Britain won the Battle of Britain and it is well-known that the victors write history. As a result, most accounts of the Battle of Britain are written from the British perspective. Yet looking at German expectations, strategy, and responses provides insight and shading which are lost when looking at the events of the Summer of 1940 only through British eyes. In a five-part series, I propose to look at the Battle of Britain from the German point-of-view starting today with an introduction. In coming weeks, I will consider from the German perspective each of the three main phases into which the Battle is conventionally divided: 1) the Channel Battle, 2) Attacks on British Air Defences (Phases I and II) and 3) the Raids on London.
On June 22, 1940 France capitulated to Nazi Germany. Hitler had revenged the humiliation of the First World War — forcing the French military leadership to sign the armistice in the same railway car used for Germany’s surrender in 1918. In less than ten months Hitler had defeated Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France militarily. A non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union secured his rear in the east, and his ally Italy dominated Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Hitler was master of Europe.
Of course, Britain was technically still at war with Germany, but it had been defeated on the battlefield. Its army had managed to slip across the Channel in a surprise (but highly amateurish) operation involving massive numbers of small boats manned by civilians (hardly a show of military might!) and it had left all its heavy equipment behind. The Royal Navy, while still formidable, had been badly mauled defending the vessels engaged in evacuating British forces from Dunkirk. Six destroyers had been sunk and nineteen damaged, while 200 lesser vessels had also been lost. What remained of the Royal Navy was needed — desperately — to defend the “Atlantic Lifeline” from German U-Boats and air attacks in the confined waters around Britain’s coast. In short, Britain was in no position to undertake an offensive against Germany and many doubted if it could successfully ward off a German invasion. Britain had not been so vulnerable since Napoleon had dominated Europe more than a hundred years earlier.
However, in June 1940 the Germans had no plans for an invasion of Great Britain. Hitler had long harbored admiration for Britain. In Mein Kampf Britain and the British Empire was singled out for rare praise, and Hitler comparatively accurately described British foreign policy as one of maintaining a balance of power on the Continent which was not inherently anti-German. He criticized the German Imperial government for building a High Seas Fleet and seeking Colonies because they needlessly provoked British ire. Hitler not only saw the British as fellow Aryans, members of the "Master Race," he saw the British Empire as a natural ally of Nazi Germany. His ideological goals were the destruction of "World Jewry" and the defeat of Communism, while his military ambitions were focused on the destruction of "subjugation of the Soviet Union.
Because the British had acquiesced in Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland as well as his invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hitler had not expected a British declaration of war following his invasion of Poland. He was allegedly angry, but not unduly upset. The “Phony War” between September 1939 and April 1940 reinforced Hitler's assumptions about British reluctance to fight him. The short work made of the British Expeditionary Force in May-June 1940 served to convince him that Britain was not a threat to him or his continental ambitions. It has even been suggested that Hitler stopped his panzers from crushing the BEF at Dunkirk because he did not want to humiliate Britain. Certainly, he assumed that now that the French had been knocked out of the war, the British would “come to their senses.” Allegedly, Hitler told his senior military leaders: “The British have lost the war, they just don’t know it yet. We need to give them time, and they will come around.”
Hitler was not alone in his expectations. It was widely assumed in Washington, Moscow, Tokyo and elsewhere that Britain would sue for peace. Indeed, members of Parliament, senior British diplomats, even members of Churchill’s war cabinet including his Foreign Minister Lord Halifax favored a “peaceful resolution” of the differences between Britain and Germany. In late-June 1940, Churchill was politically more isolated than is commonly recognized, and the attitude of the British public had not yet to be tested.
When the expected peace overtures did not materialize, however, the Oberkommando der Wehrmach (OKW) drafted a memorandum on a possible invasion of Great Britain. This was not a detailed invasion plan. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to the careful preparations that would go into the Allied landings in Normandie four years later. Nevertheless, it formed the basis of a “Fuehrer Directive,” ordering preparations for the invasion of England, an operation code-named “Sea Lion.” While the Army and Navy were tasked with developing more detailed plans (even as army divisions were disbanded or put on a peacetime footing), the Luftwaffe was directed to take action to pave the way for an invasion by establishing air superiority over the South of England.
In other words, the Luftwaffe offensive of 1940 was never intended as strategic bombing campaign to destroy British industrial capacity. Nor was it a terror bombing campaign intended to destroy British morale. Rather, it was a tactical offensive in which the Luftwaffe was expected to play its now traditional role of supporting the other branches of the Wehrmacht.
Starting in mid-July 1940, the German Navy halfheartedly came up with plans to land on a narrow front and collected a variety of largely unsuitable barges in the French channel ports. For its part, the German Army argued for landing troops on a broad front and did even less to mobilize resources. Hitler did not to resolve the differences in strategic approach and otherwise demonstrated only lukewarm interest in the campaign — beyond saying everything should be ready by Sept. 15.
What Hitler, the German Navy and the German Army leadership all hoped was that the mere show of force, “sabre rattling” in the form of an air offensive, would frighten Britain to the negotiating table. Hitler’s directive explicitly stated: “I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and if necessary, to carry it out.” (Italics added.)
The key to making sure it wasn’t “necessary” was an air offensive intended to convince the British government to sue for peace. The Luftwaffe was expected to achieve this objective within a few weeks.
“Where Eagles Never
Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following
the fate of German characters as well as British ones. In addition, it
highlights the elements in British society favored a peace with Hitler. Find
out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew