The Build up to The Battle of Britain

By the August of 1932, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, had massed over 400,000 members, and it was not uncommon for Hitler to give speeches to audiences of in excess of 100,000. Hitler promised that he would take Germany out of the great depression it was in, he promised employment, an increase in manufacturing, and above all, he promised that Germany would once again be a world power. By 1933, the Nazi party constructed the first concentration camp at Oranienburg just outside Berlin. He attained total power by bypassing the Enabling Act allowing to the Nazi Party to rule by decree and thus the democratic system was abolished with the Nazis having complete power, and the Third Reich was born.

Most of the following years until 1937 were spent on domestic issues within Germany. By 1935, all German Jews had to give up their rights of citizenship. They were also forbidden to marry, and it was illegal for them to have any form of sexual relationship with people of German heritage that had blonde hair and blue eyes, who were acknowledged by Hitler as being part of a super race (Aryans). Jewish shops and businesses were outlawed, and in the years to follow the Jews were made a mockery of by the painting of slogans on the walls of Jewish homes and places of business.The rallies and speeches continued from Hitler. Every speech was greeted with thousands of cheering and chanting followers. In 1933 he said to them that if a country would require 200,000 soldiers, them Germany would have 600,000, if a country would require 2000 ships, then Germany would build 6000, and if a country would require 3000 planes then Germany would have 9000 planes.

It seemed as if Hitler had this habit of multiplying everything by three.In early 1934, Hitler faced new conflicts, mainly from within the Nazi party. The S.A, led by Ernst R�hm, and was opposed to Hitler’s alliance with business and military leaders. R�hm, who was a personal friend of Hitler and who had assisted in his rise to power, had a strong following, and was prepared to start a “Socialist Revolution” within the Nazi Party.

He believed he had the numbers to defeat Hitler. But, on June 30th1934 R�hm was arrested and a number of S.A leaders were killed.

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Hitler announced later that R�hm had committed suicide in his cell. (It was later revealed that the police, on orders from Hitler himself gave the order for R�hm to be shot) Hitler now emerged as supreme leader of the Nazi Party.On August 2nd1934, Germany’s head of state, President of the Weimar Republic Paul von Hindenburg died. The very next day, Hitler declared himself President and the Chancellor. It appeared life in Berlin was about to change. The freedom once had, seemed lost. Instead the city was inundated with Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (known as the S.

A, or Secret Service Police) They were all expected to give the Nazi salute and make the remark ‘Hail Hitler’. Refusal to do so was taken that you did not respect the new regime and punishment would be called upon. Defending yourself against the S.A. was regarded as a major offence.At the beginning of 1934, the power of the German military was already increasing.

Already the strength of Hitler’s Military Army was 100,000, but he issued the order that this was to be trebled to 300,000. Tanks, aircraft and submarines were being built under strict secrecy in Finland, the Netherlands and in Spain. The S.A. (the private army of the Nazis) was now said to be over two million strong. Warplanes were being built under the disguise of passenger and civil aircraft, and aircrew were being trained in the art of warfare at private aerodromes under the name of the ‘League for Air Sports’.

Herman G�ring was by name the Minister for Civil Aviation but was the organizing force in getting aircraft manufacturers to design and build aircraft that were ‘instruments of war’. In other words bombers, fighters and transports were secretly being constructed. By the end of 1934, news started to leak out of Germany’s military situation which had become so vast that it was now impossible to conceal. It was expected that both France and Britain would take some form of action against this as it became apparent that Germany had violated the Treaty of Versailles. Both countries made known their feelings, but neither of them acted on it and Germany continued to increase its military forces.In March 1935, Hitler introduced military service to all able bodied men and his aim was to conscript over half a million men into an army of 36 – 38 military divisions. The build up was now just beginning. Hitler first wanted to occupy the Rhineland (a demilitarized zone separating Germany with the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France).

Hitler was at this time very wary of the situation because he was under the belief that France, with its much larger army could easily overpower the Germans, and with Britain’s close association with the French he told his Generals that “we must bide our time, the French and the British are not our natural enemies”.But on March 2nd1936 after silently dwelling on the matter, he instructed his Minister for War General Werner von Blomberg who was also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces that the necessary steps are to be taken to occupy the Rhineland as he believed that both Britain and France were more concerned at the situation in Ethiopia (Italy was in the process of an invasion of that country). But, should any objections be made by France and Britain, then General Blomberg would retreat his army back across the Rhine to the safety of Germany.

The occupation of the Rhineland was a complete success and Hitler, Blomberg and the German nation was delighted by the occupation.By late 1937, all was now in place for Germany to expand its powers and military strength into countries beyond the German borders. Its armament powers were strengthened, the training of troops both infantry and armoured was in full swing, industry was at its peak in producing tanks, aircraft and guns and the time was ripe to try out Hitler’s new found asset, the Luftwaffe.

In February 1938, the Chancellor of Austria Dr Kurt von Schuschnigg was requested to attend the mountain retreat of Adolph Hitler at Berchtesgaden ‘for matters of greatest importance’. Hitler forced him the Chancellor to let him take over. The Austrian Chancellor had no choice. He would not allow Austria to be a subject of war and death. A course of appeasement was the only alternative. He hoped and prayed that his people would forgive him.As the days turned into weeks, there became a noticeable influx of Nazi personnel in Austria. Slowly, as the Germans took over the towns and cities, the red flag with large black swastika in the centre was draped over many of the balconies and shops.

German soldiers and Nazi SS men walked freely about with rifles and revolvers all equipped. Many Austrians shouted abuse at the new invaders of their country, but at this stage the Nazis done nothing but pass it off peacefully. Occasionally an Austrian policeman would intervene, but it seemed that the strong arm of the Germans was not to create any disturbance, not until the Austrian people had been officially told of the decision of the government. That message came through on the evening of March 11th1938. The radio played a message from the Chancellor telling the people of Austria that a German would be nominated as a leader of Austria.Austria had fallen to the Germans without a single shot being fired.

The first part of Hitler’s plan had succeeded. Within just four weeks of the take over, the Nazis were in total control of the country. Later in the month, Hitler announced that a plebiscite (A direct vote of the whole of the electors of a state to decide a question of public importance) regarding Anschluss, a ‘political union election’ would be held that would cement and legalize his act of aggression on Austria.By the May of 1938, the Czechs began to mobilize their military forces, the Sudetan Germans, although they lived a fairly comfortable lifestyle in the Czech run state, through their support behind the Nazi Party, and Hitler gave the Sudetan German Party which was in fact very Nazi orientated, instructions that demands should be made (to the Czechs) which would be unacceptable to the Czech Government. News came out of Czechoslovakia on May 20th1938 that its government was in no mood for appeasement and that with the build up of German military forces along its borders, it would not be long before German aggression would commence.But this time, Britain, France and the Soviets became united in throwing support behind the Czechs. The Nazi Party knew full well that Czechoslovakia had a strong army and were prepared to use it if necessary and an all out state of war would exist if he decided to move the German army into Czech territory. Hitler did not want to have any opposition from Great Britain, the French or the Soviets who all had strong military forces, so Hitler, for the moment had to let things stew over for a while.

This did not please him one bit. On May 23rd1938 he informed the Czech government that he had no aggressive intentions towards Czechoslovakia. But this was to be a short lived decision. While brooding at his retreat at Berchtesgaden, he suddenly went into one of his suicidal tantrums. “Czechoslovakia shall be wiped right off the map, It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action and whatever means possible in the very near future.

“After a fanatical speech in Nuremberg Stadium, he struck blow after blow at Czechoslovakia. Repercussions followed immediately, a revolt in Sudetenland with serious fighting and the Czech Government introducing marshal law. The British and the French held immediate discussions as to whether they should abide by their treaty obligations and stand by Czechoslovakia. On September 12th1938 at 11pm the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sent an urgent dispatch to Adolph Hitler. He proposed to meet with Hitler and find a solution to these problems.The two deliberated on matters relating to the Czech Republic, and Hitler offered the suggestion that there would be peace providing that the three million Germans living in Czechoslovakia could be returned to Germany and that the Sudetenland be returned to the Reich. Chamberlain, although he agreed in the principle, informed Hitler that he would have to present the situation and the outcome of the talks to his parliament.

In the meantime, Hitler and the Reich were setting plans for an invasion of Czechoslovakia.Hitler made the next move on September 28th1938 by issuing invitations to the governments of Britain, France and Italy to meet in Munich, sadly an omission was to that of the Czechs. The Munich Agreement was drawn up the very next day. Hitler was allowed to march his troops into Czechoslovakia and complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by October 10th1938.Chamberlain returned to London boasting of yet another triumph, and it was here before a huge and eager crowd that he made his well known ‘Piece of Paper Speech’. But what was the triumph that he spoke about, what achievements had he made:”My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour.

I believe it is peace in our time”Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. London. September 30th1938The agreement that Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini had put their names, to allow Hitler to occupy 11,000 square miles of formally Czech controlled land, military installations that Czechoslovakia constructed for the purpose of defence that was one of the most formidable defence lines in Europe, taking 66% of the Czechoslovakian coal industry, 86% of the chemical industry, 70% of the iron and steel industry and 70% of the power industry. Further to that, the Sudetenland was home to 2,800,000 Sudeten Germans and 800,000 Czechs.

As a nation, Czechoslovakia was finished. Chamberlain claimed victory and triumph? The victor in this agreement was Hitler, with manipulation and deceit, he got what he wanted. His only disappointment was that he was not able to march into Prague and claim the nation as his.On April 3rd1939 Hitler issued a top secret directive for the instigation of ‘Case White’ to proceed. The German military forces now prepared themselves for a major assault on Poland. Hitler knew the position very well. He now had a military force that had been superbly trained.

The Luftwaffe had shared success in the Spanish Civil War, its pilots had gained valuable experience and aircraft had been tested to the limit. He occupied three sides around Poland which was a country that had an outdated Air Force, and an Army that could fight with old fashioned methods and materials. He was not at all concerned about British intervention on a military scale, Poland would be too far distant for their Air Force, their Army was much smaller than Germany’s, besides, how would they get the tanks and guns and other required hardware needed over such a distance. France was more of a concern, they had military numbers and strength, and they were closer to Germany than Britain.It was within 24 hours, before the German troops were to make their scheduled invasion of Poland that news came through that Chamberlain had signed an Anglo-Polish treaty with Poland. Britain would support Poland should any aggression be made against it. There was no mention of France, but if Britain could sign such a treaty, France was sure to follow.

Then within 12 hours before the planned invasion, Mussolini sent an urgent message to Hitler stating that ‘….

.should Germany attack Poland, and the latter allies counter attack, I have to inform you that it would be opportune for me not to take the initiative in military operations in view of the present state of Italian war preparations.’ Mussolini went on to state that he had been told that any form of warfare would not take place until 1942, when at that time the Italian forces would be ready, but as it stood at the moment, the Italian military forces are not equipped nor prepared for such an undertaking. This was a serious blow to Hitler and the Reich, hastily changes had to be made. Messages went out to German troops, who were already either in position or on the move. The invasion had been cancelled.DunkirkNo one knows how it really succeeded, or if it should have succeeded at all. Organized by the British Admiralty, thousands of small boats, pleasure craft and lifeboats went across the Channel to bring back 340,000 weary men of the B.

E.F from France.While the Allied forces were doing all they could to hold their positions, the air support was endeavouring to slow the German advance down. France was fast becoming a beaten country and headlines around the world were highlighting the German performance…

and the Allied demise.By May 26th1940, it was obvious that evacuation was definite. The German forces now occupied a half moon area around the Dunkirk region. Lord Gort summoned Group Captain Victor Goddard to his Command Post at Pr�mesques and requested that he fly to London to attend a meeting with the Chiefs of Staff and present them with an overview of the present situation.

Gort was under the impression that the Navy was sending just a few destroyers for any evacuation, so Goddard had to inform them that a much bigger operation would be required as there could easily be in excess of 250,000 tired and battle weary men that would have to be moved. It seemed apparent that Gort was not on the best of terms with General Sir John Dill, as he suggested that Goddard speak to Ironsides preferably in the presence of Sir Dudley Pound the Chief of Naval Staff.G/C Goddard made the trip in a damaged Ensign transport plane, first landing at RAF Manston, then after a brief stopover they flew on to RAF Hendon and thence by car to the meeting at Whitehall, where in the basement, with all the “brass” the war leaders of the Empire, and it has been said that Goddard made a fool of himself by speaking out of turn after the subject of Dunkirk had been officially finished. “….

..I am here on the representation of Lord Gort to say that the provision that you have made is not nearly enough.

You have to send not only Channel packets, but pleasure steamers, coasters fishing boats….

…..everything, even rowing boats.” The war leaders sat back in amazed, and stared at the Group Captain, all eyes has cemented themselves on him. Then someone took him by the arm and politely said “.


.come on now sir, you must leave now.”Churchill, in mid May also started to think about the evacuation. He too knew that the Admiralty plans of sending four or five destroyers would be far from adequate. He approached Neville Chamberlain, now Lord President of the Privy Council, to study the Dunkirk situation and any problems that may occur in withdrawing the B.

E.F. from France. Also, General Riddell-Webster was talking about evacuation with the War Office, so in different circles, everyone was talking about a withdrawal from France, but, even by May 20th, no one seemed to be treating the matter with any great urgency.But it was on this day, that Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey was given charge of evacuations should they be required from Dunkirk. Dover Castle was his HQ, and his own operations room was not in the magnificence of the castle itself, but in a number of underground rooms buried deeply into the chalk cliffs that Dover is so well known for.

On May 22nd 1940, Ramsey was given total control of the evacuation, the situation had now become critical, and he was informed by the Admiralty that he could commandeer anything he thought he would need, and all requests would be given immediate priority. The initial plan would be a naval operation, he would need ships that could carry supplies to Dunkirk and return with as many members of the Allied forces as possible, and he now knew that he would have to have more than the thirty or so vessels that the Admiralty had allocated. He would have to also have the support of the R.

A.F so that all embarkations could be carried out without any impediment from the German forces. He requested telephone communications with London, and if possible to Dunkirk itself, he requested road and rail transport from Dover to get the troops to their destinations once they had landed at Dover. All this would be handled by a group of sixteen to eighteen men and a few women of the WRENS with Captain Michael Denny in charge.Ramsey contacted the Ministry of Shipping. He wanted all capable boats and ships of at least 1,000 tons or that could carry at least 1,000 men. Searches were made as far north as Harwich, and as far west as Portsmouth. He made calls for more destroyers as these could not only assist in carrying men, but were well armed.

He made the request to the Admiralty for any warships that could provide cover for the evacuation process. He made contact with the Southern Railway to organize special trains, as many as they could provide to make for Dover. Contacted bus and coach companies in the area that they would provide road transport, even lorries from contractors could assist.Once the men of the B.E.F. were on board the boats and ships, they would need medical attention, they would be tired and hungry.

So, he called the Admiralty for medical supplies and food to be given to all shipping going across to Dunkirk. It appeared that Ramsey or his officers only had to say “….

it is for Dynamo” the operation was given the name from the very room that the evacuation operation was being conducted.The Admiralty became aware that a number of flat bottomed barges that used to work the canals in Holland prior to the invasion there, and about fifty of them with crews managed to escape and make it to England. These barges were being stored at Southampton and at Chatham Dockyard in the Thames Estuary.

Because of their flat bottoms, they would be ideal in running up the beaches and could also be used to carry supplies and ammunition to the B.E.F whose ammunition would be getting lower as each day passes. The call to the Ministry of Shipping was given to a Captain Fisher and to W & G Hynard’s Sea Transport who controlled most of the overseas sea transport in the area.Slowly, Ramsey’s small armada was taking shape. By May 25th 1940, he had four dredges from the Tilbury Dredging Company, a couple of old Belgian passenger launches, half a dozen Navy patrol boats, some customs launches from Ramsgate, a couple of passenger ferries from south Kent towns and Hayling Island, some harbour craft from Dover and a few small coasters.. Some of the ships/boats were in a grim state, they went okay, but many were worse the wear for a coat of paint, but if they were seaworthy irrespective as to what they looked like, then they were commandeered for the task.

There were many stories as to how various boats were commandeered for the task ahead.A number of ships, including Royal Navy destroyers were either in dock or tying up in north coast ports, some after busy duties in Norwegian seas, when urgent messages started to arrive “Urgent, proceed to Harwich immediately” or whatever port was nominated.Slowly the commandeered ships started to make their way towards Dover, from Portsmouth, Southampton, Harwich and Tilbury and many from towns in between were heading towards the port beneath the white cliffs. Admiral Ramsey was now going to be faced with a predicament. All these craft were not going to fit into the small Dover Harbour.

After a conference at the ‘castle’, it was decided that all craft should make for Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppy in the Thames Estuary. This would be the main interception point where all the sea going craft would be checked and sorted out, being fitted out with whatever was needed, before going on to the main assembly point at Ramsgate where they would be supplied with fuel, charts and supplies. Some craft skippers were informed to prepare to leave that night, while many smaller ones were informed that they may have to depart at first light next day, but for others, they presented unforeseen problems.

Across the Channel, the soldiers of the B.E.F. were given orders to make their way towards the coastal port of Dunkirk, some of the regiments were reasonably together, while others were scattered across the flat plains of Flanders or in the north-east pocket of France. Some made the journey on foot. Others got part of the way by car or bicycle.

Many stopped off at farms and cottages and were taken in by friendly locals, while scores were assisting injured comrades the best way that they could. By day and by night they were heading for Dunkirk, if they did not know which way Dunkirk was, all they had to do was to head for the giant pall of smoke that rose from the burning oil storage depots there. Many British regiments and the French army were still fighting during their retreat, while the R.

A.F were doing what they could to slow the German forces the best they could. But despite the retreat, the German’s seemed to be advancing at will.

One of those commanders in France with the B.E.F. was Major General Bernard Montgomery, who by now in his illustrious career had commanded just about every army unit from a platoon upwards and was now Commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in the same area where he had sustained wounds in the First World War some 20 years previous. But the Allied forces could not match the might of huge German Panzer Divisions and multi-thousands of German infantry, Montgomery was to receive orders just as everybody else, and that was to retreat and make for Dunkirk.

But unfortunately, the British War Cabinet was conferring mainly with Lord Gort and the B.E.F. While as many of the British were desperately making their way towards Dunkirk, the French were still unaware of a full evacuation, although it would be incorrect to suggest that the French had not heard rumours of any impending evacuation. But, if this is the case, blame must be laid with the British War Cabinet for not making communication with the French and advising them of the situation.When Churchill heard of this, he slammed the War Cabinet and wrote immediately to the Secretary of State for War on May 29th stating that no effort should be spared to take as many French off at Dunkirk in the operation.But it was on May 26th1940 at 6:58pm that the Admiralty in London cabled Ramsey at Dover Castle with the urgent message that “Operation Dynamo” was to commence.

Admiral Ramsay and his Chief-of-Staff Captain Day discussed the situation. They had at their disposal about 130 craft of all shapes and sizes, ferries, coasters, small craft plus the destroyers of the Royal Navy ready. There were reports that others were still on their way, and some had still to leave Sheerness. With this in mind, Ramsey was to agree with Churchill that it was anticipated that we should move about 20,000 to 25,000 men a day, and on the assumption that there would be 120,000 men to be evacuated the operation should take about five days to get them all back to England. They also had to bear in mind, that the advancing German forces may force a termination of the operation at any time.A means of defence had to be implemented, south of Dunkirk was flat country with many small watercourses, moreover the ground was damp and soft, so it would be impossible for German tanks to traverse in this region, also in the open the German infantry would be open to the strafing that could be done by Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command. But, the situation had to be faced, some would get through. Calais was the key.

This would be the most likely area that the heaviest concentration of German troops and artillery would come from. Also the Panzer divisions would have a direct route to Dunkirk. A number of Allied units were still far south of the Channel coast, and Whitehall knew that those that were left to defend Dunkirk may have to be left behind.Surprisingly, the German Army held back, and most of the soldiers had been rescued. A lot of the equipment and weapons had to be left behind.In the summer of 1940, the ascendant star of German Nazism flush from a string of astonishing victories and seemingly invincible, clashed with the power of a declining British Empire, disillusioned by the carnage of the Great War and beginning to feel the first pangs of doubt that perhaps their imperial mission was not a mission at all but just a monstrous self-indulgence that had outlived its time. Britain stood alone without allies save the far-flung dominions – those hands across the seas that had served her so self-sacrificing in the previous world war. Nazi invasion was imminent and the shattered remnants of the equipment-less BEF recently pulled from the beaches of Dunkirk, knew they would have little chance if Hitler’s legions got ashore on the south coast of England.

As ever the Royal Navy was Britain’s first and last line of defence, but things had changed since Napoleon had glowered with envious eye across the Channel. The German navy was too small to hope to control that narrow strip of water long enough for an invasion fleet to cross in the face of determined Royal Naval resistance. The Luftwaffe, however, could. To destroy the Royal Navy, the Luftwaffe had to secure command of the air and that meant the neutralizing of RAF Fighter Command and in particular 11 Group that protected the airspace over southern England. On paper it seemed not to difficult.

In an age when aircraft were still called machines, the Germans had many, many more of them. More important than the machines were the men to fly them and the RAF was critically short of fighter pilots. They had little more than 800 of them.They embodied that spirit of individual enthusiasm that had seen Britons, first as pirates, then as merchants finally as soldiers bring many foreign lands under the aegis of the British Empire.

Now it was up to the pilots of the RAF to save their homeland from destruction and in this their country’s greatest hour of need they were not found wanting. They weren’t just Britons of course. There were Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Frenchmen, Poles, Czechs and Americans; the latter showing that even if the United States is hamstrung by political considerations, some of her sons at least will know where and when democracy has to be defended and will honour their homeland by doing so.Britain had one great advantage, radar. Invented by a Scotsman, James Watson Watt, it was still rudimentary and often unreliable but it allowed Fighter Command to have a good idea of where German attacks were heading and how strong they were.

It allowed the RAF to keep its planes on the ground until they were needed and then the fighter controllers would vector them in onto the attackers. It was a less than perfect system but it was the best in the world at that time, and it worked. The Germans began by trying to destroy the radar masts and the forward airfields of 11 Group.

They did great damage but the radar chain stayed intact and the airfields kept operating. Stukas, used in the first attacks, were so badly handled by the opposing Spitfires and Hurricanes that the Germans withdrew them and they never saw service over England again.It became a battle of attrition and not just in the air. The unsung heroes of Fighter Command were the ground crews who got the planes into the air, lived through the attacks on the airfields, came out and filled in the craters on the runways and were waiting for the fighters when they came back thirsty for fuel and hungry for more ammunition. Attacking the airfields was strategically and tactically the correct thing to do. Soon 11 Group was near to collapse. There were not enough pilots, not enough ground crew, never enough sleep and too many enemy planes. Then a German bomber being pursued by a British fighter jettisoned its bomb load over London.

Churchill ordered retaliatory raids on German cities and an incensed Adolf Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to switch its attacks to London and level the British capital. This gave the embattled 11 Group airfields a desperately needed breather.It also brought the fighters of 10 Group, based further north, into play and forced the Messerschmitts to go into combat at the extreme end of their range, something they had never been intended to do. As Londoners bore the brunt of the German bombs, the RAF regrouped and eventually repulsed the airborne assailants. As the summer drifted into autumn the tide and weather patterns changed and soon invasion was no longer a practical possibility. Hitler started to look eastwards for fresh conquests. The Luftwaffe had been given a bloody nose and never again launched an air offensive on anything like a similar scale. The RAF had been hurt but not broken.

As the war progressed it grew in size and power and its bomber arm carried the war deep into the heart of Germany with greater devastation than anything ever visited on British cities.


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