RAF and RAAF control the skies over Libya

Our fighters have continued to maintain their ascendancy over the Italian Air Force. On the 26th Gladiators of the Royal Australian Air Force shot down without loss two, and probably six, of a number of C.R. 42 fighters “which were escorting a bomber formation, and on the 28th Hurricanes shot down three bombers and a fighter, again without loss.

RAAF Gladiators return to their base in the Desert. They were more than able to hold their own against the Italian biplanes.

Our fighters have continued to maintain their ascendancy over the Italian Air Force. On the 26th Gladiators of the Royal Australian Air Force shot down without loss two, and probably six, of a number of C.R. 42 fighters which were escorting a bomber formation, and on the 28th Hurricanes shot down three bombers and a fighter, again without loss.

There is much more on No. 3 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force at their website which describes the Gladiator:

The little single-bay, all metal biplane was robust and highly manoeuvrable and therefore ideal for aerobatics which meant, in war time, good at dodging the enemy in a dog-fight.

More importantly, it didn’t have any bad faults once it had been correctly rigged. It was armed with four .303 machine guns … two in the fuselage firing between the propeller blades by means of an interrupter gear and two in blisters under the wings. Its 840 horse power Mercury 8A engine propelled it at a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour at 15,500 feet and it could climb to this height in 6 minutes before reaching its ceiling at 32,800 feet. It cruised at 210 miles per hour and could land at 59 miles per hour. In all, an aeroplane that, whilst lacking some of the performance qualities of the sleek, fast enemy aircraft being introduced into the Western Desert, was still a regular little terrier which had quite a lethal bite.

 

Coastal Command in action against German shipping

No fewer than six attacks were made on enemy merchant vessels on the 27th December; a Hudson bombed a ship of about 4,000 tons at anchor in Egersund Harbour and secured at least three direct hits; another ship in convoy North of Ameland was possibly hit, and near misses were reported on two merchant vessels off Dieppe and another off Fecamp.

A heavily armed German escort vessel photographed off the Dutch coast on 27th December 1940 during a torpedo attack by No. 22 Squadron, this attack was unsuccessful. A later attack by Squadron Leader Francis seriously damaged this ship but his Beaufort was shot down and all the crew lost.
Bristol Beaufort Mark I, L4474, on patrol over the Atlantic Ocean. While serving with No. 217 Squadron RAF, L4474 was lost during a bombing raid on Lorient, France, on 20 December 1940.
Bristol Beaufort Mark I, L4474, on patrol over the Atlantic Ocean. While serving with No. 217 Squadron RAF, L4474 was lost during a bombing raid on Lorient, France, on 20 December 1940.

RAF Coastal Command was very much overshadowed by RAF Fighter Command during 1940, and later by RAF Bomber Command. Yet from an early stage in the war it had been engaged in offensive operations against Germans shipping. Many of its attacks were intended to disrupt a potential invasion force, which many people assumed would be attempted some time in 1941. Low level attacks on armed shipping were inherently dangerous and the Command was never immune from significant losses.

coastal command aircraft
Sunderland Mark I, L2163 ‘DA-G’, of No. 210 Squadron RAF based at Oban, Argyll, banking over the Atlantic while escorting Canadian Troop Convoy 6 (TC.6), inbound for Greenock.
coastal command aircraft
Hudson Mark I, T9277 ‘QX-W’, of No. 224 Squadron RAF based at Leuchars, Fife, in flight off the Scottish coast. This was a late production Mark I, fitted with Hydromatic propellers and early ASV Mark 1 radar. T9277 went missing while on a patrol off Norway on 9 December 1940.

Aircraft of Coastal Command flew 144 patrols involving 441 sorties (including 193 convoy escorts), in addition to the bombing operations already referred to. No fewer than six attacks were made on enemy merchant vessels on the 27th December; a Hudson bombed a ship of about 4,000 tons at anchor in Egersund Harbour and secured at least three direct hits; another ship in convoy North of Ameland was possibly hit, and near misses were reported on two merchant vessels off Dieppe and another off Fecamp.

From the weekly Air Situation report.

coastal command aircraft
Beaufort L4516 of No 22 Squadron with an array of torpedoes at North Coates in early December 1940. This aircraft was lost later in the month when it crashed on take-off.
coastal command aircraft
Low-level oblique photograph taken from one of 3 Bristol Beauforts of No. 86 Squadron RAF, attacking shipping in St Peter Port, Guernsey. The aircraft are passing over St Julian’s Pier at its junction with White Rock Pier: bombs can be seen falling from the aircraft in the left-hand corner, which was itself nearly hit by bombs dropped from the photographing aircraft (seen exploding at the bottom).

Hanukkah in the Warsaw ghetto

Hanukkah in the ghetto. Never before in Jewish Warsaw were there as many Hanukkah celebrations as in this year of the wall. But because of the sword that hovers over our heads, they are not conducted among festive crowds, publicly displaying their joy.

The Jewish population of Warsaw had been crammed into a closed ghetto since November 1940.

Chaim Kaplan had been recording the trials of the Jewish population in Warsaw from the beginning of the war. Since they had become isolated on the 15th November there had been severe food shortages. Cold, malnutrition and disease were starting to kill many and most knew that they faced a very bleak future. Yet there was a brief celebration for Hanukkah and some grim humour:

December 26, 1940

Hanukkah in the ghetto. Never before in Jewish Warsaw were there as many Hanukkah celebrations as in this year of the wall. But because of the sword that hovers over our heads, they are not conducted among festive crowds, publicly displaying their joy.

Polish Jews are stubborn: the enemy makes laws but they don’t obey them. That is the secret of our survival. We behaved in this manner even in the days when we were not imprisoned within the ghetto walls, when the cursed Nazis filled our streets and watched our every move. Since the ghetto was created we have had some respite from overt and covert spies, and so Hanukkah parties were held in nearly every courtyard, even in rooms which face the street; the blinds were drawn, and that was sufficient.

This year’s Hanukkah celebration was very well attended. We almost forgot that we are only allowed to go as far as the corner of Nalewki and Swietojerska streets. Dr. Lajfuner gave a speech full of jokes and we all laughed heartily. There was one truth in his speech which should be stressed: ‘In all the countries where they want to bury us alive, we pull the gravediggers in with us.’ Witness Czarist Russia, Poland, and Rumania. Nazi Germany will have the same fate — and in our own time.

See The Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan.

A second Christmas at war

Christmas Day 1940, was the same as any other day, except that each man received a tin of bully-beef to himself, and there was a double rum ration that night. Wavell sent us his greetings, but there was insufficient transport to send us turkeys and Christmas puddings. It would be wrong to say that we did not miss the usual luxuries and celebrations, yet nobody complained or grumbled. It would have taken much more than a few trifles like these to shake the high morale of this small desert force.

HMS Berwick, the first of the County Class Heavy Cruisers, built in 1924, seen here in a particularly striking distortion paint scheme.

The second Christmas of the war was very different from the first for people in Britain. A year earlier only Poland and Czechoslovakia had been occupied by the Nazis – and the ‘phoney war’ had yet to make much of an impact on peoples’ lives. The dramatic events of 1940 had seen the occupation of most of Europe – and the threat to Britain had become very real indeed.

Britain had survived the threat of invasion and beaten off the attacks on her air defences. But British towns and cities were being laid waste on a daily basis. Thousands of families up and down the country had had violent and sudden death visited upon them. Tens of thousands of people were recovering from serious injuries.

Death could come unexpectedly in any theatre of the war, even on Christmas morning. Off the coast of France an enemy cruiser suddenly appeared out of the mist and threatened a convoy. The escort ships quickly engaged – and only minutes later men were dead, with probably more dead on the German ship as well:

On the morning of the 25th December H.M. Corvette Clematis, forming part of the escort of a south-bound convoy, reported that she was engaging an enemy raider 700 miles west of Cape Finisterre. Shortly afterwards H.M.S. Berwick reported that she had sighted an enemy 8-inch cruiser, which she engaged and drove off. Owing to low visibility the enemy was lost sight of, steering to the westward and Berwick rejoined the convoy. Berwick scored one certain hit on the raider and possibly more and received several herself, having four marines killed and one seriously wounded.

HMS Berwick had had a brief encounter with the German cruiser Admiral Hipper. The dead were later named as:

BROOM, Denis W, Marine, PO/X 2701, killed
DAVISON, Robert, Corporal, PO/X 762, killed
LYONS, Reginald, Marine, PO/X 1825, killed
PAINTER, Charles, Sergeant, PO/X 22435, killed

See naval-history.net for daily Royal Navy casualties in World WarI II.

A semi-detached house which became suddenly detached when a German bomb scored a direct hit on its partner on the eastern outskirts of London.
A semi-detached house which became suddenly detached when a German bomb scored a direct hit on its partner on the eastern outskirts of London.

In London George Beardmore recorded a ‘dismal’ Christmas:

in the absence of home, friends, and relations, with only a few cards and parcels sent to us. But we were in God’s own heaven compared with many, as for instance Jones, the arthritic ex-Stock Exchange clerk who is living with his wife and two small children in freezing rooms with no cooking apparatus. Or the unknown untold thousands celebrating Christmas in shelters, the firemen, the soldiers, Stan Lock in Iceland, the conscientious objectors in farms, the lonely mothers and ruined shopkeepers, the city children living in farmhouses.

See George Beardmore: Civilians at War: Journals, 1938-46.

A woman pours a cup of beer for her husband in a narrow air raid shelter in North London, 1940.
A woman pours a cup of beer for her husband in a narrow air raid shelter in North London, 1940.

In the Libyan Desert Captain Rea Leakey had been in action since the Italian invasion of Egypt in September. He was now part of the force besieging the Italian garrison of Bardia:

Christmas Day 1940, was the same as any other day, except that each man received a tin of bully-beef to himself, and there was a double rum ration that night. Wavell sent us his greetings, but there was insufficient transport to send us turkeys and Christmas puddings. It would be wrong to say that we did not miss the usual luxuries and celebrations, yet nobody complained or grumbled. It would have taken much more than a few trifles like these to shake the high morale of this small desert force.

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

Free French soldiers attend a mass at sunrise during siege of Bardia Libya 1940
Free French soldiers attend a mass at sunrise during siege of Bardia Libya 1940
The crew of a Light Tank Mk VIB cook their Christmas dinner besides their vehicle, 31 December 1940.
The crew of a Light Tank Mk VIB cook their Christmas dinner besides their vehicle, 31 December 1940.

The convoys get through

During the week ending noon Wednesday, the 25th December, 785 ships, including 145 allied and 16 neutral, were convoyed, but no ships were reported lost. Two battleships, two aircraft carriers, three cruisers, ten armed merchant cruisers, 55 destroyers, 13 sloops and 29 corvettes were employed in escort duties.

The gun crew of destroyer HMS VIVIEN with shells of the type with which they plastered the enemy during an attack on a British convoy on the 11 November 1940.
The gun crew of destroyer HMS VIVIEN with shells of the type with which they plastered the enemy during an attack on a British convoy on the 11 November 1940.
The Royal Navy was at full stretch escorting convoys in addition to all its other commitments.

The Battle of the Atlantic was causing Churchill more concern than any other issue but the week before Christmas proved to be a good one, somehow the U-boats which had caused such devastation only weeks before had been eluded.

During the week ending noon Wednesday, the 25th December, 785 ships, including 145 allied and 16 neutral, were convoyed, but no ships were reported lost. Two battleships, two aircraft carriers, three cruisers, ten armed merchant cruisers, 55 destroyers, 13 sloops and 29 corvettes were employed in escort duties.

Since the beginning of the war 207 ships including 23 allied and 16 neutral, have been lost out of 48,066, including 5,255 allied and 4,237 neutral, which have been convoyed, or one in 232.

Merchant ships under convoy guarded by the ever watchful destroyers
Merchant ships under convoy guarded by the ever watchful destroyers
On board the battleship HMS Rodney at sea. 1940. View of the convoy from a porthole of the battleship. A pom-pom is seen being cleaned on the left.
On board the battleship HMS Rodney at sea. 1940. View of the convoy from a porthole of the battleship. A pom-pom is seen being cleaned on the left.
At sea in a destroyer. 1940, on board the British destroyer HMS JAVELIN. A normal deck scene during the morning at sea. Activity on the starboard side as the destroyer returns from seeing a convoy safe.
At sea in a destroyer. 1940, on board the British destroyer HMS JAVELIN. A normal deck scene during the morning at sea. Activity on the starboard side as the destroyer returns from seeing a convoy home safe.

Churchill broadcasts to the Italian people

Your aviators have tried to cast their bombs upon London. Our armies are tearing – and will tear – your African empire to shreds and tatters. We are now only at the beginning of this sombre tale. Who can say where it will end? Presently, we shall be forced to come to much closer grips. How has all this come about, and what is it all for?

The Italian Offensive 1940 – 1941: British troops, sitting on captured Italian motorcycles, read copies of the congratulatory telegram sent to all units after their victory by the Secretary of State for War, Mr Anthony Eden.

On the 23rd December 1940 Churchill broadcast a speech directed at the Italian people. Various sources, not least interrogation of prisoners of war, made it clear that many Italians were ambivalent about the war and the direction that the dictatorship was taking them. This was all part of a longer campaign to turn the loyalties of the country:

We have never been your foes till now. In the last war against the barbarous Huns we were your comrades. For fifteen years after that war, we were your friends. Although the institutions which you adopted after that war were not akin to ours and diverged, as we think, from the sovereign impulses which had commanded the unity of Italy, we could still walk together in peace and good-will. Many thousands of your people dwelt with ours in England; many of our people dwelt with you in Italy.

We liked each other. We got on well together. There were reciprocal services, there was amity, there was esteem. And now we are at war – now we are condemned to work each other’s ruin.

Your aviators have tried to cast their bombs upon London. Our armies are tearing – and will tear – your African empire to shreds and tatters. We are now only at the beginning of this sombre tale. Who can say where it will end? Presently, we shall be forced to come to much closer grips. How has all this come about, and what is it all for?

Italians, I will tell you the truth.

It is all because of one man – one man and one man alone has ranged the Italian people in deadly struggle against the British Empire and has deprived Italy of the sympathy and intimacy of the United States of America.

That he is a great man I do not deny. But that after eighteen years of unbridled power he has led your country to the horrid verge of ruin – that can be denied by none.

It is all one man – one man, who, against the crown and royal family of Italy, against the Pope and all the authority of the Vatican and of the Roman Catholic Church, against the wishes of the Italian people who had no lust for this war; one man has arrayed the trustees and inheritors of ancient Rome upon the side of the ferocious pagan barbarians.

On the very same day in Italy Mussolini is despondent about the quality of Italian troops, who have been forced out of both Greece and Egypt within the last month. He tells his Foreign Minister, Count Ciano:

I must nevertheless recognise that the Italians of 1914 were better than these. It is not very flattering for the regime, but that’s the way it is.

The Manchester Blitz


The following morning I cycled to work, arriving on time at 8 o’Clock and went straight to the roof to join most of the staff who had managed to get to work, enjoying the best view of the biggest fire ever seen in Manchester. Climbing on to the letter H, you could see the whole of the centre of Piccadilly ablaze from Mosely street to Portland street.

A building crashes to the ground at Deansgate in the centre of Manchesteron the 22nd December 1940. Firefighters can just be discerned at the bottom right.

After two nights visiting Liverpool the Luftwaffe moved on to Manchester, for the nights of the 22nd and 23rd. 122 people were killed and 426 seriously injured. Frank Walsh had only just left school and was working for Abel Heywood, a printers in the centre of Manchester:

We had only just finished the Sunday tea. It was at 6-38 pm on that evening of the 22nd December when the sirens sounded their blood curdling wailing warning into the cold night air. Many people took to the shelters, but we decided to bed down under the large strong oak table standing against the wall in the living room of Scott Road.

Almost immediately the drone of the planes engines could be heard overhead. The steady crump of the estimated 233 bombs that were said to have been dropped that first night could be heard exploding throughout the night, along with the many thousands of incendiary bombs that had been strewn across a wide area and many districts.

As the night dragged on, I ventured upstairs once or twice to look through the back bedroom window. Each visit saw the skies over Manchester getting ever redder and brighter as the flames took hold and the fires spread from building to building.

The following morning I cycled to work, arriving on time at 8 o’Clock and went straight to the roof to join most of the staff who had managed to get to work, enjoying the best view of the biggest fire ever seen in Manchester. Climbing on to the letter H, you could see the whole of the centre of Piccadilly ablaze from Mosely street to Portland street.

Lever Street was blocked off with fire appliances, but making my way down Newton Street to reach the corner where it joined Piccadilly, all you could see was one mass of flames engulfing the whole row of five story warehouses on the opposite side – every window alight from end to end – top to bottom, with flames belching from where the roof had been. Like a backcloth to some giant inferno. A sight never to be forgotten by those that witnessed that giant furnace of flame and smoke. This block of buildings is where the Piccaddilly Hotel now stands. You could not bear to touch the walls of the building housing the BBC opposite because the bricks were so hot. Firemen were even spraying water on these walls opposite, causing steam to rise skywards.

Read his full story at BBC People’s War, see also BBC images.

The Liverpool Blitz

Liverpool was probably the most important, wartime mercantile port, the destination of many convoys from America. Furthermore it was easy to locate by air, with the lights of Dublin burning across the Irish Sea. It had already received much attention from the Luftwaffe. On the night of the 28th November one direct hit on a shelter at Durning Street had killed at least 166 people…

Liverpool Blitz
A panoramic view of the city of Liverpool, showing bomb damage received after an air raid. The Liver Building can be clearly seen just to the right of centre, and the River Mersey is just visible to the left of the photograph.

Liverpool was probably the most important wartime mercantile port, the destination of many convoys from America. It was also easy to locate by air, with the lights of Dublin burning across the Irish Sea. It had already received much attention from the Luftwaffe. On the night of the 28th November one direct hit on a shelter at Durning Street had killed at least 166 people, see Liverpool Remembrance.

There were intense raids on Liverpool on the nights of the 21st and 22nd December, killing an estimated 345 people. The Home Security Situation report for the week recorded:

The Liverpool area was strongly attacked on the night of the 20th-21st December, and an even more severe attack followed the next night, when a concentration appears to have been made on the Docks area. On the night 22nd-23rd, some bombs were again dropped in Liverpool, Bootle and Birkenhead.

Liverpool

(a) Docks.—Damage to warehouses and storage sheds at the Docks has been serious, with considerable losses—the latest estimate of which has not as yet been made—of tobacco, cotton and timber. Substantial damage to shipping has also been reported, two ships being sunk and ten others damaged. Although nine docks suffered various degrees of damage and seventeen berths are stated to be out of commission, it is reported that, generally speaking, the working of the Port has not been seriously affected.

(b) Industry.—Serious damage was done to food-factories, production being stopped at Spiller’s Flour Mills and Paul Bros. Flour Mills, both at Birkenhead, while Hutehinson’s Flour Mills were also damaged. Considerable damage was also done at Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery. Seven other key points, including the Wallasey Gas Works, were hit, but no serious damage resulted.

(c) Public Services.—Damage to main services was considerable, electricity in particular suffering by a fire at the Highfield Street sub-station.

(d) Communications.—Altogether 15 hits were registered in the railway system, the cumulative effect of which reacted seriously on the working of the lines, while tranrvray services and road traffic were badly dislocated, particularly in the centre of the city.

See TNA CAB/66/14/22

Stil images recently discovered by Merseyside Police:

Liverpool Blitz
Vertical aerial view from 1,800 feet of the waterfront from the Pier Head to the Albert Dock, and of the city east to Derby Square, showing the extensive bomb damage to the commercial centre. The shell of the burnt out customs shed is visible left centre. Photograph taken in June 1941.

North African campaign boosts morale

What made people happiest was the perfect timing, slickness, and coordination of the attack, showing that the bitter lessons of France and Flanders have been well and truly learned. “Speed” and “brilliance” had been ruefully looked upon as exclusively Nazi nouns for so long that it was certainly heady to find them back in the British vocabulary again.

An Italian position destroyed during Operation Compass. The military success was welcome news in Britain.

News of the British success in the desert of North Africa proved to be a welcome moral booster on the home front. As the second Christmas of the war approached there was now one substantial territorial achievement to be celebrated, at the end of a year in which British troops had been ejected from continental Europe.. The American journalist Molly Panter-Downes writing for the New Yorker magazine recorded the change of mood:

London has been a city of smiling faces and heart-warming headlines all week. The papers have solemnly warned the public against imbibing too freely of the “heady wine” of of victory on land and pointed out that difficulties were sure to be encountered as the British lines of communication lengthened in Africa and Graziani’s shortened.

All the beaming average citizen knows is that the victory in the western desert has finally scotched the public’s suspicion that, though the Air Force is magnificent and the Navy grand, the Army still thinks it’s fighting some other war — the Crimean, say. What made people happiest was the perfect timing, slickness, and coordination of the attack, showing that the bitter lessons of France and Flanders have been well and truly learned. “Speed” and “brilliance” had been ruefully looked upon as exclusively Nazi nouns for so long that it was certainly heady to find them back in the British vocabulary again.

See Mollie Panter-Downes: London War Notes 1939-1945

The Italian base at Bardia besieged

With each passing second we drew closer to the defences, and what an opportunity this was to penetrate them before the ‘gate’ was closed. I gave the order to advance with all speed and as my tank was on the road, I was soon well in the lead. We could not have been more than half a mile from the barrier when the whole desert seemed to erupt about me.

A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940.
A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940.

Operation Compass was progressing in North Africa. Launched on the 9th December the Italian base at Sidi Barrani had been captured quickly and now other italian bases along the coast were in the sights of the British. Captain Rea Leakey was with the 7th Armoured Brigade as it pursued the Italian army into Libya. They found themselves slowed down by the number of prisoners wanting to surrender to them. Then on the outskirts of Bardia they encountered some Italian tanks and went in pursuit of them:

Leaving the prisoners to find their own way to captivity, we pushed on in pursuit of the tanks, and we now found ourselves deployed either side of the road leading to Bardia. As we came over a rise I could see the Italian tanks moving on to the road and in turn passing through the heavily fortified defences that surrounded Bardia. These stretched from shore to shore round the town and harbour. The barbed wire, concrete pill-boxes and anti- tank ditch remain to this day.

With each passing second we drew closer to the defences, and what an opportunity this was to penetrate them before the ‘gate’ was closed. I gave the order to advance with all speed and as my tank was on the road, I was soon well in the lead. We could not have been more than half a mile from the barrier when the whole desert seemed to erupt about me. Every gun in Bardia fortress which could bring fire to bear on this area was now in action, and it was quite clear to me that we were not going to win this battle. I gave the order to ‘about turn’ and get to hell out of the area as fast as possible.

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

The Italian garrison of Bardia now became the next objective but there was a pause in the action as the 6th Australian Division moved forward from Cairo to join the battle. From the Military Situation report for the week ending 19th December 1940:

Middle East. Egypt.

21. By the 13th December the elimination of the Italian 64th Division (captured complete at Buq Buq) and 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions had been confirmed, and the number of prisoners taken was estimated at 25,000. The enemy was then withdrawing from the Bir Sofafi area towards Sollum, pursued by a mobile column formed from the 7th Armoured Division. The withdrawal was subject to heavy air bombing.

22. On the 16th December Sollum and Fort Oapuzzo were evacuated, the garrisons withdrawing into the Bardia defences, the exit from which was blocked by 4th Armoured Brigade astride the Tobruk road.

23. By the 17th December the frontier forts of Musaid, Sidi Omar and Sheferzen had been captured, and a further 800 prisoners and a battery of artillery taken. The 16th Australian Brigade, operating from Siwa, dispersed an enemy column,withdrawing from Jarabub.

24. On the 19th December advanced elements of our troops, which have successfully contained numerically superior forces of the enemy in Bardia, were being steadily reinforced, and the position of the Italian Army in this area may be regarded as precarious.

25. The number of prisoners taken so far is 31,546, including 1,626 officers. Several thousand more prisoners are being evacuated from the battle areas.

26. The total British and Imperial casualties reported up to the 16th December are 72 killed and 738 wounded.

The crew of a Bren gun carrier pause on their way to the forward area in the Western Desert to look at a monument erected by the Italians to commemorate the capture of Sidi Barrani a few months previous, 16 December 1940.
The crew of a Bren gun carrier pause on their way to the forward area in the Western Desert to look at a monument erected by the Italians to commemorate the capture of Sidi Barrani a few months previous, 16 December 1940.