Townsend brings down first plane over England

A Hurricane aircraft scrambles

Peter Townsend was Squadron Leader with 43 Squadron, based at Acklington:

On the morning of the 3rd of February, in a cutting wind, the other pilots in my flight and I, went for our Hurricanes dispersed on the far side of the airfield. Far away at Danby Beacon Radar Station, the duty operator picked up the phone, it was 09.03 – the operator had seen a blip, then another – unidentified aircraft, some 60 miles out to sea, were approaching at 1000 ft. Continue reading “Townsend brings down first plane over England”

Admiral Dönitz inspects a German U-boat crew

‘Admiral Dönitz, the commander of the U-Boot fleet, awards some of the brave sailors with the Iron Cross.’

UFA German Newsreel footage from 31st January 1940

“Again and again foreign newspapers report upon the success of the German U-Boots. In the last weeks at least 90,000 tons of shipping has been sunk. Here a successful submarine has returned to the Homeland.

Admiral Dönitz, the commander of the U-Boot fleet, awards some of the brave sailors with the Iron Cross.”

British minelaying in the North Sea

British minelaying operations were responsible for sinking a number of U-Boats and German ships, see for example [permalink id=3861 text=’Operation Wikinger’] and the fate of [permalink id=3150 text=’U-50′]. This Movietone Newsreel demonstrates the enormous effort and resources that were needed to lay effective minefields.

During the ‘phoney war’ there was a limited range of material about military activity that could be used for propaganda purposes. Yet the war in the North Sea was anything but phoney, with increasing numbers of ships being sunk. Both sides were responsible for laying enormous numbers of mines in order to restrict access to their own ports except through particular channels, and more generally to hinder the free movement of hostile ships and submarines. British minelaying operations were responsible for sinking a number of U-Boats and German ships, see for example [permalink id=3861 text=’Operation Wikinger’] and the fate of [permalink id=3150 text=’U-50′]. This Movietone Newsreel demonstrates the enormous effort and resources that were needed to lay effective minefields. Continue reading “British minelaying in the North Sea”

HMS Grenville sunk, the Russians attack again in Finland

From the Naval, Military and Air Situation up to noon on 25th of January 1940 as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval Situation – Home Waters

1. The Northern Patrol has been maintained at full strength, supported by a force of heavy ships which have also provided cover for the convoys to and from Norway.
Two further sweeps carried out by our light forces off the Dutch coast have resulted in two Norwegian, two Dutch and two Swedish ships being sent into the Downs for examination.

On 19th January, while returning from the first of these sweeps, H.M.S.Grenville (flotilla leader) struck a mine and sank 23 miles east of the Kentish Knock Light Vessel. The destroyers in company picked up the survivors, but 75 men lost their lives. Grenville was blown in two by the force of the explosion, which occurred at the junction of the engine room and her after boiler room. All the personnel in these two compartments must have been killed. The bow of the ship floated for some time, with the stem pointing upward and the bridge submerged, but it was not thought that any of the crew were trapped inside as the coxswain, who was the last man to leave the mess decks, reported that they were clear of men. The after part of the ship sank in a few minutes, going down with no list by the forward end. In this short time the First Lieutenant and a petty officer were able to make their way aft and set the depth charges to “safe”. This prompt action probably saved many lives, since otherwise many of the men in the water would almost certainly have been killed by the explosion of the depth charges when the stern sank.

2. As a result of report that two German cruisers had arrived at Borkum for an operation on the following day, a force of cruisers and destroyers was ordered to make a sweep in the North Sea on 21 January, and four submarines were sent to patrol off the Texel. No enemy surface ships were sighted and the whole force was withdrawn on the 22nd.

British Minesweeping.

16. Bad weather has retarded minesweeping generally, and experimental work has been limited in consequence.
Special apparatus has been designed to recover a sinker of one of the German moored mines in order that the time release gear can be examined. 5 million yards of electric cable are on order for the purpose of the magnetisation of ships. It is hoped to complete the order within 11 weeks.

Military Situation – Western Front

22. Intense cold has limited operations on the Western Front to patrolling. The 50th division has begun disembarkation in France.


28. Conditions in Russia seem to be slowly deteriorating, and the food shortages in Moscow and Leningrad are said to be serious. They appears to be some uneasiness in the country, but no signs of serious trouble. Some army formations have undoubtedly been shaken by the Finnish successes, but the news of these events has not been allowed to reach the civilian population, and there is no sign that a general drop in morale has set in. It must be noted, however, that the morale of the army is not high, and the attitude of the mass of the soldiery is one of fatalistic apathy.

Air Situation- Royal Air Force Operations – Bomber Command

Night reconnaissances

34. Two Wellington and three Hampden aircraft reconnoitred areas of north west Germany on the night of 18th January and dropped leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen, Brunswick and Hanover. The pilots reported that blackout conditions varied, and whereas Hanover was well darkened and Brunswick showed a few lights, Brunsbuttel and Cuxhaven were normally lit. Two Wellingtons repeated this operation over the same area the following night, when some slight searchlight activity and anti-aircraft fire were encountered.

Russo-Finnish Hostilities

43. The outstanding news of the week has been the failure of the fresh Russian attacks on the Karelian Isthmus; the retreat of the Russian forces operating to the west of Salla; and the activity of the Russian air force, both against troops in the line and against objectives in the interior.

The Soviet attacks on the Karelian Isthmus were renewed in great force on 20th January, after a lull of nearly 2 weeks. The feature of these attacks was the extensive use of aircraft; aircraft machine guns the western sector of the Finnish lines where minor attacks were made, and bombers and fighters co-operated in the main attack on the eastern sector, where the artillery bombardment was heavy and a large number of tanks were used. These attacks failed to penetrate the Finnish defences, but further attacks in force are expected soon, as the Russians are believed to have accumulated large stocks of munitions.

See TNA CAB/66/5/12

Churchill warns of the ‘criminal adventurers of Berlin’

Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty when he made a Radio broadcast on Sunday 20th January 1940. He was clearly not going to be constrained to speak only of naval matters. After his assertion that in the war at sea ‘things are not going so badly after all’ he moved on to examine the position of the neutral countries. The speech was well received by the British public and was further confirmation that Churchill was the backbone of the Cabinet. It was less well received by the neutral countries and by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Yet everything that he predicted was to come true, even his belief in a more united Europe after ultimate victory.

I have always, after long and hard experience, spoken with the utmost restraint and caution about the war at sea, and I am sure that many losses and misfortunes are lying ahead of us there; but in all humility and self questioning I feel able to declare that at the Admiralty, as at the French Ministry of Marine, things are not going so badly after all. Indeed, they have never gone so well in any naval war. …

Very different is the lot of the unfortunate neutrals. Whether on sea or on land they are the victims upon whom Hitler’s hate and spite descend. Look at the group of small but ancient and historic States which lie in the North. Or look again at that other group of anxious people in the Balkans or in the Danube Basin, behind whom stands the resolute Turk. Every one of them is wondering who will be the next victim on whom the criminal adventurers of Berlin will cast their rending stroke. A German major makes a forced landing in Belgium with plans for the invasion of that country whose neutrality Germany has so recently sworn to respect. …

But what would happen if all those neutral nations I have mentioned, and some others I have not mentioned, were with one spontaneous impulse to do their duty in accordance with the Covenants of the League and stand together with the British and French Empires against aggression and wrong? At present their plight is lamentable, and will become much worse. They bow humbly and in fear to German threats of violence, comforting themselves meanwhile with the thought that Britain and France will win, that they will strictly observe all the laws and conventions, and that breaches are only to be expected from the German side.

Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But the storm will not pass. It will rage and roar ever more loudly, ever more widely. It will spread to the South. It will spread to the North. There is no chance of a speedy end except through united action. And if at any time Britain and France, wearying of the struggle, were to make a shameful peace nothing would remain for the smaller States of Europe, with their shipping and their possessions, but to be divided between the opposite, though similar, barbarisms of Nazidom and Bolshevism. …

In the bitter and increasingly exacting conflict which lies before us we are resolved to keep nothing back and not to be outstripped by any in service to the common cause. Let the great cities of Warsaw, of Prague, of Vienna banish despair even in the midst of their agony. Their liberation is sure. The day will come when the joy-bells will ring again throughout Europe, and when victorious nations, masters not only of their foes, but of themselves, will plan and build in justice, in tradition, and in freedom a house of many mansions where there shall be room for all.

Latest analysis of the U-Boat war

The Naval Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on the 18th January 1940, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval Situation

General Review

The period has again been one of relative quiet at sea, there being only minor incidents to report apart from the loss of H.M. Submarines; Seahorse, Starfish and Undine. In Home Waters operations against German merchant vessels have been carried out out off the Norwegian and Dutch coasts, in the latter case with some success.

Enemy attacks on seaborne trade by air, mine and submarine have continued, and have perhaps been slightly more effective than during last week.

The crisis in connection with the military situation in Belgium and Holland necessitated an increased degree of readiness being maintained by our light forces on the East Coast while it lasted.

The movement of Australian and New Zealand troops continues.

10. A diagrammatic analysis of German submarine activities up to the end of 1939 is attached to this resume. A study of this shows that German submarine activity has been steadily decreasing and suggests that the North Sea is becoming the principle operational area of submarines, whereas for the first few months they were most active on our Western seaboard. Continue reading “Latest analysis of the U-Boat war”

The British Expeditionary Force are put on alert

We discussed the whole evidence and came to the conclusion that the whole affair looked like a ‘plant’ on the part of Germany. It was not likely that officers would fly over Belgium with a plan of that kind in their possession.

The Norfolk Regiment on Western Front
The Norfolk Regiment on Western Front

A German plane had crash landed near Mechelen in Belgium on 10th January. One of the German officers was carrying documents which he was discovered attempting to burn. They proved to be comprehensive plans for the invasion of Belgium, to be conducted in the near future. Whilst the Belgians pretended to the Germans that the maps had been almost completely burnt and they had learnt little from them, they simultaneously set about preparing for an imminent invasion and warned their putative allies, the British and the French.

General Alan Brooke had been alerted on the 12th to expect an invasion and ‘heavy parachutist attacks’, which he found implausible given the extremely cold weather conditions. He was awoken at 3.30 am on the 14th and told to prepare to advance into Belgium. Later that day he attended a GHQ conference where he learnt of the reasons for the alert: the crashed plane and the documents. Continue reading “The British Expeditionary Force are put on alert”

British Minelaying, Finnish tactics in the Winter War

‘A striking feature of the fighting has been the success of the Finnish anti-tank defence, despite a shortage of weapons. Various methods, such as the flinging of incendiary bombs, bundles of hand grenades and bottles of petrol at the tanks have been employed. A new and ingenious tank obstacle has been produced by means of pit props, coated with ice and placed on the frozen ground. These props rotate under the tracks of the tank, which can make no headway.’

Finnish troops defend their country against Russian forces

The Naval, Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on January 11, 1940, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval Situation

Home waters

1. A force of heavy ships has been operating to cover the Northern Patrol and the convoys to and from Norway.
H.M. Submarine Trident is returning from a patrol off Murmansk, where she has been observing shipping activity.
H.M. Submarine Seahorse is more than 48 hours overdue at her base, from patrol in the North Sea, and a search along the route of her intended return passage is being carried out by aircraft, so far without success.

2. During daylight on Tuesday, 9 January, enemy aircraft attacked isolated ships, not in convoy, off the East Coast, with bombs and machine guns. Three small British ships were sunk and two Danish steamers were badly damaged. One ship was attacked in a similar manner on Wednesday, 10 January. Our own aircraft failed to intercept any of the raiders owing to poor visibility. Continue reading “British Minelaying, Finnish tactics in the Winter War”