17 August, 2010

Day 39 - Battle of Britain

Across the nation, the British public was being fed tales of the previous day's aerial victories.  In the Hull Daily Mail, the headline elided the score for the last two days,  claiming 255 German aircraft down. Significantly, the paper referred to the "Air Battle for Britain", recognising neither the now common label of "Battle of Britain", nor the RAF monopoly.  Like the Daily Express, which awarded Fighter Command 69 "kills" for the previous day - fighting "round two of the Air Battle of Britain" - it too was referring to the "air battle", acknowledging that the air effort was only part of the show

The Manchester Guardian took a later figure for Fighter Command's "successes", reporting "71 more raiders" knocked out of the sky - compared with the actual 47 aircraft lost by the Luftwaffe.

The Daily Mirror highlighted the penetration of the Luftwaffe into the London suburbs, as did Harold Nicholson in his diary, noting that 18 have been killed in Wimbledon. For the RAF, he claims a "bag" of 75, and confides that, "for the moment everything is overshadowed by what seems to be the failure of the German air offensive against this island. They have done some damage here and there: they have killed and wounded many people, but they have not dealt us a really serious blow and our confidence rises.

In addition to attacking London suburbs, the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Home Security asserted that the Luftwaffe have also made a deliberate" attack on the "residential town of Eastbourne". The "raid", though, amounted to a lorry hit in the Hampden Park area by a bomb probably jettisoned by a bomber returning from a raid on RAF airfields. Three Council workmen had been killed. 

The Ministries, though, are in the propaganda game and also assert that the force which had bombed the suburbs had passed over London with instructions to bomb the city "if necessary". The Germans, of course, are in the same propaganda game. Far from recognising a defeat, they are talking up their "victory". As recorded by AP under the headline, "The British 'cannot stop us', German leaders say", "authorised German sources" proclaim that "wave after wave of bombers had hurled lavish destruction on the London environs late today, lining both banks of the Thames with fires, bomb craters and the wreckage of industrial plants."

The British had "fought back with 3,000 or more planes and with every weapon at their command," the report goes on. "Their fury was that of men who knew their very existence was in the balance". But the mass-scale attack, unprecedented in all history, is designed to prove that "no power on earth can stop the Nazi air force", said the Germans.

Nazi squadrons had broken though the British defence zone to the south, and burst into "the iron ring of London" with great blows at airports, arsenals, arms factories and industrial plants. "Bomb hits, fires, craters, destroyed houses, planes, tremendous detonations and high columns of fire show the work of the German bombers", declared the official German news agency.

Interestingly, if rather prematurely, the Germans also claimed that the industrial East End of London was one teeming object of attention. "The squalid Cockney section, a vast beehive of docks, sprawling warehouses, factories and arsenals lay under a pall of smoke".

Down on the ground, a small band of men was plying a deadly trade, but in this case deadly only to themselves. These were the bomb disposal teams, clearing up the ordnance that has failed to explode or where delayed action fuzes are fitted, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to kill those trying to deal with them.

One such team is lead by Lt Edward Reynolds a member of one of the new Bomb Disposal Sections. He is called on this day to deal with a 250kg unexploded bomb in the garden of a council house at Congrebury, south of Bristol. The bomb has dug itself down to at a depth of 17ft and has a new type of fuse fitted. There are no details or instructions as to how this type is to be dealt with. Traffic is stopped and local residents evacuated. Reynolds gets down into the pit and removes the fuse. It is found to be of a delayed clockwork type.

His actions "were risky and the merit of his actions was great for the lack of exact knowledge of this type of fuse", says his citation for his George Cross. Lt Reynolds is again called out on 3 September, to Temple Street Bristol where a large bomb has fallen and not detonated on the night of the 1st. It is believed initially to have exploded as damage to the front of business premises was apparent.

However, at 16:30hrs on the 3rd, a 250kg bomb is discovered, the fuze clocking and ticking. Reynolds states that he was willing to deal with it, immediately. His view was that if not dealt with there would be great damage to property due to the size of bomb and this would have an effect on the publics morale. He extracted the fuse, rendering the bomb inoperative, for which action Reynolds is awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal which is later exchanged for the George Cross.

Sadly, there seem to be no surviving photographs of Lt Reynolds or his exploits. This one taken in Norwich later in the war will have to suffice (above).

What does survive is this curious photograph, showing the inhabitants of Hagen with the part of a crashed Hampden aircraft, most probably from No. 144 Sqn, one of two shot down by flak on their way to raid Merseburg on the night of 16/17 August. That it is so carefully staged and then distributed illustrates a great deal more than can be seen in the frame. This is part of a propaganda war that, in early December, is going to culminate in the bombing of London and the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

This Saturday, in the shooting war department, is going to be relatively quiet. The war in the air does not really happen. One RAF Blenheim fighter is lost on a night landing accident. The Germans lose a Ju 88, also in an accident, while an Arado 196 is shot down by a British merchantman.

The relative lull gives Information Minister Duff Cooper his intro.  Completely invigorated by the upsurge in fighting, he is is an upbeat mood as he addresses the nation after the BBC nine o'clock news.

"This was to have been the week of the German victory," he crows. "It has been the week of British victory instead". He also challenges Hitler to keep his promise on the invasion.  He would be "most disappointed" if he failed to show up. "We should not have liked him to before we were ready to receive him," Duff says, "but we are quite ready to receive him now and we really shall be very disappointed if he does not turn up".

And he also is building on the Battle of Britain legend. "There is no terror in Great Britain today," he says. "Rather there is a longing that they (Luftwaffe bombers) shall come again in greater numbers in order that we may continue to take the fearful toll of them that we have already taken. If these air raids increasing in frequency and numbers are the prelude to invasion, then we can only say that the prelude has been a melancholy failure.

Cooper goes on to say: "The day may come - and it may not be too far distant - when we as spectators shall again applaud the victory march through our streets of those who saved the world. The British people will have cheers for all as they march by - soldiers, sailors and civilians. But it may be that, when the survivors of the Royal Air Force come along, the cheers will be choked in the throats of the most enthusiastic; and remembering those who have not survived, and all we owe them, we shall fall in thankfulness upon our knees.

On the other side of the Channel, General Halder was still in northern France, and had now been joined by Army chief von Brauchitsch for a staff conference. He then watched the first demonstration of beach assault craft, with a landing at Le Touquet carried out at regimental
strength. Halder thought it went well, even though barge unloading had been "painfully slow", the beaches had been too soft, the barges had grounded too far out and there had been problems with the ramps.

Hitler, though, was focusing on another aspect of the war. He pronounced a total blockade of the British Isles. "Today the fortress besieged is no longer Germany, but the British Isles", he declared. "The failed British hunger blockade against German women and children is now opposed by Germany’s total blockade of the British Isles which is herewith announced". This, Hitler added, represented "a further decisive step towards ending the war and eliminating the British rulers responsible for it". In the waters off England, the war at sea had "now begun in full violence".

On this day, though, there was also the end of a drama which had started only the previous day, marking the first use of a Dornier 24 by the German Seenotstaffeln. Up to the invasion of Holland, the main German-designed seaplane (more accurately, a floatplane) used for air-sea rescue had been the He 59, of limited capacity and already obsolete. The invasion of Holland, however, brought within the German sphere the Dutch Aviolanda seaplane manufacturing yard which was then building the new Dornier under license for the Dutch air force in the East Indies.

This was to the good fortune of the Seenotdienst which requisitioned the production, taking delivery of the first complete machine on 19 July and the second on 2 August, an aircraft with "exceptionally good" sea keeping qualities, so much so that, with new engines, it was still in commercial use sixty years later.

This drama had started on the evening of the 16th when two He 59 floatplanes had been despatched to rescue an He 111 which had ditched in the North Sea, a mission somewhat complicated by the fact that the downed aircraft had landed in a minefield.

Shortly before nightfall, a dinghy with four survivors had been found. One of the He 59s landed in a roughening sea, to pick them up, the sea state at the limit that the aircraft could take. The companion aircraft flew on to another rescue but, as the landed He 59 manoeuvred to get the dinghy between the floats to pick up the He 111 crew, an RAF Blenheim approached.

Despite the Heinkel being painted white with red crosses, and actually carrying out a rescue, the Blenheim opened fire, mortally wounding the commander and radio operator and hitting the fuel tanks. On a second attack, one of the floats was hit and the He 59 began to go under. The only undamaged life raft was now needed for the He 111 crew, leaving the two He 59 survivors to cling to the upturned second float of their aircraft, the only part not completely submerged.

At first daylight, four He 59s are despatched to mount a search, plus a brand new Do 24. By now the weather is deteriorating and in a Force 6 sea the Do 24 crew spots the He 59 wreck, with two men clinging to it. Shortly afterwards, the He 111 survivors are spotted, still in the minefield.

Sea conditions are way beyond the capabilities of a He 59, so the Do-24 is set down, the impact of landing so violent all three engines break loose. Water is swamping the craft, the hull is punctured and taking on water, and fuel is leaking from the wings. Despite that, the aircraft remains afloat.

A fast rescue boat is summoned. It arrives two hours later, but cannot intervene as the Do 24 has now drifted into the minefield. However, the He 111 crew are able to clamber aboard the Dornier. After contact is made with the rescue boat, it still takes three hours for the He 59 wreck to drift clear of the minefield. Within ten minutes of the two crew being rescued, the Heinkel sinks.

The Dornier is taken under tow but sinks before getting back to base. Nevertheless, the crew and the rescued survivors are landed without further incident.

Not dissimilar tales a gallantry are to be told of British crews, not least the exploits of Flt Lt Tom Fletcher in his Walrus amphibian. But that is not yet – RAF pilots are not going to see dedicated rescue amphibians for at least a year.  The contrast highlights this strange lacuna in British planning.

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