Friday 7 September 2012

The first day of The Blitz

The East End ablaze Sept 7th 1940 (National Archives)
Much has been written about Saturday, September 7th 1940, including more than one post on this blog but in these, we have tended to concentrate on individuals rather than the action as a whole. 

Over the years, some writers and historians have suggested that the Luftwaffe's change of tactics from attacking the RAF's airfields to bombing British cities saved the RAF's bacon and thus saved this country from defeat. The truth is somewhat different; the RAF was far from defeated at the time of Hitler's change of tactics, and whilst the respite from the bombing of Fighter Command's airfields was no doubt very welcome, there is no reason to suggest that the RAF could not have carried on for some time, if not indefinitely. Having said that, the change in the focus of the German attacks was very much to the advantage of the British; it did give the RAF the chance to operate without fear of being attacked on the ground. However, it is doubtful if the citizens of the East End of London would have appreciated the German change of tactics. 

The reason that the RAF were not in as much trouble as we have sometimes been led to believe stems from faulty tactics. Under Goering's leadership, if a particular target was attacked and seriously damaged on one day, it was a wasted effort to return the next day and compound the damage and potentially destroy it. Instead, a different set of targets was selected and attacked the following day; in other words, the Luftwaffe never pressed home their attacks on the RAF's airfields and other important targets such as the Chain Home Radar stations located along the South Coast. The only airfield put out of action for any length of time was RAF Manston, which was of questionable value in any case due to it's proximity to the French Coast and which was temporarily abandonded as much for tactical reasons as due to the inability of the ground crews to repair the damage. Likewise, the Chain Home Station at Ventnor was put off the air for seven days but was repaired before the enemy could press home further attacks on the other stations. Plenty of RAF stations were attacked and seriously damaged, notably Kenley, Biggin Hill, Middle Wallop and many others but were never put out of action for more than a few hours and once the craters were filled in, were back in action again.

So, to September 7th; to understand why London was attacked, we need to wind the clock back a few days to August 24th, the same day that RAF Manston was evacuated. The pattern of the day's raids was similar to what had passed previously, with many of the RAF's airfields being attacked as well as Manston. There was also a serious daylight raid on Portsmouth but it was during the night that the event occurred which was to have such a profound effect on the future course of the Battle of Britain. On this night, a small force of HE111s from KG1 had been seeking to attack the oil refineries at Thameshaven, located in the Thames Estuary. Given Hitler's strict orders that London was 'off limits', this was a very risky target indeed being, in 1940 terms at least, located within a stone's throw of the capital. Although the weather was fine, the bombers missed their target and instead of jettisoning their bombs over open countryside in Hertfordshire, as the crews thought, they instead fell upon the City of London, the first falling on Fore Street, near Moorgate shortly after midnight on the 25th. 

Churchill at once ordered reprisals on Berlin, even though Bomber Command was ill equipped at that time to reach this distant target. So it was that the following night, a force of some 81 Hampdens and Wellingtons attempted to attack Tempelhof Airfield and the Siemens Works close by. Berlin was covered in cloud and the bombers could not locate their targets. They dropped their bombs anyway, causing minimal damage and injuries. Six of the bombers failed to return but the following night Bomber Command went out again, raiding other German cities as well as Turin and Milan. On the night of 28th/29th August, Berlin was once again the target and this time they struck civilian targets around Gorlitzer Railway Station, killing eight people. Hitler was furious and ordered the immediate targetting of London by the Luftwaffe. On the 4th September, Hitler made his now famous "He's coming, he's coming" speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin, in which he pledged to wipe British cities from the map.

Douglas Bader on the wing of his Hurricane (RAF Museum)
Goering decided to personally command the attack on London and he travelled to Cape Gris Nez on the French Coast in order to observe for himself his air armada as it crossed the coast en route for London. The day had begun for the RAF as previously, with airfields appearing to be the main target but by 4pm, it became clear that the target had shifted towards London and the radar plots picked up a huge formation moving towards the capital. Some 348 bombers, escorted by over 600 fighters moved inexorably along the Thames Estuary and by 4.30pm, the defending RAF fighters were making contact. 602 and 43 Squadrons were the first to engage the enemy but in the face of such overwhelming numbers, it was difficult for just two squadrons to break up the formation. More RAF squadrons joined the fray, including the famed Duxford 'Big Wing' under Douglas Bader. Soon the air fighting would involve over one thousand aircraft. 

The German bombers dropped their loads on the Royal Docks, West Ham, Poplar, Silvertown, Barking, Millwall, Limehouse, the Woolwich Arsenal, the Surrey Docks, Beckton Gasworks and many other places on the eastern side of London and soon huge fires were burning out of control as the bomber force turned for home, battered by the RAF fighters but on this occasion, by no means defeated. The huge fires started would act as a beacon to the night bombers, for this time the Germans would indeed press home their attack.

At 8pm, the sirens sounded again as a  further 247 bombers returned to stoke the fires and this time the raid lasted until about 5am the following morning. When the all clear finally sounded, some 330 tons of high explosives had been dropped as well as 440 incendiary cannisters, leaving some 400 Londoners dead. The Lufwaffe had not had everything their own way and had lost forty one aircraft to the RAF's twenty three but these had all been during the daylight portion of the raid; at this time, the Luftwaffe could bomb at night with relative impunity, for the RAF's night fighting capability was still in it's infancy and the anti-aircraft guns could only blaze away in hope with radar guidance.

The bombers returned the following night, leaving behind them another 437 Londoners killed. The Blitz on London had begun and would continue with little respite until the following May.

London would survive; London and Londoners could take it and the civilian morale, far from being destroyed as Hitler and Goering had forecast, actually hardened and the overwhelming urge from the British public was for the RAF to return the compliment on German cities. This they would do starting in 1942 although, like the British public, the German public also proved to be remarkably resilient under fire.

By the end of the war, some 30,000 Londoners had perished as a result of enemy air attacks, this representing about half of the total number incurred across the whole of the United Kingdom. In Germany, in excess of 305,000 civilians died as a result of Allied air attacks.
Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Myth of the Blitz - Angus Calder, Pimlico 1991
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri Service Press 1990

Sunday 2 September 2012

...and consequently this country is at war with Germany

Neville Chamberlain (Bundesarchiv)
With these words, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation at 11.15 am on Sunday September 3rd 1939 that Great Britain and France had gone to war with Germany due to the latter nation's refusal to withdraw it's troops from Poland. This part of the broadcast is by now well known but the full broadcast, in which millions of listeners heard the tired and disillusioned voice of the British Prime Minister is perhaps not so well known, so the full transcript is repeated below:

"I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room of Number 10 Downing Street.

This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 am that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.

I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.

You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different I could have done and that would have been more successful.

Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland but Hitler would not have it.

He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened; and although he now says he has put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.

The proposals were never shown to the Poles nor to us; and although they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to make comment on them, but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier.

His actions show convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.

We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations,, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given to Germany's ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable.

And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will play your part with calmness and courage.

At such a moment as this the assurances of support that we have received from the Empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.

When I have finished speaking, certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the Government. Give these your closest attention.

The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead. But these plans need your help.

You may be taking part in the Fighting Services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of Civil Defence. If so, you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received.

You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war for the maintenance of the life of the people - in factories, in transport, in public utility concerns or in the supply of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you carry on with your jobs.

Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that the right will prevail."

And so the broadcast finished, the British people went somewhat resignedly about their business only for the air raid sirens to sound at 11.27 am, just moments after the Prime Minister had finished talking. The reaction everywhere was almost the same; people tended to stand around staring upwards at the skies, perhaps expecting to see the vast fleets of German bombers approaching that according to ex Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin "would always get through", perhaps expecting it to be a practice or simply not knowing what to do, despite all of the Air Raid Precautions that had been forced upon people since the Munich Crisis of a year previously. In the event, the alert was caused by none of these things; supposedly an electrical fault was to blame but that evening the siren went again and once again at 3 am the following morning. All sorts of wild rumours began to circulate - residents of Chelsea heard that there had been an appalling raid upon the East End, which had been left in ruins with thousands killed. Fortunately, these rumours proved to be just that. Just over a year later, the East End would indeed be bombed and in ruins but the apocalyptic death tolls forecast by the Home Office would mercifully never come to pass.

Preparations for war had already begun before Chamberlain's declaration of war; British and French forces had been mobilised on September 1st, with the reservists from the Navy, Army and Air Force receiving their call up telegrams. In the Royal Navy, ships from the Reserve Fleet, many of them veterans of an earlier conflict, were reactivated and brought back into service, quite often being manned by human veterans of the same conflict against the same foe which had ended almost twenty one years previously. The general call-up to create a 'Citizen Army (and Navy and Air Force) would also get into it's stride.

