17 October, 2010

Day 100 - Battle of Britain

This week's edition of the specialist aviation magazine Flight is published today, and in its leader and a long review of the "War in the Air", it offers a series of insights which possibly hold the clue into the thinking which drives the Battle of Britain legend.

Oddly, for an aviation magazine, the front cover has an advert which depicts a motor torpedo boat engaged in a fleet action - but this is possibly explained by the fact that the manufacturer, the British Power Boat Company, also produces seaplane tenders and rescue launches for the RAF.  The investment of a cover ad suggests that there might be business in the offing - the RAF looking to order some air-sea rescue launches perhaps.

That aside, the magazine's offerings must be taken in reverse order, to get the full flavour, starting with its analysis of the war in the air. In this, it notes that the Germans have lately been "largely employing" Me 109s fighters converted into bombers, which is indeed the case - but the "conventional" bomber force is still actively deployed on night missions.

The leader, however, does not refer to this. Rather, it suggests that the use of Me 109 fighter bombers "indicates that the Germans have admitted to themselves that the attempt to overwhelm Britain from the air has failed." It then concludes that:
If the next great compaign (sic) is to be staged in the Balkans, or if bomber reinforcements are to be sent by Germany to the help of the Italian forces in Africa, there is good reason for conserving the German heavy bombers, which may be gradually withdrawn to the other spheres. That is one reading of the present position, and events should soon show whether it is correct.
Curiously, the analysis here is being based on developments in the day fighting, almost as if the night bombing does not exist. Yet the reality is that the Germans have changed tactics, following the British in confining their heavy bomber fleet to night operations, while harassing the RAF during the day with raids by fighter bombers (a tactic which is giving 11 Group some considerable grief). That the night bombing had just been ramped up to a new peak of intensity and savagery is hardly indicative of the Germans having admitted failure.

But the clue to the reason behind this thinking is in the leader. Doffing its cap to the recent damage done by the night bombing, it goes on to declare:
We suffer indeed, but such sufferings do not affect our power to carry on the war, and indignation at the tragedies makes the British people all the more grimly determined that this barbarism must be stamped out of the world. From the military point of view, the Battle of Britain is going well for the enemies of the Axis.
For all its brave discussions in past editions about total war, Douhet's theorising and the rest, the magazine (or its editorial team) is still looking at the conflict as one fought between military forces. And, in the sense that the RAF has confronted the Luftwaffe in the daylight battle and "won" means, in those terms, that the "Battle of Britain" - defined as a military conflict between the two air forces - is indeed going well.

But the Luftwaffe, having failed to prevail over the RAF in the light of day, has bypassed it and is by night attacking the population directly, seeking a resolution by means other than armed warriors prevailing over another set of armed warriors. This idea, it seems, Flight magazine - and the military in general (or, most certainly, the RAF) - cannot cope with. A battle between the military of one nation, on the one hand, and the people of another, does not count as a "proper" battle. So it is ignored.  The people in the shelters do not count.

Yet, in the week up to today, German bombing has killed 1,567 people, nearly three times the number of Fighter Command aircrew killed in the entire Battle of Britain period. And, unlike the memorials so carefully tended, the names of the airmen so assiduously recorded, for many of the "unknown soldiers" of this conflict, there is no marked grave, no memorial. And many are killed in the line of duty. This day, in Streatham, at approximately 21:35hrs a direct hit is registered on the fire station. Two heavy appliances are wrecked. Twelve firemen are killed and eight are injured.

Even then, there is another huge "elephant in the room" - the sea war. And while a specialist aviation magazine might not be expected to take a broader view of the conflict, there is little excuse for historians who take the "Battle of Britain" at face value or, more specifically, the value attributed to it by Fighter Command.

But early on this day, the Kriegsmarine destroyer flotilla based in Brest is out hunting. Comprising once more destroyers Steinbrinck, Lody, Ihn and Galster, it is joined by six torpedo boats out of Cherbourg, intent raiding British shipping at the western exit of the Bristol Channel.

Three convoys are in grave danger but, fortunately, the destroyers are sighted at 07:19hrs by aircraft of Coastal Command, shortly after they have left Brest. The convoys are ordered to steer west until the threat is dealt with. Light cruisers Newcastle and Emerald, with five destroyers race out of Plymouth at 11:00hrs and, five hours later, have sighted the German force.

At distance, gunfire is exchanged but the Germans do not close for battle. They pull clear and disengage by 18:00hrs, turning for home. They are pursued by Blenheim bombers of No. 59 Sqn, one of which fails to return. All three crew are killed, the only casualties of the action.

Compared with the huge publicity afforded to Fighter Command, the activities of which are emblazoned on newspaper sellers' boards before even the fighter engines have cooled, this successful action gets a grudging mention, down page in the Daily Express two days later, and the back page of the Daily Mirror.

And yet, this is only a tiny fraction of the war at sea this day, a war which is never give the "star treatment" afforded to the fighters. As they do virtually every day of this long war, the coastal convoys are on the move, OB.230 departing Liverpool escorted by destroyers Antelope and Clare, corvettes Anemone, Clematis, Mallow, and anti-submarine trawlers St Loman and St Zeno.

Coastal convoy FN.311 departs Southend, escorted by destroyers Verdun and Watchman, headed north, while convoy FS.312 at the other end of the chain starts is southward journey, escorted by destroyers Wallace and Westminster. Anti-aircraft cruiser Curacoa transferred to convoy SL.49 A east of Pentland Firth and escorted it towards Buchanness, then joining convoy EN.10.

For the German U-Boats, the period July to October - right through the Battle of Britain - is called the "happy time" by commanders. In these four months, 144 unescorted and 73 escorted ships are sunk, with only six U-boats destroyed by British forces - of which only two are destroyed by attacks on convoys. And October is shaping up to be the worst month of them all for allied shipping.

On this day, U-38 sinks Greek steamer Aemos (3554grt), a straggler due to bad weather from convoy SC.7. Four crew are lost. U-48 attacks on convoy SC.7, sinking British tanker Languedoc (9512grt) and steamer Scoresby (3843grt). It damages steamer Haspenden (4678grt). U-93 attacks convoy OB.228 and sinks Norwegian steamer Dokka (1168grt)  and British steamer Uskbridge (2715grt). Ten crew are lost on the Norwegian steamer, two on the British ship.

Then there are the mines. The British steamer Frankrig (1361grt) is mined  in the North Sea. Nineteen crew are rescued. British fishing vessel Albatross is sunk by a mine off Grimsby. All but five crew are lost. Faroes motor fishing vessel Cheerful is sunk on a mine off the Faroes Island. British steamer Ethylene (936grt) is damaged on a mine close to the East Oaze Light Buoy. British steamer George Balfour (1570grt) is damaged on a mine eight miles from the Aldeburgh Light Vessel.

Six miles north, northwest of Smith's Knoll, British steamer Hauxley (1595grt) in convoy FN.311 is torpedoed by German motor torpedo boat  She sinks under tow of Destroyer Worcester at 06:45hrs on the 18th. One crew is lost on the British steamer. British steamers P L M. 14 (3754grt) and Gasfire (2972grt) in the same convoy are damaged by German motor torpedo boats British steamer Brian (1074grt) claims sinking one of the German S-boats.

Only a fraction of this is to reach the media, yet the human energy expended far exceeds that devoted to the air war.  And, while the fighting over the skies of Britain has descended into a meaningless scrap, of no strategic importance, upon the sea battle - in its totality - depends the very survival of Britain.

(Inquiry into daytime tactics)

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread