Historians downgrade Battle of Britain





"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," said Winston Churchill in praise of the pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain. But as the 66th anniversary of the firefight in the skies approaches, some of the country's top military historians have claimed it was the Royal Navy rather than the RAF that saved Britain from invasion by the Germans in the autumn of 1940.

The three military historians who run the high command course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham, near Swindon, have concluded that the Battle of Britain became an overblown myth and that the credit for keeping Hitler at bay should have gone to the navy.

In an article published in the journal History Today, headlined Pie in the Sky, 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."

But Bill Bond, founder of the Battle of Britain Historical Society, said: "There's always somebody trying to rewrite this historical period. Most of it's nonsense. Without air cover the Luftwaffe bombers would have smashed all the ports. The divebombers 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."




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Brett Holman - 8/31/2006

Yes, I'm doing my PhD on British aviation history. I wouldn't claim to be an expert on WWII air operations, though, as my interest is more
on the cultural (for lack of a better term) side of things. But I do have an interest in German invasion scenarios from Edwardian times on. What I'm trying to do here is admittedly speculative, in that I haven't read Brongers' book nor the primary sources he used, but instead I'm performing a basic reality check on the claims as presented, to see if they fit in what else is known about German military operations at the time. And they don't.

Sure, I don't have German or Dutch, so it's not surprising I haven't heard of Brongers' claims. But I was referring to the supposed May 1940 invasion plans, and to other historians' ignorance of such. The most important primary sources for this question will be in German, and plenty of historians read German, and plenty of historians
have gone through the German military archives. Yes, some documents were lost in the war, and others may have been missed up until now, but it is inconceivable that an operation on this scale, of this importance, could have left so few traces that it could have been missed. You mention "preserved German staff references that indicate the intention
of an immediate invasion of Britain, if only to comment that the plan could
no longer be accomplished because of the losses". Well, fine; but where are the requisitions for maps for the troops; the English phrasebooks for same; the proclamations to the conquered populace; the orders to the units involved to begin planning for the operation; estimates of the supply situation; exchanges with the German navy and luftwaffe over resupply rates; plans for bringing up reinforcements ... so on and so forth. Such a large-scale operation would have led to the generation of many studies and memoranda, which apparently do not exist. (They do for Sealion in September, and a number of books have been written which draw upon this evidence. They also draw upon the much vaguer studies carried out from 1939 up to early 1940.)

Furthermore, you've ignored my point about no Fuhrer-directive being issued for a May 1940 invasion of Britain, which is utterly uncharacteristic -- these exist for every other invasion the Wehrmacht took part in in 1939 and 1940 (at least), including Sealion planned for September. Such an operation would have been planned and discussed at the highest level, as it was not solely a military decision but a geopolitical one. I do not think it likely that a lowly general would take it upon himself to invade Britain on his own authority!

You've also ignored my point about the lack of personal memoirs. Again, I do not believe that nobody remembered or mentioned planning to invade Britain in May 1940. Does Brongers explain why, for example, Kurt Student (overall commander of Germany's airborne troops) told Basil Liddell-Hart after the war that he had urged that an immediate airborne invasion of Britain be undertaken in June, after Dunkirk? Did Student somehow forget that an invasion had actually been ordered for May and then cancelled? Seems hard to believe.

I did not pass over "the expectation that the invasion of Britain was to follow the speedy, easy and successful conquest of both of them" [Britain and France]. I explicitly stated that there was no such expectation. Very few on the German side believed that France was going to be a pushover. The hubris in launching Barbarossa arose, in part, from the unexpectedly easy conquest of France.

Finally, I am not arguing that such an invasion would have failed (though I think it would have), and that therefore it wouldn't have been planned. I am arguing that the Germans themselves would have had every reason to believe that it would have failed in May 1940 (as they knew the forces would not be available), and so would not have planned such a foolhardy operation -- a slightly different point.

I can easily believe that the unexpected losses in the Netherlands had a severe impact on planning Sealion in September. That's very plausible. I can also believe that there were studies undertaken of a possible invasion concurrent with the May offensive against France. Military staffs generate hypotheticals all the time. And I can also believe that after Ypenburg somebody, somewhere said, "Well, there goes any chance we had of invading Britain anytime soon". What I cannot believe is that an invasion was DEFINITELY planned for May 1940, and that this operation could have disappeared without trace until Brongers came along. Historical research certainly involves serendipity, but we should all be so lucky! :)

One additional point. If the review I cited is anything to judge by, the English edition of Brongers' book does not mention anything about a May 1940 invasion of Britain, or else the reviewer surely would have picked up on this unorthodox claim. Why might
this be?

Unfortunately no library near me has it, or I'd look at it myself.


Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 8/27/2006

If I am correct, you are a Ph.D. candidate studying this subject. I'm sure, then, that you must know much more about it than I do, as this is not my field of study. However, you answer your own final question, "Why has nobody heard of this?" when you note that you do not read German very well and Dutch not at all. As the review you cite mentions, the German documentation of this campaign was destroyed in 1945. Brongers nonetheless found and published some preserved German staff references that indicate the intention of an immediate invasion of Britain, if only to comment that the plan could no longer be accomplished because of the losses. Perhaps the plan in any case would have failed, based on a clear assessment of Britain's actual defensive capabilities (which Brongers disputes with evidence that may or may not convince someone more familiar with the topic than I). You do not seem to account for the possibility that the Germans might have intended such an invasion inspired by unjustified Hochmut. When you say that there is no way that the Germans could have contemplated invading
Britain while invading France and The Netherlands at the same time, you pass over the expectation that the invasion of Britain was to follow the speedy, easy and successful conquest of both of them. And your analysis might be turned to the topic of understanding in what way Germany thought it could invade the Soviet Union while fighting elsewhere. The answer may not be derived from a rational assessment of available materiel strength without reference to assumptions about the essential inferiority of the enemy. Moreover, if one ventures into the field of alternatives, perhaps the Dutch victory at Ypenburg prevented a battle in which the Germans would have been defeated. (I don't like histories with "would" in them, but your comments are thoroughly speculative about what the Germans "would," "could," or "would not" have done.) But I think that the question regarding the German invasion of The Netherlands may be difficult to answer if one cannot read the relevant evidence in German and Dutch. Again, it's not my field, but it doesn't strike me as much of a clincher to wonder why English and American historians aren't aware of something written in Dutch.


Brett Holman - 8/27/2006

Thanks, I also found this page on the battle at Ypenburg which broadly agrees with the figures you mention: http://www.generalissue.com/history/ypenberg.html

I still don't buy the idea that this battle saved Britain. It's unlikely in the extreme for a variety of reasons. For a start, there's no way Germany could have contemplated invading Britain while it was invading France and the Low Countries at the same time -- it just did not have the forces. Conquering France looks easy in retrospect, but the Wehrmacht did not underestimate the difficulty of this; they would not have thrown away good divisions on a foolish gamble like this, diverting effort from the main assault.

Presumably the Ju52s shot down at Ypenburg were supposed to be used for an airborne invasion of the UK. But a few airborne and airlanded divisions would have in no way sufficed to conquer Britain, even with the BEF in France. Without air superiority, the incoming planes would have been cut to pieces by Fighter Command. The same goes for any seaborne invasion, with or without Dutch warships.

Then there are more logistical arguments. You can't just use troops for one campaign, then suddenly throw them into another one. (At least, not if they are required to be at their peak performance.) Rest and refit is required first.

Finally: why has nobody heard of this? How could an operation as big as a planned invasion of Britain be hidden from historians for so long? Why have no German veterans mentioned it? Why are there no Fuhrer-directives regarding it, as an operation of such geopolitical import would require? (There were for Sealion etc.)

At best, Brongers may have found documents exploring the idea that Britain could be successfully invaded in May, even arguing that it should be, but I do not believe he found proof that such an operation was actually intended, and thwarted by unexpected Dutch resistance. Not until I see the actual documents, and as I don't read German very well (or Dutch at all) I'll have to wait for an English translation :)

And in fact, there is one! EH Brongers, The Battle for the Hague 1940 (AD Soesterberg, 2004). There's a review here:
http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/bookrev/brongers.html
In terms of the invasion of Britain, the reviewer says that Bronger shows that the airborne component of Sealion was reduced because of the losses in the Netherlands. Of course, Sealion is September 1940, not May. I don't know if the English translation differs substantially from the Dutch original, but on this evidence Bronger doesn't seem to be arguing for a May 1940 invasion.


Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 8/26/2006

The number of German aircraft destroyed in May, 1940, in the battle for The Hague was more than 200, most in Ypenburg (an airfield south of the city) and in Valkenburg (an airfield north of the city). The total brought down in the invasion of The Netherlands was more than 526.
If I remember correctly, Brongers,a retired official historian of the Dutch Defense Department, stated in his book that 40% of the German air force intended for an immediate invasion of England was destroyed. (I read the book when it came out, but I don't own a copy so can't immediately check to see in what way my memory may be imprecise.) So the rest of the German air force is probably not included, and it must have been distributed throughout the other recently invaded countries. The point of interest here is that a battle that has been forgotten outside The Netherlands made it impossible for the Germans to invade Britain in May 1940. That this was indeed their intention is proven by German staff documents published by Brongers, who also comments on the effective lack of mobilization for defense in England at the beginning of May. For the statistics with specification of the airplanes,see: Brongers, "Inventarisatie uit diverse bronnen van in de Meidagen van 1940 in Nederland neergeschoten of vernielde Duitse vleigtuigen:
http://www.bhummel.dds.nl/gif/duitseverliezen.html
Brongers' book is available from the Gemeentearchief Rijswijk.


Brett Holman - 8/26/2006

Surely a few Dutch reservists did not destroy 40% of the entire Luftwaffe? That would be roughly a thousand aircraft, which would be difficult to conceal from historians, Churchillian hyperbole notwithstanding. Surely it was 40% of a much smaller formation than "the German air force", in which case the impact on the Battle of Britain would be correspondingly less. Can you provide more details on the number and type of German aircraft that were destroyed?

Capture of the Dutch navy may have helped somewhat with the naval problem (assuming the Germans could find enough sailors to man them) but still would present little threat to the Royal Navy. It would have helped to replace the German losses from the Norwegian campaign, though.

Britain certainly was mobilised in May 1940, and had been since late 1939 when the BEF moved to France.


Robert W Love - 8/26/2006

This is really rather old news. First, Churchill made the point himself. On 18 June 1940, he told the House of Commons that the Royal Navy could prevent the Germans from crossing the channel and he mentioned why: mines planted in Channel, off Belgian and French ports, and off the likely English landing beaches. “There should be no difficulty about this, owing to our superiority at sea.” Address to the House of Commons, 18 June 1940, Vital Speeches, Vol. 6, No. 18 (1 July 1940), p. 561. Second, the GAF lacked any effective antiship weapon and GAF pilots were untrained in antiship operations. This point was made in an article in the JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY some years ago. (I apologize for the absence of a citation, but the points should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of the GAF's many shortcomings.) Third, no evidence exists in the Churchill Mss at Churchill College, Cambridge, or in dozens of other Mss I have examined over thirty years, that the British cabinet truly feared an invasion. Indeed, the only real shortage concerning the PM was ammo for small arms. Fourth, as Andrew Gordon undoubtedly understands, Admiral Ramsay's Dover Command patrols ruled the Channel mostly during the day but always during the night. While any German landing force might be defended while it was light, once night fell it was easy prey. Fifth, neither Captain Alan G. Kirk, the U. S. Naval Attache, nor Rear Admiral Robert Ghormley, the Special Naval Observor, who arrived in August on orders from the President and CNO, ever expressed concern about a successful German amphibious landing, and both were quite well-informed.
That is not to say that the Battle of Britain was unimportant. According to the best accounts, Hitler never intended an invasion of England; indeed, soon after proposing Sea Lion, Admiral Raeder devised a formidable list of obstacles to its success. Hitler viewed strategic bombing as a terror weapon useful to achieve political purposes. Bombing Warsaw paralyzed the Polish government and, as the earlier commentator noted, induced the Dutch government to lay down its arms. Those models were surely sufficient to justify air attacks on Britain after Churchill rejected Berlin's peace terms. The real achievement of RAF Fighter Command was to minimize the damage Britain absorbed and thus avert a shift in public opinion against Churchill's policy of continuing the conflict.
Robert Love
History Department
U. S. Naval Academy


Robert W Love - 8/26/2006

This is really rather old news. First, Churchill made the point himself. On 18 June 1940, he told the House of Commons that the Royal Navy could prevent the Germans from crossing the channel and he mentioned why: mines planted in Channel, off Belgian and French ports, and off the likely English landing beaches. “There should be no difficulty about this, owing to our superiority at sea.” Address to the House of Commons, 18 June 1940, Vital Speeches, Vol. 6, No. 18 (1 July 1940), p. 561. Second, the GAF lacked any effective antiship weapon and GAF pilots were untrained in antiship operations. This point was made in an article in the JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY some years ago. (I apologize for the absence of a citation, but the points should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of the GAF's many shortcomings.) Third, no evidence exists in the Churchill Mss at Churchill College, Cambridge, or in dozens of other Mss I have examined over thirty years, that the British cabinet truly feared an invasion. Indeed, the only real shortage concerning the PM was ammo for small arms. Fourth, as Andrew Gordon undoubtedly understands, Admiral Ramsay's Dover Command patrols ruled the Channel mostly during the day but always during the night. While any German landing force might be defended while it was light, once night fell it was easy prey. Fifth, neither Captain Alan G. Kirk, the U. S. Naval Attache, nor Rear Admiral Robert Ghormley, the Special Naval Observor, who arrived in August on orders from the President and CNO, ever expressed concern about a successful German amphibious landing, and both were quite well-informed.
That is not to say that the Battle of Britain was unimportant. According to the best accounts, Hitler never intended an invasion of England; indeed, soon after proposing Sea Lion, Admiral Raeder devised a formidable list of obstacles to its success. Hitler viewed strategic bombing as a terror weapon useful to achieve political purposes. Bombing Warsaw paralyzed the Polish government and, as the earlier commentator noted, induced the Dutch government to lay down its arms. Those models were surely sufficient to justify air attacks on Britain after Churchill rejected Berlin's peace terms. The real achievement of RAF Fighter Command was to minimize the damage Britain absorbed and thus avert a shift in public opinion against Churchill's policy of continuing the conflict.
Robert Love
History Department
U. S. Naval Academy


Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 8/25/2006

The first Battle of Britain might be the battle of Ypenburg, Holland, on May 10-11, 1940. Germany's invasion of The Netherlands included a massive airborn attack on Ypenburg airport (between The Hague and Delft). Unexpectedly, Dutch reservists held out for a couple of days, destroying about 40 percent of the German air force as it came in, trying to land. The German response was the heavy bombing of Rotterdam, which led to the decision to halt Dutch military resistence. But the delay accomplished at Ypenburg allowed most Dutch ships to leave Rotterdam harbor and escape capture. The Germans had intended to use those ships against the British Navy, and they had needed their entire air force, now severely diminished, if they were to mount an immediate attack and invade Britain in the first days of the war in the west. Britain was not even mobilized yet so at this point could not have been expected to resist competently. If hyperbole (like Churchill's) is allowed, it was not the British navy that won the Battle of Britain so much as it was a few Dutch reservists.
E. H. Bronger's book De Slag om Ypenburg (Rijswijk, 2000)tells this story.

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