Military history

22. OPERATION SEA LION: THE THWARTED INVASION OF BRITAIN

“THE FINAL GERMAN VICTORY over England is now only a question of time,” General Jodl, Chief of Operations at OKW, wrote on June 30, 1940. “Enemy offensive operations on a large scale are no longer possible.”

Hitler’s favorite strategist was in a confident and complacent mood. France had capitulated the week before, leaving Britain alone and apparently helpless. On June 15 Hitler had informed the generals that he wanted the Army partially demobilized—from 160 to 120 divisions. “The assumption behind this,” Halder noted in his diary that day, “is that the task of the Army is fulfilled. The Air Force and Navy will be given the mission of carrying on alone the war against England.”

In truth, the Army showed little interest in it. Nor was the Fuehrer himself much concerned. On June 17 Colonel Walter Warlimont, Jodl’s deputy, informed the Navy that “with regard to the landing in Britain, the Fuehrer … has not up to now expressed such an intention … Therefore, even at this time, no preparatory work of any kind [has] been carried out in OKW.”1 Four days later, on June 21, at the very moment Hitler was entering the armistice car at Compiègne to humble the French, the Navy was informed that the “Army General Staff is not concerning itself with the question of England. Considers execution impossible. Does not know how operation is to be conducted from southern area … General Staff rejects the operation.”2

None of the gifted planners in any of the three German armed services knew how Britain was to be invaded, though it was the Navy, not unnaturally, which had first given the matter some thought. As far back as November 15, 1939, when Hitler was trying vainly to buck up his generals to launch an attack in the West, Raeder instructed the Naval War Staff to examine “the possibility of invading England, a possibility arising if certain conditions are fulfilled by the further course of the war.”3 It was the first time in history that any German military staff had been asked even to consider such an action. It seems likely that Raeder took this step largely because he wanted to anticipate any sudden aberration of his unpredictable Leader. There is no record that Hitler was consulted or knew anything about it. The furthest his thoughts went at this time was to get airfields and naval bases in Holland, Belgium and France for the tightening of the blockade against the British Isles.

By December 1939, the Army and Luftwaffe high commands were also giving some thought to the problem of invading Britain. Rather nebulous ideas of the three services were exchanged, but they did not get very far. In January 1940, the Navy and Air Force rejected an Army plan as unrealistic. To the Navy it did not take into account British naval power; to the Luftwaffe it underestimated the R.A.F. “In conclusion,” remarked the Luftwaffe General Staff in a communication to OKH, “a combined operation with a landing in England as its object must be rejected.”4 Later, as we shall see, Goering and his aides were to take a quite contrary view.

The first mention in the German records that Hitler was even facing the possibility of invading Britain was on May 21, the day after the armored forces drove through to the sea at Abbeville. Raeder discussed “in private” with the Fuehrer “the possibility of a later landing in England.” The source of this information is Admiral Raeder,5 whose Navy was not sharing in the glory of the astounding victories of the Army and Air Force in the West and who, understandably, was seeking means of bringing his service back into the picture. But Hitler’s thoughts were on the battle of encirclement to the north and on the Somme front then forming to the south. He did not trouble his generals with matters beyond these two immediate tasks.

The naval officers, however, with little else to do, continued to study the problem of invasion, and by May 27 Rear Admiral Kurt Fricke, Chief of the Naval War Staff Operations Division, came up with a fresh plan entitled Studie England. Preliminary work was also begun on rounding up shipping and developing landing craft, the latter of which the Germany Navy was entirely bereft. In this connection Dr. Gottfried Feder, the economic crank who had helped Hitler draft the party program in the early Munich days and who was now a State Secretary in the Ministry of Economics, where his crackpot ideas were given short shrift, produced plans for what he called a “war crocodile.” This was a sort of self-propelled barge made of concrete which could carry a company of two hundred men with full equipment or several tanks or pieces of artillery, roll up on any beach and provide cover for the disembarking troops and vehicles. It was taken quite seriously by the Naval Command and even by Halder, who mentioned it in his diary, and was discussed at length by Hitler and Raeder on June 20. But nothing came of it in the end.

To the admirals nothing seemed to be coming of an invasion of the British Isles as June approached its end. Following his appearance at Compiègne on June 21, Hitler went off with some old cronies to do the sights of Paris briefly* and then to visit the battlefields, not of this war but of the first war, where he had served as a dispatch runner. With him was his tough top sergeant of those days, Max Amann, now a millionaire Nazi publisher. The future course of the war—specifically, how to continue the fight against Britain—seemed the least of his concerns, or perhaps it was merely that he believed that this little matter was already settled, since the British would now come to “reason” and make peace.

Hitler did not return to his new headquarters, Tannenberg, west of Freudenstadt in the Black Forest, until the twenty-ninth of June. The next day, coming down to earth, he mulled over Jodl’s paper on what to do next. It was entitled “The Continuation of the War against England.”6 Though Jodl was second only to Keitel at OKW in his fanatical belief in the Fuehrer’s genius, he was, when left alone, usually a prudent strategist. But now he shared the general view at Supreme Headquarters that the war was won and almost over. If Britain didn’t realize it, a little more force would have to be supplied to remind her. For the “siege” of England, his memorandum proposed three steps: intensification of the German air and sea war against British shipping, storage depots, factories and the R.A.F.; “terror attacks against the centers of population”; “a landing of troops with the objective of occupying England.”

Jodl recognized that “the fight against the British Air Force must have top priority.” But, on the whole, he thought this as well as other aspects of the assault could be carried out with little trouble.

Together with propaganda and periodic terror attacks, announced as reprisals, this increasing weakening of the basis of food supply will paralyze and finally break the will of the people to resist, and thereby force its government to capitulate.

   As for a landing, it could

only be contemplated after Germany has gained control of the air. A landing, therefore, should not have as its objective the military conquest of England, a task that could be left to the Air Force and Navy. Its aim should rather be to administer the deathblow [Todesstoss] to an England already economically paralyzed and no longer capable of fighting in the air, if this is still necessary.

However, thought Jodl, all this might not be necessary.

Since England can no longer fight for victory, but only for the preservation of its possessions and its world prestige she should, according to all predictions. be inclined to make peace when she learns that she can still get it now at relatively little cost.

This was what Hitler thought too and he immediately set to work on his peace speech for the Reichstag. In the meantime, as we have seen, he ordered (July 2) some preliminary planning for a landing and on July 16, when no word of “reason” had come from London, issued Directive No. 16 for Sea Lion. At last, after more than six weeks of hesitation, it was decided to invade Britain, “if necessary.” This, as Hitler and his generals belatedly began to realize, would have to be a major military operation, not without its risks and depending for success on whether the Luftwaffe and the Navy could prepare the way for the troops against a far superior British Navy and a by no means negligible enemy Air Force.

Was Sea Lion a serious plan? And was it seriously intended that it should be carried out?

To this day many have doubted it and they have been reinforced in their opinions by the chorus from the German generals after the war. Rundstedt, who was in command of the invasion, told Allied investigators in 1945:

The proposed invasion of England was nonsense, because adequate ships were not available … We looked upon the whole thing as a sort of game because it was obvious that no invasion was possible when our Navy was not in a position to cover a crossing of the Channel or carry reinforcements. Nor was the German Air Force capable of taking on these functions if the Navy failed … I was always very skeptical about the whole affair … I have a feeling that the Fuehrer never really wanted to invade England. He never had sufficient courage … He definitely hoped that the English would make peace …7

Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief of operations, expressed similar views to Liddell Hart after the war, claiming that “among ourselves we talked of it [Sea Lion] as a bluff.”8

I myself spent a few days at the middle of August on the Channel, snooping about from Antwerp to Boulogne in search of the invasion army. On August 15, at Calais and at Cap Gris-Nez, we saw swarms of German bombers and fighters heading over the Channel toward England on what turned out to be the first massive air assault. And while it was evident that the Luftwaffe was going all out, the lack of shipping and especially of invasion barges in the ports and in the canals and rivers behind them left me with the impression that the Germans were bluffing. They simply did not have the means, so far as I could see, of getting their troops across the Channel.

But one reporter can see very little of a war and we know now that the Germans did not begin to assemble the invasion fleet until September 1. As for the generals, anyone who read their interrogations or listened to them on cross-examination at the Nuremberg trials learned to take their postwar testimony with more than a grain of salt. * The trickiness of man’s memory is always considerable and the German generals were no exception to this rule. Also they had many axes to grind, one of the foremost being to discredit Hitler’s military leadership. Indeed, their principal theme, expounded at dreary length in their memoirs and in their interrogations and trial testimony, was that if they had been left to make the decisions Hitler never would have led the Third Reich to defeat.

Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for posterity and the truth, the mountainous secret German military files leave no doubt that Hitler’s plan to invade Britain in the early fall of 1940 was deadly serious and that, though given to many hesitations, the Nazi dictator seriously intended to carry it out if there were any reasonable chance of success. Its ultimate fate was settled not by any lack of determination or effort but by the fortunes of war, which now, for the first time, began to turn against him.

   On July 17, the day after Directive No. 16 was issued to prepare the invasion and two days before the Fuehrer’s “peace” speech in the Reichstag, the Army High Command (OKH) allocated the forces for Sea Lion and ordered thirteen picked divisions to the jumping-off places on the Channel coast for the first wave of the invasion. On the same day the Army Command completed its detailed plan for a landing on a broad front on the south coast of England.

The main thrust here, as in the Battle of France, would be carried out by Field Marshal von Rundstedt (as he would be titled on July 19) as commander of Army Group A. Six infantry divisions of General Ernst Busch’s Sixteenth Army were to embark from the Pas de Calais and hit the beaches between Ramsgate and Bexhill. Four divisions of General Adolf Strauss’s Ninth Army would cross the Channel from the area of Le Havre and land between Brighton and the Isle of Wight. Farther to the west three divisions of Field Marshal von Reichenau’s Sixth Army (from Field Marshal von Bock’s Army Group B), taking off from the Cherbourg peninsula, would be put ashore in Lyme Bay, between Weymouth and Lyme Regis. Altogether 90,000 men would form the first wave; by the third day the High Command planned on putting ashore a total of 260,000 men. Airborne forces would help out after being dropped at Lyme Bay and other areas. An armored force of no less than six panzer divisions, reinforced by three motorized divisions, would follow in the second wave and in a few days it was planned to have ashore a total of thirty-nine divisions plus two airborne divisions.

Their task was as follows. After the bridgeheads had been secured, the divisions of Army Group A in the southeast would push forward to the first objective, a line running between Gravesend and Southampton. Reichenau’s Sixth Army would advance north to Bristol, cutting off Devon and Cornwall. The second objective would be a line between Maldon on the east coast north of the Thames estuary to the Severn River, blocking off Wales. “Heavy battles with strong British forces” were expected to develop at about the time the Germans reached their first objective. But they would be quickly won, London surrounded, and the drive northward resumed.9 Brauchitsch told Raeder on July 17 that the whole operation would be finished in a month and would be relatively easy.*10

But Raeder and the Naval High Command were skeptical. An operation of such size on such a broad front—it stretched over two hundred miles from Ramsgate to Lyme Bay—was simply beyond the means of the German Navy to convoy and protect. Raeder so informed OKW two days later and brought it up again on July 21 when Hitler summoned him, Brauchitsch and General Hans Jeschonnek (Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff) to a meeting in Berlin. The Fuehrer was still confused about “what is going on in England.” He appreciated the Navy’s difficulties but stressed the importance of ending the war as soon as possible. For the invasion forty divisions would be necessary, he said, and the “main operation” would have to be completed by September 15. On the whole the warlord was in an optimistic mood despite Churchill’s refusal at that very moment to heed his peace appeal.

England’s situation is hopeless [Halder noted Hitler as saying]. The war has been won by us. A reversal of the prospects of success is impossible.11

But the Navy, faced with the appalling task of transporting a large army across the choppy Channel in the face of a vastly stronger British Navy and of an enemy Air Force that seemed still rather active, was not so sure. On July 29 the Naval War Staff drew up a memorandum advising“against undertaking the operation this year” and proposing that “it be considered in May 1941 or thereafter.”12

Hitler, however, insisted on considering it on July 31, 1940, when he again summoned his military chiefs, this time to his villa on the Obersalzberg. Besides Raeder, Keitel and Jodl were there from OKW and Brauchitsch and Halder from the Army High Command. The Grand Admiral, as he now was, did most of the talking. He was not in a very hopeful mood.

September 15, he said, would be the earliest date for Sea Lion to begin, and then only if there were no “unforeseen circumstances due to the weather or the enemy.” When Hitler inquired about the weather problem Raeder responded with a lecture on the subject that grew quite eloquent and certainly forbidding. Except for the first fortnight in October the weather, he explained, was “generally bad” in the Channel and the North Sea; light fog came in the middle of that month and heavy fog at the end. But that was only part of the weather problem. “The operation,” he declared, “can be carried out only if the sea is calm.” If the water were rough, the barges would sink and even the big ships would be helpless, since they could not unload supplies. The Admiral grew gloomier with every minute that he contemplated what lay ahead.

Even if the first wave crosses successfully [he went on] under favorable weather conditions, there is no guarantee that the same favorable weather will carry through the second and third waves … As a matter of fact, we must realize that no traffic worth mentioning will be able to cross for several days, until certain harbors can be utilized.

That would leave the Army in a fine pickle, stranded on the beaches without supplies and reinforcements. Raeder now came to the main point of the differences between the Army and the Navy. The Army wanted a broad front from the Straits of Dover to Lyme Bay. But the Navy simply couldn’t provide the ships necessary for such an operation against the expected strong reaction of the British Navy and Air Force. Raeder therefore argued strongly that the front be shortened—to run only from the Dover Straits to Eastbourne. The Admiral saved his clincher for the end.

All things considered,” he said, “the best time for the operation would be May 1941.

But Hitler did not want to wait that long. He conceded that “naturally” there was nothing they could do about the weather. But they had to consider the consequences of losing time. The German Navy would not be any stronger vis-à-vis the British Navy by spring. The British Army at the moment was in poor shape. But give it another eight to ten months and it would have from thirty to thirty-five divisions, which was a considerable force in the restricted area of the proposed invasion. Therefore his decision (according to the confidential notes made by both Raeder and Halder)13 was as follows:

Diversions in Africa should be studied. But the decisive result can be achieved only by an attack on England. An attempt must therefore be made to prepare the operation for September 15, 1940 … The decision as to whether the operation is to take place in September or is to be delayed until May 1941, will be made after the Air Force has made concentrated attacks on southern England for one week. If the effect of the air attacks is such that the enemy air force, harbors and naval forces, etc. are heavily damaged. Operation Sea Lion will be carried out in 1940. Otherwise it is to be postponed until May 1941.

All now depended on the Luftwaffe.

The next day, August 1, Hitler issued as a consequence two directives from OKW, one signed by himself, the other by Keitel.

Fuehrer’s Headquarters
August 1, 1940

TOP SECRET

Directive No. 17 for the Conduct of Air and Naval Warfare against England

In order to establish the conditions necessary for the final conquest of England, I intend to continue the air and naval war against the English homeland more intensively than heretofore.

To this end I issue the following orders:

1. The German Air Force is to overcome the British Air Force with all means at its disposal and as soon as possible …

2. After gaining temporary or local air superiority the air war is to be carried out against harbors, especially against establishments connected with food supply … Attacks on the harbors of the south coast are to be undertaken on the smallest scale possible, in view of our intended operations….

4. The Luftwaffe is to stand by in force for Operation Sea Lion.

5. I reserve for myself the decision on terror attacks as a means of reprisal.

6. The intensified air war may commence on or after August 6 … The Navy is authorized to begin the projected intensified naval warfare at the same time.

ADOLF HITLER14

The directive signed by Keitel on behalf of Hitler the same day read in part:

TOP SECRET

Operation Sea Lion

The C. in C., Navy, having reported on July 31 that the necessary preparations for Sea Lion could not be completed before September 15, the Fuehrer has ordered:

Preparations for Sea Lion are to be continued and completed by the Army and Air Force by September 15.

Eight to fourteen days after the launching of the air offensive against Britain, scheduled to begin about August 5, the Fuehrer will decide whether the invasion will take place this year or not; his decision will depend largely on the outcome of the air offensive …

In spite of the Navy’s warning that it can guarantee only the defense of a narrow strip of coast (as far west as Eastbourne), preparations are to be continued for the attack on a broad basis, as originally planned …15

The last paragraph only served to inflame the feud between the Army and Navy over the question of a long or a short invasion front. A fortnight before, the Naval War Staff had estimated that to fulfill the demands of the Army for landing 100,000 men with equipment and supplies in the first wave, along a 200-mile front from Ramsgate to Lyme Bay, would necessitate rounding up 1,722 barges, 1,161 motorboats, 471 tugs and 155 transports. Even if it were possible to assemble such a vast amount of shipping, Raeder told Hitler on July 25, it would wreck the German economy, since taking away so many barges and tugs would destroy the whole inland-waterway transportation system, on which the economic life of the country largely depended.16 At any rate, Raeder made it clear, the protection of such an armada trying to supply such a broad front against the certain attacks of the British Navy and Air Force was beyond the powers of the German naval forces. At one point the Naval War Staff warned the Army that if it insisted on the broad front, the Navy might lose all of its ships.

But the Army persisted. Overestimating British strength as it did, it argued that to land on a narrow front would confront the attackers with a “superior” British land force. On August 7 there was a showdown between the two services when Halder met his opposite number in the Navy, Admiral Schniewind, the Chief of the Naval War Staff. There was a sharp and dramatic clash.

“I utterly reject the Navy’s proposal,” the Army General Staff Chief, usually a very calm man, fumed. “From the point of view of the Army I regard it as complete suicide. I might just as well put the troops that have landed straight through a sausage machine!”

According to the Naval War Staff’s record of the meeting* Schniewind replied that it would be “equally suicidal” to attempt to transport the troops for such a broad front as the Army desired, “in view of British naval supremacy.”

It was a cruel dilemma. If a broad front with the large number of troops to man it was attempted, the whole German expedition might be sunk at sea by the British Navy. If a short front, with correspondingly fewer troops, was adopted, the invaders might be hurled back into the sea by the British Army. On August 10 Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the Army, informed OKW that he “could not accept” a landing between Folkestone and Eastbourne. However, he was willing, albeit “very reluctantly,” to abandon the landing at Lyme Bay in order to shorten the front and meet the Navy halfway.

This was not enough for the hardheaded admirals, and their caution and stubbornness were beginning to have an effect at OKW. On August 13 Jodl drafted an “appreciation” of the situation, laying down five conditions for the success of Sea Lion that seemingly would have struck the generals and admirals as almost ludicrous had their dilemma not been so serious. First, he said, the British Navy would have to be eliminated from the south coast, and second, the R.A.F. would have to be eliminated from the British skies. The other conditions concerned the landing of troops in a strength and with a rapidity that were obviously far beyond the Navy’s powers. If these conditions were not fulfilled, he considered the landing “an act of desperation which would have to be carried out in a desperate situation, but which we have no cause to carry out now.”17

If the Navy’s fears were spreading to Jodl, the OKW Operations Chief’s hesitations were having their effect on Hitler. All through the war the Fuehrer leaned much more heavily on Jodl than on the Chief of OKW, the spineless, dull-minded Keitel. It is not surprising, then, that on August 13, when Raeder saw the Supreme Commander in Berlin and requested a decision on the broad versus the narrow front, Hitler was inclined to agree with the Navy on the smaller operation. He promised to make a definite ruling the next day after he had seen the Commander in Chief of the Army.18 After hearing Brauchitsch’s views on the fourteenth, Hitler finally made up his mind, and on the sixteenth an OKW directive signed by Keitel declared that the Fuehrer had decided to abandon the landing in Lyme Bay, which Reichenau’s Sixth Army was to have made. Preparations for landings on the narrower front on September 15 were to be continued, but now, for the first time, the Fuehrer’s own doubts crept into a secret directive. “Final orders,” it added, “will not be given until the situation is clear.” The new order, however, was somewhat of a compromise. For a further directive that day enlarged the narrower front.

Main crossing to be on narrow front. Simultaneous landing of four to five thousand troops at Brighton by motorboats and the same number of airborne troops at Deal-Ramsgate. In addition, on D-minus-1 Day the Luftwaffe is to make a strong attack on London, which would cause the population to flee from the city and block the roads.19

Although Halder on August 23 was scribbling a shorthand note in his diary that “on this basis, an attack has no chance of success this year,” a directive on August 27 over Keitel’s signature laid down final plans for landings in four main areas on the south coast between Folkestone and Selsey Bill, just east of Portsmouth, with the first objective, as before, a line running between Portsmouth and the Thames, east of London at Gravesend, to be reached as soon as the beachheads had been connected and organized and the troops could strike north. At the same time orders were given to get ready to carry out certain deception maneuvers, of which the principal one was “Autumn Journey” (Herbstreise). This called for a large-scale feint against Britain’s east coast, where, as has been noted, Churchill and his military advisers were still expecting the main invasion blow to fall. For this purpose four large liners, including Germany’s largest, Europa and Bremen, and ten additional transports, escorted by four cruisers, were to put out from the southern Norwegian ports and the Heligoland Bight on D-minus-2 Day and head for the English coast between Aberdeen and Newcastle. The transports would be empty and the whole expedition would turn back as darkness fell, repeating the maneuver the next day.20

On August 30 Brauchitsch gave out a lengthy order of instructions for the landings, but the generals who received it must have wondered how much heart their Army chief now had in the undertaking. He entitled it “Instruction for the Preparation of Operation Sea Lion”—rather late in the game to be ordering preparations for an operation that he commanded must be carried out from September 15. “The order for execution,” he added, “depends on the political situation”—a condition that must have puzzled the unpolitical generals.21

On September 1 the movement of shipping from Germany’s North Sea ports toward the embarkation harbors on the Channel began, and two days later, on September 3, came a further directive from OKW.

The earliest day for the sailing of the invasion fleet has been fixed as September 20, and that of the landing for September 21.

Orders for the launching of the attack will be given D-minus-10 Day, presumably therefore on September 11.

Final commands will be given at the latest on D-minus-3 Day, at midday.

All preparations must remain liable to cancellation 24 hours before zero hour.

KEITEL22

This sounded like business. But the sound was deceptive. On September 6 Raeder had another long session with Hitler. “The Fuehrer’s decision to land in England,” the Admiral recorded in the Naval Staff War Diary that night, “is still by no means settled, as he is firmly convinced that Britain’s defeat will be achieved even without the ‘landing.’” Actually, as Raeder’s long recording of the talk shows, the Fuehrer discoursed at length about almost everything except Sea Lion: about Norway, Gibraltar, Suez, “the problem of the U.S.A.,” the treatment of the French coloniesand his fantastic views about the establishment of a “North Germanic Union.”23

If Churchill and his military chiefs had only got wind of this remarkable conference the code word “Cromwell” might not have been sent out in England on the evening of the next day, September 7, signifying “Invasion imminent” and causing no end of confusion, the endless ringing of church bells by the Home Guard, the blowing of several bridges by Royal Engineers and the needless casualties suffered by those stumbling over hastily laid mines.*

But on the late afternoon of Saturday, September 7, the Germans had begun their first massive bombing of London, carried out by 625 bombers protected by 648 fighters. It was the most devastating attack from the air ever delivered up to that day on a city—the bombings of Warsaw andRotterdam were pinpricks beside it—and by early evening the whole dock-side area of the great city was a mass of flames and every railway line to the south, so vital to the defense against invasion, was blocked. In the circumstances, many in London believed that this murderous bombing was the prelude to immediate German landings, and it was because of this more than anything else that the alert, “Invasion imminent,” was sent out. As will shortly be seen, this savage bombing of London on September 7, though setting off a premature warning and causing much damage, marked a decisive turning point in the Battle of Britain, the first great decisive struggle in the air the earth had ever experienced, which was now rapidly approaching its climax.

The time for Hitler to make his fatal decision to launch the invasion or not to launch it was also drawing near. It was to be made, as the September 3 directive stipulated, on September 11, giving the armed services ten days to carry out the preliminaries. But on the tenth Hitler decided to postpone his decision until the fourteenth. There seem to have been at least two reasons for the delay. One was the belief at OKW that the bombing of London was causing so much destruction, both to property and to British morale, that an invasion might not be necessary.

The other reason arose from the difficulties the German Navy was beginning to experience in assembling its shipping. Besides the weather, which the naval authorities reported on September 10 as being “completely abnormal and unstable,” the R.A.F., which Goering had promised to destroy, and the British Navy were increasingly interfering with the concentration of the invasion fleet. That same day the Naval War Staff warned of the “danger” of British air and naval attacks on German transport movements, which it said had “undoubtedly been successful.” Two days later, on September 12, H.Q. of Naval Group West sent an ominous message to Berlin:

Interruptions caused by the enemy’s air forces, long-range artillery and light naval forces have, for the first time, assumed major significance. The harbors at Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne cannot be used as night anchorages for shipping because of the danger of English bombings and shelling. Units of the British Fleet are now able to operate almost unmolested in the Channel. Owing to these difficulties further delays are expected in the assembly of the invasion fleet.

The next day matters grew worse. British light naval forces bombarded the chief Channel invasion ports, Ostend, Calais, Boulogne and Cherbourg, while the R.A.F. sank eighty barges in Ostend Harbor. In Berlin that day Hitler conferred with his service chiefs at lunch. He thought the air war was going very well and declared that he had no intention of running the risk of invasion.24 In fact, Jodl got the impression from the Fuehrer’s remarks that he had “apparently decided to abandon Sea Lion completely,” an impression which was accurate for that day, as Hitler confirmed the following day—when, however, he again changed his mind.

Both Raeder and Halder have left confidential notes of the meeting of the Fuehrer with his commanders in chief in Berlin on September 14.25 The Admiral managed to slip Hitler a memorandum before the session opened, setting forth the Navy’s opinion that

the present air situation does not provide conditions for carrying out the operation [Sea Lion], as the risk is still too great.

At the beginning of the conference, the Nazi warlord displayed a somewhat negative mood and his thoughts were marred by contradictions. He would not give the order to launch the invasion, but neither would he call it off as, Raeder noted in the Naval War Diary, “he apparently had planned to do on September 13.”

What were the reasons for his latest change of mind? Halder recorded them in some detail.

A successful landing [the Fuehrer argued] followed by an occupation would end the war in a short time. England would starve. A landing need not necessarily be carried out within a specified time … But a long war is not desirable. We have already achieved everything that we need.

British hopes in Russia and America, Hitler said, had not materialized. Russia was not going to bleed for Britain. America’s rearmament would not be fully effective until 1945. As for the moment, the “quickest solution would be a landing in England. The Navy has achieved the necessary conditions. The operations of the Luftwaffe are above all praise. Four or five days of decent weather would bring the decisive results … We have a good chance of bringing England to her knees.”

What was wrong, then? Why hesitate any longer in launching the invasion?

The trouble was, Hitler conceded:

The enemy recovers again and again … Enemy fighters have not yet been completely eliminated. Our own reports of successes do not give a completely reliable picture, although the enemy has been severely damaged.

On the whole, then, Hitler declared, “in spite of all of our successes the prerequisite conditions for Operation Sea Lion have not yet been realized.” (The emphasis is Halder’s.)

Hitler summed up his reflections.

1. Successful landing means victory, but for this we must obtain complete air superiority.

2. Bad weather has so far prevented our attaining complete air superiority.

3. All other factors are in order.

Decision therefore: The operation will not be renounced yet.

Having come to that negative conclusion, Hitler thereupon gave way to soaring hopes that the Luftwaffe might still bring off the victory that so tantalizingly and so narrowly continued to evade him. “The air attacks up to now,” he said, “have had a tremendous effect, though perhaps chiefly on the nerves. Even if victory in the air is only achieved in ten or twelve days the English may yet be seized by mass hysteria.”

To help bring that about, Jeschonnek of the Air Force begged to be allowed to bomb London’s residential districts, since, he said, there was no sign of “mass panic” in London while these areas were being spared. Admiral Raeder enthusiastically supported some terror bombing. Hitler, however, thought concentration on military objectives was more important. “Bombing with the object of causing a mass panic,” he said, “must be left to the last.”

Admiral Raeder’s enthusiasm for terror bombing seems to have been due mainly to his lack of enthusiasm for the landings. He now intervened to stress again the “great risks” involved. The situation in the air, he pointed out, could hardly improve before the projected dates of September 24–27 for the landing; therefore they must be abandoned “until October 8 or 24.”

But this was practically to call off the invasion altogether, as Hitler realized, and he ruled that he would hold up his decision on the landings only until September 17—three days hence—so that they still might take place on September 27. If not feasible then, he would have to think about the October dates. A Supreme Command directive was thereupon issued.

Berlin
September 14, 1940

TOP SECRET

… The Fuehrer has decided:

The start of Operation Sea Lion is again postponed. A new order follows September 17. All preparations are to be continued.

The air attacks against London are to be continued and the target area expanded against military and other vital installations (e.g., railway stations).

Terror attacks against purely residential areas are reserved for use as an ultimate means of pressure.26

Thus though Hitler had put off for three days a decision on the invasion he had by no means abandoned it. Give the Luftwaffe another few days to finish off the R.A.F. and demoralize London, and the landing then could take place. It would bring final victory. So once again all depended on Goering’s vaunted Air Force. It would make, in fact, its supreme effort the very next day.

The Navy’s opinion of the Luftwaffe, however, grew hourly worse. On the evening of the crucial conference in Berlin the German Naval War Staff reported severe R.A.F. bombings of the invasion ports, from Antwerp to Boulogne.

… In Antwerp … considerable casualties are inflicted on transports—five transport steamers in port heavily damaged; one barge sunk, two cranes destroyed, an ammunition train blown up, several sheds burning.

The next night was even worse, the Navy reporting “strong enemy air attacks on the entire coastal area between Le Havre and Antwerp.” An S.O.S. was sent out by the sailors for more antiaircraft protection of the invasion ports. On September 17 the Naval Staff reported:

The R.A.F. are still by no means defeated: on the contrary they are showing increasing activity in their attacks on the Channel ports and in their mounting interference with the assembly movements.*27

That night there was a full moon and the British night bombers made the most of it. The German Naval War Staff reported “very considerable losses” of the shipping which now jammed the invasion ports. At Dunkirk eighty-four barges were sunk or damaged, and from Cherbourg to Den Helder the Navy reported, among other depressing items, a 500-ton ammunition store blown up, a rations depot burned out, various steamers and torpedo boats sunk and many casualties to personnel suffered. This severe bombing plus bombardment from heavy guns across the Channel made it necessary, the Navy Staff reported, to disperse the naval and transport vessels already concentrated on the Channel and to stop further movement of shipping to the invasion ports.

Otherwise [it said] with energetic enemy action such casualties will occur in the course of time that the execution of the operation on the scale previously envisaged will in any case be problematic.28

It had already become so.

In the German Naval War Diary there is a laconic entry for September 17.

The enemy Air Force is still by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing activity. The weather situation as a whole does not permit us to expect a period of calm … The Fuehrer therefore decides to postpone “Sea Lion” indefinitely.29

The emphasis is the Navy’s.

   Adolf Hitler, after so many years of dazzling successes, had at last met failure. For nearly a month thereafter the pretense was kept up that the invasion might still take place that autumn, but it was a case of whistling in the dark. On September 19 the Fuehrer formally ordered the further assembling of the invasion fleet to be stopped and the shipping already in the ports to be dispersed “so that the loss of shipping space caused by enemy air attacks may be reduced to a minimum.”

But it was impossible to maintain even a dispersed armada and all the troops and guns and tanks and supplies that had been assembled to cross over the Channel for an invasion that had been postponed indefinitely. “This state of affairs,” Halder exclaimed in his diary September 28, “dragging out the continued existence of Sea Lion, is unbearable.” When Ciano and Mussolini met the Fuehrer on the Brenner on October 4, the Italian Foreign Minister observed in his diary that “there is no longer any talk about a landing in the British Isles.” Hitler’s setback put his partner, Mussolini, in the best mood he had been in for ages. “Rarely have I seen the Duce in such good humor … as at the Brenner Pass today,” Ciano noted.30

Already both the Navy and the Army were pressing the Fuehrer for a decision to call off Sea Lion altogether. The Army General Staff pointed out to him that the holding of the troops on the Channel “under constant British air attacks led to continual casualties.”

Finally on October 12, the Nazi warlord formally admitted failure and called off the invasion until spring, if then. A formal directive was issued.

Fuehrer’s Headquarters
October 12, 1940

TOP SECRET

The Fuehrer has decided that from now on until the spring, preparations for “Sea Lion” shall be continued solely for the purpose of maintaining political and military pressure on England.

Should the invasion be reconsidered in the spring or early summer of 1941, orders for a renewal of operational readiness will be issued later …

The Army was commanded to release its Sea Lion formations “for other duties or for employment on other fronts.” The Navy was instructed to “take all measures to release personnel and shipping space.” But both services were to camouflage their moves. “The British,” Hitler laid it down, “must continue to believe that we are preparing an attack on a broad front.”31

What had happened to make Adolf Hitler finally give in?

Two things: the fatal course of the Battle of Britain in the air, and the turning of his thoughts once more eastward, to Russia.

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