30 September, 2010

Day 83 - Battle of Britain

"Afraid of an outburst of popular feeling against its callous treatment of air-raid victims and refusal to provide bomb-proof shelters", the Daily Worker proclaimed this morning, "the Government is now planning to establish a dictatorship over East London and other riverside areas".

More specifically, the headline story had been written personally by editor William Rust. And what was exercising him the most was a suspicion that the Government was using the Labour and Co-operative Press in order to prepare the way for a military take-over of the East End. His evidence was slight, but sufficient to parade as a front-page story - the Reynolds News opinion piece written by H. N. Brailsford.  Tucked in at the bottom of that piece had been his view that the riverside should be proclaimed a Defence Area, namely, that it should be ruled by emergency decree and the military.

"It may be said", Brailsford had written, "that Englishmen dislike compulsion and that families object to separation. But under one condition, the thing could be done; it must be done for reasons of military necessity. The whole riverside should be proclaimed a Defence Area. To that argument the people would willingly bow. Bayonets and uniforms, however, need to be kept in the background".

This proposal, Rust charged, does not emanate from Brailsford but from the Ministry of Home Security. I have every reason for stating that the Government has been discussing this step for several days past and is anxious to get it floated in an acceptable form through Labour channels. It was first mooted when delegations of prominent East End social workers approached Whitehall. Even from the above quotation it is obvious that Brailsford has made a laboured and artificial effort to work in his Defence Area proposal which has no connection with the problems confronting the people.

The Government, said Rush, wants to establish this dictatorship, not in order to deal with the problems of the people but in order to be able to crush the agitation and the fight of the people for deep shelters and adequate relief for air raid victims.

Again, the contrast between this and the "popular" Press was extreme. The Daily Mail gave its front-page lead to air correspondent Noel Monks, under the headline "Triumph in 'crisis month'". The RAF, Monks wrote, have weathered, with the passing of September, the “crisis month” of the war. He continued:
On the first of the month that ends to-day a high Air Ministry official said to me: "As far as the RAF are concerned, this is the critical month of the war: I will be glad when it is past". Now it IS past. And the RAF, who have hurled back every attack made on them, the airmen who have destroyed more than 1,000 German aircraft for the loss of only 286 of their own fighters, have come out on top.
The Air Ministry "spin" failed to impress the Daily Mirror. Giving its page lead to the weekend raid on Berlin, it then attended to domestic matters. A Sunday lie-in for Tube shelterers had caught the eye of one of its reporters, who noted how Londoners had taken advantage of the late start to the traffic, the men going topside to collect hot tea for their womenfolk.

The Daily Express also featured the raid on Berlin and the claims of damage to "Nazi bases". But the paper's war reporter, Sefton Delmer, warned: "Revenge bombs will not win the war". He wrote: "I spent five hours yesterday morning driving round London and its suburbs carefully observing the damage done by Hitler's bombs in last night's raids". From this he had concluded: "Random bombing, of the kind the Germans carried out over London on Saturday night, just does not pay. And it's not worth imitating. Let us stick to our careful selection of economically and militarily important targets".

One man in particular was especially concerned with economically important targets – the Minister of Shipping, a Conservative MP by the name of Ronald Cross. This day he was not the bearer of good tidings, submitting a paper to the War Cabinet which raised the alarm about the increasingly severe merchant shipping losses. "In a matter of this vital importance,” he wrote, "remedial, measures should not be delayed". He urged an immediate increase in the number of escorts for the convoys.

Entirely in tune with Admiral Forbes and his representation to the Admiralty only two days previously, Cross could not have been clearer. He said:
I am aware, of course, that there are many demands, including anti-invasion preparations, made upon our limited naval forces but I should be failing in my duty if I did not represent, in the strongest possible terms, the necessity for putting a stop to the present exorbitant risks to which our Merchant Shipping is being exposed.
The most senior of the intelligence bodies, the Combined Intelligence Committee (CIC), had information that supported a reduction in the forces held on standby. On this day, it had received a report from the RAF, indicating that the total of barges photographed in the five main ports between Flushing and Boulogne had, since 18 September, reduced from 1,005 to 691. The evidence, however, was judged to be "inconclusive", possibly only an attempt to move the barges out of the reach of RAF attacks.

The Luftwaffe, meanwhile, sent over two attacks, totalling two hundred aircraft. The first crossed the Kent coast at around nine in the morning. It was met by eight squadrons of Hurricanes and four of Spitfires. The bombers got as far as Maidstone before they were turned back. An hour later, a formation of Me 109s and 110s tried its luck. It was met by a strong force of sixty Hurricanes and eighteen Spitfires.

A second wave followed, a hundred bombers escorted by two hundred fighters. Crossing the Sussex coast, it headed towards London but only one Gruppe got as far as the outskirts, suffering heavily for its folly. A final raid was tried on the Westland factory at Yeovil. Forty Heinkels, escorted by Me 110s, crossed the coast near Weymouth. Once again, a welcoming committee forced them to scatter. They dumped their bombs over Sherbourne and district and fled.

The Mail was right about the RAF getting "on top" of the threat – but only the daylight attacks. All Fighter Command had achieved was to establish an airborne "Maginot line", which was now being circumvented. The main bombing effort had already been transferred to the night, when the slaughter continued unabated.

This night, the attacks were concentrated mainly on south and west London, with the Home Counties getting attention as well. There was light bombing on Merseyside. But the traffic was not one-way. Unfavourable weather did not stop the RAF visiting northern Germany. A small number of bombers again raided Berlin. These and other operations cost nine bombers and a Fleet Air Arm Albacore. With nineteen fighters downed, that brought RAF losses to twenty-nine, as against forty-two Luftwaffe losses, including twenty-eight Me 109s.

On the month, Fighter Command had lost 393 aircraft, bringing its total losses for the battle to 818. Total RAF losses for the month were 511, and for the battle as a whole, the number reached 1,324. Luftwaffe losses were 548 on the month, and 1,374 from the start of the battle. Despite the hyperbole and exaggerated claims, the two side's losses were very closely matched, as they were to remain throughout the battle.

That night, the 15in gun monitor HMS Erebus took up station four to five miles off Calais and bombarded gun emplacements. Her two guns, weighing a hundred tons each, were capable of hurling shells each weighing nearly 2,000lbs. They fired seventeen rounds before the ship retired. The Germans responded with nine 240mm rounds from the radar-guided Prinz Heinrich Battery. Curiously, no mention was made of this action in official communiqu├ęs. No details were publicized in the British or foreign press, despite reports of RAF activity over the Channel ports.