15 September, 2010

Day 68 - Battle of Britain

The Berlin correspondent of the Swiss newspaper Basler Nachrichten reported what he thought was a "curious change" in the utterances from Berlin regarding the conduct of the war. The Germans now say, he wrote, that the destruction of London and its industrial organization will mean the paralysis of the entire economic and financial structure of the Empire. Therefore, an invasion of Britain will not now be necessary to defeat her. 

This was picked up by the Sunday Express and splashed on its front page, with the headline: "Is Hitler hesitating?" For the first time it is officially declared in Berlin that London's destruction is capable of bringing about England's defeat and military collapse, the paper wrote. 

Inside the book, Priestley was again in full flow, sounding off once more about "the old type Conservative" and "the short-sighted fumbling and muddling of his type of mind". We who are not ripe old True Blues, wrote Priestley, "are accused, as usual, of being lost in misty illusions and pipe-dreams, but it was they who had thought that Hitler, Goering, Ribbentrop, Mussolini, Ciano and their Spanish puppets were not such bad fellows and might be won over if they were visited often enough".

The theme was: "Who are the indispensible people?" The answer was the industrial workers, the “genuine backbone” of the country, the class without which we could not possibly survive either in peace or war. If the industrial workers disappeared, "we should lose the war. Yes, in a week", he wrote. And with the defeat of Nazism and Fascism must also go the defeat of "injustice and treachery to the human spirit" which prevented the working class seeking a better life.

The Labour-supporting Reynolds News brought home what was at stake, it too focusing on the expected invasion. It noted that Göring's "blitzkrieg" on London had a dual object: first to smash communications and disorganise public services in the Capital, and, second, to confront the Government with a problem of a demoralised and panic-stricken population. Both these "preliminaries", the paper said, "have failed".

As to the shelter question, a front-page report stated that the while question of air raid protection was under review. Experts were "considering" the advisability of deep shelters in heavily populated areas, and the advisability of using tube stations was being re-examined.

The reporter "understood" that the Ministry of Transport held the view that "stations must be kept clear in order to disperse the people as quickly as possible". On the other hand, he noted, "in several districts people have taken matters into their own hands, and have remained in tube stations during the last two or three nights. This, he added, "will continue unless the Government provide alternatives".

Meanwhile, buoyed by the tardy response to its raid on 7 September, believing its own propaganda about kill rates and vastly underestimating the UK’s aircraft production and repair capacity, the Luftwaffe mounted a daylight spectacular on London. The aircrews found themselves flying into strong headwinds, slowing the ground speed of the formations and giving RAF controllers ample time to send up squadrons to intercept. Even the "big wing" managed to put up something of a show.

The star of the action was Ray "Arty" Holmes, who in his Hurricane rammed a Dornier over central London before baling out. The tail-less Hun, captured on grainy newsreel footage, smashed in the forecourt of Victoria Station and demolished a number of shops. As firemen tackled the blaze, this provided yet more entertainment for the crowd which had gathered to watch the spectacle.

On the day, Fighter Command disposed of 55 German aircraft – less than the 60 of 18 August – and damaged many more, at a cost to itself of 27 aircraft. By the time the men from Ministries had finished though, this score had soared to a peak of 185, plus 41 "probables" and 72 damaged. Even that number was a fraction of the 304 aircraft lost by the Luftwaffe on 10 May 1940. In actuality, the number shot down represented less than 20 per cent of that single day's loss.

Despite that, according to the post-war legend that turned this event into the day of victory, now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day, Dowding gazed at the empty skies and declared the battle won. Fighter pilots roared off to the Dog and Duck and other pubs in their bright red MG sports cars for a celebratory pint or two. Hitler cancelled Sealion and the invasion ports emptied. Churchill declared: "This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning". The music played and the credits rolled.

Churchill had actually spent much of the day at No. 11 Group HQ, watching the action as it unfolded. At one point, with all the aircraft in the sky, he had asked Park, "What other reserves have we"? Park, who "looked grave", had answered, "We have none", a point Churchill had subsequently laboured in a lengthy, post-war account of the action when he had labelled 15 September as the date of the demise of Sealion. In fact, Park's squadrons were often wholly committed. The theatre reserve was No. 12 Group, and his anxiety on this day may well have been exacerbated by wondering just where and when reinforcements from the Group would turn up.

Interestingly, from the start of the battle on 10 July, to the end of this day, the Luftwaffe had lost 1,155 aircraft. RAF losses totalled 1,134. By contrast, in the Polish campaign and the invasion of the Low Countries and France, the Luftwaffe had lost nearly 2,000 aircraft.

And before the German bombers had crossed the coast on this day, British radio monitoring services picked up an identical signal broadcast on every German naval frequency – an unprecedented occurrence. It presumably contained details of Hitler’s order from the previous day, postponing the invasion for three days. The British could not know this but when the signal was followed by a marked decline in radio traffic, it was assumed that it was in some way associated with a postponement or even cancellation of the invasion.

Came the night, came the bombers and while the Luftwaffe streamed over London, the RAF was going the other way. A "maximum effort" had been mounted by Bomber Command and, despite having over 150 aircraft in hostile skies, there were no losses.

However, a Hampden of No. 83 Sqn, while attacking Antwerp from low level took a direct hit from flak in its bomb bay, which set it on fire. As the aircraft started to disintegrate, first the gunner and then the navigator   baled out. Eighteen-year-old Sgt John Hannah, the wireless operator, stayed to quell the flames. Badly burned in the process, he still managed to help the pilot fly the stricken aircraft back to base. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread