Daily Items


Topic IN THE AIR:  To Keep Afloat
Date 04-Oct-2013


From Time Magazine, 22-Jan-1940

Clearing skies over the North Sea last week droned anew with battle planes, and rattled with machine-gun fire. German bombers revived their attacks on Great Britain's trawler and fishing fleets. German reconnaissance planes celebrated Air Marshal Hermann Göring's 47th birthday by appearing over British east-coast headlands, estuaries and cities in numbers that suggested they were preparing the long-awaited mass bombing of British naval bases and supply docks.

Meantime the German Air Force exacted an involuntary tribute from the British. The magnetic-mine-laying campaign of Nazi planes in early December obliged Britain to organize, at great effort and expense, a mine-sweeping fleet large enough to clear hundreds of square miles of coastal channels. By laying occasional mines since the original barrage, Nazi planes have obliged the sweepers to keep up their interminable precautionary labor. By attacking the sweepers with bombs and machine guns, and also attacking fishing boats (eyes for the fleet) and lightships, Nazi planes forced Britain to establish further naval and aerial coast patrols, may eventually compel Britain to arm even her fishing smacks. In all these ways the Nazi air fleet with little difficulty has put Great Britain to great trouble, expense and danger. A little German effort has forced Britain to much greater efforts just to keep afloat.

Britain's tribute to the effectiveness of this campaign has been her effort to retaliate by sending bombers across the North Sea to Helgoland and Sylt, the aerial mine layers' bases. In December, big British Blenheims and Wellingtons encountered repelling squadrons of the fast new Messerschmitt 110s, flown out from Helgoland by Germany's ablest young pilots under Lieut. Colonel Karl Schumacher. Later Schumacher and his men (see cut) appeared before neutral correspondents in Berlin and asserted they had shot down 35 ships out of some 50 allegedly sent over by Britain. Britain listed her losses as seven out of perhaps 36.

Because its red sandstone ramparts rise 200 ft. above the tide line, in contrast to the sandy flatness of all other islands off Germany's northeast coast, the roost of Lieut. Colonel Schumacher and his merry men was called Hillige ("Holy") Land by the ancient Frisians. Britain took it from Denmark and later traded it to Germany in exchange for Zanzibar. In 1914-18 Helgoland, as an advanced fleet base, fortified and protected by mine fields, gave Britain so much trouble that she afterwards insisted upon dismantling it. Her engineers spent three years blowing up its forts and moles. Britain suggested that the island, inhabited by 2,000 fisher folk, be turned into a bird sanctuary. By 1936, British complaints that Adolf Hitler was refortifying Helgoland, rebuilding its moles, were audible but ineffective. Sand suckers re-dredged the anchorage to accommodate warcraft. Near the southeast foot of the headland was built an air base. Lieut. Colonel Schumacher claimed that his Messerschmitt 110s last week prevented British planes from bombing Helgoland. Britain claimed to have bombed Helgoland as well as Sylt.

In 1933 Herr Hitler made the ironic announcement that the northern end of Sylt, a 23-mile sandspit off the Danish-German border, was closed to visitors because it was now a, "bird sanctuary." Every one knew that Sylt's birds were mechanical fowl, their eggs bombs, their nests at List and Westerland protected by coast artillery. One night last week Danes witnessed the bombing of a row of flares set in Rantum Bay to guide Nazi raiders home, another night saw a bomb hit the Hindenburg Dam, a causeway over tidal flats connecting Sylt with the mainland. Danish observers saw a supply train held up for half a day on the Dam while track was repaired. For one bomb which fell on Denmark's Romo Island, Britain apologized, offered reparations.

Besides threatening Sylt and Helgoland to make Germany's warbirds stay home, Britain also sent night patrols far into Germany last week, over Austria, Bohemia and northeast Germany, dropping pamphlets. This was the second major operation after a shake-up in the Royal Air Force in France. Until the resignation of War Secretary Leslie Hore-Belisha, Britain's Air Force in France was divided into: 1) Army Cooperation units under Vice Marshal C. H. B. Blount, who took orders from the Army's General the Viscount Gort; 2) Advanced Striking Force under Vice Marshal Patrick Playfair, who was responsible to R. A. F. headquarters in London. Last week all were united under Air Marshal Arthur Sheridan Barratt, responsible only to Sir Cyril Newall, Britain's air chief.

This was a blow to the British Army's desire for control of the air arm. It was tempered by the fact that Air Marshal Barratt was originally an Army officer, is an old friend of Lord Gort.

As between the Army and R. A. F., so is there friction between R. A. F. and the Royal Navy. Last week Admiral Sir Roger Keyes let go in the London Daily Telegraph & Morning Post a salvo at R. A. F.'s general failure to understand and assist the Navy in its problems. In particular he lamented the failure of airplanes to follow up the submarine Salmon's discovery and crippling of a German sea squadron last month. The submarine had to dive to escape, but not before it told the R. A. F., which then let slip a luscious chance to swoop on the enemy. "Since there is now no time for the Navy to organize its own air service," wrote the testy Admiral, "it is imperative that the coastal command [of R. A. F.], with a suitably equipped striking force of bombers and fighters attached, should be placed under operational control of the Navy at once and its headquarters housed in the Admiralty. . . . The Admiralty must have control of all aircraft which work with and against ships."

Sir Roger is not famed, even among Navy men, for temperance of expression. And his effort to expand the Fleet's air arm into an autonomous naval air force on land and sea, is not likely to prevail over the dynamics of the man in charge of R. A. F.'s Coastal Command: bald, craggy-browed Air Marshal Sir Frederick William ("Ginger") Bowhill. This fearsome character, whose duty it is to protect British ports and shipping and to attack the enemy in, under and over the sea by loosing fierce falcons from Britain's headlands, is as jealously proud of his command as he is adamant in his demands upon it. His men have flown more than five million miles since war began. They call him "The Vicar of Western Europe" and he calls his domain "My Parish." It extends from 1,000 miles west in the Atlantic to Helgoland Bight and Sylt and from Gibraltar to Arctic ice. So exacting is he about evidence from his pilots for their exploits that one of them lately whined: "Pretty soon Ginger'll want us to reach out and bring back the bloody periscope before he believes us."

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