This week in our Museum Library, we have a look at the British People’s Resolve:
THE KEY LEADERS:
The Prime Minister at that time was Sir Winston Churchill. Defiant and determined, he declared, “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender… ” Here was a man who was said to have an intuitive sense of war… “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail…” His leadership and choice of other key people in leadership roles had a profound impact.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had his retirement delayed for the fifth time when he was called to lead the Royal Air Force Fighter Command. Though “… considered an eccentric and a loner, often at loggerheads with his peers …” ( Battle of Britain by Len Deighton ), Dowding is said to have had an instinctive understanding of the essentials of warfare. He had the ability to delegate, and a sense of leadership that built high morale in the Fighter Command. Indeed, Sir Frederick Pile, a shrewd soldier who commanded Britain’s Anti-Aircraft defences throughout the war, described Dowding as, “… A difficult man, a self-opinionated man, a most determined man, and a man who knew more than anybody about all the aspects of aerial warfare.”
Lord Beaverbrook was appointed to run the newly established Ministry of Aircraft Production in May, 1940. It is said that his vision was higher “… than the Air Ministry’s belief that his “… function was to manufacture the aircraft that the air marshals wanted … Beaverbrook … recognized clearly that all that mattered in the summer of 1940 was fighter production for the defence of Britain … he set about dramatically increasing fighter production.” ( Battle of Britain by Len Deighton ). In addition, Beaverbrook launched the successful Atlantic ferry, flying aircraft from America to Britain to shortcut the lengthy freight delays by sea. He also contracted American Packard company to build Rolls-Royce Merlin engines under licence, after Henry Ford refused to support the British war effort. And, perhaps his most vital contribution was in galvanizing the Civilian Repair Organization. “61% of all aircraft struck off squadron strength because they couldn’t be repaired on the airfields flew again after being rebuilt by the CRO. These ‘new’ fighters were a critical reinforcement to the Spitfires and Hurricanes coming from the factories.”
Fighter pilots on both sides were “… considered the most glamorous figures of the war. In reality, the high scorers were those who perfected the art of diving steeply on an enemy formation out of the sun, surprising them and shooting … ” ( Battle of Britain by Len Deighton and Max Hastings ). Indeed the public saw air fighting as duels between ‘knights of the air’.
Where radar ended at the coast, the responsibility for accurate records of aircraft movements was with the Observer Corps and its telephone network. In the early days of the Corps, it was made up of special constables and constables who gave up their spare time and went ‘aeroplane watching’. After But as they realized that all the responsibility was passed on to them after enemy aircraft had crossed the coast, more and more people were drafted into the Corps and it became a military establishment controlled by Fighter Command. In total, the Observer Corps had a strength of over 32,000 men and manned more than 1400 command posts scattered around the coastal areas. In addition to observing, locating, and estimating enemy aircraft strength, height and direction, they were to report the location of crashed aircraft of both the RAF and the Luftwaffe. This sped up the process of the RAF Air-Sea Rescue or Coastal Command reaching pilots before they suffered from water immersion or before they drowned.
The RAF Bomber Command held to the belief that strategic bombing was the best form of defence. Although it was poorly equipped with medium bombers and lacked sufficient technology to bomb accurately, it constantly assaulted German military and industrial targets. It’s questionable how effective these bombing attacks were on industrial targets, but the campaign against German airfields, invasion ports, barges and vessels placed a check on Germany’s invasion plans. Bomber Command suffered heavier casualties than any other RAF command during the Battle of Britain with a total of 718 personnel lost.
The Anti-Aircraft Command was a branch of the British Army that fought with intense devotion under difficult circumstances. Gun crews were sent to man sites for months on end in “… primitive and demoralizing isolation – living in tents that blew down under the blast when their guns fired, without comfort or even basic amenities.” ( Battle of Britain by Len Deighton and Max Hastings ) Some were posted on forts in river estuaries, some aboard coastal steamers. Most of the heavy guns were deployed around key towns and factories in batteries of four. The pre-war decision to set more than 300 guns in concrete emplacements hampered the effectiveness of this command since they couldn’t be flexible. Overall, though, they manned 4000 searchlights, 1280 medium and 517 light anti-aircraft guns in July 1940. The guns claimed approximately 300 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down during the Battle.
RAF’s Coastal Command’s patrols maintained watch over German preparations for the invasion of Britain and also provided a defence of merchant shipping from attack by German aircraft, submarines and surface vessels. “Watching water” was a major occupation for this group.
This group operated Britain’s barrage balloon defences; in July 1940 it consisted of 1466 balloons, including about 450 over London. Theirs was a significant role in Britain’s anti-aircraft “umbrella” defences because they restricted the freedom of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft, often forcing them to fly different routes to a particular target or at higher altitudes, thus within range of anti-aircraft artillery. In addition, their highly visible presence was a morale booster for the civilians.
Tens of thousands of women volunteered to “do their bit”. Organizations such as the Women’s Land Army (WLA), Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), Air Raid Precaution Service (ARP), Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) flourished. Many women worked in factories building aircraft and equipment. Female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) delivered aircraft to stations around the country.
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) worked alongside the Royal Air Force (RAF). Most of the WAAFs at this time worked in the various commands as drivers, clerks, telephonists, cooks and orderlies. Personnel served at airfields, balloon barrage sites, and radar stations. At radar stations, plotters and operators provided the position of enemy aircraft and relayed this information to personnel in filter and operation rooms to be reconciled and displayed. They later took over most of the cookhouses, parachute packing, transport driving, and even some aircraft maintenance. By the spring of 1941, there were over 100,000 serving.
OTHER SUPPORTIVE ROLES:
POST OFFICE ENGINEERS:
Among the unsung heroes of the Battle of Britain, Post Office Engineers worked day and night, often while bombing was still continuing around them. Their job was to repair shattered telephone and telex links that were key arteries of the air defence system. Near Manston on August 24, they worked for hours alongside an unexploded bomb, to reconnect the fighters and Operations Room to Group Headquarters. On Fighter Command’s airfields, electricity workers were called on to take the same risks, to restore wrecked power lines.
AUXILIARY POLICE CORPS:
Outside London the civil defence organization of local areas usually focused on the police force, and county Chief Constables were often Chief ARP Wardens. The police were trained in anti-gas and ARP measures, and the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps provided drivers and telephonists. The local bobby was called upon to guard baled-out Luftwaffe men, direct rescues from bombed buildings, or find transport for shot-down British pilots trying to get back to their stations.
AIR RAID WARDENS:
The Air Raid Warden service was created in 1937; its purpose was to provide leaders and advisers. They were to supervise air raid shelters, issue gas masks and check black out. Toward the end of the Battle, there were ten wardens to every square mile of London, mostly middle-aged or elderly men. Twelve Regional Commissioners, answerable to the Ministry of Home Security, oversaw the wardens. The service did a lot of valuable warning and rescue work.
In September 1940, the authorities found that the civil defences were swamped by the onslaught of Luftwaffe incendiary bombs. The first Fire Watchers’ order demanded that all major factories and businesses have workers to patrol their premises outside working hours. Then new regulations were introduced that called on every man working less than sixty hours a week and every woman working less than forty-five hours, to spend forty-eight hours per month fire-watching. Their equipment? A bucket of sand or a stirrup pump.
Before the Blitz began, there was constant friction between Britain’s 6000 professional firemen and the 60,000 volunteers who had signed up for the Auxiliary Fire Service in the last years before war. But by the time the serious bombing began, the critical importance of the fire service was recognized. With poor equipment and little training, the Auxiliaries worked long hours under very difficult conditions through the fall and winter of 1940.