Chapter 19: Blockade: Part Two (June 1941–October 1943)
AS THE SPRING of 1941 drew on without the expected renewal of daylight mass attacks on the United Kingdom, an accumulation of evidence suggested that the enemy’s next move might be the eastward thrust so frankly proclaimed in Hitler’s published work as the proper end and aim of German policy.* Meanwhile, operations in the Balkans culminated in a descent on Crete. Matured in secret since the autumn of 1940, the threat to Russia was made manifest during the third week in June, when reports from Eastern Europe described German troops as massed along the frontier from Petsamo to the Black Sea.
At dawn on 22nd June Germany opened the campaign against Russia with immense land forces backed by two-thirds of the Luftwaffe’s total first-line strength.1 Six days later a mere 299 bombers remained on the Western Front, including those concerned with shipping, and of that number only about half were serviceable.2 Meanwhile the whole of Luftflotte 2 and its headquarters had moved to the Eastern Front.
German estimates of the duration of the campaign ranged from six weeks upwards, but all save the minority who feared the worst seem to have supposed that victory could be achieved before the winter. In Britain, too, successful opposition by Soviet armed forces was thought unlikely, especially in view of their poor showing against Finland in 1939 and 1940. But clearly major assaults on the United Kingdom were improbable while the bulk of the German army and air force were engaged elsewhere. The national interest, soon seconded by powerful evidence of popular sympathy for Russia, demanded therefore that the respite should be prolonged as far as possible by extending all practicable aid to Germany’s new victim.
The British Army had no troops to spare for an adventure on the Continent. But Bomber Command was growing stronger, and Fighter Command had sixty operational day squadrons at least temporarily
* Mein Kampf, Eng. Edtn. (1939), p. 533.
delivered from the prospect of a big defensive battle. On 17th June—five days before the Germans opened their campaign—the Air Ministry therefore instructed the Commanders-in-Chief of the metropolitan air force to consider means of compelling the Germans to reverse the existing flow of Luftwaffe formations from west to east, ‘particularly in the event of operations developing against Russia’.3
Two days later the Commanders-in-Chief—assisted in their deliberations by Leigh-Mallory—came to the conclusion that the most promising method was to continue on a larger scale the recent day offensive against objectives within reach of fighters.4 Attacks by bombers with fighter escort on well-chosen targets in the neighbourhood of Lille and Lens, coupled with night attacks on the Ruhr and an offensive against shipping in the Straits, would, they thought, so threaten communications between Germany and France that the enemy might well recall some of his fighters to defend them.
On 14th June the offensive by bombers with fighter escort had been resumed after an interval of bad weather. It was now intensified in accordance with the opinion just recorded. In the rest of 1941 some ninety daylight raids by escorted bombers on objectives in the French departments of the Pas-de-Calais and the Nord and at or near Rouen were undertaken, besides more than a hundred attacks on shipping or dockyards and raids by fighter-bombers on a variety of targets. In addition, fighters without bombers made some hundreds of offensive patrols, including sweeps and minor raids of the kind described in the last chapter.
The full story of these operations, no longer defensive in any sense but undertaken from June onwards for an uncompromisingly offensive purpose, falls outside the context of this volume. It is enough to note here that for the rest of the year they were the main task of the fighter force after the defence of shipping; that German losses in aircraft and pilots were much lighter than our own; and that in the whole of 1941 the day offensive cost Fighter Command more pilots than they had lost in the defensive battle from July to October 1940.*5
The extravagance of an offensive which kept at most some two or three hundred German fighter-pilots from joining their comrades on the Eastern Front or in the Mediterranean theatre was partly hidden by enormously exaggerated estimates of German losses.† Even so
* Namely, 426 pilots killed, missing or taken prisoner, against 414 pilots (and 35 other aircrew) killed outright or mortally wounded in combat between 10th July and 31st October 1940.
