27 September, 2010

Day 80 - Battle of Britain

The Tribune, this day, had an edition headed "The People of the Tubes". Journalist Anthony Hern supplied the text, writing of the people who had been "driven underground into an atmosphere that rapidly became foetid, undergoing physical hardship and foregoing privacy in order to get away for a night from the menace of the Nazi bomber".

"The movement started in the East End", wrote Hern, "soon after that area had had its first appalling visitation. It became clear then to the workers of the East End that, whatever Sir John Anderson might have to say for himself, deep shelters provided the only effective protection from the bombs that rained from the skies".

"And so these people from the East End, who have been slapped around by the representatives of wealth and privilege for generations, took things into their own hands. They invaded the tube stations, buying tickets which legally entitled them to entry to the platforms. They then illegally took possession. "It is an old lesson of the working class struggle", Hern added, "that if enough people break the law together, and stand solidly against the possible action from the authorities, these authorities are powerless.  And so it was.

The take-over of the Tubes was "the biggest working class demonstration London has seen", Hern averred. The workers of London had passed the biggest vote of no confidence in Sir John Anderson and his expert advisers in the Home Office that Britain had ever seen.

Hern then added, the creation of a new underworld, a new underworld of ordinary decent men and women seeking shelter that the Government of the day has failed to provide, will undoubtedly bring terrific pressure on the Home Office and other Ministries. But it is also producing an appalling state of affairs". "No one who travels on the tubes in London can fail to be shocked to his inner being by the sight of his country-men and country-women herded together in their thousands on hard concrete platforms, on draughty staircases", Hern wrote. "I was filled with blazing anger at officialdom".

What Cabinet Ministers were actually being told officially, however, makes an interesting contrast. In the weekly resumé of the naval, military and air situation, the civil defence and "morale" report focused initially on   the "extensive use" made by the enemy of parachute mines during the past week. "When these detonate", the report informed, "their blast force exceeds that of a 500-kilogram H.E. bomb, and up to 100 houses have been demolished by a single detonation".  Fortunately, the majority had not exploded, and, although their very delicate fuze rendered them likely to explode subsequently on a very slight vibration, many of them had been successfully disposed of by the Naval personnel organised for this purpose.

"In spite of the heavy strain and inevitable casualties imposed", the report went on, "Civil Defence Services are working and co-operating smoothly". "There have been", it added in a matter-of-fact way, "some heavy casualties resulting from direct hits on public shelters. Large numbers of the public are using the tube stations and subways as all-night shelters. Further reports emphasise the efficiency of Anderson Shelters even close to the fall of heavy bombs".

As to morale, "after some early tendency to find scapegoats for the apparent initial success of the attack and delay in remedial measures, more general equanimity now prevails", the Ministers were told. "The public is well aware that the attack has failed, and have steeled themselves to the inconvenience and interruption in their wonted life, even where there has been great personal loss". The report continued:
Difficulties of transport and the inconvenience of evacuation from stricken areas cause irritation, but generally the national feeling is one of toleration so long as at the end the defeat of the enemy is achieved. There is little appearance of nervous or physical overstrain. Fear and shock, attendant on actual explosion, passes quickly in most cases. Without over-emphasis people take the obvious precaution to ensure such safety as they can and particularly to ensure sufficient sleep. By day they continue their ordinary business. Having adjusted their lives to such reasonable extent they regard the event philosophically, the Cockney adopting an appropriate bent to his humour, though there are signs of increased hatred of Germany, and demands for reprisals are numerous.
The War Cabinet was also told, in a separate report,  that the local pride of the Liverpool people was suffering owing to their being described in communiqués as "a North-West coastal town", the censor having refused to allow references in the Press to the city having been bombed.

But these high officials had more important business to deal with. Three days previously, Lord Beaverbrook had submitted to the Cabinet a memorandum deploring the diversion of resources abroad. "Everything should be centred on the defence of Britain", he wrote. "All available supplies and material, all resources of every sort, including man-power, should be retained here". In his view, if the Germans failed to attack Great Britain, that was a victory. If the Germans attacked and were hurled back, that was a decisive victory. Thus, he had declared: "If we can prevail until the winter months, the Americans will come into the war and the issue will be settled in our favour".

Beaverbrook's concern was unsurprising, given that a number of his aircraft factories had just taken a hammering. At his insistence, the Cabinet had agreed to discuss the issue and, after deferring it from the previous day, finally got round to considering the matters raised. But Beaverbrook found no allies. The Chief of the Air Staff said that he naturally wanted more aircraft for the Battle of Britain. But the limited number of aircraft being sent to the Middle East "would have an effect in that area out of all proportion to the loss occasioned by their withdrawal from this country".

The First Sea Lord also favoured the despatch of the aircraft to the Middle East. Lord Halifax thought likewise. "The consequences of a bad setback in the Middle East might be very serious", he said. The Lord Privy Seal agreed, and Archie Sinclair gave figures for Hurricane availability in the country. There had been a "considerable improvement", while there was a "great numerical inferiority in fighters in the Middle East".

Grudgingly, Beaverbrook conceded that the fighter situation had improved, but was still strongly opposed to further withdrawals of either aircraft or pilots. "The Battle of Britain was the only battle that counted", he insisted. But, with otherwise unanimous support, Churchill over-ruled his Minister for Aircraft Production. The despatches to the Middle East would continue.

The signing of the tripartite pact in Berlin

Beaverbrook's hopes of the Americans joining the war, however, looked closer than even he might have imagined. In the remarkably well-informed Cassandra column in the Daily Mirror, William Connor wrote of increasing reports that Japan was about to join the Axis, in what was to be called the "tripartite pact". Japan actually signed this day, declaring that it recognized and respected "the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe". Germany and Italy reciprocated with a declaration which recognized Japan’s interest in the “Greater East Asia”.

Predictably, the USA saw this as a hostile move, leading to short-lived hopes that it would drive Roosevelt to join the war with Britain. Ultimately, though, it was to bring America into the war, but not until December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Then it was the German membership of the pact which had Hitler declare war on the USA. Unrecognized at the time, this day was a significant turning point.

Guy Liddell, meantime, had lunched with Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6 and the man who was supervising the code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park. Menzies told Liddell that the German invasion "had been worked out in every detail including practice in climbing cliffs". He then revealed that it had previously been postponed for some reason unknown. Appearing to be remarkably well-informed, he also disclosed that the Navy and Army had both had misgivings and "the matter had been referred to Keitel". Meanwhile, the situation as understood was that "people in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany were getting impatient and were unable to understand the delay".

The day's newspapers were dealing with a different fare. Largely, their front pages were devoted to the "miraculous" discovery of a lifeboat from the City of Benares, with forty-six survivors, including six children. But that did not prevent the Mirror ripping into the government for its performance on Dakar. In a piece headed "Major blunder" and a cartoon that had Churchill in a highly unflattering pose, no punches were pulled. "Are we still in the stage of gross miscalculation, of muddled dash and hasty withdrawal, of wishful thinking and of half measures", it stormed. "We have another setback to face, another disappointment, more evidence of shuffle and makeshift".

Meanwhile, both sides in the air war were branding each other's bombing as "indiscriminate". The British expended much effort on telling its own population how careful Bomber Command crews were to avoid civilian targets. At night though, claims of precision were pure cant. For the British, to get within five miles of a target was regarded as a "hit". But in daytime, it was a different matter, and one of the reasons why the Luftwaffe was persisting with this form of attack, despite its obvious dangers. So it was that, after some early morning manoeuvring over the Channel, with small-scale attacks on Dover, three German formations totalling some fifty aircraft were seen crossing the coast at Dungeness at an altitude of approximately 20,000 ft.

Apparently headed for London, they had failed to rendezvous with their fighter escorts. They were met by some 120 Hurricanes and harried all the way from the coast to the suburbs of the metropolis. After intervention by Me 109s, confused dog fighting took place but the bomber wave was turned back. Many bombs were jettisoned indiscriminately, causing widespread misery. Nineteen girls were killed in a Clapham works shelter, when it was struck by a bomb and the entrance caved in. A main sewer was breached in the area and the railway line between Brixton and Loughborough junction was damaged. In Battersea there was considerable damage to the weighbridge and the Albert yard.

Late morning, another force carved its way into Bristol. But an additional squadron had been moved into the area and this raid was also turned back, with heavy losses. Two more raids were directed at London, but neither got through in force. Some found targets and the Houses of Parliament suffered their first recorded hits. The famous bronze statue of Richard the Lionheart was lifted from its pedestal by the blast, the tip of the King’s sword bent forward.

The Mirror reported that the first London shelter had been fitted with bunks – a surface shelter in Stoke Newington, setting an example to the rest of the city. Unusually, page eleven of the newspaper also carried a report of a direct hit on an Anderson shelter in North London. The bomb had killed the five members of the Martin family – father, mother, and three children – and twelve-year-old Eileen Dickinson. Home Intelligence, in the last of its daily reports, wrote: "the spirit of London is extremely good, even where people have suffered seriously".

The fact that daily reports were no longer required itself told a story. The state of public morale was evidently no longer so volatile that daily reports were thought essential. The moment of greatest danger, it would appear, had passed. George Orwell seems to have thought so. "The News Chronicle today is markedly defeatist", he wrote in his diary:
But I have a feeling that the News Chronicle is bound to become defeatist anyway and will be promptly to the fore when plausible peace terms come forward. These people have no definable policy and no sense of responsibility, nothing except a traditional dislike of the British ruling class, based ultimately on the Nonconformist conscience. They are only noise-makers, like the New Statesman, etc. All these people can be counted on to collapse when the conditions of war become intolerable.
Orwell might also have been thinking of US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was in a decidedly defeatist mood. In a much leaked and damning letter sent to President Roosevelt this day, he wrote of the "substantial damage" done by the raids, and of his own feeling that the British were "in a bad way". He added:
I cannot impress upon you strongly enough my complete lack of confidence in the entire [British] conduct of this war. I was delighted to see that the President said he was not going to enter the war because to enter this war, imagining for a minute that the English have anything to offer in the line of leadership or productive capacity in industry that could be of the slightest value to us, would be a complete misapprehension.
For the RAF though, it had been a successful day. Not one of the daylight raids had broken through, and a toll of fifty-one aircraft had been extracted. But Fighter Command’s losses had not been insignificant either, at thirty-one. Two British bombers had been lost. And by night, the German bombers were back.