20 September, 2010

Day 73 - Battle of Britain

Rain storms and a howling gale lashed the Channel coasts once again, making it even more evident that there could be no invasion. The weather was not sufficient to prevent two-way bomber traffic, but it clearly ruled out the idea of flat-bottomed barges crossing the Channel. RAF photo-reconnaissance brought reassuring evidence. Five destroyers and a torpedo boat had withdrawn from Cherbourg, and the assemblies of barges were already beginning to disperse. Churchill told Colville that he was "doubtful whether the invasion will be tried in the near future", but said there was no doubt that every preparation had been made.

The day fighting was now virtually irrelevant. The Germans were relying mainly on fighter sweeps to make nuisance raids. Nonetheless, Fighter Command lost seven aircraft, with two others lost, making nine downed against three to the Luftwaffe, one of which was to anti-aircraft fire.

The focus had moved to the night. Everything had changed. The New York Times reported: "Huge bombs fall". The Germans were using mines, dropped by parachute over the city. Called "land mines" – they could flatten a whole block in a terrifying display of raw power.

The battle was now for hearts and minds. And the government, having set its face against the use of the Tubes as air-raid shelters, was now in danger of losing it. Contradicting the earlier Evening Standard report, the Yorkshire Post headlined its lead story: "A decision against deep shelters".

The government, reported the London correspondent, was not going to build deep shelters. Nor, he wrote, "will the Government allow the continued general use as shelters of Underground railway stations. The tube's essential transport function must not be impeded". The report continued:
Ministers feel sure that the public will realise that the use of tubes to carry workers to and from work at night is vital to the war-effort, and will accordingly appreciate the attitude which the Government have felt obliged to take. If need be, Ministers are prepared to ensure that the public do not use them as shelters. The authorities will, however, continue to allow limited numbers of genuinely stranded persons to remain on the stations during raids.
The increasingly unpopular Anderson ventured out of his Whitehall office to have a look for himself, but showed little understanding of what was at stake. Reporting to the War Cabinet, his main concern seems to have been "the character of the persons who took refuge there". He came up with a scheme for requisitioning basements of commercial premises and, for areas where there was insufficient provision, setting up an elaborate transport scheme run by local authorities to move people to areas where there were shelters.

Anthony Eden was far more concerned that photographs in the press of ruined houses and buildings were giving an "exaggerated idea" of the general aspect of London in the present time. It was "bad propaganda", disturbing to Londoners in the fighting services who were serving at a distance from their homes, he said. Despite the growing storm of protest over shelter provision, Churchill was still preoccupied with the dislocation of production by air-raid warnings, reminding colleagues of the scheme to deal with single aircraft flying over. Policy was already not to give a "red" siren warning, and this "must be adhered to".

Earlier in the day, the Daily Express had not only given its front page to the shelter crisis but had run an editorial which had bordered on the frenetic. "Listen people of London", it said, "this is the truth". In like vein, it continued:
It is your destiny to lead Britain to victory. It is your right as citizens of the greatest city this world has ever known to show all others the way. It is not an easy way. Victory cannot be achieved by seeking safety and forgetting the rest. But the results of your endurance will be glorious. There will be a crown for your courage.
"Keep the tubes free", it implored:
Here is the situation. It is true that there is more safety from bombs in the London tubes than anywhere else. But the tubes were built to get the worker to and from his desk and bench. That is their function, which is a hundred times more vital now that the siege is on.
For the tube is the one means of transport unlikely to be seriously damaged by bombs. And it must be kept free for the workers. Your safety will count for nothing if the work of the City is allowed to slow and falter and stop.
The Glasgow Herald noted that Göring, having failed to get results so far, was "trying to force an early issue by trying to destroy London’s morale". It argued that the Cockney, “that stout fellow”, is determined that the effort will fail, then pronouncing that "patience is required from everyone for a little longer until the menace of night bombing is mastered". But patience was running out and the menace of night bombing was very far from being mastered.

Anthony Hern for the Tribune magazine made a second visit to the East End. The atmosphere was different, he wrote. "The people I spoke to this week were more class-conscious as a whole than any other casual group of people I have come across recently. The worker's houses on the riverside have suffered more than any other part of London in the raids. This is the one fact that stands out a mile in the East Ender's consciousness".

"Buckingham Palace has been bombed, it is true, but publicity has not been lacking about the wonderful air raid shelters that have been constructed there. Hitler has been responsible for one interesting by-product – he has led to an increase in the realisation of the existence of 'two nations'".

"The demonstration through the West End, when a bunch of East Enders marched unto the Savoy's basement shelter, may have been political, but the news has spread amazingly in the East End. A crowd of workers in a lean-to eatery off the Whitechapel High Street broke into grins over it. The contrast appealed to the Cockney. This was something he could readily appreciate. It showed the 'toffs' where to get off".

"The habit may spread", wrote Hern. "I don’t know how many private undersground shelters there are in the London area, and neither do my friends in the East End. But they do know there are such shelters and they don't see why they shouldn't have something similar. Sir John Anderson, he observed, may think he has very good reasons against building bomb-proof shelters. The workers of East London counter with inexorable logic: if the rich can have them, so can we". "That is the issue today", Hern concluded.

The Daily Worker, now with the bit firmly between its teeth, was telling its people to stand firm in what it was calling the "Battle for the Tubes". As a new leaflet, to replace those seized by the Police, was being distributed at Tube stations, its front page paraded the leaflet theme: "Don't let yourself be intimidated. Carry on the fight for deep bomb-proof shelters". The paper's greatest scorn, however, was reserved for the "millionaire Press". A long op-ed by William Rust, who had been the Spanish Civil War correspondent for the paper, denounced the reporting of the Blitz, under the heading: "Never has the press been so degraded".

Citing the then famous Daily Herald gossip columnist, Hannen Swaffer, Rust tore into his coverage of the 9 September: Touring the devastated areas, he had written, inter alia: "Elsewhere I saw only a quiet calm that amazed me. Even the homeless chatted smilingly in the schoolroom in which they had been housed". Wrote Rust:
The same night as this Swaffer slush appeared an East End schoolroom (called a rest-centre) was bombed and over 200 refugees were killed. It may have been the one Swaffer visited. I don't know. It makes no difference to the fact that the Herald "endurance" propaganda, as turned out by Swaffer, resulted in the deception of the public and concealed the Government neglect which lead to the death of these workers and their children.

These people waited anxiously all day on Monday for the evacuation coaches that never came. Finally, they settled down to an uneasy night. They never saw the dawn. If Swaffer had told the truth it might never have happened. If the Daily Herald had reported the real feeling of the people, their anger and their fears, it might never have happened.
"These stars hawk their aching hearts round on a plate. Strangely enough they meet only big, strong, calm, quiet, grim and patriotic members of the working class. What the ordinary man is saying never reaches them.
"Some of the newspapers are now demanding shelters", Rust added. "Before the heavy raids it was all sunshine, never shelters. The millionaire Press has a heavy and shameful responsibility for all that is happening in these days. Never was journalism so degraded".

News that really matters to the people in their fight for protection never gets reported, he continued, be it ever so "hot". Only the Daily Worker reported the deputation of the London District Committee of the Communist Party to the Home Office and the important points that arose regarding the rights of the Borough Councils concerning the requisitioning of houses and the opening of the private shelters. If these things are carried out it means lives saved. A democratic Press could he a life-saver these days in very truth.

But, he snarled: "the millionaire owners are not interested in life-saving. They want their profits and the safeguarding of class rule. Neither are the slush, mush and gush artists whom they employ interested in life-saving. They want sensational stories and a full pay packet at the end of the week, plus the opportunity to turn their mean little souls inside out".

Whether led by the Daily Worker and the Communists, of just impelled by the need for survival, thousands of Londoners were taking matters in their own hands. They had again flocked to the Tubes for shelter. At some stations, they began to arrive as early as 4 p.m., with bedding and bags of food to sustain them for the night. Come the evening rush hour, they had already staked their "pitches" on the platforms. This time, police did not intervene. Some station managers, on their own initiatives, provided additional toilet facilities.

Transport Minister John Reith, and the chairman of London Transport, Lord Ashfield, ventured into Holborn Station to see things for themselves. The atmosphere was unpleasant. Travellers were jostled by "Tube night boarders" carrying their bedding. The overcrowding was "disgraceful", a passenger said, and the station actually "stinks". But virtually every station between Edgware and the Strand had been occupied, turned into an overcrowded dormitory. The atmosphere had been so thick and heavy at one station that a reporter investigating conditions felt "faint".

The situation was untenable. Something had to be done.

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