The question as to why Germany did not attempt the invasion of England after the downfall of France in the summer of 1940 will always be a subject of extraordinary interest for the military man as well as for the historian. It involved a military decision on the part of Adolf Hitler which was of first importance for the course of world history. If the invasion had succeeded and if the English home-land could then no longer have been used as a base for the further prosecution of the war against Germany, it is possible that the war might not have ended at that point, but at any rate not much could have been undertaken against Germany, at least not in the west. An invasion of France, or an air war against Germany, could not have been carried out from North America. Had the invasion failed, then the overthrow of Germany would probably have resulted much sooner or, after such a great military reverse, Adolf Hitler might not have ventured the attack on Russia.
One underlying point must first be clarified. Frequent questions addressed to the author by Englishmen indicate an erroneous concept, which must be disposed of in the interest of history. The question is: “Why didn’t you Germans attempt the invasion immediately after Dunkirk at a time when the British expeditionary force barely escaped across the Channel in great confusion and left behind virtually all of its equipment, and when the English coast was to all intents and purposes open and unprotected?” The answer is easy: “Because we Germans could not simply swim over! You Englishmen certainly know full well from your own invasion plans, such as Normandy, how long it takes to prepare for such a gigantic undertaking as a major landing on an enemy coast.” Then at times they would give the amazing reply: “Surely it is generally known that Germany had planned for the invasion of England since spring of 1938.” No greater mistake can be made than such an assumption which has no basis whatsoever in fact. Its clarification leads us directly to the preliminary planning for the German invasion.
When the Commander-in-Chief, Navy, Grand Admiral Raeder, was advised at the end of September, 1939, that the German High Command was planning a decisive offensive in the west, he directed the Operations Division of the Naval Staff to investigate and prepare a study of the practicability of an invasion of England. It was premised on the assumption that a successful offensive would result in the capture of the Belgian- French Channel coast and that the German Navy then might be asked on short order to land a German army on the south coast of England. Within the Naval Staff a special division was created which engaged itself exclusively with this problem and considered it from the military, naval, and transport angles. This was solely a planning task of the German Naval Staff, of which no one except the personnel directly detailed had any knowledge. No deliberations or preliminary planning concerning the possibilities of an invasion of England had engaged any German office prior to this lime.
The German offensive in the west which had been planned for late fall 1939 was delayed for weeks, then for months. The main reason for this postponement was bad winter-like weather. Moreover, through an unfortunate circumstance, an important secret order which revealed the attack plan had fallen into enemy hands. The desired advantage of tactical surprise had therefore been lost. This postponement was not unwelcome to the German General Staff because it considered that the German Army was not sufficiently prepared for this major operation. At a conference in headquarters in November, 1939, the generals expressed their apprehensions in this regard, and they received a curt rebuff. Hitler criticized severely that they had not pressed the preparations with sufficient energy. The rest period of the winter 1939-1940 was extensively utilized for the materiel and personnel reinforcement as well as the training of the armed forces. Not until that winter was the strength of the German tank forces increased from four to twelve divisions.
On 10 May, 1940, the German offensive in the center of the front finally got under way. Contrary to the modest expectations of many in the General Staff, it led to a crushing victory. On 20 May, the Army reached the Channel coast across from England near Abbeville. The British abandoned their heavy equipment but were able to evacuate their continental army from Dunkirk to England, because the German armored divisions, which were engaged in a rapid advance on Dunkirk from the west, were stopped on Hitler’s order southwest from Dunkirk on the heights Bethune-St. Omer.
Up to now, according to unanimous expressions of opinion of the generals who participated in the operation, there was no doubt whatsoever that this order which saved the British continental army and thereby made it possible for the British government to rebuild its army was issued on the initiative of Hitler and was carried out contrary to the advice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the Commander of the troops in the field. Latterly, no other than Winston Churchill has disputed this previously accepted account; in his war memoirs,* based on a war diary which had been kept by the staff of Field Marshal Rundstedt, he endeavors to prove that the one who saved the British army was not Hitler but Rundstedt. In order to build up his armored forces which had been weakened in the campaign and in order to prepare them for the impending second offensive against France, the latter had obtained the concurrence of Hitler in the order to halt. In view of the tremendous importance which the survival of the British continental army had for the United Kingdom in the further prosecution of the war, the author had endeavored to clear up this matter.
According to the report, which the then Chief of Staff of Army Group A (Rundstedt), General von Sodenstern, made available to the author, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army issued definite orders on 23 May to reduce the enveloped area at Dunkirk by attacking from the line Valenciennes-Arras and to turn the armored forces to the eastward over the line Bethune-St. Omer-Calais against the line Armentieres-Ypres-Ostend. On the following day, the forenoon of the 24th, Hitler visited Rundstedt in his headquarters and discussed with him his intentions to halt the armored divisions and to restore their full combat readiness by giving them a rest period. In this discussion, “It cannot be gainsaid that Rundstedt agreed with the advisability of conserving the armored forces but with the reservation that the attack of Army Group Bock† should break through quickly to Dunkirk.” In the afternoon aerial reconnaissance observed, what had not previously been noted, movements of the enemy to the northward and northeastward within the encirclement. Rundstedt at once drew deductions therefrom and ordered the readiness of the armored forces to attack on 25 May. The execution of this order was hindered by the strict counter-order of Hitler. General von Sondenstern termed this account as absolutely reliable.
According to a war diary entry of General Jodi, Hitler had returned from Rundstedt’s headquarters in a happy frame of mind by reason of his “complete agreement” with Rundstedt.
Relative to the war diary referred to by Churchill, the former First General Staff Officer of Army Group A, now General Blumentritt, expressed the opinion that this war diary was kept by the younger General Staff Officers who were unfamiliar with what went on behind the scenes and whose work was not carefully controlled in those days of active operations.
If one seeks the reasons which led Hitler to make this decision so fateful for Germany, then it would appear that these are to be found primarily in the political sphere. When Hitler in the evening of 24 May, following his conference with Rundstedt, gave the positive order to Army Group A to halt the armored forces, contrary to the concept of Commander-in-Chief Army, he gave as his reason that he did not wish to throw in the precious armored divisions in the wet marshy terrain of Flanders, which moreover could be flooded by the enemy by opening the locks to the sea, but instead he wished to give them a rest period. Since the terrain offered no insurmountable difficulties and since the armored forces had suffered inconsiderable losses in the previous operations, the order was incomprehensible to the army leaders; they remonstrated against it. Moreover, Air Fleet 3, whose employment was hampered in no wise by terrain or other military considerations, had received orders from Hitler to check its attacks against Dunkirk; and 8 days before this order was issued Hitler visited Rundstedt’s headquarters in Charleville and on this occasion he spoke to a very select group, giving a lengthy exposition of his stand relative to the United Kingdom. He hoped “to make peace with England in six weeks”; the British Empire is necessary and a blessing for the world, he will give it every assistance which it will need in the fight against Bolshevism; he did not consider the German colonies as being really important but rather a matter of prestige only.
Hitler’s one and a half hour discourse on England was an unforgettable experience for those who attended. When Hitler had left the headquarters, Rundstedt remarked to the officers of his staff: “If he does not want anything more of England, then we will in fact have peace in six weeks!” Was it surprising that, when 8 days later right in the middle of a rapidly advancing attack on Dunkirk Hitler’s order to halt was received, the staff of the Army Group suspected higher political considerations, rather than the military reasons given, and created the impression that Hitler wished “to build golden bridges” for the British. This explains also why Rundstedt did not see fit to raise strong objections to Hitler’s order which was incomprehensible from a military point of view; his expressed desire to conserve the armored forces also added some weight to his acceptance of this course.
When all is said and done, the order which led to the miracle of Dunkirk emanated on the initiative of Hitler, but Rundstedt accepted it without excessive qualms and signed the order to his troops. This “miracle” made possible the return to England of about 335,000 of her best troops; it served as the nucleus for the armies which were formed and a few months later stood ready in defense against a German invasion of England. The fact that they were permitted to escape to their island home is further evidence that the German leaders at that time were not contemplating an invasion of England.
On the same day when the spearhead of the German Army reached the Channel coast, 20 May, the Commander-in-Chief, Navy, addressed Adolf Hitler for the first time upon the question of an invasion of England. Up to that time not even the Navy had made any material preparations therefor. Moreover, they would have been impossible without very considerable dislocation of the entire German war organization. For this major operation it would have been necessary to withdraw for the Channel-crossing the requisite, extraordinarily large shipping space from the German economy as well as to re-orient strategically and tactically the entire naval organization.
Upon the basis of the studies of his special staff, Grand Admiral Raeder had arrived at the opinion that the execution of the operation would be very difficult but, if certain conditions were met, possible. When he addressed Hitler in this vein, the latter gave no evidence of supporting the proposition lie- cause he showed full comprehension of the great difficulties connected with the operation. Consequently, not even the Armed Forces High Command carried out any preliminary planning at this time.
On 20 June, after the collapse of French resistance, the Commander-in-Chief, Navy, again addressed Hitler on the subject. He emphasized in this connection that air supremacy was an unconditional prerequisite for the success of the operation.
It is important to point out that Grand Admiral Raeder did not confer with Hitler on these two occasions in order to propose or promote the invasion. He did so principally to bring the whole issue into the open in order to forestall a hasty decision on the part of Hitler, so that the Navy which was bound to carry the burden of the necessary preparations would not be confronted with an impossible task.
Not even on 20 June was the subject discussed at Fuehrer headquarters as to whether preparations for the invasion should be made. Moreover the Army General Staff had not at this date begun planning for the operation since it was considered impossible of execution.
However, during the latter part of June there developed a change of opinion in the Armed Forces High Command which led to a positive attitude concerning the planning for the invasion.
On 2 July—rather late considering the season—the first directive was issued by main headquarters for Operation “Sea Lion” (Seeloewe), the code name which was to identify the operation in the subsequent period. Therein it was stated: “The Fuehrer has decided that an invasion of England may be decided upon under given conditions of which the most important is considered the gaining of air supremacy. The date of the landing will be decided later. The preparations should point up to the earliest possible date. For the time being, however, only theoretical preparations are contemplated for a possible development.”
As a basis for planning, the Armed Forces Staff laid down the strength of the invasion force as 25 to 40 divisions. The Navy High Command was to designate the operational area and the required facilities in order to accomplish the troop and supply transportation with adequate security. The desirability of effecting the crossing of the Channel on as broad a front as possible was pointed out so that the Army would have a favorable disposition subsequent to landing. The Air Force was asked for an opinion as to whether and when it could attain decisive air superiority, and how it might support the invasion with air-borne troops.
For the artillery support of the operation from the mainland—fire support for the transports and protection for the flanks of the invasion front—the Armed Forces High Command required the installation of powerful batteries in the Calais-Cape Griz Nez-Boulogne area. The Naval Staff itself doubted whether heavy batteries could substantially support a landing, considering the few major-caliber guns available and the long range involved.
On the basis of this directive the Naval Staff sought advice from the Army and Air Force on 9 July as to their operational intentions so that it might be guided in formulating its own plans. At the same time it emphasized that the operation must be considered essentially a transport task. It held that the area of the English Channel between 1°30'E and 1°30'W was the most suitable for the crossing. This area embraced the English southeast coast from the Isle of Wight to North Foreland.
On 11 July, Grand Admiral Raeder advised Hitler that in his opinion the invasion must be considered a last resort if necessary to induce Great Britain to make peace. He discussed the great difficulties and risks attendant to the preparation and execution of the operation and voiced his conviction that Great Britain could be brought to her knees by cutting oh her overseas supply and by conducting a strong aerial assault on the centers of England’s economy without the necessity of invasion. At this conference Hitler also termed the invasion a last resort, for which air supremacy was a prerequisite.
Under these circumstances the Naval Staff was surprised when only a few days later, on 15 July, it was informed by long distance telephone message from the Armed Forces Staff that Hitler would require the preparations to be expedited so that the invasion could be slated subsequent to 15 August. The directive of the Armed Forces High Command which followed this message next day revealed the decision of Hitler to prepare for a surprise crossing and landing on a broad front between about Ramsgate and the area to westward of the Isle of Wight. This directive required that all preparations be completed by mid-August. This terminal date was set because the Army High Command considered that the execution of the operation could not be delayed beyond mid-September since the fogs which could be expected after October were considered a serious handicap to the success of the undertaking.
On 17 July, at a conference of the Commanders-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, Grand Admiral Raeder received the impression that the General Staff, which had strenuously rejected any inclination toward planning for an invasion only a short time ago, now had completely reversed itself and, without appreciation for the great difficulties connected therewith, held the operation as relatively easy. Consequently, he impressed on Field Marshal von Brauchitsch that the undertaking was so dangerous that the possibility of the loss of the whole invasion army must be taken into consideration, similar to the action against Norway where the fate of the whole German fleet hung in the balance.
In the address to the High Command of the Armed Forces on 21 July, we may see how Adolf Hitler himself viewed the operation. He contended that the war had already been decided even though Great Britain did not realize it, or perhaps the British felt that they had some prospect of reversing the wheel of fortune either through support from the United States or through a change of the political relationship to the Soviet Union. An early termination of the war was desirable even though there was no urgent necessity therefor. The execution of “Sea Lion” was considered to be the most effective means to this end.
Hitler termed the invasion of England extraordinarily bold and daring: “Even though the distance is short, we are not concerned with a river crossing but with a passage across a sea controlled by the enemy. This does not consist merely of a single troop transport operation such as Norway. We cannot expect to gain tactical surprise—a prepared and utterly determined foe opposes us and dominates the waters to be crossed. It requires the employment of 40 army divisions; the continuous supply of material and provisions will be the most difficult. We may expect to find no supplies of any kind in England. Prerequisites are complete air supremacy, the employment of powerful batteries on the Strait of Dover, and the protection of mine barrages. The time of year has an important bearing since bad weather may be expected in the North Sea and Channel the latterpart of September, and fogs set in beginning mid-October. Consequently the main operation must be completed by 16 September; later the support of the air arm and the heavy batteries will be uncertain. Since the cooperation of the Air Force is of decisive importance, it must be given greatest consideration in fixing the date.”
In conclusion Hitler expressed the opinion that, if preparations could not he completed with certainty by beginning of September, other plans should be considered.
The fear which Grand Admiral Raeder had voiced in his conferences with Hitler, that the Navy might be confronted with an impossible task due to the protracted nature of the preparations required, had now with the directive of 16 July become reality. Notwithstanding, the Navy went ahead with its plans with extraordinary drive and great organizational ability. To be sure, it was impossible to expedite the preparations to such an extent that they could be completed by 15 August. The entire requisite shipping space—personnel and cargo transports, barges, tugs, fishing steamers, motor boats, even fishing cutters were taken for want of a sufficient number of motor vessels —had to be requistioned in coastal ports and inland waters; they had to be fitted out for the purpose, then sent to the French-Belgian Channel coast and assembled in the ports of embarkation. The latter which had fortunately suffered only small damage had to be prepared for the loading; the waters which were to be used in the crossing had to be swept for mines; mine barrages had to be laid out to cover the waters which the invasion fleet would use; the entire vast amphibious force, inclusive of covering forces, had to be organized and trained in every particular.
On 30 July, the Naval Staff informed the Armed Forces High Command that the naval preparations could not be completed prior to 15 September—the date determined by Hitler and the Army High Command when the main operation should be concluded on account of the bad weather to be expected in fall. Moreover, the Naval Staff required the attainment of German air supremacy in the Channel area even during the preparation period to meet this terminal date.
Meanwhile, the Naval Staff had received the requirements of the Army for the invasion. In brief, these were:—
(1) A total of 13 divisions of about 260,000 men with heavy equipment and antiaircraft batteries are to be transported. According to the General Staff, this number represented the absolute minimum which must on no account be reduced by lack of transport. It constituted a sharp reduction from the 40 divisions which Hitler on 21 July termed necessary.
(2) In the first wave 100,000 men had to be landed, the remainder to follow within 2-3 days.
(3) For operational reasons the landing must be effected on a broad front from Ramsgate to Lyme Bay, as nearly as possible simultaneously, and for tactical reasons at dawn.
Within the Naval Staff the Operations Division stated its position relative to the above in a comprehensive memorandum. This is summarized below.
(1) For nautical reasons, relative to the state of the tide, the time two hours before high water is best for the landing. For military reasons—requirement of the Army High Command—the landing should lake place at dawn. The crossing of the Channel and the approach to the coast must therefore be effected in the main during darkness, wherefor, considering the mass of slow, unwieldy transport craft, a certain degree of light (half-moon) is requisite. The time when all three of these conditions are met is limited to a few days each month. Moreover a landing on a hostile shore is possible only in a sea not over force 2.
(2) The first suitable period after the completion of all preparations is at the end of September—a time when we cannot expect favorable weather for very long.
(3) Even though we should have good weather for the crossing of the first wave and it should succeed, we cannot count on subsequent waves arriving on schedule due to the lapse of time between them.
(4) Full consideration must be given the decisive interference of the enemy fleet and other naval defenses. Considering the extent of the invasion waters we cannot effectively hinder its break-through into the transport area despite flanking mine barrages and air supremacy on account of the weakness of our own naval forces.
(5) In view of the number of available transports, there will be a minimum interval of 48 hours between the first and second waves. The second wave can be landed in its entirety after 8-10 days at earliest.
(6) By reason of the considerations detailed in this memorandum the Operations Division comes to the conclusion that the execution of the operation is inadvisable during this year. It advocates, however, the continuance of preparations for the event that unrestricted air warfare together with naval measures prove inadequate to make the enemy treat for peace on the terms laid down by the Fuehrer.
British naval supremacy was considered particularly dangerous to the success of the operation. It was certain that the British fleet would risk all, even to throwing in its battleships, in order to ward off this German thrust against the heart of the Empire. For the success of the operation, everything therefore depended on how completely the German Air Force should gain air supremacy and to what degree it could hinder the attack of the British fleet.
After careful consideration of all known factors, D-day was prospectively set for 21 September. This was already beyond the terminal date which the Supreme Command had set for the end of the main operation in view of the bad weather to be expected. The “optimum” date for the crossing, that is the day on which all requisite conditions combined most favorably, was 24 September. When the final decision was made a ten day period was to be allowed for consummation of all preparations. The “order” for the operation must therefore go out 10 days prior to D-day.
Soon after the commencement of the planning work, the first serious differences of opinion developed between the General Staff and the Naval Staff. The former, which was primarily concerned with exploiting possibilities of successful operations subsequent to debarkation, demanded landings on a very broad front. At the narrowest point of the Channel, at Dover, where the crossing could be accomplished in the least time and where, from a naval point of view, it was easiest to secure the passage, the coastal terrain was particularly unfavorable for a break-through; wet marshy terrain made the employment of armor difficult and the high ground to the northward gave the British excellent defensive positions which commanded the lowlands. The Army General Staff considered that success could be assured only in a combination of breakthrough and a large-scale envelopment movement to encircle London which was considered the center of the English defense. Consequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, demanded landings on a front bounded in the east by the line Ostend-North Foreland and in the west by the line Cherbourg-Lyme Bay.
On the other hand the Naval Staff considered it impossible to safeguard transport movements across such a large expanse of sea. Also, according to its calculations, the available transport tonnage was inadequate for a crossing on such a broad front, since the distances across the sea in the western half were too great and, in consequence, each passage consumed too much time of the transports. It was not merely a case of making one crossing with the invasion fleet, but the first wave had to be followed in rapid succession by the second and third waves, and thereafter a constant stream of supplies had to be poured in. The Naval Staff therefore informed the General Staff that the Navy could assume the responsibility of its part of the operation only if the crossing was effected on a narrow front, within the connecting lines Ostend-North Foreland and Etaples- Beachy Head.
