‘Even a Small Invasion might go a Long Way’ II

The British built 18,000 pillboxes to repel a German assault. This one is disguised as a garage.

The press had been quick to play down the events of 7 September and douse any speculation that may have existed amongst the civil population that an invasion was imminent, following massive air raids on east London. On Monday, 9th September, the Daily Mail gave front page coverage to an explanation of the weekend’s events beneath the heading: ‘3 MORE INVASION SCARES’. The Daily Herald and several other national dailies also carried similar reports. Readers were assured that the authorities were making urgent inquiries into the ringing ‘by mistake’ of church bells in several areas of Britain. According to the reports the invasion alarm had been sounded from Hampshire to the Northeast of England and also in parts of Scotland. It was stated that the Home Guard had been called out in parts of southern and eastern England and off duty military personnel had been ordered back to their barracks. The Daily Herald also reported that on the Sunday morning, the residents of Basingstoke had milk delivered to their doorsteps by Home Guard milkmen still in their uniforms and carrying rifles. The ‘false alarm’ stories would continue to appear over the following two days but they were quickly displaced from the front pages of the newspapers by official warnings of ‘imminent invasion’. The situation appeared to be so grave that the prime minister made a personnel radio broadcast to the nation, during which, referring to the invasion preparations across the Channel, he said: ‘We cannot tell when they will try to come. We cannot be sure in fact they will try at all, but no one should blind himself to the fact that a heavy, full-scale invasion of this island is being prepared with all of the usual German thoroughness and method and that it may be launched at any time now upon England, upon Scotland, upon Ireland or upon all three. If this invasion is going to be tried at all it does not seem that it can be long delayed … Therefore we must regard the next week or so as a very important week in our history.’ Churchill’s detailed delivery went on to condemn the Luftwaffe’s attacks on London and other cities and praise their defenders. He also reassured the nation that: ‘Our fleets are powerful and numerous, our air force is conscious of its proved superiority, our shores are well fortified and strongly manned… we have a larger and far better equipped army than we have ever had before and a ‘million and a half men of the Home Guard, just as much soldiers of the regular army in status as the Grenadier Guards.’ But in reality the prime minister’s words masked the true facts; Britain’s shores were not particularly well fortified or manned and the Home Guard was poorly armed. Nevertheless, the essence of his stirring and defiant speech was reported in the press beneath a variety of headlines, always accompanied by ominous warnings.

On Wednesday, 11th September, the same day that the military authorities formally requisitioned Shingle Street, the front page of the New York Sun carried the headline: ‘Churchill Warns That Hitler Is Assembling Craft and Troops for Invasion of England’. It further stated that ‘the next week may be the most critical in England’s history.’ Another, shorter report, suggested that the Germans had already attempted a landing on the English coast. On Thursday, 12th September it was cloudy in the Channel and there were only small raids in the south of England and even a reduced effort by the German raiders at night when the main force raided the capital. Several provincial newspapers in the UK reported details of what was claimed to be a failed attempt by German forces to land in England. The story upon which their reports were based had originated in the USA, having appeared in the previous day’s edition of the New York Sun, beneath the headline: ‘French Report Hitler has tried Invasion Already.’ The Sun’s report was supposedly based upon information received from ‘French residents and independent sources’, claiming that an attempt by Nazi forces to land in England had ‘failed disastrously.’ It was stated that the invasion force had set out from the French port of St. Malo with the intention of landing on the west coast of England. The newspaper added that the French informants had been ‘reticent about details’ but believed the story had already been reported in the British press [sic]. The very few British newspapers that reported the story on the following day simply gave the basic details and echoed the Sun’s assertion that the failed attempt had been ‘nothing short of suicide.’ The News Chronicle reported that German ships were ‘Massing from Hamburg to Brest’, while the Daily Telegraph warned: ‘Next week likely to be most fateful.’ The following day’s edition of the Telegraph went as far as quoting reports from Berlin, stating that ‘Invasion Day is Monday.’

On Friday, 13th September Mr. Richard Brown, an Air Raid Warden in Ipswich had heard rumours among work colleagues and recorded them in his diary. ‘New York now has rumours that Jerry corpses are being washed up on the Yarmouth beaches in quantities.’ His comments are curious; the story that had appeared in the New York Sun had not mentioned bodies, or Yarmouth. Neither had the very few British newspapers that repeated the story – they would not have been allowed to. On the following Monday, beneath the heading ‘Too Busy Tongues’, the editor of the Leicester Mercury commented: ‘Despite warnings and exhortations, it seems the spate of rumours flows more strongly than ever.’

Within days the Leicester MP and Assistant Post-Master General, Captain Charles Waterhouse, told the audience at a public meeting that: ‘there was no foundation for a rumour that an attempt had been made by the Germans to invade this country.’ More stories of a German invasion attempt appeared in several provincial newspapers. Once again the stories originated from America, claiming that a small scale invasion attempt had failed having been: ‘beaten off with heavy losses.’ These new stories mirrored the already established and still spreading rumour. The report that appeared in the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph was typical, intimating that the invaders had been annihilated and it ended with the words: ‘no German remains alive to tell.’ Whatever its origins, the content of the rumour and the rapidity with which it had spread, are indeed extraordinary, given that this was a time when spreading this type of rumour would lead to a charge of causing ‘Alarm and Despondency’. An offence that if proven would incur severe penalties under Defence Regulations. However, the fear of punishment seems to have had little effect on the spread of the invasion rumour and the stories continued to circulate on the ‘grapevine’ through the remainder of September. In the meantime the press reports also continued, some claiming that a Nazi invasion armada had been ‘scattered and destroyed’ by a combination of Channel gales and RAF raids.

Over the weekend of 14/15th September the Operational Record Books of many RAF squadrons reported that aircraft were grounded due to bad weather in the Channel but, bombed dress rehearsal or otherwise, could a number of bodies, no matter how many, float en masse all the way across the English Channel or the North Sea, some ending up on Suffolk beaches? During the Dunkirk evacuation there had been substantial loss of life when the Luftwaffe bombed boats and ships as they rescued the BEF from the beaches. On 28 May when the destroyer HMS Wakeful was torpedoed and sunk by a E-boat only one of the 640 allied troops and 25 of Wakeful’s crew survived. Nineteen crew and 275 troops were killed when the minesweeper HMS Skipjack was bombed by Stukas off La Panne beach on 1st June. It has been estimated that around 2,000 troops had lost their lives before Operation ‘Dynamo’ came to a close on 4 June. And yet there appears to be no contemporary reports of British or French bodies being swept across the Channel to the shores of Kent and Sussex. Coastguards gave the considered opinion that it is theoretically possible for a body to float all the way across the North Sea, but unlikely based on the mechanics of the east coast tides. If a body was washed ashore on the east coast it had in all probability gone into the sea relatively close to the shore. Furthermore, if the body went into the sea when the tide was going out it would be washed down the coast and if it went in to the sea when the tide was coming in, it would be washed up the coast. Records relating to bodies washed ashore along the east coast during WWII appear to support the coastguard’s expert opinion:

‘The body of German airman Eric Kotulla, a crewmember of a Dornier shot down off Brancaster on 21 August, drifted 25miles down the Norfolk coast before being washed ashore at West Runton on 2 September. Although it is possible that the bodies of German soldiers may have floated across the Channel or North Sea, it is also possible that they could have gone into the sea much closer to the shore and were then dispersed along the coast to be washed ashore elsewhere days or even weeks later.

