19 October, 2010

Day 102 - Battle of Britain

The agony of Convoy SC7 continues into today. SS Empire Brigand and her load of trucks disappeares beneath the waves. Six of her crew die. Even the Commodore's ship is not immune, and SS Assyrian sinks beneath him. Vice Admiral Mackinnon is saved. SS Fiscus loaded with 5-ton ingots of steel, sinks like a stone. There is only one survivor from her crew of 39.

Twenty ships out of 34 which had remained in the convoy have now been sunk. The loss amounts to 79,592 tons, worth millions, even at 1940 prices. The German "star" is Otto Kretschmer. He operated for only 18 months of WW2 before being captured but sank 56 ships totalling 313,611 tons. This is a feat unequalled by any other U-Boat Captain. In U-99 this night, he sinks seven ships.

And still the killing has not finished. Those U-boats with torpedoes remaining join up with U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien, to attack HX79, another Liverpool-bound convoy, this one completely unescorted. A further 12 ships are sunk, with no loss to U-Boats, making this the worst loss of ships in a 48 hour period for the entire war.

Despite this, the U-boats are by no means the only weapon ranged against the Atlantic convoys. The long-range Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor (pictured above), first operating from Norway and later from France, is able to fly far out into the North Atlantic, out of the reach of the RAF's shore-based Spitfires and Hurricanes, and even the longer-range Blenheims.

The Condors provide detailed reports on convoy positions to waiting submarines, they send meteorological reports and mount direct attacks on the shipping with their own bombs. Between June 1940 and February 1941, this type alone accounts for sinking over 365,000 tons.

As to the fate of SC7 and HX79, it is still too early for anything of these convoy disasters to reach the media. H Taylor Henry, writing for AP, his copy to reach millions of Americans, reports on the war in London: "High explosive bombs dropped by raiders in the heaviest early-evening assault since the battle of Britain began killed many Londoners last night and caused "severe" damage in the British capital", he says. "One bomb landing outside a hotel," he adds, "killed an unannounced number of people in the bar; two others were killed in a cafe, and a direct hit which demolished a London club killed an undetermined number of casualties".

Golden prose this is not - and the details are suspect. Henry may be eliding incidents from several days into one narrative. But the report captures the flavour of events. The bloody war just got bloodier. This is corroborated by the Ministry of Homes Security activity report, which tells us that the bombing commenced at dusk and for the first four hours was abnormally heavy, then continuing on a large but more usual scale. The main attacks were against the London area, but Liverpool, Manchester and Coventry districts received considerable attention.

Reading the Daily Express, however, you would think it was a different war:
For the third Friday in succession, last night's London blitz was quieter than usual. This weekly "quiet night" has been marked by the anti aircraft gunners, who call it "Jerry's Amaminight." On each of the two previous Fridays an early "Raiders passed" was sounded. Last night's raid, which ended the blitz's sixth week, began in a blanket of mist and low-lying cloud that made it impossible to pick out targets from the air.

Bombs were unloaded blindly and. as on the previous night, there were long lulls. A public house was blown into the roadway, and people were buried under the wreckage. A cafe and a shop were demolished by the same bomb. Close by, incendiaries fell on a hospital, but were quickly put out.
It's how you tell 'em, I guess.

The main news, however, is an account culled from US newspapers of how aircraft from Bomber Command under their former leader Charles Portal, assisted  had in mid-September pounded the assembled German invasion fleet so hard - killing 40-50,000 troops - that it had forced the cancellation of Der Tag - the projected invasion day.

Although Bomber Command had indeed mounted a "maximum effort" on the night of 15 September, and again on the 17th, the account is almost entirely fictional. Despite this, it is, according to the Express, "officially confirmed". The Air Ministry is thus crediting Bomber Command rather than Dowding's Fighter Command with the victory.  - a victory which, according to the legend, is the reason why Portal has been promoted to Air Force Chief of Staff.

How times change. With the Battle of Britain "brand" having become the exclusive property of Fighter Command, bomber crews are not even awarded the Battle of Britain clasp.

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