Eighty years ago, Roosevelt makes a gesture of support to Britain and another Balkan domino falls



President Roosevelt delivered major and public support to the British war effort when he signed an executive act transferring fifty surplus First World War vintage destroyers to the Royal Navy in exchange for 99 year leases on a number of British controlled air and sea bases on the Atlantic, notably in Bermuda and Newfoundland. The moved bypassed Congress and drew severe criticism from the still-powerful isolationist forces. Churchill had lobbied Roosevelt hard for such a deal and had to make significant concessions to obtain it. There is some debate as to who did better out of the agreement. The destroyers were to be made available immediately, but in the event it was to take some time to make good their many deficiencies and to adapt them to meet up-to-date British requirements. They were given the names of towns that  were to be found in both the UK and the UK. The best known of them was H.M.S Campeltown which was sacrificed in the commando raid to disable the Normandie dock at St Nazaire. The reinforced US military presence on the Atlantic seaboard also prefigured more active US participation in what was to be called the Battle of the Atlantic.  

Biggin Hill just south of London was one of the RAF bases most heavily attacked by the Luftwaffe as it tried to cripple Fighter Command. In the course of these raids three members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force earned their service’s first medals for bravery, each was to be awarded the Military Medal. Sergeant Joan Mortimer was in the Armoury when the air raid alarm sounded. Although surrounded by several tons of high explosive, she remained at her telephone switchboard relaying messages to the defence posts around the airfield. Then, before the 'All Clear', Mortimer picked up a bundle of red flags and hurried out to mark the numerous unexploded bombs scattered around the area. Even when one detonated close by, she carried on. The other two were also telephone operators who stayed at their posts even as the buildings were severely damaged.

The Axis further extended its grip on the Balkans when the military strong man of Romania, General Antonescu allied with the Fascist Iron Guards to stage a coup. King Carol II was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Michael. He was held responsible for the country’s loss of extensive territory and population to the Soviet Union, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Iron Guards became the only legal political party. Even though it was Germany which had in fact forced Romania to cede the districts to its early allies, Antonescu moved into close alliance with Hitler.

Life in Germany was still normal enough for the country’s leading trade fair to take place in Leipzig as usual. Amongst the innovative products on display was a radio loudspeaker that could be placed under a pillow so as not to disturb others nearby. It was chiefly intended for use in hospitals but British propaganda – optimistically – suggested that it might be exploited by people listening secretly and illegally to BBC broadcasts.


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