On Saturday, 14th September several British newspapers printed short extracts from a story that had appeared in the same day’s edition of the New York Times. In the American report, Dr. Charles Bove, the former head of the American Hospital in Paris, just returned to the US from France, claimed that: ‘Germany has already tried to invade England and has failed at high cost.’ He backed up his claims by stating that he had seen the bodies of German soldiers floating in the Channel following a failed invasion attempt: ‘There were hundreds in the water off Cherbourg.’ The New York Times also quoted British military sources as saying: ‘there has been absolutely no attempt at invasion in any shape size or form.’ But, even as these brief reports appeared in the British press, rumours that a German invasion attempt had actually taken place were already in widespread circulation. And in the word-of-mouth stories spreading throughout the eastern counties of England, the attempt had been destroyed and the bodies of German soldiers had been washed up on east coast beaches. In one version of the rumour, an enemy invasion fleet had set out but had been destroyed by the RAF before it reached British shores. Another maintained that a small enemy force had landed but had been immediately ‘overcome’ and annihilated. There were also accompanying tales of mysterious night time convoys of lorries and ambulances going to and from beaches.

Due to the failure of the Luftwaffe to establish air supremacy, Hitler chaired a meeting with the OKW staff on 14 September at his headquarters. Hitler concluded that air superiority had not yet been established and ‘promised to review the situation on 17 September for possible landings on 27 September or 8 October.’Hitler even asked ‘Should we call it off altogether?’ General Hans Jeschonnek, Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, begged for a last chance to defeat the RAF and for permission to launch attacks on civilian residential areas to cause mass panic. Hitler refused the latter, perhaps unaware of how much damage had already been done to civilian targets. He reserved for himself the power to unleash the terror weapon. Instead political will was to be broken by destroying the material infrastructure, the weapons industry and stocks of fuel and food. Göring was in France directing the decisive battle, so Erhard Milch deputized for him. Milch, now with the rank of general, commanded Luftflotte 5 during the Norwegian campaign. Following the defeat of France, Milch was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall and given the title Air Inspector General. As such, Milch was in charge of aircraft production. Milch had been amazed by the wreckage at Dunkirk and fearing that Germany ‘had no time to waste’ on 5 June had formulated a daring scheme to invade Britain immediately with paratroopers spearheading a landing in southern England under cover of heavy bombing. The paratroopers were to seize two airfields which would be used to bring in fleets of Ju 52s carrying ammunition and weapons. Once a bridgehead had been established, ten infantry divisions could then he transported across the Channel to finish off Britain’s weakened forces. Milch had put the plan to Göring but he told him that ‘it could not be done.’ Göring however, changed his mind and the following day visited Hitler in Brûly-de-Peche, the Belgian village where Hitler based himself during the final stages of the French campaign and outlined Milch’s scheme, which the Reichsmarschall claimed ‘was a blueprint for victory’. But the Führer was unconvinced.

In London on Sunday, 15th September Raymond Lee the United States Military Attaché wrote: ‘This is the date after which I believe Hitler’s chances will rapidly dwindle. The weather holds good in a miraculous manner but there are faint premonitory puffs of wind from the South- West and a chill in the air. Dispatches received through Switzerland say that there are the beginnings of a press campaign in Germany breaking the news to the people that England is to be subdued by blockade and bombing. If this is true, Hitler is on the downgrade. I can’t for the life of me puzzle out what the Germans are up to. They have great air power and yet are dissipating it in fruitless and aimless attacks all over England. They must have an exaggerated idea of the damage they are doing and the effects of their raids on public morale… Just as I finish writing this, the heavy guns commence giving tongue and the little Irish maid comes in to turn down the bed. She went over to Victoria to see the plane which crashed there and is very pleased because she saw the dead German crew extracted from the wreckage.

The large scale attack on London on 15 September failed to break the back of Fighter Command. Squadron Leader Walter Myers Churchill DSO DFC Commanding 605 (County of Warwick) Squadron recalled: ‘The day dawned bright and clear at Croydon. It never seemed to do anything else during those exciting weeks of August and September. But to us it was just another day. We weren’t interested in Hitler’s entry into London; most of us were wondering whether we should have time to finish breakfast before the first blitz started.’ The first big attack came in the morning at 1100 hours. A wave of about 100 German aircraft was spotted heading over the Kent coast towards London followed by a second wave of about 150 aircraft. Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons were sent to meet them and many German planes were reported to have turned away without dropping any bombs. At about 1400 hours another wave of about 150 German aircraft crossed the coast near Dover – again followed by a second wave of 100 aircraft. They appeared to be heading for targets in south London and railways in London and Kent. Fighter patrols were again ready to meet the enemy and only seventy or so enemy planes reached central London where there were a series of dogfights. The attacks continued with smaller raids on Portland and Southampton. Again the enemy aircraft were successfully driven off by the RAF fighters. As darkness fell, the raids continued on London inflicting major damage on targets in the south of the city.

At 2000 hours on Sunday night, Winston Churchill, who had returned to 10 Downing Street, was awoken. He received bad news from the Navy. In the Atlantic sinking of shipping had been bad, but his Secretary informed him that all had been redeemed in the day’s air battle. He was told that the RAF had downed 183 enemy aircraft for less than forty aircraft lost. (The true figure was 56 German aircraft shot down for the loss of 26 RAF fighters but thirteen pilots were saved). By the time that most people had either emerged from their Anderson shelters or had risen after another rather uncomfortable night’s sleep, the daily newspapers were busy informing them of the events of the previous day. The Daily Telegraph stated that ‘Of the 350 to 400 enemy planes launched in two waves against the capital and south-east England, 175, or nearly 50 per cent were shot down according to returns… The Germans loss yesterday was their highest since 15 August, when 180 were shot down. On 18 August they lost 153. In personnel their loss yesterday was over 500 airmen against twenty RAF pilots.’ The Daily Herald told a similar story, but added that AA gunfire had brought down four of the 175 German aircraft. On the subject of the RAF victory, they went on to say that in both of the raids, the gallant pilots and squadrons of the RAF harassed the bombers so much that those that were not shot down, were harried and chased right back to the Channel. The Germans had encountered their most gruelling reception so far.

As a British flying boat arrived in New York delivering news of a ‘record bag’ of 185 enemy aircraft the German Embassy tried in vain to correct the total but they were ignored and the New York Times ran several excited stories calling for a military alliance with Britain and her Commonwealth. Belatedly the Nazi Party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter announced that attacks on London had caused considerable damage. It claimed the Luftwaffe destroyed 79 RAF aircraft for 43 losses. Actual RAF losses amounted to 29 fighters.

Göring called a conference to inform the Luftwaffe that the German fighters had failed. He informed his Luftflotten commanders that, ‘The British air force is far from finished, their fighters proved that yesterday. Their bombers are continually attacking our barge installations and although we must admit they have achieved some form of success, but I will only say and repeat what I have said before and that is our orders to attempt full scale attacks on London, instead of the destruction of their air force will not achieve the success we need, it will only act as our demise.’ The Luftwaffe’s losses had been brushed aside by the Reichsmarschall who still maintained that RAF Fighter Command would be annihilated ‘in four or five days’ but ordered a resumption of attacks on Fighter Command and the factories supplying it. German Intelligence however, had failed to appreciate that on the morning of Monday, 16th September no less than 160 new Hurricanes and Spitfires were available as replacements with upward of 400 aircraft available elsewhere for delivery within one week.

If Göring was disappointed, Hitler was furious. London was supposed to have been flattened and in flames and the people supposed to have been bombed almost into submission. Göring ordered the air fleets to begin a new phase of the battle. Hitler hoped this might result in ‘eight million going mad’ (referring to the population of London), which would ‘cause a catastrophe’ for the British. In those circumstances, Hitler said, ‘even a small invasion might go a long way’.

We can only speculate what this ‘small invasion’ or possibly as many as three invasions might have been.