Sunday, 29 December 1940

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Blitz of 1940-41 and the Baedeker Blitz of 1942. See here and here for introductions to the series, and here, here and here for conclusions.

Observer, 29 December 1940, 7

Today seems to be a slow news day, if such a thing can exist in the middle of a world war. The Observer leads today with a non-story (7). Free French radio reports that Hitler has demanded the handover to Germany of the Vichy fleet. Petain's response to this is unknown; for that matter, so is the veracity of this story. The only evidence given is that Admiral Darlan was called to Paris after three days of Cabinet talks, and the British government reportedly does not believe that a 'crisis is imminent'. Yet the question of whether Vichy France will 'collaborate with Hitler' or challenge him by 'renewing the fight for her Mediterranean and African Empire' is described as the 'issue of the moment'.

In actual news, last night Bomber Command 'plastered' the German-held invasion ports between Calais and Boulogne: 'one of the biggest attacks yet', with bombs falling at the rate of 'a hundred minute'. It sounds like it was quite a show, with thousands watching from the English side of the Channel.

"The thunder of heavy explosions rolls without break across the fog-shrouded sea, and terrific flashes light the sky.

"Scores of searchlights flicker above the bank of fog on the sea, and the sky is starred by bursting shells and 'flaming onions'
as German ground defences try to beat off the raiders.

There were no daytime alerts yesterday in London; in fact it was quiet over the whole country except Southampton (a single raider) and the Midlands. A 'four-hour onslaught on London on Friday night' (the Observer's words) equates to 'several bombs' being dropped (paraphrasing the official communique), and only scattered raids elsewhere. 'Considerable damage was done to a hospital', but no patients were injured and only one person, a doctor, was injured. Still, the bomb destroyed a first aid post and 'tore doors of their hinges, smashed windows, and brought down ceilings'. Elsewhere in London, there were a few deaths and other casualties, but nothing too serious, it would seem. Manchester has received the heaviest air raid recently. Yesterday, a mass funeral of seventy-two of the city's victims was held at the Southern Cemetery. It was an interfaith affair, conducted by the (Anglican) Bishop of Manchester and the (Catholic) Bishop of Salford, 'assisted by' the President of the Manchester Free Church Council and the Communal Rabbi of Manchester and Salford. There were 'more than a hundred' mourners, which doesn't seem like many for this many burials. But not all of the victims had been identified and furthermore the 'emergency committee' had appealed for people not to attend, whether for fear presenting too tempting a target for the Luftwaffe or for infectious disease, I couldn't say.

1940 is starting to take its place in the mythology of the nation. On page 6, historian Keith Feiling has a lengthy article entitled '1940 and history' where he tries to put it into context. After taking in Charlemagne, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Goths, Spain, Rome, etc, Feiling draws two reassuring generalisations from history: first, 'the insatiable, self-destroying appetite of conquest'; second, 'the world cannot continue half-slave and half-free'. And on page 7, the Observer publishes extracts from the diary of 'a young Hurricane pilot of the R.A.F. Fighter Command', who was killed during the Battle of Britain after shooting down six enemy aircraft and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. It's long, so here's just one entry:

September 14. -- "A trip down into Sussex with another squadron and saw more of our fighters than I've ever seen before. I got attacked twice, and everybody split up and came home singly or in pairs. Those attacking me must have been 113's, but every time I went to attack what I thought were these guys, they were Spitfires! Most foxing!"

The Americanism ('these guys') seems jarring here.

Now to strategy. The advance against the Italians in Libya has halted before reaching Bardia, but despite whatever Rome says it's not because of increased Italian resistance. Instead, according to Major C. S. Jarvis (9), it is simply a 'pause' to allow maintenance of worn-out vehicles and for supplies of water to catch up. Weather is also unfavourable at the moment, with southerly gales and duststorms beating down on the Commonwealth troops. (Jarvis is pleased to record their diversity: Highlanders, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and a contingent of Free French, 'no doubt interested to learn how hard the Italians are prepared to fight for "Nice, Tunis, and Corsica."') Oliver Stewart is certainly not disillusioned by this 'pause'; he sees Wavell's offensive as heralding Britain's war-winning strategy, 'founded on a new form of war, yet one rooted in the history and traditions of the country and rising from the geographical structure of the British Commonwealth' (6).

It is team war, three element war with simultaneous land, air and sea fighting and the initiative deftly passed back and forth from one to the other as the tactics of the moment dictate. It takes inter-Service co-operation farther than ever before.

Stewart thinks this method, 'with few but fine machines, working in close collaboration' is the one 'best adapted to our needs, strategical and psychological. We shall develop it to the limit.' It sounds something like Dynamic Defence, the title of a new book by Liddell Hart, favourably reviewed for the Observer by A. G. McDonell on page 4. Dynamic Defence in turn sounds like a defence of Liddell Hart's pre-war predictions:

Ever since the collapse of the French armies it has become fashionable for certain apologists to blame Captain Liddell Hart and his strategical and tactical theories. In particular they blame him for having persuaded the allied command that the Defence is so much stronger than the Attack, that a numerical superiority of three to one is essential before an attack can be successful. Yet look what happened in the Battle of France, they say. A few hundred thousand Germans swamped armies of several millions.

Ah, but MacDonell says that Liddell Hart had always claimed that the superiority be in materiel and not men. And 'In the Battle of France the Germans did not attack until they had a four to one superiority in tanks and aeroplanes'. So there.

An application for appeal has been made in the case of Mrs Dorothy Pamela O'Grady. She was sentenced to death at a secret trial at the Hampshire Assizes for having 'made a plan in the Isle of Wight likely to give assistance to the enemy's military operations' and for cutting a military telephone wire 'with intent to help the enemy (2)'. O'Grady is 'the first woman to be found guilty of treachery in Britain during this war'.

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4 thoughts on “Sunday, 29 December 1940

  1. Interesting the mention of 'Flaming Onions' a well known (and specific Great War example) of what was in 1918 'Archie' but not generally recorded (nor actually used as such) in W.W.II's 'flack' or 'ack-ack'. Now of course it's all 'triple A', which shows both the changes in terms and inflation, I guess. From one A to three. But back to those onions. Familiar from Biggles, I found a few more examples here:

    Flaming Onions on Wiki

    The Aerodrome discussion

    New York Times reference

    One of the interesting things about contemporary accounts like this, is that they still have all those anachronisms relating to previous wars, that get 'washed away' in later versions of the events.

  2. Post author

    Yes, people would inevitably reach back to the last war to try to understand the present one, whether based on personal experience or representations encountered since then. I guess the new language of the front line would take some time to filter back to the home front, too.

    This reminds me of a memoir, Green Balls: The Adventures of a Night Bomber, a reference to another name for flaming onions. The author, Paul Bewsher, became a journalist on the Daily Mail; I quoted one of his Blitz stories earlier.

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