By Giuseppe Castiglione (Chinese name Lang Shining, 1688—1766).
Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk.
The Palace Museum, Beijing.1739 or 1758
The Battle of Radzymin was one of a series of engagements between the Red Army’s 1st Byelorussian Front and the Wehrmacht Heer’s XXXIXth Panzer Corps that occurred as part of the Lublin-Brest Offensive between August 1 and August 10, 1944 at the conclusion of the Belorussian strategic offensive operation near the town of Radzymin in the vicinity of Warsaw, part of which entailed a large tank battle at Wołomin. It was the largest tank battle on the territories of Poland during WWII.
Approach of the Red Army forces into the proximity of Warsaw served to initiate the Warsaw Uprising by the Home Army with expectation of help from the Red Army. The battle ended with Soviet’s defeat; it is unclear to what extent this defeat contributed to Soviet’s decision not to aid the Warsaw Uprising.
Picture of the Uprising taken from the opposite side of the Vistula River. Kierbedź Bridge viewed from Praga district towards Royal castle and burning Old Town.
Warsaw, 1945, destroyed by German forces. Northwest view: the Krasiński Gardens and ulica Świętojerska (St George Street) (left).
Fight The Germans! No doubt Warsaw already hears the guns of the battle which is soon to bring her liberation. [...] The Polish Army now entering Polish territory, trained in the Soviet Union, is now joined to the People’s Army to form the Corps of the Polish Armed Forces, the armed arm of our nation in its struggle for independence. Its ranks will be joined tomorrow by the sons of Warsaw. They will all together, with the Allied Army pursue the enemy westwards, wipe out the Hitlerite vermin from Polish land and strike a mortal blow at the beast of Prussian Imperialism. – Moskow Radio Station Kosciuszko 29 July 1944 broadcast
On 20 July 1st Belorussian Front reached the pre-war Polish border west of Kovel. It was now that Poland’s future became a matter of debate. After Germany had invaded Russia in June 1941, Stalin agreed to release the Poles he held as prisoners of war. Under the leadership of General Wladislaw Anders, these Poles, who were in camps in Siberia, made their own way to the Middle East, where they formed an army corps which became part of the British Eighth Army in Italy. This left several Polish officers unaccounted for, but Moscow denied all knowledge of them. Then, in April 1943, the Germans announced the discovery of a mass grave, containing the bodies of 4,500 Polish officers, at Katyn, near Smolensk, and claimed that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, had been responsible. The Russians immediately accused Berlin of this atrocity, and the British government, unwilling to create friction with its ally, supported this. However, the Germans then arranged for a committee to investigate under the auspices of the International Red Cross. This noted that none of the corpses had documents on them dated later than April 1940 and that all had been shot in the back of the head with Russian ammunition. While the British tried to play down the matter, the Polish government-in-exile continued to press the Russians for an explanation.
Once the region had been liberated, the Russians organized their own inquiry and again claimed that the Germans were responsible. The London Poles refused to accept this and the result was a complete break between them and Moscow. Stalin now established an alternative government-in-exile, formed from Polish communists. His grounds for this was that it would enable Poland to govern itself after liberation. The London Poles were aghast and, on Churchill’s advice, sent a deputation to Moscow at the end of July 1944.
Within Poland itself there was a secret army, the Polish Home Army, commanded by General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski and controlled by the London Poles. Now, with the Red Army rapidly approaching the River Vistula, Bor-Komorowski ordered his forces to prepare for an uprising against the German occupier and asked London for permission to attack, requesting the support of the Polish Parachute Brigade and Polish RAF squadrons based in Britain. The Polish C-in-C in Britain, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, was against the uprising because the British government refused to sanction the use of this external support, but he was in Italy at the time and there was a delay in transmitting his views. The London Poles therefore left the decision to Bor-Komorowski.
By 29 July the Warsaw Poles could hear the sounds of fighting on the other side of the Vistula as Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front warded off counter-attacks by three Panzer divisions. On that same day, a Russian-sponsored Polish radio station called for the uprising to begin. It did so three days later, but by then German reinforcements had moved into Warsaw. Furthermore, on the previous evening the Stavka had decided to halt Rokossovsky’s offensive on the grounds that it had run out of momentum.
On 4 August Stalin, having kept it waiting for some days, finally met the London Poles delegation. He told them that there could not be two governments-in-exile and expressed his annoyance at not having had prior warning of the uprising in Warsaw, whose chances of success he considered low. That same day he rejected a British request to air-drop supplies to the Home Army, and would continue to do so for the rest of the month. Unsupported, the Poles continued to fight on in Warsaw. In mid September the Russians relented over air drops and even began to parachute in supplies themselves, although the area of the city controlled by the Poles was now so small that most fell into the hands of the Germans. There was, too, a Polish army fighting under the Russians and this tried to establish a bridgehead on the west bank of the Vistula, but was beaten back. Eventually, the Home Army survivors were reduced to the city’s cellars and sewers and on 1 October Bor-Komorowski decided that further resistance was pointless and surrendered. A quarter of Warsaw’s population had been killed during the fighting and in the aftermath the city itself, which had already suffered from the September 1939 bombing and a rising by the Jews in its ghetto in spring 1943, was almost razed to the ground by the Germans.
The Russian failure to give timely help to the Polish Home Army must, in spite of the protestations of Soviet historians, be laid at Stalin’s door. It is reasonable to assume that Rokossovsky could have forced the Vistula and Stalin forbade it because he saw the presence of an organized underground force answerable to the London Poles in the country as an obstacle to establishing a Communist state. As it was, many Poles felt bitter resentment towards their countrymen in Britain for their failure to give material support to the uprising and they began to accept the inevitability of their country coming under the domination of the hated Russians.
The role of the Red Army during the Warsaw Uprising remains controversial and is still disputed by historians. The Uprising started when the Red Army appeared on the city’s doorstep, and the Poles in Warsaw were counting on Soviet aid coming in a matter of days. This basic scenario of an uprising against the Germans launched a few days before the arrival of Allied forces played out successfully in a number of European capitals, notably Paris and Prague. However, despite retaining positions south-east of Warsaw barely 10 km from the city center for about 40 days, the Soviets did not extend effective aid to the desperate city. The sector was held by the understrength German 73rd Infantry Division, destroyed many times on the Eastern Front and recently reconstituted. The division, though weak, did not experience significant Soviet pressure during that period. The Red Army was fighting intense battles to the south of Warsaw, to seize and maintain bridgeheads over the Vistula River, and to the north, to gain bridgeheads over the river Narew. The best German armored divisions were fighting on those sectors. Despite that, both of these objectives had been mostly secured by early September. The Soviet 47th army did not move into Praga, on the right bank of the Vistula, until the 11th of September. In three days the Soviets gained control of the suburb, a few hundred meters from the main battle on the other side of the river, as the resistance by the German 73rd division collapsed quickly. If the Soviets had reached this stage in early August, the crossing of the river would have been easier, as the Poles then held considerable stretches of the riverfront. However, by mid-September a series of German attacks had reduced the Poles to holding one narrow stretch of the riverbank, in the district of Czerniaków. The Poles were counting on the Soviet forces to cross to the left bank where the main battle of the uprising was occurring. Though Berling’s 1st Polish army did cross the river, their support from the Soviets was inadequate and the main Soviet force did not follow them.
One of the reasons given for the failure of the uprising was the reluctance of the Soviet Red Army to help the Resistance. On 1 August, only several hours prior to the outbreak of the uprising, the Soviet advance was halted by a direct order from the Kremlin. Soon afterwards the Soviet tank units stopped receiving any oil from their depots. By then the Soviets knew of the planned outbreak from their agents in Warsaw and, more importantly, from the Polish prime minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk, who informed them of the Polish plans a few hours before. The Red Army’s order to halt just a short distance away on the right bank of the Vistula, and not to link up with or in any way assist the Resistance forces, is blamed on post-war political considerations and malice by Stalin. According to this opinion, by ordering his forces to halt before entering the city, Stalin ensured that the Home Army would not succeed. Had the Home Army triumphed, the Polish government-in-exile would have increased their political and moral legitimacy to reinstate a government of its own, rather than accept a Soviet regime. The destruction of Polish resistance guaranteed that they could not resist Soviet occupation, that it would be the Soviets who “liberated” Warsaw, and that Soviet influence would prevail over Poland. At times during the uprising the NKVD actively arrested Home Army forces in the East of Warsaw and a large proportion of RAF losses were caused by Soviet anti-aircraft fire. This appears to strengthen the claim that the Western Allies were deliberately blocked from providing support to the Poles so that any independent-minded Polish forces were destroyed before the arrival of Soviet troops.
One way or the another, the presence of Soviet tanks in nearby Wołomin 15 kilometers to the east of Warsaw had sealed the decision of the Home Army leaders to launch the uprising. However, as a result of the initial battle of Radzymin in the final days of July, these advance units of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army were pushed out of Wołomin and back about 10 km. On 9 August, Stalin informed Premier Mikołajczyk that the Soviets had originally planned to be in Warsaw by 6 August, but a counter-attack by four Panzer divisions had thwarted their attempts to reach the city. By 10 August, the Germans had enveloped and inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet 2nd Tank Army at Wołomin. When Stalin and Churchill met face-to-face in October 1944, Stalin told Churchill that the lack of Soviet support was a direct result of a major reverse in the Vistula sector in August, which had to be kept secret for strategic reasons. All contemporary German sources assumed that the Soviets were trying to link up with the insurgents, and they believed it was their defense that prevented the Soviet advance rather than a reluctance to advance on the part of the Soviets. Nevertheless, as part of their strategy the Germans published propaganda accusing both the British and Soviets of abandoning the Poles.
The Soviet units which reached the outskirts of Warsaw in the final days of July 1944 had advanced from the 1st Belorussian Front in Western Ukraine as part of the Lublin-Brest Offensive Operation, between the Lvov-Sandomierz Operation on its left and Operation Bagration on its right. These two flanking operations were colossal defeats for the German army and completely destroyed a large number of German formations. As a consequence, the Germans at this time were desperately trying to put together a new force to hold the line of the Vistula, the last major river barrier between the Red Army and Germany proper, rushing in units in various stages of readiness from all over Europe. These included many infantry units of poor quality, and 4–5 high quality Panzer Divisions in the 39th Panzer Corps and 4th SS Panzer Corps pulled from their refits.
Other possible explanations for Soviet conduct are possible. The Red Army geared for a major thrust into the Balkans through Romania in mid-August and a large proportion of Soviet resources was sent in that direction, while the offensive in Poland was put on hold. Stalin had made a strategic decision to concentrate on occupying Eastern Europe, rather than on making a thrust toward Germany. The capture of Warsaw was not essential for the Soviets, as they had already seized a series of convenient bridgeheads to the south of Warsaw, and were concentrating on defending them against vigorous German counterattacks. Finally, the Soviet High Command may not have developed a coherent or appropriate strategy with regard to Warsaw because they were badly misinformed. Propaganda from the Polish Committee of National Liberation minimized the strength of the Home Army and portrayed them as Nazi sympathizers. Information submitted to Stalin by intelligence operatives or gathered from the frontline was often inaccurate or omitted key details. Possibly because the operatives were unable, as part of a repressive totalitarian regime, to express opinions or report facts which diverged from the party line, they “deliberately resorted to writing nonsense”.
According to noted Eastern Front historian, David Glantz, the Red Army was simply unable to extend effective support to the uprising, which began too early, regardless of Stalin’s political intentions. German military capabilities in August—early September were sufficient to halt any Soviet assistance to the Poles in Warsaw, were it intended. In addition, Glantz argued that the Warsaw would be a costly city to clear it of Germans and unsuitable location as a start point for subsequent Red Army offensives.
