12 October, 2010

Day 95 - Battle of Britain

Many of the newspapers are covering the Cherbourg raid as the front page lead -  not least the Daily Mirror (right) which offers "Navy guns Nazi port". But is is Saturday, a day when the media often slackens the reins and allows more wide-ranging comment than it would on the main business days.

Intriguingly, such a piece finds its way into the Glasgow Herald. Written by the political correspondent, it states:
It is known in political circles that not many days ago, "peace feelers" reached the Cabinet by a circuitous route. Their authenticity was not definitely established, and Ministers were not, it seems, called upon to give them serious consideration. In any case the Government, I learn, is not prepared to pay attention to any proposals unless they are proved to come from our principal enemy, and in this case such proof was lacking.

So far as my informants are aware, Mr Churchill and his colleagues did not reply directly to this vague invitation, but the whole tone of the Prime Minister's speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday was in effect an answer in its fresh registration of an unswerving determination to carry on to carry on the war until complete victory was won.

Mr Bevin's sturdily defiant series of speeches in the North of England this week are also cited to me as inferentially the Cabinet's attitude to any proposal for a peace short of the destruction of Hitlerism. The Minister of Labour doubtless knew of the attempt to get Britain to talk peace terms, and his firm, uncompromising negative is taken to express the minds of his colleagues.

Hitler, or those who claim to represent him, will no doubt try again, simultaneously with his drive eastwards, which may be used as an intimidating weapon. Parliament, however, has given the country proof this week that, together with the people, it is resolutely opposed to any patched-up peace, and, however often Hitler and his associates may craftily endeavour to inveigle us into a peace trap, the certainty of failure will await all his efforts.
Such reports need to be treated with great caution, the very Glasgow Herald having warned in late September that the Nazi propaganda machine was working intensively to spread rumours of peace initiatives, primarily aimed at engineering a split between the British and Americans.

The main thrust of these rumours, however, is of the moves coming from the British, using Roosevelt who, "according to legend" will make himself responsible for conveying the proposal to Germany. By this means, it is hoped to confuse public opinion in the expectations of destroying friendly relations.

What makes this current report different is that the "feelers" are said to come from the Germans. That makes perfect sense. Embarked as they are on an air offensive, aimed - in part if not in whole - on forcing the British government to the negotiating table - one would expect the Germans to be keeping channels of communication open and occasionally testing the water.

Limited support for the idea that there was indeed a peace offer comes from the US media. At the beginning of November there is a report by the United Features Syndicate which refers to the "inside fact" that sub rosa peace feelers have been put out again and again for some time.

Usually, says the report, they come from Swedish sources, sometimes are conveyed by prominent Frenchmen, but always are vague "on-an-if, but-and-when" basis. They are just persistent enough, however, to indicate that Hitler would like to make peace if he could pretty much dictate the terms.

Then there is a syndicated report which does the rounds in mid-November. This has it that the story of imminent European peace deals which floated around London, Berlin and Washington just before the US presidential election, held on 5 November, "was no myth". "Inside fact" was that some very tentative ideas had been discussed by Sir Samuel Hoare, British ambassador in Madrid and a leader of the British appeasement group.

These are said to have dated from the time "Hitler's proposed invasion of England was frustrated last September." According to this narrative, Nazi diplomats had sent out feelers "to the effect that Germany now had almost the entire continent of Europe and might be satisfied to drop the war, leaving England to stick to its own islands".

So powerful and persistent do these rumours become that, on 5 November we see an AP report via the Irish Times headed: "Peace Offers are superfluous". This is the record of a formal response from the European Axis powers, which states:
In view of their present political and military position, Germany and Italy have no reason for making the enemy a peace offer, it was stated today in the Wilhelmstrasse. The statement was made in reply to questions by foreign Press representatives about alleged peace moves by the Axis powers. The speaker declared that it was "superfluous" to make such a declaration.
The date of the presidential election seems to have marked the end of peace offer speculation, for the time being but, before that time, a view that the British government had been "softened up" enough and might be prepared to deal would not have been wholly illogical. In the first place, there were the exaggerated bomb damage reports being fed back by the Luftwaffe.

However, what was probably also extremely influential was a much-leaked and highly damning report from US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (pictured above) sent in letter form to president Roosevelt on 27 September. In this he wrote:
The night raids are continuing to do, I think, substantial damage, and the day raids of the last three days have dealt most serious blows to Bristol, Southampton, and Liverpool. Production is definitely falling, regardless of what reports you may be getting, and with transportation smashed up the way it is, the present production output will continue to fall.

My own feeling is that… [the British] are in a bad way. Bombers have got through in the daytime on the last three days, and on four occasions today substantial numbers of German planes have flown over London and have done some daylight bombing.

I cannot impress upon you strongly enough my complete lack of confidence in the entire [British] conduct of this war. I was delighted to see that the President said he was not going to enter the war because to enter this war, imagining for a minute that the English have anything to offer in the line of leadership or productive capacity in industry that could be of the slightest value to us, would be a complete misapprehension.
On top of this, the hostile press over the Dakar affair, and the signals given off by the recent Cabinet reshuffle might have led the Germans genuinely to have believed that Churchill was in a politically weak state - which indeed he was, although not weak enough to be deposed.

In fact, on 8 October, the very day Churchill addresses Parliament with his monthly review of the war, the Glasgow Herald notes that "if ... Hitler really believes the reports give to him and sent all over the world that London is beaten to its knees, he may try the peace trick in the hope that ... the Government will be compelled by public opinion to listen to his offer".

Seen in this light, the Churchill statement to the House on 8 October does fit quite neatly as a rejection of a peace offer - or a move to pre-empt an offer in the making. It sets out an unequivocal case for continuing the war, embodied in it, as there is, the analysis of why the German air offense must fail. As a response, it would be entirely logical. Similarly, the bellicose text of Bevin's speech to the TUC could be serving the same, albeit undeclared, purpose.

In that context, the heavier than usual raids on London on 9 October and every night since could be taken as a response to Churchill's response. This could have been the Germans saying, "very well, the war goes on". But it was to be a different war.

On this day, 12 October, Hitler issued a secret message to his operational services, formally cancelling any further invasion preparations. The barges, fishing boats and tugs were to be returned to their former duties, the soldiers to prepare for other adventures, the invasion of the Soviet Union high on the list. Only Göring and his bombers were to continue the war against England.

As the British reconnaissance picked up the dispersal of the shipping, it was assumed that this was a response to the British air force and naval raids, and in particular the recent attack by the battleship Revenge.

But there is no evidence in German records that Hitler - and it was his decision to cancel the invasion - was in any way influenced by the materiel losses. In fact, despite the intensity and frequency of the British counter-action, less than ten percent of the shipping was sunk or damaged - a level which could be replaced from the reserves already assembled.

Equally compatible with events is Churchill's rejection of the recent peace feelers, leading Hitler to conclude that there was little chance of an immediate British collapse. Hitler was now reconciled to a long war and thus his transport fleet was not needed for the time being.

It was back to the original plan - an economic war against England. And that, comprising an air war, with the U-boat offensive, had never been expected to yield swift results. He could conquer Russia - which was expected to take only six months - and then deal with England, a country further cowed by having had a potential ally removed from the field.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread