In the summer of 1940, the Nazi war machine was at its zenith. France, Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries were all under occupation.Only Britain stood in the way of the complete triumph, and Hitler planned a two-pronged offensive―a blistering aerial bombardment followed by a land invasion―to subdue his final enemy. But for the first time in the war, Hitler did not prevail. As Leo McKinstry details in this fascinating new history, the British were far more ruthless and proficient than is usually recognized. The brilliance of the RAF in the Battle of Britain was not an exception but part of a pattern of magnificent organization that thwarted Hitler’s armies at every turn. Using a wealth of archival and primary source materials, Leo McKinstry provides a groundbreaking new assessment of the six fateful months in mid-1940 when Operation Sea Lion was all that stood between the Nazis and total victory.
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Leo McKinstry writes regularly for the Daily Mail, Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. Born in Belfast, he was educated at Cambridge.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Also by Leo McKinstry
Fit to Govern? (1996)
Turning the Tide (1997)
Boycs: The True Story (2000)
Jack and Bobby: A Story of Brothers in Conflict (2002)
Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil (2005)
Sir Alf: England’s Greatest Manager (2006)
Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend (2007)
Lancaster: The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber (2009)
Hurricane: Victor of the Battle of Britain (2010)
Jack Hobbs: England’s Greatest Cricketer (2011)
This book is dedicated to the fond memory of
Katharine Kinney (1959–2013)
adventurer and heroine
‘He is coming!’
THE ATMOSPHERE INSIDE the Berlin Sportpalast was electric that early September afternoon in 1940. The arena was packed to its 14,000 capacity. Amidst hysterical cheering, the Führer marched onto the stage, his impassive mien in graphic contrast to the frenzied enthusiasm that greeted his arrival. He started his speech in a low-key, almost conversational manner, with jibes at Winston Churchill and the British war effort. As his address continued, he grew more agitated, his passion whipping up the crowd to ever greater paroxysms of adoration. At one point he had to stop, so prolonged and delirious was the applause.
Warming to his theme of an escalation in the Reich’s aerial assault on Britain, he proclaimed, ‘When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground.’1 He went on: ‘The hour will come when one of us will break and it will not be Nationalist Socialist Germany,’ to which the crowd responded with ecstatic cries of ‘Never! Never!’2 Finally, he turned to the issue that was gripping the imagination of the British public: the imminent threat of invasion. With his compelling mix of menace and sarcasm, the Führer said, ‘In England, they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking, “Why doesn’t he come?” Be calm, be calm. He is coming! He is coming!’3
The Wehrmacht was certainly preparing with characteristic efficiency to invade Britain. As Hitler fulminated at the Berlin Sportpalast on 4 September, a huge build-up of German military forces was under way in north-western Europe, ready for the strike against England. Along the coasts of France, Holland and Belgium, the Kriegsmarine was gathering a mighty armada to transport the initial assault force of nine divisions across the Channel, which would be followed by heavy reinforcements once the bridgeheads were established. On the very day of Hitler’s speech, the shipping section of the German naval staff reported that no fewer than 1,910 barges, 419 tugs, and 1,600 motorboats had been requisitioned for the invasion fleet.4 The plans for the operation, code-named Sea Lion by the German High Command, were ambitious in their scale and thorough in their details. Thirteen hospital ships had been commandeered for the wounded; there would be seventy-two guard dogs to protect the snipers. In the same spirit, the army had developed 250 amphibious tanks, complete with snorkels and waterproofed cannon.
After the rapid conquest of France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway in 1940, the confidence of the German army could hardly have been higher. As Alexander Hoffer, a rifleman in a mountain regiment recalled, ‘The operation was going to be simple, a mopping up detail. The enemy was as good as defeated anyway, weak in numbers and morale. The English, so we were told, were a badly armed army which had been shattered at Dunkirk. The Tommies would be in no position to interfere seriously with our landing.’5
On the other side of the Channel, as reconnaissance and intelligence revealed the extent of the German invasion preparations, the British sensed that Hitler’s threats were all too real. The intensification of the air war was regarded as a prelude to a certain assault on England’s southern coast. According to a report from the headquarters of the army’s Home Forces, written the day after the Führer’s Sportpalast speech, ‘If Hitler thinks that he can achieve a fair measure of air superiority over the next few days, then a full scale invasion may be attempted on a wide front. The attack will be carried out ruthlessly with every means available.’6 The commanding officer of those Home Forces, General Alan Brooke, wrote in his private diary on 4 September, ‘Indications of an impending attack before 15 September are accumulating,’ while three days later he recorded, ‘all reports look like the invasion is getting nearer.’7 Churchill himself, who had been highly sceptical throughout the summer of claims that the Germans would invade, grew more convinced of the likelihood of attack, as he warned in one of his celebrated speeches. ‘No one should blind himself to the fact that a heavy, full-scale invasion of this island is being prepared with the usual German thoroughness and method and that it may be launched at any time now.’8
Yet Hitler never came. He ducked the challenge of conquest. His threats turned out to be bluster, his rhetoric hollow. All the preparations were in vain. The invasion fleet was gradually dispersed through the autumn of 1940; the troops returned to their German bases or were sent to forward positions on the eastern front. After the war it became fashionable, especially among surviving Reich commanders, to claim that Hitler never really intended to invade, that Operation Sea Lion was all a gigantic bluff to demoralise Britain. In one post-war interview, General Gerd von Rundstedt, who was to have led the German army across the Channel in 1940, dismissed the whole concept of invasion as a ‘game’ and described Sea Lion as ‘rubbish’,9 while the Luftwaffe commander Albert Kesselring wrote in 1957 that ‘Hitler was only half-heartedly tied to the idea of an invasion of England.’10
This argument is undermined by the reality of the Reich’s intensive planning for Sea Lion. Indeed, the Kriegsmarine’s assembly of the huge invasion fleet in a short timescale was not only a phenomenal feat of logistics but also a direct contradiction of the idea that the Germans were never serious about crossing the Channel. Moreover, Hitler knew that failing to conquer Britain carried the risk of a long war, with Germany potentially forced to fight on two fronts once he invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. In his more bullish moments, Hitler told his military chiefs that talk about breaking Britain quickly through an economic blockade or an assault on her empire in North Africa was mere wishful thinking. ‘A positive result can only be achieved by an attack on England,’ he said at the end of July 1940,11 an outlook that he still maintained in September. As Admiral Erich Raeder, the head of the Kriegsmarine in 1940, recorded: ‘A landing is, now as before, regarded by the Führer as the means by which, according to every prospect, an immediate crashing end can be made of the war.’12
Another common argument is that Hitler’s failure to invade can be explained, not by his lack of seriousness, but by the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain. According to this hypothesis, Britain owed its survival in the autumn of 1940 entirely to the heroic men of Fighter Command, who prevented the Luftwaffe gaining air superiority over the southern English coast and thereby made a Channel crossing too dangerous for the Germans. Bolstered by the grandeur of Churchill’s eloquence, the triumph of the Few has become central to Britain’s romantic wartime story. It is undoubtedly true that the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots played a vital role in thwarting the Reich’s invasion plans, for mastery of the air was regarded as an essential prerequisite of any assault on the beaches. Thanks to the RAF, that goal was never achieved. But this is far from the whole story. The emphasis on the fighter crews unfairly downplays the crucial importance of the wider British resistance to Hitler in 1940, which permeated the armed forces and the home front. The whole nation was galvanised for the fight. When Hitler abandoned his plans for invasion, it was a victory for the many, not the few.
Wartime legend has presented the heroics of the RAF as an exception to an otherwise desperate military performance by Britain in 1940. In this narrative, there is a chasm between the daring and efficiency of Fighter Command and the woeful inadequacy of most other parts of the British war effort. Defeat was inevitable if the RAF was overwhelmed, according to the traditional account, which portrays Britain as hopelessly ill equipped in the face of the Nazi war machine. It was a supposed weakness highlighted by the paralysis in the civil service, the chronic shortages of men and weaponry in the regular army, the lack of modern vessels in the navy and the country’s feeble home defences. The might of Hitler’s Reich, which had blitzed its way through Poland, Scandinavia and Western Europe, would hardly have been deterred by some hastily erected pillboxes, rolls of barbed wire and lightweight guns. The ultimate symbol of Britain’s alleged vulnerability in 1940 was the Home Guard, that makeshift force of volunteers whose very nickname, ‘Dad’s Army’, was so redolent of its antiquated nature in the savage new age of total war. Made famous for future generations by the television comedy series of the 1970s, the Home Guard appeared more likely to provoke laughter than fear in the invader. The image of Home Guardsmen, devoid of rifles or uniforms, performing their pointless drill routines with broomsticks and pitchforks, has long been held to characterise how badly prepared Britain was. This outlook is encapsulated in a remark made by a volunteer from Great Yarmouth when his unit was inspected in the summer of 1940 by a senior army officer, who asked: ‘What steps would you take if you saw the Hun come down in parachutes?’
‘Bloody long ones,’ came the reply.13
But the commonly held belief in Britain’s defencelessness in 1940 is hardly matched by the historical facts. The Few of Fighter Command were not an exception but part of a national pattern of resolute determination and thoroughness. In almost every aspect of the war effort in 1940, Britain was far better organised than the mythology suggests. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, guarding every part of the southern and eastern coastlines, represented a formidable obstacle to German ambitions. Between Sheerness and Harwich alone, the navy had thirty destroyers. RAF Bomber Command relentlessly pounded the invasion fleet, weakening the morale of the German forces. Similarly, the British army had gained enormously in strength and equipment since the fall of France. In September 1940, when the invasion threat was at its height, there were no fewer than 1,760,000 regular troops in service, many of them led by tough-minded figures like Alan Brooke, Claude Auchinleck and Bernard Montgomery. The same is true of the Home Guard, whose broomsticks had by then largely vanished. Most of the volunteers were armed with highly effective American rifles, which were superior, in some respects, to those used by the regular soldiers. Outside the military sphere, the British home front was just as impressive. Aircraft production was much higher than that in Germany, factory hours longer. Major operations, like the evacuation of children from areas at risk of attack, the removal of gold from the Bank of England vaults, or the transfer of national art treasures to remote shelters in Wales, were carried out with superb efficiency.
What is so striking about the British authorities at this time is their ruthlessness. Everything was geared towards the struggle against Germany. Sensitivities about civil liberties, personal privacy, international legal conventions and property rights were all ignored under pressure for survival. During his leadership of V Corps, in the front line of the army’s southern command, Montgomery set out his creed to his officers. ‘We had got to the stage where we must do as we like as regards upsetting private property. If a house was required as an HQ it must be taken. Any material required to improve the defences must be taken.’14
This ruthless attitude was applied far beyond the army. In the wake of Germany’s western offensive, Churchill’s government took unprecedented emergency powers over the life of the nation. The peacetime structure of democracy was swept aside. Mass internment of Germans, Austrians and Italians was introduced, the programme executed in such an uncompromising manner that many refugees from Nazism ended up in British camps. Home-grown political suspects were also detained without trial, while the government created a powerful security apparatus to root out the slightest signs of treachery or defeatism. Even more aggressively, Churchill’s War Cabinet planned to use poisonous gas and chemical weapons extensively against the invader, in defiance of the Geneva Convention. Large stockpiles of gas bombs were developed, and rigorous training was given to the RAF pilots who dropped them during low-level missions over the coast. As Churchill put it in May, ‘We should not hesitate to contaminate our beaches with gas if this would be to our advantage. We have the right to do what we like with our own territory.’15 Ruthlessness was backed up by the British gift for innovation, as displayed in the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code.
The saga of Britain’s resistance to invasion began with an act of cold resolution that became typical of Britain’s stubborn attitude throughout those fateful months.
‘Walking with destiny’
THE NORWAY CAMPAIGN seemed like a military disaster for the Allies, but without it Britain might have been conquered in 1940. The Germans’ triumph in the North had left the Kriegsmarine so badly damaged after its clashes with the Royal Navy in Scandinavian waters that its strength was drastically diminished for the remainder of the war. As a result, it could not hope to provide the naval protection required for a safe crossing of the Channel by invasion forces. More importantly, public fury in Britain over the ineptitude shown by the War Cabinet during the Norwegian campaign brought about the downfall of Neville Chamberlain’s government and the arrival in Downing Street of Winston Churchill, the only politician with the vision, drive and will to halt the advance of the Reich.
The German coup of seizing Denmark and invading Norway had been extremely risky, given that the Royal Navy was far stronger than the Kriegsmarine. During the Norwegian campaign, the Germans lost four cruisers, ten destroyers, three U-boats and one torpedo boat. The Royal Navy was also badly hit, losing the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, two cruisers, nine destroyers and six submarines. But the British Navy’s sheer size meant that these losses were sustainable; that was not the case with Kriegsmarine. As Admiral Raeder later admitted, ‘The losses the Kriegsmarine suffered in doing its part weighed heavily upon us for the rest of the war.’1 Immediately after Norway, the Germans had just 10 operational destroyers, compared to the Royal Navy’s 169.
Yet even the comparative success of the Royal Navy could not distract from the catastrophe of the military campaign. The limited Allied forces, which had landed under heavy attack from both the ground and the air, were forced to evacuate central...
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Book Description Overlook. 1 Cloth(s), 2014. hard. Book Condition: New. In this thrilling account of Hitler's first real defeat in World War II, the author of Spitfire and Hurricane considers six fateful months in 1940. France, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries were already under German occupation, while the invasion plan for Britain, Operation Sealion, was well underway. Most histories tell how the German conquest was only stopped by the pluck of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain; had they failed, the country had only a Dad's Army, training with broomsticks, to defend the home front. Leo McKinstry overturns this image, revealing the RAF to be one part of a highly organized, ruthless, and proficient British war machine—one that Hitler did not fail to appreciate when he cancelled Sealion."If we had lost the Battle of Britain, all that stood between us and a fascist future was the Home Guard. Leo McKinstry's engrossing, forensic review of the evidence challenges that idea and exposes some myths along the way. McKinstry's admirable book sets the record straight."—Daily Mail (London) 392. Bookseller Inventory # 73926
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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Only Britain stood in the way of the complete triumph, and Hitler planned a two-pronged offensive--a blistering aerial bombardment followed by a land invasion--to subdue his final enemy. But for the first time in the war, Hitler did not prevail. As Leo McKinstry details in this fascinating new history, the British were far more ruthless and proficient than is usually recognized. The brilliance of the RAF in the Battle of Britain was not an exception but part of a pattern of magnificent organization that thwarted Hitler s armies at every turn. Using a wealth of archival and primary source materials, Leo McKinstry provides a groundbreaking new assessment of the six fateful months in mid-1940 when Operation Sea Lion was all that stood between the Nazis and total victory. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9781468301496
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