Convinced that he could still recover his vast territorial losses, Napoleon chose to fight on against all the odds, rejecting offers from the Allies that would have left France with its “natural” frontiers: the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. French forces were under pressure on several fronts. Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish forces stood poised along the Pyrenees; the Austrians were already operating in northern Italy; and several armies were making seemingly inexorable progress from the east: Schwarzenberg approaching from Switzerland, Blücher through eastern France, and Bernadotte from the north through the Netherlands. To oppose these impressive forces, Napoleon possessed little more than a small army consisting of hastily raised units, National Guardsmen, and anyone who had somehow avoided the call-ups of the past. Somehow, at least in the initial stages of the campaign, the Emperor managed to summon up the kind of energy and tactical brilliance for which he had become renowned during the Italian campaigns of 1796–1797.
In swift succession he drubbed Blücher at Brienne on 29 January, at La Rothière on 30 January, at Champaubert on 10 February, at Montmirail on 11 February, at Château-Thierry on 12 February, and at Vauchamps on 14 February. Napoleon then turned to confront Schwarzenberg at Montereau on 18 February, before again fighting Blücher, at Craonne, near Paris, on 7 March. Yet, however many enemies he could repel in turn, Napoleon could not be everywhere at once, and his corps commanders, despite the continued enthusiasm for battle displayed by the troops themselves, could not achieve the same results in the field as the Emperor. The French could not stand up to the numbers facing them at Laon on 9–10 March, and though there were still successes in March such as at Rheims on the thirteenth, there were also setbacks such as at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20–21 March. Schwarzenberg then defeated two of Napoleon’s subordinates at La-Fère- Champenoise on 25 March, before linking up with Blücher on the twenty-eighth.
The Allies were now very close to Paris, where Joseph Bonaparte had failed to make adequate provision for the capital’s defense. After token resistance at Clichy and Montmartre on 30 March, Marmont refused to fight on, and the Allies entered the capital the following day. At a conference with his marshals, Napoleon found himself surrounded by men finally prepared to defy him; the troops, they declared, would listen to their generals, not the Emperor. With no alternative, Napoleon abdicated unconditionally on 11 April and, by the terms of the Treaty of Paris, took up residence on Elba, off the Italian coast, while the Bourbon line in France was restored under King Louis XVIII.
However immense the losses suffered by Napoleon in Russia, his extraordinary administrative skills enabled him to rebuild his army by the spring of 1813, though neither the men nor the horses could be replaced in their former quality or quantity. The Sixth Coalition, which had been formed by Britain, Russia, Spain, and Portugal in June 1812, now expanded as other states became emboldened to oppose Napoleonic hegemony in Europe. The Prussian corps, which had reluctantly accompanied the Grande Armée into Russia, declared its neutrality by the Convention of Tauroggen on 30 December 1812, and on 27 February 1813 Frederick William formally brought his country into the coalition by the terms of the Convention of Kalisch, signed with Russia. The Austrians remained neutral during the spring campaign, with Fürst Schwarzenberg’s corps, which had covered the southern flank of the French advance into Russia, withdrawing into Bohemia.
By the time the campaign began in the spring, Napoleon had created new fighting formations from the ashes of the old, calling up men who had been exempted from military service in the past, those who had been previously discharged but could be classed as generally fit, and those who, owing to their youth, would not normally have been eligible for front-line duty for at least another year. With such poorly trained and inexperienced, yet still enthusiastic, troops Napoleon occupied the Saxon capital, Dresden on 7–8 May, and defeated General Wittgenstein, first at Lützen on 2 May and again at Bautzen on 20–21 May. Both sides agreed to an armistice, which stretched from June through July and into mid-August, during which time the French recruited and trained their green army, while the Allies assembled larger and larger forces, now to include Austrians, Swedes, and troops from a number of former members of the Confederation of the Rhine.
When the campaign resumed, the Allies placed three multinational armies in the field: one under Schwarzenberg, one under Blücher, and a third under Napoleon’s former marshal, Bernadotte. The Allies formulated a new strategy, known as the Trachenberg Plan, by which they would seek to avoid direct confrontation with the main French army under Napoleon, instead concentrating their efforts against the Emperor’s subordinates, whom they would seek to defeat in turn. The plan succeeded: Bernadotte drubbed Oudinot at Grossbeeren on 23 August, and Blücher won against Macdonald at the Katzbach River three days later. Napoleon, for his part, scored a significant victory against Schwarzenberg at Dresden on 26–27 August, but the Emperor failed to pursue the Austrian commander. Shortly thereafter, General Vandamme’s corps became isolated during its pursuit of Schwarzenberg and was annihilated at Kulm on 29–30 August.
