17 September, 2010

Day 70 - Battle of Britain

Overnight, the Luftwaffe bombing had started to move to the West End. The Daily Express was quick to report this in the morning of 17 September, but it also had something else to report, under the headline: "Tubes may be used as raid shelters".

This, though, was not what it seemed. This simply reflected the government policy that only people trapped in the tubes during raids could stay there. "It is essential in the Government's view", the paper said, "that Tube traffic should not be interfered with and Londoners who buy tickets and use tunnels as sleeping quarters are a difficult problem".

"There is a tendency for people to go to large underground shelters - in some cases far from their homes - white smaller neighbouring refuges are almost deserted. This wasteful use of shelters cannot be afforded, it is stated", the paper diligently reported. It was not alone. Almost identical wording found its way into the Daily Mirror. The Daily Express had not finished with the issue, though. The paper's lead editorial focused on the need to keep up levels of production when the sirens went.

"If you want Spitfires and Hurricanes to continue to throw back the assault of Goering's Luftwaffe", it said, "then you've got to work in the air raids … If you want the bombers over London to continue night after night, dropping death and devastation on our factories, on our hospitals, on our homes, then you may stop work".

The Guardian thought the shelter problem in general was "becoming urgent". No means of alleviating it must be neglected, it wrote. Then. without mentioning the Communist campaign, it suggested that "one idea" was to requisition factory and office shelters where no night shifts were operating. Tens of thousands of spaces, it said, were lying unused during the nights, in shelters locked up after workers had gone home.

The Daily Worker had its own ideas. Alongside reporting that a national delegation was to meet Sir John Anderson, in the hope of persuading him to relent on deep shelters,  it published a trenchant editorial under the banner: "Shelters, Shelters, Shelters".

"The demand for bomb-proof shelters has now become so insistent", it wrote, "that even certain newspapers are compelled to break through the gentleman's agreement with the Ministry of Information that the shelter question shall not be raised". Thereby did it give the game away. Every week, the editors of the leading newspapers met Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, for lunch, during which they agreed among themselves "the line to take". And criticism of shelters provision, it appeared, had been voluntarily excluded from the "popular" press.

Now, though, this cosy consensus was breaking down. The Liberal-supporting News-Chronicle had written about the issue, telling its readers, it "understands that the whole question of deep shelters is being discussed". The Labour supporting Daily Herald had opined that "proposals for the deeper type of shelter should not be turned down". "But these fluttermgs in Fleet Street do not indicate that anything is being done", the Daily Worker complained. "On the contrary, they may mean that the Government is itself putting out some vague promises in the hopes of allaying public anger and side-tracking the agitation".

As the damage, and the death toll mounted, what the press were also failing to report was considerable political action by the Communist Party, organising shelter committees, and rent strikes, handing out leaflets and selling the Daily Worker. One member put up over 100 "They Need Not Have Died" posters, calling for deep shelters, and a mass picket turned out to protest against the routine evening closure of the Carrerras factory.

As the movement grew, spreading out into Northern, Scottish and Welsh towns, it remained unrecognised and unreported by the press. Organising shelter committed was dubbed a "subversive activity" by the police, with Special Branch opening files on the ringleaders.

For all the talk of "strong action", there had been neither any record of War Cabinet concern about the state of London's shelters, nor any declared intent to improve them. The Cabinet considered that the accommodation was sufficient.  Nevertheless, Lord Horder, the King’s physician, had been appointed to head a committee to look at the health aspects of using the Tube stations for sleeping.

For Churchill, his monthly report to the Commons beckoned. He avoided the shelter issue and stressed the threat of invasion. The deployment of barges and ships in preparation "continues steadily", he told MPs. We must expect that Hitler "will make an attempt at what he judges to be the best opportunity. All our preparations must therefore be maintained in a state of vigilance".

The Prime Minister then referred to the air fighting of 15 September, "the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force". As to the figures for the number of aircraft shot down, he told the House: "to the best of my belief – and I have made searching inquiries and taken several cross checks – these figures are not in any way exaggerated". Turning to the bombing, he declared:
The German attacks upon the civil population have been concentrated mainly upon London, in the hopes of terrorising its citizens into submission or to throw them into confusion, and, of course, in the silly idea that they will put pressure upon the Government to make peace.
Thus did Churchill identify a German war aim. This could not be entirely random nastiness – schrecklichkeit. The violence had a purpose. It was not a "silly idea". Churchill knew this. The use of aerial bombing was an idea he himself believed could be thrown back at German civilians whom he hoped would depose Hitler and force a new government to make peace – the concept of "regime change" that was to have an outing in Iraq in 1992, where the "shock and awe" was almost exactly a parallel of the Second World War thinking – and
as effective.

For the 1940 version, the Glasgow Herald felt that the recent attacks on London must have had two main objects. These were "the exhaustion of the RAF and the creation of a spirit of defeatism in the Metropolis such as could have made a lightning success possible for an invading force". Neither of these objects had been achieved, it said. London "stands firm" and our Air Force was more formidable than ever.

