23 August, 2010

Day 45 - Battle of Britain

The Daily Express picks up the small piece of history of the previous day, with the first significant bombardment of Dover by German guns based in Cap Gris Nez. There have been a few ranging shots, but this was a serious bombardment. Interestingly, a passing convoy is fired on, with 104 shells counted, and not one hits.

This lack of accuracy becomes routine. Over time, many ships steam through bursts from exploding shells, unscathed except for fittings and crockery broken and holes punched in their sides by splinters. It is not until 1944 that the skipper of the Betswood, one of the most frequent users of the Straits, saw a hit on a ship in a convoy.

The heavy shell pitched straight onto number three hatch, and the collier vanished. There was a huge cloud of what looked like black smoke hanging low over the sea, and a patch of furiously disturbed water below. The black smoke was not smoke at all - it was coal dust, blown hundreds of feet up from the explosion of the 15-inch shell in the hold. Of the collier there was no sign. She had gone completely and instantaneously, with all her crew.

Back in 1940, as the guns fire, RAF bombers "roar into action". Watched by a Daily Express reporter, he reports "great red glows in the sky then, low down on the water line, fires that lit the French coastline". Watching every flash over there, he writes, and cheering every explosion now, "we decided the RAF boys were having a successful trip".

Unconscious of the irony of his own statement, he then reports: "After half-an-hour the guns roared into life again. Five shells came over in half as many minutes." Then, goes the narrative, more RAF. bombers rose over the coast. Our second attack was fiercer. Searchlights groped through the sky for them The flashes of the anti-aircraft guns were more insistent. But vivid flames flashed over Calais showing that the RAF were hitting home.

In fact, no gun is ever damaged by an air raid. The Germans are expert at concealment (example above), and in the course of time embed their fixed artillery in huge bunkers, rendering them almost bomb proof.  It is not until late August 1944 that the guns are silenced, after their capture by Canadian troops

Both sides, therefore, are over-estimating the capabilities of their weapons. The bombing is singularly ineffective while the guns, which are slated to have a powerful influence on Royal Navy warships which might interfere with German landings, prove virtually useless as anti-shipping weapons.

A far greater cause of alarm in official circles is an attack on Convoy OA 203 in the Moray Firth, when the streamers Llanishen (5,035 grt) and the Makalla (6,680 grt - pictured) are sunk by Luftwaffe He 115s based in Stavanger, Norway. Unlike previous attacks, they drop torpedoes, sinking two fairly substantial ships. When the New Zealand-owned RMS Remuera at 11445grt, is also torpedoed by aircraft off Kinnaird Head, 12 miles North of Peterhead, three days later, the worst fears are realised. The Germans have acquired a reliable air-launched torpedo.

Such is the sensitivity of this development that no details are released. Not even the War Cabinet is told. The public is kept entertained with the "bread and circuses" of the Dover shelling and threats of an imminent invasion. Yet, as to that invasion, in late May, a committee had been set up to assess invasion risk, appropriately named the Invasion Warning Sub-Committee. Meeting daily to review the current intelligence, so far it is unconvinced that invasion is imminent. It reports: "No serious threat of invasion yet exists from the Netherlands, French or south-west Norwegian ports. This is evidenced by the lack of shipping concentrations on these coasts".

It is assisted in its estimations by MTBs carried out patrols off the Dutch Coast on nights of the 25, 26 and 27 August, each time without making contact with enemy forces.

Nevertheless, the air war continues. Explosive and incendiary bombs, it is claimed, are dropped for the first time in the London area. There is some confusion about this, as claims are also made for the previous day.

Furthermore, there is some argument about whether the area bombed was technically in London as it falls outside the capital's administrative area.

The fact of a raid, however, was reported in the late city edition of the New York Times and the newspaper is unequivocal about the bombs falling in a residential area. This is said to be the first time bombs have fallen within the London area, dropped by a German raider "flying at great height"

During the raid, which seems to have lasted 45 minutes - from the warning siren to the "all clear" - and been over by 04:00hrs, a direct hit is scored on a "movie house". An adjoining hall is demolished and a public house and several dwellings are damaged.

Confusingly, the Associated Press reports that most of the bombs fall in the "western suburbs", although the "movie house" and timing pinpoint the location. It is the Alcazar cinema (pictured below) in lower Edmonton, very much North London but then part of the Middlesex county area.

After the raid, the cinema - which was built in 1913 - has to be demolished. Londoners, we are told, did not classify the raid as the "real thing". It is regarded as a "hit and run" raid.

The Luftwaffe also mount a number of small-scale raids elsewhere. Single aircraft are sometimes deployed. This has the effect of keeping the RAF unsettled, forcing Fighter Command to fly 482 sorties for very little reward. Five Germans are claimed for no loss. However, one Hurricane is written off in a night raid on Croydon. Two others are slightly damaged. The pilots are unhurt.

After nightfall, twenty-two inland raids are counted, mainly directed at South Wales, Bristol, Birmingham and the North. In Bridlington, a café is hit trapping the people inside.

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