The end of French control of Germany was nearing. First, Bernadotte defeated Ney at Dennewitz on 6 September; then Bavaria, the principal member of the Confederation of the Rhine, defected to the Allies. The decisive battle of the campaign was fought at Leipzig from 16–19 October, when all three main Allied armies converged on the city to attack Napoleon’s positions in and around it. In the largest battle in history up to that time, both sides suffered extremely heavy losses, and though part of the Grande Armée crossed the river Elster and escaped before the bridge was blown, the Allies nevertheless achieved a victory of immense proportions that forced the French out of Germany and back across the Rhine. A Bavarian force under General Wrede tried to stop Napoleon’s retreat at Hanau on 30–31 October, but the French managed to push through to reach home soil a week later. Napoleon, his allies having either deserted his cause or found themselves under Allied occupation, now prepared to oppose the invasion of France by numerically superior armies converging on several fronts.
The Allies gathered in July at Trachenberg and crafted an attritional strategy that would ultimately counter Napoleon’s generalship by avoiding battle with him and beating his subordinates. Former Marshal now King Charles John of Sweden, Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, met the tsar at Trachenberg, where the former recommended a policy of engaging French forces commanded by the marshals, but not engaging Napoleon directly. Rather, Allied forces should withdraw from him. Bernadotte was also given command of the Army of the North. The fighting in early autumn seemed to vindicate this policy with the victory at Dennewitz on 6 September.
Summary of an exercise held at the Staff College, Sandhurst in 1974.
The full text is in ‘Sealion’ by Richard Cox. The scenario is based on the known plans of each side, plus previously unpublished Admiralty weather records for September 1940. Each side (played by British and German officers respectively) was based in a command room, and the actual moves plotted on a scale model of SE England constructed at the School of Infantry. The panel of umpires included Adolf Galland, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, Rear Admiral Edward Gueritz, General Heinz Trettner and Major General Glyn Gilbert.
The main problem the Germans face is that are a) the Luftwaffe has not yet won air supremacy; b) the possible invasion dates are constrained by the weather and tides (for a high water attack) and c) it has taken until late September to assemble the necessary shipping.
22nd September – morning
The first wave of a planned 330,000 men hit the beaches at dawn. Elements of 9 divisions landed between Folkestone and Rottingdean (near Brighton). In addition 7th FJ Div landed at Lympne to take the airfield.
The invasion fleet suffered minor losses from MTBs during the night crossing, but the RN had already lost one CA and three DDs sunk, with one CA and two DDs damaged, whilst sinking three German DDs. Within hours of the landings which overwhelmed the beach defenders, reserve formations were despatched to Kent. Although there were 25 divisions in the UK, only 17 were fully equipped, and only three were based in Kent, however the defence plan relied on the use of mobile reserves and armoured and mechanised brigades were committed as soon as the main landings were identified.
Meanwhile the air battle raged, the Luftwaffe flew 1200 fighter and 800 bomber sorties before 1200 hrs. The RAF even threw in training planes hastily armed with bombs, but the Luftwaffe were already having problems with their short ranged Me 109s despite cramming as many as possible into the Pas de Calais.
22nd – 23rd September
The Germans had still not captured a major port, although they started driving for Folkestone. Shipping unloading on the beaches suffered heavy losses from RAF bombing raids and then further losses at their ports in France.
The U-Boats, Luftwaffe and few surface ships had lost contact with the RN, but then a cruiser squadron with supporting DDs entered the Channel narrows and had to run the gauntlet of long range coastal guns, E-Boats and 50 Stukas. Two CAs were sunk and one damaged. However a diversionary German naval sortie from Norway was completely destroyed and other sorties by MTBS and DDs inflicted losses on the shipping milling about in the Channel. German shipping losses on the first day amounted to over 25% of their invasion fleet, especially the barges, which proved desperately unseaworthy.
23rd Sept dawn – 1400 hrs.
The RAF had lost 237 planes out 1048 (167 fighters and 70 bombers), and the navy had suffered enough losses such that it was keeping its BBs and CVs back, but large forces of DDs and CAs were massing. Air recon showed a German buildup in Cherbourg and forces were diverted to the South West.
The German Navy were despondent about their losses, especially as the loss of barges was seriously dislocating domestic industry. The Army and Airforce commanders were jubilant however, and preparations for the transfer of the next echelon continued along with the air transport of 22nd Div, despite Luftwaffe losses of 165 fighters and 168 bombers. Out of only 732 fighters and 724 bombers these were heavy losses. Both sides overestimated losses inflicted by 50%.
The 22nd Div airlanded successfully at Lympne, although long range artillery fire directed by a stay-behind commando group interdicted the runways. The first British counterattacks by 42nd Div supported by an armoured brigade halted the German 34th Div in its drive on Hastings. 7th Panzer Div was having difficulty with extensive anti-tank obstacles and assault teams armed with sticky bombs etc. Meanwhile an Australian Div had retaken Newhaven (the only German port), however the New Zealand Div arrived at Folkestone only to be attacked in the rear by 22nd Airlanding Div. The division fell back on Dover having lost 35% casualties.
Sep 23rd 1400 – 1900 hrs
Throughout the day the Luftwaffe put up a maximum effort, with 1500 fighter and 460 bomber sorties, but the RAF persisted in attacks on shipping and airfields. Much of this effort was directed for ground support and air resupply, despite Adm Raeder’s request for more air cover over the Channel. The Home Fleet had pulled out of air range however, leaving the fight in the hands of 57 DDs and 17 CAs plus MTBs. The Germans could put very little surface strength against this. Waves of DDs and CAs entered the Channel, and although two were sunk by U-Boats, they sank one U-Boat in return and did not stop. The German flotilla at Le Havre put to sea (3 DD, 14 E-Boats) and at dusk intercepted the British, but were wiped out, losing all their DDs and 7 E-Boats.
The Germans now had 10 divisions ashore, but in many cases these were incomplete and waiting for their second echelon to arrive that night. The weather was unsuitable for the barges however, and the decision to sail was referred up the chain of command.
23rd Sep 1900 – Sep 24th dawn
The Fuhrer Conference held at 1800 broke out into bitter inter-service rivalry – the Army wanted their second echelon sent, and the navy protesting that the weather was unsuitable, and the latest naval defeat rendered the Channel indefensible without air support. Goring countered this by saying it could only be done by stopped the terror bombing of London, which in turn Hitler vetoed. The fleet was ordered to stand by.
The RAF meanwhile had lost 97 more fighters leaving only 440. The airfields of 11 Group were cratered ruins, and once more the threat of collapse, which had receded in early September, was looming. The Luftwaffe had lost another 71 fighters and 142 bombers. Again both sides overestimated losses inflicted, even after allowing for inflated figures.
On the ground the Germans made good progress towards Dover and towards Canterbury, however they suffered reverses around Newhaven when the 45th Div and Australians attacked. At 2150 Hitler decided to launch the second wave, but only the short crossing from Calais and Dunkirk. By the time the order reached the ports, the second wave could not possibly arrive before dawn. The 6th and 8th divisions at Newhaven, supplied from Le Havre, would not be reinforced at all.
Sep 24th dawn – Sep 28th
The German fleet set sail, the weather calmed, and U-Boats, E-Boats and fighters covered them. However at daylight 5th destroyer flotilla found the barges still 10 miles off the coast and tore them to shreds. The Luftwaffe in turn committed all its remaining bombers, and the RAF responded with 19 squadrons of fighters. The Germans disabled two CAs and four DDs, but 65% of the barges were sunk. The faster steamers broke away and headed for Folkestone, but the port had been so badly damaged that they could only unload two at a time.
The failure on the crossing meant that the German situation became desperate. The divisions had sufficient ammunition for 2 to 7 days more fighting, but without extra men and equipment could not extend the bridgehead. Hitler ordered the deployment on reserve units to Poland and the Germans began preparations for an evacuation as further British attacks hemmed them in tighter. Fast steamers and car ferries were assembled for evacuation via Rye and Folkestone. Of 90,000 troops who landed on 22nd September, only 15,400 returned to France, the rest were killed or captured.
There is documentary evidence that provisional invasion plans were drawn up, and that orders for certain preparations were issued. At the same time there remains considerable controversy as to whether Operation Sea Lion ever amounted to more than a generously resourced bluff – a deception operation on a grand scale. A successful bluff, after all, requires great effort if it is to look like the real thing, and requires the pretence of full preparations. If an enemy is to be deceived, so too must many of the supposed ‘participants’, in this case including many senior officers in the Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine. This is not as difficult to achieve as it might sound. Except at the very highest level, confidentiality ensures that even quite senior officers are only aware of the aspects of an operation which directly involve them, and this helps explain how some of the Generals failed to see through the charade, and failed to realise that an invasion could not work. Most simply assumed that other parts of the operation would deal with any difficulties they anticipated.
Preparations for Sea Lion were certainly extensive, and detailed. At least 250 Panzers were modified as amphibious assault vehicles, with water seals and long ‘Schnorkels’, while the number of horses to be embarked was reduced when Halder decided that his Cavalry would use bicycles instead of horses. Newsreels were even prepared for use in the immediate aftermath of a landing (shot during rehearsals, and convincingly cut with real footage from the Battle of France), while food for the various troops, horses and dogs was gathered. But in the end, this was as much wishful thinking as the plans to deport all British males between 17 and 45 to the Reich, or as the appointments of Nazi bureaucrats to run Britain after a successful invasion. Nor was the planned removal of Nelson’s column from London (to be re-erected in “Berlin as a symbol of victory) any more real!
There is a great deal of evidence to support the hypothesis that Hitler never intended to invade Britain at all. Some suggest that the flotilla of barges supposedly assembled for the invasion actually served two purposes. They were primarily assembled as a bluff, but one which could have been turned into reality had circumstances persuaded Hitler (the supreme opportunist) that an invasion could have succeeded. Interestingly, the number of barges assembled in the Channel ports declined steadily after mid-September, dropping from 1004 on 18 September to 691 by the end of the month. Similarly, on 10 September, the first two divisions that had been on standby for Sea Lion quietly moved east. More would soon follow. This was hardly consistent with the build-up prior to an invasion, and conclusively demonstrated that by mid-September, at least, Sea Lion had ceased to be a reality, if it ever had been real at all.
Yet S-Day was eventually scheduled for 21 September, with a final go-ahead date on 11 September. The operation was officially ordered, but was postponed on 17 September. This was, officially at least, a postponement and not a cancellation and preparations and rehearsals continued unabated into October. But on 12 October, General Wilhelm Keitel, the Chief of Staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW – Hitler’s replacement for the War Ministry), acknowledged that it was now continuing ‘only as a means of exerting political and military pressure on England’ and that its execution would ‘possibly’ take place the following year. In the meantime, this ‘bluff’ had been an expensive one, dramatically slowing down industrial production, producing food shortages at home, and putting at risk the 1941 harvest. Iron ore and coal built up at the Baltic ports, with insufficient barges to transport it to the Ruhr, and even priority programmes (V-boat construction for example) began to slip. Barges were actually converted and crewed for their new role, consuming 75,000 cubic metres of concrete, 30,000 tonnes of iron girders and 40,000 cubic metres of wooden planks, plus 4000 towlines and huge quantities of canvas, chain and armour plate. Huge numbers of former seamen were transferred from the army and Luftwaffe, and the Kriegsmarine mobilised its reserves.
Hitler himself never showed much interest in the planning for Sea Lion, in marked contrast to the planning which had led to the conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. When the Kriegsmarine and Wehrmacht initially produced various invasion studies, Hitler expressly forbade any real preparations, concentrating first on the drive to capture Paris, and then on celebrating his victory. This lack of involvement may have had little significance, since Hitler was very much a land-based military thinker, unable to understand the problems of air and sea power. Those who believe in the reality of Sea Lion use Hitler’s land-based thinking to explain that he was thus bound to leave detailed planning in the hands of his subordinates. But others see in this lack of involvement a confirmation that Sea Lion was never more than a ‘planning option’. Hitler was, after all, psychologically driven to be directly involved in the planning of all of his great victories.
