Desert war – a different type of war

One did not occupy the desert any more than one occupied the sea. One simply took up position for a day or a week, and patrolled about it with Bren-gun carriers and light armoured vehicles. When you made contact with the enemy you manoeuvred about him for a place to strike, much as two fleets will steam into position for action. There were no trenches. There was no front line.

A detachment of newly arrived troops in Egypt leaving their camp for a route march, 9 October 1940. New reinforcements had to get used to their surroundings and get accustomed to marching in the desert.
A detachment of newly arrived troops in Egypt leaving their camp for a route march, 9 October 1940. New reinforcements had to get used to their surroundings and get accustomed to marching in the desert.
Infantry on patrol in the Western Desert, 27 October 1940.
Infantry on patrol in the Western Desert, 27 October 1940.

The Italians had crossed the border into the Egyptian desert in September but they were not making a co-ordinated attempt to continue their attack towards Cairo and the Suez canal. Alan Moorehead was a journalist covering the war:

More and more I began to see that desert warfare resembled war at sea. Men moved by compass. No position was static. There were few if any forts to be held. Each truck or tank was as individual as a destroyer, and each squadron of tanks or guns made great sweeps across the desert as a battle-squadron at sea will vanish over the horizon.

One did not occupy the desert any more than one occupied the sea. One simply took up position for a day or a week, and patrolled about it with Bren-gun carriers and light armoured vehicles. When you made contact with the enemy you manoeuvred about him for a place to strike, much as two fleets will steam into position for action. There were no trenches. There was no front line.

We might patrol five hundred miles into Libya and call the country ours. The Italians might as easily have patrolled as far into the Egyptian desert without being seen. Always the essential governing principle was that desert forces must be mobile: they were seeking not the conquest of territory or position but combat with the enemy. We hunted men, not land, as a warship will hunt another warship, and care nothing for the sea on which the action is fought.

See Alan Moorehead’s The Desert War: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43.

Men of the Staffordshire Regiment training with Bren guns for use against aircraft .

Troops of the King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) laying a minefield, Egypt, 30 October 1940.
Troops of the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) laying a minefield, Egypt, 30 October 1940.

The menace of the parachute mine

The silence which had followed the “All Clear” five or ten minutes earlier turned into a horrifying medley of terror and confusion. My mother managed to claw her way through the earth and debris which effectively blocked our only exit to the shelter, and called out that next-door’s house was down – OUR house was down – they’re ALL down !

London Shows The Flag: Life goes on in wartime London, England, 1940. Mr and Mrs Blakley hang Union flags from the glass-less front window of their bomb-damaged home, as their neighbour looks on. The house next door to the Blakleys' has been completely destroyed.
London Shows The Flag: Life goes on in wartime London, England, 1940. Mr and Mrs Blakley hang Union flags from the glass-less front window of their bomb-damaged home, as their neighbour looks on. The house next door to the Blakleys’ has been completely destroyed.
The blast from parachute mines exploding above ground caused extensive damage, demolishing houses in the vicinity and breaking windows as far as a mile away.

On 21 September 1940 Lt Cdr Richard Ryan RN and CPO Reginald Ellingworth from HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy Mine Warfare Establishment, died while attempting to defuse a parachute mine in Dagenham in east London. They were both posthumously awarded the George Cross for gallantry and devotion to duty.

The Germans were now using mines that had been developed for sea warfare for urban bombing. The British had developed counter measures to the magnetic mine after recovering one intact on [permalink id=2432 text=’23rd November 1939′]. British ships were now routinely de-gaussed or anti magnetised, so the Germans may have felt that the mines could be better utilised elsewhere, or possibly it was just realised that they were an especially powerful weapon.

They were released from Heinkel III bombers and drifted down to ground level by parachute, detonating either by contact or by a clockwork mechanism. When the parachute became entangled in buildings they often failed to explode, leaving those who had to face defusing them with the uncertainty that there might also be a clockwork timer operating.

In residential areas the above ground blast was capable of demolishing whole streets:

On the night of Saturday 21 September 1940, a parachute mine fell on a quiet residential close of about 45 houses in Richmond, Surrey. My mother, my older sister, and my twin brother and I were asleep in our Anderson shelter in the garden. The explosion awakened me, and then the screams and cries of the trapped injured and dying mingled with the sounds of falling bricks and buildings and the shattering of glass.

The silence which had followed the “All Clear” five or ten minutes earlier turned into a horrifying medley of terror and confusion. My mother managed to claw her way through the earth and debris which effectively blocked our only exit to the shelter, and called out that next-door’s house was down – OUR house was down – they’re ALL down !

She knew that the family next door on our left were sleeping in the house that night: the mother, three daughters and a son. These children were much the same age as us and we played together. Sybil, Stella, Margaret and John Danby. All the girls were scholarship pupils at Richmond County School for Girls. The bodies of the mother and the girls were eventually recovered, but John was found safe and unharmed and he was brought to our shelter by the wardens, along with an elderly woman (I believe she was a Belgian refugee) and another woman. In all some 20+ people died that night, the second week into the start of the London Blitz.

Read Ms Blackburn’s story at BBC People’s War.

Women salvaging prized possessions from their bombed house, including plants and a clock.
Women salvaging prized possessions from their bombed house, including plants and a clock.

Indoor ‘Morrison’ air raid shelter invented

On 20th September Alfred E. Moss, father of Stirling Moss, submits his patent design for an indoor air raid shelter. A modified design is soon approved by the British authorities and is called the Morrison shelter after the Minister responsible. It becomes a popular alternative to the Andersen shelter, which is designed to be half buried in the garden.

Doris and Alan Suter step down into the Anderson shelter in the garden of their home at 44 Edgeworth Road, Eltham, London, SE9, sometime between June and August 1940. Their mother, Mrs Suter, can just be seen behind them outside the shelter. Alan is carrying his gas mask box with him.
Doris and Alan Suter step down into the Anderson shelter in the garden of their home at 44 Edgeworth Road, Eltham, London, SE9, sometime between June and August 1940. Their mother, Mrs Suter, can just be seen behind them outside the shelter. Alan is carrying his gas mask box with him.

All over the country people were adjusting to the new reality of being under attack. They knew that hundreds of people were being killed every week, even if the exact figures were not published. So air raid precautions, which had begun for many as a bit of fun, were suddenly taken very seriously. Anyone living in an urban area could expect regular air raid warnings and would be spending many nights resorting to the air raid shelter.

Only those in central London had access to the Underground – where thousands sheltered deep underground, most people around the country had to use their own personal shelter located in the garden. Patricia McGowan was 17 years old living with her family in Birmingham:

We became accustomed to spending many long hours in the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden. This was a wooden construction with a corrugated iron cover, most of the structure being deep in the ground with about a fifth above the ground. It had a wooden door, which we bolted by means of a wooden bar fixed into two grooves either side of it. Inside there were two long benches at either side and in between these we had room for a small table on which we stood a small oil lamp. The benches were wide enough to sit upon and also had some space underneath for various provisions.

The entire area of the shelter smelled dank and very earthy and at first it was unpleasant but gradually our nostrils became used to the odour and we even associated this smell with safety, as this was the place where we could have some hope of escaping death or injury. Of course, a direct hit was a disaster we did not care to contemplate.

We lived quite near to a park where anti aircraft guns were mounted. The noise from these guns was so deafening that at first, being new to the situation of air raids, we thought they were bombs being dropped and often heard neighbours screaming. We realised after a while that the sound of these guns was really music to our ears as they were our protection to some extent.

Referring to some of my old diaries I note that the air raids usually started about 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening and continued until the early hours of the morning. As soon as the siren sounded, Daddy would prepare to leave the house taking with him some cushions and the little lamp, plus a few odds and ends.

Mother would then make a flask of tea or coffee and sometimes soup, some sandwiches and a biscuit tin full of cookies. Without fail, she always had, under her arm, the attaché case in which our life insurance policies were housed and also documents such as Birth Certificates and Death Certificates, old photographs and personal letters, in fact anything that qualified as being important and precious.

Once settled inside the shelter, Daddy would make a ceremony of almost ramming the wooden plank across the doorway and driving it securely home. Depending upon the intensity of the raid and where it was concentrated, either we sat quietly drinking from our flask and waiting and listening, or, if the raid was aimed at our particular area, we would be fearful and cringing on our little hard wooden seats and praying for dear life.

Read the whole of this story on BBC People’s War.

