Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – Preparing for Armaggedon

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14 June 1940 In France, chaos was increasing with every hour. Paris fell, and RAF gave order to its remaning squadrons on the continent ...

14 June 1940

In France, chaos was increasing with every hour. Paris fell, and RAF gave order to its remaning squadrons on the continent to withdraw immediately. But over the Kent countryside, still distant from the turmoil of war, nothing was breaking the quiet atmosphere of a warm early summer. The sun stood high over the picturesque, gently sloping landscape criss-crossed by a web of narrow, winding roads and shrubbery. Few sounds interrupted the extraoridanry calm of the day; due to petrol shortages, cars had become a rare sight. Additionally, on 13 June the authorities forbade the ringing of church bells. From then on, they were only to be used as a warning of invasion.

Here and there, Local Defence Volunteers (which only later became known as the Home Guard) kept themselves busy removing road signs and milestones in an attempt to make it more difficult for the Germans to advance across the country. Signs were also removed from railway stations. At night, the platforms were only lit by feeble light from the blue-green lamps which barely illuminated anything around them. In the coaches, the compartment lightning was exchanged to the weakest bulbs and strict regulations were issued to keep the blinds lowered.

War was arriving quietly into Britain, but despite all the calm, the country was rapidly transforming into war mode. During the week, a printed leaflet issued by the Ministry of Information was delivered to every home – fourteen million copies in all. “If the Invader Comes – What to Do and How to Do It”. It contained detailed instructions on civilian behaviour.

“The Germans threaten to invade Britain. If they do so they will be driven our by our Navy, our Army and our Air Force. Yet the ordinary men and women of the civilian population will also have their part to play. Hitler’s invasions of Poland, Holland and Belgium were greatly helped by the fact that the civilian population was taken by surprise. They did not know what to do when the moment came. You must not be taken by surprise

(…)

When Holland and Belgium were invaded, the civilian population fled from their homes. They crowded on the roads, in cars, in carts, on bicycles and on foot, and so helped the enemy by preventing their own armies from advancing against the invaders. You must not allow that to happen here. Your first rule, therefore, is:-
(1) IF THE GERMANS COME, BY PARACHUTE, AEROPLANE OR SHIP, YOU MUST REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE. THE ORER IS ‘STAY PUT’.”

[Crown Copyright]

The text of the brochure went on to give six commandments in all:

“(2) DO NOT BELIEVE RUMOURS AND DO NOT SPREAD THEM. WHEN YOU RECEIVE AN ORDER, MAKE QUITE SURE THAT IT IS A TRUE ORDER AND NOT A FAKED ORDER. MOST OF YOU KNOW YOUR POLICEMEN
AND YOU’RE A.R.P. WARDENS BY SIGHT, YOU CAN TRUST THEM. IF YOU KEEP YOUR HEADS, YOU CAN ALSO TELL WHETHER A MILITARY OFFICER IS REALLY BRITISH OR ONLY PRETENDING TO BE SO. IF IN
DOUBT ASK THE POLICEMAN OR THE A.R.P. WARDEN. USE YOUR COMMON SENSE.

(3) KEEP WATCH. IF YOU SEE ANYTHING SUSPICIOUS, NOTE IT CAREFULLY AND GO AT ONCE TO THE NEAREST POLICE OFFICER OR STATION, OR TO THE NEAREST MILITARY OFFICER. DO NOT RUSH ABOUT SPREADING VAGUE RUMOURS. GO QUICKLY TO THE NEAREST AUTHORITY AND GIVE HIM THE FACTS.

(4) DO NOT GIVE ANY GERMAN ANYTHING. DO NOT TELL HIM ANYTHING. HIDE YOUR FOOD AND YOUR BICYCLES. HIDE YOUR MAPS. SEE THAT THE ENEMY GETS NO PETROL. IF YOU HAVE A CAR OR MOTOR BICYCLE, PUT IT OUT OF ACTION WHEN NOT IN USE. IT IS NOT ENOUGHTO REMOVE THE IGNITION KEY; YOU MUST MAKE IT USELESS TO ANYONE EXCEPT YOURSELF IF YOU ARE A GARAGE PROPRIETOR, YOU MUST WORK OUT A PLAN TO PROTECT YOUR STOCK OF PETROL AND YOUR CUSTOMERS’ CARS. REMEMBER THAT TRANSPORT AND PETROLL WILL BE THE INVADER’S MAIN DIFFICULTIES. MAKE SURE THAT NO INVADER WILL BE ABLE TO GET HOLD OF YOUR CARS, PETROL, MAPS OR BICYCLES.

(5) BE READY TO HELP THE MILITARY IN ANY WAY. BUT DO NOT BLOCK ROADS UNTIL ORDERED TO DO SO BY THE MILITARY OR L.D.V. AUTHORITIES.

(6) IN FACTORIES AND SHOPS, ALL MANAGERS AND WORKMEN SHOULD ORGANISE SOME SYSTEM NOW BY WHICH A SUDDEN ATTACK CAN BE RESISTED.”

The second instruction in the leaflet is notable.  The call for not trusting whether “military officers are really British” originated solely from fear of saboteurs in disguise and the German fifth column. As it turned out, its presence in the country was only imaginary, but the statement had quite another effect. It provides a good explanation why later many Polish, Czech or Belgian pilots who had to parachute from their aircraft received such a rough and suspicious treatment by the local civilians, despite the fact that they were all wearing RAF uniforms.

A separate, similar leaflet was prepared for farmers; “On farms, the first duty … is to go on producing all the food possible … unless military action makes it impossible go on ploughing, cultivating, sowing, hoeing, and harvesting as though no invasion were occurring …”. Food shortages were a reality since January, when the first ration cards were issued for bacon, butter and sugar. They were followed by more cards for meat, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. By June, even the most sacred of British foodstuffs, tea, did not escape harsh limitations – 2 oz. a week. Columnist Geroge Bernard Shaw tried to keep up the spirits:

“No more meat, no eggs, it’s practically my own vegetarian diet. Does this mean that soon Britain will be inhabited by a race of Bernard Shaws? What a wonderful prospect!”

A general quiet understanding seemed to prevail about the availability of weapons. Their lack wasn’t discussed openly in the press. In the House of Commons, a member asked the Secretary of State for War if the Local Defence Volunteers were to be encouraged to provide Molotov cocktails of their own making, and if so, if the Ministry liked to circulate to honourable members the recipe of this cocktail. The minister’s response was to the point: “Yes, if they will promise to handle it all right.”

Sometimes, anti-invasion preparations took more bizarre turns. At Chain Home radar station in Pevensey, WAAF radar operators were given revolvers. These were not meant as means of personal defence for the girls: should the station be endangered by the enemy, they were to fire their revolvers at the cathode screens, rendering them useless. Outside the operations hut, an acid tank was installed – a lead, acid filled bath. Everyone was instructed that in the event of invasion all maps and other sensitive material was to be thrown into it. On one occasion when nobody was around, WAAF radar operator Jean Semple decided to try the system out. She threw some obsolete documents into the tank. The papers went in white with black lines on and came out dark-greyish with clear white lines on, but otherwise in perfectly readable condition. After this became known, it was decided to revert to simpler means of document burning.

In London, William Piklington, a self-defence instructor who joined the Local Volunteers, was sent for a training to become a hangman. He initially thought it to be a joke, but his superior couldn’t have been more serious. If Britain was invaded, there would be a proliferation of traitors and they would have to be dealt with by summary executions. There weren’t enough professional hangmen, so someone had to be trained to do it correctly.

Britain was preparing.

References
– Marcel Jullian: The Battle of Britain July-September 1940, Cedric Chivers, 1974
– Hansard Parliament records 1803-2005
– If The Invader Comes – What To Do And How To Do It. HMSO, 1940
– Joshua Levine: Forgotten Voices of the Blitz andf the Battle of Britain, Ebury Press, 2007

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