- Jul 1, 2007
29th June 1940
The flight of Ju-87 Stukas was flying with impunity on their last mission of the day, relying on Luftwaffe and Red Air Force Fighters to sweep the British and French planes from the sky. The two Air Forces on each side were making a maximum effort to control the Airspace over Belgium, and ever since Brussels had fallen yesterday, the Allies could no longer rely on the Air Defence network of the Belgian Army. Their target was to the south, just north of Ghent, right at the coast of the channel. The Belgians had reactivated an old fort there, and however antiquated, it was blocking the Soviet drive to encircle the strategic city again. Four other Stukas from SG2 were assigned, more than enough to blast a fortress that had been in disuse since the last war and had been old even then. Small black puffs in the air marked when they were over the target. Allied Anti-Air Artillery fire was more accurate than it had been back in May, but still not up to German standards. Except when it came from British guns. The British also lacked experience, but much of it was made up for by training, and the losses the Stuka wings had taken from British heavy and light flak had been severe. Were they attacking a British unit, the puffs would be much closer and numerous. The pilot of the most forward Stuka shook these thoughts from his head. Flying at 4,600 meters, the pilot located his target through a bombsight window in the cockpit floor. The pilot would move the dive lever to the rear limiting the "throw" of the control column. The dive brakes were activated automatically, set the trim tabs, retarding his throttle, and closing the coolant flaps. The aircraft then rolled 180°, automatically nosing the aircraft into a dive. The fortress grew ever closer in his bombsight, and he could faintly hear the whale of his sirens in the background, while his vision faded from the g forces. Still, when he reached the release point, he could see the indicator light and pressed the release button. The bomb was released and the automatic pullout system began to recover the dive. His vision faded, but he did not pass out, and when the propeller was set to climb, he regained control of the aircraft, setting a wide course that would take him over the channel, in order to avoid roving enemy fighters.
The channel was a blue band of water, dotted with few ships and even fewer boats. Both the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy concentrated their forces in the North Sea, the only ships would be the Cruisers and Destroyers of the Channel Force, as most of the Marine Nationale was in the south, to guard the vital sea lanes to Africa against the Italians. He was confident in his plane, his abilities. What could possibly happen? The four Stukas flew in classing Schwarm formation, and this was what saved them. Suddenly, the plane on the left yelled over the Radio: “INDIANS! Nine o'clock high, coming down fast!” The pilot of the leading Stuka pulled his plane into a shallow dive, attempting to reach the cloudbank at about ten-thousand feet. However he was out of luck. One of the British Typhoons came in behind him, following every move he made, while his rear gunner defiantly returned fire. The 20mm guns of the Typhoon banged away, zipping so close past the plane that they made the pilot duck in the cockpit while he struggled to keep his plane under control. He felt the thudder when some of the shells hit the wings, and hoped that nothing vital would be hit. He dove steeper and steeper, hoping that the British Typhoon could not match him. One of the shells splintered the right side of the cockpit enclosure. The glass did not break, but a splinter hit the pilot on his right temple, giving him a deep wound that began to bleed heavyly. But salvation was upon them. The damaged German plane reached the clouds and somehow he managed to level it off without passing out. He began to take stock of the situation while trying to ignore the pain of his wound. He turned around and saw the slumped body of his rear gunner. He was obviously dead, three bullets having struck him in his upper chest. The bloody mess where his chest had been showed his lungs and most of his intestants, making the pilot reverse-eat all over the floor of his cockpit. War or not, this was something a Luftwaffe pilot did not get to see every day. When he recovered after a few minutes, he realized that he was out of the clouds. He immediately began manoeuvers to throw off any potential pursuers and tried to get a sense of where he was. His compass showed that he was on a roughly easterly course, so he decided to keep it that way. Fuel was no concern, his tanks were still almost half-full. He leaned back in his seat and slightly relaxed. He did not, could not know that a fragement of a shell had lodged itself behind his dashboard, making the compas show the wrong direction, making him fly towards the British Iles instead of occupied Holland. With his wound he did not notice that it took him far too long to reach the coast, for him time lost all meaning as he concentrated on not passing out and keeping the plane in the air. When he crossed the British coast, he honestly believed it to be the Dutch one, and he had to, considering that he was mostly flying on fumes. He quickly realized he needed to land because of this and because an Airfield just happened to appear in front of the ever droning propeller, he decided that this was a good a place as any to refuel and get himself patched up. The plane touched the ground, and he taxied towards one of the Hangars. When he could see what was inside, his heart sank into his belly. Unmistakably, five Spitfires could be seen, and this was enough to convince him to put his engine to full power again, only to see it die after a few more revolutions. He sighed deeply and resigned himself to his fate, passing out before the running RAF ground crews reached his plane.
The griund push he had been supposed to support was part of a two-pronged offensive, aiming at keeping the Allied Armies on their toes and preventing them from concentrating their reserves at any given point. The fall of the Belgian Capital had relieved the BEF from defending the salient, and had enabled Ironside to retreat to a more defensible and straight line. The twin attacks at Mons and at Ghent, which threatened to fall for the second time convinced both the Belgian High Command that had for all intents and purposes merged into the BEF Staff and the Imperial General Staff back at Aldershot that the position in Belgium was becoming untenable. The BEF fought hard, the Belgians fought hard and the French soldiers fought hard, but when Lieutenant General Forrester had come back from a courtesy visit to the French General Staff a few days before, he had told Ironside and King Leopold III of a shocking shortfall of morale among the French Generals. Many, especially the generation that had already fought as Generals in the last war, had already given the battle lost, no matter the massive reserves the French had stationed in their Empire and especially along the Spanish border. The younger Officers and especially the men in the field were willing, but if they were badly led... still, for the moment the French Army held, but in the back of his mind Ironside began to ask himself if the clique around Petain did not have a point after all. If the French broke and the Germans captured Mons....
At this time Ironside did not know just yet that the French had already given up Mons and were retreating south. On a direct order from Marshal Weygand, Henri Giraud, the commander of the 7th Army, had shifted his units south. The French General Staff had obviously given up on Belgium and was determined to risk no further French lives for a lost cause. That this move best served the Axis as it put the BEF in danger of being encircled was of no concern to the Marshal, the preservence of what remained of the French Army was more important. Political and long-term strategic considerations did not play any part in his thought processes. Reynaud called, practically steaming with rage and asked the General if he wanted the Germans to win. Reynaud, despite his contempt for Churchill and the fact that the British had somehow managed to do with a much smaller Force where the vaunted French Army had failed, knew that the thirty Divisions of the BEF were Britain's only noteworthy Army outside India, and that if they were destroyed, the Empire would have to sue for peace. When the French Prime Minister asked the Marshal if he wanted to rob France of her principal ally and probably the only chance to defeat the Germans, the French Marshal had replied that in his opinion the war was lost, and that such a loss, or even the threat of such a loss would make the British see sense. He then asked the Prime Minsiter to ask for a honourable peace. After a few secons of silent, boiling rage, Reynaud sacked Weygand on the spot, replacing him for lack of a better candidate with Gamelin, who was probably just as resigned as Weygand but at least was still willing to fight. When he called the British Prime Minister, Churchill had informed him that in accordance with and with the consent of King Leopold III, he had ordered the BEF to retreat out of Belgium towards Calais. That order, as grave as he was, had been given just in the nick of time, because literally minutes after the last train with stores and men left the battle area, guarded by several Squadrons of Typhoons, two German Infantry Battalions severed the line. The remaining Belgian and French forces retreated by foot, leaving most of their equipment behind. The BEF, the root and core of the British Army was save, having lost almost none of it's equipment and would soon again be ready for battle. However, when news of this leaked in London, a mass of people gathered in Front of Buckingham Palace, anxious to hear any news, many believing the war to be lost, and public morale was at the lowest point of the entire War. Churchill knew that something needed to be done, and spent most of the night writing what was to become his most famous speech. So when the average Briton bought his newspaper in the morning, he saw the headline: PM to speak on France at 10 AM!. At ten the entire United Kingdom gathered in front of the Wireless sets. All over the country men and women listened. In the factories that never stood still, sets were hooked up to the wireless sets, families that did not have a set ventured out to pubs or neighbours. When Churchill started to speak in the House of Commons and into the microphones, a scared, startled an anxcious nation listened.
For the first few minutes he outlined the dire situation in Belgium, the fears grew. The Belgians were past the breaking point and their Army was falling apart. The French situation was not totally explained, but many knew anyway. The Prime Minister then spoke of the plans and evil deeds of the Axis powers. Then, when the mood of the speech was at his lowest point, came the moment that many would see as their defining memory of the summer of 1940, even decades later:
“We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous maneuver. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty's Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Axis rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the peoples of the Empire, with all their power and might, step forth to the rescue and the liberation of our home.”
[Notes: I did not do that speech justice. But then again, probably no one beside the man himself ever could.]