Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Battle Of Britain -1940


When I was growing up my father, like many others, rarely talked about the war. They talked about the fun times but the really serious stuff was never discussed.
I remember standing on Waterloo Bridge with my mother when she mentioned out of the blue that she remembered looking down the river and seeing the docks ablaze and that the glow, from the fires, in the sky could be seen from miles away.
My dad would recount the night that he came home during the blitz. He was on leave and had arrived at Waterloo Station only to find that there was no transport to take him up to North Finchley. So, in the middle of an air raid he decided to walk all the way. He was almost home when a land mine fell of the Finchley football ground. Fortunately - for me anyway - it didn't go off but he ran the rest of the way home. When he got there my mum and her parents (my grandparents) were in the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden. He knocked on the door but my grandmother wouldn't open the door as she was convinced that he was a German parachutist. Eventually, calm was restored and my granddad let him in.
So, despite the physical evidence of bombed out buildings and the constant use of ration cards, the war was something that was not discussed.
However, while lots of dad's 'kept mum' about the war there were others who were prepared to write about their experiences. So from an early age I knew that wars were fought by ordinary men and women - even some of the officers had come from civvy street.
Apart from the escape books I always seemed to be drawn to 1940 and the Battle Of Britain - or should I say the Battle For Britain.
The phony war came to an end abruptly - Germany invaded Norway on the 9th April 1940 and within a couple of months had added this country to the list of conquests.
Though on the 8th of April, 1940 in the middle of a squall a small destroyer took on the German heavy cruiser Admiral Von Hipper. Out-gunned the Glowworm laid down a smokescreen and mounted a torpedo assault on the German cruiser that did not inflict any damage. Battered and damged and with only one gun left, the Captain of the Glowworm, Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope issued the order 'Stand by to ram'. Crippled and sinking she tore away over a hundred feet of armored plate and damaged the Von Hipper's torpedo tubes. Of the 149 crew aboard the Glowworm only 31 men were saved. Despite the damage to his ship the Captain of the Von Hipper stayed for over an hour to pick up the survivors. Later that Captain, Helmuth Heye, wrote via the International Red Cross recommending Roope for the Victoria Cross. The only time in British history that a V.C. has been recommended by the enemy.
Within a few weeks of the invasion of Norway the Germans moved into Holland, Belgium and France. They moved fast - Blitzkreig. It had worked in Poland and the thrusts were doing the same through the French and Belgian countryside. The British and French troops who had expected to fight the Germans the same as they had fought in the First World War were taken by surprise and chaos ensued. There was only one way to go and that was back towards the sea.
For an unknown reason the German forces ground to a halt which allowed time for the British troops to make it back to Dunkirk - and the armada of small ships that would pick up a third of a million men from the bombed out beaches.
It was another nine weeks before Eagle Day (or in German - Adlertag) came into being. This was supposed to be that day in August when the British air force was wiped from the skies so that Operation Sealion - the invasion of Britain could begin.
Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe had miscalculated - badly. Britain had a leader in Winston Churchill and an Air Marshall in Lord Dowding who were damned sure that Britain, though alone, would not succumb.
The Battle Of Britain produced the heroes like the legless Douglas Bader, Sailor Malan, John E. (Johnnie) Johnson and 'Ginger' Lacey who shot down the plane that was about to bomb Buckingham Palace and Al Deere. Deere was the Australian that just couldn't be killed - he was shot down and had his plane bombed out from beneath him but he emerged each time unscathed.
Unlike Richard Hillary and Geoffrey Page who were burned in their cockpits and had to undergo plastic surgery. Hillary climbed back into the cockpit and was, later, killed.
At first, the air force threw everything they had at the Germans. The slow Gladiators and Fairey Battles and the nightfighters like the Defiant lining up with the Spitfires and Hurricanes. Despite the odds they made a difference - these pilots discovered the weakness of the Stuka and that it was vulnerable when it pulled out of a dive.
In the background to all this and soon to be used were the Czech, Canadian, Polish and American 'Eagle' Squadrons and when they were unleashed it made a difference.
Georing then made the mistake of keeping his fighters back to act as an umbrella for the bombers. This did not go down well with one Gruppe leader, Adolph Galand. To try and appease his Gruppe leaders Goering said that he would do all that he could all they had to do was ask. Galland came back with the famous response: 'Then give me a squadron of Spitfires'.
By September the 15th 1940 - the barges in Boulogne had gone and the troops dispersed. Operation Sealion was not going to happen. The Battle Of Britain was over and the German bombers switched from daylight raids to night raids - The Blitz had begun.
The one thing that I learned from all the reading of this period is that wars are fought by ordinary people. Doesn't matter about what nationality they are - but they are a part of history.
That is something that can't be brushed under the carpet as though it never happened.
Two good books by Richard Collier: Sands Of Dunkirk
Eagle Day
These read like novels with a blend of historical fact and eyewitness accounts.
Also: Larry Forrester: Battle Of The April Storm - a fiction/fact book about HMS Glowworm

3 comments:

Scott Parker said...

Fascinating reading! I am a historian but have focused more on 19th C. America than 20th C. Britain. I am, however, an huge devotee of "Foyle's War" and its excellent depiction of England at war, including the Blitz. I've finished 3 seasons (out of 6) and, for me, the best part is the ordinary humanness of Foyle and his fellow police as well as the ordinary humanness of the ne'er do wells. Even in war, folks want money.

Thanks for the reminder today.

ARCHAVIST said...

Agree a fantastic post. Keep these memories coming.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

The reason the British and allied troops were given a reprieve at Dunkirk was that Goering asked for the honor of finishing them off with his Luftwaffa. It didn't work, and many of the allies were savedbefore the German army finally got to mop up the stragglers.
Great posts.