21 September, 2010

Day 74 - Battle of Britain

Things were moving and the Daily Worker was beginning to scent victory. "The great tussle - People v. The Government - to decide how much protection, how much shelter, how much housing, bombed workers are to get, is getting hotter by the hour", the paper said. "It has been raging all week. This week-end it will be a bigger fight than ever. It is going on not only in London, but right across the country".

"After taking one bad beating from the London citizens on the Tube question, and with the demand for deep shelters rising fiercely on every hand, the Government is fighting back with every trick it knows", the paper then observed. "They have even gone to the length of sending Lord Beaverbrook, Sir John Anderson, and Lord Ashfield down the Holborn Tube station (with Press photographers) to try to calm public feeling against the Government. The Royal Family are also being worked at frequent intervals for that purpose".

"As regards deep or heavily protected shelters, the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole are convinced that the provision of these is impossible in wartime", says a statement published yesterday. To sugar this bitter pill for the people, the same statement revealed that the huge agitation on this subject has already forced the Government to adopt plans to: open some private shelters at night; provide better lighting and sanitary arrangements in communal shelters.

These secondary concessions are the direct result of the public agitation, led by the Communist Party, whose members forced these demands on the Government in a deputation to the Home Office seven days ago. But on the main issue of the bomb-proof shelters, the paper noted, the Government is still "standing pat". It also noted that an attempt is being made to "play down" the whole issue in the newspapers.

In an op-ed, columnist Frank Pitcairn then wrote that "London people are setting an example to the country":
Occupation of the Tubes this week is a big event. It is also part of a chain of still bigger ones. The position is simple. The facts are clear. The attitudes of the Government, of the various political parties, of the different newspapers, and of the mass of the working people are lit up very distinctly in the glare of present happenings. Also, If we review the facts, it is plain to see how this position arose, how it is being met, and why the situation In London this week can be said to be an example of the greatest value to working people all over the country. 
It is a practical instance - and by no means a small one - of what the Communists meant when they said many months ago that people must "take their fate into their own hands", for these are the only hands in which it is safe.

On another inside page was a cartoon of Sir John Anderson, running for a ministry deep shelter, being chased by members of the public demanding their own. Without explanation, he was shown carrying a shotgun and a brace of game birds. This was a less than subtle reference to an earlier report by the Daily Worker that, in the first week of the Blitz, he had gone on a shooting holiday in Scotland.

Despite all this, the victory was there to see - as a late entry. "All trains have now been stopped in the Holborn-Aldwych Tube and work is already in hand to convert it into a day and night air raid shelter". Aldwych station was closed after the last train on Saturday night and the conversion began, the paper added. "The Tube is one of the deepest In London, and its conversion into a shelter is an admission by the Government that previous refusals to open Tubes for shelter have been nullified by the action of the people themselves".

Watching the ongoing drama was the Guardian. It observed that East Enders had not been taking the least bit of notice of the Government's call to "refrain" from using the Tubes as shelters. And still less were they listening to the entreaties of the Express. The government had two options. It could try to enforce its ban, calling out the police and perhaps even troops to evict women and children at the points of bayonets. Or it could cave in and make the best of the situation. It was now clear that it was taking the sensible option.

Only now did Churchill send an "action this day" minute to his permanent secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, copy to Anderson and Reith. In it, he recalled having asked the Cabinet "the other day" whether the Tubes could be used as air-raid shelters, "even at the expense of transport facilities". This would have been on 13 September, when he had been told by Reith that their use as shelters was "inadvisable". Now, after eight days of inaction from himself, Churchill was now asking what had happened to supersede "the former decisive arguments".

"Pray let me have more information about this", he wrote. "I still remain in favour of widespread utilization of the Tubes", he added, asking for a "short report on one sheet of paper" on details of changes necessary to make the Underground system more accessible. That evening, Reith wrote in his diary of a "Silly 'action this day' memo from the PM about Tubes".

It was certainly "silly" in the sense that the immediate crisis was coming to a head. There can be no doubt at all that the people of London – or, at the very least, tens of thousands of Londoners – had openly defied the government in an egregious episode of mass civil disobedience, with the acquiescence of the police and transport authorities. The Government had thus been confronted with the choice of enforcing its policy or backing down, and had chosen the latter.

