08 October, 2010

Day 91 - Battle of Britain

 Competing with news about the deteriorating situation in Romania is a report of the first day of the TUC annual congress at Stockport. President W Holmes - not a name instantly recognised - laid down a series of demands to government, calling for "instant and dramatic" action.

With the government ruled by a coalition, headed by a prime minister who had been awarded dictatorial powers, where parliament had become effectively emasculated, the TUC was the only effective opposition. And in the name of his 5,000,000 members, Holmes wanted better air raid shelters, the problem of the homeless dealt with and an end to profiteering. The shelter problem, he said, was "not insoluble and its remedy is overdue". As to the homeless, it was the nation's bounden duty, by immediate and comprehensive compensation, to enable the people to restore their shattered homes."

On profiteers, he said, "If the manifestations of the people's spirit do not shame the greedy and the selfish, better measures than the Government has yet applied must restrain them and make it impossible for anybody to slink away at the end of the war richer than he entered it." He affirmed the determination of the workers to carry on this struggle to the bitter end. "None shall make profit out of the war," said Holmes. " Profiteering, in such circumstances as the nation is called upon to face, is as dastardly a crime as looting the shattered homes of the poor."

As to the war, this continues. Morning raids totalling 150 aircraft cross the coast and head towards London. Bombs are scattered over a number of targets, including central London. The aircraft are mostly high-flying jabos, with top cover flying as high as 32,000ft. Several raids develop in the afternoon involving substantial numbers of aircraft, again comprising high-flying jabos. The tactic gives Park considerable problems, even if the bombing damage is slight, in relative terms.

"Slight" damage - a London book shop damaged during a raid. The boy is said to be reading a book entitled "A History of London".

This is the day Churchill addresses the House of Commons to give his monthly "war situation" report. He reminds MPs that a month has passed since Hitler "turned his rage and malice on to the civil population of our great cities and particularly of London." Curiously, Churchill makes a reference to Hitler's speech of 4 September, a speech which he ignored at the time. He notes that it was then that the Führer had said "he would raze our cities to the ground." Since then, he observed, "he has been trying to carry out his fell purpose."

Taking day and night together, 400 bombers on average had visited the UK every 24 hours and, the prime minister said, it was doubtful whether "this rate of sustained attack could be greatly exceeded". The strain upon the German bombers was "very considerable" and the bulk of them "do not seem capable of anything beyond blind bombing".

With this under his belt, he then says: "I always hesitate to say anything of an optimistic nature, because our people do not mind being told the worst." He adds: "They resent anything in the nature of soothing statements which are not borne out by later events, and, after all, war is full of unpleasant surprises." Then he declares:
On the whole, however, we may, I think, under all reserve reach, provisionally, the conclusion that the German average effort against this country absorbs a very considerable part of their potential strength. I should not like to say that we have the measure of their power, but we feel more confident about it than we have ever done before.
Churchill then proceeds to examine the effect of this "ruthless and indiscriminate attack" and notes the German claim that by 23 September, 22,000 tons of explosives had been dropped on Britain since the beginning of the war. No doubt, said Churchill, this included the mines on the coast. He then says:
We were told also, on last Thursday week, that 251 tons were thrown upon London in a single night, that is to say, only a few tons less than the total dropped on the whole country throughout the last war. Now, we know exactly what our casualties have been. On that particular Thursday night 180 persons were killed in London as a result of 251 tons of bombs.

That is to say, it took 1 ton of bombs to kill threequarters of a person. We know, of course, exactly the ratio of loss in the last war, because all the facts were ascertained after it was over. In that war the small bombs of early patterns which were used killed 10 persons for every ton discharged in the built-up areas.

Therefore, the deadliness of the attack in this war appears to be only one-thirteenth of that of 1914–1918. Let us say "less than one-tenth," so as to be on the safe side. That is, the mortality is less than one-tenth of the mortality attaching to the German bombing attacks in the last war.
The expectation on entering the war had been up to 3,000 killed in a single night and 12,000 wounded, night after night. Hospital provision had been made for quarter of a million casualties "merely as a first provision". But, up to last Saturday, as a result of air bombing, about 8,500 killed and 13,000 wounded. Churchill did not say "only" but it was there - the context made that clear.

Furthermore, since the heavy raiding had begun on 7 September, the figures of killed and seriously wounded had declined steadily week by week, from over 6,000 in the first week to just under 5,000 in the second, and from about 4,000 in the third week to under 3,000 in the last of the four weeks.

