Eighty years ago, the RAF punishes success and unorthodoxy



The Greek army launched a counter-offensive across practically the whole width of the front. The main focus of the attack was the town of Korce, well over the frontier of Italian dominated Albania. It was the main route centre of south-east Albania. Rather than fight the Italians on the plain around the city where their lack of tanks and mechanical transport would have put them at a disadvantage, the Greeks worked through the high ground surrounding the area. Further south the Greeks drove the Italians out of the last of the Greek territory taken in their initial offensive. The Italians depended on the Albanian ports of Durreze and Valona for all resupply. These were the largest ports in the country but still small and ill-equipped, leaving the Italian army at a severe logisitical disadvantage.

The Luftwaffe was starting to shift its attacks beyond London. One of the first cities to suffer was Coventry which was bombed by 500 aircraft. Weather conditions were almost perfect; later waves of attackers could see the fires burn almost as soon as they cross the British coast. British counter-measures against Luftwaffe radio navigation systems also proved ineffective; an early defeat in the “battle of the beams.” The city was devastated with two-thirds of houses being badly damaged and the mediaeval cathedral was almost totally destroyed. Perhaps 500 people died. Weapons factories in the city centre were put out of action but much of the capacity had been transferred to new sites on the outskirts. German propaganda rejoiced, little knowing that it was merely legitimizing punishment of vastly greater severity that was to be meted out to German cities two and a half years later. Coventry became shorthand for terror-bombing.

The RAF undertook a major reshuffle of its senior jobs in a thoroughly depressing exercise in political turf-grab and punishment of non-conformism at senior level of command. Sir Hugh Dowding who had commanded Fighter Command to victory in the Battle of Britain was removed under the specious pretext that Lord Beaverbrook, the minister for aircraft production, needed him for “special duty” in the USA. Dowding had never been forgiven for demonstrating that the orthodox belief at the higher levels of the RAF that “the bomber will always get through” was false. He was replaced by Sholto Douglas, one of the few former fighter pilots tolerated in the Air Staff, but sufficiently dedicated to offensive strategy to be acceptable to the bomber barons.

Whilst this was going on, the public image of Fighter Command was sustained by the announcement that a Victoria Cross had been awarded to one of its pilots for heroism during the Battle of Britain. F/Lt James Nicholson had pushed home an attack on a Messerschmidt 110 fighter even though his Hurricane was on fire. He survived although he was badly burned. He was Fighter Command’s first and, as it proved, only recipient of the VC. The award demonstrates an intriguing contrast with another one announced at almost the same time. Nicolson’s action had taken place three months previously on August 16 - a common lage between deed and award - but the late Captain Fogarty Fegen was awarded a posthumous VC for his bravery in fighting the pocket battleship Scheer in the vastly out-gunned armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay, only days before.


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