Thursday, June 25, 2015

1940: British Strategic Choices Part I

The British Royal Family remained in Buckingham Palace and Windsor all through the Blitz. The Cabinet advised the King and Queen to leave to leave London. She refused and also would not send the princesses to safety in Canada. She famously said, "The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave." There are countless images like this of the Royal family and Prime-minister Churchill visiting bomb damage or wounded soldiers. Notably, this is something Hitler never did. Here in the middle of the Blitz the Royal couple or headed for a Hostel for Servicemen (November 2, 1940). Notice the boy. Despite the evacuations, there were still many children remaining in London throughout the Blitz.

The air battles over Dunkirk had provided a foretaste of what too had suffered heavy losses there as well as in the preceding and subsequent battles over the continent. Now there was considerable preliminary skirmishing as the German government faced the implications of at least some continuation of hostilities, reorganized and reorientated the Luftwaffe toward operations primarily against England rather than France, and began to test the British defenses. The Commander-in-Chief of the German air force, Hermann Goring, was confident that his planes could crush the Royal Air Force in about five weeks; most of the German air force high command shared these optimistic expectations. The formations, ground support system, and the aircraft industry of Britain would all be attacked.

In the event, British defenses were sorely tried but successful. In preliminary skirmishes during June, July, and the first weeks of August, both sides suffered heavy losses. When the Germans stepped up the pace in mid-August, losses on both sides increased; but the British were more successful in replacing their losses, in part because British fighter production was by this time higher than Germany's. It was, in any case, becoming evident that the British were indeed holding on and that the attacks were not even close to their aim. The concentration of Luftwaffe attacks on the airport and radar control facilities inflicted great damage and strained the resources of Fighter Command, but in the battle of attrition that was developing, the British were at the very least holding their own.

At the end of August, the Germans changed their air strategy. It had originally been their intention to wait with a massive terror bombing of London until the invasion was to be launched. What slight evidence we have suggests that Hitler originally thought of a "Rotterdam"-type operation which would cause the people of London to flee the city and block the roads just as German troops were about to land. When a large number of German airplanes bombed London on August 24, the British replied with attacks on Berlin. Though on a small scale, the British air raid, and the ones which followed when the weather allowed, led Hitler to order mass bombing of London to begin forthwith. Always sensitive to attitudes on the home front—given his belief in the stab-in-the-back as reality, not legend—he announced that London would be destroyed. Early in September, the Luftwaffe shifted from attacking the sector stations of the Royal Air Force to a massive series of attacks on London.

The attacks on the British capital and other cities, though causing great damage and numerous casualties, exposed the Luftwaffe to great losses while allowing the RAF to rebuild its support system. When, in response to the heavy losses in daylight raids the Germans shifted to night bombing, their losses dropped, but so did their effectiveness. The British fighter defenses had held in daytime and though they were at that time essentially ineffective at night, this made no difference to the prospect of invasion which would have had to come in daylight. Only if the British public broke could such air raids accomplish their main objective. The panic Berlin expected did not occur. In the face of a resolute British public—buoyed up by then by the obvious inability of the Germans to launch an invasion—the Blitz, as it was called, failed. Rallied by a united government, the people suffered but held firm. A few in the government, but certainly not the public, knew that British air power was being assisted by the first important decripts of German air force machine code messages, decodes which also helped them understand and begin to counter the new German beacon system designed to help the bombers find target cities.

The British government had begun to work out its offensive projects for winning the war long before it became obvious in the fall of 1940 that their defense against the German onslaught would be successful. As previously described, it would combine a massive bombing of a blockaded German-occupied Europe with efforts to stir up revolts against Nazi rule until the whole system came crashing down. There was here an analysis based on a British version of the German stab-in-the-back legend; Germany had been throttled, not defeated in World War I, and the resistance forces might now play the part originally to have been played by the French army: to hold and wear down the Germans until bombing, blockade and revolts brought them down without the massive armies the British did not have. Whether or not such a strategy would in fact have been effective will never be known, but the decisions made in London to implement it had their impact on the course and nature of the War.

Recognition of the fact that Britain by herself could never field the size of army needed to defeat the German army was behind the development of the British strategy and the allocation of resources to its implementation. The Special Operations Executive, the SOE, was organized in the summer of 1940 in order, as Churchill put it, "to set Europe ablaze." In the following years, it sent agents into occupied Europe, attempted to arrange arms deliveries to resistance forces, and in every other way tried to make life difficult for the German occupiers. Local revolts were expected to increase over time; and eventually the disruption created by bombing, revolts, and the impact of blockade would make it possible for small British units to assist the conquered people of Europe in regaining their independence. British faith in the possibilities of European resistance organizations seems preposterously exaggerated in retrospect, but few then realized how solid a hold the Germans would acquire.

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