On 31 July, the Commander-in-Chief, Navy, conferred with Adolf Hitler on the front question. The latter reserved his decision; it appeared desirable to await the initial results of the stepped-up air offensive against England, the commencement of which was scheduled for the next few days. The task assignment of the Air Force in this connection was to sweep the British Air Force from the skies with strong pursuit formations. Preparations therefor had been begun in mid-July but the Air Force required a few more days to complete them. Then with due regard to weather conditions Reich Marshal Goering would fix a date for setting it in motion.
By directive No. 17, issued on 2 August, Fuehrer headquarters ordered the stepped-up naval and air offensive against England. At this time the Luftwaffe had at its disposal over 2669 first-line aircraft, of which there were 1015 fighters, 346 dive bombers (Stukas), 933 pursuit and 375 long-range fighters. The Navy had 55 U-boats ready for action with an additional 75 reporting within the next six months; 26 U-boats had been lost since the beginning of the war.
The first oral discussion of the front question took place on 7 August in the train on the run from Fontainebleau (the main headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Army) to Paris between the Chief of the Army General Staff, General Haider, and the Chief of Staff, Naval Staff, Admiral Schniewind. The respective service concepts thereby came out in sharp antithesis. General Haider dropped this caustic remark: “If he should land his troops only at Dover, then he might as well put them right through the sausage grinder . . . !”
To be sure, the Chief of the General Staff announced his willingness to forego the planned crossing from Cherbourg to Lyme Hay (west of Isle of Wight) but required that strong army forces—four divisions— cross as far west as the line Le Havre- Brighton and land simultaneously with the landing at Dover and that a further bridgehead be established at the same time at Deal in order to capture the heights north of Dover with a Hank attack. Furthermore, he required that at least ten divisions be transported to the front, Ramsgate-Brighton, within four days. Only under these conditions would it be possible to attain the first objective of the operation, that is, the line, mouth of the Thames-Southampton.
The Chief of Staff, Naval Staff, declared it was impossible to meet these demands. Relative to the duration of the crossing he declared that the Naval Staff required at (east six to seven days to land the first and second waves, each consisting of six divisions. The General Staff termed this inacceptable since it would allow the enemy sufficient time to build up his defense. Both parties persisted in their opinions, and each fully recognized the justification of the opposite point of view despite the great difference in the demands. Agreement was not obtained; the one positive result of these discussions was that the General Staff renounced its intention of landing at Lyme Bay. The Naval Staff considered it was impossible to achieve tactical surprise upon which the General Staff laid great value; it was considered that knowledge of an imminent landing could not be concealed from the enemy.
As another argument against a landing on a broad front, the Naval Staff also emphasized in these discussions the great difference in tide between the western landing area and Dover. When it was high water at Dover, the ebb tide had started several hours earlier in the western part of the coast and the height of the water had decreased 1 ½ to 2 meters. In consequence, should it be necessary to land simultaneously on a broad front, the requirement “2 hours before high water” could be met only at one place. On the other hand, if this requirement was of primary importance, then it would be necessary to abandon the idea of simultaneous landings.
There were also differences of opinion between the Army and the Air Force. The Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force wished to land paratroopers and air-borne troops only after the bridgehead had been established, while the Army General Staff considered it necessary to employ paratroopers in the establishment of the beachhead but considered the employment of airborne troops improper in view of the anticipated high defensive readiness of the British.
From the beginning Reich Marshal Goering had taken little part in the planning for the invasion; he hoped that his own arm which had just proven its extraordinary effectiveness in the French campaign would be successful in making Britain sue for peace and, in consequence, would make an invasion superfluous. This attitude of Goering’s will be clearly indicated later when the objectives for the all-out air war against England are set forth.
On 10 August, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch handed a memorandum to the High Command of the Armed Forces substantiating his opinions. The Chief of the Armed Forces Command Staff, General Jodi, was in agreement therewith; he hoped that the Air Force could successfully hold in check the British naval and air forces for the duration of the crossing in the Channel.
If the Navy was not in a position to meet the demands of the Army, then “Sea Lion” was an act of desperation for which there was no justifiable reason, considering the military situation. Influenced by the great differences of opinion between the Army and the Navy Jodi apparently thought less and less of “Sea Lion” and considered instead other possibilities of reaching a decision with the British Empire. Some of these were a close cooperation of the German armed forces with Italy and Spain for the complete control of the Mediterranean, in which the capture of Egypt and Gibraltar were of primary importance.
The conferences which ensued in (he next few days in the Fuehrer headquarters led to no agreement between the two Commanders- in-Chief. Thereupon, the Armed Forces High Command attempted to effect a compromise by which the main crossing would be on a narrow front while at the same time two forces of four to five thousand men each should be landed on the Hanks, at Brighton by means of motor boat squadrons and at Deal-Kamsgate by landing paratroopers. The Navy agreed but not the Army, which demanded in addition the transport of four divisions assembled at Le Havre in about seventy steamers to the vicinity of Brighton. The Naval Staff deemed this impossible of accomplishment, but finally agreed in part to the Army demands. It stated it was prepared to transport larger parts of these divisions on steamers following the motor boat formations to Brighton and the remainder should join up with the primary crossing of the landing flotillas in the vicinity of Dover. When the Army High Command declared that it could not agree to this proposal of the Naval Staff, Adolf Hitler decided that the Army must be governed by what is possible regarding available shipping space and security of crossing and disembarkation. Therewith a compromise solution was effected which was not entirely satisfactory to either party; it embodied numerous dangers and augured small hope for success of the undertaking. Now that the decision of the Fuehrer had clarified the broad or narrow front question, it became possible to choose the landing beaches on the enemy coast. The controlling factors herein were the characteristics of the coast and the operational possibilities which these offered the Army Command in the hinterland after the landing. Four coastal strips were designated: “B”1 west of Folkestone to Dungeness, “C” Dungeness to Cliff’s End, “D” Bexhill to Beachy Head, “E” Brighton to Selsey Bill. The General Staff submitted a study to the Armed Forces High Command in which it developed the terrain considerations and an estimate of the enemy situation based on information which it had received from England. It considered the landing on the left flank at Brighton as the most favorable from a military point of view; the terrain there permitted the employment of motorized forces. It hoped to make a flanking attack from this area.
In order to divide the defense forces of the enemy, the Naval Staff planned a diversion in the upper North Sea which would lead (he enemy to believe that a landing was planned in Scotland. Also it hoped to draw off hostile naval forces by operations of the cruiser Hipper and the battleship Scheer in the Iceland-Faroes region or in the northern Atlantic.
The requisitioning, equipment and assemblage of the ship tonnage required for the invasion was the most extensive and time-consuming of all the material preparations. In mid-July the Naval Staff had figured the total tonnage requirement as 155 transports (700,000 tons), 1722 barges, 471 sea-going tugs and 1160 motor boats. Despite the unfavorable weather conditions of late summer 1940 and despite the interruptions and losses due to enemy action, the Naval Staff was able to assemble by mid- September the required transport fleet in full and ready for service.
On 27 August, even though the front question had been settled, no decision could be obtained as to whether the operation was to be carried out because the results of the intensified aerial warfare had not yet been determined.
Meanwhile the air war had commenced on 15 August after various circumstances such as unfavorable weather had prevented an earlier beginning. The first operations were directed against Portland and Weymouth on 11 August, as well as convoys on the east and south coasts of England, with bomber and dive bomber formations and strong fighter and pursuit cover. On the night of 11-12 August, attacks were launched against Bristol, Cardiff and Middlesborough and on the 12th as well as during the night 12-13 August, there were operations against Portsmouth, Ramsgate, Middlesborough, Newcastle, and Shields. On these two days our own losses were 53 planes while we estimated the British losses at 176 planes.
The main attacks of Air Fleets 2 and 3, which were to begin on 13 August, appeared to be ill-starred as the first days showed little promise. Contrary to the good weather which could be expected at that time of the year, one low pressure area followed another; during the next two weeks the weather was stormy and rainy and the operations of the Air Force were limited generally to single attacks of minor formations. It was particularly difficult to have fighter protection so that the attacks of the bombers often had to be made without it. The enemy fighter defense, which was hindered less by the unfavorable weather due to its local employment over own territory, was strong; the losses on the German side were high. In an attack on 18 August, which was made without fighter protection, our own Air Force lost 147 planes against an observed enemy loss of only 49. Weather conditions would not permit major attacks on Liverpool, Birkenhead and Birmingham until the last days of August. It was not apparent how these attacks fitted into the picture for “Sea Lion.”
Despite the combat difficulties occasioned by the weather, the Air Force did not consider the situation as unfavorable at the end of August. It considered that the results achieved were high and it was convinced that the enemy Air Force had been hard hit. Since 8 August, enemy losses were reckoned at 1115 planes against 467 of our own. The effect of the attacks on the English ground organization and the aircraft industry was thought to be considerable, but enemy shipping had scarcely been touched according to the German estimate. With favorable weather the Air Force hoped to step up its attacks on production centers and port installations in September and expected decisive results.
Meanwhile the British had launched several attacks on the capital of Germany which called forth the retaliatory attacks on London.
The favorable weather of early September was utilized primarily for day and night attacks on the air fields around London. British fighter defense was less strong than in the previous week. The retaliatory attacks on London began on 6 September. The dock installations in the heart of the city were bombed on the nights of 6 and 7 September; the first major attack on the east and west parts of the city took place on the afternoon of the 7th. Great air battles took place over London on 15 September. Without adequate fighter protection German losses were SO planes while the losses of the enemy were estimated at 70. Further heavy battles with enemy fighters occurred on the following days.
Besides continuing the bomber attacks, it therefore became necessary to again give primary consideration to combatting the enemy fighter defense which appeared to have been reinforced. Overestimating as it did its own successes, and which moreover were rendered plausible by news from abroad, the morale of the Air Force was good and confident. Between 6 and 19 September, 5187 tons high explosive bombs and 6907 incendiary bombs were dropped on London.
In addition to continuing air operations against the capital of Germany, the British increased the attacks on the Channel ports in which preparations for the invasion were recognized. The German Air Force was not able to ward off these attacks. The losses occasioned by this bombing were not inconsiderable; three fast motor boats were lost in Ostend due to bombing, and in an attack of 13 September 80 transport barges were sunk. Also the preparatory measures that had to be taken at sea, such as the mine sweeping and mine laying, the assemblage of transport craft at the ports of embarkation, were repeatedly and materially interrupted by the enemy Air Force. It speaks well for the organizational work of the Navy that after every loss it could report that it was able to cover such loss in tonnage with the reserve shipping prepared therefor and that it would not affect the readiness of the Navy.
At this point, it should be recalled that all persons in high command of “Sea Lion” rightly emphasized again and again that the certain supremacy of the air over the Channel area and over southern England was a fundamental requirement for the success of the operation. Prior to the commencement of the operation the Air Force had to protect the transports and the invasion troops at the ports of embarkation as well as the preparatory tactical measures in the Channel area. During the crossing it had to hold off the hostile naval and air forces from the transports, and in the critical hours of the initial landing it had to give the Army far-reaching support in hammering the enemy defenses. It had to destroy the enemy depots and lines of communication in order to prevent the bringing up of reserves, and finally in the further course of the operation, it had to facilitate the advance of the Army into the interior. The Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force was thus confronted with the problem of what must and what could be done to master these manifold tasks which presented themselves in part during the preparatory period and in the operation itself.
One would have expected that these considerations would be the controlling factors in setting the objectives for the intensified air war. This was however by no means the case. The reasons for the attitude of Reich Marshal Goering, who showed no great interest in “Sea Lion” from the start, have been previously indicated. In fact, the Air Force did not point its operations toward the planned invasion but gave priority to the “absolute” air war against England. Therewith, the Air Force went its own way oblivious to cooperation in plans for the invasion. It is particularly significant that this led to an alteration of the fundamentals of the German conduct of war against Britain. Doubts concerning “Sea Lion” increased from day to day while hope in the crushing power of the Air Force based on an overestimation of its effectiveness grew. Even the Naval Staff was so influenced. While it complained in the beginning of the improper operational objectives of the Air Force and demanded of the Armed Forces High Command that air operations must conform with the plans for “Sea Lion,” it gradually inclined toward the view that England might be made to sue for peace by means of the all-out air war and thereby the German armed forces could be spared the great risks connected with the “Sea Lion” operation. Even the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy voiced this thought in a conference with Adolf Hitler. In consequence the Naval Staff desisted from further complaints of the objectives of the Air Force and adopted a wait- and-see attitude relative to the absolute air war. The attainment of the requisite air supremacy for the execution of “Sea Lion” was now of less consequence than the waging of absolute air war with such crushing effect as to render the “Sea Lion” operation superfluous. The danger that possibly neither the one nor the other objective would be obtained was accepted or not considered sufficiently.
Meanwhile the 11th of September arrived. If as projected, the 21st of September was to be the first day of the operation, then the preparatory order for the execution must be given this day by Fuehrer headquarters. Hitler considered that the Air Force had not yet met the requirements and therefore postponed the decision to 14 September. Therewith the crossing could take place on 24 September, the “optimum day.” On 13 September, Hitler spoke in a very confident tone of the results achieved by the air war and said that under these conditions he would not think of running the risks of “Sea Lion.” In agreement with the estimate of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, he was of the opinion that this operation should only be undertaken after the Air Force had weakened materially the English defense. Considering the compromise solution of the broad and narrow front question, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch also adopted the point of view that the operation had prospect of success only against an opponent whose defenses had already been materially reduced. In the event that its execution should be ordered, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army on the basis of present plans hoped to land in England 10 divisions by D+6 day and 16 divisions by D+18.
On 14 September, Adolf Hitler directed that there should be no letup in the preparations. However, no decision concerning the execution was made either on the 14th or 17th of September. The considerable increase of tonnage losses now made it necessary to scatter the shipping and stop the further assemblage of the transport fleet. As a result the Army and Navy declared that they now required an extension from the ten day preparatory period to two or three weeks. Hitler did not agree to this at the time. However, the ball was set rolling with the approved dispersion of the transports; the path of renunciation was paved. At the end of September the Commander-in-Chief, Navy, suggested to Adolf Hitler that in view of the advanced dime of the year, the operation should be entirely called off at the latest on 15 October or else postponed to the spring of 1941. This move of the Navy was then followed by another one on the part of the Army, in which it was pointed out that with retention of the ten day preparatory period it was not possible to achieve dispersion adequate to meet the air threat. Thereupon on 15 October, Hitler ordered a far-reaching reduction in the preparations, but at the same time directed that the threat of impending invasion should continue by means of extensive deceptive measures.
Thus for all practical purposes, operation “Sea Lion” was shelved with the order of 15 October. The fact that the Air Force had not been able to achieve the requisite air supremacy in the Channel area rendered it easier for Hitler to make this decision. Moreover, the absolute air war did not appear markedly nearer its objective. In the latter part of September the operations of the Air Force again suffered due to unfavorable weather. Nevertheless, the attacks on London were continued in full force despite heavy losses; to be sure, they were mostly carried on during the night on account of the strong enemy fighter defense. In the month of September a total of 7321 tons of explosives were dropped on England, of which 6224 tons were dropped on Greater London, against a British bombing effort of only 390 tons on all Germany. According to English accounts the losses of its population stood at 8500 killed and 13,000 wounded at the end of September. In mid-September, the British Air Minister announced the loss of the Royal Air Force as 621 planes. In the period of 1 August to 1 October, the strength of the German Air Force decreased to 2177 planes, a loss of almost 500 planes, despite the new construction during this period—a proof of the heroic fighting and effectiveness of the British defenses. Those who followed the course of weather conditions in August and September of the year of 1940 will remember that there has rarely been a late summer which had such unfavorable weather as was the case this year. The Air Force was the branch of the German armed forces which was most seriously affected thereby in its operations—at a time when a decision between Britain and Germany hung on a hair, and the former was confronted with the greatest crisis of the war.
The abandonment of the invasion of England which had not been announced in so many words, on 15 October, 1940, but nevertheless became an actuality on that day, had a sequel in the spring of 1943.
At a table conversation in Fuehrer headquarters, which revolved around the current war situation and its prospects, Adolf Hitler expressed his keen regret “That I let the Navy talk me out of ‘Sea Lion’ in the fall of 1940.”
It would be misleading and not true to historical fact, should one endeavor to formulate such a simple answer to the question why “Sea Lion” was not attempted. If one should say that it was called off because the Air Force was unable to gain the requisite air supremacy, one would come nearer the historical truth, but still it would not tell the whole story. The reasons are deeper.
The Commander-in-Chief, Navy, whose estimate of this amphibious operation carried particular weight, became convinced that the invasion could be carried out given certain conditions, but that it would be attended with the greatest risks. His judgment was founded on the planning work of his special staff for “Sea Lion” which exposed the extraordinary difficulties and dangers of this operation, the deeper it went into the matter. The two poles around which his thoughts circled were air supremacy and “last resort.” Duty bound, he voiced his doubts to the Supreme Command. On one occasion when he conferred with Hitler, he made no bones about it, that a failure of the operation might mean the total loss of all naval and army units engaged.
Like Hitler, the Commander-in-Chief, Army, had at first termed the operation as impossible, but later, as the time for the invasion drew near, had rather quickly changed his opinion without understanding the difficulties involved from a naval point of view. When these became apparent to him, partially at least, in the discussion of the broad and narrow front question, his original doubts again came to the fore.
The Commander-in-Chief, Air, had taken little part in the discussion concerning invasion plans. His objective lay in another direction. Very early in the game he was convinced that the operation would not come off.
Adolf Hitler, who had to make the decision as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, must, have concluded from his conferences with the Commander-in- Chief, Navy, that the Grand Admiral was fundamentally opposed to the undertaking even though he approved of it under certain conditions. Later when the true picture had blurred in Hitler’s memory, this no doubt influenced his interpretation which he voiced as above indicated in the spring of 1943. Whether he himself was heart and soul in favor of it from the beginning is a moot question. After he had twice said “No” to the Grand Admiral in May and June, he swiftly changed his position. However, the strange and peculiar nature of the operation admonished him to be cautious. Together with all his advisors, he judged the military situation as favorable; hopes for decisive results in the continuation of the submarine and air war were high just at this time. He saw no reason to utilize a last resort measure with its great risks, which if it miscarried must result in a serious defeat and considerable loss of prestige.
Amongst the conditions which were set forth for the execution of the operation, one was missing which was not voiced and in view of the comparative naval strength of Germany and Britain could not be voiced, and yet in all deliberations it could be read between the lines. It was the one condition on which Napoleon’s plans for invasion foundered in 1805 and the one which under the circumstances could not be mastered in 1940, namely sea power. It was believed that the sea power which we lacked could be replaced with air power, or to put it in another way, to hold in check the enemy sea power by our air supremacy. This did not prove possible for this operation. As a matter of fact, even if the invasion army had been lucky enough to be landed in some semblance of tactical formation and with reasonable losses, then the main difficulty would only have begun, that is, the continuous supply of the landed troops as against an opponent who must day by day become stronger, nourished as he was from his own land. It could not be assumed that the enemy naval forces which were superior, determined, and prepared for great sacrifices could be held off by the mine fields and by the Air Force which was so dependent upon the weather, and that an interruption of the service of supply by the attack of hostile naval forces could be avoided for any length of time.
When the time arrived and the final decision was to be made, not one of the responsible persons was inclined to take a clear-cut stand against the operation, despite appreciation of the grave doubts. Yet all felt relieved when, failing to gain air supremacy, they had a valid reason which justified calling off the operation.
* Excerpt from “Their Finest Hour” in Daily Telegraph London of 11 February, 1949.
† Army Group B, which was closing in on the Dunkirk encirclement from the eastward.
1. Landing area “A” which embraced the coast from Dover to Ramsgate had previously been dropped and was no longer considered at this time.