While Hitler often relied on luck, daring and surprise to ‘carry the day’, and was often inadequately prepared to meet well-ordered opposition, the Wehrmacht’s lack of preparation for an invasion of Britain was in an entirely different league. The Allied D-Day landings took two years to prepare, with huge logistical problems to overcome. Some now ask how, if Hitler ever intended mounting a real invasion, he ever dreamed that he might succeed with so little preparation and planning? Incredible as it may now seem, the complete lack of detail in the Sea Lion plan, and the failure to take account of logistics, opposition and other factors may simply have represented a complete lack of understanding of the scope of the proposed undertaking, and the nature of the English Channel itself. As if to confirm this, a High Command memo compared the proposed operation to a ‘river crossing on a broad front’.
But lack of preparation may not have been the main factor in preventing an invasion. After one meeting to discuss invasion plans, General Halder noted in his diary that Hitler ‘believes that England must be forced into making peace. The reason: if we destroy England militarily, the British Empire will fall. Germany will gain nothing from this. German blood would have been spilt for Japan, America, and others.’ There is no doubt that Hitler had some difficulty in seeing the British people (as opposed to their leaders) as being a natural enemy, and because of this, he had little stomach for a war against (or an invasion of) Britain, particularly while communist Russia was still in existence on his doorstep, so to speak. While Nazi peace overtures were rudely rebuffed by Churchill’s government, Hitler still held back from the kind of all-out war against another Aryan nation which an invasion would have represented. He was never quite sure what an invasion of Britain would achieve, and when asked about the invasion plan is quoted as having said ‘Let us by all means conquer Britain. But what then, and what for?’ Hitler knew that even if an invasion were successful, the effort of holding on to the island nation would prevent him from launching the attack on Russia.
Even if it is accepted that Hitler himself ever seriously contemplated an invasion, there is plenty of evidence that any such plans had been shelved indefinitely long before the Battle of Britain reached its climax. The lack of transport ships, the unsuitability of the Rhine barges commandeered for the operation and the Kriegsmarine’s lack of naval superiority cast doubt on the viability of any landing operation. There was little chance that any invasion fleet could have survived the Channel crossing in the face of Royal Navy intervention, and even with air superiority, the Luftwaffe as equipped in 1940 could not have prevented such an intervention.
But whatever Hitler’s motivation, and whatever he thought about Sea Lion’s prospects, there is little doubt that many in the German High Command never took it seriously. Even after the issue of Fuehrer-Direktiv 16, Generals JodI and Jeschonnek remained convinced that there would be no invasion, and profoundly doubted that Germany could actually mount such an operation. Even Goring, fanatically, loyal to Hitler, lacked much faith in the planned invasion. He would probably have enjoyed the opportunity to show off his Luftwaffe, but was always worried that the proposed invasion would not, or could not work, and was astonished and angry to find that his air campaign was subordinated to the needs of the army and navy in the invasion.
Goring remained hungry for glory and prominence, and hoped that his Luftwaffe would make Sea Lion an unnecessary irrelevance by forcing Britain to surrender or sue for peace through bombing alone. His overall concept for an independent air campaign was sensible enough, aiming as it did to probe Britain’s defences, then destroy the RAF on the ground and in the air, simultaneously destroying Britain’s aircraft industry and attacking harbours and shipping to cut off vital imports. Goring felt that this campaign in itself could bring Britain to its knees. Goring’s total faith in the efficacy of air attacks may now appear to be .profoundly unrealistic, but for anyone schooled in the air power theories of the 1920s, the belief that a war could be won by bombing alone was by no means unusual, and was almost an orthodoxy. In any case, had the Luftwaffe been properly equipped for a true strategic bombing campaign, then perhaps Goring’s high expectations would not have been so wide of the mark. But in 1940, the Luftwaffe was a tactical air force, tailored to the needs of army support, and ill-equipped and ill-prepared for autonomous strategic operation.