Schoolchildren, expectant mothers and other vulnerable people began to be evacuated from the big cities on September 1st and this operation was largely complete by the time war was declared. When the big air raids failed to materialise, many of these children were to return to the cities, ironically just in time for the Blitz, sometimes with tragic consequences. Many others though, were to remain in safety 'for the duration' which was a phrase that the British people were to get accustomed to over the next six years or so. 

War had looked inevitable for some time and preparations had been put in place to send a British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, across to France as early as Spring 1939. It was fully expected that this new conflict would in many ways be a repetition of the First World War, with fighting taking place along a largely static Western Front and so it was decided to send across a large British force to fight alongside the French as had happened in 1914-18. In the early hours of September 3rd, some ten hours before the formal declaration of war, the passenger ship Isle of Thanet sailed from Southampton with the first advance party of the BEF. Further small movements followed over the next few days, with the main force starting to travel across to France from September 9th.

For the civilian population of Great Britain at least, the declaration of war was followed, apart from the inconvenience of the false air raid alerts, by a period of some nine months or so that became known as 'The Phoney War.' This phrase was something of a misnomer, because at sea at least, the declaration of war was swiftly followed by the harsh realities of death and destruction.

ss Athenia sinking
The Donaldson Liner Athenia had sailed from Liverpool on Saturday 2nd September for Montreal, having also picked up passengers at Glasgow and Belfast and by the time she finally sailed had on board some 1,103 passengers, including over 300 American citizens anxious to escape the coming war. She was also carrying a crew of 315. The Athenia wasn't one of the more glamorous vessels on the North Atlantic run but such was the urgency to escape the coming hostilities, any vessel would do. By the time war was declared, Athenia was well on her way and by the time darkness fell, she was some 250 miles northwest of Inistrahull, Ireland and having earlier received the coded signal 'Total Germany' from the Admiralty, indicating that Britain was at war, was darkened and steering a zig-zag course. She was not alone, for she was being shadowed by the German U-Boat U-30, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp, who had detected this darkened vessel steering an erratic course at 16:30. By 19:40, Lemp was convinced that the vessel he could see was an Armed Merchant Cruiser, although he made no effort to check his facts. When the two vessels were between Rockall and Tory Island, he fired two torpedoes at the liner, both of which struck with devastating consequences. Once satisfied that his prey was sinking, Lemp departed the scene, making no attempt to rescue survivors or to check exactly what sort of vessel he had sunk.

Fortunately, Athenia though severely damaged, took some fourteen hours to sink which allowed rescue vessels, including the destroyers HMSs Electra and Escort, the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the Norwegian tanker Knute and the American liner City of Flint to pick up survivors. Sadly, some 98 passengers and 19 crew members perished in the sinking. Amongst those killed was a 10 year old Canadian girl, Margaret Hayworth - the first Canadian killed in the war as well as the first Americans - 28 of them in fact, which raised fears in Germany that America would be dragged into the war almost before it had started. 

Fritz-Julius Lemp with Admiral Donitz (Bundesarchiv)
In Germany, it was quickly realised that a bad mistake had been made. Lemp was sworn to secrecy and the U-boat's log was filleted in order to try and conceal the fact that it had been indeed responsible. Much misinformation was circulated by Dr Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, even to the absurd lengths that the British had mined the ship themselves, or that Winston Churchill had had a concealed bomb exploded aboard the Athenia, all in order to bring the United States into the war. Whilst most people saw through these lies for what they were, it was not until the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials in 1946 that Admiral Erich Raeder, the then head of the Kriegsmarine admitted the truth that Lemp and the U-30 was indeed responsible. By this time, Lemp was no longer alive to answer for his actions, having been killed when his next command, U-110 was captured in the North Atlantic by HMS Bulldog in the same action that saw the Allies capture their first complete Enigma Machine complete with spare rotor wheels and code books.
There was no Phoney War at sea and whilst this first sinking was as a result of an offensive act by a foe which was to become only too familiar in the coming years, the vigorous prosecution of the war at sea was to be overseen by the man who was to become Nemesis to the Nazis - Winston Churchill.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello and Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
BEF Ships, before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters 1939-42 - Clay Blair, Cassell
London at War 1939-1945 - Philip Ziegler, Pimlico 2002