01 October, 2010

Day 84 - Battle of Britain

Now it was the turn of the Yorkshire Post to declare that the tide of the war was turning. As with the others, it was partially right. During the day, in that now tiny fragment of the war, the RAF was successfully fighting off the raiders. At night, it was letting them through. Nevertheless, there was clearly a concerted attempt to mark up a "turning point" and the Guardian joined in the fray with an article headed: "First phase of the air war". Citing "official opinion", it declared that one phase of the air war had ended and Britain was ready to face the next round "full of confidence".

Nevertheless, in the article it was "recognised that the question of stopping enemy bombers raiding London and other cities by night remains to be solved", but it was pointed out "in authoritative Air Ministry quarters" that the prospects of developments "soon" were "favourable". The attacks on London, these "quarters" said, had been part of the invasion plan "aimed at disrupting communications within and to and from the capital". If the enemy had won this fight, "it would have gone down as one of the most decisive battle of history". As he had not succeeded, it was only a phase.

As a clue to the real authors' grip on reality, however, the article went on to state that, among other types of German aircraft, the fictitious Heinkel 113 had been “tried and severely beaten”. Unabashed though, the RAF continued its propaganda war, adding forty-nine aircraft to the score of the previous day, bringing the claimed total of Luftwaffe aircraft downed in September to 1,095, almost exactly double the true number. Thus, the "summer phase of the war" had come to an end in a resounding propaganda victory.

Adding to the sense of triumph, the New York Times told of RAF raiders pounding Berlin for five hours. The Germans claimed only one bomb had been dropped, but there was no independent witness. William L. Shirer had no diary entry for this day. Nevertheless, his earlier reports had referred to damage as "negligible", although he reported that the psychological effects of the RAF raids were profound. The bare statistics were  unimpressive, though. Forty-two bombers had been despatched on the night of 30 September/1 October. Only seventeen reached the target and bombed it, for the loss of two aircraft.

To be fair, the Luftwaffe had the easier job. The distances involved were shorter and, for London, the crews had the Thames to guide them to the city. For other targets, it had radio navigation aids, far in advance of British equipment. Goebbels wrote that following "absolutely massive attacks" on London, it was "possible to see the demoralising effect from the English press".

Of the British attacks on Germany, he claimed: “one can no longer discern English intentions with any certainty”. He was wrong about the effects of the bombing on London. Although the physical damage was significant, the psychological effect was less so. The shock effect had worn off and Londoners were adapting.

On this day, a shelter "dictator" was appointed, Admiral Sir Edward Evans, one of two London Regional Commissioners for Civil Defence, charged with bringing order to the chaos. As importantly, the authorities were learning how to deal with the extraordinary situations with which they were daily confronted.

Projects which would in peacetime have taken months in the planning and weeks in execution were finished in hours or days. At Kilburn in North London, for instance, the almost complete demolition of a major viaduct was dealt with almost as a matter of routine. A heavy wooden framework was constructed to replace the missing stone and brickwork, and the train service was restored two days after the bombing.

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