authoritative" German publication Das Reich – the house journal for the Nazi Party – called on "London" to surrender, or face the fate of Warsaw or Paris. Very few Londoners would have read the call, even though it was also published in the New York Times.

Many more would have read the leader in the Guardian, which was trying to make sense of events. The attack on London was causing damage and disorganization to the daily life of the capital city, it mused, but "that can hardly be an end in itself ". The paper also noted that Göring needed mastery of the air "in order to support whatever plans his Führer may have for an invasion". It then noted that "neither fires behind St Paul’s nor bombs on Buckingham Palace would bring it any nearer in a military sense".

In Berlin, Hitler and Raeder met. The air attacks against England, and in particular those against London, must continue without interruption, the Grand Admiral told his Führer. Given suitable weather conditions, the attacks should continue at the expense of the preparations for Sealion "because they might bring about a decision of the war". Hitler summed up the situation thus:
Attacks to date have had enormous effects, though perhaps chiefly upon nerves. Part of that psychological effect is the fear of invasion. That anticipation of its imminence must not be removed. Even though victory in the air should not be achieved before another ten or twelve days, Britain might yet be seized by mass hysteria. If, within the coming ten or twelve days, we achieve mastery of the air over a certain area, we could, by a landing operation, compel the enemy to come out with his destroyers against our landing fleet. We could then inflict upon the enemy such losses that he would no longer be able to protect his convoys. Cancellation of our plans would not remain a secret. It would ease the strain on the enemy’s nerves, and consequently must not be ordered now.
Three points emerged from this. First, the invasion threat was a psychological weapon. Secondly, Hitler expected the air offensive to succeed, but "mass hysteria" might bring an earlier collapse. Thirdly, the purpose of a landing operation would be to entice the British destroyer fleet to its own destruction, robbing the convoys of escorts. And, if the ships were sunk, Britain starved. Nevertheless, doffing his cap to the idea that the invasion could still be executed, he promised to make a final decision on whether to go ahead, in three days time – 17 September.

Within the British Air Ministry, there seemed to be little concern about an invasion. More important was Dowding's failure to deal with night bombers. Having set up a day fighter force, he had effectively created the airborne equivalent of the Maginot Line, which the Germans – as they had done in May 1940 with the real thing – were circumventing by flying through the night.

A committee was set up, ostensibly to look at the problem, headed by former Chief of the Air Staff, Sir John Salmond. Called the Night Defence Committee, members included Trenchard, Air Marshals Freeman, Joubert, Tedder and Sholto Douglas. This was office politics. The outcome was already decided. It was a "get Dowding" committee which would represent the problem as his personal failure, the headline issue by which his downfall would be engineered.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to force the shelter issue, Communist councillor for Stepney, Phil Piratin, took charge of some fifty of East Enders, including a group of what Time magazine called "ill-clad children". As the sirens sounded, they burst into the Savoy Hotel and occupied the basement air-raid shelter. "If it is good enough for the rich it is good enough for the Stepney workers and their families", he declared.

After a tense confrontation with the police, the hotel manager allowed them to remain. Negotiation with the waiting staff produced silver trays laden with pots of tea, bread and butter, at a heavily discounted price. As the initial tension dissipated, it became a relatively good-humoured occupation and the demonstrators left when the "all clear" sounded, but not before having had a "whip round" to tip the doorman.

The Guardian thought the occupation a symptom of the "serious deficiencies" in the help given to those affected by bombing. People, it said, should not be treated as victims of misfortune "whose adversities are to be tempered by charity" but as citizens "who happened to have received blows from a common enemy which other citizens have so far escaped".

This was but one sign that the political consensus was breaking down. Labour councillors in "a northern town" (most probably Manchester) were demanding better shelters for schoolchildren, condemning existing provisions as "totally inadequate". Elsewhere, there was concern expressed about the lack of amenities in public shelters, after women with babies, children and old people were reported coming away from them "almost on the point of collapse".

Home Intelligence thus reported, perhaps unsurprisingly: "there is little interest in the possibility of an invasion, nor does the prospect alarm people". In the regional reports, the observation from Leeds (north-east) was: "Despite warnings about invasion, it cannot be said that most people take the threat seriously". Nevertheless, Alan Brooke wrote in his diary:
Ominous quiet! German shipping reserves greatly reduced. Have the Germans completed their preparations for invasion? Are they giving their air force a last brush and wash up? Will he start tomorrow, or is it all a bluff to pin troops down in this country while he prepares to help Italy to invade Egypt etc??
For Fighter Command, this was an opportunity to rebuild its operational strength. Newly manufactured and repaired fighters replenished inventories, airfields and radar stations were restored and newly trained pilots were integrated with rested veterans. Park then paired Hurricane and Spitfire units, the one to attack bombers, the other to take on the fighters.

Just past three in the afternoon, 150 German aircraft crossed the coast headed for London. Another wave of 100 came over at six, some of them attacking airfields. Most did not get through to their primary targets, but numerous isolated incidents were reported. Despite good weather overnight, there was little bombing of London. Leicester took some hits and four houses were demolished.

Bombing reports were being presented daily to the War Cabinet. But they did not begin to confront the sheer brutality of unrestricted warfare. For instance, in the north-west town of Warrington on this fine Saturday afternoon, families were enjoying a "Spitfire gala" on Thames Board Mill's recreation ground, held to raise money for the town's Spitfire fund.

Without warning, a bomber dived down and released two bombs. One completely wrecked the light wooden clubhouse. A local newspaper reported two families "partly wiped out", members of others "lie in hospital gravely wounded". One bomb fell in the canteen and 150 people were buried in the wreckage. Of these, 14 were killed and 21 seriously injured. It was all over in seconds, leaving the dead, dying, injured and a mass of mangled debris as the Nazi bomber swept back into the skies and vanished.

Hundreds of miles south, in Brighton, 11-year-old Monica Duplock and her 9-year-old brother had gone to the Odeon Kemp Town cinema to watch a matinee performance. As they sat in the cinema, a Spitfire was pursuing a Dornier bomber that had become parted from the rest of its formation.

In a vain attempt to escape its pursuer, the Dornier pilot jettisoned his load. Twenty-five 50kg bombs rained down on Kemp Town. Two smashed into the cinema, killing three children outright. Monica was hit in the neck by flying shrapnel and was bleeding very badly from her wound. Her brother, in a desperate attempt to save his sister's life, carried her to the nearby Sussex County Hospital. She died there of her injuries.

In the whole of the war, 198 people died in Brighton from the bombing. Including Monica, 52 died on this one day, representing over a quarter of that total. This was a day that the fine-suited gentlemen in RAF Fighter Command regarded as a "lull", recording an "unusually low" level of attacks. Flying 860 sorties, they lost fifteen aircraft, with four others destroyed, a total of nineteen against the Luftwaffe's nine, one of which was an He 59 rescue seaplane. Monica would have been so proud.

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