Morale remains high under fire

The almost incredible bravery of the people, their fortitude and endurance, and in especial the stoic calm of those who have lost their homes and possessions, beggars description. London and the provinces share equal honours in this last respect, and all writers are touchingly grateful for the kindness shown to them.

“Now the windows are all boarded up and tarpaulin put on the roof it does not seem so bad ….. The people around here have all been so kind. So many offered us a home… We did not know we had such wonderful friends.”

Anti aircraft guns in London during the Blitz
'Londoners agree universally that the noise of the big guns is music in their ears, and that they sleep better when the barrage is in progress'

The Government was secretly opening the mail going out of the country. It was partly a counter espionage measure but it also enabled them to monitor the state of morale in the country. On the 7th October the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, asked that the latest report ‘Home Opinion – As Shewn in the Mails to USA and Eire’ be circulated to the rest of the War Cabinet:

REACTION TO AIR-RAIDS …

Morale is highest in London, but the provinces run a good second, and only a few letters from Liverpool, mostly from Irish writers, show any sign of panic.

Courage.

The almost incredible bravery of the people, their fortitude and endurance, and in especial the stoic calm of those who have lost their homes and possessions, beggars description. London and the provinces share equal honours in this last respect, and all writers are touchingly grateful for the kindness shown to them.

“Now the windows are all boarded up and tarpaulin put on the roof it does not seem so bad ….. The people around here have all been so kind. So many offered us a home… We did not know we had such wonderful friends.” (Bedford Park, London.)

“I don’t know whether you heard of our bit of bad luck or rather good luck, last Tuesday. We were left without a home, but not a scratch to anyone.” (Liverpool.).

“It is no longer necessary to make window displays, the chief reason being that I have no windows. On the boards which have replaced the glass are two notices, which have, caused a deal of comment. – “Business as usual, everybody safe. Not an ache and only a few panes …… .” (Liverpool)

“These people who are left without a thing in the world, except the spirit of winning the war ……” (London, E.8,)

“In the East End they seem more annoyed at Buckingham Palace being hit than their own homes ….. in some cases had spread out the Union Jack on the houses that had been hit (Southampton)

The Barrage.

Londoners agree universally that the noise of the big guns is music in their ears, and that they sleep better when the barrage is in progress.

“The great and lovely guns that burst Hell’s fire into the . Heavens, What a sight” (London)

“The splendid noise of our guns ….. the best tonic Londoners have ever had.” (N.W.1.)

“It’s an awful noise, but it’s wonderful music all the same and we like it and are able to get some sleep while it’s on.” (N.15.)

Souvenirs.

Londoners have found a new pastime in the collecting of pieces of shrapnel and fragments of crashed planes. “One of my friends has a piece of wing of an aeroplane. We all treasure our shrapnel here, for they are good souvenirs.” (E.1.)

See TNA cab/66/12/37

Symbolic photograph of a sentry standing guard on a beach in southern England, 7 October 1940.
Symbolic photograph of a sentry standing guard on a beach in southern England, 7 October 1940.

"The Navy's here" – the Altmark boarded

The Altmark eventually sought to return to Germany by travelling through Norwegian territorial waters, to escape British attention. The ship was stopped and superficially searched by the Norwegians on three occasions. When the British finally located the ship they insisted that the Norwegians take it into port for a thorough search or allow them to board the ship themselves. There was a stand off with the Norwegian authorities whilst Captain Vian on HMS Cossack sought instructions on how to proceed whilst dealing with an enemy ship in neutral waters whilst being opposed by the neutral Norwegian navy.

The Altmark in Jossingfiord, spotted by RAF Coastal Command.

Following the Battle of the River Plate (originally referred to as the Battle off the River Plate, see [permalink id=2364 text=’13th December 1939′] ) the British knew that the merchant crews taken prisoner by the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic had been transferred to a support ship, the Altmark. The Altmark eventually sought to return to Germany by travelling through Norwegian territorial waters, to escape British attention. The ship was stopped and superficially searched by the Norwegians on three occasions. When the British finally located the ship they insisted that the Norwegians take it into port for a thorough search or allow them to board the ship themselves. There was a stand off with the Norwegian authorities whilst Captain Vian on HMS Cossack sought instructions on how to proceed whilst dealing with an enemy ship in neutral waters whilst being opposed by the neutral Norwegian navy. The matter was referred to Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, because of the political implications: Continue reading “"The Navy's here" – the Altmark boarded”

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.

Churchill makes a rousing broadcast on the BBC

‘conscripts are being crowded in vast numbers upon the frontiers of Holland and Belgium. To both these States the Nazis have given most recent and solemn guarantees. No wonder anxiety is great. No one believes one word Hitler and the Nazi Party say’

Churchill was much more popular in the country than among the political classes at Westminster. His descriptions of Hitler … a “cornered maniac”, “this monstrous apparition”, “that evil man” were much more direct than the diplomatic language that people were accustomed to from the government before the war.

We have been agreeably surprised that ten weeks have been allotted to us to get into fighting trim. … We are far better prepared to endure the worst malice of Hitler and his Huns than we were at the beginning of September. …

They [the Nazis] have not chosen to molest the British Fleet, which has awaited their attack in the Firth of Forth during last week. They recoil from the steel front of the French Army along the Maginot Line. But their docile conscripts are being crowded in vast numbers upon the frontiers of Holland and Belgium. To both these States the Nazis have given most recent and solemn guarantees. No wonder anxiety is great. No one believes one word Hitler and the Nazi Party say and therefore we must regard that situation as grave. . . . If we are conquered, all will be enslaved and the United States will be left single-handed to guard the rights of man. If we are not destroyed, all these countries will be rescued and restored to life and freedom.”

It was a constant theme of his to mention the position of the United States, which he recognised from very start of the war as having a crucial role to play in any ultimate victory.

The great English speaking Republic across the Atlantic Ocean makes no secret of its sympathies or of its self questioning, and it translates these sentiments into action of a character which anyone may judge for himself.

The whole world is against Hitler and Hitlerism. Men of every race and clime feels that this monstrous apparition stands between them and the forward move which is their due, and to which the age and time are right.

Even in Germany itself there are millions who stand aloof from the seething mass of criminality and corruption constituted by the Nazi party machine. Let them, then, take courage amid perplexities and perils, for it may well be that the final extinction of a baleful domination will pave the way to a broader solidarity of all men in all the lands than we ever could have planned, if we had not marched together through the fire.

Hitler addresses the Reichstag

Mr. Churchill may be convinced that Great Britain will win. I do not doubt for a single moment that Germany will be victorious.
Destiny will decide who is right.

Hitler used the occasion to make a vague appeal for peace. He already identified Churchill as the main centre of resolve against Germany, even though Churchill was at this time only First Lord of the Admiralty.

Neither force of arms nor lapse of time will conquer Germany. There never will be another November 1918 in German history. It is infantile to hope for the disintegration of our people.

Mr. Churchill may be convinced that Great Britain will win. I do not doubt for a single moment that Germany will be victorious.

Destiny will decide who is right.

One thing only is certain. In the course of world history, there have never been two victors, but very often only losers. This seems to me to have been the case in the last war.

May those peoples and their leaders who are of the same mind now make their reply. And let those who consider war to be the better solution reject my outstretched hand.

As Fuehrer of the German people and Chancellor of the Reich, I can thank God at this moment that he has so wonderfully blessed us in our hard struggle for what is our right, and beg Him that we and all other nations may find the right way, so that not only the German people but all Europe may once more be granted the blessing of peace.

The full text of Hitler’s speeches are available at humanitas-international.

Churchill raises spirits in the Commons

The effect of Winston’s speech was infinitely greater than could be derived from any reading of the text. His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness. One could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. It was quite obvious afterwards that the Prime Minister’s inadequacy and lack of inspiration had been demonstrated even to his warmest supporters.

Harold Nicholson records in his diary the contrasting effects of two different addresses to the House of Commons. Winston Churchill was at this time First Lord of the Admiralty [Minister for the Navy], a position he had also held in the First World War:

The Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] gets to make his statement. He is dressed in deep mourning relieved only by a white handkerchief and a large gold watch-chain. One feels the confidence and spirits of the House dropping inch by inch. When he sits down there is scarcely any applause.

During the whole speech Winston Churchill had sat hunched beside him looking like the Chinese god of plenty suffering from acute indigestion. He just sits there, lowering, hunched and circular, and then he gets up. He is greeted by a loud cheer from all the benches and he starts to tell us about the Naval position. I notice that Hansard does not reproduce his opening phrases.

He began by saying how strange an experience it was for him after a quarter of a century to find himself once more in the same room in front of the same maps, fighting the same enemy and dealing with the same problems. His face then creases into an enormous grin and he adds, glancing down at the Prime Minister, ‘I have no conception how this curious change in my fortunes occurred: The whole House roared with laughter and Chamberlain had not the decency even to raise a sickly smile. He just looked sulky.

The effect of Winston’s speech was infinitely greater than could be derived from any reading of the text. His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness. One could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. It was quite obvious afterwards that the Prime Minister’s inadequacy and lack of inspiration had been demonstrated even to his warmest supporters.

In those twenty minutes Churchill brought himself nearer to the post of Prime Minister than he has ever been before. In the Lobbies afterwards even Chamberlainites were saying, ‘We have now found our leader: Old Parliamentary hands confessed that never in their experience had they seen a single speech so change the temper of the House.”

See HAROLD NICHOLSON, Diaries and Letters 1939-45

Athenia sinking "should have helpful effect" on US opinion

The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that steamship Athenia outward bound with 300 Americans on board had been sunk 200 miles north-west of Ireland at 2 PM on 3 September, 1939. It was understood that the passengers and crew were in the ship’s boats. Two destroyers were hastening to the rescue and should be near the scene. The occurrence should have a helpful effect as regards public opinion in the United States.

From the War Cabinet minutes of 4th September 1939:

6. The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that steamship Athenia outward bound with 300 Americans on board had been sunk 200 miles north-west of Ireland at 2 PM on 3 September, 1939. It was understood that the passengers and crew were in the ship’s boats. Two destroyers were hastening to the rescue and should be near the scene. The occurrence should have a helpful effect as regards public opinion in the United States.

The steamship Blairbeg had been sunk 70 miles north west of Ireland. H. M. S. Renown had detached her anti-submarine escort of two destroyers to the rescue.

The War Cabinet were informed that the routing of merchant ships was in force, but the convoy system had not yet started. Reference was made to the statement in the joint Anglo-French declaration that we should abide by the Submarine Protocol of 1936. Germany was one of the powers which had adhered to the protocol.

7. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff reported on the position as regards the air defences of Great Britain and the date of arrival in France of the Field Force. The Chief of the Imperial Gen staff gave the War Cabinet is a picture of the military situation in Poland as he saw it. The concentration of as many as 32 divisions in Slovakia had come as a surprise. The country between Slovakia and Poland was extremely difficult for military operations, and presented administrative problems of great magnitude. If the Germans were able to carry out their plan, the Poles would have to face an attack in enormous strength from the south.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff expressed a personal view that the crushing of Poland by Germany in a few weeks with most improbable.

More on the sinking of SS Athenia.