26 August 2006
Never in the field of human was nothing owed by so many?
Revisionism and controversy reared their head here in the UK during the week following the publication of an article titled “Pie in the Sky?” in the current edition of History Today. I decided to hold off from talking about this article until I had the opportunity to read it.
So what is this about? Three military historians who lecture at Joint Services Command and Staff College have concluded that the view that Fighter Command was the only thing keeping Britain from invasion in 1940 is an overblown myth. Credit for keeping Hitler at bay should have gone to the navy.
Andrew Gordon, head of maritime history at the college, said: "It really is time to put away this enduring myth. To claim that Germany failed to invade in 1940 because of what was done by phenomenally brave and skilled young men of Fighter Command is hogwash. The Germans stayed away because while the Royal Navy existed they had not a hope in hell of capturing these islands. The navy had ships in sufficient numbers to have overwhelmed any invasion fleet."
Not everybody agrees with this position: Bill Bond, founder of the Battle of Britain Historical Society, said: "There's always somebody trying to rewrite this historical period. Without air cover the Luftwaffe bombers would have smashed all the ports. The dive bombers would have just blasted navy ships out of the water. Unopposed, the Luftwaffe could have done what it liked. To suggest that the Battle of Britain is a myth is nonsense."
The article dos not denigrate the RAF or the role played by the pilots during the Battle of Britain or their bravery. What it tries to do is to put their role into context. – If Operation Sealion was a serious prospect (and that is a big “if”) then the invasion fleet (mainly tugs towing river barges) would have had to contend with Royal Navy and that, as General Jodl said, would have been “to send my troops into a mincing machine”
But what about the Kriegsmarine? minefields ? Surely with air superiority the Luftwaffe would have bombed the Navy to the bottom of the English Channel? All of these would have extracted a toll; this is true but consider this:
1. The Royal Navy had a very large Home Fleet, despite its global commitments. While U boats would have sunk more than a few vessels, the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet in the latter part of 1940 was pitiful and was incapable of protecting an invasion fleet: all of its capital ships were indisposed while half of its destroyer force was sunk at Narvik a few months earlier.
2. The use of minefields would have slowed up the Navy’s advance but the Kriegsmarine’s minelyaing capability was limited to a handful of vessels. The Luftwaffe would have taken on this function too, but would it have been enough to stem the Navy? Very unlikely in my view.
3. The Luftwaffe was a powerful force and would have done a lot of damage to Naval vessels but without armour piercing ordnance and little experience of anti shipping action the damage would not have been enormous.
The article also rightly points out the role of Bomber Command. Even though it had very limited strike capability at that point in the war, Bomber Command did serious damage to the invasion fleet through its raids on channel ports in occupied France and Belgium.
Perhaps the article does underplay the role of Fighter Command. Its victory in the Battle of Britain ensured the Luftwaffe never obtained air superiority over southern Britain and that gave the German High Command (which had deep reservations over Operation Sealion in the first place) an “exit”. As important in my view is the fact that the Battle of Britain finally brought the people full behind the War. Before the Battle of Britain (and certainly following the fall of France) there were many who would have sought a settlement with Germany. These voices were largely silenced in the Summer of 1940.