† From 14th June to the end of the year pilots of Fighter Command on day offensive operations claimed the destruction of 731 German aircraft (practically all fighters). The number of first-line fighters in fact lost by the Germans over France and the Low Countries from all causes was 154, including 51 whose loss was not attributed to British action. Another eleven were reported lost over the United Kingdom. These figures do not, of course, reflect the moral value of the operations. Many British fighter pilots gained from the raids experience which served them well in later years.
considerable misgivings were felt in London and at Stanmore.6 An investigation in July showed that Fighter Command’s losses were not too heavy to be made good, but such calculations ignored the difference between the experienced pilot who might be forced down over France and the death-prone tyro who might replace him. Moreover, Bomber Command’s losses were sometimes uncomfortably heavy. At the end of August—by which time Bomber Command had long ceased to regard the day offensive as a profitable venture—Douglas and the Air Staff agreed that the scale of attack must be reduced.7 Subsequently Douglas, observing that demands from other theatres threatened him with a serious shortage of aircraft in future months, progressively curbed Leigh-Mallory’s investment in the more ambitious class of operation.8 Further motives for economy were provided by heavy losses incurred by Bomber Command in a night raid on Berlin in November, and by the extension of the war to the Pacific theatre. In practice no more big escorted raids were made in 1941, after errors in navigation and timing, accentuated by a high wind, had led to the failure of an elaborately planned complex of operations early in November, when fourteen pilots of Fighter Command were lost in a single day at no cost to the Germans save two aircraft damaged.9
By the end of July Germany was clearly committed to a major campaign in Russia on a front of 1,500 miles. More than two-thirds of her fighting troops, with their transport and supplies, were engaged on that front and were meeting strenuous resistance.10 The large air forces already deployed from East Prussia and the Baltic States to Southern Poland and Rumania had been reinforced since June by further units from the Western Front, where only a handful of bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and a few hundred fighters now faced the United Kingdom.11 In the middle sector Army Group Centre, after advancing rapidly from Poland into White Russia, had been checked before Smolensk. According to the Joint Intelligence Committee Germany was so deeply committed on the Eastern Front that she could be reckoned incapable of disengaging before September the large land and air forces needed for invasion of the United Kingdom.12
The Chiefs of Staff agreed that the prospect of invasion had receded and that Russian resistance would probably extend the respite until the spring of 1942.13 But the danger might then recur in no negligible fashion. The Joint Intelligence Committee estimated the forces which might try to land at nine armoured and twenty-three infantry divisions (with some 2,000 to 3,600 tanks), supported by another
eleven divisions employed to make diversionary landings; but naval and air action and losses on the beaches would, they thought, reduce the main body to the equivalent of four or five armoured and eleven or twelve infantry divisions.14 On the other hand, the Admiralty foresaw that, while good warning of the transfer of troops from east to west could be expected, confirmation that invasion had been launched would have to be awaited before light naval forces and cruisers were redisposed to meet the threat. According to the somewhat pessimistic view which was widely accepted at the time, from five to seven days might then elapse before they were fully ready to go into action.15
Within that period, according to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, ‘it would be perfectly possible to lose this country and the war’.16 Nor did he think that defeat of Fighter Command was a necessary preliminary to the landing of German troops, or that the air campaign of 1940 would be repeated. In his view the biggest danger was a sudden swift descent, unheralded by preliminary air bombardment, by an enemy prepared to take big risks and relying on speed, mass and surprise.
In his opinion the remedy was to have ready in the United Kingdom enough armoured formations to defeat the greatest volume of armour which the Germans could get ashore by a rapid stroke designed to outpace British naval and air action. He calculated that to crush the largest German force capable of being transported to this country he would need eight armoured and fourteen full-scale infantry divisions, besides twelve County divisions, ten Army tank brigades, five independent infantry brigades, three infantry brigade-groups and an airborne brigade.17 In addition he required 43,224 men (of whom 38,110 were available) for coast defence, and three hundred light tank troops and two hundred and fifty-six Young Soldier and other battalions for the local defence of aerodromes, vital points and vulnerable places. Briefly the method of defence he favoured was to hold the coast as an outpost line, retaining the bulk of his troops in local and G.H.Q. reserves as fully mobile counter-attack formations capable of acting swiftly where they were most needed.
General Brooke’s proposals and assumptions met some criticism. An Inter-Service Committee on Invasion, set up to consider the matter from the German viewpoint, favoured a frontal attack through Kent and Sussex rather than the pincers movement he expected.18 Again, some critics thought the provision suggested by the Commander-in-Chief too generous; others feared that his dispositions might prove inadequate in view of British inexperience of lightning warfare. And while the Vice-Chiefs of Staff agreed with him that a pincers movement was more likely to succeed (and therefore, presumably, more likely to be made) than a frontal attack, the Prime Minister believed, despite his arguments, that more benefit could
be expected from naval and air action than many were willing to allow.19
In any case, demands from overseas soon scotched the hope of mustering so large a force as Brooke thought necessary. When the spring of 1942 arrived Eastern, Northern and Southern Commands were each a County division and an Army tank brigade below his figures, their reserves were limited to armoured formations, and G.H.Q. Reserve had one armoured division (with two due in the summer) instead of four.* South-Eastern Command, responsible for the most vulnerable stretch of coastline, alone remained unshorn. Even so the strength of Home Forces stood at roughly 850,000 of all ranks, while the total number of troops at home, including Anti-Aircraft Command and forces in Northern Ireland, was more than a million and a half.20 In addition, the Home Guard numbered nearly 1,600,000 men, of whom about three-quarters had been issued with a personal weapon. Apart from these defensive forces an Expeditionary Force was being formed in Scotland; its one armoured and two full-scale infantry divisions would be available to swell Home Forces if the Germans landed.
Meanwhile much progress had been made with the formation of Auxiliary units designed to act behind an invader’s lines. The first of them, comprising only a handful of army officers, Local Defence Volunteers (as the Home Guard was first called) and civilians, had been formed about the time of the withdrawal from Dunkirk.† By 1942 the units had grown into a powerful and elaborate organisation, numbering many thousands of men and women drawn from a variety of sources and covering the coastal belt from John o’ Groats to Pembrokeshire, with offshoots as far afield as the Hebrides.21 Thus an enemy who landed would find himself opposed, not only by a Field Army supported by substantial bomber and fighter forces and backed by the Home Guard, but also by patrols emerging from hidden centres to check his advance and strike at his communications.
General Brooke had in the meantime been succeeded as Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Paget.‡ General Paget believed that many of those under his command were not fully alive to the possibilities of modern fire-power and mobile tactics.22 There was, he thought, a tendency to forget that infantry were still the major factor in winning battles, and that their schooling for the changed conditions they would have to meet was of paramount importance.23 Early in 1942 he established a G.H.Q,. Battle School near Barnard Castle, in County Durham. There instructors were trained for the further schools set up in each Command
* See Map 27. The map includes the two armoured divisions added in the summer.
† See p. 130.
‡ Appointed 25th December 1941.
to give troops a thorough grounding in modern warfare. Live ammunition and live bombs dropped from aircraft conferred on the proceedings a realism never achieved in peace-time exercises. Lessons learned with alacrity in such conditions exacted their price in immediate casualties, but unquestionably saved many lives in battles not destined to be fought on English soil. To discuss at length the effects of the new attitude to training would take us far outside our province, since they were felt in every theatre where British troops went into action; but the great importance of Paget’s contribution should not be forgotten.
Meanwhile the entry of the United States as an active partner in the war, and unexpectedly tenacious resistance by Soviet forces, had done much to transform the strategic outlook. Early in 1942 United States troops arrived in Northern Ireland. Briefly the Anglo-American policy was to use the United Kingdom as a base for the accommodation and supply of British and American troops ultimately to be landed on the Continent, and in the meantime to give priority to the despatch of war-material to Russia.24 During the winter the German Army and the Luftwaffe, having failed to achieve their promised victory in 1941, had suffered heavily amidst hardships which they were ill-prepared to meet; in the next few months Russian counter-offensives scotched their new hope of a swift advance to the Caucasus in the late spring and early summer. By June 1942, the British Chiefs of Staff were satisfied that Germany would be fully occupied on the Eastern Front until August or later, and that invasion need not be feared while the Russian armies were undefeated or for three months afterwards.25
On the other hand, raids on the United Kingdom by up to 100,000 seaborne and airborne troops were still a possibility with which they thought it wise to reckon. To deal with such raids Paget relied on a ‘defence screen’ of local garrisons and local mobile reserves provided by lower-establishment divisions, independent brigades, Young Soldier and Home Defence battalions and Home Guard formations, backed by a limited number of Field Army formations north of London and in Scotland.26 Field Army formations training for offensive tasks could always be switched back to a defensive role if the outlook grew more threatening. He believed there was also some risk that in the spring of 1943 the Germans might undertake invasion as a ‘desperate final gamble’ if they beat the Russians in the meantime.27 To repel an attempt by ten armoured and twenty-one infantry divisions he would need at least six armoured and twenty-two infantry divisions in the Field Army; but reinforcement of the Middle East and the forthcoming departure of the First Army for French North Africa (Operation ‘TORCH’) would prevent him from finding more than five and nineteen respectively.28
The Chiefs of Staff were much more hopeful. New production and American assistance had greatly strengthened our light naval forces during the past year, so that large numbers of such units could be quickly concentrated against German transports. The period which might elapse before arrival of reinforcements from the Western Approaches they now put at four days instead of five to seven.29 Moreover, the combined British and American bomber forces would be able to drop 47,000 tons of bombs on assembly areas and embarkation ports in seven days.30 Finally, the Chiefs of Staff thought that Germany would be quite unable to ‘attain the requisite degree of air superiority for an invasion to be practicable before 1944, if ever’.31 Hence they concluded that the risk foreseen by Paget need not be feared in 1943, and that our forces in the United Kingdom could safely be reorganised ‘to form the largest possible balanced offensive force’.32
From the beginning of 1943 the main task of the authorities at home was, therefore, to build up forces for service in other theatres without denuding the base so much as to expose it wantonly to such dangers as still existed and to those which might arise in future. Even though invasion in the current year was ruled out, a new threat coming hard on the heels of a German victory in Russia might subsequently revive the perils of 1940 if the basic structure of home defence were too drastically uprooted. If only as a precaution against minor seaborne and airborne raids, the Home Guard must be kept in a high state of efficiency; as long as the possibility of air attack existed, the air defences must remain strong. The coast defences, too, elaborated with such pains during the past three years, would take at least nine months to restore if swept away, and nine months might not be avail-able.33 Accordingly, the Chiefs of Staff advised the Government that where coast defence was concerned wholesale economies must be deferred until the Expeditionary Force was firmly established on the Continent and not likely to be dislodged by German armies released from the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, they agreed that seventy-one batteries out of the two hundred and sixty existing in the autumn of 1943 could be sacrificed.34
In practice, economies in coast defence had begun as early as 1942, when fifty batteries not directly guarding ports or harbours were declared redundant.35 But at that time additions were still being made elsewhere in the form of modern batteries for the defence of places deemed more important. The guns and searchlights were not removed from redundant sites but were put in the hands of small ‘care and maintenance’ parties, the bulk of the troops being posted elsewhere. Other savings were made by replacing all but a few of the serving soldiers at certain batteries by members of the Home Guard, while one battery was manned by Norwegian troops. Thus, of the
two hundred and sixty batteries existing when the Chiefs of Staff decided that seventy-one could be dispensed with, seventy-five—including thirty-two of the seventy-one—were ‘Home Guard’ batteries.36
Early in July 1941, the Germans abandoned the fighter and fighter-bomber sweeps over south-east England which they had resumed on a small scale in February after a lull lasting since the middle of December. Doubtless, if their object was to meet our fighters, they now met enough on their own side of the Channel. For the rest of the year daylight operations by the Luftwaffe, apart from defensive sorties, consisted almost entirely of regular reconnaissance and weather flights, some extending far over the Atlantic, interspersed with occasional attacks on shipping or places on or near the east coasts of England and Scotland. Perhaps the sole exception until late December was the dropping of some bombs near Downpatrick, in Northern Ireland, on 29th November by an aircraft which had just escaped from two pursuing fighters. Conversely, Fighter Command’s main task in daylight, besides the offensive operations mentioned earlier, was the defence of shipping. During the latter half of 1941 some 28,000 sorties, or roughly seven-tenths of the whole defensive effort of the fighter force in daylight, were devoted to that task.* Only eleven daylight attacks or attempted attacks on shipping within forty miles of a fighter aerodrome were reported in July; the figures were higher in August, September and November, but did not rise again to the level of earlier months. Moreover, only five ships were sunk in daylight, as compared with fifty between January and June, while even at night sinkings totalled only twenty-nine as compared with forty-eight. By December, direct attacks on ships in coastal waters had lost much of their attractiveness for the German High Command; and further to seaward British counter-measures had shifted the focus of submarine warfare to areas which Kampfgeschwader 40’s aircraft could barely reach.
Even so the defensive duties of the air defences were no sinecure. German aircraft which roamed daily over the face of the waters and sometimes over the United Kingdom were bent more often on getting news of shipping and the weather than on bombing; yet they could not be ignored when they ventured within range. Their interception, particularly in cloudy weather, was an ever-present problem. Well-founded reports that the enemy was developing bomber-reconnaissance machines capable of flying at 30,000 to 40,000 feet or more also
* See Appendix 35.
caused some anxiety. Means of coping with such aircraft were devised the best part of a year in advance of their appearance. At night the end of the main offensive in May was followed in June by a notable attack on Chatham and occasional raids on other places, especially Hull, which now became a favourite target. In the July moon-period Southampton, Plymouth, Yarmouth and Birmingham were attacked in the course of two successive nights; early on the 28th of that month London had its worst attack for many weeks, when fifty to sixty German aircraft retaliated at short notice for a raid by British bombers on Berlin.37 By the standards of the main offensive, night bombing for the rest of the year was very slight, though German minelaying and ‘intruder’ raids continued with other minor operations to make work for the defences.* Special methods of intercepting minelaying aircraft were devised towards the end of the year and were applied in 1942. The unwelcome distinction which attached to Hull as an objective easily reached by German prentice crews was recognised by installation of a special ‘dazzle barrage’ of massed searchlights—an innovation almost certainly responsible for the failure of at least one raid in August.
Too late for the main offensive, the performance of the night air defences during the latter part of 1941 showed a marked gain over earlier achievements. Night-fighters destroyed nearly one-tenth of the bombers which set out for Chatham on the night of 13th June; between June and December the Luftwaffe lost 114 bombers in operations against the United Kingdom (mainly at night) and 33 in operations against shipping.38 These were heavy casualties for the small force of about two hundred bombers remaining in the west. There was thus some ground for Fighter Command’s claim that the main offensive ended at the very moment when they had put a good edge on their weapons.†
Nevertheless, some changes were found necessary. The most important was concerned with searchlights. Deployment in clusters, introduced about the end of 1940, was found unsatisfactory.39 A new system, devised in the autumn of 1941 and substantially unchanged thereafter, recognised the principle that heavy anti-aircraft guns no longer depended on searchlights, whose primary function was now to assist night-fighters. Illuminated areas were therefore divided into rectangular ‘boxes’ designed to give the optimum elbow-room to a single fighter. The fighter circled round a stationary vertical beam in the centre of the box until a hostile aircraft entered it. Thereupon other searchlights, disposed at intervals of three-and-a-half miles near the centre of the rectangle and more widely towards its edges,
* In December alone minesweepers detonated 99 mines in the Humber and its south-eastern approaches.
† See pp. 279-80.
converged on the newcomer in order to assist the fighter to close with it in the central ‘killer zone’. Calculation and experiment showed that a rectangle forty-four miles wide and fourteen miles long gave the best chance to the fighter, and accordingly those dimensions were adopted.
About the end of 1941 the reduced scale of attack, and technical advances, made possible a change of policy with respect to balloon barrages, now a potent source of danger to a growing volume of legitimate air traffic. Improved communications and equipment having increased the speed with which close-hauled balloons could be put up in an emergency, a large number of provincial barrages were henceforth grounded throughout the day and night except when hostile aircraft were known to be about.40
Of new weapons of air defence developed in 1941 the most notable was the night-fighter fitted with an airborne searchlight, or ‘Turbinlite’. The project had always been attractive, but hitherto the weight and bulk of the equipment needed to produce a sufficiently powerful beam had hampered its adoption. A practical solution of the problem was due largely to the skill and ingenuity of Air Commodore W. Helmore.41 In the course of the year ten ‘Turbinlite’ flights, equipped with Havocs, were formed and by December eight—the equivalent of four full squadrons—were active in Nos. 10, 11 and 12 Groups. Their performance during exercises was extremely promising. But a paucity of raids in the latter part of 1941 gave them little scope, while later, when their chance came, they could no longer compete on level terms with orthodox night-fighters against the faster German bombers then in service.