German Supreme HQ would have agreed. The OKW War Diary recorded: "The enemy air force is still by no means defeated; on the contrary it shows increasing activity. The weather situation as a whole does not permit us to expect a period of calm". Hitler now had to make formal the decision taken long ago. It was pointless keeping the invasion fleet intact as it was not going to be used. He postponed Sealion "until further notice" (Wird bis auf weiteres verschoben).

Hitler's decision was soon transmitted to operational formations, mostly via secure landlines. According to some accounts, a radio signal to Holland concerning air-loading equipment was intercepted by the British, decoded and passed to Churchill. It was supposedly discussed at the Chiefs of Staff Committee that evening and Churchill had asked the Chief of the Air Staff, Cyril Newall, to explain it. Newall had told him that "this marked the end of Sealion", at least for this year”. Wreathed in a "very broad smile", Churchill lit a cigar and suggested to his chiefs that they took "a little fresh air".

Bomber Command, meanwhile, was mounting its largest raids to date against invasion barges in the Channel ports and shipping in the German ports. Ripping through the Channel at this time was what Alan Brooke called a "mild hurricane". An agency correspondent in Dover telephoned an on-the-spot report: "There's a nasty cross-sea running and the channel would be bad for regular steamers in peace time, let alone for any flat-bottomed troop barges".

Later, Churchill wrote that all now depended on the battle of the air, with the question to be resolved as to whether "the British people would stand up to the air bombardment, or whether they would crumple and force His Majesty’s Government to capitulate". Confidently, he asserted, "About this, Reichsmarschall Göring had high hopes, and we had no fears".

Harold Nicolson did not share this unbridled optimism, and he was not alone. "Everybody is worried about feeling in the East End", he wrote. "There's much bitterness. It is said that even the King and Queen were booed the other day when they visited the destroyed areas".

That had been on 9 September, over a week earlier, but Nicolson had been right to be concerned. Chamberlain, he recalled, had told him that if only the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge, there might have been a revolution in this country.

This was by no means an exaggeration. During June 1917, Gotha bombers had raided London, a bomb had fallen on the Upper North Street school in Poplar, killing 18 infants. When on 7 July, in a second raid, Gothas had returned, most of the bombs had fallen on the East End. Of the resulting 54 deaths and 190 injuries, many were caused by falling anti-aircraft shells  -  for which no compensation was offered. There had been significant unrest and some reports of rioting.

On this day, George Orwell wrote:
There has of course been a big exodus from the East End, and every night what amount to mass migrations to places where there is sufficient shelter accommodation. The practice of taking a 2d ticket and spending the night in one of the deep Tube stations, e.g. Piccadilly, is growing … Everyone I have talked to agrees that the empty furnished houses in the West End should be used for the homeless; but I suppose the rich swine still have enough pull to prevent this from happening … When you see how the wealthy are still behaving, in what is manifestly developing into a revolutionary war, you think of St. Petersburg in 1916.
The Guardian was articulating complaints "on every side" about the apparent failure of transport to adjust itself to the raids. It noted that ordinary Londoners had had to adjust, but the transport system had not. There had been "considerable hardship". One girl from the office had been forced to walk ten miles to her home. A man had had to walk 5½ hours to get to his home in the East End because the buses had not been running. Londoners were asking why the Minister of Transport did not take a firm grasp of the situation and do whatever was needed.

No such view prevailed in the House of Lords. Alongside Churchill's statement in the Commons, the Viscount Caldecote delivered a statement to their Lordships. Speaking of the consequences of the bombing, he declared: "Sleep has been disturbed, windows smashed, business interrupted, public services disorganised. But what has evidently not been broken is the public spirit, and that is as high as, if not higher than, ever".

Home Intelligence seemed to inhabit the same parallel universe. "Intensified raids have not affected morale; rather the reverse: confidence is increased, opinion is stiffer and there is a feeling of growing exhilaration", it reported. "The spirit of the people in raided areas is excellent". Certainly, different people reacted in different ways. This was a Tottenham postman:
I was on a delivery in Westbury Avenue when the warning went. I carried on until the guns started when a man offered me shelter in his dug out, as it was getting a bit hot overhead and a few tramlines and old bedsteads started whistling round, I accepted. Just as I entered the shelter he said "Look postman". I turned round and there on jerry's tail was one of our Spitfires, he put a burst into the jerry who rolled over, our boy was after him, then jerry straightened out and tried to turn, then the Spitfire flew right over and under him and gave him another burst. I think he must have killed the jerry because he roared down with his engine full out. It was a grand fight, after seeing that I don't mind paying another ½d on fags.
The official line was "London can take it", but the actual response was often more like: "give some back". Where people could see this happening, morale was bound to improve. But there was also some solace in shared misery, and to the very great but unspoken relief of many senior politicians and others, the focus of the bombing had been moving westwards. More and more properties in the West End were being hit. Alan Brooke remarked in his diary that bombs had dropped overnight in Burlington Arcade, Bond Street, Berkeley Square and Park Lane. "It is hard to believe that it is London", he wrote.

Adverse weather kept air activity light, although Bomber and Coastal Commands defied a howling gale to keep up their pressure on the invasion ports. The RAF lost two bombers on an unrelated operation, Fighter Command lost eight aircraft and the total losses to the Luftwaffe were eight.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread