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The Battle of Britain: The Land Perspective

Commentary, 20 October 2006
History, Land Forces, Europe

Operation Sealion and the Battle of Britain: A Land Perspective

Gary Sheffield

 

Professor Gary Sheffield holds the Chair of War Studies at the University of Birmingham. He was formerly Professor of Modern History at King’s College London, and Land Warfare Historian on the Higher Command and Staff Course, Joint Services Command and Staff College, Defence Academy of the UK.

 

The significance of Fighter Command’s victory in the Battle of Britain is difficult to overstate. It gave Hitler a strategic defeat at a time when his forces appeared to be unstoppable; was a huge morale booster; and gave tangible evidence to the USA that Britain was not going to capitulate without a tremendous fight. Fighter Command also prevented a situation on which Britain was reliant on the Royal Navy to defeat an invasion force. I find the idea that, if the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain, the RN could have destroyed the German invasion barges persuasive. However, the cost to the Royal Navy could have been high. The loss of numbers of British destroyers and other craft would have had serious implications for the prosecution of the Battle of the Atlantic and the campaigns in the Mediterranean, which was shortly to become the main focus of British activity. By winning the Battle of Britain, the RAF ensured that the Navy did not have to run the risk of losing more ships in a major, even if successful, operation and therefore increased the chances of a subsequent successful land campaign in the Middle East.

In my view, therefore, the dispute about whether is the RAF or the RN deserves credit for the victory in 1940 is a false one. I concur with Correlli Barnett’s view that both services were of vital importance, and to both therefore ‘belongs the honour of turning the course of the Second World War’.[1] The Royal Navy’s was a ‘silent victory’, but that of Fighter Command a physical one.

Thanks to the other two services, the Army was not called upon to defend England’s beaches, fields and cities in 1940. How it would have performed if it had been called upon to do so is a matter of conjecture. Immediately after Dunkirk it was undeniably in a poor state, but things had improved by September. There was no prospect of the Army defeating a sizeable invasion force on its own, but it is conceivable that, as in the 1974 Kriegspiel, in September 1940 it could have done enough to delay its advance. This would have helped to buy time for the arrival of the RN to cut the German SLOCS. In this role as a ‘speed bump’ the regular Army would have been assisted by the Home Guard. We must discard the ‘Dad’s Army’ image of this force. The mean age of the Home Guard in 1940 was around 35 years old, and about perhaps 35-50% of the total force were veterans of the First World War (estimates vary). Others also had experience of military service, including, famously, George Orwell, who had served in the Spanish Civil War. Not all Home Guards were armed with kitchen knives tied to broom handles. By September 1940 half a million rifles had arrived from North America, although there was a shortage of ammunition.[2]  While clearly not the equivalent of first rate combat infantry, in a local defence cum guerrilla role it is likely that the Home Guard would have had some effect, albeit at the cost of heavy casualties.

There is evidence, however, that Churchill and senior military commanders did not think that it would ever come to this. On 10 August the CIGS, General Sir John Dill, sent the Prime Minister a list of the reinforcements that he had selected to send to the Middle East. These included a regiment each of light, cruiser and infantry tanks; 48 2-pdr anti tank guns; 48 25-pdr field guns; 500 Bren Guns; and 50,000 anti-tank mines. The reinforcements sailed in a convoy on 22 August.[3] This decision was, of course, approved by Churchill. At just this time British intelligence sources, including Enigma decrypts, in the words of the official historian, ‘at last confirmed that Germany was indeed making preparations for an invasion’. [4]To decide to send an armoured brigade and such quantities of equipment out of the UK at this point suggests either a reckless gamble with the nation’s security, or an extremely high level of confidence that the Germans could not invade, or such an attempt would be defeated by the RAF and the Royal Navy. The major debate surrounding the decision was not whether to send the forces in the first place, but the route that the convoy was to take: the faster but more dangerous route through the Mediterranean, or the slower passage around the Cape. In mid-August 1940 Churchill and Dill were looking beyond the threat of invasion of the UK, to what they saw as the real challenge to Britain’s strategic position: the imminent Italian attack on Egypt. Churchill described Egypt as the ‘decisive point’. ‘Pray do not forget’, Churchill lectured Anthony Eden, ‘that the loss of Alexandria means the end of British sea power in the Eastern Mediterranean, with all its consequences’.[5] While the possibility of invasion was not discounted, it seems that the British decision making elite operated on the conviction that air and naval forces could defeat Operation Sea Lion. Therefore an important land formation could be spared to defend Egypt, which in September 1940 appeared to be more vulnerable than England.

 

 

NOTES

[1] Correlli Barnett, ‘Both Services played heroic role in the Battle of Britain’, The Daily Telegraph, 25 Aug. 2006, p.28.

[2] S.P. Mackenzie, The Home Guard: A Military and Political History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) pp.37-38, 44-45.

[3] I.S.O. Playfair et al, The Mediterranean and Middle East vol. I London: HMSO, 1954) pp 190-1.

[4] F.H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War, (abridged edition, London, HMSO, 1993) p.41

[5] Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill vol. VI, Finest Hour 1939-41 (London: Heinemann, 1983) p.731.

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