18 September, 2010

Day 71 - Battle of Britain

Although the earlier newspapers had concentrated on Churchill's invasion warning, later editions newspapers and the US media played down the risk. The howling gale in the Channel through the night was being described as "Churchill's weather". Newspapers carried reports of the German invasion  fleet having variously been driven to shelter or "scattered". And the RAF had carried out attacks on barges and shipping, which were being bombed and "harassed". Almost a hundred bombers had been deployed.

The New York Times, with the advantage of a later time zone, led on: "Gales scatter Nazi Channel fleets", alluding to the fate of the Spanish Armada. This led Churchill to write to General Ismay, asking him to inquire "whether in view of the rough weather" the invasion alert could be downgraded.

"London's West End had its worst bombing of the war in the two vicious raids during Monday night which had in them more than a hint of baffled desperation", wrote the Daily Mirror, allocating this news to its page eleven.

Doubtless, the Germans were confident that their bombing was having the desired effect. The German-controlled Paris radio confidently broadcast that "the legend of British self-control and phlegm is being destroyed". In triumphal manner, it continued:
All reports from London concur in stating that the population is seized by fear – hair raising. The 700,000 Londoners have completely lost their self-control. They run aimlessly about in the streets and are the victims of bombs and bursting shells.
The Times and the Daily Express were actually reporting that the Queen had made personal donations of wardrobes, chairs, and beds from Windsor Castle to people in the East End, remarking that several items had "been in use at the Castle since the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign", nearly a century earlier.

More prosaically, the Express reported that London Tube stations were now filled with people every night. Recognising the reality, it told of "thousands of people" invading various Tube stations. Extra staff members were being drafted to the stations to deal with the crowds. The shelterers lay with mattresses, blankets and pillows along the platforms, on the subways and on the stairs, chatted, ate sandwiches and played cards. Thousands of home-going City workers, many of whom had to change at one station, added to the crowds. People standing packed, heaved and surged on as trains came in.

And, at last, other newspapers were joining the fray. The Daily Mail in a leading article recalled that Sir John Anderson, the Minister for Home Security, had rejected deep shelters, not least because he was opposed to gatherings of large numbers of people during raids. "But he has not stopped mass movements of the people", the paper observed.

"The fact is that the people themselves", the paper observed, "have adopted a deep shelter policy turning the Underground railway stations into shelters, which is officially prohibited. Once the people are in, however, they cannot be ejected". In what was remarkably candid criticism, the paper then concluded: "Experience is proving that the policy of Sir John Anderson was mistaken. It is not too late for him to reverse his policy and provide the deep shelters that are urgently needed".

But, if Anderson was proving obdurate, things on the ground were changing. In the Metropolitan Police War Diary, there was a brief hand-written note (marked right), under the heading: "Tube Stations as Shelters". It stated: "Comms [The Police Commissioner] issued instructions that Tube Stations are to be policed to prevent crowds seeking shelter from inconveniencing the travelling pubic".

Bland though this phrasing was, it appeared to herald a major change in police policy. From one of prohibition, with the police barring entry to stations and moving people on if they sought shelter, the policy now seemed to indicate official tolerance. The wording suggested that people were to be allowed in as long as they did not obstruct travellers.

Nevertheless, Police intervention was continuing.  The Daily Worker had learned that thousands of people from all over London were trekking to Southwark, to take advantage of a stretch of disused Tube tunnel, 70 feet below ground.  Despite Southwark Borough Council having thrown the facility open and embarked on a series of improvements, The paper complained  that police were "preventing charabanc-loads of people from Stepney" from going to the shelter.

Overnight, there had been considerable bombing in Oxford Street. The world-famous John Lewis was left a smouldering, gutted shell. The scene was all the more macabre, for shop dummies having been blasted onto the streets, the "corpses" littering the pavements, reminiscent of the real thing.

And grumbling continued. Even Home Intelligence could not now entirely conceal the disquiet – not after eleven continuous nights of Blitz. "Civilian morale is fragile under the weight of bombing", it warned. Londoners were still outwardly calm and putting up with difficulties extremely well. But, it said, there were still numbers of people anxious to get out.

The report also admitted there had been a certain amount of panic shown in individual cases, where people had had horrible experiences. But this was often due to temporary physical reaction, it said, adding that people were "beginning to wonder how long London will be able to go on taking it".

Official strategy was still to talk up the success of the anti-aircraft defences – the only visible sign that the nation was able to fight back. This was reflected in the Express front page, but even its absurdly optimistic headline could only record four night raiders downed. Offering a highly condensed version of the Prime Minister's speech, the paper attempted to stiffen resolve by declaring: "Mr Churchill urges you to carry on". Terror raids "will not force Britain to sue for peace".

Also attempting to hold the line was Archibald Sinclair. In his capacity as Air Minister, he spoke at a lunch in London hosted by the National Defence Public Interest Committee. A new secret device against bombers was being developed, he told his audience. "We are working hard on the solution of the problem of dealing with enemy night bombers, and are making progress", he said. "I am now able to look forward to the time when the pleasure of night bombing over Britain and the blowing of humble London homes to pieces will cease to be attractive to Reich Marshal Goering and his aerial minions".

J. B. Priestley had continued to broadcast, and his most recent Sunday talk had been reported by the Guardian. He had made one of his best points so far, the paper thought. Civilians under air bombardment "should be encouraged not to think of themselves as civilians trying to lead an ordinary life but as soldiers actually engaged in a great battle".

As indeed they were, the Guardian observed, going on to say that Priestley's usual insight made him stress this point, for strange and devastating events are much easier to accept as a normal part of battle than as an abnormal part of civilian life.

Churchill had not got the point. In his speech to the Commons the previous day, his had been an appeal to authority. "Firm confidence” was felt "by all the responsible officers of the Royal Air Force in our ability to withstand the largely increased scale of attack". Now was "the chance of the men and women in the factories to show their mettle, and for all of us to try to be worthy of our boys in the air and not make their task longer or harder by the slightest flinching".

Behind the scenes, Churchill was badgering the Home Secretary for information on the area of glass destroyed by bombing and the "stimulation and standardization" of honours, and the Postmaster General on complaints about Post Office service during air raids (three times), which he had picked up from The Times.

With the Low cartoon (above), reproduced in the day's Manchester Guardian from the Evening Standard, the Mirror delivered a robust condemnation of official inertia. Its particular concern was the growing homelessness crisis, to which Low had alluded. The Mirror editorial asked:
Why allow the homeless to wait in odd holes and corners, in amateurish shelters and improvised dugouts, until Somebody or Something – some local pundit or fussy official gets on with the scheme for opening every West End or other comparatively safe basement to all comers. The work is already done – in parts. Make it complete and do it at once. A few words in the right quarters.
Strongly echoing the Priestley line, it then launched a strident attack on Anderson. There was, the paper complained, still time to get on with further evacuation schemes and with provision of deep shelters hitherto rejected "with unparalleled obstinacy by Sir John Anderson". The homeless people of London were not just nondescript, improper persons wandering "without visible means of subsistence". They were "soldiers, fighters in the front line; and as such worthy of all the first aid we can give them". They, the paper concluded, must be denied nothing that can be provided.

During the day, the Germans put up high altitude fighter sweeps early in the morning. Park scrambled fifteen squadrons to meet the first wave, but only six were able to engage. Successive waves followed, a mix of Ju 88s, heavily escorted by Me 109s, but those raids – mainly over north Kent – cost the Germans nine bombers. Post-war analysts marked these raids down as "failures", but the contemporary press noted: "longest daylight attacks of the war".

AP recorded the views of military attach├ęs and correspondents who had weathered the bombing of Warsaw, Barcelona and Madrid, saying that London had already taken more punishment than any of Hitler's conquests, including Rotterdam. But, they said, the Luftwaffe had failed to achieve its purpose – "to smash or terrorise the city and its millions into a mood of surrender".

Fighting on the day cost Fighter Command ten aircraft, with Bomber Command losing nine – nineteen aircraft lost, exactly the same as sustained by the Luftwaffe. AP, however, noted that the British claimed forty-two German aircraft downed, to nine of their own losses. The Germans claimed fifteen RAF aircraft shot down over England, for three of their own losses. "Claims on ships lost conflict", the agency remarked, by way of a headline.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread