Friday, 28 December 2012

The Battle of the Barents Sea, a V.C. and the end of the Kriegsmarine

Capt R St V Sherbrooke VC (IWM)
The end of 1942 saw the British public enjoying a respite from the bombing that had scarred London and many other of their major towns and cities during the First Blitz of 1940/41 and the Baedecker Raids of 1942. The fourth Christmas of the war for the British was more austere even than the previous three, with rationing and shortages beginning to bite but most people stoically got on with their war work after an all too brief break, which in most cases lasted just for one day. The news from overseas, certainly in the European theatre, continued to be encouraging. In the east, the Germans were surrounded at Stalingrad and disaster was imminently looming for them. In North Africa, the victory won at El Alamein in November 1942 was being consolidated as the Eighth Army swept towards Tripoli and the Afrika Korps found itself being squeezed into an ever diminishing space as the American and British armies advanced from the west following the successful 'Torch' landings the previous November. The Battle of the Atlantic continued with convoy after convoy battling their way through the U-Boats bringing their much needed supplies through to Britain. The attrition rate on both sides was frightening; the phenomenal output of the American shipyards would ensure that the Allies would win the 'tonnage war' although no shipyard on Earth could ever replace the brave seaman who would perish, many of them lost forever in the Atlantic. The casualties amongst the U-Boats were horrendous, once depth charged or sunk on the surface, hopes of escaping from the steel coffins were slim and once in the sea, chances of rescue were even slimmer. Reviled at the time, there can be no doubt that the U-Boat men were brave indeed.

Onboard HMS Sheffield during an Arctic convoy (IWM)

Staying with the war at sea, Christmas 1942 saw the resumption of the supply convoys to Northern Russia, which had earlier been suspended following earlier heavy losses, most notably amongst Convoy PQ17, which as a result of faulty intelligence and Admiralty meddling from afar had been ordered to scatter, leaving the merchant ships easy prey for the waiting U-Boats and Luftwaffe. After one more convoy, the route was suspended pending the return of the almost perpetual darkness of the Arctic winter and Christmas Eve 1942, saw the fourteen merchant ships of Convoy JW51B sailing from Loch Ewe together with their close escort of destroyers, corvettes and one minesweeper commanded by Captain Robert St. V. Sherbrooke in the destroyer Onslow. There was also a more distant escort of two cruisers, HM Ships Sheffield and Jamaica commanded by Admiral Robert 'Bob' Burnett. More distant cover still was provided by the heavy units of the Home Fleet.

Convoy JW51B was being viewed by the Kriegsmarine as an opportunity to justify the existence of it's heavy ships. Earlier losses amongst these units, most notably the battleships Graf Spee and the Bismarck as well as heavy losses in the Norwegian campaign had left Hitler with a feeling of deep skepticism about the usefulness of these ships as well as underlining the inherent inferiority complex that the Kriegsmarine felt towards the Royal Navy. Led by Admiral Kummetz, the plan was for the Pocket Battleship Lutzow, suupported by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, supported by six destroyers to sail from the base at Altenfjord, Norway and to force their way through what the Germans saw as a puny escort and having disposed of these, to wreak havoc amongst the merchant ships. 

The convoy had successfully met up with Sherbrooke's destroyers off Iceland on Christmas Day but heavy weather on the 28th/29th December had caused many of the merchant ships to lose station and when the weather eventually moderated, five merchant ships and two escorts had become detached from the main body of the convoy. Three of these merchant vessels eventually rejoined the convoy, with the remaining vessels heading independently towards Kola Inlet, which they reached safely. 

HMS Sheffield early in the war (IWM)

The German forces made contact with the convoy on New Year's Eve but despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers, were driven off time after time by the escorting destroyers. Sherbrooke fought his ships magnificently and using the threat of torpedo attack and the skilled use of smoke, the German ships were unable to break through. The defence was not without cost; the minesweeper Bramble, which was to the north of the convoy searching for the merchant ships detached by the bad weather stumbled across the Admiral Hipper, and true to the spirit of the Royal Navy, opened fire on her vastly more powerful enemy, which together with her escorting destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt, made short work of the little minesweeper, which sank with all hands. The German vessels then shifted their attention back to the convoy, attacking the destroyers, severely damaging the Onslow and grievously wounding Sherbrooke, who was hit in the face by a shell splinter. Despite his wounds, which saw Sherbrooke's left cheekbone shattered and his left eye dangling down the wound, the Captain refused to leave his bridge and continued in command until this latest attack had been beaten off. Only then did he allow himself to be taken below and relinquished command to the next most senior officer, Lt Cdr David Kinloch, in the destroyer Obedient. During this clash, the destroyer Achates, which had been laying smoke across the stern of the convoy, was also seriously hit, and was also to sink with heavy loss of life, although the escort trawler Northern Gem, commanded by Lt Horace Aisthorpe managed to pick up eighty one survivors from the freezing seas.

It was during this German attempt to reach the convoy that the British cruisers arrived on the scene. The time was 11:30 and adhering to the old adage, "When in doubt, steer for the sound of the guns", Burnett's cruisers achieved complete surprise; Admiral Hipper's guns were trained in the opposite direction to the Sheffield and Jamaica and it was not until twenty four six inch shells burst around her, that those on Hipper were aware that British reinforcements had arrived. The British gunfire, aided by radar, was extremely accurate; Sheffield's fifth salvo struck the target, as did Jamaica's fourth, fifth and sixth. Both ships were firing at intervals of less than twenty seconds and the hits by the British ships achieved much psychological as well as material damage to the Hipper and those in command of the German force, which retired in some disarray but not before the destroyer Eckholdt, which had earlier finished off Achates, now fatally mistook Sheffield for the Admiral Hipper and was literally blown out of the water by the British cruiser, sinking with all hands. Her last plaintiff signal to her flagship had been "You are firing on me." It is doubtful if those on board ever actually knew what had hit them.

The second heavy German ship, the Lutzow made a belated appearance on the scene but was again unable to force the issue and after some desultory exchanges, both sides retired due to the threat of torpedo attacks in the darkness by the escorting destroyers. The convoy had been saved and all fourteen merchant ships were able to reach their Russian destinations to discharge their precious cargoes. Sherbrooke, though dangerously wounded was later repatriated where he would eventually recover and return to duty. Whilst he was in Russia awaiting his return home, Sherbrooke would learn of the award of the Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry for his superb defence of the convoy, which brought valuable time for the British cruisers to appear on the scene. It was also awarded, as Sherbrooke was modestly to admit later, for the actions of the whole of his escorting force.

Grossadmiral Erich Raeder (Bundesarchiv)
For the Kriegsmarine however, the repercussions of this defeat were to be enormous. Hitler, when informed of the debacle, flew into a rage and decreed that the remaining surface ships were "so much old iron", were a waste of valuable resources and were therefore were to be paid off with immediate effect. The guns could be used for coastal defence, the scrap metal used for building tanks and other materials for the army and the manpower transferred to U-Boats or to the infantry. This decision Hitler said, was "irrevocable."

For the head of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Raeder, it was too much and he immediately announced his retirement. His replacement was to be Admiral Donitz, head of the U-Boat arm and who managed to get  the decision to scrap the surface ships to be later partially reversed. Almost exactly one year later, the battleship Scharnhorst made a final foray against the Russian convoys only to be sunk off North Cape on Boxing Day 1943 by the British battleship Duke of York and her escorting cruisers and destroyers, one of which was the cruiser Sheffield, grizzled veteran of the Barents Sea, the Bismarck action and many battles in the Mediterranean.

Apart from the ships sunk and damaged in this and the other victories achieved by the Royal Navy, the Battle of the Barents Sea represented a greater, bloodless victory which resulted in many of the German surface ships being laid up in port, never again to venture to sea, many of which were to fall victim to the Allied air attacks.

Published Sources:

73 North - Dudley Pope, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1958
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
Engage the Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991
The Fighting Admirals - Martin Stephen, Leo Cooper 1991


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Charlton SE7: A London suburb at war

The piece below was written by me in 2009 for inclusion in my friend and guiding colleague Clive Harris's erstwhile 'Front Line London' website. Clive kindly mentioned this article recently on the Charlton Life forum and so suitably updated and with some additions, the article is reproduced below.
Spotter on duty at The Valley (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

With a father who served in HM Forces, most of the time overseas and a mother who worked at Woolwich Arsenal throughout the Second World War, it was probably inevitable that I would have more than a passing interest in the history of those times, although admittedly for some reason that I’ve never quite been able to work out, my interest has always been slanted towards the war at sea. Notwithstanding this, possibly because of hearing my Mother and her friends talking about those days, interest in the home front, especially in my own corner of south east London has never been too far from the surface. 

These days, there aren’t too many visible signs of the war in SE7, although with a bit of local knowledge and with a little research, it is quite easy to get a good idea of what was bombed and what evidence remains. 

The first place to start when researching an area is the local authority’s archive to study the Civil Defence Incident Logs. Scandalously, in the sixties and seventies, perhaps before the social history value of such information was fully appreciated, some boroughs destroyed their records. Fortunately the Royal Borough of Greenwich, as we should now call it, has an excellent Heritage Centre in which is held the records of the old Metropolitan Boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich. 

From a study of these logs, it can been seen that much of the heaviest damage was done to what is now known as North Charlton - that is the area at the bottom of Charlton Church Lane and bordering the Woolwich Road. There were many factories in this area, especially between Woolwich Road and the River and it was these that suffered repeatedly. Johnson & Phillips, British Ropes, Harvey’s, Stone Manganese, Siemens, the Central Tram Repair Depot at Rainton Road and many other local industries were all heavily bombed in 1940-41, as was the Woolwich Arsenal, where my late Mother had been working since joining as a 16 year old in 1937. Despite working in what was arguably the most dangerous place in London, she always felt safer once at work, rather than chancing the public shelters that were the only option if the warning went whilst travelling to work on the bus. She maintained until the end of her life that if the siren went as she was crossing Beresford Square, as it did on more than one occasion, she would always hurry up and get through the Arsenal Gates. This probably false feeling of safety was shared by many of the workers that I have spoken to subsequently.

The story as far as Charlton was concerned actually began before what is now viewed as the official start of the Blitz. On the 4th September 1940, St. Paul’s Church, which was located at the junction of Charlton Lane and Fairfield Grove, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb which entered through the roof of the main building, completely destroying it. This was something of a landmark, as it was the first church in London to be destroyed in the War and the day following the incident, many thousands of people came to view the ruins. Sadly, the novelty value of this occasion was to wear off very quickly indeed. The gutted shell of the building remained until after the war, but was then demolished and the land sold to the local council for housing purposes. Today, the only clue to the existence of this landmark is an unremarkable block of local authority flats, which bears the name of the church which once stood on the site. This incident was covered more fully in this blog in April 2010

Mum did have one lucky escape, which was on ‘Black Saturday’ 7th September 1940, the first day of the Blitz. For reasons that she could not later recall, her boss had given the Pay Office (where my Mother worked) a Saturday off. This was a real bonus, because Saturdays were a normal working day at that time. My Mother remembered spending much of her day off – from the late afternoon onwards – in the Anderson Shelter of her parents’ home in Montcalm Road, Charlton. When she reported for work on the following Monday, the whole area where she worked, including her own office building as well as many of the air raid shelters, had been destroyed. 

The destroyed Charlton Station (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
In Charlton, ‘Black Saturday’ also saw the railway line between Charlton Junction Station (as it was then called) and Woolwich Dockyard completely closed due to unexploded bombs. This pattern was followed many times during the following two months, with the line being closed again on the 12th September and again on the 20h, 24th and 25th September, when Angerstein’s Wharf was struck, with four railway personnel being killed. In October, the lines were again blocked due to bomb damage and once again, Angerstein’s Wharf was struck by incendiary bombs. No evidence of this damage is really apparent today, as most of the buildings were demolished post-war. Jumping ahead in time, the Booking Office and ancillary buildings of Charlton Station were completely destroyed on 23rd June 1944, when it received a direct hit from a V-1 flying bomb, killing four civilians, including Mrs. Newick, the wife of the signalman, who lived in the Stationhouse. As a result, the whole station was demolished and remained as a collection of temporary buildings until 1967, when the station was rebuilt into the style we see today. 

The railway received one further blow, on 8th February 1945, when the signal box at the opposite end of the platform to the booking hall, received extensive blast damage from a V-2 that exploded 400 yards away from the building, although happily causing no casualties. 

The familiar sights of London at war were already apparent in SE7 by the time the Blitz started in September 1940. Although there was no heavy anti-aircraft battery in Charlton itself, my mother recalled a mobile gun that used to drive along Canberra Road firing sporadically, which presumably did little good, other than to give the impression to the general public that we were fighting back, albeit in a small way. There was also a battery of 3.7” guns on Blackheath, which again, at that stage of the war, would have been more of a morale-boosting exercise than anything else. Charlton Park was the home of one, possibly, two barrage balloons, which of course, were dotted liberally all across London. In Canberra Road, number 106 received a near miss and severe blast damage, which caused the building to be demolished and which now gives one of the few clues to the Blitz still visible in SE7. The house was rebuilt to a slightly different layout to the other undamaged houses, which still stands out today. It was this blast that did the only lasting damage to the family home in nearby Montcalm Road. Roof tiles were blown off, windows blown out and the upstairs ceilings were all brought down. The evidence of post-war rebuilding is still evident today, with the ceilings being reconstructed in a different style to the originals. 

Invicta Road School (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
On November 14th 1940, the same night as the great raid on Coventry, southeast London also suffered. In Charlton Park Lane, near the junction with Shooters Hill Road, near to where Charlton Lido now stands, a parachute mine fell and became entangled in trees. Fortunately, there was sufficient time to evacuate the residents of the adjacent houses, before it exploded some hours later, destroying several houses and causing severe blast damage to many other properties. By far the worst incident in London on this night was in nearby Blackheath, when Invicta Road School, then in use as a fire station for the Auxiliary Fire Service received a direct hit from a Parachute Mine, killing twelve firemen and three civilians. These two incidents were separated by a matter of minutes and presumably the same aircraft dropped both of these mines. 

Back in Charlton proper, The Village also attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, when the Bugle Horn public house and St. Luke’s Church also received severe blast damage. The stained glass windows of the church were almost completely destroyed and what is now the Lounge Bar of the pub was severely damaged. This was not rebuilt until after the war, and whilst today the building looks much as it ever did from the outside, a closer inspection of the interior of this bar reveals it to be a pastiche of the original. 

Once the First Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941 was over, Charlton in common with the rest of London enjoyed something of a respite with only sporadic raids until the ‘Little Blitz’ of late 1943 to the spring of 1944. Then in June 1944 came the Allied invasion of Europe and the war-weary citizens of Charlton perhaps thought that the end was in sight. It was at this relatively late stage of the war that Londoners were subjected to their final and arguably worst ordeal in the form of the terror weapons – the V-1 Flying Bombs and later the V-2 Rockets. 

The first V-1 in London fell in Bow on 13th June 1944 but the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich were spared until three days later, when the first of many of these weapons fell in both boroughs. Greenwich’s first fell harmlessly on allotments in Tunnel Avenue, Greenwich, whilst the first ‘buzz bomb’ in Woolwich fell in Heavitree Road, Plumstead causing seven fatalities. The V-1’s fell regularly thereafter in both boroughs, with the casualties mounting steadily. The V-1 assault fell away and then stopped altogether by early September 1944 when the Allied armies overran the launching sites in the Pas de Calais. Another brief respite followed but then on 8th September 1944, a house in Staveley Road, Chiswick was obliterated without warning. At first, the authorities tried to calm the populace by informing them that the explosion was caused by an exploding gas main but when the explosions continued, they finally had to come clean and tell Londoners that yet another new weapon was being used against them. Thereafter, some of the more cynical Londoners christened the rockets ‘flying gas mains!'

Like everywhere in London, as well as many other places in England and indeed liberated Europe, the V-2s caused havoc in Greenwich. The first one to fall in the borough also proved to be the worst. This was on 11th November 1944 when the Brook Hotel in Shooters Hill Road was completely destroyed by a direct hit. There were twenty nine fatalities, many of whom were passengers on a number 89 bus which happened to be passing when the missile fell. The pub was rebuilt after the war but subsequently closed; the building however is still extant as a small supermarket. Most buildings that suffered from the attentions of these rockets were completely destroyed but there is one building in Charlton, which although rebuilt after the war, still shows the extent of the damage caused. The building is Charlton House, the splendid Jacobean manor house that greets visitors to Charlton arriving from the direction of Blackheath, which suffered a near miss from a V-2 on the evening of 25th January 1945. The entire north eastern wing of the building was destroyed, and although the post-war rebuilding work was painstakingly done, unfortunately shortages of materials and perhaps a low budget caused the wrong colour brickwork and stone to be used and the rebuilt area can still be clearly seen, giving the present day viewer some idea of the extent of the damage caused. 

Johnson & Phillips in March 1945 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
The final V-2 incident of the war as far as Charlton was concerned occurred on 9th March 1945, barely two months before the end of the war in Europe, when the Johnson & Phillips factory, which had suffered so much during the First Blitz received another direct hit, this time on the Cable Shop causing one fatal casualty. The last V-2 of the entire war fell in Orpington on 27th March 1945 causing one final fatality but with the Allied armies closing in on the shattered remains of the Third Reich, the final surrender of the Nazis on the 8th May 1945 meant that London and Londoners could at last begin to return to their peacetime routines. 

To end on a brighter note, the final word must go to an incident which my late Mother remembered until the end of her life. It was June 1944 and her husband to be, Ron was on leave, having just returned from nearly four years service overseas in North Africa. The air raid siren sounded and both Mum and Dad began to walk down the garden to the shelter. As they were doing this, a V-1 could be seen and heard overhead. The engine then stopped and instead of running, my Mum made some comment about the engine having stopped and just stood there watching. Ron told her in no uncertain terms to get down, whereupon he pushed her to the ground and she ended up face down in the dirt with a muddy face. 

Mum was uncertain where the V-1 fell, but given the chronology, it is just possible that it was the same weapon which fell on Charlton Station as described above. 

She still laughed about this incident some 60 years on, as apart from the muddy face, it was the first time that my Dad had ‘sworn’ at her, apparently having called her a “Silly Cow” when she was gawping at the Doodlebug!

Unpublished Sources:

Author's family recollections
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich ARP Incident Log
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich ARP Incident Log

Sunday, 2 December 2012

It's only a name!

The fifth HMS Duncan (HMSO)
Whilst recently reading a post on another blog (which shall remain nameless to prevent embarrassment to the writer), I took exception to what I felt was a facile comment regarding the naming of one of the Royal Navy's new Type 45 Destroyers. Without quoting him directly, the upshot of what was said was along the lines of "What sort of name is HMS Duncan? Sounds like it was named after an accountant!"

Although this comment was no doubt meant to leave his readers rolling in the aisles with laughter, I for one felt that it showed a staggering amount of ignorance not only towards the naming policy of the Royal Navy but showed a lack of knowledge of history in general, which sadly seems only too prevalent these days.

Whilst the arguments over the teaching of British history in schools belong to another place, this whole saga left me thinking about the whole business of how military hardware is named and how this reflects the characteristics of the various nations and services involved.

As we've started with the Royal Navy, let us continue with the story of HMS Duncan. Named after Admiral Adam Duncan, victor of the Battle of Camperdown against the Dutch in 1797. She is the seventh ship of the Royal Navy to bear the name and this I think, is the crux of the Royal Navy's naming policy; famous names are perpetuated, battle honours won by previous ships of the same name are proudly displayed on the current vessel and the ship's company are encouraged to learn and be aware of the history attached to the name. For interest, despite the first HMS Duncan appearing in 1804, the battle honours for this name were all earned by the fifth vessel to bear the name, a 'D' Class destroyer launched in 1932 that saw arduous service during the Second World War. She earned the following battle honours for the name - Spartivento 1940, Malta Convoys 1941, Mediterranean 1941, Atlantic 1941-45, Diego Suarez 1942.

A look at the Royal Navy's current fleet list, although sadly greatly reduced in recent years, reveals many famous names still in commission and whilst there are too many to mention them all here, names such as Illustrious and Ocean commemorate famous aircraft carriers from the past, whilst names such as Kent, Westminster, Montrose and Portland not only perpetuate famous old names but provide a connection from local communities to their Navy which makes for superb public relations. The US Navy, follows a similar tradition to their British counterparts, mixing the tradition of perpetuating old names such as Enterprise, commemorating famous naval heroes such as Halsey, Nimitz and Spruance and connecting with local through the vessels named after their respective States, towns and cities.

The German Navy of World War Two, the Kriegsmarine, as might be expected named it's vessels in a generally much more martial style, celebrating past Germanic heroes such as Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Graf Spee, as well as perhaps surprisingly naming some cruisers after German cities like Nurnberg, Emden and Koln, although these style of names were in the minority. It was probably not surprising that the Nazi regime wanted to commemorate German heroes from the past rather than foster connections with local communities.

Moving away from the navies of World War Two to the fighting aircraft, less of a pattern emerges. Rather than a general naming policy, many aircraft names were decided on the whim of the designers, or more usually the individual manufacturers. More often than not though, this loose policy produced some memorable names, many of which remain household names to this day. Arguably the best known aircraft of the last war, or possibly of all time is the Supermarine Spitfire. Today, the name is synonymous with speed, grace and deadly fighter aircraft but perhaps what is not so widely known is that the fighter was almost called the 'Shrew' instead of the name that subsequently passed into legend. The inspiration came from the chairman of Vickers Aviation Limited, the parent company behind Supermarine, who nicknamed his daughter 'a little spitfire' and who rightly felt that the name was more inspiring than that originally proposed. When the name was decided upon, the news was passed to the designer, RJ Mitchell, who famously remarked "Just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it!" Like many designers, Mitchell wasn't interested in names, just in getting the final product right.

Prior to the Spitfire, Supermarine were as their name implies, better known for their seaplanes rather than fighters, with the result that their seaplanes were given stolid, if uninspiring names such as Walrus, Seagull, Seamew and Sea Otter. The Spitfire seemed to revitalise their naming policy, for post-war they produced fighter planes with names like Scimitar, Spiteful and Attacker. 

The Spitfire's 'sister' fighter during the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane came from the Hawker Aircraft Company who unlike Supermarine, seemed to have a definite naming policy for their products, for as well as Hurricane, they were also responsible for the Fury, Typhoon and Tempest - all named after great disturbances of the air, although just to confuse everyone, they also came up with bird names such as Tomtitt, Sea Hawk, Kestrel and much later, their famous 'Jump Jet', the Harrier. The American manufacturers came up with a similar mixture of names for their products, giving us a diversity of names ranging from the Flying Fortress, Liberator, Thunderbolt, Lightning and Mustang, as well as many more, all of which have a distinct American feel to them. 

By contrast, the aircraft of the Luftwaffe mainly relied on their manufacturer's type name for indentification - the Bf109, the Focke Wulf 190, the Heinkel 111 and the Dornier Do17 all became famous - or infamous - just through these numbers alone. There were exceptions though - the Focke Wulf 200 maritime reconnaissance aircraft was christened the Condor and as such became etched in the mind of many a participant in the Battle of the Atlantic. Also permanently associated with the Nazis is the Junkers 87 Stuka, which was a corruption of the German word Sturzkampfflugzeug, meaning 'dive bomber', which is exactly what the Stuka was!

Military hardware, in contrast to ships and aircraft, does not generally seemed to have been named as such, Rifles, machine guns, artillery pieces and the like do not usually attract anything other than their type numbers but the exception to this rule is the tank. For some reason, the tank attracts names as diverse as anything seen with fighting ships and aeroplanes.

The Panzer Mk III Tank (author's collection)
British tanks during World War 2, it has to be said, were on the whole fairly uninspiring in terms of performance, the only truly class piece of equipment was the Comet, which only entered service in time for the last six months of the war in Europe. Before that, the British Army had to make do with some splendidly named tanks such as the Cromwell, Churchill and Crusader as well as the somewhat less inspirationally named Matilda! 

To most of us, the American tank of World War 2, which also provided much of the armour for the British Army, was the Sherman. Not the most powerful tank ever produced, the Sherman had the great advantage of being produced in vast numbers, so that losses could easily be replaced. It was also easy to maintain  and rugged, so combining all of these factors, the Allies were onto a winner. Wartime American tanks were named after famous generals, so in addition to the Sherman, names such as Lee, Grant and Pershing were all commemorated.

German tanks started the war as purely being named Panzer (or tank) Mk I, II, III etc. It was not until later in the war that they started being named after big cats, firstly the Panther and then possibly the most famous and feared tank of the war, the Tiger. Fortunately for the Allies, the Tiger appeared fairly late in the war and was not built in sufficient numbers to threaten the outcome of the war.

As always in a blog of this nature, we can only scratch the surface of the subject but as can be seen, the name attach a certain mystique to a weapon of war and sometimes give the weapon legendary status.

Published Sources:

Badges and Battle Honours of H.M. Ships - Lt. Cdr. K.V. Burns - Maritime Books 1986
Spitfire - Jeffrey Quill - Arrow Books 1985

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Armistice Day 1940, The London Blitz and Taranto

Bomb Damage in Greenwich (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
In last week's post, we concentrated on one of the many fallen servicemen of the Second World War, in this case one of those commemorated on the memorial plaque of Ickenham Cricket Club in Middlesex as part of the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, which this year coincides with the actual day of the original Armistice Day; the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which in 1918 marked the end of fighting in the First World War.

As we have not concentrated solely on the Blitz in London for some time, perhaps this weekend of remembrance is a good time to do so. Study of a cross section of the Civil Defence (ARP) Incident Logs from across London reveals that the Luftwaffe was no respecter of Armistice Day and that the Blitz on London continued regardless.

The 10th November was a Sunday in 1940 and in London the sirens sounded the alert shortly after 7pm, part of the nightly routine of attending to your daily business, grabbing a bite to eat if there was time and then descending into the shelter, not knowing whether your house or place of work would still be there in the morning, or indeed whether one would even see the morning.

It seemed to be a particularly bad night in the Borough of Greenwich; a Public Air Raid Shelter in Armada Street, Deptford suffered a direct hit from a High Explosive bomb causing three fatal casualties. There were also nine seriously injured shelterers, including three children who were taken to the Miller Hospital. The street level shelters were particularly vulnerable, offering some protection against flying shrapnel but being no more resistant to a direct hit or even the blast from a near miss than the average house. As if this wasn't bad enough, a private air raid shelter at the nearby Rodney Iron Foundry also suffered a direct hit from a HE Bomb, this time with the loss of six lives, presumably employees of the foundry, with a further thirty nine casualties, of whom twenty one were serious. Elsewhere in the borough, the Bugle Horn pub in Charlton Village was hit in the early hours of the 11th November and whilst there were only three slight casualties, part of this historic old inn was destroyed, although happily rebuilt after the war.

Moving westwards across the capital, Westminster, the seat of government, was not immune from the Luftwaffe's attentions that night. Browsing through the Incident Log, one sees famous names such as Dickins & Jones, Swan & Edgar as well as the Army & Navy Stores in Victoria Street all suffering from HE bomb hits or the effects of blast. Well known street names also feature; Duke Street, Buckingham Palace Road and Vauxhall Bridge Road as well as many others all received direct hits from either HE or Incendiary devices. Even the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was not spared, although in this instance the bomb did not explode and was later safely removed by those brave men of the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Squad.

South of Westminster, in Camberwell, most of the bombs recorded seem to have fallen harmlessly on open ground, such as Alleyn Girls' School Playing Fields which saw another HE bomb, although the Nunhead Allotments received what would today be called a 'Friendly Fire' incident when an unexploded Anti-Aircraft Shell made an unwelcome appearance. Although on this occasion causing no casualties, these shells could sometimes be just as deadly as the German bombs and study of the Incident Logs across London record many instances of fatal casualties being caused by these shells, which on the basis of "What goes up, must come down" fell indiscriminately having missed their intended targets. Indeed, the Bethnal Green Tube Station Disaster of March 1943, in which 173 people were trampled to death in a stampede, was caused by people panicking at the sound of what at the time was thought to be the explosion of a bomb but what was in fact, the guns in nearby Victoria Park opening fire.

In Southwark as in Camberwell, the raid on this night was relatively light, with the main problems being caused by two Unexploded Bombs in Collinson Street and although one of these did subsequently explode, it was after the area had been cleared and there were no casualties.

Moving north to Stoke Newington, the bombers concentrating on this borough seem to have been loaded with a batch of substandard bombs, with no fewer than twelve unexploded HE devices being successfully dealt with by the Royal Engineers across the borough. In neighbouring Finsbury, the bombs were slightly more effective, with a HE Bomb falling at the junction of Whitecross Street and Banner Street causing a gas main to ignite but mercifully with no recorded casualties.

HMS Illustrious in 1942 (Australian War Memorial)
Although the nights of 10th/11th November and 11th/12th November 1940 did not see particularly heavy raids, the bombs fell far and wide across London, Poplar, as always seemed to suffer. The eastbound District Line at Bow Road Station was blocked for some hours by a HE Bomb and a further bomb fell outside the Wellington Arms Public House in Wellington Way, although the Log does not record any human casualties resulting from these incidents.

Although Londoners were not to know it, the Blitz which had begun on September 7th 1940 was approaching a temporary lull; bad weather was beginning to affect the ability of the Luftwaffe to launch effective attacks and the results of the attrition resulting from the Battle of Britain had also had it's effects on the Germans. They were in today's parlance suffering from Battle Fatigue and although they were to return with a vengeance on the night of 29th December and again during the spring of 1941, for now at least, the attacks were beginning to wane.

Fairey Swordfish of the RN Historic Flight (Peter Noble)
It was not all one way traffic though. The British were beginning to fight back and following on from the decisive victory gained by the RAF during the Battle of Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940, the 11th November was to see a major British victory over the Axis Powers, this time involving a handful of obsolete biplanes issuing a shattering blow to the Italian Fleet. At 2040 on the evening of 11th November 1940, the first of some twenty one frail looking Fairey Swordfish aircraft took off into the darkness over the Mediterranean from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious bound for the Italian Naval Base at Taranto. The object was to cripple the Italian Fleet which at that time, numerically at least, was threatening the superiority of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Swordfish biplanes achieved total surprise and for the loss of two aircraft and their crews, one battleship - Conti di Cavour - was sunk and two others - Littorio and Caio Duilio - damaged so badly that they were out of action for over a year. The Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, a man not easily given to praise, signalled to HMS Illustrious "MANEOUVRE WELL EXECUTED" which was fulsome indeed coming from such a perfectionist. 

As a result of this action, the Italian Fleet, always somewhat in awe of their British opponents, never seriously threatened them again, although there were to be scares in the ensuing years. Rather more ominously for the Allies, the action at Taranto was studied very closely by the Japanese. Although they were not yet in the war, they based their plans for a pre-emptive strike on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour and armed as they were with much more modern aircraft and many more of them than the venerable Swordfish, the results when the attack took place in December 1941 were devastating indeed.

Clearly, Armistice Day was in abeyance for the duration.

Published Sources:

Engage The Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991
The Illustrious & Implacable Classes of Aircraft Carrier - Neil McCart, Fan Publications 2000
The War at Sea - ed. John Winton - Hutchinson 1974

Unpublished Sources:

Civil Defence Incident Logs for the Metropolitan Boroughs of Camberwell, Finsbury, Greenwich, Poplar, Southwark , Stoke Newington and the City of Westminster





Friday, 2 November 2012

Time to Remember

W/O Pete Godfrey (author's collection)
As we approach 11th November, thoughts turn to those who gave their lives in service of their country during two World Wars as well as numerous other conflicts including those who serve in Afghanistan during the present day.

In one of the earliest posts on this blog, in The Dreaded Telegram we examined the story behind one of the names on a memorial plaque to be found at Ickenham Cricket Club in Middlesex. The sort of plaque that we have at Ickenham can be mirrored at countless cricket, rugby, football and other sports clubs across the country, as well as schools and other institutions, commemorating their members, former pupils and employees who made the ultimate sacrifice. At the time of this earlier post, we undertook to look at another of those commemorated and with Remembrance Day fast approaching, perhaps now is the time to do this.

Peter Leopold Godfrey, inevitably known as 'Pete' to his friends and squadron colleagues, was a twenty one year old Warrant Officer Pilot in the Royal Air Force. The photograph of him shows him to be a fresh faced young man and to look at his image is an instant reminder as to the extreme youth of the majority of those men fighting in the front line, whether they be soldiers, sailors or airmen. Pete was from Ickenham, which seventy years ago was even more of an outer suburb of London than it is today. He was educated at Harrow County School for Boys at nearby Harrow on the Hill and by all accounts was a fine young man as well as an excellent sportsman, joining his local cricket club at Ickenham, where he was described as an outstandingly good wicket keeper.

Ickenham Cricket Club Memorial Plaque (author's photo)
Pete would have been too young to have joined up on the outbreak of war in 1939, but by 1941 he had joined the RAF and after his pilot training he joined 80 Squadron, at that time based in North Africa as part of the Desert Air Force but later to move to Italy, before returning to the UK in April 1944 in preparation for Operation Overlord, at which time the squadron re-equipped with the Spitfire Mk IX fighter. In September 1944, the squadron once again re-equipped, this time with the Hawker Tempest Mk V, one of the fastest piston-engined fighters, which apart from their ground attack role in support of the Allied armies then involved in liberating France and the Low Countries from Nazi domination, were also instrumental in bringing down the V-1 Flying Bombs then plagueing London and Southeast England. 

There was another task in hand for the new Tempest fighters in September 1944; on September 17th, Operation 'Market Garden' was launched. This was Field Marshal Montgomery's audacious attempt to end the war early by advancing into Northern Germany by taking the bridges over the Rivers Waal and Neder Rhine and which was to culminate in the glorious failure at Arnhem.

All of this heartbreak was in the future when 80 Squadron took off from it's base at RAF Manston at 11:30 on the 17th September, tasked with flak-suppression duties over the Walcheren and Schouwen Islands. The squadron's War Diary laconically records that "Several guns were silenced.....One armed barge was attacked and left burning, whilst four others were damaged." The diary then goes on to record that "Flak was plentiful and Tempest EJ519 piloted by W/O P.L. (Pete) Godfrey was hit. He was not seen to bale out and aircraft was seen to crash into the sea."

A 'sister' Hawker Tempest EJ705 of 80 Squadron (www.hawkertempest.se)

Thus was the end of Pete Godfrey's life recorded in the unemotional language of the Squadron War Diary. Probably a glass or two would have been raised in his memory at a suitable time by his mates from the squadron and no doubt, his commanding officer would have had the heartbreaking task of writing to Pete's parents back home in Ickenham to break the awful news that they would never see their son again. It would have been a sad fact of life that this would have been a task that Pete's C.O. would have become used to performing, although it would never have been an easy or pleasant task, not eased by repetition.

For his squadron mates, it was business as usual; after returning to Manston at 13:35 to re-arm and refuel, 80 Squadron took off again at 18:25 and an armed recce of the Hague - Wassenaar - Leiden - Katwyk area was carried out, with further strikes being made on barges, motor transport and a car. Considerable light anti-aircraft fire was encountered but this time, the squadron incurred no losses and returned to base at 20:10. The squadron was to continue on these duties for the duration of 'Market Garden', an operation which was to end in failure at 'A Bridge too Far' in Arnhem and from whence a handful of bedraggled and bloodied British and Polish Airborne survivors were extricated some nine days later, whilst many more survivors were to become Prisoners of War and still more were never to return home.

Back home in England, Pete Godfrey's parents, along with the parents, wives, girlfriends and loved ones of many others would be beginning to try to come to terms with their loss.

Many families throughout Britain, the Commonwealth, the USA and indeed the whole World would have shared the experiences of Pete Godfrey's parents.

Remember them all.


Published Sources:

A Bridge Too Far - Cornelius Ryan, Wordsworth 1999
Arnhem: The Battle for Survival - John Nichol and Tony Rennell, Penguin 2012

Unpublished Sources:

80 Squadron War Diary - National Archives, Kew





Friday, 19 October 2012

The Aces

Edward 'Cobber' Kain DFC
The term 'Ace' in it's aerial context first came into usage during the earliest days of air combat, during the First World War when the French pilot Adolphe Pegaud was given the term 'l'as' (French for Ace) by the French press after he had shot down five German aircraft. Since then, the term has remained in use for any pilot who has achieved five or more victories. During the Great War, every side had it's Aces - Baron von Richthofen being the highest scoring with eighty victories, and arguably becoming the most well known fighter Ace of all time in the process before he was shot down and killed in 1918. On the Allied side, aces such as Frenchman Rene Fonck, the Canadian Billy Bishop and the British Ace Mick Mannock all became household names.

By the time of the Second World War, attitudes in the RAF towards Aces had changed somewhat. Whilst the Luftwaffe deliberately set out to create warrior-heroes in accordance with the knightly ethos encouraged by Dr Goebbels and his Nazi cronies, the RAF despite it's class consciousness then prevalent throughout the British armed forces, refused to officially recognise aces. Eventually, during the Battle of Britain, the RAF was reluctantly forced to co-operate with the media interest generated by the new generation of Aces amongst 'The Few.'

In this short piece, we shall concentrate on the RAF aces if for no other reason than one of space and even here we can only scratch the surface. The first RAF pilot in the Second World War to achieve five 'kills' was actually a New Zealander, Edward James Kain, known as 'Cobber' who scored his first victory as early as the 8th November 1939 over France and by March 1940 had acheived his fifth victory. During the Battle for France in May 1940, Kain achieved a further five victories and by 5th June 1940, he was the RAF's highest scoring fighter pilot with sixteen confirmed kills. The next day, he was informed that his squadron would be returning to England and on the 7th June, he left the airfield at Echemines to fly to Le Mans to collect personal belongings prior to flying across the Channel. As Kain took off, he undertook some low-level aerobatics to bid farewell to his squadron colleagues, misjudged a flick roll and ploughed his Hurricane into the ground. So it was that the RAF's first Ace met his end, not at the hands of the enemy but due to a flying accident.

Josef Frantisek DFM*

The Battle of Britain produced a glut of Aces, all of whom were seized upon by the British press. Some like Tuck, Malan (studied here in October 2010 http://blitzwalkers.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/different-adolph.html), Bader and Lacey quickly became household names and are still remembered to this day. Once again though, the first RAF pilot to achieve Ace status during the Battle of Britain was not British but on this occasion was a Czech flying as part of the Polish contingent of the RAF, Josef Frantisek. Frantisek had escaped to Poland during the German invasion of his homeland in 1938. When Poland was in turn attacked, Frantisek's squadron had been ordered to Romania and internment and extracating himself from the camp in which he was being held, Frantisek managed to reach France via North Africa in October 1939. Once in France, he elected to remain with the Poles and consumed by a fierce and understandable hatred for the Nazis, began what was in effect a private war against the Third Reich. 

Upon the fall of France, Frantisek reached England and became part of 303 (Polish) Squadron flying Hurricanes based at RAF Northolt. It has to be said that Frantisek was an extremely ill-disciplined pilot and the British squadron commander of 303 began to make arrangements to transfer him to a Czech squadron. Frantisek preferred to stay with his Polish colleagues and because of the desperate shortage of pilots, it was agreed to accommodate him as a 'guest' pilot flying a spare Hurricane. Once 303 Squadron took off, Frantisek would break formation and act alone pouncing on any unsuspecting Luftwaffe aircraft. Using these tactics, by early October 1940 Frantisek had accounted for seventeen German aircraft, in addition to those he shot down whilst attached to the French Armee de l'Air, which he claimed as a further eleven. However, like Kain, Frantisek's demise would come not at the hands of the Luftwaffe but as a result of a flying accident. On 8th October 1940, Frantisek's Hurricane crashed in Ewell, Surrey whilst on approach to land in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Some accounts state that he misjudged an aerobatic maneouvre whilst trying to impress his girlfriend, whilst others state that he simply made a critical error as a result of fatigue following what for him, had already been a long war.

Another New Zealand Ace was Brian Carbury and in common with one other pilot, the Pole Anton Glowacki, he became an Ace in one day, shooting down five German aircraft on 31st August 1940 on his way to a final score of fifteen and a half kills by the end of the year. Carbury was to survive the war but was to be dismissed from the RAF in disgrace in October 1941, having been found guilty at a Court-Marshal of having passed a large number of false cheques, at that time an offence punishable by prison sentence. So ended the career of another ace, albeit in bizarre circumstances.

Bob Stanford-Tuck DSO DFC**
Just to prove that some of the RAF's Aces were British, let us take a look at two of Fighter Command's home-grown talents. Robert Stanford-Tuck was born in 1916 of Jewish parents in Catford, southeast London and after a brief career as an Officer Cadet in the Merchant Navy, joined the RAF in 1935. After completing his flying training, in which he was graded 'above average', Tuck was posted to 65 Squadron at Tangmere, at first flying Gloster Gladiator biplanes but a squadron which was lucky enough to be one of the first to convert to Spitfires in December 1938. Tuck was chosen from his squadron to go to RAF Duxford and receive one-on-one tuition from Jeffrey Quill, senior Test Pilot of Vickers (Supermarine) in order that he could acquaint his squadron colleagues with the then revolutionary new fighter. As one of the RAF's first fighter pilots to fly the Spitfire, he was posted in May 1940 to 92 Squadron at Croydon, later moving to Hornchurch, again flying Spitifires and flying his first combat patrol on 23rd May over Dunkirk, Tuck shot down three Bf109s and the following day became an Ace, when he downed two German bombers. In the ensuing combat during the Battle for France, his score rapidly mounted and he was awarded the DFC on 11th June. During the Battle of Britain, Tuck like all of his colleagues in Fighter Command, was in the thick of the action and it was during this period that "Tuck's Luck" - he had survived an early 'prang' whilst training - came to the fore once again. He was forced to bail out of his Spitfire on 18th August over Tunbridge Wells but survived this safely and a few days later, on the 25th had to nurse his crippled Spitfire back to Hornchurch following return fire from a Dornier Do17 bomber. On another occasion, he personally had been hit and upon removing the bullet in his thigh, the Squadron MO told tuck "A few inches higher and they'd have had to transfer you to the WAAFs!" Tuck's luck would never really desert him. 

In September 1940, Tuck was promoted to command 257 Sqaudron, then flying Hurricanes based at Martlesham Heath. At this time, 257 was a 'hard luck' squadron, formed only a short time previously and suffering from an influx of inexperienced pilots and frankly, not having been previously well led. Tuck turned this squadron around, weeded out one or two individuals who were not up to the task and by September 15th 1940, 257 formed part of the fighter force that routed the German daylight raiders and on that day incidentally, Tuck's two victories brought his own personal score to sixteen. In July 1941, Tuck was further promoted and given command of the Duxford Wing. By this time, Fighter Command was taking part in large fighter sweeps across occupied France known as "Rhubarbs" as part of the new policy instigated by the new head of the Command, Sholto Douglas known as "Leaning towards the Enemy." 

During this period, many fine men were killed or captured including fellow Aces 'Paddy' Finucane, Eric Lock and Douglas Bader and on 28th February 1942, Tuck's luck was to briefly desert him when he was shot down over Boulogne. Even then his luck did not abandon him completely; his Spitfire having been hit and gliding towards a forced landing, Tuck fired a final cannon burst at the anti-aircraft gun that had hit his Spitfire, killing all of the gun's crew. He feared a lynching, but as he was surrounded by angry Germans, their anger turned to laughter when they spotted that one of his final shots had split the barrel of the German gun like a banana being peeled! Tuck's time in captivity was an incredible odyssey in itself and would take too long to describe in detail here. Suffice to say that after several escape attempts, he managed to do so successfully on 1st February 1945 and having reached Russian lines, was denied access to the British authorities until he again escaped, this time from his 'liberators' and reached the British Embassy in Moscow, who arranged his repatriation in March 1945. Tuck's final tally of victories was twenty nine kills, two shared kills and six "probables."

'Johnnie' Johnson CB CBE DSO** DFC*
Even this impressive tally was not the highest achieved by a Fighter Command pilot. James Edgar "Johnnie" Johnson was born in Loughborough in 1915 and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in September 1939. An old rugby injury which had broken his collar bone and which had not been re-set correctly precluded his active participation in the Battle of Britain. However, following a successful operation to correct this, Johnson returned to operational flying with 616 Squadron at Tangmere flying under Wing Commander Douglas Bader. Johnson learned much of his early trade under Bader and on 26th June 1941, he was to score his first victory when he shot down a Bf109 over Gravelines. Johnson took part in the sweep on 9th August 1941 when Bader was shot down and captured and despite the loss of his Wing Leader, Johnson added to his personal score. Later promoted to command 610 Squadron at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk which continued on sweeps over occupied France, Johnson continued to add to his score, despite still flying the Spitfire Mk V, which was being outclassed by the new German Fw190s then coming into service. Promoted again in early 1943, this time to Wing Commander, Johnson was given command of 144 (Canadian) Wing at Kenley, which was equipped with the new Spitfire Mk IX, which was able to once again re-establish British mastery over the Luftwaffe's fighters. Johnson's score soon mounted and by August 1943, he claimed his twenty first victory. By this time, apart from fighter sweeps, the Wing was regularly escorting USAAF bombers on their daylight missions to targets in occupied France. In September 1943, Johnson was rested from Ops but was restored to flying duties in March 1944 in time for the run-up to Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Back with the Canadians of 144 Wing, Johnson again scored regularly and by 23rd August 1944, Johnson equalled and then overtook 'Sailor' Malan's tally of thirty two victories. As Johnson modestly pointed out himself "Malan had fought with great distinction when the odds were against him. He had matched his handful of Spitfires against greatly superior numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers." As Johnson also pointed out, his combat was mostly fought on the offensive, with either a squadron, a wing, or sometimes two wings behind him. Johnson's last victory of the war came on 27th September 1944 over Nijmegen, when his squadron bounced a formation of Bf109s. Johnson survived the war to finish with thirty four individual victories as well as seven shared victories, which was the highest achieved by any of the Western Allies. Postwar, he served in the Korean War flying F-86 Sabre jet fighters on exchange with the USAF and remained in the RAF until 1966, retiring with the rank of Air Vice Marshal.

There are many more aces to discuss and hopefully we shall return to the subject again in a future edition but whether one of the Aces, or one of the vast majority of non-scoring pilots, whatever nationality, the fighter pilot was, and remains a breed apart.

Published Sources:

Fly For Your Life: The Story of Bob Stanford-Tuck - Larry Forester, Cerberus 2002
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
Wing Leader - 'Johnnie' Johnson - Chatto & Windus Limited 1956

 





Saturday, 15 September 2012

Battle of Britain Day, Churchill and The Few

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few."

Winston Churchill was a master of the use of the English language, whether in it's written or spoken form but of all of his inspirational wartime speeches, his address to the House of Commons on August 20th 1940, in which the above passage formed a part, is arguably his most famous. Certainly the phrase 'The Few' which was how Churchill described the RAF's pilots and aircrews, passed immediately into folklore.

The origins of this phrase go back to a few days before Churchill made this speech to the House and appears to have been the result of a spontaneous piece of emotion on the Prime Minister's part. During the Battle of Britain, Churchill, always wanting to be close to the action, made a habit of calling into the Uxbridge Operations Bunker of Number 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command to see the battle developing. Uxbridge was conveniently en route from London to Chequers. His first visit came on August 16th and he was accompanied by his Chief Staff Officer, General Sir Hastings Ismay. As the afternoon's battle developed, the two watched Keith Park, AOC 11 Group, deploying his forces and seemingly having no reserves to spare. What the 'plot' in the Uxbridge bunker did not show, was that Park did in fact have reserves to call upon from the neighbouring 10 and 12 Groups. This was the strength of the defensive system perfected by Dowding and Park but all Churchill could see was that all forces had seemingly been committed. He was also very conscious of the fact that just a few weeks previously, before the fall of France, he had asked General Gamelin about the location of his strategic reserve, only to receive the terse answer "Aucune", meaning "None."

It was perhaps with this experience still fresh in his mind and unknowing of some of the other factors involved in Park's deployments, such as the neighbouring Groups' reserves, sizes of raids and the turnaround times on the ground of the RAF's fighter squadrons, that Churchill and Ismay departed by car for Chequers. The first thing Churchill said to Ismay was "Don't speak to me; I have never been so moved." Then about five minutes into the journey, he leant across and said to Ismay: "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." Ismay was so struck by this comment that he repeated the phrase to his wife upon his return home.

So, the phrase that would mythologise the RAF's fighter pilots was born, but when Churchill made his speech just four days later, he spoke of the RAF as a whole when he said:

"The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain…"

It was clear that the Prime Minister was speaking equally of the RAF's bomber squadrons, who were committed to attacking the German invasion barges and targets in Germany and their occupied territories. But to the British public, who could see the battles developing overhead on a daily basis, the phrase of 'The Few' struck a chord; it was the fighter pilots who were the saviours of the country. Whilst this was undoubtedly true, the men of Bomber Command felt somewhat hard done by that their equally vital work was going unnoticed by the British public and was summed up eloquently, although with natural overstatement by one Bomber Command veteran and quoted in Stephen Bungay's excellent work, The Most Dangerous Enemy:

"There was no fighter Battle of Britain. I was at Lympne in light bombers in 1940. There was some fighter activity overhead but no more than you would expect. We went out every night, destroying the German invasion barges in the Channel Ports. That was why the Germans never came. We fought the real Battle of Britain."

Despite this, the fighter battle continued and on Sunday September 15th 1940, whilst having breakfast at Chequers, Churchill decided once again to visit Uxbridge. By now, the Blitz on London had started and the Premier had decided that the weather being fine, that it was a "Blitzy Day" to use his own phrase. At just after 11 a.m., the British Chain Home radar at Dover picked up the first raid of the day forming up over Calais. During the day, some 1,120 German fighters and bombers would be pitted against 630 Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command. 

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (IWM)
As the first raid approached the Kent coast, Keith Park deployed his forces with his customary skill and this time because of the numbers approaching, he chose to involve the 'Big Wing' from the neighbouring 12 Group, commanded by his envious rival Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory and ordered the Duxford Wing to patrol over Hornchurch. Leigh-Mallory was envious because he had wanted Park's job and the pair had repeatedly clashed over tactics during the Battle of Britain; Park was anxious to hit the attackers with smaller numbers of squadrons and break up the enemy formations before they reached their targets, whereas Leigh-Mallory believed in attacking in large numbers and it was irrelevant to him whether or not the bombers had reached their targets. In reality, Park's tactics were the correct ones - the 'Big Wing' frequently took too long to assemble and then had to climb to reach it's designated height and often being led by the brave but maverick Douglas Bader, the Wing would frequently not patrol where ordered, but would go where Bader felt the action should be. Because of all this, Park did not trust Leigh-Mallory and although Park's tactics would win out in the Battle of Britain, in the longer term, Leigh-Mallory would be the winner. Because of his closeness to Sholto Douglas at the Air Ministry, Leigh-Mallory would get Park's job and eventually indeed, take the top job of AOC Fighter Command. All this was in the future but it was just as well for Britain and the RAF that he was a more peripheral figure at this stage of the Battle.

Sir Keith Park (IWM)
To return to September 15th, Churchill watched as it became clear that the Luftwaffe formations were indeed heading towards London. This was the day of Sergeant Ray Holmes encounter with what turned out to be an abandoned German bomber, but one which he felt was on a bombing run towards Buckingham Palace. This story has already been recounted in this blog so will not be repeated again. Suffice to say the attacking force, whilst not exactly routed, suffered heavy losses all the same; eighteen German aircraft had been shot down, representing 12.5% of their strength. However, due to massive overclaiming on the part of the RAF, especially the Big Wing, the claims had been for eighty one aircraft. The bomber eventually brought down by Ray Holmes had been claimed nine times! This overclaiming was not deliberate but was understandable in the melee of a pitched battle. Dowding and Park realised this and had previously sought to take a more measured approach when dealing with claims - matching claims against wrecks of crashed aircraft was one way of doing this for example. Leigh-Mallory and his Air Ministry friends realised it too but on this occasion chose to ignore the overclaiming, partially for propaganda purposes but also to further their own ambitions to oust Dowding and Park for their own ends. The afternoon's air fighting saw similar overclaiming and by the end of the day, the RAF had claimed an incredible 185 German aircraft for the loss of 28 RAF machines. The actual German losses were 56 - still a resounding defeat but hardly decisive. 

Park was furious when he learned that these inflated figures had been released. He understood as well as anyone the need for maintaining the morale of the British public but he also knew what else lay behind these figures; of the 185 claims, no fewer than 105 of them came from the Duxford 'Big Wing!' 

When Churchill spoke to Park upon leaving the Uxbridge bunker, he was once again profoundly moved - he had seen the RAF's fighters handled with great skill by Park and his controllers and with great bravery in the air by the pilots. Park explained to Churchill that he was still not satisfied with the outcome and that he was disappointed that the German bombers had reached London. That was not good enough for Park but Churchill was impressed, especially with the claims from the Big Wing. They were beginning to be noticed.

As Stephen Bungay says, Fighter Command did not win the Battle of Britain on September 15th - it had done that already. It had won because it had endured the battles in August when it's airfields were attacked by repairing damaged machines, filling in craters on airfields and because of the faulty tactics of their enemy. It had won because it had enough brave pilots who overcame their own fears and doubts and it had won because of leaders like Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, who would soon be shamefully replaced by Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Sholto Douglas.

September 15th merely encapsulated this victory that had already been won - forgetting the overclaims, the appearance of the Big Wing over London, whilst not an effective military weapon in it's own right, made a massive psychological impact on the Luftwaffe's crews. They had been led to believe that the RAF was on it's knees and down to it's last fifty Spitfires. On the contrary, they had appeared stronger than ever and as the Luftwaffe could not master the skies over Britain, the proposed invasion of this country was never going to be a viable prospect. Operation Sealion was postponed indefinitely on September 17th 1940, just two days after the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day.

For this reason if for no other, The Few deserve to be mythologised. Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Pan Macmillan 2001
Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2001
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
Park - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001







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