This explains the confidence. Churchill - or his advisers - have done the maths. Casualties are far lower than expected and at the present rate of bombing, even in Greater London and its population of eight million spread over 700 square miles, it is beyond the resources of the Luftwaffe to inflict terminal damage. As long as morale can be maintained (and improved) the air offensive cannot deliver a decisive result.

He makes great play of the role of the shelters, but does not acknowledge how poor the provision has been in some areas - and thus that the casualty rate could have been considerably less. And, although in the process of committing enormous resources to a reciprocal bombing programme, Churchill does not concede that the enemy population might be better protected and that his offensive might yield similarly mediocre results.

The prime minister, however, is not done. He asks, rhetorically of course, "What has happened to the invasion which we have been promised every month and almost every week since the beginning of July?" But the issue is raised for him then to declare, "Do not let us be lured into supposing that the danger is past." He goes on:
On the contrary, unwearying vigilance and the swift and steady strengthening of our Forces by land, sea and air which is in progress must be at all costs maintained. Now that we are in October, however, the weather becomes very uncertain, and there are not many lucid intervals of two or three days together in which river barges can cross the narrow seas and land upon our beaches. Still, those intervals may occur. Fogs may aid the foe.

Our Armies, which are growing continually in numbers, equipment, mobility and training, must be maintained all through the winter, not only along the beaches but in reserve, as the majority are, like leopards crouching to spring at the invader's throat. The enemy has certainly got prepared enough shipping and barges to throw half a million men in a single night on to salt water - or into it.
This scenario is so deeply implausible, on so many levels, as to be laughable. And Churchill must know it. The RAF and other reconnaissance efforts will have indicated to him a rough shipping capability and he will know that it goes nowhere near being able to transport half a million men - with their equipment - in one lift. That the Germans should, in any event, have that many men on immediate standby, on the off-chance that there is a foggy period (which must also coincide with favourable tide states) is a highly dubious proposition, and then there is the small question of re-supply.

But one can see from the context and the remarks around his assertion what Churchill is doing - and it makes sense. He cannot afford to have either the military or the population relaxing - especially the Army. Of this, he says, "During the winter training must proceed, and the building of a great well-equipped army, not necessarily always to be confined to these islands, must go forward in a hardy and rigorous manner." Churchill needs to maintain the threat level to keep his military alert, motivated and committed to its training.

But there are other issues, not least the failure of a recent expedition to Dakar, and an attempt alongside de Gaulle and his Free French to take over the African territory held by Vichy forces. The details need not detain us. What is important is that the embarrassment and the sense not only of failure but of poor judgement - a "fiasco", some are calling it. It has damaged confidence in Churchill's handling of the war and in his government. He needs to give the people (and the MPs) some good news. A victory will do.

This, Churchill has ready-made. "The main reason why the invasion has not been attempted up to the present is, of course," he says, "the succession of 297 brilliant victories gained by our fighter aircraft, and gained by them over the largely superior numbers which the enemy have launched against us". He adds:
The three great days of 15th August, 15th September and 27th September have proved to all the world that here at home over our own Island we have the mastery of the air. That is a tremendous fact. It marks the laying down of the office which he has held with so much distinction for the last three years by Sir Cyril Newall, and it enables us to record our admiration to him for the services he has rendered. It also marks the assumption of new and immense responsibilities by Sir Charles Portal, an officer who, I have heard from every source and every side, commands the enthusiastic support and confidence of the Royal Air Force.

These victories of our Air Force enable the Navy, which is now receiving very great reinforcements, apart altogether from the American destroyers now coming rapidly into service, to assert, on the basis of the air victories, its sure and well-tried power.
The prime minister's speech then gets a response from the acting leader of the opposition, a relatively unknown if interesting politician by the name of Hastings Lees-Smith.

A strong supporter of Churchill, he refers to the "encouraging nature" of the speech, especially that part of it in which he dealt with "the central danger", the invasion of Britain. As to Dakar, he says, "after an episode like that, the country may, for a moment, lose its sense of proportion". It may "not realise that victory in the Battle of Britain is, in its final effect, more important than anything which happens elsewhere, even at Dakar".

The Battle of Britain is beginning to acquire an identity of its own and, not for the first time, is being used - and successfully - for wholly political purposes.

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