Had the Government taken the "strong action" that Churchill had wanted, not only against demonstrators but against those who were openly defying the government, one can only speculate as to what might have happened. It may even be the case that the police would have refused to obey orders. Had they not done so, there could have been bloody riots.

As well as the incident in Bethnal Green, and the confrontations at the Tube stations, there had been a riot in Portsmouth when the police had sought to enforce a policy of keeping air-raid shelters locked through the day, to prevent interruptions to war production. When a group had tried to force their way into a shelter, the police had drawn their truncheons and made a baton charge.

London riots, in front of the world’s press, would have been far worse and, in the febrile mood of the times, might not have ended there. A perverse decision could have triggered the very event that Hitler and Goering so much wanted – and expected. At this point, the people possibly came as close to rebellion as they ever did throughout the war. Never again did there seem to be the precise combination of circumstances and the degree of tension experienced in these closing days of September. If there was a true pivotal moment in the entire war, when it could have been lost, it was maybe this day, 21 September.

To what extent this was ever a threat is almost impossible to tell. Political correspondent Laurence Thompson, writing of the general period, recorded that on the nights of 7-8 September there had been something which an eye witness "choosing the words with care" described to him as "near panic". It had not been on a large scale, nor lasting beyond that short time. But it had been watched with anxiety because of pre-war anticipations, and the contagious quality of the panic which had so recently been seen in France and Belgium.

Such had been the sensitivity of even the suggestion of panic that Sir Harold Scott, chief administrative officer of the London Civil Defence Region was at pains to dispel any idea that it had been seen. He assured Thompson that he was "certain there was no panic of any importance".

By coincidence, a long piece by Ritchie Calder was published in the New Statesman. Among other things, he set out the background to the South Hallsville School incident. He was caustic about those who so glibly claimed to be able to characterize the state of morale of the East Enders, as he described the inefficiency and incompetence of the officials and government institutions. But, the crisis was now passing.

That evening, in a postscript to the 6pm BBC news, Clement Attlee, then Lord Privy Seal, spoke to the nation of the "Battle of Britain", telling his audience:
Those who have been killed in air raids have died for their country no less than the soldier killed in battle, for this present air attack is not directed primarily on our factories, docks, and public services, but on the spirit of our people. It is here that Hitler is sustaining his heaviest defeat.
Stating that he was one of those charged with the duty of working at the centre, and thus was able to survey the whole field with a full knowledge of what was happening, Attlee said, "I speak with a deep sense of confidence in the success of our cause". After paying a tribute to the work of the RAF, he continued:
Our forces on land are in good heart I include in these forces, not only the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Home Guard but also the civil defence services, police workers in industry and, indeed, all the men, women and children of our nation. We are all in this war. I believed that the Battle of Britain was "the turning point of the war".
Defeat of this attack, he said, marks the turning of the tide. We may have to endure worse things yet. There is no room for easy optimism. But there is very cause for confidence.

Churchill was at Chequers later that evening, and gave no hint of the passing of the crisis. He was joined by Lord Gort and Dowding for dinner. This was the first day that the existence of the codename Sealion had shown up in the top secret Enigma intercepts of German radio traffic, and conversation turned to the invasion. The Prime Minister hypothesized that the Germans could mount a surprise invasion during the autumn fogs. Ismay, his military advisor, was sceptical, but too polite to tell the Prime Minister he was talking "rot".

Colville, in his record of the discussion, did not mention shelters, and remarked not on the distant drone of German bombers as they pounded London once more, for the fifteenth consecutive night. Churchill, on the other hand, sent Alan Brooke a paper from Samuel Hoare in Spain, giving details of a talk with a reliable American who had come from Germany. Speaking on 7 September, he had said he was certain that Hitler would attack within a fortnight. This day was the last day of the fortnight, and the weather forecast was for a perfect sea.

Through the day, Fighter Command had only lost one aircraft, a Hurricane colliding with a machine-gun post at its home base, as it was taking off. Bomber Command dispatched aircraft to attack shipping and barges at Calais, Ostend and Boulogne, without loss. It was also reported that Jersey Airport had been "heavily attacked". A combination of accidents, enemy fighters and flak lost the Luftwaffe eleven aircraft. This had been one of those better days.

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