Thursday 22 July 2010

The worst attack was the last

So said Winston Churchill of the Luftwaffe's raid on London on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. Of course, this was not the last raid on London but it did prove to be the final raid of the 'First Blitz' as Hitler was turning his attention towards the east, towards his attack on the Soviet Union and he would need all of his resources for that ultimately self-destructive campaign.

The Luftwaffe never completely left London alone either, for although there was a welcome respite from the mass raids, there was always the threat of the 'lone raider' sent over to keep people's heads down and to test the air defences. The massed raids didn't start again until early 1944 and then were nowhere near the intensity of the great raids of 1940 and 1941, so much so that Londoners soon nicknamed these raids the 'Little Blitz' or 'Baby Blitz' hardened as they were by that time to air attack and all that came with it.

However, to return to May 10th/11th, this was the heaviest raid on London both in terms of the amount of bombs dropped and the intensity of the attack. The sirens sounded the alert at 11 p.m. and the final bomb was logged as falling at 5.37 a.m. and in that period of about 6 1/2 hours, something in the region of 700 tons of high explosive bombs and parachute mines plus 86 tons of incendiaries were dropped on London.

By the time the 'All Clear' sounded 1,436 Londoners were dead and 1,800 were seriously injured; nearly 2,200 fires were started, some 5,500 homes were destroyed with a similar number damaged beyond immediate repair and 12,000 people had been rendered homeless. From the attackers, 14 aircraft were shot down, a seemingly modest figure given the number of bombers involved but a foretaste of things to come for the Germans when they tangled with the always improving British defences on future raids.

However, mere statistics cannot convey the sheer terror and destruction this raid brought to London, neither can the words of a writer nearly 70 years down the line but perhaps the words of someone who was there at the time can; Reg Matthews was a General Post Office telecoms engineer who was there at the time and had been through all of the big raids - "There never was a raid like it. Another one like that and they'd have had us on our backs."

These words were echoed by countless Londoners who had been through what they hoped had been the worst of it - 'Black Saturday' September 7th 1940, December 29th 1940 when the City of London had burned and the two big raids in the Spring of 1941 to mark Hitler's birthday - 16th/17th and 19th/20th April. All of these raids had been bad enough and almost every other night there had been other attacks - 57 consecutive nights from 'Black Saturday' and precious few nights off subsequently.

Apart from the civilian deaths, many famous old buildings that had hitherto survived the Blitz were destroyed that night - The Queen's Hall in Langham Place famous for being the venue of the first Promenade Concerts in 1895 was lost forever. Cannon Street Station lost it's ornately glazed roof and station hotel. The House of Commons Chamber was burned and destroyed (today's version is a careful reconstruction) and Westminster Abbey badly damaged. The Royal College of Surgeons building in Lincolns Inn was hit and presented the rescuers with the strange task of rescuing parts of bodies preserved in alcohol. For every famous building hit, there were many other less well known but no less important buildings destroyed - the homes of scores of Londoners, resulting in the homeless figures mentioned previously. Another well known building to be bombed that night was St Clement Danes Church, one of Wren's masterpieces which was burned to a shell, although later restored as the Central Church of the RAF.

Today, outside St Clement Danes alongside the statue of Air Chief Marshal Dowding, Head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, stands another likeness. This is of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who in May 1941 was soon to become head of Bomber Command and charged with taking the war to the Germans. On the night of 29th December 1940, the night of the 'Second Great Fire of London,' Harris had stood on the roof of the Air Ministry with the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal and had said quietly to him "They are sowing the wind, now they shall reap the whirlwind." This was the only occasion, Harris wrote afterwards, that he felt vengeful but whether it was the only time or not, Harris was true to his word. When he took over at Bomber Command in February 1942, he was soon to build a force capable of making the events of May 10th/11th look minor in comparison to the whirlwind unleashed on Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and so many other German cities.

Published Sources:

The City That Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, Collins 1959
Westminster in War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1957
Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
Bomber Harris, His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003

Thursday 8 July 2010

Enemy Aliens, Internees and the Arandora Star

One aspect of the Home Front of the Second World War that today is often forgotten is the internment of all so called 'Enemy Aliens' at the commencement of the War. At the outbreak of war, there were in the region of 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain, who it was feared could be potential spies or be willing to assist our enemies in the event of an invasion.

Therefore, all Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were interviewed by special tribunals and afterwards placed into three categories - Category 'A' high security risks, numbering about 600 who were immediately interned. Category 'B' numbering about 6,500 were 'Doubtful Cases' who were supervised and subjected to restrictions. Category 'C' numbered about 64,000 who were deemed to be no security risk and of whom about 55,000 were Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression who had escaped from Europe.
The situation was further compounded in the Spring of 1940 with the combination of Italy's entry into the war and the failure of the Allied campaign in Norway, which led to agitation amongst certain elements of the press for more alien internment. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that all of the 19,000 Italians in this country be interned even though many of these people had lived in this country for ages. Many of the additional Germans and Austrians rounded up were the very same Jewish refugees who had months earlier been deemed to have been no threat. Many of these internees were held on the Isle of Man as they had been during the Great War and in one camp on the island, over 80 per cent of those held were Jewish refugees. An outcry in Parliament led to the first releases of internees in August 1940 and by the summer of 1941, only 5,000 of those deemed genuine security risks were left in internment camps.

Apart from those detained in this country and the Isle of Man, over 7,000 internees were deported. Some of these were sent to Australia, where those sent on the s.s. Dunera suffered from appalling conditions and also the humiliation of having their personal possessions either stolen or thrown overboard by the British military guards. The vast majority of those deported were sent to Canada and it was on board one of the vessels destined for that country, the s.s. Arandora Star that tragedy struck.

The Arandora Star was a passenger ship owned by the Blue Star Line which had been built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead in 1927. Before the war, she had operated mainly in the luxury cruise market to such destinations as South America, Norway, Florida and the West Indies.
Requisitioned as a troopship on the outbreak of War, she had sailed from Liverpool on 1st July 1940 carrying a total of 1,673 people of whom 1,299 were male German and Italian Prisoners of War and internees broken down as follows - 174 Officers and crew of the Arandora Star, 200 British Military Guards, 565 Germans, of whom 86 were military POWs of 'bad character' and 734 Italian civilian internees. The vessel was not marked with a Red Cross, nor had the Admiralty requested 'free passage' for her and to compound the error, she was sailing without an escort.

At 06.15 on the 2nd July, barely one day out of Liverpool, she was torpedoed by the German U Boat U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien, one of the 'Ace' U Boat commanders. Prien supposedly mistook the vessel for an Armed Merchant Cruiser but in all probability thought that he was sinking a loaded troopship, which he was, but not loaded with the cargo he had thought. The Arandora Star sank after less than an hour but in that time, did manage to transmit a distress signal, which guided a Sunderland flying boat to the scene, which in turn guided HMCS St Laurent, a Canadian destroyer which had been escorting the battleship HMS Nelson, to the scene of the sinking.

The St Laurent reached the site of the sinking in the early afternoon and found that the doomed vessel had managed to launch 10 lifeboats and scores of rafts. There were also many survivors in the water, clinging to pieces of wreckage, many of whom were coated in oil and unable to help themselves. In a remarkable rescue, the St Laurent managed to pick up all of the survivors in the boats and rafts, together with all those that could be found in the sea. The numbers saved included 322 Germans, 243 Italians, 163 Military Guards and 119 of the Officers and Crew of the Arandora Star. This left a total of 826 who perished, including the vessel's master, Captain Edgar Moulton and over 470 of the Italians, who bore the brunt of the casualties

Memorial to Captain Edgar Moulton at his home village of Broadhembury, Devon (author's photo)

Once the survivors were picked up, many tales of heroism emerged - Captain Edgar Moulton was posthumously awarded Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea and a German Merchant Navy prisoner, Captain Otto Burfiend was posthumously cited for his heroism in the rescue attempt for staying aboard the sinking ship supervising the evacuation. Commander Harry De Wolf of HMCS St Laurent received a Mention in Dispatches for his supervision of the rescue operation.

When U-47 returned home to Wilhelmshaven, Prien discovered the truth about what he had unwittingly done. Needless to say, the fact the he had been responsible for the death of 713 Germans and their Italian allies on the Arandora Star was kept from the Axis public. Prien himself was lost along with U-47 and the rest of his crew on March 7th 1941, depth charged by HMS Wolverine in the North Atlantic.

The memorial pictured is located at St Peter's Italian Church in Clerkenwell Road, London.

Published Sources:

Engage the Enemy More Closely, Correlli Barnett - Hodder & Stoughton 1991
Hitler's U-Boat War; The Hunters 1939-42, Clay Blair - Weidenfield & Nicholson 1996
The Battle of The Atlantic, John Costello & Terry Hughes - Collins 1977