Hawker Hurricanes fly in formation. It’s estimated that Hurricane pilots were credited with four-fifths of all enemy aircraft destroyed in the Battle of Britain.
But “the new factor of airpower altered this concept fundamentally.” Beginning in July 1940, the Luftwaffe, newly established on frontline French and Dutch airfields, began assaulting English Channel shipping in the Strait of Dover. While the Ju.87 dive-bombers suffered heavily from the Hurricanes and Spitfires of RAF Fighter Command, “even with fighter protection, it was soon found too expensive to operate ships in the Channel by day and [the flotilla] patrols were confined to the hours of darkness.” As the Battle of Britain reached a climax in the skies over southern England in August and early September, “no one now seriously believed that if the Royal Air Force was defeated by the Luftwaffe the [naval] flotilla would be able to operate for long in the Narrow Seas. After its experience in Norway it was clear that the Home Fleet could not help either. It had been reluctant to face a single Fliegerkorps in that campaign and would have still less chance against the five Fliegerkorps now in France.” Forbes obviously believed this to be the case and opposed stationing any of his battleships or cruisers near or in the Channel. “He even went so far as to say that whilst the R.A.F. was undefeated he believed that defence against invasion should be left to them and the Army.” This shocking conclusion “could only be taken as an abdication from the Navy’s traditional role and a belief that the fleet was only of use against an invasion as a last ditch suicide force.”
In fact, there was something rather peculiar about the Royal Navy in the early war years. On the big ships, at least, it was as if there was no war. Late in 1940 Lieutenant Commander Joseph H. Wellings, the assistant U.S. naval attaché in London, joined the Home Fleet for a time. His first service was aboard a destroyer, HMS Eskimo, whose ship’s company he found both keen and agreeable. The battle cruiser Hood that he joined near the end of the year was filled with the same pleasant chaps, but it was as if they were members of a yacht club. At a time of steadily growing stringencies in the civilian sector, the food aboard ship was nothing short of sumptuous, with huge, well-cooked breakfasts including fruit, cereals, fish, eggs, kidneys, mushrooms, and so on, goods that the civilian sector would hardly see again until 1949 or ’50. Lunch was the same: at least seven kinds of cold meats, vegetables, sweet butter . . . There was both dinner and supper, plus tea. And there were drinks—pink gins or excellent martinis before both lunch and dinner. Wellings wrote his wife on several occasions that he really had to watch his weight.
For all its flaws, John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet had been a hardworking outfit. But in 1939–1941 there were no repeated sweeps by the heavy ships of the upper North Sea. When intelligence was received that one or more of Raeder’s handful of big surface ships, a cruiser, pocket battleship, or even Scharnhorst or Gneisenau, might be preparing to sail against the Atlantic convoys, one of the Home Fleet’s World War I–era battleships or battle cruisers, Ramilles or Repulse, for example, would leave Scapa Flow to serve as escort over to Halifax and back. But, presumably, the German menace from above and below the waters was too pronounced for extended fleet operations under any conditions short of extreme emergency such as the Norwegian campaign when, in fact, the fleet remained largely out of action. So the massive forty-two thousand–ton Hood, the largest warship in the world at that moment, spent quite a bit of time swinging around its anchor chain. On New Year’s Eve 1940, everyone remained in the wardroom after dinner for drinks—even the youngest “snotties”—and near midnight the captain appeared together with the admiral and his entire staff. One of the younger officers drew out his bagpipes, and as the gin continued to go down, men and boys began to dance. Five months later everybody in that compartment with the exception of Wellings and all but three of Hood’s thirteen hundred–plus company would be vaporized together with their ship under the guns of Germany’s newest and most powerful warships, battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen.
Had the Germans but known or suspected the indolence of their enemy’s heavy units, then two compelling invasion scenarios might well have come into play. John Lukacs’s research suggests that the best time for Hitler to have conquered Britain was during or immediately following Dunkirk. In the desperate ninety-six hours following the evacuation, Churchill, knowing full well the defeatism that now gripped his beloved fleet, feared that Hitler might be able to put several thousand superbly trained and disciplined shock troops ashore in Kent or East Anglia from small, fast motorboats (presumably at night) together with several regiments of paratroops who might even descend on London itself, thus creating a major disruption as several hundred thousand demoralized and largely disarmed Allied troops sorted themselves out amid no little chaos after returning to England. Had the führer abandoned his not implausible policy of seeking a general peace with His Majesty’s government during the earliest stages of the French campaign and ordered emergency planning for an immediate, dramatic coup de main against England as soon as the British and French armies were neutralized in Belgium, the operation might have permitted a much larger follow-up effort to succeed in the coming weeks.
Military analyst Hanson W. Baldwin has argued that Sealion itself could have worked as late as August or September 1940 if the plan had been revised and prosecuted under precisely the right circumstances. “At night a large airborne and amphibious force might have spanned the Strait of Dover and the Channel and probably could have forced a landing on British soil despite the intervention of the British Navy and the RAF. . . . It is entirely conceivable, too, that the Germans could have won a localized air superiority over the invasion area—the only kind that mattered.” Certainly, the Germans’ need to sweep at least a narrow corridor through the British minefields off the northwest European coast would have given London some warning that an invasion was imminent. But we now know from Admiral Arthur Hezlet that had the Luftwaffe defeated the RAF’s Fighter Command, the Royal Navy probably would not have moved from Scapa Flow to the Kent and East Anglian invasion beaches until too late. Indeed, once Hitler forced a major lodgment in England, his soldiers and sailors might well have been spared any intervention by the Home Fleet. Churchill’s repeated assurances to FDR and others that should Britain go down the navy would sail to the New World suddenly take on portentous meaning. The prime minister clearly assumed that his ships and sailors would not immolate themselves seeking to forestall a Nazi invasion, but would sail away to fight another day. Baldwin’s compelling scenario of a sudden, violent blow against England of the sort that had been embraced as truth by a hysterical public in the months and years immediately preceding 1914 just might have worked a quarter century later in the face of the Royal Navy’s almost flagrant defeatism.