18 October, 2010

Day 101 - Battle of Britain

Unknown at the time, and only to be discovered after the war when German war records are translated, the war against Britain in 1940 has been initiated by Führer Directive 16, since postponed, but also the earlier Directive No. 9. That this is still in force is seen most immediately by the thirty-five merchantmen making up Convoy SC7, outbound from Nova Scotia since 5 October.

They were headed for Liverpool, escorted by a single Royal Navy Warship, the sloop HMS Scarborough.  Leading the convoy in the small 2,962 ton SS Assyrian, Vice Admiral L.D.I. Mackinnon, a retired Naval Officer, acting as convoy Commodore. Typical cargoes carried show the range of goods that Britain most needs to import to sustain her. Pit props from East Brunswick destined for British coal mines, lumber, and grain for the daily bread of the English population from the Great Lakes area, steel and ingots ex Sydney Cape Breton, iron ore from New Foundland.

The largest of the 34 ships was the Admiralty tanker SS Languedor of 9,512 tons - already sunk yesterday, and a load of important trucks fills the holds of SS Empire Brigand. The majority of the ships belong on the British Register, but others have their home ports in Norway, Greece, Holland, and Sweden.

The attacks actually started in the early hours of 16 October, when one ship was lost, but the convoy is then joined by the sloop Fowey and corvette Bluebell. On the 18th, two further escorts join the convoy, the sloop Leith and corvette Heartsease. That night, the convoy is under sustained attack from one of the first German U-boat "wolfpacks", with seven submarines coordinating their attacks.

One, the SS Creekirk (3,917grt) with a cargo of iron ore (pictured), is hit by torpedoes from U-101 early in the attack. Weighted by the iron ore, she sinks almost immediately, with the loss of her master, Elie Robilliard, 34 crew members and one gunner. No one survives.

The disaster is not yet played out and little enough is to filter into the media, and then not for some little time. But it says something of the the importance to Britain of sea warfare that the appointment of a new C-in-C to the Home Fleet gets star billing on the front page of the Daily Express and many other newspapers of the day. Novelty wins out with the second lead, giving the Dean of Canterbury high profile as his house is bombed for the second time.

In the end, that is what it comes to. Even the horrific becomes so routine that it gets a one-column "round-up" article.  In peacetime, any one of the hundreds of incidents would have merited front-page treatment on their own. Not any more - wartime has deadened the sensibilities and re-ordered the hierarchy of death.

During the day, the Luftwaffe is back, its aircrew fortified by an Order of the Day from Göring, who tells them: "German airmen, comrades! You have, above all in the last few days and nights, caused the British world-enemy disastrous losses by uninterrupted, destructive blows. Your indefatigable, courageous attacks on the heart of the British Empire, the city of London with its 8½ million inhabitants, have reduced British plutocracy to fear and terror. The losses which you have inflicted on the much vaunted Royal Air Force in determined fighter engagements are irreplaceable."

The Luftwaffe "celebrates" by mounting four fighter sweeps over Kent, some reaching the London district and the Thames Estuary. Approximately 300 fighter aircraft are deployed, some of which carry bombs. Four are claimed downed, while Fighter Command loses three aircraft with three pilots killed or missing.

One needs to be reminded that London is not the only recipient of German largesse. This night, as with many before, Birmingham takes the strain. The air raid warning sounds at 19.47hrs and the first bomb drops just over 15 minutes later. By the time the "all clear" comes at 23.29hrs, approximately 116 HE bombs have dropped, 34 of which do not explode. About 107 incidents involve incendiaries and about 78 fires are started.

The districts most affected are Sparkbrook, Sparkhill, Balsall Heath, Duddeston and Aston - names which are meaningless to most outside the area. Slight damage is caused to a number of factories, production is interrupted in a number of others because of the unexploded bombs, and there are some shops damaged. Trains are delayed on the main LMS Birmingham to London line, after a bomb  damages an embankment. Other damage included the local gas works and a local canal.

But for all that, the total casualties were ten fatalities and 18 injured. But, over term, Birmingham is the third most heavily bombed UK city during the war, behind London and Liverpool. During the Blitz 2,241 people are killed, and 3,010 seriously injured. A total of 12,391 houses, 302 factories and 239 other buildings are destroyed, with many more damaged. Overall, around 2,000 tons of bombs are dropped on Birmingham during the conflict.

Yesterday, it was much the same. The siren sounded at 19:57 hrs and started falling at 20:05hrs. The "all clear" sounds at 21.35hrs. That time, approximately 117 HE bombs are dropped, and 41 do not explode. There were 95 incendiary bomb incidents.

The districts most affected represent another litany of unknown places: Sparkhill, Sparkbrook, Small Heath, Saltley, Bordesley Green and Erdington. Many houses were damaged in these areas and the total casualties run to 17 dead and 14 injured. Nine of those are killed and six are injured in one street as when an HE bomb demolishes a group of houses. A family of twelve is trapped in one of the houses.

A long list of domestic, commercial and industrial premises damaged marks another raid. The Brummies dust themselves off, bury their dead, treat their injured and repair the damage. The chief fire officer and already resigned. He was useless and has been replaced.

The rescue services now work tolerably well, and their members too are taking casualties. Two Police Constables are overcome by coal gas fumes as they go to the aid of the stricken in one incident. A fireman is killed and three badly injured were an HE bomb demolishes Small Heath Motors Garage, an AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) Station.

That is the nature of attrition. And tragically, on this day, the slaughter is not confined to the Midlands. London is also on the receiving end, as it has been for so many nights. Iin Lambeth, the Rose and Crown Public House is completely demolished at 20:25hrs by a direct hit. Over 40 are killed.

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