24 September, 2010

Day 77 - Battle of Britain

There was no mistaking the declaration of victory from the Daily Worker this morning as it reported a Ministry of Home Security statement on shelters.

"The fact that people have been using the tube stations has been recognised", the paper triumphantly announced. "This 'recognition' of the fact that the London workers have occupied the tubes despite all the orders and pleas of the Government", it said, was delivered by Mr. William Mabane, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry yesterday".  The paper continued:
The admission represents an important victory for the London people against the Government  - particularly as the Government is already using underhand means in some tube stations, to try to break up the decent organisation of people in the tubes and create disorder". The shelter policy" said Mr. Mabane, "has been guided largely by the behaviour of the people in London". This is the first outright confession by the Government that the people of London themselves have upset its "no tubes, no shelters" policy.
The Daily Mirror, ignoring the Communists altogether, ran a page-2 story picking up on one of the less important parts of  Mabane's announcement, its headline running: "Govt. to Hand Out Ear Plugs".  The Government is attempting to solve London's big air raid shelter problem by making 1,000,000 bunks which will be fitted into shelters, converting them into dormitories, the paper said, then telling its readers that, "For people who cannot get deep enough to ignore the noise of gunfire and bombs, the Government is to provide ear-plugs free - several million of them". These were "supposed to help people sleep through raids and protect the ear drums".

First-aid posts were also to be provided. The stations were being occupied under police supervision. Sanitary arrangements were being improved, drinking water was being supplied and better heating and lighting was being arranged.

Deviously, though, the Mirror was manoeuvring to steal the glory from the Communists. A page-11 story recorded that the Independent Labour Party had called for deep shelters - stealing the very core of the Communist Party policy. "Declaring that experience of the past fortnight has proved how tragically the Government has failed to protect the people", the Mirror wrote, "the Independent Labour Party has addressed a letter to Sir John Anderson, Minister of Home Security, giving a five-point plan for adequate shelters". A call for "more" deep shelters was one of those five points. Another was that "tube stations should be adapted thoroughly as shelters, with sanitary provision".

The Guardian merely ignored the Communists, while having Mabane admitting that the shelter policy had "been been guided largely by the conduct of the people in London". The paper gave its own version of the Ministry statement, adding that the Government was going to "relate shelter policy to the conditions of the time and the behaviour of the people".  Instead of trying to dictate what the people would do, it would accept and make the best of present shelter arrangements and the popular attitude to them.

The Guardian also noted that it was "not easy to gather from Mr Mabane what the Government thought about London's invasion of Tube stations, but it is clearly prepared to accept it". With that, the Government cave-in was complete.

On the broader front, this day had been marked by the Germans as meeting its optimum requirements for tides, moon and daylight for the invasion. One suspects that, even had the British media known this, it might not have even remarked on it. "Except in certain areas, invasion talk has receded into the background", Home Intelligence reported.

Nevertheless, the war went on. Overnight, the War Cabinet was told, enemy activity had been "rather more intense" than recently. The main attack had been against communications. Liverpool Street Station and the Brighton line at Wandsworth Common had been blocked. Traffic at Euston had been stopped by a UXB (unexploded bomb). Also, the Northern Outfall sewer had again been damaged at Abbey Mills, and the southern outfall had been hit. Direct hits had also been sustained by several shelters (unnamed), and the casualties had been rather heavier than on the preceding two or three nights.

On the table for the Government to consider was a memorandum produced on this day under the names of the Chiefs of Staff, advising on the defence of Whitehall against air attack. However, after proposing an impressive array of weaponry, there was at least some appreciation of the impression it might give if Whitehall suddenly bristled with defences.

"It has occurred to us", the Chiefs wrote, "that the provision of such defences for government offices in Whitehall may react unfavourably on the morale of other sections of the community", and on the East End of London in particular. Therefore, they suggested that the War Cabinet should consider the wider issues before the guns were put in position.  One can only imagine what the Daily Worker would have made of the scheme, had the details been made public.

Driving the shelter announcement off the front pages though was news of an operation that was to rock the Churchill Government to the core – another heroic failure. At the moment, it was just "breaking news" – not that such an inelegant phrase had been invented yet – on the Prime Minister's adventure in Dakar. This went by name of Operation Menace, supporting an effort by de Gaulle to claim the West African Vichy territory in the name of "Free France".

It was too early to report the outcome, but the media had picked up the arrival of Vichy French warships after they had been permitted to pass unhindered through the Straits of Gibraltar. The press sought to discover who had allowed this, and why the naval authorities had apparently stood idly by while the Vichy Government had sent reinforcements to its colonial outpost. Soon, highly critical leaders would be complaining of another Churchillian "blunder".

What was not yet known, although soon perceived, was that there had been a more profound change in Luftwaffe tactics over Britain. Following the mauling that his air fleets had suffered, Goering had decided that his aircraft should revert to attacking the British aircraft industry. This was evident when the √©lite bombing unit, Erprobungsgruppe 210, equipped with Me 110 fighters and bomber conversions, made a direct attack on the Spitfire factory at Woolston, on the edges of Southampton. The raid lasted a mere eight minutes and little damage was done, although a works shelter was hit, killing ninety-eight skilled workmen and injuring forty others.

In the day's air combat, the RAF lost eleven fighters and five bombers – sixteen aircraft in all. By way of exchange, the Luftwaffe lost seven aircraft during the day. That included three to the anti-aircraft guns of Southampton and Portsmouth, small recompense for the people they had killed.

Predictably, the long-term effect of raid was minimal. It simply reflected a strategic confusion on the part of Goering, who had difficulty making up his mind precisely what he wanted his air force to do.

Post-war, in his 1954 autobiography, Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland confirmed that confusion was prevalent. Celebrating his fortieth kill on this day (pictured), after an air battle over the Thames Estuary, he was then to remark that he rather doubted if the General Staff ever knew which of their strategic aims was dominant, the total blockade of the island, the invasion, or the defeat of England according to Douhet concepts. The stress, he wrote, "was put on all of them in turn" - although as this episode seems to indicate, sometimes simultaneously as well.

During the Battle of Britain, he averred, the Luftwaffe carried out an unlimited struggle for air supremacy, independent of any army operations; strategic air warfare by means of daylight bombing with fighter escort; strategic air warfare by means of night raids; strategic air warfare against supply ships. None of these operations was really successful, simply and solely because it was impossible to complete them successfully with the means available to the Luftwaffe.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread