Friday, 27 September 1940

Daily Mail, 27 September 1940, 1

The Daily Mail has some good news to splash on its front page today. (The Times dourly leads with the story of yet another record air raid on Berlin.) Another 46 survivors have been rescued from the lost liner SS City of Benares, which was reported as sunk last Monday. They drifted in the Atlantic for eight days before being spotted by a Sunderland flying boat. As well as 'British and Lascar seamen' there were six boys, aged between 9 and 16, along with two adult minders, who were being evacuated to Canada but are doubtless quite happy to have fetched up in Scotland instead. That still leaves 77 dead child evacuees.

Yesterday saw some relatively heavy air-fighting over England. Claims for the day total 31, plus another six (or seven) shot down in the evening. According to the Mail,

It is believed that they were the first of the night's raiders on the way to bomb London.

This new development of the defence of London accounts for the bombers being half an hour later than usual in arriving.

A cynic might suggest that the Luftwaffe planned a later start for reasons of its own, but I wouldn't.

In fact there are reasons to hope for an improvement in air defence at night, at least for those willing to believe what is essentially rumour and hearsay. The Time has a frontline report from London's anti-aircraft batteries (2), featuring this tantalising snippet:

There have been whispers about the secret new predictor, which is steadily increasing the accuracy of shooting against targets that are generally invisible or at best caught in the beams of searchlights for only a moment [...]

But no details are given. Even more intriguing are some quotes in the Spectator today (309) -- to my chagrin they are from last Sunday's Observer, but I didn't notice them them at the time (so much for close reading). Oliver Stewart wrote then that:

"The new barrage system, although important, was but one step towards this end [an answer to the night-bomber]. The next step will be more decisive, and is imminent."

And J. L. Garvin is quoted as saying:

"There is a remedy. It is well worked out not only in theory but in preliminary experiments. To bring it into full operation as a war-instrument may take some time, as in the case of the brilliant reply to the magnetic mine at sea. When applied the new device will enable our fighters to intercept the night-bombers and kill them."

The Spectator's columnist, Janus, adds:

All this, I have good reason to believe, is strictly true.

It does sound like they know something. But what?

Another theme running through today's papers is the need for far-reaching reforms of post-raid welfare for the bombed and homeless. Paul Bewsher of the Daily Mail asks where will they be living six months from now -- 'How will they be living -- and clothed -- and fed?' (2)

This is the very serious problem which the government must face very soon and solve.

But he finds no evidence that government officials even acknowledge the need to think that far ahead, as they have 'that old, dangerous idea' that the war will be over 'in a few months'.

"A year?" they say in surprise. "A year? Ah, well, I don't think we can talk about that now. We'll have to see."

Bewsher quotes with approval one idea for reform sketched out to him by a schoolmaster:

"Appoint a dictator in each borough or council with absolute powers to deal with the homeless in his district and cut through the mass of red tape which is causing so much delay.

"Then take over all the village halls in the Home Counties, and let groups of homeless set up a kind of communal life, where they would very largely look after themselves with no organiser in charge.

"While, I know, many people do not altogether like communal life, there are many who equally dislike being billeted on strangers. The situation must be faced in a big way."

The Spectator also thinks that red tape is a problem. A leading article argues (308) that:

London as the great nerve-centre of Britain is functioning, and will continue to function, but those who control operations there, public or private, must fully face the question of decentralisation, so far as is compatible with efficiency [...] There is need of quick thinking, elasticity, and abandonment of red-rape for the immediate present, and of long-range planning to cope with the conditions of cold and darkness under which destruction will be rained from the sky during the winter.

It also identifies local government as needing reform:

It does not seem to be realised that the machinery of a Borough Council accustomed to the routine duties of peace-time is utterly inadequate for dealing with a situation which demands imagination and, above all, quick decision. The co-ordination between district and district is poor; the evidence of a strong central directing hand has been conspicuously absent.

Similar points are made in an article by MP Kenneth Lindsay. After paying fulsome tribute to the 'heroism and cheerfulness' of Londoners under fire (311), Lindsay argues that 'from the beginning of the war, policy with regard to home security, evacuation and education has suffered from a lack of unified responsibility'. He describes London's present organisational nightmare when it comes to welfare:

In addition to the twenty-eight Borough Councils with their limited powers, there exists the London County Council with its Public Assistance Department and network of schools and institutions. Side by side with it there is the Regional Commissioner's office, which co-ordinates the work of all A.R.P. and A.F.S. stations. Shelter accommodation and local rebilleting is the work of Borough Councils. The Assistance Board deals with certain aspects of relief. Evacuation outside the Borough is the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Health. The proximity of the main Government Departments means that another and all-powerful authority, which of course is ultimately responsible to Parliament and the nation, is taking a direct hand in dealing with the London problem. I have omitted to mention the Ministers of Food, Transport and Pensions, and the workings of the Metropolitan Water Board, not because they are unimportant, but because their responsibilities are less immediately obvious.

He lists some of what he sees as priorities -- welfare officers to immediately determine which authority each person in need should be passed on to, 'requisitioning every available room-space on a basis different from anything we have previously known' in order to house evacuees, the utilisation of 'every spare basement, crypt and vault' as air-raid shelters, each in the charge of a 'responsible person'. But more than that, someone needs to take overall charge (312):

"We can take it" is a phrase which springs from thousands of Londoners. But let organisation match this unconquerable spirit. London needs its own democratic dictator. Why not bring Mr. Herbert Morrison back to his own job and let a businessman run the Ministry of Supply?

A democratic dictator? Where does this line of thinking end?

Finally, there are some choice quotes in the leading paragraph of the Spectator (305), which I can't resist quoting briefly:

In a bitterly literal sense the hostile air-fleet is a great leveller. Rich and poor are suffering equally [...]

and

Berlin [...] is now so much under fire that the theories of those who believe the best way of protecting London is reprisal are in a fair way to being tested [...]

and

though attempts at invasion still seem probable, the time for making them under the best conditions has passed and preparations for resisting them have reached a high pitch of perfection.

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2 thoughts on “Friday, 27 September 1940

  1. Erik Lund

    So, we've got a country fighting a major air war and trying to simultaneously conduct a massive arms buildup and industrial dispersal. I'm often struck by accounts of engineers working themselves to death in this period in various different obituary collecions, though I've no idea how to tackle the question of whether it is a real trend.

    So is it possible to see a decline in the quality of the national conversation due to all the energy being spent elsewhere?

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