Chapter 2: The First Winter, 3rd September, 1939, to 9th May, 1940
On the day before war was declared the Royal Air Force flew to France a small advance party of eighteen officers and thirty-one other ranks. By the 27th September the Royal Navy with shipping of the Mercantile Marine under their control had moved to France, without the loss of a single life,
152,031 army personnel
9,932 air force personnel
21,424 army vehicles
2,470 air force vehicles
36,000 tons of ammunition
25,000 tons of motor spirit
60,000 tons of frozen meat
in addition to other stores, equipment and supplies. Thereafter the build-up of our forces and of equipment, stores and supplies continued steadily.
Advance parties sailed from Portsmouth on the 4th of September, and the first convoy of troopships left Southampton and the Bristol Channel ports on the 9th. The first main landings took place at Cherbourg no the 10th and at Nantes and St Nazaire two days later. Thereafter convoys bearing men and material followed at frequent intervals. In their naval war plans, issued in May 1939, the Germans recognised that they would ‘be excluded from the Channel in a very short time’. And during the first three weeks of September, when Hitler still hoped to avoid immediate war with the Western Power, the action of German submarines was accordingly limited by his orders. After that date the restrictions were progressively removed.1 Even then, their only attempt to interfere with our operations was by laying a few mines in the approaches to Dover and Weymouth, ports which were wrongly believed to be in use for embarkations. While foresight and careful planning had their reward in the smoothness with which the Royal Navy’s plans worked, the effectiveness of security measures was thus proved by the enemy’s mistaken action. All this, and all the going and coming which was to follow, was made possible by the completeness of the Navy’s control of the narrow seas and of their approaches.
Almost from the start rolling-stock and loaded wagons had been sent by train ferry direct to Calais and Dunkirk, and Dieppe had been used as a medical base; but the carriage of all reinforcements and stores to the western ports of France placed a severe strain on shipping resources and escort forces, and it quickly became apparent that for military as well as naval reasons it was desirable to make fuller use of the French Channel ports and so reduce both the sea passage and the overland carry. The French were anxious to avoid action which might invite air attacks on these ports and would not at first agree to their use, but in October they acquiesced; a start was made by sending cased petrol direct to Caen, and in the following month a base was opened at Havre. Eventually Rouen, Fécamp, St Malo, Dieppe, Boulogne, and Dunkirk were all used.
One further factor which certainly contributed to the continued safe passage to France of men and stores was the Navy’s closing of the English Channel by a mine barrage across the Straits of Dover. This carried out in three stages between the 11th of September and the end of October, and nearly 7,000 shallow and deep mines were used with other protective devices. It was a well-planned and carefully executed operation and completely successful. Before the first stage was completed one enemy submarine passed through to lay mines off Dover and Weymouth as mentioned above, but that was all. The U-12 and U-40 were blown up in the minefield in October and a third U-boat, trying to avoid it, ran ashore on the Goodwins and was destroyed by surface vessels. Thereafter the enemy abandoned the attempt to penetrate to the western waters of the Channel, through which the British Expeditionary Force was being maintained, until he in turn occupied the French coasts.(2)
The Army had now to provide in France for all the needs of a community of men which increased daily till less than three weeks it was greater than the total population of either Brighton or Derby. This army had to be distributed, housed and fed, and vast stores for its immediate use and its future operations had also to be accumulated and conveniently disposed.
A ‘Maintenance Project Plan’ had been prepared ahead as a complement to ‘Plan W.4’.(3) In the application of both plans some unforeseen difficulties were discovered. For example, the railway journey from Cherbourg, where personnel were disembarked, to the ports at which their vehicles were landed was found to take about thirty hours, though the distance by rail was only about 150 miles, and in the more normal time-table should only take about seven hours. Some units, too, arrived in advance of their stores, and some fighting troops were shipped ahead of the supply and maintenance echelons on which they depended. Accommodation provided at the bases proved to be inadequate and
a considerable building programme had to be set afoot as labour became available. But all difficulties were overcome. On the whole the plans which had been prepared ahead worked most successfully and the resources and initiative of Lord Gort’s Quartermaster-General, Lieutenant General W. G. Lindsell, his staff and services successfully solved unforeseen problems.(4) The map overleaf shows diagrammatically the main routes of supply and the general lay-out of the lines of communication.
Our undertaking to have two corps assembled in France thirty-three days after mobilisation was fulfilled.
Commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill, I Corps (1st and 2nd Divisions) began taking over a sector of the frontier defences from French troops on the 3rd of October; II Corps (3rd and 4th Divisions), commanded by Lieutenant-General A. F. Brooke, moved into the line from its concentration area on the 12th October. The sector for which British troops were eventually responsible lay east of Lille and stretched from Maudle and Halluin with a defensive flank along the River Lys from Halluin to Armentières. On their right was the French First Army; on their left the French Seventh Army.
General Headquarters was opened near Arras, with its various branches dispersed in neighbouring villages and in the town. For liaison with our Ally a military mission under Major-General Sir Richard Howard-Vyse was appointed to represent the Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the General Headquarters of the French Supreme Commander, General Gamelin. A second mission under Brigadier J. G. des R. Swayne was appointed to represent the British Commander-in-Chief at the Headquarters of General Georges, commanding the French North-East Theatre of Operations in which was included the British Expeditionary Force.(5) Later, after Belgium was attacked, a mission to the Belgian Army Headquarters under Major-General H. Needham was appointed to keep the War Office informed of the Belgian situation and intentions and to repeat information acquired to the British Commander-in-Chief.(6) As with the custom at the time, these missions will be referred to as ‘the Howard-Vyse Mission’, ‘the Swayne Mission’ and ‘the Needham Mission’. Major-General H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester was appointed Chief Liaison Officer on Lord Gort’s Staff.
The six months which followed are unique in the history of modern warfare. Germany had attacked Poland, and because of this Britain and France had declared war on Germany. It was a brave act, for neither country was equipped for such a fight, and other free nations applauded as the Allies mobilised their forces and arranged them for battle on the French frontier. And then we waited while Germany conquered Poland and divided the spoil with Russia. We waited while Germany moved her armies to the west and disposed
them to attack us. We waited, then, for Hitler to choose the time and place for his assault. And while we waited, the applause of a world which could not know how ill-prepared we were changed into wonder, as Germany was allowed to mass her armies without interference on the western frontiers while the Allies prepared to defend themselves.
For six months after the British Expeditionary Force took its placed in the Allies’ line of battle it had neutral Belgium between it and the enemy. In those six months it had time to prepare for the coming battle, to build up its strength, to perfect its training, to strengthen the defences of the front it was to hold, and to develop rearwards organisation for eventual expansion. And the time was put to good use.
The build-up of forces was, of course, dependent on the progress of additional units. By the end of 1939 it had proved possible to form another Regular division in France—the 5th Division. In January, 1940, the first Territorial division—the 48th (South Midland) Division arrived. In February came the 50th (Northumbrian) Division and the 51st (Highland) Division, and in April the 42nd (East Lancashire) and 44th (Home Counties) Divisions, all these high-numbered divisions being territorial divisions. By the 9th April a third corps was operational, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Ronald F. Adam, and by the beginning of May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force had been increased from four Regular divisions in two corps to ten divisions (half Regular and half Territorial) in three corps and GHQ reserve. As a measure of unification some Regular battalions were transferred to Territorial brigades and vice versa. As will be seen later three incomplete Territorial divisions were also sent out in April for labour duties and to complete their training. A list of the principal formations and their commanders is given in Appendix I. In April Sir John Dill handed over command of I Corps to Lieutenant-General M. G. H. Barker, on appointment as Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
By the end of April the strength of the British Army in France had increased to 394,165. Of this total, 237,319 were with GHQ and in corps and divisions—that is the main fighting force; 18,347 were in the Territorial divisions sent out for labour duties and further training; 17,665 were reinforcements held at bases; 78,864 were on lines-of-communication duties; 23.545 were in headquarters of various services and missions, hospitals and miscellaneous employment; 9,051 were in drafts en route; 2,515 were not yet allocated and 6,859 were with the Advanced Air Striking Force.(8)
Thus behind the main fighting force of nearly a quarter of a million there were over 150,000 men in the rearward areas. Large number of these men were preparing bases, depots and installations for the
maintenance of the much larger fighting force which it was intended to build up as rapidly as possible. Many of them were skilled tradesmen with little or no military training.
It had been decided that as soon as the strength of the British Expeditionary Force was further increased to four corps these should be grouped into two armies each with its own army commander and staff, but this stage had not been reached when the battle began. Throughout the campaign Lord Gort acted both as Commander-in-Chief and as Army Commander with consequences which are discussed in a later chapter.
Training was vigorously pursued in so far as time could be spared from front-line duties and work on defences. It was some years since any considerable exercise with troops had been held in England, for before the war even the small Regular Army had been allowed to fall short of establishment by some 20,000 (including 5,000 officers) and many units on the home establishment was little more than cadres. They had been largely made up to strength by reservists but these and new recruits needed training in the use of new weapons and in modern methods. Weapon training, field exercises, practice in road movement and cooperation with the Royal Air Force were all included in the training programme. A number of schools of instruction were set up and many officers and non-commissioned officers were freed to attend courses in England. Finally training in day-to-day duties when in contact with the enemy was secured by cooperation with the French Army. As early as November the Commander-in-Chief arranged with the French High Command that British infantry brigades should in turn do a short spell of duty under the command of a French division on the Saar front. There they would hold forward positions in front of the Maginot forts; only no-man’s-land would separate them from the forward posts of the enemy’s Siegfried Line. Before hostilities began nine brigades had the advantage of this most valuable experience.(9)
Towards the end of the winter it was decided to increase the Saar contingent to a whole division with attached troops including cavalry, machine guns and pioneers, and the 51st Division duly took over a divisional sector from the French by the 6th of May. What happened to it must be told separately for it was never able to rejoin the main British force under Lord Gort’s command.
Work on the defences of the British sector of the front was set in hand as soon as the position was taken over. An anti-tank ditch covered by concrete pill-boxes had already been constructed by the French along much of the front, and while this provision for the close defence of the frontier was developed it was decided to organise the defences in depth by the eventual construction of three position across the base of the salient made by the frontier east of
Lille. In November twelve field companies of Royal Engineers drawn from Territorial divisions at home, with companies of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and special Excavation Company, reached France and were employed on digging anti-tank ditches, constructing breastworks, and other tasks. The majority of these men had had little or no military training and considerable numbers were not armed, facts which must be recalled later. The construction of successive positions and switch lines, strengthened by concrete pill-boxes, wire and anti-tank obstacles, was pushed on, and before the offensive opened about forty miles of revetted anti-tank obstacle, covered by over 400 concrete pill-boxes, had been completed. Between 700 and 800 machines—bulldozers, angledozers, grabs and concrete-mixers—had been brought out to facilitate the work.(10) When the time came to hold the frontier the value of this work was proved.
A system of inter-communications throughout our front was organised by the Royal Corps of Signals not only for the Army but for the whole of the British air forces in France, in the course of which many miles of armoured signal cable were buried.(11)
Work at bases, in rearward areas and on lines of communication, in preparation for further expansion of British forces, had continued systematically so far as labour and materials allowed. Construction of fifty-nine new airfields and landing grounds for British air forces stationed in France employed upwards of 10,000 men, and other large units were engaged on railway and building construction, at bases and on the long lines of communication. Over a hundred miles of broad-gauge railway lines were laid and great quantities of barbed wire were put up.
It was to ease the problems of manpower for such duties that the three Territorial divisions already mentioned above—the 12th (Eastern), 23rd (Northumbrian) and 46th (North Midland and West Riding) Divisions—were brought out from England in April. They were neither full trained nor equipped for fighting, and, while they were to be used largely for labour duties, a balanced programme of training was carried out so far as time permitted.
In December His Majesty King George VI spent three days with the British Expeditionary Force, inspecting both forward and rearward areas.
Heavy falls of snow, with intermittent spells of hard frost, thaw, and heavy rain, during much of the winter, delayed work on defences, handicapped training, and tried the health and temper of the troops. Both stood the test well. When so large a body of men must live in abnormal conditions among people whose language is strange to them and whose modes of thought and way of life differ from their own, there are bound to be some frictions and some misunderstandings. Yet in general the British soldiery lived happily
with their neighbours through this trying winter and were chiefly impressed by the friendliness of the French people. The health of the troops remained good and there was almost complete freedom from epidemic disease, only influenza being troublesome. And when days grew longer and the sun shone more warmly the British Expeditionary Force was in good health and ready for the coming fight, fitter and better trained than it had been when it landed in France. Measures taken by the Royal Army Medical Corps to safeguard health, provision of welfare services on a generous scale, the efficiency of the Army Postal Service, and the opening of leave to England, all contributed to this result; but mainly it was due to the fact that the absence of hostilities had not been accepted as a justification for idleness.(12) Most of the British troops had a very active winter.
Meanwhile the French High Command had decided on a project which was largely to shape the destiny of the British Expeditionary Force, if not also the destiny of France.
It was noted in the previous chapter that problems relating to the expected German offensive through Belgium and Holland were discussed in the pre-war Staff conversations with France and that alternative positions on which such an attack could be held as far forward as possible were considered.
The question was discussed throughout the autumn by the Allied Governments’ Supreme War Council, at numerous conferences under General Gamelin, the French Supreme Commander, or General Georges, commanding North-East Theatre of Operations, in which Lord Gort or his Chief of the General Staff (Lieutenant-General H. R. Pownall) played their part, and in letters and meetings. It is unnecessary to trace in detail the evolution of plans which were finally to be decided by General Gamelin. But it is worth noting that all discussions were based on an assumption that the main weight of the German attack would come through central Belgium and might involve Holland. No attempt seems to have been mad to foresee what would results if the main attack feel elsewhere. And as no alternative plan of attack was envisaged, no alternative plan of defence were made by the Allies. There is no evidence in the records of these meetings or in orders and instructions which followed them that there was any study of the position which would arise if, while Allied armies moved eastward into Belgium, the enemy main forces pierced the frontier farther south and advanced westward into France. In particular, the possibility of an attack through the Ardennes having once been ruled out by the French, no further thought seems to have been given to it or to its possible consequences.
By the middle of November the French High Command had decided that if Belgium were attacked only two courses could be
regarded as practical for the Allies, namely, an advance to the River Scheldt—known to the British Expeditionary Force throughout the campaign by its French name Escaut—(Plan E) or an advance to the Dyle (known as Plan D). Which of these should be adopted would only be decided by the French High Command when the time came and when it was seen whether the Belgian Army was likely to hold the enemy’s attack while the Allies moved forward. If Plan D were adopted the French Seventh Army would be given an independent role and would be placed behind and to the left of the Belgians at Antwerp in order to cover their left flank while if possible linking them to the Dutch. The Seventh Army consisted of six infantry divisions, two of them motorised, and a light mechanised division. General Georges had planned to hold it as a reserve behind the Allies’ left: the decision to thrust it forward to the mouth of the Scheldt was taken by General Gamelin.
The Escaut plan was the simpler of the two, as the advance would involve only a day’s march for the Allied left wing. The Dyle plan, on the other hand, would involve for the British Expeditionary Force an advance of some sixty miles, over roads not previously reconnoitred and likely to be crowded by refugees moving in the opposite direction to the Allied armies. The move would take seven days to
complete and it would only be practicable if a Belgian stand on their forward line of resistance held up the German advance while it was taking place. But if the Dyle line could be reached it had several advantages. It was a shorter line to hold. With the Dendre and Escaut rivers and the prepared defences of the French frontier lying behind it, the Dyle position could be organised in greater depth. And it would dent to the enemy a larger area of Belgian territory.(13)
The position in regard to Belgium was inevitably difficult. The Belgian High Command sought to know the exact intentions of the Allies but were unwilling to supply information as to their own plan of defence. The only communications which passed were through the Allies’ military attachés in Brussels and Paris, and the knowledge gained was indefinite and incomplete. The Belgian Command were informed by General Gamelin that the Allies were prepared to move immediately on a Belgian invitation and they were sent a series of papers prepared by the French Staff on such questions as the organisation of the Dyle position, defences to be constructed in the sector where there was no natural anti-tank obstacle, the safeguarding of Meuse bridges till Allied forces arrived, and the storage of engineer material in rear of the Dyle line so that Allied troops on arrival could at once proceed to strengthen the defences. On some of these they acted, but they would neither allow reconnaissance nor given detailed and exact information as to their own defence plans, though some British officers in plain clothes were allowed unofficially to visit the Dyle line.
At each stage reached in the evolution of the Allies’ policy, British General Headquarters issued appropriate operation and administration instructions. When the German attack opened ‘Operation Instruction No. 36’ and ‘Administration Instruction No. 10’ were in force, providing together complete detail for an instant implementation of either Plan E or Plan D.(14)
Meanwhile the long pause before active warfare began proved no less useful to our air forces in France whose problems were of a different order.(15) With one modification the forces planned reached France by the due dates. Only the size of the Advanced Air Striking Force had to be reduced by half because the number of airfields which the French Air Force could then spare for their use could only accommodate ten squadrons without dangerous congestion. Even so, much work was needed to bring the allotted airfields up to the standard of equipment required for active operations.(16)
Nevertheless, almost at once the French began to press for the supply of a larger fighter force and discussion on this question and on the use to be mad of our bomber force continued throughout the period of passive warfare—and indeed throughout the campaign which followed.(17) The issues raised involved political, strategical, and
technical considerations which are outside the scope of this account of operations, but it is necessary to note their outlines in order to understand the action which was taken.
Stated shortly, the French view was that in order to defeat Germany the Allies’ first task must be the defence of French territory; this task must have priority over all others and Allied forces must be devoted first to its assurance. The British view was that the immediate aim must be the defence of French and British territory and that while contributing as largely as possible to the defence of France, Great Britain must keep sufficient strength in hand for her own defence. Moreover, since our naval superiority made it certain that any German attack on Great Britain must come first from the air, it was essential to hold air forces ready to meet such an event. This fundamental difference of outlook explains both the French demands for greater air support and the British refusal to risk all in a battle for France.(18)
The consequent difficulty in reaching agreement on air policy was further increased by contrasts in the circumstances of the two countries. France was vulnerable to attack by land, and for national defence relied mainly on her Army. Air defence had been regarded as of secondary importance, and when war was declared France was but poorly equipped to withstand an assault from the air. Three principal measures are necessary for effective air defence, namely—means to detect the approach of enemy aircraft and follow their movements; anti-aircraft artillery to protect important localities; and, above all, fighter aircraft to destroy the enemy in the air. In all three respects the French air defence was weak. For detection they relied largely on personal observers reporting by the civil telephone; they were short of the anti-aircraft artillery needed to defend so large a country, and in France (in October 1939) they had a first-line strength of only 549 fighters (of which 131 were classed as ‘anciens’), only 186 bombers (of which all but 111 were ‘anciens’) and only 377 reconnaissance and observation aircraft of which 316 were ‘anciens’.(19) Consciousness of their own weakness not only inspired the French desire to obtain more fighter support from Britain but led them to advocate a policy for the use of bomber aircraft which was in sharp conflict with British proposals. The French argued that all bombers—heavy as well as medium—should collaborate with the Allied armies in opposing a German advance by bombing the enemy’s military concentrations and forward communications. They were rigorously opposed to any bombing of targets in Germany for fear that this would provoke retaliatory attacks which France was ill-prepared to meet.
Great Britain, on the other hand, without land frontiers to defend and guarded from seaborne invasion by the Royal Navy was only
vulnerable to attack from the air. Air defence had accordingly been given priority in rearmament. When war was declared preparations for air defence were well advanced, with radar detection, anti-aircraft artillery, with modern fighters in numbers that would increase steadily. Fear of retaliation had little influence on British air policy. The British view was that if Germany started an offensive in the west the Allies should at once carry war into the enemy’s country by attacking selected targets with heavy bombers. Not only would this be an effective way to damage the enemy but it would be the only proper way to use aircraft which had been designed for that purpose and which on technical grounds were ill suited to collaborate in a land battle.
A long series of discussions on air policy took place between Governments and Staffs and at the Supreme War Council.(20) In the end, a measure of compromise was accepted though opposed views were never reconciled. The position reached by May 1940 was this. In the event of a German offensive the British Air Ministry could at once order bombing attacks by heavy bombers against communications and concentration areas in Germany west of the Rhine and against railway marshalling yards east of the Rhine. For air attacks against oil refineries in the Ruhr (which were thought to have special importance in the German war economy) Cabinet approval must first be obtained, and this was likely to be conditioned by the Allied Governments’ agreement to avoid the risk of inflicting casualties on the civil population of Germany unless or until Germany started the bombing of other than strictly military targets.(21)
There was no comparable difference of opinion as to how our medium bombers should be used.(22) They too might be called on to help in the strategic bombing of targets in Germany, but their first and main task would be to collaborative with the Allies armies by bombing enemy columns, especially at road, rail, and river crossings and other traffic bottlenecks. This accorded well with French views but some British experts held that, having regard to their equipment and performance, even the medium bombers which we had at this date would be unwisely employed on such tasks.
The British decision as to what air forces should be sent to France was not only based on the general grounds outlined above but also on two practical considerations. An air force can only operate effectively if airfields and ground organisation are adequate; and it must be reasonably mobile. At this time, as already mentioned, France could not even provide enough airfields for all the squadrons which we were ready to send out as an advanced air striking force; and Britain could not provide all the vehicles needed to make those which were sent even partially mobile. Much time and effort, large quantities of materials, and a big force of army labour were expended
during the winter and spring on the acquisition, planning and construction of additional airfields; and something was done to increase the mobility of squadrons in France. But when hostilities opened in May very few of the new airfields were yet usable and British squadrons still required over 600 vehicles to make them even semi-mobile. While such conditions existed, to have increased largely air forces which would have to operate with inadequate ground service and without ability to move with the tide of battle would have been to court avoidable losses of men and aircraft.
Some increase of our air strength in France was nevertheless effected during the winter, and much as done by regrouping and reorganisation to increase efficiency. The changes need not be traced in detail. Appendix I lists the principal units of the Royal Air Force which took part in the campaign, and shows how greatly the original forces were expanded. One major change had been made in organisation and command. As originally planned, the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force was for operation purposes part of Lord Gort’s command. The Advanced Air Striking Force on the other hand was under the orders of Bomber Command in England. In the autumn of 1939 there were thus three distinct air forces in France—the French Air Force, the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force, and the Advanced Air Striking Force. Provision had been made for liaison and coordination of operations by the establishment of Air Missions at the headquarters of the principal commands, but air exercises, designed to test communications and the rapid passage of information and orders, showed that some more efficient arrangement was needed.
By the end of 1939 it had been decided to unify the command of the two British air forces in France and early in January 1940 Air Marshal A. S. Barratt was appointed to the new command. From that date the Air Component ceased to be part of Lord Gort’s command (though it remained under his operational control) and the Advanced Air Striking Force ceased to be part of Bomber Command. Both came under Air Marshal Barratt as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, British Air Forces in France.
Air Marshal Barratt was made responsible for seeing that the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force had at all times ‘full assurance’ regarding air support and he was instructed to place at Lord Gort’s disposal ‘such bomber squadrons as the latter may, in consultation with him, consider necessary from time to time’. But the Air Ministry’s directive also laid it down that as the British Expeditionary Force held only a fraction of the Allied front the British bombers in France should be required to operate ‘in accordance with the day-to-day needs of the Allied situation on the western front as a whole’.(23) In other words Air Marshal Barratt must do his
best to satisfy the demands of both Lord Gort and the French High Command. It says much for the qualities of the two British Commanders-in-Chief that this somewhat ambiguous directive led to no friction in battle, though at home the War Office and the Air Ministry found it impossible to agree what air support was necessary for an army in the field.
Before being appointed to the new command, Air Marshal Barratt had been head of the British Air Mission at the headquarters in Coulommiers of General Vuillemin, Commander-in-Chief of the French Air Forces. Headquarters of the British Air Forces in France were now established so as to facilitate Anglo-French cooperation. At the same time Air Marshal Barratt decided that his advanced headquarters in battle would be Chauny, where the French Air Commander of the Northern Zone (General d’Astier) had his headquarters and where there had been constituted a British Air Intelligence Centre which developed into the Allied Central Air Bureau—the nerve centre of air operations throughout the first critical stages of the campaign. A further measure in which the Army and Air Force combined was the constitution in November of a joint mission to gather information of the progress of the battle if German invaded the Low Countries. This Air Mission under Wing Commander J. M. Fairweather, ‘No. 3 Air Mission’, was to establish itself alongside the Belgian Army Headquarters where it would act in air liaison matters and would sift information from this and other sources before passing it on to Air Marshal Barratt and to Lord Gort’s Headquarters. The Military Mission under Lieutenant-Colonel G. F. Hopkinson, ‘the Hopkinson Mission’, was a ground reconnaissance force in armoured cars, trucks and motor cycles whose task was to gather information from formation headquarters and supply this to the Air Mission and to General Headquarters. Both missions were fully mobile and both were supplied with high-power wireless sets and mobile wireless stations. They were thus well equipped for their task, and when the time came the work they did was of great value to the British Expeditionary Force and to Air Marshal Barratt.(26)
On taking up his Command the latter at once raised with the Air Ministry the question of mobility. The Air Component had been equipped with transport which would enable its squadrons to move forward quickly if the advance to the Dyle were ordered but it was held that ‘owing to the strategic position of the Advanced Air Striking Force behind a strong fortified line the degree of mobility required by units is small’. Air Marshal Barratt did not share this confidence in the strength of the French front and, after a committee had been sent out to investigate, a new establishment was approved which would make the Advanced Air Striking Force ‘semi-mobile’.(26) Unfortunately it did not prove possible to implement this new policy
promptly owing to failure of contractors, shortage of materials and other urgent demands. Eventually it will be seen that for self-preservation French lorries had to be borrowed and the time taken to move squadrons’ equipment, ammunition and stores proved a serious handicap to operations.
During the autumn the necessity to be ready for immediate operations restricted opportunities for air training, except on squadron level, and severe weather made it impossible in mid-winter. It was limited, too, by shortage of some training equipment and, more seriously, by French flying regulations. But after the turn of the year facilities were improved and much useful training was then carried out, including a number of tactical exercises (some in cooperation with the Army) and practice in night flying, some of which was done over Germany.(27) And although divergences of policy or opinion might disturb relations in high places, and some difficulties be found in reconciling differences in the organisation and procedures of British and French air forces, personal relations in the field were uniformly happy. Contemporary records constantly refer to the helpfulness of the French Air Force and to the great kindness received by the Royal Air Force in France during the winter and spring.
From the outset air training was intermixed with operations which, if limited in character and in results, were fruitful in experience. There were no bombing raids on Germany, for the Allies had decided to refrain from this form of attack until Germany began it and the enemy dropped no bombs on France till the offensive opened. But both bombers and fighters were engaged in strategic and tactical reconnaissance and the fighters were in fairly frequent combat with reconnaissance aircraft of the enemy engaged on similar missions.(28) The measure of success achieved in these operations is difficult to gauge. Some of our pilots had had insufficient training and experience when they went into action for the first time, and many forms of equipment which subsequently came to be regarded as essential had not yet been evolved.
A number of enemy planes were destroyed, but our own losses were considerable. Experience proved that none of our bomber reconnaissance aircraft of that date—Battles and Blenheims—had adequate defence against enemy fighters and showed that they were not well adapted to reconnaissance except perhaps at night. On the other hand it proved that the eight-gun Hurricane fighters of the latest pattern could deal effectively with the latest German Messerschmitt. And it proved the élan and skill of our pilots and their readiness to attack the enemy even when he was encountered in greater strength. It is well to realise at the outset and to bear in mind continuously the comparatively primitive equipment with which our pilots flew and fought in 1940. They were not yet provided with scientific aids
to navigation and had to find their way and their target by map and compass and by what they could see. Accurate map reading while moving at speed is always difficult and sometimes impossible, especially at night or when inherent difficulties are increased by an enemy’s ground defence or aircraft. Moreover at this time medium bombers had to attack stone and concrete bridges with bombs which were not big enough to do any vital damage. They had only 250-pound bombs and usually carried four. It was proved in 1944 that from 100–200 tons of bombs were required to guarantee the destruction of a substantially built river bridge.
By that date the medium bombers of 1940 (Battle and Blenheim) were no longer used, while those classed as heavy bombers in 1940 were regarded as medium bombers in 1944 though their capabilities had been much improved. Whereas in the 1940 campaign an average bomb load of one ton was carried by the heavy bombers they carried up to ten times as much in 1944. The Battle and Blenheim had for protection only two light machine guns (.303); the medium bombers of 1944 had nine. The heavies of 1940 were armed with five light machine guns; in 1944 they up to ten guns of larger calibre (.5) with far higher powers of penetration.
These facts illustrate some of the difficulties under which our air forces operated in 1940.
At intervals throughout the autumn and winter leaflets addressed to the German people were dropped from bombers of Bomber Command over industrial towns in the Ruhr, Hamburg and other heavily populated areas including Berlin and later Vienna.(29) It was hoped that such raids might impress the German Government and people by the evidence of Germany’s vulnerability to air attack and lead to the adoption of defence measures which might interrupt work in factories. Such raids gave our pilots valuable experience of night flying and reconnaissance over Germany and led to improvements in equipment for high-altitude flying and in aids to navigation. With the equipment then available they sometimes needed to show great endurance. A raid on the night of the 27th October involved four aircraft of No. 51 Squadron. The first dropped leaflets over Frankfurt, the second over Munich, the third over Stuttgart and the fourth also over Munich. All encountered thick cloud: all crews suffered greatly from intense cold and all aircraft were partly disabled by heavy icing, yet all carried out their tasks. The conclusion of their journeys may be told:
No. 1. The instrument glasses were thick with ice … two members of the crew were unconscious … both engines had stopped and four inches of ice protruded from the engine’s cowling … The wireless transmitter was frozen … the rudder and elevator were immovable … The aircraft brushed through the tops of trees, drooped flatly into
a field, travelled through a wire fence, skidded broadside and came to rest against at tree … The crew climbed out and with difficulty put out a fire in one engine. Then they returned to the fuselage and went to sleep. Fortunately they had landed in France.
No. 2. The navigator and operator had to lie down and rest every few minutes … everyone was frozen … continuous movement of the controls was needed to prevent from freezing up … when the aircraft homed the crew were incapable of coherent thought or action.
No. 3. Ice rapidly formed on all the control surfaces, building up to about six inches … the front gunner in his turret was completely covered in snow and ice.
No. 4. The air-speed indicator froze-up … snow lay on the floor of the front turret and ice covered the cabin windows … the centre turret froze and remained immovable. A cylinder blew off and one engine failed … Finally the Captain gave the crew orders to jump and followed them. He did not realize that the intercommunication had failed and that the tail gunner had not received the order and was still on board when the plan hit the ground. The gunner escaped through the tail door as the aircraft blazed up. Convinced that his companions were in the fire he searched the debris vainly and then walked to a village—where he found them in a café.(30)
There was, however, some evidence that the leaflets were being read and were having some effect, and from the training point of view these raids were valuable: so they were continued until active operations began and then as subsidiary to bombing raids on Germany.
One fact stands out clearly. Although a winter’s air reconnaissance provided the Allies with much useful information, it discovered nothing which led to any fresh appreciation of what was likely to be the German plan of attack, nothing which led the Allies to make any change in their own dispositions, which are shown on the situation map at the end of this chapter.
To this general account of how the British Expeditionary Force and the British Air Forces in France spent the winter of 1939 and the first four months of 1940 must be added a note of relevant events elsewhere.
Poland was defeated by Germany by the end of September, after putting up a brave fight against unequal odds. The campaign had shown conclusively that armoured forces, well-handled and supported by a strong air force could quickly overwhelm an army which was weak in both respects. It had shown too the ruthless methods which Germany would employ (and especially her disregard for civilian life) when these would assist military convenience. The murderous bombing of Warsaw, defenceless against air attack, was the culmination of that campaign. As it close, Russia invaded Poland from the east and reaped the fruits of her bargain with Hitler by occupying half of the conquered territory.
Two months later Russia invaded Finland having previously obtained without fighting the mastery of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Throughout the winter Finland held the enemy at bay, by on the 1st February Russia opened a new offensive with overwhelmingly greater forces, baked by artillery and aircraft which Finland could not match. The battle raged furiously for six weeks, when shortage of ammunition and exhaustion of her troops compelled Finland to seek an armistice. Thus Russia’s position had been trebly strengthened by the virtual acquisition of the Baltic States, half of Poland, and a slice of Finland.
Germany, in the meantime, began transferring her armies to the west as soon as Poland was conquered. By the end of November Allies intelligence estimated that between ninety-seven and ninety-nine divisions were already concentrated on the western front, facing Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. In November there were indications that Germany would attack, and various moves took place to bring our forces to their battle stations. But the expected attack did not come and the alerte was called off. Allied intelligence had, however, been good. On the 5th of November Hitler issued orders for an offensive but on the 7th postponed the attack.(31)
On the 10th of January a German aircraft mad a forced landing in Belgium and although one of the two officers on board tried to burn orders which he was carrying, these were retrieved while much of them was still readable. They consisted of instructions to units subordinated to No. 2 Air Fleet about the offensive which the German Western Army was to carry out across Belgium from the Moselle to the North Sea.2
Other Allied intelligence pointed to an early attack, and again there was an alerte with consequent movements. And, again, intelligence was good, for on January the 10th Hitler issued fresh orders for the offensive to open on the 17th of January, only to postpone it on the 13th.(32) It is moreover significant that at this date plans for the German offensive followed closely the pattern forecast by the Allies. The main thrust was to be made by their Northern Group of Armies through the Belgian plan.
After the alerte was cancelled comparative quiet again descended on the western front, though it was known that German forces were moving there in increasing numbers and sorties by their reconnaissance planes grew in strength and frequency.
On the 9th of April Germany seized Denmark and started an invasion of Norway. The story of the British part in the campaign which followed is told in another volume.3 It is only necessary to note here
that operations in Norway made rival claims on our naval, military and air forces and equipment which were to be sorely needed for the campaign in France and Flanders. The 15th Brigade of the 5th Division was ordered home for dispatch to Norway and left Lord Gort’s Command on the 15th of April. The struggle in Norway continued during April and into May and tension increased in Holland and Belgium as more and more enemy troops gathered beyond their frontiers. But while anxiety deepened in high places, for the Army in France the quiet which had been maintained so long was still undisturbed.
A lovely spring had succeeded the bitter winter, leave was open in the British Expeditionary Force, and the troops were in good heart.