Chapter 8 (1940)

The Gathering Storm and the Battle of Britain

Christmas passed uneventfully for us and the war on land and in the air continued quietly into the first months of the new year. Strange as it later seemed, Russia was regarded with as much loathing as Germany, because on 23rd August 1939 Stalin had concluded a non-aggression pact with Hitler. It was this pact which encouraged Hitler to risk war with Britain and France because it meant that his Eastern borders were safe. On 29th September 1939 a further pact was concluded under which Germany and Russia would carve up Poland between them, the ruthlessness of the latter being concealed by the more publicised German aggression. Only the Communist Party in Britain supported Russia, to the extent that they opposed and obstructed Britain's war effort and sought through industrial strife to disrupt it as a “capitalist” war.

In fact the Russians did not stop their expansionist plans there but proceeded to invade Finland, which they attacked on 30th November 1939. Everyone thought it would be a walk-over but the Finns held them off, imposing crippling losses, until the following March, when a peace treaty was signed. By an odd quirk of fate, it was the Russians' feeble military performance against the Finns which was said to have convinced Hitler that they would quickly succumb to the might of the German Army. Meanwhile, Britain wanted to stop supplies of Swedish iron ore reaching Germany, which led to plans being made to send troops to Norway and to mine Norwegian coastal waters. This gave Hitler the excuse to invade Denmark and Norway, which he did on 8th April 1940. Too late, we sent a small force to Norway which was soon withdrawn with some losses in the face of German superiority. This debacle caused uproar in the House of Commons, leading to the deposing of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. But the vote was very close and by a twist of fate it was only when the chosen successor to Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, declined the post that the Commons, with some misgiving, accepted Winston Churchill. Although he had proved to be a strong and aggressive First Lord of the Admiralty he was still regarded as a maverick by some who remembered him as the architect of the tragedy of the Dardanelles during the First World War (though the cause lay more in bad planning and the incompetence of the Military staffs of the day). But his appointment had immeasurable consequences for the subsequent history of Britain and the civilised world.

Disaster in France
But much worse was to come. Suddenly, on 10th May 1940 the German Army burst into Holland and Belgium, then swung into France through the supposedly impassable forests of Sedan, neatly by-passing the Maginot Line which was thereby rendered useless. The French, with a bigger Army, more and better tanks and a larger Air Force, suffered from abysmal leadership and low morale, while the smaller British force was ineffective against the new German tactic of Blitkrieg, or lightning war, where fast tank columns supported by dive-bombers carved a way for the infantry. The result was a swift rout of the French Army and the compression of the British into a tiny area around Dunkirk.

For reasons which are still not clear, and against the advice of his generals, Hitler held his tanks back long enough for the Royal Navy, supported by an incredible armada of small ships, to bring back to England at the end of May some 350,000 shattered and defenceless British soldiers, in three or four days of perfect weather which Providence gave us. The RAF, who were criticised at the time for their absence from the Dunkirk skies, were later revealed as having fought a desperate rearguard action inland and suffered severe losses while protecting the evacuation from attacks by Stuka dive-bombers. These losses were such that Air Chief Marshall Lord Dowding, opposed by the Air Staff, made a desperate appeal direct to Churchill to withdraw our remaining fighters from the fruitless defence of France in preparation for the inevitable attack on Britain. This decision was bitterly resented by the French, who struggled feebly on. To cap it all, Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10th June and invaded southern France. Paris fell on 14th June and all resistance ended on 25th. As events proved, Dowding saved our bacon, but the Air Staff never forgave him.

Thus, through incompetence, muddle and lack of will, both the means and the opportunities for defeating Germany were thrown away, and the real war began for us. Incredibly, the triumphant German blitzkrieg campaign was actually based on strategy propounded in the early 1930s by a British military expert, one Colonel Liddell-Hart, and incorporated into German staff manuals but dismissed by the British military establishment. After the war, Liddell-Hart visited surviving German generals (some of them in prison for war crimes) and was received with great acclaim. His book "Over the Hill", analysing what later went wrong for them, makes interesting reading.

Backs to the Wall
It is hard after so many years to recall the sense of shock and disbelief of the average Briton at his almost overnight transformation from proud master of millions of people in a great Empire, to the inhabitant of a small, vulnerable island facing imminent subjection by conquering hordes from Europe. It has often been suggested that, had the Germans seized any ships they could find and sent a few divisions across the Channel on the heels of the demoralised British Army, they might have forced their way to London, only 60 or so miles from the coast. Fortunately for us, the Germans needed a rest too, and their intelligence wrongly persuaded them that we still had fresh, well equipped divisions to face them. The truth was that we had virtually nothing in reserve, of either men or equipment.

I was still not old enough for military service. I was also in a reserved occupation and could not even join the Local Defence Volunteer units which had been formed from men not liable for war service; but my sister Vera's husband, Reg Prior, joined one. Churchill renamed them the "Home Guard" but they are now better remembered as "Dad's Army" from the comedy television series of the 1980s. They had very few rifles and exercised with pitchforks, makeshift pikes and even broom handles. How they would have fared against what is now acknowledged as being the best Army the world has seen this century, if not since the Romans, I shudder to think.

Preparations against an invasion of Britain now proceeded frantically. Beaches were mined and obstacles, including concrete sheep and cows, placed in fields against airborne landings. To confuse the enemy, all signposts were removed and the names of towns on shops and buildings painted out wherever they appeared, an action which caused much confusion to us and would probably have made little difference to the Germans. Church bells fell silent too: they were only to be rung as a signal that the invasion had begun. Saddest of all, it was decided to remove all unnecessary iron railings from parks and buildings for melting down, and much beautiful Victorian ironwork disappeared, never to be replaced.

At work, War Registry had been moved into the network of passages and cellars which lay beneath the Admiralty and every day saw more people being drafted in. I left the cypher room and was put in charge of the distribution of signals round the mushrooming Departments of the Admiralty, with a staff of fifteen or so young ladies, a situation over which my family pulled my leg unmercifully. At sea, merchant shipping losses grew worse as the Germans developed the French Atlantic ports as air and U-Boat bases. From being under firm British control for over a hundred years, the Mediterranean suddenly became a cauldron too, with the large and modern Italian Navy ranged against us, and our ally France out of the war. Escorts for our convoys were now pitifully inadequate but the USA gave us fifty old 1914-18 War destroyers which had been mothballed for years in exchange for British bases in the Caribbean, a move which President Roosevelt pushed through Congress with some difficulty in view of the American people's natural desire to keep out of Europe's self-destructive lunacy.

The Battle of Britain Begins
German air activity now became intense as they opened up air bases along the French Channel coast and attacked RAF airfields in the South of England, causing great damage. Meanwile, they assembled fleets of invasion barges in Dutch and Belgian ports. We in London did not see much of these early desperate air battles because German pilots had been ordered to keep clear of London, and the censored press gave largely encouraging accounts of our successes. But to the people of Kent and the coastal towns the twisting vapour trails of planes in dogfights in the sky were a daily sight. Bombs on their homes and falling aircraft became a normal hazard, while for good measure the Germans brought up massive guns which sent huge shells crashing into towns across the Straits of Dover. In later years our friend Betty Brereton, whose home was in the coastal resort of Hastings, described how people would leap for cover as German fighters sprayed the streets with bullets, sometimes themselves being shot down only yards from the shore. Through all of this, I do not recall any feelings of panic among the public generally over the imminence of German invasion. Whether this was simply traditional British sang froid or through plain ignorance I do not know but I strongly suspect the latter. Later research suggests that British Military planners of the 1930s had given no thought whatever to the possibility of invasion, unlike their Elizabethan, Napoleonic or even First World War predecessors who made vast preparations to protect their country, some of which are still landmarks today. Their response to this mortal danger was frenetic, and we were suddenly bombarded with publicity on how to recognise German soldiers, who were expected to be landed from gliders; and we were led to believe that there existed a large "Fifth Column" of traitors who would assist the invaders when the time came. The average Briton was quite unprepared for this I did not feel that many of us took it seriously enough; it was by no means clear what the citizen was supposed to do when confronted by a detachment of German paratroops marching past his house.

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A Personal Tragedy
The newspapers encouraged us to think that the German Air Force was being held at bay but the reality was very different and through constant attacks on its airfields the RAF was nearing the end of its material and human resources. However, on 15th August, for some reason the Luftwaffe changed its tactics and sent bombers over a wider range of targets in Southern England. One of these was Croydon Aerodrome, not used for military flying but with hangars and workshops converted to aircraft production and thus a legitimate target. I was at work in London that day so did not hear any of the commotion. In any case, the aerodrome was a good six miles away from our house and the attackers kept well onto their target. Sadly, no warning was sounded and people did not have time to get into the strong shelters provided for them. Wilf was working there and had a narrow escape. I called on him and had a first-hand account of the horrific event in which around sixty people were killed and many injured.

The next day, the 16th, was a perfect August day. I spent a lazy morning and about 2pm phoned my father at his garage from a call-box at Thornton Heath Library. In spite of several attempts I could only get a high-pitched whistle from the number. I went home and fell into bed about 4pm to snatch an hour's sleep before the night watch, this being the uncomfortable and inconvenient routine which our absurd watchkeeping hours forced on us. As the weather was so good, I decided to take the motor-bike and park it on Horseguards Parade overnight. During the evening, I heard a buzz of conversation about another air raid on South London suburbs. I got on with my work but became aware that Wimbledon was often mentioned by a girl who I knew lived in that area. I asked whether Palmerston Road in Merton had been affected, as my father's garage was there. "Oh yes", she replied, "They say some bombs were dropped there".

I mulled over this information for an hour or so, then at about midnight had a strong feeling that I must go home. I approached the Head of Watch who clearly saw my concern and allowed me to leave. The motor-bike - unusually - started without a murmer and I sped home. "Is Dad in?", I asked my mother. "No", she replied, "I thought that was him on a motor-cycle he had borrowed". I told her briefly what I had heard, trying not to make it sound alarming, then said "I think I'd better go round to the police station". At Thornton Heath Police Station I asked if there were any reports of damage or casualties in the raid on Wimbledon. The duty officer pored over a book containing pages of scribbled names, obviously most of them from the previous day's Croydon raid with the odd road accident. He reported that there was nothing, but at that moment a constable appeared from another room with a piece of paper. The duty officer scanned its hastily pencilled message, then passed it to me and said "Is this the person?". It read: "Please inform relatives H P Smith of 7 Berne Road fatally injured".

The message had been passed by phone from Merton Police Station and by some strange chance I had arrived at that precise moment. Its full import did not sink in but I remember my first thought was what on earth to say to my mother. I went home and after trying somehow to prepare her, showed her the piece of paper, after which we sat in stunned silence for a long time. With a woman's instinct for home and family - at least, I suppose that was what it was - my mother's mind fastened upon my father's dinner, still in the oven; and she repeatedly urged me to eat this, which eventually I did with enormous reluctance, my stomach rebelling at every mouthful. How the rest of the night went, I do not recall.

The End of an Era
Next morning we went to a neighbour's house to telephone my aunt and my sister, as we had no phone ourselves. The neighbour, who had a car and petrol ration for business, with enormous kindness took us to Merton. Streets were closed and many houses just heaps of bricks and rubble. We went first to the garage. It, and an adjoining Post Office building, were a tangled mass of girders and bricks, covering mangled cars. A man who had a workshop opposite and with whom my father was very friendly came across to us and told us the story. He looked haggard and worn. His son, aged 18, on a sudden instant had said "I'll just pop over to see Mr Smith". Minutes later one of a stick of bombs fell on the garage. My father was badly injured and probably died instantly. Of the boy, nothing could at first be found, but the man had spent the rest of the day searching for pieces and showed us a small gruesome pile of bricks under which he had placed all he could find. Mrs Phillips, the wife of the garage owner, had been in the office and taken, desperately injured but still alive, to the Nelson Hospital where she died two days later.

The man advised us to go to the morgue, where we identified my father's body, the first dead person I had ever seen. The floor was full of shrouded figures, with blood-soaked money and possessions spread out on tables. What happened thereafter I cannot really recall, but I could only have had a short time off work. After a few days, the funeral was held and a small party of us saw him buried in Mitcham Cemetery, past which I had walked and cycled with my friends so many times in our happy childhood, now so far away. The hearse, a Rolls Royce, suddenly stopped on the way there and would not start for several minutes, then the engine purred again and never missed a note. My mother and my aunt were convinced that it was a sign from my father, whose knowledge and understanding of motor cars were legendary.

He was a wonderful person, patient and tolerant with men and machines to a remarkable degree, and he spoilt me with unfailing affection. I have much of my mother's temperament about me but my children are like him in many ways, particularly my son Brian who reminds me strongly of him. I was 17 years old and just beginning to know him as a friend and not only a father. I was now a man, on my own in the world, and my mother’s protector.

In the days that followed I also attended the funerals of the young man opposite and Mrs Phillips. The latter, held at Bermondsey in the heart of London, was a particularly gloomy affair, with black horses, black-plumed, pulling the hearse and carriages, and a functionary leading the way on foot, as in Victorian times. I left poor George Phillips, who had suffered and survived so much in the First World War, in tears in the empty flat over his sweet shop, and never saw him again.

Vera and Reg, with immense generosity, insisted that my mother and I should go and live with them as soon as we could collect our thoughts, which we did. Before long, London became the centre of a devastating assault by the Luftwaffe and our story was repeated many thousands of times over among its inhabitants.

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The Battle of London
We now know that the Royal Air Force was at breaking point at that time, and had the Germans persisted with their attacks on our airfields they would probably have won the day. The miracle we needed was provided by the random bombs ditched on London by mistake on the evening of the 24th August 1940, by a German bomber in contravention of its orders. This enraged Churchill and gave him the excuse to bomb Berlin 24 hours later, on the night of 25th August 1940.(read more about the first bombing raid on Berlin on the BBC History website at

The Germans had been assured by Hitler and Göring that no bombs would ever fall on Berlin and though little damage was done the effect was shattering. Hitler fell into a towering rage and ordered the entire Luftwaffe effort to be concentrated on the destruction of London. The RAF was saved, but the cost was huge as we soon found out.

In the weeks that followed, my friends and their families rallied round us with great sympathy and I still met the old school crowd when I could. On 7th September a group of us were on Streatham Common when we perceived a huge cloud of smoke in the East. It was the first devastating raid on the London Docks. We split up and most of us went home but one, John Fry, said he had to go to Kings Cross. It was 25 years before I saw him again.

As night fell, the sky glowed with flames. The Battle of London had begun in earnest.

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