24 October, 2010

Day 107 - Battle of Britain

A few individual raiders and reconnaissance flights is the extent of German daylight air operations. From a British perspective, this is seen to be a ritual to keep the British defence system on alert, with no strategic significance whatsoever. The main effort now is through the night.

Flight magazine has already made a decision about this. The Battle of Britain is over as a battle and has degenerated into unimportant but spiteful slaughter and destruction, it says. But, once again, it is focused on day operations and the fighter war.

This, however, is not the German "take" on the situation. General von Bötticher, the German Military Attache to Washington, reports that the situation in England is becoming more precarious. The objective to make life more difficult and to make life difficult is being achieved. Production has decreased and the traffic situation is difficult. There is a danger that epidemics might break out.  Reports from the embassies in Lisbon and Sofia agree. There has been an "impressive change" in the tone of the British press.

On the British front, however, internal politics rather than the Germans are keeping Dowding busy. He has let the enmity between Keith Park at 11 Group and Leigh Mallory at 12 Group go too far. The knives are out, and Dowding's own position is threatened. But, while the headline issue is the so-called "big wing" controversy, the politicians are also dismayed at the lack of protection Fighter Command can offer against the night bombers. Heads must roll.

To prove the point, London gets 50 aircraft in the night. Birmingham is also a target while Basingstoke is also hit. The Luftwaffe roams virtually unmolested, still owning the night sky. The weather is the bigger enemy, accounting for more losses that the RAF on this day.

RAF politics, though, is trivial stuff, when the real thing is in plentiful supply.  News is emerging of a meeting the previous day between Hitler and Franco on the border of Spain.  During the Brenner meeting between Hitler and Mussolini, news had been circulating to the effect that Spain's dictator, Franco, had decided to stay out of the war. Now Hitler is trying to reverse that decision.

Hitler meeting with General Francisco Franco at Hendaye, Southern France

In a two-hour, head-to-head discussion, though, Hitler fails to change his mind. Famously, Hitler later confides with Mussolini that he would "rather have three or four teeth pulled" than go through another meeting with Franco. And so, Gibraltar is safe.

From the Spanish border, Hitler travels to Montoire in France to meet Petain. News has since come through that Petain has rejected any deal with Hitler over the transfer of the French Navy. However, the fleet is said to be massing in Toulon. The only explanation for this "mysterious move", is said to be that the French Navy minister, Admiral Darlan, who is a strong supporter of deputy premier Laval, gave the orders on his own initiative.

While the world waits with bated breath for news of developments, the War Cabinet is treated to a sombre appraisal on the current fighting. In particular, it learns that mines are having a significant effect on the shipping in coastal waters and on the Royal Navy in particular.

In the preceding week, they have accounted for the numerous ships. Minesweeper HMS Dundalk is badly damaged 16 October off Harwich and founders early the next day while under tow. HM Trawler Kingston Cairngorm is sunk off Portland on the 18th, and veteran of the action in Boulogne to evacuate troops, HM Destroyer Venetia (pictured below at Boulogne) goes down in the Thames Approaches on the 19th. There are 96 survivors from the latter ship, but five officers, including the Captain, are missing.

HMS Venetia at Boulogne, 23 May 1940

HM Trawler Velia is also sunk in the same locality. The Minesweeping Trawlers Wave Flower and Joseph Button are sunk off Aldeburgh, apparently by mines, on the 21st and 22nd respectively, and HM Trawler Hickory sinks off Portland on the 22nd.

The picture for merchant shipping is no better. During the period, 36 ships (150,091 tons) have been reported sunk. Of these, 17 British (89,199 tons), three Norwegian (14,080 tons), three Swedish (13,533 tons), three Dutch (10,878 tons), two Greek (7,408 tons), one Estonian (1,186 tons), one Belgian (5,186 tons) and one Yugo-Slav (5,135 tons) were sunk by submarine.

Three British vessels (1,722 tons) were sunk by mine, one British (1,595 tons) was sunk by E-Boat and a British trawler (169 tons) was sunk by aircraft. In addition, three British ships (21,059 tons) previously reported as damaged were now known to have been sunk. Damage by aircraft, mine or submarine to 21 British ships (79,791 tons) had been reported and two additional British ships (10,232 tons) are now known to have been damaged in the previous period.

As to civilian casualties, the approximate figures for the week ending 06:00hrs on 23 October are 1,690 killed and 3,000 injured. These figures include the estimated 1,470 killed and 1,785 injured in London, 56 killed and and 261 injured in Coventry, and 30 killed and 203 injured in Birmingham.

But there is one thing few are concerned about - the invasion. Even the Lord Halifax is in the loop. On this day he notifies a British embassy that: "‘Though Hitler has enough shipping in the Channel to put half a million men onto salt water – or into it, as Winston said the other day –it really does seem as if the invasion of England has been postponed for the present".

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread