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Monday, September 09, 2019

The Amphibious Landing That Wasn't

I've been listening to James Holland's book The Battle of Britain for the last few weeks, and enjoying it very much. (Thanks to whoever recommended it -- sorry I can't remember who that was.)

I'm near the end, and thus hearing about the events taking place exactly 79 years ago, in early September 1940, as Hitler was making the decision whether or not to stage an amphibious invasion of Great Britain. One of the things that has really been striking me is that German planning at this point in the war involved the incredibly methodical Wehrmacht attempting to follow the directives of Hitler, who was a very improvisational leader.

As recently as the end of May, it had looked as if France and Britain could be knocked out of the war at the same time with the massive envelopment which trapped French and British armies in a pocket in Belgium and northern France, encircled by the Panzer force which had cut across the Ardennes. However, due to strife among German generals and Hitler meddling in command, the British were able to evacuate most of their army (and some of the French) from Dunkirk, albeit leaving most of their heavy weaponry behind. Even then, many prime ministers might have sought an accommodation, which Hitler apparently expected.  But Churchill was not many prime ministers, he was the leader who had been raring to fight Hitler for years. And so, in July 1940 Hitler ordered his high command to come up with a plan to make a massive amphibious and airborne attack against Britain in August or September. They not only planned the operation, code named Sea Lion, but pulled together over a thousand barges to transport troops and staged the invasion force in French port cities, ready to go at Hitler's command. The first wave of the invasion was to be approximately 125,000 men, only slightly smaller than the 150,000 men that the Allies would land in France almost four years later on D-Day.

The difference in planning was huge, however. The Allies spent a year planning the Operation Overlord landings, from 1943 to 1944. They developed landing boat technology specifically for the landings, built massive portable portable harbor facilities which could be towed into place and then used to land the supplies that would keep the beachhead fed and armed, and perpetrated a massive deception designed to fool the Germans into expecting the invasion to be in Calais rather than Normandy.

That accomplishing such a massive landing with so little preparation was such a gamble is perhaps proved by the fact that even Hitler, the ultimate military/political gambler, flinched at trying to pull it off. He allowed himself to believe that Britain could be bombed and starved into submission by the combination of the Luftwaffe and the u-boat wolf packs and instead turned to planning a land invasion of Russia, a massive land operation which was much more the style of operation the Germans were comfortable with than a huge seaborne invasion.

Still, it's fascinating to wonder what would have happened if Hitler had made the opposite decision. Making an amphibious attack across the English Channel on barges, against the opposition of the Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force which was not nearly as weakened as the Germans had convinced themselves, would have the potential for spectacular failure. Amphibious landings are hard even with meticulous planning and huge advantages. Hitler's claim that attacking across the channel would be no different from a river crossing on a broad front suggests a level of delusion comparable with his invasion of Russia the next summer. Had he gone forward, might the German Army (which contrary to popular belief was actually pretty worn down after fighting first Poland and then France) have failed in the cross-Channel attack and brought Hitler's string of victories to a sputtering end? It's a fascinating question. I'm not sure someone has done a clear-eyed alternate history about how things might have gone if the Germans had actually tried their hastily planned invasion, but it would be a great read if someone did.

3 comments:

robbbbbb said...

I have been a wargamer of going on forty years, now. We love alternate histories like this, though this is one spot where the existing literature (i.e. games) on the subject are woefully inadequate. You can find a dozen games about the Bulge without blinking an eye, but there are very few treatments of Sea Lion, much less good ones.

That said, I think you are correct that Sea Lion founders on its logistical problems, if not operationally from the beginning. The air assault on Crete in 1941 came within a hair's breadth of failure, and this was against an opposition that was far from its land bases, had difficulties with supply, and insufficient air cover. This did not apply along the Channel coast. The RAF had fought the Luftwaffe to a standstill during the Battle of Britain, and could be expected to throw everything at the Germans during a defense of the Home Islands.

Too, the Royal Navy home fleet would expect to join the fray, and the British would quickly establish absolute sea superiority. I would not expect that the Germans would be able to transfer men and supplies across the Channel freely.

I think that means that Sea Lion was doomed, which Hitler (rightly) recognized. Maybe, maybe if the Luftwaffe spent 1940 continuing to attack RAF bases instead of shifting to the terror bombing of the Blitz they may have been able to establish air superiority to enable an invasion in 1941. But there's still the persistent problem of the Royal Navy being able to interdict the German invasion force.

So, let's say that Hitler rolls the dice in '40 and orders Sea Lion to go ahead. I expect that the Germans gain a temporary foothold in Southern England which then comes crashing down due to massive counterattacks, an enraged citizenry, and logistical problems. The Germans lose a couple hundred thousand men and then what?

I think this defeat perversely extends the war and leads to a worse long term outcome for Britain. I think Hitler doesn't engage in his mad fantasy in the East in '41, and instead the war grinds on and the Germans consolidate their hold on the continent.

Much then hinges on what Stalin does. As his reaction to the '41 invasion shows, he didn't expect Hitler to turn on him. I think he's content to let the fascists and the democracies hammer away at each other until exhaustion, and then intervene much later on, on his own terms.

I think the war ends up going into '46 or '47, then, with near-catastrophic results on the western allies. Britain emerges from the war even poorer and more broken than she did in '45. The United States may not have been drawn into the European war, though the conflict with Japan may still have unfolded in the same way.

In this alternate history (and I'm really extending into the unknown here) I would expect that Japan and the US might yet engage in a conflict with Japan decisively defeated even earlier than the historical timeline. The US would then be a latecomer to the European war. In this case, I would expect the first atomic bomb to fall on Berlin instead of Hiroshima.

And this is where we split into so many different timelines that I can't even begin to guess the final results. It would be, in any event, extraordinarily ugly.

I think we may be lucky that Hitler didn't invade Britain, and that the war unfolded in the bloody, ugly way that it did.

Darwin said...

Rob,

That's an interesting scenario. I was taking it the other direction, thinking that if Hitler failed in attacking Britain, it would create a political crisis in Germany where the Wehrmacht generals might depose Hitler and then seek an armistice with France and Britain.

In many ways, Hitler's survival up until 1941 seems to have been based on repeatedly winning when everyone predicted he would lose. The German army was not nearly as invincible as its propaganda backers (and a too easily intimidated West) made it out to be, and it was only through the extreme incompetence of the Allies that the Germans managed to beat them so lopsidedly in the Battle of France. If the Germans had proceeded to lose badly in an invasion of Britain it might have created a breather in which the rest of Germany might have attempted to get out of the war gracefully. (Whether Churchill would have settled for terms with a post-Hitler Germany is another question.)

Once they invaded Russia, Germany clearly had the tiger by the tail was so they knew they had to hold on until the last. You don't get to start a race war of extermination against Russia and then back down gently.

robbbbbb said...

You're absolutely right that much depends on Hitler's fate. It is well-accepted among historians that if the western powers had stood up to Hitler in the remilitarization of the Rhineland in '36 that the generals would have toppled and replaced him. But by 1940 his position was much more secure, and by '41 it was almost unassailable.

We're left with a two-pronged scenario, then: (1) Hitler is deposed by the generals. What do they do? (2) Hitler survives the failed invasion, but certainly not unscathed.

In scenario 1 I think you're right that the generals would be anxious to conclude an armistice and back down. The question is: Under what terms would Churchill do so?

By this point the Germans had begun to loot the local economies of Poland, France, and the Low Countries, but they had not really begun in earnest in the west. Those were materials that were desperately needed to float the German economy. (If you have not read it, Adam Tooze's excellent [i]The Wages of Destruction[/i] details the economic rationale behind Germany's actions in this period. It articulates how the Germans looted foreign economies to prop up their own.)

Additionally, Churchill couldn't very well get out of a war nominally begun for Polish independence without actually securing Polish independence (or, at least, not this soon after the war begun.) And I don't think the Germans would have given up their occupations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria without serious damage. They had paid blood for them, and wanted to continue their occupation.

I don't think there's a zone of possible agreement there. Churchill would have insisted on withdrawal from France, the Low Countries, Denmark, and Norway, at the very least, and possibly made claims on Poland and Czechoslovakia. I doubt the Germans would have been prepared to give up that much.

In that case, I think the war continues as a continual air battle, and in the Mediterranean, for quite some time. I see no reason to believe that it becomes anything but a stalemate, and the generals, having taken power, would not be anxious to start a second war with the Soviet Union while still engaged in the West.

The second case is, possibly, more interesting. If Hitler survives a coup attempt, or one of his senior subordinates keeps the Nazi party in power, then I don't see a scenario where Churchill would conclude an armistice under any terms. Churchill might have been willing to deal with the generals after they deposed the nominal villains. While still talking to the chief man himself? No way.

However, a failure in Sea Lion would diminish Hitler's status as a military genius. In that case, I think the case for Barbarossa becomes much more difficult. There, I think it becomes very difficult to predict which way the scenario unfolds. An attempted armistice is possible. However, it's also possible that Hitler continues on unchecked after purging anyone suspected of disloyalty.