13 October, 2010

Day 96 - Battle of Britain

One incident late in this night perhaps illustrates the great divide between those who see the Battle of Britain as a great aerial joust and those who see it in broader context. Endless narratives, newspaper commentary and analysis all agree that, in this phase of the war, the Germans are targeting the cities and the people within. They are doing so in an attempt to force a political crisis in which the present government is deposed and then replaced by one more amenable to discussing peace terms.

By any proper measure, therefore, "the people are the prize" - a phrase coined much later in the context of counterinsurgency campaigns. If, under the pressure of continuous bombing, the people crack, Churchill as prime minister would probably not survive and if his successor - possibly Lloyd George, who is often referred to in this context - opened negotiations with Germany, Hitler would have won.

The battle, therefore, is not between the pilots of the RAF - heroic or otherwise. They, through no fault of their own and to their intense frustration, are able to offer next to no protection against the night bombers of the Luftwaffe. The battle is between, primarily, the night bomber and the people.  The weapons on the one side are incendiaries and high explosives. The defence is not steel, not the largely useless batteries of anti-aircraft guns, nor any other weapon of war.  It is the endurance of the people, their will, their stubbornness and their refusal to do the bidding of Hitler, and attack their own government.

And a small but important part of the battlefield this night is Stoke Newington, an inner London suburb, then quite unfashionable and with a large Jewish (and Irish Catholic) population. Without any significant industry, it has no strategic or military value whatsoever, and it is also peculiarly vulnerable. It is one of those areas of London poorly served by the tube, relying on the surface railway. The nearest tube station, several miles to the south, is Liverpool Street, or the long trek to the west to get to Manor House on the Piccadilly Line.

With a large number of flat dwellers, the effects of the government's refusal to develop a deep shelter policy is at its most apparent, for there is not the option of the Anderson shelter for many. They must rely on public shelters. One such has been constructed from the shallow basements of three shops on Coronation Avenue, Stoke Newington Road, housing the best part of 250 people on this fateful night.

Late in the night, but definitely on the 13th, according to most accounts - repeated on the local memorial in the Abbey Road Cemetery (pictured above) - a large bomb hit the parade of shops completely demolishing them.   The five-storey buildings collapse into the basements, blocking the entrances, and trapping scores of people.  In total, 173 are killed, many - it is thought - poisoned by town gas from a fractured main.

Had it not already been thoroughly discredited, this would have put the seal on the shelter policy - but the impact was slight and localised.  The government is also a "player" in this battle and it has its own array of weapons, not least censorship.

Shortly after the bombing, the weekly Hackney Gazette referred to the event but was not allowed to release details. It reported, "On Friday the King and Queen ... paid an informal visit to an area where there had been casualties owing to a bomb demolishing a block of tenements underneath which was a shelter". The other "weapon", of course, was the King and especially the Queen, which is deployed skilfully to stiffen resolve and present a "caring" image to the outside world.

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