26 September, 2010

Day 79 - Battle of Britain

The war looked very different in Berlin. "We had the longest air raid of the war last night", wrote Shirer in the German capital. The damage was not great but the psychological effect was tremendous. Nevertheless, it was not good enough for the former Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, who had written deploring that bombers should be taken off attacking military objectives in Germany in order to bomb the invasion ports. 

Churchill told the War Cabinet that "we should be assuming a great responsibility if we allowed invasion concentrations to accumulate in the Channel ports without taking action against them". When the weather in the Channel was unfavourable for invasion, he told his ministers, it might be possible to divert more aircraft to targets in Germany.

As always, the Daily Worker was fighting its own battles. Still very much London focused, despite seeking to widen the campaign, it had news of increasing political organisation from London councillors.  They were, the paper said, "breaking through the red tape and obstructions deliberately placed in their way by the Government" and, crucially, "breaking away from inertia of London Labour Party". In spite of its majority on the London County Council and 17 of 28 London Borough Councils, Labour had not yet "gone to it" to save London's people.

Men like Councillor Bob Smith in Walthamstow, Councillor Charley Searson in Southwark and Mrs.  Charlotte Haldane of St. Pancras had been in action for the people of their areas and there were similar examples all over London, the paper claimed. In Hampstead, one Labour councillor had been expelled from the Labour Party "for action on behalf of the people". This was Councillor A. N. Silver, who had submitted an emergency memorandum to his council for "the immediate provision of bomb-proof shelters". A special meeting of the Civil Defence Committee was to be held to discuss his proposals.

This was only a small part of the political action. Throughout this week, Communist Party activists had been  collecting signatures "in their thousands" for a "monster petition" to be presented the following week to the Prime Minister. "We, the undersigned residents of London", stated the petition, "having witnessed the effects of the air-raids, demand the immediate construction of bomb-proof shelters in alt parts of London".  Pending the construction of such shelters, they also demanded "the right to shelter in the tubes, with the provision of the necessary amenities, and in the private shelters at present locked to the public".

Nothing of thus was recorded in the daily Cabinet meetings.  Ministers were, however, given daily reports of bomb damage, and were being told of bombs being dropped at random over the country. Still the greatest weight was being directed against London, but most recently  mainly in northern suburbs and in the areas just south of the river. Overnight, the casualties in the London area had been around 50 killed (probably more than half of them in Hendon) and 370 injured - relatively modest compared with previous weeks. Thirteen parachute mines (land mines) had been dropped, some of which had exploded in the air.

That evening Londoners would see their twentieth consecutive night of bombing. There was now an entrenched belief that the network of surface shelters provided by the government was unsafe. This was far from unjustified. In the summer of 1940, there had been major – if localized –shortages of cement and the government had permitted the use of lime mortar. With their reinforced concrete roofs, concrete floors and weak walls, in the dark humour of the time they would come to be known as "Morrison's sandwiches", named after the then minister for home security.

That was unfair as Morrison was not to be appointed until early October, long after the surface shelter policy had been devised and implemented and the faulty shelters had been built. A rush remedial programme was put in hand, but public confidence was never really restored, as was evidenced in the Home Intelligence report of this day. It noted that the Tube stations were "as crowded as ever".

This is an aspect rarely commented upon as we see picture after picture of demolished houses, and sometimes whole street collapsing - despite the relatively small bombs being used by the Germans. Often the reason for this is the use of lime mortar.  For London with its clay subsoil and cheap buildings - where footings are often omitted and the foundations, such as they are, are shallow, lime is the ideal material.  As the buildings move, it allows movement of the bricks and thus avoids the settlement cracks which plague modern buildings.

For normal domestic buildings, the strength is sufficient - but only just.  Bricks rest on each other "by habit" and houses can be demolished by one man with a pickaxe, the bricks separating so cleanly that they can readily be salvaged and re-used.  But what is ideal in cheap housing was fatal in air raid shelters, marked by a collapse in Liverpool during the raid of 17/18 September (pictured above), killing two and injuring many more.

However, the picture was by no means uniformly bleak. Home Intelligence also noted: "The work of voluntary organisations in stricken areas has done much to prevent the breaking down of morale”. Famous for its provision of canteens, mobile and static, very much in evidence was the Salvation Army. Historically, it had had a strong presence in the East End and had been a major supplier of social services in the area. Private enterprise also played a strong part.

The first canteens in the shelters were set up by Marks and Spencers, and the Co-operative Societies took a pivotal role in keeping the capital, and the nation as a whole, supplied with food. "In the most deadly hours of Britain's history, the Co-operative Movement was the unbroken ally and support of the people”, wrote Bill Richardson, editor of the Co-operative Party's own newspaper, Reynold News.

Fighter Command, on the other hand,  was not doing that well. It was even unable to protect its own supplier, the Woolston Spitfire factory. In the late afternoon, a force of nearly sixty Heinkels, covered by a heavy screen of seventy Messerschmitt 110s, roared up the Solent to deliver another precision attack, the second in three days. Thirty-seven workers died this time, and hundreds were injured. It was nine weeks before production was back to par.

Across the river, watchers had seen the works "burn up like a piece of brown paper". Then it was their turn. A phalanx of thirty bombers broke away from the plant and targeted Phoenix Wharf, on which they stood. In ten seconds a hundred bombs burst on the wharf, on the gasworks alongside or in the river. Fifty-two more people were dead. The wharf, the gasworks and a grain warehouse had been destroyed.

As the dust began to settle, a policeman emerged asking for a volunteer to send a message from the telephone exchange. A girl telephonist offered her services and the policeman led her to a wrecked office. She was asked to put a call through to ARP, telling them: "there is an unexploded bomb underneath the telephone exchange at Phoenix Wharf ". She calmly sent the message, and was later awarded an OBE.

That night, as well as London, Merseyside was hit – badly. In Birkenhead just before eight, incendiary bombs started falling between Central Station and Morpeth Docks. Fires were started at the GWR warehouse, the Customs Offices, a theatre and a shop. The tunnel between Birkenhead Park Station and Hamilton Square Station was damaged by a bomb.

Liverpool got even worse. At nine, explosives and incendiaries were dropped causing very considerable damage to property and starting severe fires in the dock areas. The ships Peterton and Diplomat, and warehouses, were left burning. There was considerable loss of stocks of food, copra and palm kernels, and other goods. And this was the second night running. The previous night, among other premises, a large cotton warehouse had been hit, with major losses.

While Liverpool burned, joined once again by London, with attacks also on the north-east and even Wales, most of the RAF's fighter pilots were safely tucked up in their beds. The officers would have batmen to wake them with morning tea and polished shoes. It was not their fault. The technology and the equipment were not up to the job.

Nevertheless, the day job had cost Fighter Command five aircraft. Bomber Command lost four, and another Dutch Fokker went down. That was ten aircraft lost against nine to the Luftwaffe. Back in London, Lord Halifax was reviewing recent events. He could not exclude the possibility, he confided to his diary, that Hitler was "deliberately scaring us with invasion in order to check reinforcements to Egypt where the main blow is to be delivered".