25 September, 2010

Day 78 - Battle of Britain

The bombing had temporarily receded in intensity as a media event, with the Daily Express devoting its front-page lead to the Dakar operation. Other newspapers followed suit.

Nevertheless, there was no slackening of the bombardment in real life. On the contrary, the War Cabinet was told that the previous night's raids had been heavier than usual, mainly directed against the West End. The Tottenham Court Road area had suffered severely. The new police station at Savile Row had been badly knocked about, railway communications had suffered very severely and Waterloo Station was again out of action. The East End had suffered very little.

Home Intelligence reported that "responsible people" were saying emphatically that women, children and old people should be got out of the heavily raided areas. Many women were showing "great nervousness and fatigue" and there was "a lot of bitter feeling" about the Government's slowness in coping with the emergency.

For once, the situation was not quite as black as painted. The Guardian reported that "enormous crowds" had spent the night at the Aldwych Tube Station, even though the tunnel had not been officially opened. The overflow was accommodated in Aldwych House basement. Slow it was but, very gradually under the pressure of events, the system was responding – mostly through voluntary initiatives. According to Hilde Marchant in the Daily Express:
One thing stands out in the East End. Voluntary work is excellent. The WVS under the drive and initiative of a good leader has a smooth and sympathetic organisation. Red tape is official. One woman told me that all her work, covering hundreds of people a day, depends on one harassed, overworked clerk who is so busy that he occasionally forgets. His lapse leads to the discomfort of many. There are too many natural officials who are too ready to cipher the people they are dealing with, and forget that each name represents a story of human misery.
The Daily Worker was not impressed, calling the Women's Voluntary Service, "an organisation with more than its share of uniformed debutante slummers".

The Daily Mirror, however, was seeking to recover lost ground for its favoured Labour Party. On the shelter issues, it published a  robust editorial headed, ironically enough: "Catching up".  The new or newly announced plans for London's security were "hurried improvisations" to meet an emergency, it declared.

But, it complained, we must wait, even for them. It is though, the paper conceded, laying on the irony with a trowel, more than the free provision of earplugs for deafened ears, thus continuing: "This idea reminds us of the quite common official view that what you do not hear cannot harm you. So long as you are not "informed" you cannot be hurt. At least you may get a little sleep."

Now that the crisis was at least contained, if not yet completely over, The Times weighed in with another ponderous editorial. Headed, "The shelter problem", it noted that in Mabane's broadcast statement of the preceding Monday was "an admission of the insufficiency of the present provision" and of the need for "urgent and large-scale action".

Nothing of that could have been deduced from earlier reports in the "paper of record", but having reviewed the options, and pronounced on the need to make good use of the deep shelters available, it observed dryly that the people had decided this question "very largely for themselves". It also added that their claims to space on Underground railway platforms had been "irresistible". There was, of course, no mention of the Communists.

The Guardian joined in, to make this a chorus of criticism, with an interview of former prime minster, David Lloyd George. He called for the "provision of adequate, comfortable, and well-equipped shelters deep underground". My daughter raised the issue in the House of Commons fully eighteen months ago when she and other members urged the construction of deep shelters, he said.

That was before the war, and particular mention was made of the need for adequate protection for the people in the East End of London, because their houses are so fragile and so many jerry-built, and because so many are without cellars and basements. The answer given then was that everything was being done or going to be done. They ought to have been provided.

The Daily Worker, meanwhile, was continuing in its attempts to extend the shelter campaign nationwide.  It reported that over 10,000 Newcastle people had signed a petition for bomb-proof shelters, which had been circulating in the city.  Many more signatures were expected and it was planned to present it to the next meeting of the Newcastle City Council. Significantly, the paper reported string union support, with the petition being endorsed by the Newcastle Trades Council, N.U.D.A.W., the Transport and General Workers' Union, many Co-operative Women's Guilds and by the shop stewards of the great Vickers Works.

"Keep at it!", the editorial enjoined. "The shelter fight is only beginning, not ending. Action by the people has dragged concessions (e.g., the right to use the Tubes and the promise of a million bunks) from an unwilling Government, but the vast majority of the people are still without protection. The fight for bomb-proof shelters must he kept up, in the provinces as well as in London.

The paper then had a "special correspondent" standing by the ruins of a £28,000 Co-op bakery (only finished last year), a church, the Labour Party headquarters, a police station, and half a row of houses. The ex-mayor of the Labour Borough turned to him and said, "I know your politics and you know mine, but there can only be one end to all this. And that's revolution".

And still the bombers came. Fifty-eight Heinkels, escorted by fifty-two Me 110s, attacked the Bristol Aircraft Company at Filton. The weather was perfect for bombing, with banks of thick cloud broken by patches of clear blue sky, and the attackers were easily able to find their target. Serious damage was caused and production was seriously affected. Eight newly built aircraft, including two precious Beaufighter prototypes, were destroyed. Tragically, shelters were hit by a stick of bombs, killing 60 and injuring 150.

The Luftwaffe's own magazine, Der Adler, proclaimed: "this factory will not produce many more aircraft". But bombers had scattered their loads over the general area as well, leaving a total of 132 dead and 315 injured. Major Friedrich Kless, the attack leader was awarded the Ritterkruz on 14 October.

Other areas in the south-west were hit, the naval towns of Portland and Plymouth in particular. In the evening, bombers visited coastal towns from Margate to Worthing. They made a nuisance of themselves in the south-east area of Essex. In the London area, many targets were hit, including the approach road to Vauxhall Bridge (top). The main targets, however, seemed to be the railways. A crater was made on the line near Ruislip Garden Station. Bombs were dropped on the railway at Kensington, the lines completely blocked by debris.

Then came the night bombers. From just past ten, the asynchronous drone was heard as far apart as east and south-east England and the Midlands. Liverpool was attacked. South Wales and the Bristol Channel areas were also targeted. Hendon in North London was attacked, resulting in the station at Colindale being hit (pictured above).

RAF Bomber Command continued its counter-offensive. Eleven Blenheims made a night attack on five enemy minesweepers off Dover – so-called R-boots (pictured above). They claimed two direct hits and four near misses. Had not Sealion already been cancelled, the significance would have been enormous, the Germans unable to protect their vital mine sweeping force. And that night, no less than twenty-seven Blenheims were abroad, attacking targets as far afield as Boulogne, Calais, Antwerp and Brussels. Fourteen Battles attacked shipping at Ostend and thirty-three Wellingtons joined in raids on Calais and Boulogne.

The day's fighting lost Fighter Command nine aircraft, the RAF thirteen in total. The Luftwaffe lost fifteen. Meanwhile, the RAF Whitehall warriors were focused on their more immediate enemy: Dowding. Sir John Salmond, fortified by his position on the Night Defence Committee, was writing to Trenchard, part of an organized – and ongoing – campaign to unseat the head of Fighter Command. He complained that Dowding lacked the qualifications as a commander in the field. He was without "humanity and imagination". Salmond also complained about the Chief of the Air Staff, Cyril Newall, who was:
so impressed with the possibility of invasion that he will not even tell off a couple of day fighting squadrons to be trained for the night, even though they could be at once used for day work if invasion took place.

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