09 October, 2010

Day 92 - Battle of Britain

Overnight has been rough for London - reported as one of the heaviest series of overnight raids since the bombing had began back on 7 September. The Daily Express reports that 94 places have been bombed. Amongst other targets, an air raid shelter harbouring 150 people, including children, is hit. At least eight are killed, some poisoned after a gas mains fractured. Many more are injured.

East Ham Memorial Hospital has been badly damaged by a land mine. Three complete floors are wrecked, destroying wards housing 108 elderly men and women, killing more than 50. In the morning, as the rescuers were reaching the trapped and injured, another bomb falls. Horrified commuters scrabble through the wreckage to put a small fire out and assist the injured. By contrast, the RAF is reported to have despatched 30 bombers to Berlin. The Germans claimed they have been driven off.

With the wreckage still smouldering in London and elsewhere, the newspapers are out on the streets, many proclaiming that the invasion threat is not over. The Glasgow Herald features this prominently, its take on Churchill's speech to the Commons yesterday. The speech is thoroughly raked-over by the media, but few seem to have understood the point he is making about the casualties. The analysis generally is poor.

The big problem, though, is that the war is now getting complicated - not that it was ever that simple. And despite the importance of the air raids, the Express leads on the Burma Road situation, its second main concern being the developments in Romania. But the layer upon layer of complexity, with the passage of time, and the degrees of interaction make for an equally complex narrative. One can understand the attraction of the simple "Battle of Britain"story, converting history into a simple, romantic joust between modern-day knights in armour on flashing steeds (aka aircraft).

But it remains bizarre that, nine days into October with Luftwaffe bombers dominating the night skies, this is still deemed to be part of the Fighter Command's version of the Battle of Britain. Yet, the RAF is evident only during the day, its night-fighting capability still immature. To all intents and purposes, the aerial day fighting over Britain is strategically irrelevant - even more so than previously.

That said, lower down the front page in the Express is a small article, clearly seen as important enough to have such a prominent spot, but hardly given the attention it deserves. Under the heading, "It's not a blitzkrieg any more", the article in its entirety reads:
Germany has called off the blitzkrieg. The Nazis have abandoned the "lightning war" against Britain and have decided to go in for "hammering and destruction". This announcement, says Reuters, was made in English over the Rome radio last night, reporting the statement of a High German Air Force officer at a press conference in Berlin on Monday.
The German author of this statement is not named, and there is nothing obviously that corroborates it - other than the circumstantial evidence of the change in pace of the bombing. From the last few days, when the raids have been relatively low-key, the tempo has suddenly intensified. Does this presage a change in policy?

One area where there has been no change, however, is in the U-boat campaign. The Daily Mirror picks up the latest Admiralty communiqué and reports: "U-Boats 15 Ships in a week". Ten British ships, total tonnage 55,927, four Allied ships, 12,119 tons , and one neutral ship, 4,291 tons, had been sunk by the Germans during the week ended 29-30 September. The week before, says the newspaper, we lost twenty ships, totalling 134,975 tons. It then goes on to say:
The somewhat self-evident commitment was made in London yesterday that the Navy has never been large enough to give complete security to our shipping all over the world at the same time, but the stronger the escort provided to fewer will be the losses and the more hesitant the U-boat commanders to attack.
The general shortage of escorts, however, was not the only issue. As a precaution against invasion, on 1 July, Churchill had minuted the Admiralty, instructing it to "endeavour" to raise the flotilla in the "narrow seas" (the English Channel) to a strength of 40 destroyers, with additional cruiser support.

With the demands from other theatres, including the Mediterranean, and latterly Dakar, this left perilously few warships to escort the convoys, a deficiency of which Churchill was very obviously aware. "The losses in the Western Approach must be accepted meanwhile," he wrote.

C-in-C of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, was not entirely at ease with this line. With adequate intelligence and reconnaissance, he maintained, there should be sufficient advance warning of an invasion attempt for his destroyers to be employed on convoy escort and other duties, subject to rapid recall should signs of an imminent assault be detected.

This has become a running sore in the relations between Forbes and an Admiralty acting under the direct instructions of Churchill, with the Admiral as late as 28 September making a final appeal to the Admiralty. He writes a letter stating that "the Army, assisted by the Air Force, should carry out its immemorial role of holding up the first flight of an invading force". The Navy, he asserts, "should be freed to carry out its proper function - offensively against the enemy and in defence of our trade - and not be tied down to provide passive defence of our country, which has now become a fortress".

His entreaties are not to prevail, and the U-Boats are quick to exploit the absence of escorts. The results are now plain to see.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread