Monday, 12 December 2016

Toomas Karmo: Resisting One's Depression: The Example of Wartime Britain

A screenshot from one of my four Debian GNU/Linux desktops. Anticlockwise from upper right: my own operations clocks, disciplined about once in 24 hours under Network Time Protocol by /usr/sbin/ntpdate, interrogating pool.ntp.org (my local software-clock drift is sometimes mere tens of milliseconds over 24 hours, sometimes a few hundred milliseconds; as always, I use green for displaying my local civil time, red for Universal Coordinated Time); the 1940 operations board at RAF Uxbridge, showing the status lamps to which Churchill refers in his here-quoted memoir (what is shown is surely historically accurate, and yet does not fit perfectly with the details that Churchill supplies: the image is possibly from  http://www.airshowspresent.com/raf-uxbridge-battle-of-britain-bunker.html); the 1940 plotting table at RAF Uxbridge, also mentioned by Churchill (and possibly likewise from http://www.airshowspresent.com/raf-uxbridge-battle-of-britain-bunker.html); prop and engine of a museum Spitfire (I am sorry not to know the provenance of the image I have herewith lifted off the Web); a museum radar transmitter, such as was used in 1940 (the image is possibly from http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk/blog/2012/05/neatishead-air-defence-radar-museum/); the wartime BBC "Bush House" control room, from which I imagine were coordinated broadcasts of Vera Lynn and the like (I believe the image is from 1943, and that it comes from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27340358); and a Debian GNU/Linux xterm, showing a judiciously selected excerpt from my private flat-ASCII study notes. - As with my other images on this blog, an enlargement can be viewed by left-clicking, I believe in most or all mainstream Web browsers.


Quality assessment: 


On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo, while slipping on his schedule, nevertheless  had time to do a complete  and (within the framework of the version 4.1.1, 4.1.2, 4.1.3, ... process) reasonably polished job.





Revision history:



  • 20161216t0156Z/version 4.1.0: Kmo added to his discussion of Finland a short reference to the problems of Karelia and Viipuri. He also slightly clarified his assessment of Julius Caesar (making it now clear that it is as a prose stylist, not necessarily as a politician, that Caesar at all times attracts universal admiration.)  - He reserved the right to make minor, cosmetic, nonsubstantive tweaks, over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 4.1.1, 4.1.2, 4.1.3, ... . 
  • 20161214T1743Z/version 4.0.0: Kmo adjusted his praise of Churchill (he had previously generated a misleading impression of unqualified enthusiasm), and added a reference to the Battle appraisal of circa-year-2000 analyst Bungay. He reserved the right to make minor, cosmetic, nonsubstantive tweaks, over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 4.0.1, 4.0.2, 4.0.3, ... . 
  • 20161213T1714Z/version 3.2.0: Kmo added bibliographic details, as best he could, for the materials incorporated in his image, and repaired a very bad typo ("do not know" mistyped as "do now know", with reference to member "ABC" of the Reich forces), and deleted a questionable reference to a firestorm in Nagasaki (it seems that combustion in Nagasaki was less catastrophic than in Hiroshima), and added a Wikipedia link for Lord Haw-Haw. He also made various minor, cosmetic, nonsubstantive tweaks. He reserved the right to make further such tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.2.1, 3.2.2, 3.2.3, ... .  
  • 20161213T0508Z/version 3.1.0: Kmo added an image. He reserved the right to make minor, cosmetic, nonsubstantive tweaks, over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.1.3, ... . 
  • 20161213T0450Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished converting his point-form outline into coherent prose. He now prepared for uploading an image, and for checking punctuation (and other such cosmetic, non-substantive, points) in his prose. 
  • 20161213T0253Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo uploaded a now fully polished point-form outline. 
  • 20161213T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo had time only to upload a sketchy  point-form outline. He hoped to convert this into first a more polished outlines, and then into coherent prose,  in a succession of uploads, finishing at some point in the next 4 hours.




[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity to generate HTML that is formatted in different ways on different client-side browsers, perhaps with some browsers not correctly reading in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets" which on many Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect "Cascading Style Sheets" problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via Toomas.Karmo@gmail.com.]



1. Background for the Battle of Britain



When I am depressed (as  has been the case over the last few days), I am liable to think of our probable bleak future, decades and centuries hence. As I imagine it, World War 3 never does come. What cannot, however, be dodged (I have pointed this out in previous writing on this blog) is a steep social decline - possibly a Dark Age - as resource depletion and climate change erode our economic foundations. 

****

At such times of recurrent depression, I am liable not only to look forward in gloom, but also to look in gloom in the other direction. I look back to the experiences of my parents, aunts, and uncles, when the 1939-1945 Hitler war and its 1946-1991 aftermath dealt blow upon blow on half of Europe, in a situation which seemed permanent until some little distance into the surprising General Secretaryship of one of humanity's benefactors, M.S.Gorbachev. 

Start north of the Article Circle, at the northern extremity of the Gulf of Bothnia. Trace a (somewhat undulating) curve southward, down the Gulf into the more open Baltic waters, passing between the Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa - they are to lie to the east of this line - and the Swedish island of Gotland, to the west of the line. After Gotland, bear a little more to the west, hitting the mainland coast just east of Jutland. Then head south across the Continent, setting a  course for the Adriatic. 

On the one side of this (somewhat undulating) line is that part of Europe which made an essentially full recovery in the generation following 1945. On the other is that portion in which the spiritual, political, emotional, and material recovery, from 1945 right up to the Gorbachev era, was only partial. 

Three qualifications are, admittedly, necessary. 

Greece and Austria, despite lying so dangerously far to the east, escaped incorporation into the Soviet sphere. Perhaps, for all I know, they achieved their respective escapes rather narrowly, through some combination of statesmanship and blind luck. Additionally, and thirdly, Finland, despite lying so dangerously far to the east, was Sovietized only in its postwar foreign policy, on the domestic front retaining its laws (including its civil liberties) and its parliamentary institutions (except that the culturally significant Karelia district, and with it the economically significant town of Viipuri, got swallowed by the USSR). In Finland's complex case, then, neither of the two labels "partial recovery" and "full recovery" seems entirely apt. 

Estonia, like so many of the larger nations, should be considered to have made, from 1945 through 1991, a mere partial recovery - indeed, in my own bleakly realpolitisch assessment, to have made a recovery so far from full as to considered in and of itself, without comparison against the still harsher war years, disastrous. 

Within my own immediate circle of Estonian friends and Estonian family, I ponder "ABC". 

"ABC" had in 1939 tried in vain to join the British forces, being temporarily in Switzerland rather than back home in Estonia, and consequently applying through the British diplomatic authorities in Switzerland. Alas, the Chamberlain government seems to have not at that point been set up to receive military volunteers from that particular corner of Mitteleuropa. ABC had later, upon returning to Estonia, thought it right to resist the Red Army by fighting in the Reich forces. (I for my part do not know quite what to make of the wisdom or folly of ABC's ultimate choice.) 

VE Day found ABC in good standing with the Danish Resistance, but with little additional cause for celebration. He marked, at any rate, the change in European affairs by flushing his Reich medals down a Copenhagen toilet. 

I ponder also the lady whose letter, reporting to friends or family in (I think) Estonia her deportation to Siberia, is reproduced in someone's Estonian-language memoirs. I recall just the general gist of her Estonian text. And of course tonight I have to put everything into English: Our trip was wonderful. But my saucepan broke. I also buried my baby in the railway ditch. It is terrific to travel. The weather has been great. 

What can be made of so strange a letter? Perhaps we have here a hard-headed woman who has to get the news back to Estonia, and so deliberately adopts the tone most likely to facilitate the safe passage of her sheet of paper past NKVD censorship desks in the labyrinthine Soviet postal system. Perhaps, on the other hand, her letter is just what it purports to be - namely, the letter of a person who, under pressure of cold and malnutrition, and of fear, and above all of grief for her child's death during those interminable days or weeks in her crowded, slowly advancing cattle car, has gone insane. 

****

As a counterweight to my depressed reflections, I ponder Britain's successful wartime resistance. In the war as Britain experienced it, things went dim without going black. Although there were lots of bombs, there were no firestorms after the pattern of Dresden and Hamburg in the European theatre, or of Tokyo (let alone of Hiroshima) in the Pacific. Food was generally available, to a point at which the British 1945 national health statistics were said to improve on the corresponding statistics from 1939.

The tenor of those dark-and-yet-not-black British times is captured by modern comedians Armstrong and Miller, in a YouTube upload of 2010-12-08 by YouTube user "discodenys", under title "The Armstrong and Miller Show - Hitler sketch". In my particular corner of the Internet, the URL for the Armstrong-and-Miller material is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MetBQSkDUoA. But a different URL is liable to be needed in at least some parts of the world, remote from my screen here in Canada.

I do have two small notes of caution on Armstrong-and-Miller. (a) Their comedy routine is ribald, to the point of being only marginally suitable for adolescent and pre-adolescent viewers. (b) Their routine, although running on YouTube for 4 minutes, 16 seconds, nevertheless needs cutting off at 3:43 or 3:45 or so, before it slides (as comedy routines unfortunately tend to) into a pointless, cheap, and degrading vulgarity.

Armstrong and Miller present music of a sort. Strictly speaking, they suggest, with just a few bars and a few words, a handful of songs, and they sing in historical accuracy the complete first stanza of one song from the actual war - this one being, I presume, the most raunchy to emerge in actual semi-polite British wartime society.

We may supplement Armstrong and Miller with the immortal, and still living, and never ribald, Vera Lynn - above all, with her "We'll Meet Again."

We might add also a few other selections, here resisting the temptation to wallow in the Lale Andersen or Marlene Dietrich (or Suzy Solidor, or 1990s-Milva) "Lili Marlene". One other that comes especially to mind is a signature number from Gracie Fields, "Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)".

One has also a special fondness for the rather plentiful YouTube uploads of the BBC wartime "Music While You Work", with their perky suggestion of Glen Miller and the Big Band.

In the domain of British history as a record of political and military events, we may look past the dark and shameful - past Bomber Harris, notably; and past the appeasement of Stalin at the Yalta Conference, under the nose of a Prime Minister who had in his previous political incarnation denounced Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler - and ponder Bletchley Park.

Or we can, with equal benefit, ponder a thing on which I specially direct my blogosphere searchlight tonight, the Battle of Britain.


2. The Battle of Britain in its Wider Strategic and Diplomatic Context


It is sometimes suggested that Britain faced invasion in the 1940 northern-hemisphere autumn, through the Reich's projected "Operation Sealion". The suggestion is implausible.

Crossing the Channel is unlike crossing the Rhine. In particular, the (quite wide) Channel would have received a (quite competent) defence in 1940 from a (quite desperate) Royal Navy, no matter how crushing the Luftwaffe's eventual air supremacy might have been. So while we cannot call "Sealion" an impossibility, we cannot regard it as much better than a gesture. The envisaged operation was less a bold, Napoleonic gamble than a public-relations gambit, conceived by a propagandistic politician. The actual stakes were not military but political, with "Sealion" part of the Reichsführer's ramped-up rhetoric.

This is the same Reichsführer as once got photographed in a thoroughly comic sequence of twenty or so separate poses, gesticulating with hands held low and hands held high, now with face stern and now with face less stern, practicing and practicing, in the privacy of some camera-equipped rehearsal room. That particular aspect of the Reich reminds me of what I have been told by a friend in Australia, not in politics - told accurately, I do hope - regarding Baroness Margaret Thatcher. She is supposed to have been recorded, practicing with her diction coach: "Enough IS enough." - "No, no, Mrs Thatcher, that is too petulant." "Enough is enough." - "Well, that's better; could you try putting more stress on your first word?" - "ENOUGH is enough." - "Ah yes, that should do it."

Had Hermann Göring won the Battle of Britain for his sordid Reichsführer, Prime Minister Churchill's position in Cabinet would have been rendered intolerable. We see from postwar Britain, in the examples of Sir Anthony Eden, Sir Harold MacMillan, and Baroness Thatcher - and indeed we see already from the war, in the May-of-1940 example of Neville Chamberlain - how ready the Conservative Party inner ranks are to dump a Prime Minister when a change appears in a given political emergency to serve the national or Party interest.

So let us, as an exercise in speculation, posit that Göring presses home his September advantage, destroying aerodrome upon aerodrome, in his here-posited operation sagaciously resisting the temptation to divert his aeroplanes into the (tactically futile) bombing of London civilians.

In real life, the RAF was in September feeling itself strained. In my alternative scenario, the Luftwaffe, by resolutely continuing the tactics which had proven advantageous in August, gains control of British skies by October or November.

There is now no need for the Reichsführer to mount the risky "Sealion". Mere diplomatic bluff, of the kind one today comes to associate with that specialist in Chechen, Georgian, Crimean, Donbass, and Syrian affairs,  Mr V.V.Putin, should now suffice. Let there now be a few carefully tempered, ostensibly moderate, speeches in the Reichstag, from the Führer and others. Let these be followed up, over the coming hours and days, with a handful of "commentaries" or "analyses" from Lord Haw-Haw (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Haw-Haw), to his wide British radio audience - an audience surely including not just common folk occasionally wary of the BBC, but high civil and military leaders. Let the general Reich message, first-drafted by the Führer, then fine-tuned by the Führer's PR architect Dr P.J.Goebbels, and finally disseminated by the more subordinate Haw-Haws and Leni Riefenstahls, be this: We are ever so anxious, from considerations as much humanitarian as military, to negotiate a peace; unlike the Soviets, we are no barbarians, but instead constitute cultured continental Europe's last, best hope in the face of the advancing Communism; Germany and Britain are not even traditional rivals. 

In the face of such a message, I suggest, Cabinet would have proved restive. According to 1999 analyst Jon Lukacs in Five Days in London: May 1940 (and I believe contrary to Churchill's own late-1940s writings), Cabinet had already been wavering in May. How much worse would the Prime Minister's political situation have become now, in October or November, with the RAF shattered!

Here is one possible, even probable, eventual outcome:
  • Lord Halifax, or someone of his mind, takes over as Prime Minister, with the extremist Churchill now permanently discredited. (He continues, as I imagine it, in Cabinet, while now safely displaced from the absolute centre of power. He has become just one personality, among many potentially competing personalities, around the conference table at Number Ten.) 
  • A peace is concluded which leaves Britain unoccupied, and with that millstone-around-the-neck which is its overseas empire cunningly left intact. The peace is nevertheless realized by everyone in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London, and (crucially) Washington to be a thinly veiled capitulation. 
  • The Roosevelt government sees no alternative to taking the advice of its London head-of-diplomatic-mission, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, thereby writing off Britain and the Continent. 
  • Eventually, somehow, in 1941 or 1943 or 1945 or thereabouts, some kind of war erupts between the Greater Reich and the USSR (perhaps with the Greater Reich invading eastward, but perhaps - cf the bleak 21st-century analyst V.B.Rezun, publishing under the nom-de-plume "Viktor Suvorov" - with the USSR invading westward). 
  • However this Reich-USSR conflict ends, Continental Europe, all the way from the Urals to the Atlantic, sooner or later settles into a period of war-free totalitarian rule (whether fully Nazi, or fully Soviet, or in some Nazi-Soviet partition in the spirit of the 1939-08-23 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), lasting for at least some decades. Confronted with this peaceful Continental reality, Britain becomes a progressively less relevant - a progressively more quaint - bystander. 
In my speculative scenario, eccentric, endearing little Britain, with its old-fashioned rhetoric of "freedom" and "values", proves in the long run tolerable enough to Hitler, Stalin, and their various eventual Nazi or Soviet successors. Then the 1914 prophecy of Sir Edward Grey, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our own life-time" (already, in the actual world, regarded as rather accurate) takes on the firm, bleak, ring of hitting-the-bullseye prophecy, as we know it, with reference to the fall of Judah, from Isaiah and Jeremiah.  

****

To study the Battle, I have in my poverty of both time and money resorted to a well-written, agreeably inexpensive, eminently modern (year-2000) Penguin paperback, running to a mere 170 or 180 pages, Richard Avery's  The Battle. I have also found YouTube useful, especially as supplying period ciné footage of Filter Room and aerodrome activities. Further, YouTube makes available a compelling 1942 film, "The First of the Few", on the life and work of Spitfire designer Reginald Joseph Mitchell, CBE (1895-1937). (One can perhaps take the upload of YouTube user "Billy Gellings", from 2016-08-12, under the title "The First Of The Few 1942 Full Movies". In my particular corner of the Internet, the upload is available through the URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP3Cd6g2Q9Y.)

I have the impression, from casual investigations in a bookstore and on the Internet, that a history of the Battle by Stephen Bungay, under some such title as The Most Dangerous Enemy, from around the year 2000, is now widely held to be authoritative. This author is said in reviews to stress the strength of the RAF and the inherent weaknesses of the Luftwaffe, and to correct successfully the romantic (in the sense of untruthful, unrealistic) old 1950s-through-1990s impressions of the Battle, as perhaps very particularly served up on television. The romantic old histories represented the Battle as a heroic defence mounted by an inherently weak Britain. Assuming the coldly realistic Bungay to be right - I have not yet had time to do more than glance at him - I add my own small comment: if the RAF was indeed inherently strong in 1940, then the Battle was fought from the late 1930s onward, being in its key opening phases a work of engineers (notably Mitchell, and on the radar side Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt) and administrators (notably the 1st Baron Dowding). The aerial operations of 1940 become, on this conceptualization, a small and specially noisy part of a bigger, predominantly quiet, whole.

If future general World War 2 histories adopt this broader perspective, they will do well to draw parallels between, on the one side, the silent meditative labours of Mitchell, Watson-Watt, and Lord Dowding, and on the other hand the silent meditative labours of Prof. Turing, and his colleagues, at Bletchley Park.

3. Sir Winston Churchill's Account of Operations on Sunday 15 September


And then there is a passage from Churchill's memoirs (from Book Two, or Alone - marketed, however, as a part of a volume entitled Their Finest Hour - under the chapter title "The Battle of Britain"). This passage is so good as to be part of permanent world literature. It rises easily to at least the heights of, say, Caesar documenting Vercingetorix. Much though I personally mistrust the bellicose Churchill (he called the saintly, and correctly pacifist, Mohandas Gandhi "this half-naked fakir";  and in the postwar House of Commons he referred to the very solid Aneurin Bevan as a "squalid nuisance", and to the very solid Clement Attlee as a "sheep in sheep's clothing"), I have in my reluctant admiration to concede that his passage is liable to find itself reproduced in school anthologies even thirty generations from now. That will be a time when sulky schoolchildren struggle to decode their archaic, lapidary "Standard English" texts, with  lexicon and grammar-book close at hand, under teachers rather similar to the kindly Latin master Chipping in "Good-Bye, Mr Chips". (Since our future is bleak, these schoolchildren are perhaps to be pictured as construing not from printed books but from tattered, dog-eared manuscripts, in impoverished monastery schools.) It will be similar to what we have now, but with "sheep in sheep's clothing", or "I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly," or other such bits of lapidary Churchilliana, in place of such present-day schoolroom philological puzzles as Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae /.../ . 

I do have to take care not to overstate my case regarding "permanent world literature", as indeed I overstated it in all versions of this blog posting up to and including 3.2.0, 3.2.1, 3.2.2, ... . The idea of inclusion in "permanent world literature" must not be taken for some supreme compliment, such as would be merited by Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality". In putting Churchill into the bin of the Permanent, I proceed, rather, pragmatically.

Anthologies of English letters in the very remote future will of course have to include Wordsworth's "Intimations", and again Hamlet's soliloquy, and again two or three or four or five things from the professionally theological English writers (from Dame Julian of Norwich, for instance, or from John Henry Cardinal Newman). Anthologists, however, will have to have something also from the world of practical affairs, illustrating the prose of an actual leader - something, in particular, to capture and hold the attention of Young Persons of a domineering and valorous and rugby-loving spirit, aged between thirteen and eighteen. These are, in any society and historical period, juveniles temperamentally averse to the poetic and philosophical, and for good or ill intended by their families to become leaders in their nation's legal and political life.

In classics-oriented British schools, the purpose has been served, for generation upon generation, by Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Caesar, although everywhere and at all times admired as a prose stylist, is not considered the acme of Latinity. I gather that if you really want to progress in Latin farther than I have, to the point of writing your own serious Latin essays and speeches, then you are best advised to imitate not Caesar's sparse wooden-bench practicality, but instead to use as a model the more rounded, the so-to-speak more upholstered, Cicero.

As for Latin now, so also, then, for the "Standard English" in the Year of Grace 3016 or so: Churchill's destiny is not to occupy the apex of the conserved English literary pantheon, as Wordsworth's "Immortality" or the Middle English world-as-hazelnut passage from Dame Julian eventually might, but all the same to fill a classroom niche.

Before I reproduce Churchill's passage, I caution the reader to consider with special care the paragraph beginning "The young officer, to whom this seemed a matter of routine". In that particular paragraph Churchill is echoing, whether consciously or at some eerie Freudian level of pre-consciousness, his account of an operation in the Battle of France that summer, from elsewhere in his memoir. Having asked Gamelin, or Weygand, or someone, "La masse de réserve?" ("The reserves?"), he had been given the despairing answer, "Aucune" ("There aren't any").

Here, then, is what Churchill writes:

It was one of the decisive battles of the war, and, like the Battle of Waterloo, it was on a Sunday. I was at Chequers. I had already on several occasions visited the headquarters of Number 11 Fighter Group in order to witness the conduct of an air battle, when not much had happened. However, the weather on this day seemed suitable to the enemy, and accordingly I drove over to Uxbridge and arrived at the Group Headquarters. Number 11 group comprised no fewer than twenty-five squadrons covering the whole of Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire, and all the approaches across them to London. Air Vice-Marshal Park had for six months commanded this group, on which our fate largely depended. From the beginning of Dunkirk, all the daylight actions in the South of England had already been conducted by him, and all his arrangements and apparatus had been brought to the highest perfection. My wife and I were taken down to the bomb-proof Operations room, fifty feet below ground. All the ascendancy of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system of underground control centres and telephone cables, which had been devised and built before the war by the Air Ministry under Dowding's advice and impulse. Lasting credit is due to all concerned. In the South of England there were at this time Number 11 group H.Q. and six subordinate fighter station centres. All these were /.../ under heavy stress. The Supreme Command was exercised from the Fighter Headquarters at Stanmore, but the actual handling of the direction of the squadrons was wisely left to Number 11 Group, which controlled the units through its fighter stations located in each county.

The Group Operations Room was like a small theatre, about sixty feet across, and with two storeys. We took our seats in the dress circle. Below us was the large-scale map-table, around which perhaps twenty highly trained young men and women, with their telephone assistants, were assembled. Opposite to us, covering the entire wall, where the theatre curtain would be, was a gigantic blackboard divided into six columns with electric bulbs, for the six fighter stations, each of their squadrons having a sub-column of its own, and also divided by lateral lines. Thus, the lowest row of bulbs showed as they were lighted the squadrons which were "Standing By" at two minutes' notice, the next row those "At Readiness," five minutes, then "At Available," twenty minutes, then those which had taken off, the next row those which had reported having seen the enemy, the next - with red lights - those which were in action, and the top row those which were returning home. On the left-hand side, in a kind of glass stage-box, were the four or five officers whose duty it was to weigh and measure the information received from our Observer Corps, which at this time numbered upwards of fifty thousand men, women, and youths. Radar was still in its infancy, but it gave warning of raids approaching our coast, and the observers, with field-glasses and portable telephones, were our main source of information about raiders flying overland. Thousands of messages were therefore received during an action. Several roomfuls of experienced people in other parts of the underground headquarters sifted through them with great rapidity, and transmitted the results from minute to minute directly to the plotters seated around the table on the floor and to the officer supervising from the glass stage-box.

On the right hand was another glass stage-box containing Army officers who reported the action of our anti-aircraft batteries, of which at this time in the Command there were two hundred. At night it was of vital importance to stop these batteries firing over certain areas in which our fighters would be closing with the enemy. I was not unacquainted with the general outlines of this system, having had it explained to me a year before the war by Dowding when I visited him at Stanmore. It had been shaped and refined in constant action, and all was now fused together into a most elaborate instrument of war, the like of which existed nowhere in the world.

"I don't know," said Park, as we went down, "whether anything will happen today. At present all is quiet." However, after a quarter of an hour the raid-plotters began to move about. An attack of "40 plus" was reported to be coming from the German stations in the Dieppe area. The bulbs along the bottom of the wall display panel began to glow as various squadrons came to "Stand By." Then in quick succession "20 plus," "40 plus" signals were received, and in another ten minutes it was evident that a serious battle impended. On both sides the air began to fill.

One after another the signals came in, "40 plus," "60 plus"; there was even an "80 plus." On the floor table below us the movement of all the waves of attack was marked by pushing discs forward from minute to minute along different lines of approach, while on the blackboard facing us the rising lights showed our fighter squadrons getting into the air, until there were only four or five left "At Readiness." These air battles, on which so much depended, lasted little more than an hour from the first encounter. The enemy had ample strength to send out news waves of attack, and our squadrons, having gone all out to gain the upper air, would have to refuel after seventy or eighty minutes, or land to rearm after a five-minute engagement. If at this moment of refuelling or rearming, the enemy were able to arrive with fresh unchallenged squadrons, some of our fighters could be destroyed on the ground. It was, therefore, one of our principal objects to direct our squadrons so as not to have too many on the ground refuelling or rearming simultaneously during daylight.

Presently the red bulbs showed that the majority of our squadrons were engaged. A subdued hum arose from the floor, where the busy plotters pushed their discs to and fro in accordance with the swiftly changing situation. Air Vice-Marshal Park gave general directions for the disposition of the fighter force, which were translated into detailed orders to each fighter station by a youngish officer in the centre of the dress circle, at whose side I sat. Some years after I asked his name. He was Lord Willoughby de Broke. (I met him next in 1947, when the Jockey Club, of which he was a member, invited me to see the Derby. He was surprised that I remembered the occasion.) He now gave the orders for the individual squadrons to ascend and patrol as the result of the final information which appeared on the map-table. The Air Marshal himself walked up and down behind, watching with vigilant eye every move in the game, supervising his junior executive hand, and only occasionally intervening with some decisive order, usually to reinforce a threatened area. In a little while all our squadrons were fighting, and some had already begun to return for fuel. All were in the air. The lower line of bulbs was out. There was not one squadron left in reserve. At this moment Park spoke to Dowding at Stanmore, asking for three squadrons from Number 12 Group to be put at his disposal in case of another major attack while his squadrons were rearming and refuelling. This was done. They were specifically needed to cover London and our fighter aerodromes, because Number 11 Group had already short their bolt.

The young officer, to whom this seemed a matter of routine, continued to give his orders, in accordance with the general directions of this Group Commander, in a calm, low monotone, and the three reinforcing squadrons were soon absorbed. I became conscious of the anxiety of the Commander, who now stood still beneath his subordinate's chair. Hitherto I had watched in silence. I now asked, "What other reserves have we?" "There are none," said Air Vice-Marshal Park. In an account which he wrote about it afterwards, he said that at this I "looked grave". Well I might. What losses should we not suffer if our refuelling planes were caught on the ground by further raids of "40 plus" or "50 plus"! The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.

Another five minutes passed, and most of our squadrons had now descended to refuel. In many cases our resources could not give them overhead protection. Then it appeared that the enemy were going home. The shifting of the discs on the table showed a continuous eastward movement of German bombers and fighters. No new attack appeared. In another ten minutes the action was ended. We climbed again the stairways which led to the surface, and almost as we emerged the "All Clear" sounded.


[This is the end of tonight's blog posting.] 



No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated. For comment-moderation rules, see initial posting on this blog (2016-04-14).