Friday 9 September 2011

Two Way Traffic

Although Saturday September 7th 1940 marked the beginning of the Night Blitz on London and was the start of 57 consecutive nights when the capital received the attention of the Luftwaffe, this first raid actually began at about 4.30 on this sunny late summer afternoon and marked the first and last time that the German air force attempted a large scale mass attack on London in daylight. Although they did attempt daylight raids subsequently, notably on September 15th, the losses they suffered at the hands of RAF Fighter Command were too heavy and the strategy soon settled down to one of night bombing. At night, although the British radar still picked up the approaching raiders, the RAF at this stage of the war, lacked an effective night fighter and it was not until the entry into service of the Bristol Beaufighter in early 1941, coupled with Airborne Intercept radar sets that the Luftwaffe began to find the night skies over the British Isles seriously contested for the first time.

What is perhaps less widely known, is that the start of the heavy raids on London was brought about by a series of navigational errors, subsequent escalations and 'tit for tat' retaliatory raids. This escalation began on the night of August 24th 1940 when part of a force of 170 German bombers tasked with bombing the Thameshaven oil refineries in the Thames Estuary and also the town of Rochester in Kent, became disoriented and thinking that they were jettisoning their bomb load over open countryside in Hertfordshire, actually dropped their deadly cargo over the London Wall area of the City of London as well as Islington, Finsbury, Millwall, Stepney, East Ham, Leyton and Bethnal Green, in a grim foretaste of much worse to come.

As a result of this raid, the following night saw a curious two way traffic develop over the North Sea, for while the Luftwaffe reverted to attacking their then normal targets of RAF airfields, Channel convoys and sporadic attacks on towns along the south coast, some 81 Hampden and Wellington bombers of RAF Bomber Command were heading in the opposite direction, for Churchill had ordered a raid against Berlin in retaliation for the previous night's attack on London. Although this and a subsequent larger raid on September 23rd were ineffectual in terms of actual damage done, they were to have far reaching effects on future German strategy. Ironically, the switching of the Luftwaffe's attacks from the RAF's airfields to London and other major British cities, took the pressure off Fighter Command and allowed them to concentrate on attacking the intruders in daylight without having to continually worry about attacks on their own airfields, thus ensuring continued British air superiority and the ultimate defeat of the Luftwaffe.

The RAF's raids on Berlin caused outrage amongst the German leadership. After all, Hermann Goering had boasted that no enemy aircraft would ever fly over Reich Territory; Hitler flew into a rage and insisted that in retaliation for the bombing of Berlin (which itself was a reprisal raid), then London would be erased from the map.

This threat, like so many of Hitler's others, soon proved to be empty. Although the damage to British cities was grievous and the casualties heavy, the British people were not easily cowed. Also, unlike previous targets of the Luftwaffe such as Warsaw and Rotterdam, the defending air force had not been destroyed on the ground; the RAF was tenacious, well led, well organised and manned by men of the highest calibre. They also had the edge with technology, both in terms of radar and it's utilisation and also with the fighting hardware. Although the Spitfire was closely matched to the German Bf109, the British defenders had the great advantage of fighting over home territory; if a British pilot was shot down and survived, he was landing in a friendly area. If a German pilot was shot down over Britain, whatever his fate, he would take no further part in the war - it was to put it brutally, a case of death or captivity.

This was a lesson that the RAF was to learn later in 1941 and 1942, when they went on the offensive. The tactic was known as 'leaning towards the enemy' but Fighter Command was to lose many of the 'aces' of the Battle of Britain, such as Douglas Bader and Bob Stanford-Tuck, who were shot down over enemy occupied France whilst taking part in 'Rhubarbs' as these massive fighter sweeps were known. These men and many others were to spend the rest of the war in captivity and it was only the superior numbers of the British and the newly arrived Americans, together with the continual dilution of the Luftwaffe's resources in the Russian campaign that ensured that the Allies would continue to enjoy air superiority and eventual air supremacy by the time of the invasion of Europe in June of 1944.

By this time, RAF Bomber Command had grown in strength hugely from the early raids of August and September 1940. Berlin, far from being the distant object of raids by medium bombers such as the Wellington, Hampden and Whitley, had become 'The Big City' attracting the nightly attention of the RAF's Lancasters and Halifaxes and although it was a battle of attrition, it was a battle that the Germans could never win. One by one, every major city in Germany was reduced systematically to ruins. As well as Berlin, cities such as Cologne, Essen, Hannover, Kassel and worst of all, Hamburg and Dresden 'reaped the whirlwind' sewn by the Luftwaffe in the early days of the war.

The tentative two way traffic across the North Sea had by the spring of 1944, become for the Germans a very monotonous one way affair and it was only the coming of peace in May 1945 that saw the ruined cities of Europe gain much needed respite and eventual rebuilding both of ruined buildings and lives.

As a footnote to this article, many of the ruined cities in West Germany as the free half of this divided country had become post war, were rebuilt far more quickly and thoroughly than London and many other British cities. Perhaps this was one advantage of starting with a blank canvas; for the destruction had been more total in Germany than almost anywhere else. Bomb sites could still be found in London well into the 1970s and generally speaking it seemed to take London a long time to recover completly from the scars of wartime. Conversely, a visit to Communist East Berlin in the mid 1980s by this writer, discovered a drab city with many still wrecked buildings extant and with vast areas of central Berlin still laid waste. The fall of East Germany in 1990 presented this now re-unified city as a property developer's paradise and the centre of Berlin is unrecognisable from those dark days of communist control.

All this is incidental and we would do well to remember the reasons behind the bomb sites. Never forget, never again.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys, Patrick Bishop - Harper Press 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45, Richard Overy - Harper Collins 1997
The Narrow Margin, Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Arrow Books 1969

1 comment:

  1. wonderfully interesting
    will certainly look to co,me on one of your walks when next in london