16 September, 2010

Day 69 - Battle of Britain

To his train, parked just outside Beauvais, Göring called his local commanders. He "fulminated" about the previous day's raid, complaining that "the fighters have let us down". Revised tactics were agreed for daylight bombing raids. Using smaller bombing groups and stronger fighter escorts, "nuisance" raids were to be made by single bombers or fighter bombers in all weathers. The main weight of the air offensive was to be transferred to the night bombers.

Göring was not the only one to debrief his commanders. Park called a meeting of his controllers and rehearsed a number of complaints. Squadrons were failing to rendezvous before attacking the enemy, individual squadrons were being allocated to raids that were too big for them and the enemy fighters were being allowed to draw up the Group aircraft prematurely, with the German bombers approaching later while the British aircraft were on the ground refuelling.

Meanwhile, the British newspapers were following the lead of the BBC from the previous day. The broadcaster had made the most of the RAF victory, its last main bulletin of the day parading 185 Nazis downed. That figure was too late for most of the morning dailies. The Daily Express had to make do with "175 shot down", while the Daily Mail, offered, "Greatest day for RAF", recording: "350 came – only 175 returned". Early editions of the Evening Standard caught up with the BBC, running the 185 figure, calling it a "record". All the dailies carried news of the bombing of the Palace.

The front page of the Standard also carried the obligatory "puff" for the Anderson shelter, recording how a family had just completed the erection of one when a raid had started and they were forced to take refuge in it. Their house had been demolished, while the shelter "was left safely on the edge of a crater and all escaped injury". On page three was published a picture of a brick-built surface shelter in a south London street, amid the ruins of houses, with the legend: "… the surface shelters stood fast".

Focusing on the great victory, The Daily Telegraph reported: "Of the 350 to 400 enemy planes launched in two waves against the capital and south-east England, 175, or nearly 50 percent were shot down according to returns". It added: "The Germans' loss yesterday was their highest since Aug 15, when 180 were shot down. On Aug 18 they lost 153. In personnel their loss yesterday was over 500 airmen against 20 RAF pilots".

The Daily Herald told a similar story, but added that anti-aircraft guns had brought down four of the 175 Germans. They paper went on to say that, in both of the raids, the gallant pilots and squadrons of the RAF harassed the bombers so much that those that were not shot down, were harried and chased right back to the Channel. The Germans had encountered their most grueling reception so far.

The Daily Mirror leader, however, was concerned this day with bigger things. "We reach the climax of the war", it proclaimed. The question for the week was: "Invasion or not?"
As each hour passes now Hitler’s evil star is on the wane. Unless he destroys Britain his fate and the fate of his German rats is sealed. We are ready! Every man and woman knows what to do. The fighting Services and civil defenders are all in the front line. If Hitler attempts this monstrous vanity we shall smite him a hammer blow and may win such a resounding victory that the whole Nazi system, foul and rotten to the core, may begin to topple.
Home Intelligence recorded "enthusiastic praise" for the junior service. It also noted that "most people anticipate an invasion in the next few days, and are confident that it will be a failure". The Guardian, though, was picking up the Basler Nachrichten sources which had led the Sunday Express to question whether the invasion would take place. Its headline was: "Invasion not necessary" (pictured right). This conveyed, via Reuters and the correspondent from Basler Nachrichten that "official quarters" in Germany believed that Britain could be brought to her knees by the destruction of her economic life by air attack and blockade.

Whether the air attack was directed at economic targets or destroying public morale (or both) is moot - and it was certainly the case that air attack is one of the mechanisms for enforcing the blockade. Either way though, the correspondent was spelling out options which were exactly in line with those set out by the British Chiefs of Staff on 25 May 1940, when they noted that there were three ways in which Germany might break down the resistance of the United Kingdom .

The first of these options was unrestricted air attack aimed at breaking public morale. The second was starvation of the country by attack on shipping and ports. Third, last and possibly least was "occupation by invasion." The invasion option was about to be ruled out - in effect, it had never been an option. That left the "terror bombing" and the blockade - one down two to go. But, in either case, there was only one objective - the surrender of the British.

This was spelled out in a piece reported by the New York Times of 14 September (left), which cites the authoritative German publication Das Reich. It called on "London" to surrender, or face the fate of Warsaw or Paris, subjected to a bombing offensive which would "law waste" to the Capital.

A long editorial in the Manchester Guardian for the same day, unwittingly put this issue in context. The attack on London is causing damage and disorganisation to the daily life of the capital city, it says, but "that can hardly be an end in itself." The paper also noted that Göring needs mastery of the air "in order to support whatever plans his Führer may have for an invasion." It then notes that "neither fires behind St Paul's nor bombs on Buckingham Palace will bring it any nearer in a military sense."

The logic was unarguable. Bombing London was not an end in itself, and the process did not assist in achieving air superiority. Therefore, there must be another agenda. The paper did not spell it out, but the article in the New York Times did. The battle had coalesced on one that one issue: surrender or London is annihilated. The battleground had become the streets of London, shortly to be joined by the other towns and cities.

That is where the Battle of Britain was now being fought - not in the skies above. This was not a question of the Battle of Britain being fought and won, and then being followed by the Blitz. The Blitz was part of the Battle of Britain, and was now the decisive part of the conflict. The RAF was shaping the battle but the people had become the main protagonists.

That much continued to be evident in the pages of the Daily Worker. Dismissing the great aerial battles in a single column, its main headline was devoted to its great cause, the shelter crisis. Thus day, it told of how it had learned from the Government that local councils had the powers to deal with the scandal of empty housing, and shelters closed to the public.  The councils take over private shelters and open them up for public use. Borough Councils had also been informed that they "need not delay" in requisitioning any empty flats or mansions in their areas, for use by the homeless.

Private shelters were particularly controversial, and especially the basement beneath the great Carreras cigarette factory in Camden Town. With spaces for 3,000 people in relative safety and comfort, it was used during the day by workers, but kept empty and locked at night. Recently, seven people had been killed in a cellar close by, having been unable to use this shelter.

In a long page-2 piece, the paper also reported further on the Friday's deputation to the Home Office, which had been told that the Government standard for air raid shelters had never meant to offer protection from bombs. The shelters only had to withstand splinters.

Ironically, the deputation had been informed of this while taking cover from an air raid, in the Home Office Shelter Refuge, together with the Civil Servants they were meeting. Not only had the shelter been completely gas proof, and "generally speaking quite comfortable", it had also been bomb-proof.

By contrast, Randall Swingler, writing for the Daily Worker reported on how he had spent part of the night in one a surface shelter on North London, built to accommodate over 2,000 people.In the middle of a heavy raid, it had been completely empty. Builders employed in erecting others near the Angel, wrote Swingler, "laugh at them as they build: says they are only useful for the same purpose as the tin conveniences they most resemble.

London's people, Swingler concluded, "have already taken matters into their own hands with regard to the Tube stations. The matter of the deep shelters which now exist is one which no one but the people will settle - for the people's safety". He was not wrong.

Also covered in detail in the paper was Phil Piratin's invasion of the Savoy Hotel. At War Cabinet that day, Churchill took it upon himself personally to raise this. "Episodes of this kind", he declared, "could easily lead to serious trouble". Home Secretary John Anderson joined in. He added that there were "some signs of organised demonstrations".

Together, he and Churchill convinced the Cabinet that "strong action" should, if necessary, be taken to prevent further demonstrations. If allowed to grow, they “might easily lead to serious difficulties", said Churchill. Piratin's reputation went before him. In 1936, he had brought 100,000 Londoners on to the streets in the "Battle of Cable Street", and stopped Mosley's Fascists from marching through Whitechapel.

And, to illustrate how life went on, among other problems the Cabinet then had to deal with the monthly report from the Secretary for Mines on the coal situation. He noted "temporary shortages in the Southern counties" and that "certain high priority consumers" had recently been found "dangerously short of supplies". As bombing damage and disruption intensified, this was a problem that was to get worse.

As to the air war, in very poor weather during the day, activity was minimal. Fighter Command lost three aircraft, none to enemy action, and the Luftwaffe lost nine, several to accidents.

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