The prospect of spending nights in the Anderson Shelter as winter approached was a strong incentive to devise something better.

On 20th September Alfred E. Moss, father of Stirling Moss, submitted his patent design for an indoor air raid shelter. Like many people he is fed up with running down to the garden every time the siren sounded.

The patent design for an indoor air raid shelter, by Alfred E. Moss, father of Stirling Moss

A modified design is soon approved by the British authorities and is called the Morrison shelter after the Minister responsible for Home Security. It becomes a popular alternative to the Anderson shelter, which is designed to be half buried in the ground. The full story can be read at Stirling Moss.

A photograph of a Morrison shelter in a room setting, showing how such a shelter could be used as a table during the day and as a bed at night. The table cloth is partly pulled back to reveal the sleeping area.
A photograph of a Morrison shelter in a room setting, showing how such a shelter could be used as a table during the day and as a bed at night. The table cloth is partly pulled back to reveal the sleeping area.

Improved Anti-Aircraft defences help morale

Enemy operations were chiefly confined to London and South-East England, although single attacks were reported in other districts and larger formations bombed Portland and Southampton on the 15th September. Several aerodromes were attacked, but none suffered damage of any importance. The main objectives appear to have been railways, public services and industrial targets : details of damage are set out in the Home Security Section. Attacks were, however, largely indiscriminate, particularly at night.

3-inch gun crew of 303rd Battery, 99th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action at Hayes Common in Kent, May 1940.
3-inch gun crew of 303rd Battery, 99th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action at Hayes Common in Kent, May 1940.
In the days following the start of the Blitz large numbers of additional Anti-Aircraft guns were brought into the London area.

From the Weekly Resume of the Naval Military and Air Situation for the week ending 19th September 1940, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Air Situation : Great Britain.

29. Enemy operations were chiefly confined to London and South-East England, although single attacks were reported in other districts and larger formations bombed Portland and Southampton on the 15th September. Several aerodromes were attacked, but none suffered damage of any importance. The main objectives appear to have been railways, public services and industrial targets : details of damage are set out in the Home Security Section. Attacks were, however, largely indiscriminate, particularly at night. Reports have been received of the occasional use by the enemy of single British aircraft with British markings, and an aircraft that attacked Dover on the 13th September was identified as a Blenheim. A number of parachute mines were dropped in the London area.

HOME SECURITY.

General.

53. The enemy’s main attack is still centred on London. The main objectives would appear to have been :— 1. Communications, particularly railways. 2. Electrical undertakings. Another important objective would appear to be the weakening of public morale.

54. The hits on railways in the London Area have not been followed up by attacks on the resulting congestions of traffic in the marshalling yards.

55. The moral effect of the intensification of the A.A. barrage on the public has been very striking.

Civilian Casualties.

61. Killed, 988; injured 4,051 (including slight casualties). The figures for London during the period are: killed, 711; injured 1,042. These must be regarded as approximate.

Unexploded Bombs.

62. This problem remains acute and much of the dislocation of communications is due to unexploded or delayed action bombs. They have also necessitated the temporary evacuation of considerable numbers of people. Every effort is being made to strengthen the bomb disposal parties to deal with the various aspects of the situation.

Parachute Mines.

63. A formidable parachute mine made its first appearance among the enemy’s weapons on the 17th and was again used on the nights of the 17th/18th and the 18th/19th. The mine is in the form of a cylinder about 8 ft. in length by 2 ft. diameter, and its blast force is very extensive. Preliminary inspection supports the view that the mines are the ordinary magnetic ones and already a number have been rendered harmless by Naval personnel.

Second World War period German land and sea mine, exhibited in a museum after the war.  There were two types of magnetic sea mines used by the the Germans, who termed them the Luftmine A (LMA ) of 500kg, and the Luftmine B (LMB) of 1000kg. They were known by the British Admiralty as the Admiralty Type D and Admiralty Type C respectively. This is an example of the larger mine. The Luftwaffe began dropping magnetic mines into the waters around Britain during November 1939, first from He115 and He111 aircraft. The mines were cylindrical in shape with a hemispherical nose, and deployed under a 27ft diameter green artificial silk parachute, falling at about 40mph. They were fitted with magnetic firing and later with acoustic or magnetic/acoustic firing. When the mine hit the water and sank to more that 8ft, hydrostatic pressure and the disolution of a soluble plug actuated the magnetic device and the mine became operational against shipping. The mine was also armed with a clockwork bomb fuze which caused the bomb to explode when used against land targets, and this was started by the impact of hitting the ground. The mine was timed to detonate 25 seconds after the fuze had started. When deployed at sea, the time fuze did not operate as a diaphragm stopped the clockwork when under the pressure of 7 feet of water or more.  The first intentional use of magnetic mines against land targets was on the night of 16 September 1940, when the mines with their charge/weight ratio of 60 - 70 % explosive caused considerable blast damage in built up areas. Inevitably, they became known to the British populace as 'Land Mines'.
Second World War period German land and sea mine, exhibited in a museum after the war.

There were two types of magnetic sea mines used by the the Germans, who termed them the Luftmine A (LMA ) of 500kg, and the Luftmine B (LMB) of 1000kg. They were known by the British Admiralty as the Admiralty Type D and Admiralty Type C respectively. This is an example of the larger mine. The Luftwaffe began dropping magnetic mines into the waters around Britain during November 1939, first from He115 and He111 aircraft. The mines were cylindrical in shape with a hemispherical nose, and deployed under a 27ft diameter green artificial silk parachute, falling at about 40mph. They were fitted with magnetic firing and later with acoustic or magnetic/acoustic firing. When the mine hit the water and sank to more that 8ft, hydrostatic pressure and the disolution of a soluble plug actuated the magnetic device and the mine became operational against shipping. The mine was also armed with a clockwork bomb fuze which caused the bomb to explode when used against land targets, and this was started by the impact of hitting the ground. The mine was timed to detonate 25 seconds after the fuze had started. When deployed at sea, the time fuze did not operate as a diaphragm stopped the clockwork when under the pressure of 7 feet of water or more.

The first intentional use of magnetic mines against land targets was on the night of 16 September 1940, when the mines with their charge/weight ratio of 60 – 70 % explosive caused considerable blast damage in built up areas. Inevitably, they became known to the British populace as ‘Land Mines’.

An Air Raid Shelter in Chelsea  After returning to London from France in July 1940, Gross began recording the Blitz in London including air raid shelters in Chelsea, bombed buildings and wrecked water mains. In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, on 17 September 1940, Gross described his time in the midst of the Blitz in London: 'Some days I am perched up among ruins and the next down in the bowls of the earth with my sketch book. Anyway I find that as soon as I get properly going and well into a drawing I forget all about my surroundings, so an excellent way to forgetting the raids.'  (Imperial War Museum War Artist's Archive: GP/55/34)
An Air Raid Shelter in Chelsea
After returning to London from France in July 1940, Gross began recording the Blitz in London including air raid shelters in Chelsea, bombed buildings and wrecked water mains.
In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, on 17 September 1940, Gross described his time in the midst of the Blitz in London: ‘Some days I am perched up among ruins and the next down in the bowls of the earth with my sketch book. Anyway I find that as soon as I get properly going and well into a drawing I forget all about my surroundings, so an excellent way to forgetting the raids.’
(Imperial War Museum War Artist’s Archive: GP/55/34)

Clyde shipyards and HMS Sussex bombed

I was ordered to help the firemen by guiding them around the ship and assisting with the hoses. It was a long, dirty and scary night. The plates were buckling with the intense heat and black slippery oil was everywhere.

Quite a few, including Navy men, were sent to the Western Infirmary with severe burns. It was then noticed that the torpedoes in the tubes were getting very hot and would probably explode with the heat. Although we tried to pull them out it was a hopeless task, and all we could do was to spray them with water to keep them cool!

HMS Sussex at anchor in the Clyde.
HMS Sussex at anchor in the Clyde.
HMS-Sussex-bombed-on-the-Clyde
During the night of the 17th/18th H.M.S. Sussex which was completing a refit in the Clyde and was lying alongside at the time, was hit by a bomb during an enemy air attack. A serious fire broke out necessitating the flooding of magazines. She is now resting on the bottom aft and the fire is out. Casualties were 12 wounded, 3 seriously.\' War Cabinet report - TNA CAB 66/12/11

Hitler’s decision to turn to ‘terror’ bombing, after he was frustrated by the failure of the Luftwaffe to subdue the RAF, was not confined to London. The great cities of Britain would soon all see the devastation of the Blitz. There was a mixture of objectives, as well as hoping to bring Britain to the negotiating table, by terrorising her population, there was the intention to destroy strategic targets including aircraft and ship building. The huge Clyde shipbuilding area outside Glasgow was an obvious target.

Peter Petts, a nineteen year old Able Seaman on HMS Sussex describes how the bomb hit:

It went through the lower and platform decks and burst in the engine room near oil fuel tanks. Four members of the crew were killed, and twelve others died later of wounds. The lower deck at that point was destroyed, fire and bilge pumps were put out of action, the fuel tanks caught fire and flames were soon spreading fore and aft. But the worst part was the fact that all the magazines were full of ammunition, torpedoes, shells and depth charges, as well as eight torpedoes in the tubes on the upper deck. If the fire reached the magazines, a large part of Glasgow would have been threatend with death and destruction.

The crew that was on board that night started to fight the fire, but due to the lack of the fire and bilge pumps as well as the thick black oil fuel smoke, we were struggling. However, the Fire Brigade soon arrived and we, the Navy lads, were glad to have some help. We got more than that. They took over and soon had pumps going and water being sprayed just where it was required in the fire.

I was ordered to help the firemen by guiding them around the ship and assisting with the hoses. It was a long, dirty and scary night. The plates were buckling with the intense heat and black slippery oil was everywhere.

Quite a few, including Navy men, were sent to the Western Infirmary with severe burns. It was then noticed that the torpedoes in the tubes were getting very hot and would probably explode with the heat. Although we tried to pull them out it was a hopeless task, and all we could do was to spray them with water to keep them cool!

It was then that the Fire Chief called for the Vehicle Ferry to be used as a fireboat, and they manned it with fire engines. She arrived about 5.30 a.m. on the 19th, and soon had sixteen powerful water jets playing on the “Sussex”.

It was not until the 19th, 23 hours after the bomb had hit, that the fire was brought under control and the ship was sunk alongside the wall so that she was flooded to extinguish the blaze and prevent any explosion of the ammunition.

I believe it was in the early hours of the morning that some of the tenements and a Children’s Hospital were evacuated, but strange to tell, the story of the “Sussex” being nearly destroyed in the heart of Glasgow was kept secret ’til long after the war had ended. Even we Navy Lads were told “not to discuss it”, so we didn’t.

Read his full account at Our Glasgow Story

See also John Milloy’s account at Our Glasgow Story, a schoolboy at the time, he felt compelled to get a closer look – evidently efforts to evacuate the area were not very thorough.

77 children lost with City of Benares

All survivors were suffering from severe exposure, and varying degrees of shock, being physically and emotionally exhausted. Some were dehydrated and most were suffering from bruised and sprained bodies, limbs, and suspected fractures. Several had severe swollen legs due to prolonged exposure to sea water, the so called ‘Immersion Feet’.

A pre war post card of City of Benares' produced by the Ellerman Line to publicise their passenger service to India. Conditions in the Atlantic were far less benign.
The CITY OF BENARES was carrying 90 child evacuees to North America, 77 were drowned.
The CITY OF BENARES was carrying 90 child evacuees to North America, 77 were drowned.

The City of Benares left Liverpool on 13th September with 406 people on board, including 90 children who were being evacuated from wartime Britain to Canada. Late on the 17th September 1940, in rough mid-Atlantic seas, U-48 made two unsuccessful attempts to torpedo her. The third shot was successful and City of Benares sank in about 30 minutes. There was difficulty getting all the boats away. Rescue was still a long way off even for those that did make it into boats or rafts.

Dr Peter Collinson was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Hurricane, which went to the rescue:

At about midnight on the 17th September, I unscrambled the ciphered signal in which their Lordships commanded H.M.S. Hurricane to proceed with ‘utmost despatch’ to position 56.43 21.15 where survivors are reported in boats. On taking this to Captain Simms, he remarked ‘Utmost Despatch’ I bet this means there are women and children amongst them. Apparently a normal signal would say ‘proceed forthwith’.

We sighted the survivors at about 2pm. The first raft about 6 ft by 3 ft had two men and a boy clinging to it. These were Eric Davis and John McGlashen who were shielding Jack Keeley, aged 6. As we manoeuvred alongside the raft, I managed to take a photo with my box Brownie, which I later sold to the Daily Mirror for 6 pounds. It has since reappeared in several publications. Unfortunately I was unable to take any more photographs of the rescue, as the survivors needed medical attention.

All survivors were suffering from severe exposure, and varying degrees of shock, being physically and emotionally exhausted. Some were dehydrated and most were suffering from bruised and sprained bodies, limbs, and suspected fractures. Several had severe swollen legs due to prolonged exposure to sea water, the so called ‘Immersion Feet’.

Three little boys could not be revived in spite of the valiant efforts of the Petty Officers’ Mess at artificial resuscitation. They were later given a full Naval Burial by the Captain.

Read the full account on BBC People’s War.

Beryl Myatt, who died aged nine when the SS CITY OF BENARES was torpedoed on 17 September 1940. Beryl was being evacuated to Canada where she was due to stay with her aunt.
Beryl Myatt, who died aged nine when the SS CITY OF BENARES was torpedoed on 17 September 1940. Beryl was being evacuated to Canada where she was due to stay with her aunt.

One lifeboat was missed by HMS Hurricane. The 46 occupants, including six boys, were only spotted by a flying boat eight days later and picked up by HMS Anthony.

In total 248 people died from the City of Benares, the loss of 77 children leading to the abandonment of further overseas evacuation.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS ANTHONY rescues survivors from a lifeboat.
Royal Navy destroyer HMS ANTHONY rescues survivors from a lifeboat from the SS CITY OF BENARES which had been been adrift for nine days after the ship sank on 17 September 1940. The CITY OF BENARES was evacuating children from Britain to Canada under the auspices of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board [CORB] as part of Convoy OB 213 when it was torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life in the Atlantic by the German submarine U-48. The sinking became one of the most notorious events of the Second World War.

18 year old Sergeant Hannah wins the Victoria Cross

Sergeant Hannah succeeded in forcing his way through the fire in order to grab two extinguishers. He then discovered that the Rear Gunner was missing. Quite undaunted he fought the fire for 10 minutes, and when the fire extinguishers were exhausted he beat the flames with his log book. During this time, ammunition from the gunner’s magazines was exploding in all directions. In spite of this and the fact that he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, he succeeded in controlling and eventually putting out the fire. During the process of fighting the flames, he had turned on his oxygen to assist him in his efforts.

Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.
Pilot Officer Connor points out the damage to the Hampden which he brought back after Sergeant Hannah had successfully fought the fire.

The relatively small RAF Bomber Command was nothing like the force it would become in just a few years time. It was only equipped with twin engined medium bombers that would very soon be regarded as obsolete. Yet, with fear of an invasion of Britain at its height, RAF Bomber Command was given a task regarded as at least as important as defending the skies above Britain – it was sent out, night after night, to do as much damage as possible to the naval forces that Hitler had gathered for the cross channel attack.

Most of these targets were very well defended. There was no shortage of bravery amongst the aircrew that had to face them.

Sergeant John Hannah was 18 when he became one of the youngest recipients of the Victoria Cross. The original recommendation for the award reads:

On the night of September 15/16th., Sergeant Hannah was the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner of an aircraft detailed to carry out operations on enemy barge concentrations at Antwerp.

After completing a successful attack on the target, his aircraft was subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire, during the course of which the bomb compartment received a direct hit. A fire started and quickly enveloped the Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner’s and Rear Gunner’s cockpits. Both the port and starboard petrol tanks were also pierced, thus causing grave risk of fire spreading still further.

Sergeant Hannah succeeded in forcing his way through the fire in order to grab two extinguishers. He then discovered that the Rear Gunner was missing. Quite undaunted he fought the fire for 10 minutes, and when the fire extinguishers were exhausted he beat the flames with his log book. During this time, ammunition from the gunner’s magazines was exploding in all directions. In spite of this and the fact that he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, he succeeded in controlling and eventually putting out the fire. During the process of fighting the flames, he had turned on his oxygen to assist him in his efforts.

On instructions from his pilot, Sergeant Hannah then crawled forward to ascertain if the navigator was alright, only to find that he also was missing. He informed his pilot and passed up the navigator’s log and maps, stating that he was quite alright himself, in spite of burns and exhaustion from the heat and fumes.

An inspection of the aircraft reveals the conditions under which Sergeant Hannah was working. The sides of the fuselage were ripped away by enemy action and exploding bullets. Metal was distorted and the framework scorched by the intense heat. The two carrier pigeons were completed roasted. His own parachute was burned out.

During this operation, in which he received second degree burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah displayed outstanding coolness, courage and devotion to duty of the very highest order. By his action he not only saved the life of his pilot, but enabled his aircraft to be flown back safely to its base without any further damage.

Sergeant Hannah has completed a total of 74 hours flying as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on 11 Operational flights against the enemy.

TNA AIR 2/5686

The citation that was published to mark the award of the Victoria Cross was substantially the same, although it omitted reference to the ‘completely roasted’ carrier pigeons.

Sergeant Hannah won the Victoria Cross and Pilot Officer Connor the D.F.C. after bringing their stricken Hampden bomber back to base.

John Hannah’s had been badly injured, far more than seems apparent from this photograph. His health was severely affected and, after contracting tuberculosis, he was eventually discharged from the RAF with a disability pension in 1942. He was unable to work full time and he struggled to support his family. He died in 1947.

Douglas Bader leads the ‘Big Wing’ into attack

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

The RAF met successive waves of German aircraft on the 15th September and came off best, although not as decisively as the contemporary propaganda suggested.

The RAF Fighter Command Squadrons often faced very much larger numbers of German aircraft, both bombers and fighters, as Geoffrey Wellum describes so vividly. It really was the case of ‘the Few’ against overwhelming odds on many occasions. So one response was to try to change the odds through organisation and discipline:

The Squadron, with S/Ldr. D.R.S, Bader, D.S.O., leading Group Wing which also had 302, 310, 19 and 611 Squadrons, assembled over DUXFORD before noon, and proceeded south, the three Hurricane Squadrons at 25,000 feet and the two Spitfire Sqdns. at 27,000 feet.

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

1 Do.17 destroyed – S/Ldr. D.R.S.Bader, D.S.O.

Pilot, with the leading Section of the formation, attacked the last Section of 3 Do.17’s, of which he attacked the middle one. He opened fire at 100 yards in a steep dive and saw large flash behind the starboard motor of the Do.17 as its wing caught fire and thinks he must have hit the petrol pipe or tank. He attacked other E/A but it was difficult to get them in his sights an the sky seemed to be full of spitfires and hurricanes queuing up to attack E/A.

As all the bombers were destroyed, S/Ldr.Bader’s final comments are worthy of repetition:

“It was the finest shambles I have been in since for once we had position height and numbers. E/A were a dirty looking collection.”

242 Squadron claimed five Dornier 17 bombers and one Me 109 destroyed plus one Dornier damaged in this attack. The original combat report can be read in full at the RAF Museum site.

The ‘Big Wing’ strategy attracted controversy within the RAF at the time and continues to do so. This meant forming up large groups of aircraft composed of several different Squadrons, as described here, to meet the Luftwaffe in strength. It was only ever practiced by the RAF’s 12 Group, commanded by Leigh-Mallory. They were responsible for the area north of the Thames so potentially had the advance warning and the time to form up in this manner. Whereas 11 Group, based south of the Thames and meeting the German aircraft as they came over the Channel, operated a much more flexible approach of scrambling individual Squadrons to meet the various threats as they were plotted.

Although this particular post combat report purports to show that the Big Wing was a resounding success, it was written under the aegis of Douglas Bader who was one of the chief proponents of the practice. Critics of the theory said that it took too long for the Big Wing to form up and that it was often in the wrong place when it did form up, unable to respond to the rapidly changing scale and direction of the raids coming in. The number of kills claimed, which were far more than were subsequently established, made it difficult to evaluate at the time.

‘Over-claiming’ was not confined to the Big Wing Squadrons, it was a feature of all units operating in the Battle of Britain, on both sides. It was one of the reasons why Goring claimed that ‘Britain only has 50 Spitfires left’ : the 15th September was to prove him to be dramatically wrong. Although the contemporary claims of 185 German aircraft shot down were also very exaggerated – the real figure is now put at 56 – the Luftwaffe still suffered disproportionately on the 15th and it could subsequently be seen as a turning point in the battle.

Air Raids change everything

Damage to food stocks varies from negligible quantities of bacon, meat and coffee, to half a week’s consumption of sugar, 13,600 tons. Two days’ consumption of wheat and tea has been lost. These losses are less important than the destruction of flour-mills, cold storage plants, margarine factories, and oil and cake mills, situated in the London dock areas.

Many children who had been evacuated at the start of the war had returned by September 1940.

Londoners did not know it but they were only one week into a bombing campaign that would be sustained for 76 consecutive nights. There was a rapid reconsideration of many government policies, from the re-evacuation of children out of London to the centralised control over food and other supplies.

The War Cabinet considers the impact of the Air Raids on supplies held in London:

14th September 1940

Food Stocks

Damage to food stocks varies from negligible quantities of bacon, meat and coffee, to half a week’s consumption of sugar, 13,600 tons. Two days’ consumption of wheat and tea has been lost. These losses are less important than the destruction of flour-mills, cold storage plants, margarine factories, and oil and cake mills, situated in the London dock areas. As regards the milling industry, reserve capacity will be brought into use and longer hours worked in order to increase the proportion of stocks held in the form of flour, which is more readily dispersed than wheat. The loss of cold storage capacity will create some difficulties in regard to meat.

Material Stocks,

The main known loss is 20,000 standards of sawn timber in the Surrey Commercial Docks. Before the intensification of air raids, steps had been taken to effect a considerable dispersion of stocks throughout the country. The Minister of Supply has considered whether this process can be carried further. He intends to arrange for releases of pit props to Colliery Companies on an increased scale. The Companies would be warned against depleting the stocks so released by consumption at an abnormal rate, since they could probably not be replaced. The possibility is also being examined of dispersing, e.g. to the West Riding, some of the stocks of wool in London, which amount to 300,000 bales. The position of stocks of rubber and cotton is also being examined.

TNA CAB/66/12/1

See also the experiences of a Canadian who had just arrived in Britain in September, Gordon Denney was with the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps.

The Italians attack in the Desert

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

The British A9 Cruiser tank as commanded by Lieutenant Rea Leakey in September 1940. It was relatively lightly armoured and only had a two pounder gun but was fast and proved effective against the Italians.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.

Mussolini had opportunistically joined the war as soon as he saw that that Hitler was poised to defeat France. He had high hopes that he might expand his African ‘Empire’ by seizing British territory. On paper his armies were well placed to succeed, especially while Britain was distracted by the threat of invasion at home.

In practice the Italian army was much less enthusiastic than their national leader, especially after they managed to shoot down their commander in chief. Their capacity for battle was demonstrated in the way that they attacked on the first day.

The British General, Lord Wavell’s forces in Egypt were massively outnumbered by the Italians, whose invasion of Egypt had long been expected. The British strategy was to keep the bulk of their forces in reserve, leaving only a small screening force on the border itself.

Lieutenant Rea Leakey was commanding a tank with 1 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), based in the western desert of Egypt – facing the Italian Army in Libya. When the attack came, on the 13th September, Leakey was part of this small force, which was deployed to present what resistance it could whilst minimising casualties – the orders were to ‘make a fighting withdrawal, but under no circumstances are tanks to be lost in battle’:

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

We had a battery of 25-pounder guns supporting us, and they started dropping their shells into this vast target moving towards us. When our tanks were spotted, the column of vehicles heading for us halted, and in no time they had unloaded guns and the battle was on.

We were now given the order to form ‘battle line’ and race towards the enemy at full speed with all guns blazing. It was certainly an exhilarating ride. We must have frightened the enemy even if we failed to kill them, but when we were some 400 yards from them, the order came to turn tail and get out of the cauldron. Our Commanding Officer obeyed orders – no tanks were to be lost. And indeed on that charge we were lucky, even though most of the tanks had been hit and a number had to be backloaded for major repairs.

Credit must be given to our experienced drivers like Doyle. If they missed their gear-change on the turn, the tank would present an easy target to the anti-tank gunners.

And so throughout that day we moved slowly back towards Mersa Matruh, fighting these inconclusive actions but certainly taking a toll of the enemy. When darkness fell we moved a few miles back into the desert, knowing full well that the Italians were as tired as we were, and equally as hungry. It had been a tiring day and we had been bombed and shelled almost continuously from dawn to dusk.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives

Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.