HMS Sydney’s surprise attack on Italian cruisers

The famous Australian cruiser HMS Sydney
Hmas Sydney sinks the Italian Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. 19 July 1940, On board HMAS Sydney In The Mediterranean. HMAS Sydney accompanied by a small destroyer force, engaged two Italian Cruisers to the north westward of Crete. The other withdrew with the British In pursuit. Shells throw up a line of water in front of the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI.
Hmas Sydney sinks the Italian Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. 19 July 1940, On board HMAS Sydney In The Mediterranean. HMAS Sydney accompanied by a small destroyer force, engaged two Italian Cruisers to the north westward of Crete. The other withdrew with the British In pursuit.
Shells throw up a line of water in front of the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI.
Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni under attack from HMAS Sydney and destroyer flotilla.
Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni under attack from HMAS Sydney and destroyer flotilla.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s strategy of aggressive patrolling in the Mediterranean paid off when a force of Royal Navy destroyers encountered two Italian cruisers. The two larger Italian ships should have had a significant advantage. However they did not know that there was a second Royal Navy force less than an hours sailing time away. The action off Cape Spada was an unusual naval battle for World War II because at no point before or during the engagement were aircraft involved.

While the Giovanni Belle Bande Nere and the Bartolomeo Colleoni were fully engaged in a battle with the destroyers from 0724 they were unaware of the approach of HMAS Sydney, which had kept radio silence and not responded to the reports of the battle from the destroyers. It was only when HMAS Sydney opened up with her 6 inch guns from 20,000 yards at 0829 that the Italians realised that they were also being attacked from another direction:

Early in the morning of the 19th July H.M.S. Sydney with H.M. Destroyers Hyperion, Hew, Havock, Hero and Hasty were engaged in carrying out a sweep between Greece and Crete in search of Italian shipping.

At 0724 two Italian cruisers, the Bartolomeo Colleoni and another of the same class, probably the Giovanni Belle Bande Nere, were sighted by four of the destroyers in the Antikithera Channel, north-west of the western end of Crete. The destroyers retired to the north-eastward while H.M.S. Sydney, with H.M. Destroyer Havock in company, closed to engage the enemy.

As soon as Sydney opened fire on the leading enemy cruiser, the Colleoni, our destroyers closed in support, and the Italian cruisers endeavoured to escape back through the Antikithera Channel. Early in the action a hit by Sydney in Colleoni’s engine room brought her to a standstill, and Sydney, leaving our destroyers to complete her destruction with torpedoes, continued the engagement with the other cruiser. The latter, however, succeeded in escaping after a chase lasting ninety minutes, in the course of which she was hit several times by Sydney.

A force sailed from Alexandria in an attempt to intercept her but was unsuccessful. 545 survivors from the Colleoni were picked up by H.M.S. Havock, which was bombed by enemy aircraft while engaged in their rescue and had one boiler room flooded, but was able to proceed without assistance.

There were no casualties in H.M. ships in this action. The Captain of the Colleoni died of wounds received in the action on the 23rd July at Alexandria.

See TNA cab/66/10/17

The official Australian Naval history summarised the action:

The action off Cape Spada was practically a duel between the Sydney and two adversaries, each of which was her equal in force, though the presence of the British destroyers undoubtedly influenced Admiral Casardi’s tactics. Several points of interest emerge from the narrative.

It will be noted that this was one of the few surface actions of the war in which aircraft — either for reconnaissance, spotting or attacking — played no part. Admiral Casardi had not catapulted any of his aircraft in the early morning because he considered it too rough, and he also thought it certain that reconnaissance by shore-based aircraft over the area of the Aegean he had to pass through would have been arranged by Headquarters at Rhodes.

The Sydney had no aircraft embarked – a circumstance characterised by Captain Collins as “unfortunate” ; she had lost her aircraft at the bombardment of Bardia on 21st June, and a replacement had been damaged by bomb splinters before it could be embarked.

The initial mistake of the Italian Admiral in steering north and engaging the destroyers at long range instead of immediately chasing them and trying to overwhelm them with his superior weight of metal has been remarked on.

It is true that the formation of the destroyers may well have looked like a screen for heavier craft; but if a superior force were always to hold off till perfectly certain of what might be out of sight beyond the enemy few surface actions would ever take place.

Per contra Captain Collins’ unhesitating attack on a force practically double his strength, after having duly gauged the risks and taken steps to minimise them by keeping wireless silence and skilfully exploiting the advantage of surprise, achieved the success it deserved. The effect of the surprise was helped by the presence of the Havock, which, as he suspected, was mistaken by the enemy for a cruiser in the first shock of the attack.

It is also of interest to note the encouragement Captain Collins derived from the Italians’ early use of smoke, which he immediately recognised as evidence that his enemy was fighting with one eye over his shoulder.

Perhaps the Italians were particularly unfortunate in meeting the Sydney, which had been in action twice during the preceding three weeks. “ I was thus,” wrote Captain Collins, “ in the happy position of taking a ship into action that had already experienced two successful encounters with the enemy.”

The superiority of the Sydney’s gunfire both for accuracy and rate was most marked throughout the action.

The shooting of the Italians was poor. Though described as accurate for range at first, it was slow, erratic and spasmodic, and fell off under punishment.

It is remarkable that between them the two enemy ships only succeeded in scoring a single hit. Any advantage they might have had from superior speed was discounted by their violent zig-zagging, which enabled the Sydney to keep the range steady, while opening her “ A ” arcs.

The destroyers also were ably handled and fought both in retirement and on turning back immediately after sighting the Sydney at right angles to the enemy’s course — a movement that possibly prevented the Italians from trying to escape to the eastward.

This and a full account of the action can be read at:

http://www.navy.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/Battle_Summary_Nos_2-8-9_and_10.pdf.

A tower of smoke pours from the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI just before she sinks.
A tower of smoke pours from the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI just before she sinks.
Survivors from the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI struggle to make their way to the SYDNEY.
Survivors from the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI struggle to make their way to the SYDNEY.
Sailors from Sydney posing around and in the forward funnel shellhole. This was the only damage received by the Australian cruiser during the battle of Cape Spada.
Sailors from Sydney posing around and in the forward funnel shellhole. This was the only damage received by the Australian cruiser during the battle of Cape Spada.

Meanwhile in Britain:

NAVAL SITUATION.

General Review.

COASTAL convoys and patrol and minesweeping forces have been constantly attacked by enemy aircraft, particularly in the vicinity of Dover. There has been little U-boat activity. Minelaying by enemy aircraft has continued to increase in intensity. There has been a successful cruiser action in the Mediterranean.

3. In an enemy raid on Dover on the 19th July, H.M. Destroyer Beagle was heavily bombed and slightly damaged by near misses, and on the 20th July, while on passage to Devonport she was again attacked off Portland, when further minor damage was caused. No casualties were sustained in these attacks, during which two of the attacking aircraft were shot down by pom-poms.

The destroyer HMS Beagle escaped serious damage when she was bombed off Dover on the 19th July

In a dive bomber attack on Dover later on the 19th July, H.M. Destroyer Griffin was damaged and rendered unseaworthy, and the R.F.A. Oiler War Sepoy had her back broken, necessitating the pumping out of her oil. On the same day H.M. A/S Trawler Crestflower was sunk by bombs off St. Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight, and Motor A/S Boat No. 8 was attacked with machine-gun fire by enemy aircraft off Aldeburgh with the loss of two ratings killed and two officers and one rating wounded.

See TNA CAB/66/10/29

Rising casualties at home, Mediterranean fleet bombed

HMS Eagle
HMS Eagle carried Swordfish aircraft in 1940 when she was based at the British Naval base at Alexandria.

Throughout the war the Cabinet Office in Britain prepared weekly resumes of the incidents taking place in the war, shared with members of the War Cabinet and with the heads of the Commonwealth nations. Cumulatively they present a detailed history of most aspects of the war as seen from the British perspective.

At this point only two theatres dominated thinking – the Germans were attacking Britain and the Italians were trying to make their mark in the Mediterranean:

Extracts from the

WEEKLY RESUME of the NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION up to 12 noon July 18th, 1940

 

NAVAL SITUATION.

General Review.
APART from air attacks on shipping, which have continued at about the same intensity, there has been little enemy activity at sea, U-boat activity continues to be slight. Aircraft minelaying has continued on an increased scale. Indifferent weather conditions have hampered our air reconnaissance in home waters to some extent.

Mediterranean.

5. During the operations in the Eastern Mediterranean last week the Fleet and the slower of the two convoys from Malta to Alexandria which the Fleet was covering were continually bombed without success. Eight heavy air attacks were made on H.M. Ships Royal Sovereign, Malaya and Eagle between 1100 and 2100 on the 11th July, and on the 12th July H.M.S. Warspite was attacked 22 times, a total of 260 to 300 bombs being dropped. Fighters from H.M.S. Eagle shot down 4 or 5 bombers with the loss of one machine rendered unserviceable. During the week Alexandria, Gibraltar and Malta have all been attacked by aircraft but no naval damage has been reported.

The aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.
The aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.

MILITARY SITUATION.

Libya.

25. British activity has been confined to offensive action by units of the Armoured Division which have prevented the Italians from restoring an adequate line of communication to Fort Capuzzo. On the 13th July British units engaged a supply column and inflicted casualties while, on the 17th July, the enemy lost 5 Field guns, 3 Anti-tank guns and 12 lorries.

26. The Italians now appear to be moving part of their North African Garrison from the West to the East. This, and the presence of Marshal Graziani in Libya, suggest that they contemplate greater offensive activity against Egypt.

AIR SITUATION.
General Review.

31. Weather conditions have again generally restricted air operations during the week. Our bombing attacks continue to be directed against the German Air Force and shipping concentrations, while those of the enemy, which have considerably decreased in intensity, were again chiefly on ports and shipping. Apart from Italian attacks on British naval units, the character of air operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East remained unchanged.

Great Britain.

32. The intensity of enemy air attacks was reduced from the beginning of the week and, towards the end, was probably further curtailed by adverse weather. They were chiefly concentrated by day on shipping in the Channel and off the East Coast, and on certain ports in South Wales and in the south of England. The heaviest attacks were made on Portland and Portsmouth on the 11th July, and on the Channel Convoy on the 14th, about fifty enemy aircraft being engaged on each occasion. The damage done to the two ports was slight, but one ship in the Channel Convoy was sunk and two were damaged.

The most serious raid on land objectives was on the 12th, when the Aberdeen Iron Works were damaged and considerable casualties inflicted. During the week 88 people were killed and about 300 injured. By night the enemy was mainly engaged in minelaying, usually on the East Coast, between the Forth and North Foreland, though on two nights aircraft reached Liverpool Bay.

33. Fighter Command flew 984 patrols, involving 3,288 sorties, over this country, and destroyed 37 enemy aircraft confirmed and 25 unconfirmed. Our fighter losses totalled 17.

See TNA :cab/66/9/49

Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which they shot down as it was attacking a Channel convoy, 1940.
Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which they shot down as it was attacking a Channel convoy, 1940.

Meanwhile in Germany Hitler and the Nazi Party were at the peak of their popularity. The stunning defeat of France had obliterated the German humiliation of the defeat in 1918 and the postwar settlement. On the 18th July they celebrated with a victory parade in Berlin:

Massed crowds watch a Wehrmacht victory parade through Berlin
General Fromm with Propaganda Minister Goebbels beside him, takes the salute.
General Fromm with Propaganda Minister Goebbels beside him, takes the salute.

The glorious ‘Few’ who are defending Britain

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at 'A' Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at ‘A’ Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.

The war had now seemingly resolved down to a simple scenario. Britain was under direct threat from a German invasion. At present the Royal Navy stood in the way of any amphibious landing – yet only so long as her ships could be protected from the air. In the ‘narrow seas’ between Britain and the continent of Europe if the Luftwaffe got the upper hand then no ship would be safe.

It was now readily apparent to those within the military command that only the thin line of ‘fighters boys’ of RAF Fighter Command kept Britain safe. It was a stark reality to confront, especially when they met the young men themselves, many of whom were only just out of school.

General Hastings “Pug” Ismay was Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence and Churchill’s principal military adviser, standing between the military establishment and the politicians, he saw the situation as clearly as anyone:

The German Air Force had been at full stretch throughout the Battle of France, and it was not until the first week in July that the Battle of Britain started in earnest.

As usual, the Prime Minister took every opportunity to go and see things for himself, and I accompanied him on many of his visits to fighter stations in Kent and Sussex.

From the moment one set foot on the tarmac, one sensed the tension in the air – the pilots standing by ‘on readiness’, waiting to ‘scramble’ into their machines at a moment’s notice.

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

But they seemed a race apart, and I felt an intruder. They brought to my mind something that I had once read in the Old Testament. I looked it up when I got home. ‘And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.’ [Malachi, chapter III, verse 17]

See The Memoirs of General the Lord Ismay K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O..

Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.

1945: Churchill meets Truman as Trinity is tested

German women doing their washing at a water hydrant in a Berlin street, near the wreck of a German light armoured car, 3 July 1945.
German women doing their washing at a water hydrant in a Berlin street, near the wreck of a German light armoured car, 3 July 1945.
British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the Chancellery, the spot from which Hitler made many of his speeches. Label British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the ruined Chancellery in Berlin, 5 July 1945.
British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the Chancellery, the spot from which Hitler made many of his speeches, 5 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting a guard of honour of the Scots Guards at British Headquarters, Berlin, soon after his arrival for the 'Big Three' conference at Potsdam.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting a guard of honour of the Scots Guards at British Headquarters, Berlin, soon after his arrival for the ‘Big Three’ conference at Potsdam.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman shake hands on the steps of Truman's residence, "The White House", at Kaiser Strasse, Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman shake hands on the steps of Truman’s residence, “The White House”, at Kaiser Strasse, Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 July 1945.

The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.

The tensions between the Soviet side and the western democracies were now becoming ever more evident. On the face of it the conference would decide the fate of Germany and the where the new boundaries of eastern Europe would lie. In reality much would be determined by the de facto occupation of territory by Soviet troops.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the ruins of Adolf Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the ruins of Adolf Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits in a jeep outside the Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin, Germany on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits in a jeep outside the Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin, Germany on 16 July 1945.
Scene of destruction on part of the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.
Scene of destruction on part of the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

Whatever hopes those attending the conference might have that they could shape the post war world and prevent further wars, new realities were rapidly outstripping their expectations. Thousands of miles away, on the same day, scientists were conducting an experiment, codename Trinity, that would change the course of world history:

Brigadier General Thomas Farrell described the reaction of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the atomic research programme:

Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted “Now!” and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief.

Oppenheimer himself later recalled:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Hitler orders ‘Operation Sealion’ – invade Britain

Watching out for raiders over London.

There had been some resistance to the appointment of Churchill as Prime Minister within the Conservative party. However his dynamic approach and rousing rhetoric was bringing people round. Senior Conservative Party MP and military insider Sir Cuthbert Headlam observed the new confidence in him even as the physical signs of the threat to the nation became ever more apparent:

16 July

London is rapidly become like a besieged town – or, rather, is being converted into a defended zone.

Whether all the barbed wire defences and machine-gun posts in the Whitehall area are erected to cover the last stand of Winston and the rest of us against the invading Germans, or whether to prevent the government offices being raided by ‘Fifth Columnists’ and parachutists, one does not know. They are certainly formidable obstructions to most of us especially in the hours of darkness when one is confronted by barriers in the most unexpected places.

I am told that Winston is mainly responsible for them and takes the deepest interest in them. He appears to spend a lot of time inspecting our defences all over the country. It is certainly his hour – and the confidence in him is growing on all sides.

See Parliament and Politics in the Age of Churchill and Attlee. The Headlam Diaries 1935-1951

Planning conference at the Berghof, July 1940: Hitler and Admiral Erich Raeder in discussion at a map table. Also present are (l to r) Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, General Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and an unidentified Kriegsmarine staff officer.
Planning conference at the Berghof, July 1940: Hitler and Admiral Erich Raeder in discussion at a map table. Also present are (l to r) Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, General Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and an unidentified Kriegsmarine staff officer.

While Britain was gripped by the thought that invasion might come at any day, Hitler was still considering his options. It was only on 16th July that Hitler signed the order for ‘Operation Sealion’:

‘Directive No.16 for Preparations of a Landing Operation against England’.

The preamble ran: ‘Since England, in spite of its militarily hopeless situation, still gives no recognizable signs of readiness to come to terms, I have determined to prepare a landing operation against England and, if need be, to carry it out. The aim of this operation is to exclude the English motherland as a basis for the continuation of the war against Germany, and, if it should be necessary, to occupy it completely.’

[emphasis added]

This was a lukewarm approach to a possible invasion. Most of his military advisers knew very well that it was going to be impossible to carry out the directive that summer. They knew as well as Churchill, who had already made his own assessment of the prospects for invasion, of the immense risks such an undertaking would involve.

Air combat over the Channel at Dover

The Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber was vulnerable to attack and invariably had fighter protection, in this case the Me 109.

Following an ‘air battle’ RAF pilots completed a combat report describing in considerable detail their engagement with the enemy. The cumulative intelligence gained from such reports, about the relative performance of aircraft, tactics, weaponry etc, was immensely valuable. For the pilots these reports represented their claims to ‘kills’ so it was important that they presented as much information as possible that might corroborate or support their claim. It is therefore in the official records that we have some of the most vivid accounts of the air war that now began in earnest over Britain. Pilot Officer Jack Hamar was a Hurricane pilot with 151 Squadron who went to intercept Stuka bombers attacking a shipping convoy off Eastbourne, in the English channel:

At 1500 hours the Squadron was ordered off from Rochford to intercept E/As [Enemy Aircraft] south of Dover. At approximately 1520 hours, when the Squadron was almost over Dover, a bunch of Me 109s were sighted about 5,000 feet above our formation, in which I was flying Red Two.

As it looked as though the E/A were about to attack us, the leader ordered our defensive line astern tactics. As we turned sharply to port, two Me 109s were seen diving to attack the last aircraft in our formation. ‘Milna Leader’ attacked the leading Me 109 and I the second.

I turned inside the E/A, which had pulled up into a steep left hand climbing turn. I closed rapidly and opened fire at about 250 yards with a 45° deflection shot. The E/A seemed to falter and straightened out into a dive. I placed myself dead astern at about 50 yards.

I opened fire, closing to almost no distance. I saw a large explosion just in front of the pilot and a large amount of white smoke poured from the E/A, which by this time was climbing steeply.

I was then forced to break away quickly due to fire from the rear, lost sight of the E/A and therefore did not see it crash. This action was also witnessed by Flying Officer Forster.

TNA Air 50

The combat was witnessed by a BBC radio reporter, standing on the cliffs of Dover. Charles Gardner gave a live running commentary that was later to become famous:

The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea: there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on its target now – bomb! No! He missed the ships, it hasn’t hit a single ship – there are about 10 ships in the convoy but he hasn’t hit a single one and – There, you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now.

There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about 10 German machines dive-bombing the convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel. I can’t see anything! No! We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up. Here they come.

The Germans are coming in an absolutely steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I can hear machine-gun fire but I can’t see our Spitfires. They must be somewhere there.

Oh! Here’s one coming down. There’s one going down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak – coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke – and now a man’s baled out by parachute. The pilot’s baled out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87 and he’s going slap into the sea – and there he goes: SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers 87. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it.

Now then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are the Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on and you can hear the little rattles of machine-gun bullets. Crump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine.

Here comes one Spitfire. There’s a little burst. There’s another bomb dropping. Yes, it has dropped. It has missed the convoy. You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all this. The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where bombs have burst, but as far as I can see there is not one single ship hit, and there is definitely one German machine down.

And I am looking across the sea now. I can see the little white dot of a parachute as the German pilot is floating down towards the spot where his machine crashed with such a big fountain of water two minutes ago.

In fact he was mistaken. The pilot shot down was British, although rescued from the sea Pilot Officer Michael Mudie died the next day in hospital. The original recording can be heard in the BBC Archives.

Opinion was divided over the nature of Gardner’s broadcast. There were letters to The Times complaining that mortal combat was being reduced to the terms of a sporting contest. However Mollie Panter-Downes reported in her weekly column for New Yorker magazine:

The majority of citizens, possibly less squeamish, sat by their radios, hanging onto their seats and cheering.

This perspective appears to have been very accurate, it is consistent with a ‘Listener Research Report‘ that was urgently conducted by the BBC, concerned about the controversy, after the broadcast.

German bombing of Britain intensifies

A Dornier 17 begins its bombing run, summer 1940.

Winston Churchill had just sent out a secret memo to senior commanders putting the threat of invasion into perspective, but even those right at the top thought that a surprise attack might come any day now. It was becoming increasingly clear that the crucial issue was how Britain’s air defences stood up to the Luftwaffe.

General Sir Edmund Ironside, formerly Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was now Chief in Command Home Defence, responsible for preparing the response to any invasion. His diary shows that he believed that an attack could come at any time, but that intensive air attack was likely to come first:

July 13

It is curious how one goes to bed wondering whether there will be an attack early the next morning. As we have done all we can in the way of preparation, it doesn’t worry me much. I merely give thanks that we have another day of preparation and issue of defence material.

The attack upon us by air is intensifying. Chiefly against aerodromes, ports, shipping and aircraft factories. But so far the attack has been badly directed and not carried out in great strength.

The R.A.F. say that that is what happened before the German attack in France. Desultory bombing and then one morning a very heavy attack on everything. It may be coming again.

The seemingly desultory bombing may be a method of testing our defences. Certainly the Germans have never been up against such a good fighter defence, such A.A. fire, and such a warning system.

I am inclined to think that Germany will try to wear down our air defence before she tries any invasion. It seems the natural thing to do…

See Time Unguarded: The Ironside Diaries 1937-1940

Royal Artillery gunners manning a 6-inch coastal defence gun at Sheerness, November 1939.
Royal Artillery gunners manning a 6-inch coastal defence gun at Sheerness, November 1939.
Working a 6 inch Coast Gun, the gunner sets the range from instructions received by telephone from range-finders, who also communicate corrections during the raid, July 1940.
Working a 6 inch Coast Gun, the gunner sets the range from instructions received by telephone from range-finders, who also communicate corrections during the raid, July 1940.
A shell being loaded into the breech of a 6 inch Coast Gun, July 1940.
A shell being loaded into the breech of a 6 inch Coast Gun, July 1940.

Britain: everyone prepares for War

Your-Britain-fight-for it-now
One of the famous series of four posters by Frank Newbould, already noted for his travel posters before the war.
The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.
The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.

The nation had already been prepared for the beginning of the ‘Battle of Britain’ by Winston Churchill, a phrase that at this time encompassed every aspect of the threatened invasion not merely the RAF’s defence of Britain. The Local Defence Volunteer’s had been formed in May but the government was struggling to arm and equip them. Although a million ‘LDV’ armbands had been produced, and were in the process of being issued, Churchill was now arguing that the title “Home Guard” would be much more inspiring – his decision would be implemented later in July 1940.

Many diarists were recording how the war was progressing internationally alongside their own observations about how it was affecting people locally. In mid Sussex in southern England, very likely to be in the firing line should any invasion come, Helena Hunt was keeping a journal that reflected many of the issues affecting a typical English village:

July 12th Friday

Mr Duff Cooper broadcasted an appeal last night for recruits for ‘an imaginary regiment, the Silent Column’ composed of men and women resolved to say nothing that can help the enemy. He emphasised the danger of dropping scraps of information, sometimes vital parts of a vast jigsaw puzzle being pieced together by the enemy.

As part of an ‘anti—rumour’ campaign a new poster is published….

I have often wondered how the term Fifth Column came into being and what Fifth Columnists meant originally.. A Fifth Columnist, properly so called, is a man or woman who works against his or her country for the aid and comfort of the enemy, in fact a Fifth Columnist is a traitor…

Many of the most precious art treasures of Paris are to go to Berlin for ‘exhibition’. Herr Otto Greif has arrived in Paris to make the selection. He went on similar missions to Vienna, Warsaw and Amsterdam, and treasures from there are all ‘on exhibition’ in Germany.

Three girls came to the door yesterday saying ‘ARP for animals, have you a dog?’ ‘No’ I said, ‘but there’s a cat next door I’m always shooing off my garden’. They were taking account of all animals.

More details of the central jam making are given in this week’s ‘Mid’. It was begun in the Village Hall here last Wednesday, the 10th. The jam is made on Tuesdays and Thursdays in each week. Fruit must be brought on those mornings when it will be weighed and paid for at Wholesale prices. The jam will be sold at retail prices.

Mid Sussex dairymen have formed a Mutual Aid Assistance Pact. If an air raid causes damage to a dairyman’s business premises, arrangements will be made for his customers to be supplied. On the Emergency Committee formed, Barnett represents Lindfield, and the district comprises of this village, Cuckfield, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill, Danehill, Hurstpierpoint and Ditchling. Nearly all the dairymen are joining the Pact.

Recruits for the LDVF no.5 Lindfield Platoon are needed. All between 17 and 65 not already serving in Defence may enrol at the Headquarters, Red Lion Yard, any evening between 7.30 and 9.30.

I went to Brighton today and was told that in all the streets near the sea, curfew is enforced at 9.30, the time altering with sunset time. Sentries go along the streets to see that they are clear. No one is allowed on the beach, guns and forts abound.

The London children who were evacuated to seaside places last autumn are to be removed further inland, North Sussex or South Surrey….

Boy Ellis has been called up. He gave me his printed letter of welcome from the War Office signed by the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. I think it an inspiring as well as useful letter.

It was the first time I had been to Brighton since the names of the stations had been removed, no station names are now to be seen.

See A Woman Living in the Shadow of the Second World War: Helena Hall’s Journal from the Home Front

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"But For Heaven's Sake Don't Say I Told You!"
“But For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Say I Told You!”
Mrs Carter enjoys a Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela (seated either side of her at the table) during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward's Heath. The children were evacuated from their home in London and are staying with several other evacuees in the home of Mrs Cluton, seen here serving potatoes to Michael.
Mrs Carter enjoys a Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela (seated either side of her at the table) during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward’s Heath. The children were evacuated from their home in London and are staying with several other evacuees in the home of Mrs Cluton, seen here serving potatoes to Michael.

Luftwaffe probe British air defences

Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron, landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden's satellite airfield, July 1940. (See also HU 57626 and HU 57627). This aircraft was lost in action on 25 August 1940.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron, landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden’s satellite airfield, July 1940. . This aircraft was lost in action on 25 August 1940.
An air gunner climbs into a Boulton Paul Defiant of No. 264 Squadron, July 1940.
An air gunner climbs into a Boulton Paul Defiant of No. 264 Squadron, July 1940.
RAF personnel examine the wreck of Heinkel He 111H (G1+LK) of 2./KG 55 on East Beach, Selsey in Sussex, shot down by P/O Wakeham and P/O Lord Shuttleworth of No. 145 Squadron, 11 July 1940.
RAF personnel examine the wreck of Heinkel He 111H (G1+LK) of 2./KG 55 on East Beach, Selsey in Sussex, shot down by P/O Wakeham and P/O Lord Shuttleworth of No. 145 Squadron, 11 July 1940.

The “Battle of Britain” is now generally considered to have begun in mid July 1940 as the Luftwaffe stepped up their attacks on shipping in the Channel. RAF Fighter Command had been carefully nursing its resources, not allowing them to be frittered away in the battle for France, however much they might have been needed.

This policy of maintaining vital reserves continued as the Luftwaffe began probing into British airspace. Even so air activity over southern England had increased and the number of sorties being flown was beginning to increase dramatically.

Flying Officer Alan Geoffrey Page of 56 Squadron, RAF was amongst many pilots who received their baptism of fire during this period:

My first time in combat; six of us — half a squadron – were sent up. As we climbed, the controller advised us that there were 20 bombers coming in to attack a convoy and 6O fighters above them, acting as their escort.

Our leader ordered Taffy Higginson to take three aircraft down to attack the bombers and he ordered the other three of us to climb to attack the 6O fighters. As we climbed, I caught sight of this enormous swarm of aircraft. They were above us and this was dangerous. When you’re climbing, your speed is low whereas the enemy is way up in the sky and flying quite fast. He has a tremendous advantage over you.

Anyway, we got up and we saw two types of aeroplanes, both fighters. One was a twin-engine fighter, the Messerschmitt 110 and the other was the single-engine Messerschmitt 109. The Messerschmitt 110s started flying in a defensive circle when they saw the three of us. That made me chuckle to myself, despite my mouth feeling rather dry with fear.

I dived into this circle, firing rather wildly through absolute inexperience and then the 109s came down on us.

Suddenly came the phenomenon that I saw again and again throughout the war. You’re in a dogfight with so many aeroplanes about and then suddenly it’s as if the hand of God has wiped the slate clean and there’s nothing else in the sky. I found myself alone except for one speck of an aeroplane in the distance.

I approached the speck and he approached me until I saw that he was a Messerschmitt 109. It became the equivalent of tilting at the lists in medieval times. We attacked each other head on and I could see the little white flashes on the leading edge of his wing as he fired at me. I was feeling a bit stubborn that morning so I didn’t budge. He flashed over the top of me and I returned to base and landed.

This account appears in Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle For Britain: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women on Both Sides.

Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in flight, April 1940.
Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in flight, April 1940.

Extracts from the WEEKLY RESUME of the

NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION to 12 noon July 11th, 1940

 

MILITARY SITUATION. German Activities.

27. Increased preparations for a possible invasion of the United Kingdom have been reported, and it is possible that in Norway preparations for a seaborne expedition of two to three divisions, including some A.F.Vs., must now be nearly complete. It is, however, still uncertain if all, or any, of these forces are intended for the invasion of the United Kingdom. Eire, the Shetlands, the Faroes and Iceland are all possible subsidiary objectives. Air reconnaissance of Bremen and Emden has not shown the presence of any abnormal quantity of shipping. No concentration of shipping has been observed in the ports of the Low Countries and Northern France. While there is a considerable number of barges in these ports, this may be due to the interruption of other communications and does not necessarily indicate preparations for invasion.

AIR SITUATION.

General Review.

35. Our bombing attacks have been on a lower scale than recently, owing to adverse weather conditions, though minelaying has been more extensive. Fighter operations have been considerably more intense than recently and have been almost entirely over this country. Enemy air attacks were mainly concentrated against ports and shipping and were becoming heavier towards the end of the week. Operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East were of a similar character to those of last week.

Great Britain.
36. Enemy bombing attacks by day have been concentrated mainly on our Southern and South-Western ports and on shipping in the Channel. Casualties have been higher, but little serious damage has been done to objectives on land. Raids on the East Coast and on Scotland have been less frequent and reconnaissance appears to have been their primary objective. There has been little deep penetration except during the hours of darkness, when attacks were relatively light and achieved little success. Activity increased steadily up to the 10th July, when a formation of about 120 bombers and fighters assembled behind Calais and attempted to attack a convoy between Dover and Dungeness. Minelaying appears to have continued nightly during the week off the South and East Coasts.

37. Fighter operations have been of considerably increased intensity. Enemy attacks have been escorted by fighters, which have, also carried out sweeps over the South Coast. Fighter Command flew 1,040 patrols, involving 3,275 sorties, over this country and destroyed 44 enemy aircraft confirmed “and 33 unconfirmed; enemy casualties included 33 fighters. Our losses totalled 18.

See TNA CAB /66/9/42

Secret Churchill Memo – German invasion unlikely

Local Defence Volunteers soon to be renamed Home Guard
The formation of the Local Defence Volunteers was announced on the 14th May, they were renamed the ‘Home Guard’ on the 22nd July at Churchill’s insistence, despite the cost of replacing the million armbands that had been prepared for them. Many did not get proper weapons until much later in the year.

In a memorandum to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, circulated to the War Cabinet, Winston Churchill set out his views on the practicality of an invasion.

His assessment of the prospects of a German landing placed great weight on the strength of the Royal Navy. He was encouraged by the fact that the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Barham would soon be ready for sea and would enable the creation of further battle groups that could break up any invasion force.

He also felt that the largest German ships were under the close surveillance of the RAF and would not be able to mount a surprise breakout. His one caveat is the need for ‘strong Air support’ necessary to protect the Royal Navy during daylight hours.

I FIND it very difficult to visualise the kind of invasion all along the coast by troops carried in small craft, and even in boats. I have not seen any serious evidence of large masses of this class of craft being assembled, and, except in very narrow waters, it would be a most hazardous and even suicidal operation to commit a large army to the accidents of the sea in the teeth of our very numerous armed patrolling forces.

The Admiralty have over 1,000 armed patrolling vessels, of which two or three hundred are always at sea, the whole being well manned by competent seafaring men. A surprise crossing should be impossible, and in the broader parts of the North Sea the invaders should be an easy prey, as part of their voyage would be made by daylight.

Behind these patrolling craft are the flotillas of destroyers, of which 40 destroyers are now disposed between the Humber and Portsmouth, the bulk being in the narrowest waters. The greater part of these are at sea every night, and rest in the day. They would therefore probably encounter the enemy vessels in transit during the night, but also could reach any landing point or points on the front mentioned in two or three hours. They could immediately break up the landing craft, interrupt the landing, and fire upon the landed troops, who, however lightly equipped, would have to have some proportion of ammunition and equipment carried on to the beaches from their boats.

The Flotillas would, however, need strong Air support from our fighter aircraft during their intervention from dawn onwards. The provision of the Air fighter escort for our destroyers after daybreak is essential to their most powerful intervention on the beaches.

Churchill’s conclusion was that the Army had the space and time to regroup and reform inland, rather than be dissipated around the coast:

[I hope] that you will be able to bring an ever larger proportion of your formed Divisions back from the coast into support or reserve, so that their training may proceed in the highest forms of offensive warfare and counterattack, and that the coast, as it becomes fortified, will be increasingly confided to troops other than those of the formed Divisions, and also to the Home Guard.

See TNA CAB 66/9/44

In many ways it is a very re-assuring assessment. It was in fact largely in accord with the assessments being made by the Germans themselves, many of whom, particularly in the Navy, thought that an invasion of Britain in 1940 was an impossibility.

Nevertheless this was a secret assessment. Preparations for a possible invasion were proceeding apace across the country. The mobilisation of tens of thousands of men into the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard, was transforming the outlook of the civilian population. Churchill was not going to undermine the general stiffening of resolve by going public with the notion that invasion was impracticable.

For more on the Home Guard see The Spitfire Site.

HMS NELSON with HMS BARHAM in the background.
HMS NELSON with HMS BARHAM in the background.
1940 or 1941, on board the Battleship HMS Barham -Taking on board 15" shells.
1940 or 1941, on board the Battleship HMS Barham -Taking on board 15″ shells.
Sponging out the 15" guns after being in action.
Sponging out the 15″ guns after being in action.