03 October, 2010

Day 86 - Battle of Britain

Overnight had seen much reduced Luftwaffe activity, clearing the way for the newspapers to concentrate on Neville Chamberlain's resignation. Worn down by the stress of office and age, and now aware that he had a terminal illness, he had resigned from the government.

The Daily Worker, in its page one story had picked up something in the wind. "What is the Cabinet doing with Parliament?" it demanded on its front page. "Because of the shelter question, because of the position of the homeless, because London is seething with anger against the Government, because the Government dare not face inquiry on the fiasco of its Dakar adventure, MPs were not allowed to meet on Tuesday or yesterday as had been expected". Said the paper, "It is now stated in ordinarily well-informed quarters that the next meeting may actually be postponed for an entire week".

Out of the loop, the Communist Party mouthpiece had not been told of the sensational news. Worn down by the stress of office and age, and now aware that he had a terminal illness, Neville Chamberlain had had resigned from the government. The Daily Express had the story and, before the details had been formally released, news of the reshuffle which brought in Labour MP Herbert Morrison as Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security. He replaced Sir John Anderson, who took Chamberlain's vacated post as Lord President of the Council, and joined the War Cabinet as a permanent member.

Morrison, a one-eyed son of a policeman – having lost an eye as a baby, due to infection – had been a Hackney councillor and Mayor, and leader of London County Council. During the First World War, he had been a conscientious objector and he was to become grandfather to Peter Mandelson. One of his first acts in his new post was to appoint Miss Ellen Wilkinson ("Red Ellen") as Parliamentary Secretary, responsible for shelter policy. Formerly a member of the Communist Party, she had walked with the Jarrow Hunger Marchers of 1936 and had spoken passionately for their cause in parliament. As a people's representative, she could not have been a better choice.

Back in the war, autumnal weather prevented any concerted air attacks. The Luftwaffe resorted to its standard bad weather operating pattern, despatching single aircraft on raids throughout the country. One Ju 88 found the de Havilland works at Hatfield. From a height of 50ft, it machine-gunned workers as they ran for shelter and then dropped a stick of four bombs on the plant, killing twenty-one and injuring seventy. Anti-aircraft fire brought the aircraft down. Fighter Command losses for the day were limited to one Blenheim, crashing in driving rain during a patrol, killing the whole crew. The Luftwaffe lost nine aircraft, including two to accidents.

Gen. Alan Brooke wrote to his diary that he was "beginning to think that the Germans may after all not attempt it [the invasion]". He might have been intrigued to have read the War Cabinet minutes, in which the Foreign Secretary drew attention to two telegrams. They reported that the German Government "did not now expect to succeed in invading England", but hoped "by bombing the Midlands and South to bring about the collapse of the present Government and its replacement by a more amenable one".

This identified the German objective as "regime change", another phrase yet to be invented. But that was the essence of Douhet theory being played out, even if there were no indications of how serious were German expectations. However, Field Marshal von Leeb entered in his diary the comments from General Phillip Zoch, the Luftwaffe Commander attached to Army Group C. Over the September fighting, he claimed RAF losses at 1,100 aircraft, as against 350 Luftwaffe. As a result, the British were flying older types of aircraft. It was thought that their reserves were running low and the losses could no longer be replaced by new production. Zoch believed that the English could be forced to give up the fight.

But of far greater immediate significance was the sustained attack on Allied shipping. To add to the already considerable losses, a merchant ship of 4,600 tons had been lost on the previous day, and belated reports had been received of three other merchant ships sunk far out in the Atlantic.

Joining the First Lord of the Admiralty, the C-in-C Home Fleet and the Shipping Minister now came Minister of Food, Lord Woolton. He submitted a memorandum to the War Cabinet. During the last few weeks, he wrote, "I have been seriously disturbed by the extent of our food losses at sea". If the current rate of loss was sustained, he said, imports would have to be increased, taking up a much larger proportion of shipping, with serious effect on other supplies.

Alongside Woolton's paper was yet another memorandum from AV Alexander, this one on the "Adequacy of Protection of Merchant Ships in Convoy". Each individual escort is smaller than the Admiralty consider adequate, he wrote, and the distance out into the Atlantic to which convoys can be escorted is limited.

Alexander repeated the point so heavily emphasized by Forbes that the only short-term way of improving the situation was "the return to trade protection of the forces which were withdrawn for anti-invasion duties". Invasion was no longer a threat, if it ever had been. The response to the perceived threat was now itself threatening the very survival of Britain.