28 September, 2010

Day 81 - Battle of Britain

The Daily Express announced that the war was one year, three weeks and four days old, and the "Air Battle of Britain" began fifty-two days ago, which put the start on 8 August. The RAF, flushed with success from the previous day, could not resist over-egging it, claiming 130 kills. The "score" was given prominent coverage in the day's newspapers. Churchill was so taken with this "victory" that he sent a telegram to Archie Sinclair at the Air Ministry. He instructed:
Pray congratulate the Fighter Command on the results of yesterday. The scale and intensity of the fighting and the heavy losses of the enemy … make 27th September rank with 15th September and 15th August as the third great and victorious day during the course of the Battle of Britain.
One of Churchill's main activities of the day, however, seems to have been addressing the disruption arising from workers stopping work when the sirens sounded. He had become obsessive about the amount of production lost. Now he personally introduced a scheme where the warning was to be regarded as an "alert", with a system of "spotters" to give local warning if aircraft appeared. Only then were workers supposed to take cover. Another of his preoccupations  was the number of UXBs. By the end of October, there were 3,000 in London alone. Their disruptive effect was huge. Churchill took a very keen interest in the minutia of deactivation techniques.

With the Germans having made their move, and failed - for the time being at least, it was time for the Communists to make theirs.  Capitalising on their success with the shelter campaign, this day, via the Daily Worker, they announced a "a stirring call for unity and action for the holding of a People's Convention that will organise the fight for a People's Government and a People's Peace".

"Our rulers have proved themselves bankrupt of constructive thought or action", declared the Convention Call. Six items were on the agenda for a meeting on 12 January 1941: defence of the people's living standards; defence of the people's democratic and trade union rights; adequate air raid precautions - deep bombproof shelters, rehousing and relief of victims, friendship with the Soviet Union, a People's Government, truly representative of the whole people and able to inspire the confidence of the working people of the world; a people's peace that gets rid of the causes of war.

"The People's Convention must be the greatest landmark in the history of this country", the paper said, and must lead the people from the present menacing situation to peace and freedom. Let the people have confidence in their strength. They alone can save themselves, their country, and the world".

In The Times, there was a bombshell of a different kind – a small article with the innocuous title of "Empire publicity". It announced that the Ministry of Information was to start a publicity campaign on 7 October, to bring home to people that "the war is not a fight between Great Britain as an island and northern Europe but something that is of interest to the Empire as a whole".

The bombshell was tucked in the end, with the statement: "The Government are working out a policy of war aims and post-war plans, and part of the Empire Publicity Campaign will be to give some definition to these aims". If that was the case – especially in the context of Churchill's refusal on 20 August – this was major news. A lot of people wanted to know more.

As for the shooting war, this day saw something of a reversal in the fortunes of Fighter Command. It lost four Spitfires and nine Hurricanes, with nine pilots killed. Accidents and other losses brought the balance to eighteen, in exchange for ten Luftwaffe aircraft. Total RAF losses in two days of fighting, including bombers, had the two sides close to parity: 59–65.

Nor did the sea war offer any comfort. The British steamer Dalveen was sunk by German bombing off the north-east coast of Scotland. SS Queen City was damaged. HMT Recoil was lost on patrol in the English Channel, presumed mined. Then a flotilla of German destroyers from Brest laid mines in Falmouth Bay. Five Allied ships were to fall foul of them. And this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Very substantial merchant shipping losses were being suffered, attributable in large part to the general shortage of escorts. A. V. Alexander had raised the alarm back on 29 August. But the situation had continued to deteriorate. Furthermore, it was felt that Churchill had contributed to the problem. On 1 July, as a precaution against invasion, he had instructed the Admiralty to "endeavour" to raise the flotilla in the "narrow seas" (the English Channel) to a strength of forty destroyers, with additional cruiser support. These could only come from the convoy escorts, as Churchill was very obviously aware. "The losses in the Western Approach must be accepted meanwhile", he had written in his minute. But those losses were reaching dangerous proportions.

C-in-C Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, had never been at ease with his original instructions. There would be sufficient warning, he argued, to permit destroyers to be employed on convoy escort and other duties. Should an invasion seem imminent, they could be rapidly redeployed. This had become a running sore in the relations between Forbes and the Admiralty acting under the direct instructions of Churchill. This culminated in Forbes writing a letter, suggesting that "the Army, assisted by the Air Force, should carry out its immemorial role of holding up the first flight of an invading force". The Navy, he asserted, "should be freed to carry out its proper function – offensively against the enemy and in defence of our trade – and not be tied down to provide passive defence of our country, which has now become a fortress".

In what must surely have been a complete coincidence, the Mirror made exactly the same point, headlining its lead editorial: "Too much invasion?" It asked whether the "invasion scare" was subtly serving one of the Nazi aims. That aim was to fix the attention of our government and people on the danger of direct attack and on the necessity for vast defensive preparations by ourselves. But now the mere threat of invasion had immobilized millions in the country. "A huge and a hugely expensive Army, with another auxiliary army, tramps, marches, stands, waits and gets fed up".

It says something though that what was obvious to Forbes, and to the editorial writers of the Mirror seemed somehow to have evaded Churchill. Here though, the issue was not the diversion of escorts, but manpower. With the civilians rather than the Army in the front line, could not at least a portion of the Army be used to help clear up the bombing damage?

Come the night, in this fortress island where this huge idle army waited, air activity started at about eight. London was the main objective again, but the south and south-east of England, East Anglia as far north as Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Derby, Liverpool and South Wales all received visits. To add to the damage done by the Luftwaffe, eighteen Fighter Command aircraft were downed during the day, plus five "heavies" from the other Commands. Against those twenty-three, the Germans lost a mere ten aircraft. Nine British fighter pilots lay dead.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread