22 September, 2010

Day 75 - Battle of Britain

"The feeling at Westminster us that the nation is now weathering the worst crisis of the war and that, trying as the ordeal of the next few weeks might be, the tide will soon begin to flow strongly with the allies".

That was the view of the Observer on the Sunday morning, which scarcely gave any space to the shelter issue.  Nor did the Sunday Express give it much room, reporting on the element of organization that was creeping in. At Piccadilly Underground Station, a broad white line was being painted on the platform, to mark the division between shelter and throughway for passengers. People were queuing as early as 2.30 p.m. and by six on the previous day, every available space on the City line platforms had been occupied.

Flesh was put on these bare bones by columnist Montague Slater, writing in the Reynolds News. He had been touring the underground system during the week, finding that there was "not enough room in the Tubes for all who want to get there".  He had started with Angel station "just as the nightly siren was moaning at 8.30". A policeman at the door had been forbidding entrance to anybody with bedding, but the crowd had surged past him.

Inside the door there had been an attempt to sort out bona fide passengers from those who wanted shelter. When it had become was clear that this was impossible, the station staff had closed the booking office. An excited crowd had then pushed and scrambled round to the lifts. So the lifts were closed. By some stroke of luck, wrote Slater, I got myself into a lift with a couple of postmen and a porter. "We can't let the people down", they said. "There just isn't room".

So far as this station was concerned, Slater confirmed, they were right. There wasn't room".  The platforms were crammed to the edges. You picked your way through the people lying and sitting on the stairs and in the passages. He continued:
It was the same with every station on the line. Hampstead and Belsize Park, the deepest statons in London, have gained a special popularity. Hampstead has the longest flight of emergency stairs on the whole system. I climbed to the top. A woman in front of me half fainted. And had to be helped to the side. A man took off his coat as he climbed and let the sweat drip off him. They are quite high stairs.
Yet on every step to the top flight people were camping. I should guess about 500 people were on the emergency stairs, without counting the 1,000 or so on the platforms and in the passages. I came down again and for an hour travelled here and there over the system. Looking for any square foot of space on any station, on any stair passage where a man could sit or preferably lie down. 
It seemed they had been right at the Angel. There was no room. If you found an unoccupied corner there was generally a reason for it. I tried sitting on some stairs at Piccadilly Circus till I was nearly blown off.
Nevertheless, when he finally found a spot, it "was the first night in a week" he had slept in London and heard neither guns nor bombs, "the first night I hadn't dreamed of air raids when I wasn't listening to one. It was a universal feeling. It was what we talked about when we woke at five as inexperienced campers do".

"We had felt the hard ground with every bone", he wrote, "but we had a quiet night as well as a safe one. Going through the stations at night I said, "This is mass misery such as I have never seen or dreamt of". Waking up with the people in the morning I said, "When the people took over the underground without a 'by-your-leave', they knew what they were doing".

It thus took a foreign newspaper to discern the extent of the British Government defeat. It was hailed by the New York Times with the headline: "Public opinion wins demand for use of subways in raids - government yields". The paper added, with neat irony, a sentiment that was to be repeated down the decades: "Slum clearance by Nazis – homeless move to West End".

Home Intelligence captured a shift in mood. Morale was "excellent". People were more cheerful, it said, adding a note which perhaps reflected the essence of J. B. Priestley’s talk: "The feeling of being on the front line stimulates many people and puts them on their mettle in overcoming transport and shelter difficulties". The mood of crisis had gone. London conversation was now almost exclusively about air raids, "gossipy, not panicky, and it is centred in personal matters".

Priestley was back in the Sunday Express, telling his readers: Let us say what we mean. "We are fighting for liberty and democracy. You have said it, I have said it, and they have said it. And most of us have meant what we said", he wrote. But, he added, the words picked out as a pull-quote in a white-on-black box:
To put it bluntly, millions of people do not believe yet that we are really fighting for democracy. They consider that our talk is on the same level as Hitler’s talk about a new and more equitable European order. They think it is all eyewash. 
A post-war world, he argued, should be a democratic one. “If our representatives seem to stand for the Right People rather than the Whole People, then there will be some excuse for outsiders imagining that our talk of democracy is a mere trick of propaganda”.

In Berlin, there was talk of a different kind. Shirer recalled that the Berliners he spoke to were beginning for the first time to wonder why the invasion of Britain had not come off. And, in an extraordinary illustration of the power of propaganda, and control of information, the Sunday Express was reporting how captured Germans, shot down over Britain, believed that half the country was already in German hands and that London was making a last stand. Victory was "inevitable in a few weeks, or even days".

In almost the same league, D. R. Grenfell, the Secretary for Mines, was telling the Labour Party Conference in Glasgow, "I am convinced there will be no coal shortage".

The air war over Britain saw a few lone raiders, but there was little daytime air activity. Fighter Command flew 158 sorties, the lowest number since July. One Spitfire on the ground was lost to a hit-and-run bomber at Duxford. There were no Bomber Command losses. The Germans lost a Ju 88, shot down by a Spitfire over the Channel. Three aircraft were written off after accidents. Come the night, around 120 bombers visited London. With the continuous flashes of the guns, the sparks of bursting shells in the sky and the haloes of searchlights, London "looked like approaching Dante's inferno", wrote General Brooke.

The RAF sent up twelve night fighters – Blenheims and Defiants (pictured above). They failed to make a single interception.

As for the invasion, the small article in the Observer noted that the Navy was "our first defence". This was a reference to Churchill's speech earlier in the week, but there was more to it. Special anti-invasion patrols had been carried out nightly by destroyers in the Channel and the southern North Sea. They had been joined by MTBs which carried out a sweep off the mouths of the Dutch rivers on the night of 22/23 September.

The Polish destroyer Blyskaivica sunk a French fishing vessel by ramming off the Brittany coast, having first removed the crew. E-boats had been active in the Channel and North Sea. The armed trawler Loch Inver had been sunk on the night of the 21st, and the armed trawler Edwina, which was in the vicinity, claimed to have hit an E-boat with her 12-pdr. Brooke noted the lack of invasion.

Before the bombers had droned through the night sky over London, Priestley was back in the public eye, speaking once again on the BBC. In this broadcast, he chose the theme of "women". There isn't an airman, submarine commander or unnamed hero in a bomb squad who hasn't behind him at least one woman, and perhaps half a dozen women as heroic as himself, he said. And as for those women who had been bombed out of their houses, turned away by "middle class women … with any amount of room to spare in their houses", he spoke of the need for a society "where nobody will have far too many rooms in a house and nobody have far too few".

Listening to the Broadcast was Harold Nicolson, who was in Sissinghurst, dining with Major General Laurence Drummond and his wife, where there was a "sense of mahogany and silver and peaches and port-wine and good manners … All the virtues of aristocracy hang about these two crippled and aged people and none of the vulgarity of wealth". Priestley, he later wrote, gave a broadcast about the abolition of privilege. He speaks of the old order which is dead and of the new order which is to rise from its ashes. "These two old people listen without flinching", Nicolson wrote. "I find their dignity and distinction and patriotism deeply moving".

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread