23 September, 2010

Day 76 - Battle of Britain

"Churchill, Attlee, Anderson, Reith, and the rest of the Tory-Labour bigwigs in Downing Street and Whitehall have received a jolt from some high explosive blast", declared the Morning Star editorial. "Not from  German bombs, of course", it continued: "In their part of London the deep shelters are safe and comfortable".

"The working people of London themselves made this explosion", the paper said. "Already it has blown open a section of the deep Tube, and the locked doors of some big private shelters. It is a beginning. The decision to open the Holborn-Aldwych section of the Piccadilly Tube as a deep, bomb-proof shelter is proof positive of what the people of London or anywhere else can get for themselves when they get together and push, refusing ever to take No for an answer".

On the front page, the paper recorded London Communist leader, Ted Bramley, claiming that: "Almost the entire London Press" was now advocating the demands put forward by the Communist Party deputation to the Home Office the previous week. These demands, and a full report of the three-hour discussion, had been circulated to the Press, said Bramley. "They now quote freely - but omit to mention the Communist Party". Yet, he added: "Significant concessions have been won".

As if to confirm this very point, the Guardian ran a piece from its London Correspondent headed: "What London thinks about". Having asserted that the Government had, by virtue of its closing the Holborn-Aldwych line and turning it into a shelter, "abandoned by implication its view that the principle of deep shelters was wrong", the correspondent noted that Londoners "continue to use the Underground stations in spite of official discouragement". He then noted that, "there is really strong feeling behind this, and not only in East London, where the lack of deep shelters is most felt". "All of us", he wrote, "know now what it feels like to be lonely and exposed in air raids. The demand for deep shelters and decent shelters comes from us all".

Coming late into the fray, The Times this Monday decided that British morale was "in excellent shape". Any tonic that it might require, it pronounced, "has been supplied by Hitler".

Nevertheless, most newspapers were agreed that the most important story was the sinking by a U-boat of the liner City of Benares, en route to Canada. It had one hundred and two evacuated children on board, ninety of whom were on the government-funded scheme. Only thirteen were reported to have survived, with two of their nine adult escorts. In a "tempestuous sea" 600 miles from land, one newspaper reported, many children had been killed in the explosion or trapped below decks – the torpedo hitting at 10 p.m. The ship had foundered so quickly, developing a steep list, that many of the lifeboats had not been launched.

The ship, the name not as yet disclosed to the press, had been torpedoed on 17 September, but the government had withheld the news. The War Cabinet had been told on 19 September, four days previously. Duff Cooper had been "invited … to arrange for suitable publicity".  He had held a press conference the following day (Thursday 20 September). Why the newspapers had chosen to hold over publication to the following Monday was not clear.

With the City of Benares, the shelter issue was being driven down the agenda, but it had not been forgotten. The King had made a broadcast the previous evening. People had feared the worst, but his main concern was to announce the new George Cross and Medal, second only in rank to the Victoria Cross, specifically for civilian bravery. The Daily Express also noted: "King praises people of the shelters".

He had paid tribute to the way the civil defences had faced constant danger, but then added: "No less honour is due to all those who, night after night, uncomplainingly endure discomfort, hardship and peril in their homes and shelters". This would not have been a spontaneous tribute. The message was getting through to the authorities that the home front needed bolstering. The Daily Mirror had a different take. "London should be ashamed of the way it is treating some of its refugee citizens", it wrote.
When German bombs drove them from their shattered homes, their spirit remained firm. Now, bungling officialdom is achieving more than ever Hitler could, and the people who held their heads high before the terror of the skies are becoming dispirited and discontented.
One special correspondent had visited a rest centre with a "varying population of between 150 and 250 men, women and children". Some had been there close to a fortnight, their only air-raid protection bricked-up windows in a few rooms into which everyone was crowded, sharing one indoor toilet and two roller towels. In a fortnight, one family had had only four hot meals.

A London County Council official said the conditions were almost the same at several other centres. "If my wife and children were homeless", he said, "I would do anything to keep them away from such conditions as these. It just seems as though the authorities were taken by surprise when the blitzkrieg started and only now are things beginning, slowly to improve".

Behind the scenes, the War Cabinet was pushing for unrestricted revenge attacks on Germany. These, at the moment, were not favoured by the Air Staff, who wanted to maintain at least the appearance of concentrating on military targets.

Thus, as the drone of deadly Luftwaffe bombers filled the night skies of London once more, with others hitting Merseyside, British bombers were winging their way to Berlin, ostensibly targeting gasworks, railway stations, power stations, the aero-engine factory at Spandau, and Tempelhof Airport. But only a small fraction of the bombers would get anywhere near their targets and still fewer bombs would do any damage to the city.

The lack of accuracy was brought home to Churchill somewhat forcibly when he was shown photographs of bombing results for the invasion ports. He later admitted they "had several times disappointed me". This day, having seen photographs of barges in Dunkirk, published in The Times, he wrote to the Secretary of State for Air, lamenting:
What struck me about these photographs was the apparent inability of the bombers to hit these very large masses of barges. I should have thought that sticks of explosives thrown along these oblongs would have wrought havoc, and it is very disappointing to see that they all remained intact and in order, with just a few apparently damaged at the entrance.
"Can nothing be done to improve matters?" the Prime Minister asked, only then, at an early evening meeting of the War Cabinet, putting to his colleagues whether the bombing effort should be concentrated on the invasion ports or Berlin. He confided that "a number of indications had been received pointing to the possibility of an attempt at invasion over the weekend". One of these, Churchill stated, had suggested that invasion "would start at 3pm on Sunday, 22nd September".

Guy Liddell, on the other hand, was advised by an Intelligence colleague that his "best sources" indicated that the invasion had been meeting with considerable difficulty. The German Naval experts considered the craft entirely inadequate. The troops and naval ratings were tired of waiting and did not view with any enthusiasm the prospect of crossing the Channel in a barge at eight knots.

The Air Force was apparently quite ready to have a cut at it but they were feeling their losses rather acutely. Hitler had been told by his High Command that he must make up his mind one way or the other, as it was impossible to keep the troops up the mark indefinitely.

The media, though, was increasingly dismissive of the threat. United Press "war expert" J W T Mason wrote in a syndicated column of the autumn equinox bringing to an end the "traditional six months of smooth water in the English Channel". This, he wrote, will seriously increase the transport difficulties of any German force seeking to invade Great Britain. "For the coming six months until the vernal equinox next March, storms and gales , at unpredictable intervals, will threaten shipwreck for the flat-bottom fleet of barges on which Hitler must rely for ferrying troops to England".

As for that current fighting, the Germans had during the day concentrated mostly on fighter sweeps, keeping the RAF busy, so much so that the Fighter Command launched as many sorties on this day as it had on 15 September.

The day saw them lose ten aircraft. Bomber Command lost three aircraft, and the Fleet Air Arm lost a Swordfish, bringing total losses to fourteen, against the Luftwaffe’s sixteen. Overnight, 261 German bombers visited Britain, with the British dispatching 119 on raids to Berlin. Shirer was later to report, "The British really went to work on Berlin last night. They bombed heavily and with excellent aim for exactly four hours".

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread