The study of the second world war often leads to the proclamation of so-called turning points, that is, specific points in time where action or inaction changed the course of the war entirely. There are many of these, such as the failure to capture Leningrad, the diversion of Army Group South to assist Mussolini’s misguided ventures in Greece and Yugoslavia, or even the entirety of Operation Barbarossa (the code name given to the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941).
The issue with such comparisons is that they provide a simplistic view of what did or didn’t shape the course of the war, without actually analysing what happened and why.
Operation Sea Lion is a great example of one such event that is often over simplified. Historians generally refer to this as an aborted plan, an idea that was simply shelved. The reality is, however, that Operation Sea Lion – Germany’s plan to invade the United Kingdom – was not just set to be an isolated event, but in fact it encapsulates a number of events both before a decision was made and after the plan was aborted.
The beginnings of Operation Sea Lion lay on the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940, when over 300,000 British and French troops were evacuated from Northern France. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been sent to France in late 1939 upon the outbreak of war, to assist in combat against Germany, yet saw no meaningful action until spring 1940 when the Wehrmacht moved into France. At this point, there was absolutely no plan whatsoever on behalf of the Germans to invade or occupy the United Kingdom. In fact, even as the Panzer divisions rolled into Northern France, Germany was sending out frequent peace feelers to London in an attempt to broker a separate peace with the British.
However, it was this Anglophilia on behalf of the German High Command and Hitler in particular that caused the first great mistake of what was to become Operation Sea Lion. Hitler never wanted a war with the British Empire for a number of reasons, not least because of the resources such combat would require, and the sense of blood brotherhood felt towards his fellow Saxons. This led to a number of very uncharacteristic actions by the German High Command, with one such incident being the order to halt the advancement of the Wehrmacht in Northern France, despite the fact that they had three French army divisions and practically the entire BEF encircled on a small stretch of coast.
This halt, ordered with Hitler’s expressed approval, gave the allied forces the time they required to get the maximum number of men evacuated from Dunkirk. The Wehrmacht instead wasted their energies for over 10 days on what remained of the French First Army, who stayed behind to delay the German advance. Despite the fact that 7 German Divisions, including 3 Armoured Divisions, were available to launch an assault on Dunkirk, they remained behind to toy with this French delaying force under orders from on high. This enabled the bulk of the British Army to escape unscathed, which later strengthened the allies’ position to repel any invasion of the British mainland.
Had the Luftwaffe stepped up their bombardment of the evacuation vessels, or had the Wehrmacht divisions closed in on Dunkirk, they could have handed far greater casualties to the British Army or taken hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Such an action would have neutered the bulk of the allied forces in Europe, making the defence of the British mainland considerably more difficult. The decision not to go down this route would later come back to haunt the Germans and is one of the causes for Operation Sea Lion having to be aborted.
The next failing on the part of the Germans was their defeat in the Battle of Britain. The Battle of Britain was an airborne engagement considered by British historians to have lasted between June and August 1940, whilst German historians tend to incorporate the Blitz (Luftwaffe bombing of towns and cities) as part of the battle which lasted until May 1940. Very early on in this period – mid-July 1940 – Hitler ordered the German High Command to make preparations for Operation Sea Lion, which was to be an airborne and amphibian assault on the British mainland with the eventual outcome being her invasion and occupation.
As any military commander knew at the time, the most crucial objective to achieve before a ground invasion of a nation can occur, particularly an island, is air superiority. That is, the Luftwaffe needed to control the skies over Britain and the surrounding area, the English Channel in particular. It was their failure to achieve this which was the primary cause of Operation Sea Lion being aborted, for they could not secure the air superiority required to take on the Royal Navy in a head-to-head battle, or provide their own vessels with the necessary cover in the air to facilitate an amphibian invasion.
But it wasn’t just that they failed in their objective. The issue was that within this general objective, different authorities within the German command structure had their own differing priorities and objectives. For example, Adolf Hitler initially vetoed the bombing of British cities, which was only overturned much later in the Battle of Britain after the RAF had launched assaults on civilian areas of Western Germany – by this point, the opportunity to invade Britain had long passed. Alternatively, Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, preferred attacks on the industrial heartlands of major cities, as opposed to southern coastal ports which would be required in any invasion.
Alternatively, Gen. Albert Kesselring preferred not to bother with the channel or the British mainland at all. Kesselring believed the best course of action was to occupy Gibraltar, in order to give the Germans control of shipping that passed through the Mediterranean Sea. Such a plan was proposed under the code name of Operation Felix, but relied upon the cooperation of General Franco who remained neutral, despite the fact that it was the Luftwaffe and the German High Command who’s military might installed him in power of Spain in the first place. However, the point being that the different commanders and leaders of the German military machine had differing objectives, and different methods on how to meet the overall objective of gaining air superiority.
It was this, coupled with the the Luftwaffe’s general inability to adapt to constantly changing situations that resulted in their defeat, or rather, their failure to win the Battle of Britain. The RAF fought a sort of aerial guerrilla war, using ‘smash and grab’ methods to disrupt Luftwaffe formations as much as possible, which was really their only hope given the Germans’ much greater numbers, both in terms of pilots and aircraft. It was this new type of aerial combat that the Germans found particularly difficult to deal with, especially given their confusion around objectives and how to carry them out.
Another avenue that was explored by the German High Command was the invasion and occupation of the Isle of White, a small island 4 miles off the coast of Hampshire, Southern England. Had this island been occupied, the Luftwaffe would have had civilian airfields from which to launch assaults on the British mainland without the concern over the range of some of their lighter bombers. In a book released a few years ago, military historian Dr Robert Forczyk claimed that Adolf Hitler himself had detailed plans to invade the island and use it as a strategic base from which to carry out Operation Sea Lion, but his generals talked him out of it. Had this plan gone ahead, the likelihood is that the outcome of the war could have been very different indeed.
There were of course other factors that determined the Battle of Britain and the eventual abortion of Operation Sea Lion. For instance, British bomber command had utilised radar systems much more effectively than the Germans had, despite the latter having much better technology. The Germans’ failure to create an effective system of communication between radar control and the commanders and pilots on the ground and in the air meant that they were always on the back foot in the information and intelligence war. Also, it must be said that the men of RAF bomber command fought bravely, many knowing that they were heading for near certain death whenever they undertook a raid or a defensive mission. At one point of the Battle of Britain, the life expectancy of an air force pilot was just 3 weeks, but despite this they did their duty with the utmost valour and determination.
But it goes without saying that Operation Sea Lion was aborted due to a literary of tactical failings on the part of the German High Command. Much of this came from the level of autonomy different commanders had over their areas of interest, whereas they would have been more effective had they been working to the objectives of only Reichsmarschall Goering, or the sole plans of Adolf Hitler himself. Alas, they did not, and so they lost the Battle of Britain, Operation Sea Lion was sunk before it got off the ground, and that was the last time the Germans ever had the opportunity to win the Second World War. One wonders how things would have turned out, had these failures not materialised.