Saturday 28 April 2012

A War of Words

Winston Churchill
"War is Hell" said General William Sherman in a speech to the Michigan Military Academy in 1879. Although he was speaking of an earlier generation of conflict, Sherman's words have been repeated regularly over the years and still hold true to this day. The Second World War brought this hell to the civilian populations of the combatant countries like no war had done before, as well as to the traditionally long-suffering fighting men at the front line.

However, apart from the bloodshed and horrors that inevitably come with warfare, the Second World War brought with it many memorable words, both spoken and written, that have gone down in history. Some of these words formed parts of rousing oratory, designed to inspire, to motivate and to celebrate great feats of arms, or to express the feelings of a nation in time of grave crisis. Great Britain was blessed with having a leader of the calibre of Winston Churchill, who was not only a great and inspirational wartime Prime Minister but was also a great orator. He made many great speeches and has been quoted many times but one particular speech, made on June 18th 1940, immediately after the fall of France, when the British Army had barely escaped from that country lacking nearly all of it's heavy armament and equipment, and when this country was facing possible invasion and oblivion in the face of Nazi tyranny, is arguably the greatest of them all and I make no apology for repeating part of it again below:
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
This was a masterful speech, designed to inspire, to reassure and to express defiance in the face of Hitler and his cronies. Apart from the speech quoted above, Churchill's words covered just about every aspect of the six years of the Second World War and have been amply recorded elsewhere. Churchill's deputy in the coaltion government was the Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, who in peacetime had described Churchill thus:
Fifty percent genius, fifty percent bloody fool.
Richard Dimbleby (Getty)
 Moving away from politicians, this conflict was the first to be recorded in the mass media of the radio and cinema newsreel and thus, many reporters became household names, such as the BBC's Richard Dimbleby (right) and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, both of whom regularly put their lives on the line to bring the story of the day home to the listeners. One such report came from Richard Dimbleby, who had travelled aboard a Lancaster bomber of 106 Squadron under the command of a certain Wing Commander Guy Gibson (of later Dambusters fame) on a raid to Berlin on the night of 16th/17th January 1943. His report was broadcast on the BBC a few days after his safe return and is a fascinating record of what was a nightly job for the men of RAF Bomber Command:
It was quite a long raid as the Wing Commander who took me stayed over Berlin for half an hour. The flak was hot but it has been hotter. For me it was a pretty hair-raising experience and I was glad when it was all over though I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But we must all remember that these men do it as a regular routine job.
One can only imagine the mental and physical turmoil that Dimbleby was going through when penning his report but he went on to describe the actual bombing run:
At last our bomb-aimer sighted his objective below and for one unpleasant minute we flew steady and straight. Then he pressed the button and the biggest bomb of the evening, our three and a half tonner, fell away and down. I didn't see it burst but I know what a giant bomb does and I couldn't help wondering whether such a man as Hitler, Goering or Himmler or Goebbels might be cowering in a shelter. It was engrossing to realise that the Nazi leaders and their ministries were only a few thousand feet from us and that this shimmering mass of flares and bombs and gun flashes was their stronghold.
 Dimbleby closed his report with the following tribute to the boys of Bomber Command:
Perhaps I am shooting a line for them but I think that somebody ought to. They and their magnificent Lancasters and all the others like them are taking the war right into Germany. They have been attacking, giving their lives in attack since the first day of the war. "Per Ardua ad Astra" is the RAF motto and perhaps I can translate it as "Through hardship to the stars". I understand the hardship now. And I'm proud to have seen the stars with them.
It should be noted that Richard Dimbleby flew and reported on twenty bombing raids, a remarkable feat for a civilian, considering that a full 'Tour' for Bomber Command consisted of thirty such missions. Not all reporters survived; on the night of 2nd/3rd November 1943, JMB Grieg of the Daily Mail and Norman Stockton of the Sydney Sun were both killed when the separate aircraft of 460 Squadron in which they were flying were shot down over Berlin. On the same night, two American correspondents were also flying. Lowell Bennett was also shot down but survived to become a prisoner of war and the only one of the four reporters to survive and return was arguably the greatest of them all - Edward R Murrow.

