River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Second World War Myths Part 1

August 2002

Narrowly avoiding German invasion

Recently James Dalrymple, journalist/historian, claimed that Hitler made "a blunder perhaps unequalled in history" by refusing "to order a seaborne invasion" of Britain in 1940. He is not alone in his view. Over the years since that time, numerous leading figures who should have known better, have said that Britain narrowly escaped being overrun by the Nazis following our defeat in France because Adolf Hitler, as though on some whim, turned his attention away from Britain towards the USSR and missed his opportunity.

It is true that our army was in total disarray after our retreat from Dunkirk. A very high proportion of our equipment had been lost, army lorries by the score had been abandoned along with tanks, field guns, mortars, heavy machine guns, radio equipment and even rifles, not to mention tons of ammunition. If the German army had managed to obtain a foothold on mainland Britain it is difficult to see how the British army could have stood against them. The truth is that the Germans themselves had been surprised by their own success. They were not prepared to mount a cross channel invasion. Of course they were keen to pursue their advantage and wanted to invade before we had had a chance to recover and re-arm. There was not time to construct purpose designed vessels to transport their troops across the Channel, so they set about converting and adapting existing boats, a task which they embarked on with some urgency.

The German high command realised, however, that ferrying a large army across twenty or more miles of open water was risking massive losses. They were concerned that the Royal Navy ships in home waters outnumbered and outgunned the German Navy by a factor of about four to one and they knew that unless they had complete air superiority the RAF and Royal Navy would have a field day attacking an invasion fleet of converted barges. They were fairly confident, however, that the Luftwaffe was capable of disabling the RAF and giving them that superiority so, in August 1940, whilst they got on with assembling their barges the Luftwaffe set about destroying the RAF as an effective force. They first attacked their airfields in southeast England, and this was the start of what was to become known as the Battle of Britain. It is worth mentioning, that whilst the RAF was engaged in this battle, they also managed some successful raids on the invasion barges that were being assembled in the ports across the channel which further hampered German plans.

The German bombers, Junkers 88's and Heinkel 111's mainly, were easy prey for the spitfires and hurricanes and were shot down in droves, but their fighter escorts were a different problem. The battle raged over a period of several weeks and both sides suffered heavy losses. At the worst time in the battle the RAF had every fighter they could muster engaged, with no reserves. The Germans were surprised at the ability of the British to sustain their losses and maintain such a strong defence and were dismayed at their own losses, which were significantly greater. British industry responded magnificently and, with the help of many newly recruited women, they began producing aircraft at a rate sufficient to start to build up the RAF strength whereas the Luftwaffe was being progressively weakened as German industry was slow to respond. They had not succeeded in achieving the air superiority they had hoped for. In fact they were beginning to realise that, over SE England and the Channel it was the RAF that was achieving superiority.

At that stage the German high command realised that their plan to invade Britain quickly was not viable and had to be abandoned. The Battle of Britain had effectively been won. The myth that Hitler missed his opportunity to follow up his success in France is completely false! He never had that opportunity. Had the Luftwaffe achieved air superiority it would have been a different story of course, and there is no doubt that that small number of brave young pilots helped to save us all from German domination, which was summed up by Winston Churchill's immortal words "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." The Royal Navy, waiting in the wings, was never even called upon to defend us from the invading fleet.

Once Hitler had abandoned thoughts of invading Britain he knew that there was no chance, at least for a very long time, of the British army crossing the channel to attack him from the west and so he turned his attention to the east and the USSR.

Associated with the myth of Hitler's missed opportunity is another myth which seems to be developing and that is that it was only the intervention of the USA, which saved us from defeat by the Germans. The truth is that the Americans were very reluctant to become involved; they did not rush to our aid when an invasion of Britain looked a possibility, and that despite the evidence that the Nazis were an evil and tyrannical regime. It was not until December 1941, over two years after the start of the war, and long after the Battle of Britain had been won, that the USA became directly involved, and only then as a consequence of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and even then it was the Germans that declared war on the USA rather than the other way round. Before the Americans could become effectively engaged in Europe the tide of the war was already beginning to turn. The Germans were in retreat in Russia and in North Africa, after the British and Commonwealth forces had inflicted a decisive defeat on the German army at El Alamein, and the RAF was inflicting major damage on Germany itself.

It was not until three years after the start of the war, that US land forces started to assist British ground forces and the US Air Force started to play a significant role in Europe, although it never did match the RAF in terms of destructive power.

It is true of course that, without American help, the liberation of France would have been very difficult, although once again historians and Hollywood are tending to down play the role of British and Commonwealth troops in this action, which was probably equal to that of the US. One has to admit, however, that it is possible that, without the Americans, the Russians would have arrived at the French coast before we could have mounted a successful invasion, although the progressive weakening of the Germans by the Russians might have made it possible sooner. It is also true, of course, that without the willingness of the USA to supply us with manufactured goods and raw materials from the outset, our situation would have been worse. The cost of these imports and the reluctance of the US to enter the conflict probably explains why the US was richer at the end of the war than they were in 1939 and why we were a good deal poorer.

Aron Watts

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