Wednesday, 21 May 1941

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.

Manchester Guardian, 21 May 1941, 5

Hitler is on the move again! Yesterday, German airborne forces attacked Crete. According to the Manchester Guardian (5), Churchill informed the House of Commons of this news last evening, but his information was dated 3pm. However, 'at noon the situation was reported to be in hand'.

The attack began early in the morning with intense bombardment of Suda Bay, where there is anchorage for the largest vessels, and on aerodromes in the neighbourhood. The parachute troops, brought in troop-carriers and gliders, began to land, apparently with the object of capturing Maleme, an aerodrome on the Bay of Canea. In this they have so far failed. A military hospital which was seized was retaken by our troops under General Freyberg. From time to time the Germans bombed and machine-gunned anti-aircraft defences. Heraklion (Candia) was bombed, but no landings have so far been reported there.

The size of Allied forces on Crete is unknown, but two weeks ago it was reported that two Greek divisions had arrived there following the German conquest of the mainland, and there are also British and New Zealand forces present. King George of the Hellenes and members of the Greek government also managed to evacuate to the island.

The aeronautical correspondent to The Times says that the 'air invasion of Crete was by no means unexpected', and 'had been foreseen by the British authorities since the Germans overcame Greek resistance' (4). The Luftwaffe has a large number of troop-carrying Ju 52s in the area, and so landing these 1500 paratroopers 'would appear to be merely a preliminary move in a much bigger operation'. The leading article in the same paper suggests that there are 'two alternatives open to the attacker' (5):

Either he must carry through the whole operation by air alone, or he must obtain a hold upon a stretch of coast suitable to the purpose and sufficient in extent for the subsequent disembarcation of sea-borne troops during the hours of darkness.

The latter seems more probable. The Manchester Guardian doesn't offer an opinion on this question, but notes that 'We start [...] with certain advantages whether the enemy come overseas or from the air' (4). Either way, 'Here', in Britain,

we shall watch the struggle with all the keener interest because Crete also is an island and is dealing with invaders.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Henry Wilson, will probably appreciate this, as only yesterday he warned readers of the Chelmsford Diocesan Chronicle (and also those of the Guardian) of the likelihood of 'an attempted invasion': 'The light-hearted dismissal of this possibility is most mischievous' (2).

Though I have every confidence that if we are not taken by surprise the invasion of this country could not end in any other way but in overwhelming defeat for the enemy, it will be a time of great and horrible distress, particularly for that part of the country where the landing by sea or air is made, and no one but the veriest fool could regard such an experience as invasion with anything but horror. We must expect invasion and we must prepare for it.

Of course, attacks -- if not invasion as such -- from the air have been occurring for months now, albeit at a low ebb right now. No bombing had been reported last night or this morning anywhere in the country by the time the Guardian went to press (5). The previous night 'there was little enemy activity' but 'a stick of bombs at an East Midlands village' killed nine people and seriously injured three others (6).

Herbert Morrison's bill to centralise Britain's firefighters passed through the House of Commons yesterday. As well as providing a national (in England and Wales; Scotland will have its own), uniform service it will reduce the number of fire brigades from 1400 to less than 50. It was generally welcomed, though Lady Astor, the Conservative MP for Sutton, Plymouth, was 'horrified that the Government had allowed towns to be "blitzed" for six months before bringing in this bill' (Guardian's paraphrase, 2). She thought this undue 'Respect for local authorities' had been 'the cause of of a useless waste of lives and property' (which is interesting, since her husband is the Lord Mayor of heavily-blitzed Plymouth).

We were losing the battle on the home front, and would continue to lose it unless we were more active and fearless in speaking out and getting things put right.

One of Morrison's earlier civil defence initiatives, compulsory fire-watching was the subject of some fierce criticism at a conference at Morecombe yesterday of shipbuilding and engineering unions. H. M. Harrison of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers said (3):

This scheme is a scandal, and it is the worst piece of anti-social legislation our Ministers have ever introduced. This order must be completely removed and a new one framed in consultation with the trades union leaders.

The objection seems to be that 'skilled men' are having to do fire-watching on top of their war work; instead it is proposed that 'unskilled men should be obliged to undertake fire-watching duties'.

There's a very interest disclosure in the papers today. In appealing for radio technicians to work for the Royal Canadian Air Force, Canada's Minister of National Defence for Air, C. G. Power revealed details of 'a new device which was being used in the air defence of this country' (The Times, 4):

"The details are, of course, secret," he said, "but I can say that in general terms it means that by using a great number of small radio sets of modern design, technicians posted at ground points all over the British Isles will be able to detect enemy aeroplanes in the air direct anti-aircraft fire with deadly precision. The British Air Ministry expects great things of this invention, but like anything else it calls for men to make it work."

No further details are given, except that the Guardian says that this device was developed by 'British scientists, collaborating with research experts in Canada and the United States', and that it is effective against both 'day and night attack from the air' (5).

The headlines above note that the German paratroopers who attacked Crete yesterday were wearing New Zealand uniforms. German officials have already denied this, suggesting that a recent switch to 'khaki uniforms similar to those of the German troops in Africa for use in tropical climates' (The Times, 4) might explain the confusion. No doubt they will also deny an extraordinary claim by the aeronautical correspondent to The Times, 'that the Germans are deliberately bombing civilians in occupied territory so as to give the impression that the R.A.F. are the culprits' (4).

By this means they hope, no doubt, to create bad feeling against Great Britain, and so make the defeated countries -- and particularly France -- more willing to cooperate with their German masters.

Evidence is admittedly only 'circumstantial', but there is enough by now 'to seem conclusive'. For example, a man from Brest told The TImes's Lisbon correspondent that

it had often been noticed that air raids which began on the port were renewed, after an interval of about half an hour, on the residential areas of the town itself. Whereas the first raid damaged only the port and shipping, the second caused considerable damage to houses and heavy casualties among the civilian population. Splinters picked up in the town on the mornings after the raids were found to be of German manufacture. The bombs in this case were of a type which exploded laterally on contact; they were ill-adapted for attacks on big targets, but wrecked many homes and killed the inhabitants.

These bombs don't sound like the 'armour-piercing and semi-armour-piercing bombs' used to attack the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the only targets in Brest attacked by the RAF 'for many months past'. The indiscriminate nature of the bombing is also contradicted by evidence from 'a number of neutral observers' in occupied France, who report that 'the R.A.F.'s bombing of military objectives is extremely accurate'. There is further evidence, already reported in The Times, from Belgium last August, Holland last November, and Italy in April. This last involved 'a similar Italian plot to bomb the Vatican City should the R.A.F. attack Rome', as revealed in an official statement from Downing Street.

By the way, Churchill has not yet made a statement about Rudolf Hess, saying he is not yet in a position to do so and 'is not at all sure when he would be' (4).

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