15 October, 2010

Day 98 - Battle of Britain

By common accord, the night bombing had been the worst yet, provoking a classic "damage limitation" report from the Daily Express, which featured a banner headline claiming "Soon we may bomb Berlin by day, too".

The story is about the possible introduction of the American Boeing Flying Fortress into RAF service. It is interesting from several respects, not only for being a transparent attempt to divert attention from the intensification of the German bombing.

Firstly, in British hands, the aircraft are never to come to much - the few models sent to the UK ending up as Coastal Command patrol aircraft.

Secondly, the prophesy of day bombing of Berlin by the British is not to come true, and for the USAAF, it is always a perilous task, eventually requiring the development of long-range escort fighters to contain spiralling losses.  That this would be the case was evident daily in the skies over Britain but the US military, like those around the world, was not going to let a little thing like experience change their plans.

The diversion of the moment, however, is concealing the fact that London had had a truly dreadful night. A full moon has given Göring's bombers maximum opportunity to spread havoc and mayhem, which is precisely what they have done. Over nine hundred fires are caused this night, roads are blocked throughout the city, and the Underground rail network is severed in five places. A reservoir, three gasworks, two power stations and three docks are hit, causing extensive damage.

Then there is the human cost. Over four hundred people are killed and more than 800 are badly wounded. Some incidents particularly stand out. One such is the destruction of Morley College (pictured right), on the Westminster Bridge Road.

As an educational institute, it had been largely abandoned and is now being used as a rest centre for people who had been bombed our of their homes, pending relocation. Nearly 300 people are taking refuge when, at 19:40hrs, HE bombs fall on building, ripping it apart. Of the 195 people actually known to be in the building, 84 come out alive unhurt. Of the injured, 54 are sent to hospital and 57 people are killed, of whom ten died in hospital. More may have been buried under the debris, their bodies never accounted for or recovered.

This was certainly the case in an even worse incident at 20:05 - almost 24 hours to the minute after the Balham incident. Then, a bomb hit the public shelters in Kennington Park. According to witness accounts, only a 25kg bomb hit, but this was a trench shelter, shored with wood, roofed with corrugated iron and covered with earth. Fatally vulnerable to blast effect, the walls collapsed killing many of the people sheltering. There is no official casualty figure, but at least 104 are believed to have lost their lives. Only 48 bodies were recovered, the rest lying buried in the park. In November 1940, the damaged trench was filled in, but others in the complex continued in use.

The fatal inadequacies of the official shelter policy are now laid bare - or would be but for the intervention of the censor and the acquiescence of the newspapers. In three days, there have been three shelter incidents and a rest centre bombed - the high level of casualties all in some way the result of inadequate public policy, with nearly 500 unnecessary deaths arising. Hence, the people must not be told.

Instead, amid a level of almost unimaginable pain and suffering, the Prime Minister came to the House of Commons to answer questions ... on war aims. He was challenged by Samuel "Sydney" Silverman the Labour MP for Nelson and Colne, a prominent activist on Jewish causes, a pacifist who had spent time in jail in the First World War as a conscientious objector, and a reluctant supporter of the current war, in response to Hitler's anti-semitism.

"[I]n anticipation of the time when this country and its Allies are in a position to resume the military offensive," Silverman asked, would he state, "in general terms, our aims in this war, so that this country may take its rightful place as the leader of all those, wherever they may be found, who desire a new order in Europe, based not upon slavery to Germany but upon collective justice, prosperity, and security?"

Silverman, however, was given the opportunity of repeatedly questioning the Prime Minister, in a way not seen in contemporary Commons exchanges. He therefore asked Churchill whether a "continued negative attitude in this matter" fostered "the quite false impression that we are fighting this war merely to retain the status quo". This elicited what amounted to an affirmation that this was precisely the Prime Minister's intent, with his clearest statement yet on his position:
I do not think anyone has the opinion that we are fighting this war merely to maintain the status quo. We are, among other things, fighting it in order to survive, and when our capacity to do that is more generally recognised throughout the world, when the conviction that we have about it here becomes more general, then we shall be in a good position to take a further view of what we shall do with the victory when it is won.
What had originally brought up the matter had been an announcement by the Ministry of Information that they were running a series of meetings throughout the country on the very subject of war aims, reported in The Times and the News Chronicle and also the subject of a Mirror cartoon on 30 September, which had a Duff Cooper as a dove reading from "the Great Peace Manifesto" – with Hitler in the bushes attempting to shoot him with a revolver.

This had excited the interest of Sir Geoffrey Mander, a Liberal MP, wealthy industrialist, philanthropist and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Archibald Sinclair. He had thus initiated an adjournment debate on the matter. That is how it came to pass that, amid the wreckage of London, Duff Cooper was called to answer a debate which excited considerable interest from the Members.

But, if they came expecting a statement of aims, they were to be disappointed. There was no intention to make a statement on war aims, even if Cooper showed where his sympathies lay, telling the House, "I admit quite frankly the desirability of issuing a statement as soon as possible, but ... there should be no undue haste".

Having spoken at length of the "threat of tyranny" and of taking up arms to defend our liberty and the freedom of the world, he was then sharply corrected by Richard Stokes, the Labour MP for Ipswich, Military Cross winner in the First World War and soon to become an arch critic of the area bombing policy. Cooper, said Stokes, had enunciated what we were fighting against, but not what we were fighting for. "[It] is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one, and the sooner that [is] stated the better". That brought an impassioned response from Cooper:
We are fighting for our liberty. When we walk about the streets of London we see how buildings have been destroyed. Some of them may have been beautiful houses, and some may have been ugly houses. If we had been asked a year ago whether we wanted to destroy those houses in that way, we would have said, "No, let them stand and serve their purpose as long as possible." But now naturally it is our duty to take thought of how, when the time comes, we can build them up again, better and more useful than ever. Equally this world which is now being destroyed by this terrific war, a war which we never desired and which we were prepared to do almost everything to avoid, when this war shall have destroyed a great part of the modern world, it will be our duty then, as it must be our duty now, to think how we can rebuild a more and more beautiful fabric.
But the Prime Minister had spoken – it was to be the status quo. There was to be no vision of how we could rebuild "a more and more beautiful fabric".

Meanwhile, the dirty business of war continued. At noon on this day, six large enemy motor torpedo boats are sighted nine miles off Dover proceeding to westwards. They are engaged by shore batteries, but not hit. HMS Erebus is again in action, this time off Dunkirk.

After nightfall, she fires 50 rounds from her 15-inch guns, 45 of which are thought to have fallen on the port facilities. Spotting conditions are good and a flare-dropping aircraft draws the ground defence fire so that the spotting aircraft is undisturbed. Fires are observed on the quays. There is no enemy action against Erebus or its escorts.

Interestingly, with this success yet to come, Churchill has cause earlier in the day to rebuke his own Naval Staff.  Reading a prepared paper on the current situation, he finds it "pessimistic and nervous" and in many instances "overdrawn". Claims that the German battleships Bismark and Tirpitz must be added to the German strength, he dismisses as "not true".  The Bismark still has to be worked up and the Tirpitz is three months behind.

Churchill is thus able to bring his own knowledge and experience to bear to challenge his own military, which he threatens to do if the paper is presented to the War Cabinet.  In other areas of activity, his touch is less assured.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread