Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER
Triumph of the R.A.F.
STRANGE things have happened in this war and are continuing to happen. Some of them are mere surface events, as if the gods were indulging in an ironic jest. Others go deep and will have their influence on the development of the world long after hostilities are over and Hitler has ceased to trouble the world. For example, the spirit and the confidence of the British people are higher today than at any period since the war started. It is true that the British Empire is fighting alone against Germany and Italy. By the time these words are published Spain will probably be in against us, as Franco may not be able to stand the Axis pressure much longer. Japan may also join Hitler and open fire on us in the Far East. It is not even beyond the realm of possibility that Petain's Government will declare a state of nonbélliger ency, thus actively assisting Germany without fighting.
Should all this happen, the British peojile will remain calm and supremely confident of victory in the end. One may criticize such an attitude as illogical, but then the British have never been logical. They are a sentimental but unemotional people. They can be moved, but they will not weep. They are naturally lazy, tolerant and good-humored, slow to anger and slower still to hatred. ,
But when they are finally convinced, as is the case now, that their existent« and all that they believe in is threatened, then no race in history, neither the Roman, nor the Gaul, nor the Hun, can be so relentless in waging war to a finish.
I recall so vividly young Count PUgler’s words at the German Embassy a few weeks before the war. "When the British go to war,” he said, "they get their teeth in the other fellow’s leg and they just will not let go. It is not for nothing that they are called the bulldog breed.”
Vet there must be some reason behind this faith and tenacity of the British. What gives them this supreme confidence when, as Shakespeare says, the three comers of the world are coming against them in arms?
I would put the answer in this order:
1. The loyalty and co-ojieration of the Dominions and Colonies.
2. The triumph of the Royal Air Force.
3. The strength of the Navy.
4. The winding roads of England.
I admit that in these letters I have often expressed my belief that the British are sujiremely the peopleofdestiny. Nothing that hapjiens in these Islands is unimportant or insignificant. For better or for worse, the British made the world of today. For a hundred years they have been molding that world.
Much of their work was good. Some of it inept. Today they stand as the last bastion between the world of their making and a new order of scientific savagery in which the genius of the mind would be prostituted to a debased, archaic tyranny. It is the price Britain must pay for her overlordship of the last hundred years.
The Winding Roads of England
'VT’OU MIGHT ask, however, why I should include the * winding roads of England with the Navy and Air Force as factors of confidence The explanation is simple and not uninteresting.
There is a saying in these Islands that the roads of England were laid out by a drunken sailor. Perhaps that
accounts for the pleasant fact that just around the next curve you are almost certain to find am inn called “The Plough,” or "The Jolly Pirates,” or "The King’s Head.” The drunken sailor was thinking of jxisterity and its needs. His obvious idea was that a road should go nowhere in particular and that the traveller would need frequent refreshment to prevent his giving up the effort of getting there.
Certainly, in these days of no signjiosts, the winding roads are worse than a jigsaw puzzle. After all there is some solution to the jigsaw.
Now in Germany the roads are very wide and absolutely straight. They are built to carry armed forces in war, and industrial vehicles in jieace—and to take them by a direct, unbending route to their destination. Thus a road from Coblenz to Munich goes straight from Coblenz to Munich. The Germans are nothing if not clear-headed.
But that fact has not eluded the Royal Air Force. The mighty roads of Germany, with their unswerving obedience to the Fuehrer, are absolute signjiosts to our bombers. As direction finders they are without an equal. And since in the unmolested pamphlet-dropping of the early months of the war we jilotted almost the whole of the German landscajie, our planes are reaching their targets every night with the precision of taxicabs draw ing up at a hotel door.
On the other hand, an English road is not only too narrow to be seen easily from the air, but if a German pilot followed it he would be in a state of complete bewilderment after the first five minutes.
The genius of the drunken sailor does not end there, however. We have been exjiecting an invasion for the last two months and have had to envisage the risk of German'
A. Beverley Baxter, M.P.
tanks being rushed across the country as was done in the case °f France. Stone barricades
were erected on the roads, and all was ready for the arrival of the enemy.
Then a British general had a bright idea. "Those barricades work both ways.” he said. "Suppose we want to rush up
reinforcements, they would delay us too.”
This gave another general an idea. "Why not take away the barricades?” he said. "If the German tanks land, we should let them start their rush. In no time they would be crawling around bends at ten miles an hour and we could destroy them there.”
So the barricades have been taken down and the roads are wide open to the enemy. The drunken sailor has given England an impregnable defense.
So now if you drop in to the “Hare and Hounds,” for a pint of very exjiensive and extremely mild ale, you are probably, unknown to yourself, in the very centre of a tank trap. And if you listen to the local inhabitants, they will wag their heads and say how marvellous it is for Canada and Australia to send us their soldiers: they will probably toast the Navy: and then they will get down to their favorite topic—the incredible achievements of the Royal Air Force.
R.A.F. Inspires a Nation
THERE is nothing in all British history quite like the story of the R.A.F. Nor is there anything either quite like the story of British aircraft production, which is now presided over by Lord Beaverbrook.
The British are an obstinate people, and one thing they dislike is making shoddy goods. Therefore, when in 1935 they began to realize, somewhat belatedly, that the German Air Force was a potential menace, they planned an aircraft industry which would, in the course of time, turn out the best airplanes in the world.
Give credit where credit is due. It was magnificently planned. Lord Swinton was the second of three Air Ministers to fall, but his groundwork was good. I am sure that Lord Beaverbrook today would gladly endorse that tribute. The trouble was that the plan was slow in execution. When the Germans were mass producing, we were still making jigs and tools in jireparation for ¡iroduction.
"I want numbers!” roared Goering in Germany.
"I want quality!” said Lord Swinton in Britain.
The Germans got a design and stuck to it. We got a design and altered it. Then we altered it again, and finally discarded it altogether for something else. When Munich came we had some excellent machines, but so few^ of them that the heads of the R.A.F. simply raised their hands in utter astonishment that Hitler let us escajie.
When the war finally came last September, Hitler blasted Poland with his air force but left us strictly alone. We also held our hand, except for the endless and unmolested pamphlet reconnaissance raids over Germany. Then came the false lull. Few of our aircraft factories w«re working night shifts, and at Easter there was a general shutdown for three or four days. Many of us were restless and, as I have said before, my trip in the whnter to the R.A.F. in France convinced me that while we might be turning out
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the best machines in the world, they were certainly not reaching the squadrons in France. In short, our bombing units there were largely equipped with the service types that were five, and even seven, years old in design.
Sir Kingsley Wood, who had succeeded Lord Swinton, did his best, but could not cut through the red tape. Manufacturers fumed with impatience while Air Ministry experts kept on altering designs in the endless quest for perfection.
And still Germany held its hand. There were small sporadic raids on Britain in which our fighter machines were easily victorious, but no one supposed that these engagements were important nor the results significant. The real clash was yet to come.
That happened when the blitzkrieg broke against Holland, Belgium and France. The R.A.F., manned by young Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, Welshmen, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans, went into battle against the mighty German Air Force.
The results were staggering. To our shame be it admitted that the British machines were outnumbered by four, five, and even eight, to one. To our credit let it be said that our pilots and our machines were so superior to the enemy that his losses were enormous.
Goering had mass produced the Messerschmitt 109, but our fellows discovered that the pilots of these machines were practically unsighted when attacked from the right. The slaughter of the 109’s was incredible. The Spitfires and Hurricanes went at them like hounds overtaking a stag.
Having given them a taste of our singleseater fighters, we mixed a few two-seater Défiants with them. As you know, the guns of the Spitfire and Hurricane are immovable. They are in the wings and they simply fire straight ahead. The Defiant, on the other hand, has a revolving gun turret behind the pilot, which fires broadsides like a battleship.
The unfortunate Germans, attacking them, mistook them for Hurricanes and manoeuvred to their flanks. In one day twenty-nine German machines went down before the unexpected fire of the Défiants.
In the matter of bombers our gunners have the immense advantage of the hydraulically controlled gun turret which can turn swiftly or slowly, point upward or down, and all the time the guns, the gunner, the turret and the sights are one synchronized unit. You are always firing straight at your target.
The Germans, in their haste, evolved a swivel arrangement whereby the guns moved on a central pivot, but the man firing them did not. The result was that the German bombers were almost helpless against our fighters, whereas our Blenheims, Wellingtons and Whitleys were so strong that they could hold their own even against the fast and improved Messerschmitt 110.
Co-operation—Ground and Air
THAT WAS the situation when Beaverbrook took over from Kingsley Wood. We had the best machines, but not enough of them. Our pilots were being asked to fight until they were so fatigued that they fell exhausted on their bunks and snatched a fitful two or three hours sleep before going back into the inferno.
Shocked by the collapse of Belgium and Holland, and stimulated by the fiery zeal of Beaverbrook, our factories “went to it” for twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. I wonder if in the whole story of industrial production there has been anything to equal that mighty and sustained effort.
It spread through every department.
The designers worked without a stop, like the rest of the employees. They were finding ways of simplifying and saving time. Health experts said that the men must have a rest, but factory after factoryrefused to stop for a single hour.
At a factory in the north there were eighteen Blenheims awaiting test and Beaverbrook sent word that they must be ready the next day. But two of the three test pilots had gone to London to demonstrate certain machines, and the third pilot was fifty years of age, a veteran of the Royal Flying Corps of the last war.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll start at daylight.” It was raining as day broke and he went into the air with the first machine. He threw it around the skies, dictating his comments to an observer. The next machine was warming up as he landed. All day he went on, standing in the rain, drinking a cup of coffee and munching a sandwich and then up again. The day wore on and the rain gave way to an uncertain summer’s twilight. It was growing dark when he stepped out of the last machine and walked slowly to his quarters.
The next day the necessary adjustments were carried out according to his instructions, and he moved from plane to plane giving the benefit of his advice where it was needed. That afternoon the Blenheim pilots arrived and the eighteen machines were flown away. I have seen Clark Gable in the film “Test Pilot,” but those words will always recall to me the fifty-year-old veteran who took eighteen machines into the rainy skies and said that it was all in the day’s work.
A bomb struck an aircraft factory “somewhere in England” recently. A few workers were killed, others wounded and still others dazed. The management put it to the rest of the workers whether they would carry on that night. They voted to a man and a woman to continue. Then a number of day workers who had been asleep turned up and offered to take the places of the men who had gone, and to work the extra shifts without pay.
I tell these things because we are seeing something of a miracle today in Britain— the brotherhood of the aircraft worker with the men who fly the machines. We are seeing the pride and patriotism of craftsmanship allied to the bravery and skill of the fighting airmen. The cleavage between the soldier and the worker in the last war was calamitous, and the bitterness engendered hád its repercussions in the years of peace. This war has brought them together.
So we have this paradox. The Air Force has broken three Ministers, Lord Londonderry, Lord Swinton and Sir Kingsley Wood. The failure to have enough machines brought down Mr. Chamberlain as well. Now Lord Beaverbrook, as Minister of Aircraft Production, is so popular and his success so openly acknowledged, that I believe that he will be given the supreme post of . . . but I shall leave that to you to guess. I want this article to get by the censor.
Even our old friend the drunken sailor who gave us the winding roads of England, would be excused for scratching his head and wondering how it is that an Air Force that broke three Ministers, and was admittedly short in numbers, has so punished the air armada of Germany that Goebbels and Goering are forced to lie fluently and by the clock to hide their losses from the German people.
But the supreme question remains unaltered—can the superiority of British pilots and machines hold the German Air Force until Beaverbrook’s demoniacal energy brings us up to parity with them?
That is in the lap of the gods. Yet this much I believe to be certain—the Germans will never catch up to us in design. We have new types ready that are an advance
on anything ever dreamed of in warplane production. The portly Goering can roar and fume, but he is doomed to stagger after us like an angry, frustrated Falstaff. The German designer, like the German pilot, is in second place and will stay there.
And how have we done it all?
Perhaps this will explain a little. Last week I visited a small Birmingham firm whose premises are crowded into an I inadequate space in an overpopulated industrial district. On the wall of the manager’s office were four photographs. One was of Alcock and Brown with the plane that first flew the Atlantic. The
others were the last three Schneider Cup winners.
“We made the stampings and forgings for them all,” said the manager. As he spoke his office shook with vibration as a gigantic weight, a few yards away in the foundry, pounded an angry glowing piece of steel into shape.
It seemed to me that I was listening not to a man, but to the voice of British industry, an industry that never lost faith, an industry that has risen from neglect and discouragement to send into the skies such bombers and fighters as the world has never seen.