Edward R Murrow
Murrow had already become a legendary figure for his reports during the London Blitz. His radio pieces, describing life in London under fire had brought the plight of the British people into the living rooms of the American public and evoked much sympathy when that country was still neutral. Now the United States was a combatant country, Murrow was where he had always been - in the front line bringing the stories of the war home to the public. His reports from the London Blitz have been covered previously in this series so instead read part of his report from the liberated concentration camp at Buchenwald in 1945:
Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard, had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio, for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last.
There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me; and they were in rags and the remnants of uniform. Death had already marked many of them but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over that mass of men to the green fields beyond where well-fed Germans were ploughing.
Harrowing enough stuff, but worse was to follow, for Murrow was then shown the children:
....hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. D-6030 it was. The others showed me their numbers; they will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said "The children, enemies of the state." I could see their ribs through their thin shirts. The children clung to my hands and stared.
Murrow's broadcast described in as graphic detail as he dared, exactly what he had seen and heard that day. Murrow was a hardened reporter but also a deeply humane person and walking around the camp with fellow correspondent Charles Collingwood, he was simply overwhelmed by what he saw and was deeply traumatised by the experience. Murrow's eloquent report closed thus:
I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only a part of it. For most, I have no words. If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least sorry.
Sometimes a journalist could gain a 'scoop' by simply being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on one's point of view. Such an fate befell Cecil Brown, the CBS correspondent in Singapore, who accepted an invitation to go to sea aboard HMS Repulse, which along with HMS Prince of Wales was expected to repell an expected Japanese invasion of that colony.  Before the British ships could find the Japanese, they were discovered by Japanese aircraft, which promptly sank both vessels, thus demonstrating once and for all, the superiority of aircraft over the battleship. Nearly seven hundred British seaman were killed but Brown was rescued and back in Singapore, was able to file the story of a lifetime back to CBS. Brown's later reports were extremely critical of the attitude of the British colonial types in Singapore and as a result, he was expelled from the colony, which probably saved him from Japanese captivity when they invaded the Malayan peninsular in early 1942.

Whilst it was the serious broadcasts and speeches which rightly made their mark on the Second World War, even the darkest of times can produce humour. Some of the funnier moments of the war were recorded in the signals sent between HM Ships at sea, sometimes during moments which would later go down in history. For example, after the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941, the following signals were exchanged:
From Captain of Destroyer Flotilla to C in C Mediterranean:
Reply from C in C Mediterranean:
The C in C Mediterranean was Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who was well known for his somewhat lavatorial sense of humour.

Perhaps we should close with the person with whom we started but this time with an example of Churchillian humour. When leaving a somewhat stormy meeting with General de Gaulle, Churchill turned to Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff and said:
How can one do business with a man who looks like a pregnant llama surprised in the act of taking a bath?
We shall just have to use our imaginations!

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press 2007
The Berlin Raids - Martin Middlebrook, Viking 1988
Make a Signal - Jack Broome, Putnam 1955
World War II on the Air - Mark Bernstein & Alex Lubertozzi, Sourcebooks 2005

Friday 6 April 2012

The Wednesday and The Saturday: Birthday Presents from Hell

The week following Easter 1941 saw London enjoying a short lull in the Blitz. The raids had died down from the intensity of nightly raids and though there had been raids throughout the early months of 1941, there had not been a serious raid on London since the 19th March. Londoners were not to know it but Hitler's thoughts were beginning to turn towards the invasion of the Soviet Union, for which task he would need to divert a considerable amount of his Luftwaffe resources from the Blitz on British towns and cities.

However, all this was in the future and before the worst was over London was to suffer three more heavy raids, culminating in the heaviest of them all on the night of 10th/11th May 1941, which we have examined previously in this blog.

In this short article, we shall examine what proved to be the penultimate two raids of the First Blitz, on the nights of 16th/17th April and 19th/20th April. These raids were so heavy that they became known in Londoners' folklore as 'The Wednesday' and 'The Saturday' respectively. Both of these raids were laid on as a strange sort of present to commemorate Hitler's birthday on 20th April, although 'The Wednesday' was also a revenge raid for damage caused to the Berlin State Opera House on the 9th April, in one of the RAF's early raids on the German capital. Indeed, a forewarning of the raid that would go down in history as 'The Wednesday' was given by William Joyce, aka 'Lord Haw Haw' in one of his 'Germany Calling' broadcasts from Hamburg, when he announced "There's going to be a bombing" although naturally, he did not give away the actual date of the planned raid.

These raids were savage in their intensity and affected parts of London that had hitherto only received light attention from the Luftwaffe, as well as re-visiting other areas that had already seen plenty of damage inflicted. So it was that as well as the East End and southeastern suburbs of London, areas such as Chelsea, the West End and St Marylebone were heavily hit in these two raids and though there is insufficient space in a blog of this nature to visit every target, we can at least examine some of the more notorious incidents across London on these two nights.

One famous London landmark destroyed on 'The Wednesday' was Chelsea Old Church, the home of Sir Thomas More's private chapel. Apart from the near total loss of a fine historic building, today happily restored, this tragic incident also saw the loss of five Fire Watchers, including the Canadian AFS volunteer, Yvonne Green, whose story has been told in a previous post in this series. Elsewhere in Chelsea, the famous Royal Hospital, home of the Chelsea Pensioners was also severely damaged on 'The Wednesday' when the Infirmary was destroyed by a Parachute Mine. These deadly blast weapons, converted from naval mines were used in large numbers during these later raids of the Blitz and it was one of these which cost the lives of fifteen in pensioners and Royal Hospital staff in this one incident. One of those killed was 101 year old Henry Augustus Rattray, a veteran of the Zulu Wars who had served with the 24th Regiment of Foot. The building itself had been designed by Sir John Soane and built in 1809 and had the damage been incurred today, then probably this fine historic building would have been restored. As it was, damaged buildings in wartime London, now matter how historic were invariably pulled down as unsafe. The site was cleared and is now the location of the excellent National Army Museum; a new infirmary was finally opened on a new site within the Hospital grounds in 2008.

Moving away from Chelsea, we move to the West End, which like Chelsea had suffered relatively little until now. The City of Westminster, then as now encompassed the bustling West End as well as the seat of government and it was in the former part of the borough that we examine our next incident, which resulted in the death of one of Britain's singing stars of the day. Al Bowlly was a major star of stage and screen, whose popularity had transcended national barriers which had made him popular on both sides of the Atlantic, which was quite an unusual achievement for a British star in those days. On 'The Wednesday', Bowlly had played a concert in High Wycombe and had been given the opportunity of staying overnight in the Buckinghamshire town but had eschewed this offer in order to catch the last train home to Marylebone in order to sleep at his own apartment in Duke Street, just off Jermyn Street. It was to prove a fatal decision as in the early hours of the morning another deadly Parachute Mine exploded outside. When rescuers found his body, it was unmarked and in a final touch of irony, it was discovered that he had died from a severe blow to the head, caused by the heavy bedroom door being blown off it's hinges and striking him a fatal blow.

We move now to 'The Saturday', the second of the raids to commemorate The Fuhrer's birthday and travel across London to the historic Borough of Greenwich, already heavily hit during the earlier raids of the Blitz. As now, this borough was the home of such historic buildings as the Royal Naval College, The Queen's House and National Maritime Museum, in 1941 it was also the home to a considerable amount of industry and another of these historic buildings was located in what was then a somewhat run down part of the town centre. The parish church of St Alfege has been located on the current site since the year 1012, where it reputedly marked the site of the martyrdom of Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered at that location by Danish Vikings on the 19th April 1012. The second church, dating from 1290 was the location of the future King Henry VIII's baptism in 1491. The present church, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, dates from 1718 and is the site of the tombs of amongst others, Thomas Tallis and General James Wolfe, victor of the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and whose statue looks down over Greenwich from the heights of Greenwich Park.

In a strange quirk of history, the interior of this fine church was to be largely destroyed on the 929th anniversary of Alfege's murder when incendiary bombs lodged in the roof timbers and brought the whole structure blazing into the main body of the building where it burned out of control. The aftermath can be seen in the photograph at the head of this page. Fortunately, the sturdy stone structure survived and the church was rebuilt after the war and rededicated in 1953. Today, the church stands proudly over the busy, rejuvenated town centre and is well worth a visit.

Following these two heavy raids, London again enjoyed a short lull before what was to prove the last and largest raid was unleashed on the night of 10th/11th May 1941.

Published Sources:

A Wander through Wartime London - Clive Harris & Neil Bright, Pen & Sword 2010
London at War 1939-1945 - Philip Ziegler, Pimlico 2002
Westminster in War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1947