“There were some, indeed... who would like to have seen him try.”
These startling words can be found in Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, hidden away and rarely commented upon. Startling, because the received wisdom about Sea Lion, the Nazi plan for the invasion of England, is that Britain held on by its fingernails. The country was saved only by the bravery of the RAF’s fighter pilots, “The Few”.
Most historians now accept that if the Nazis had attempted an invasion in September 1940, they would have been heavily defeated, not by the RAF or the British Army, but by the Royal Navy.
At that time, the Royal Navy was ten times bigger than the German Kriegsmarine, repeat ten times! It was bloodied but unbowed after the battles in Norway and at Dunkirk. That may be true, but what about the Luftwaffe, you might ask? Would it not have been able to destroy the British fleet? Well, it tried, at Dunkirk, with only limited success. Undoubtedly, the Royal Navy would have suffered losses as it attacked the invasion fleet, especially if the RAF had been seriously weakened. But have a look at a map of the English Channel; then have a look at the specifications of the Bf109 and the Ju87, especially their limited range.
And think about the night. The Royal Navy’s capital ships could have stayed out of range of the Luftwaffe’s dive-bombers by day, then made the dash from the safety of East Anglia to the Channel and back to safe waters, all in the hours of the darkness. Except for a handful of extended-range Ju87s, the only aircraft that could have reached the Royal Navy’ ships there would have been the vulnerable, inaccurate level bombers, escorted by the just-as-vulnerable Bf110 twin-engined fighters. The Luftwaffe sent such a formation across the North Sea once, just once. It was a turkey shoot for the RAF’s Hurricanes.
Then imagine what those twenty or thirty cruisers and battleships would have done in a few hours of darkness to the barges and steamers of the German invasion fleet, as they tried to bring over the second echelon and supplies? What would their 15” guns have done to the German forces that had managed to get ashore in England? Think Omaha beach, but with German battleships rather than Allied doing the shore bombardment.
Deterrent forces rarely make as good headlines as forces in action, so it is understandable that there was little publicity for the Royal Navy’s vital role. It has also been suggested that, after a succession of crushing defeats on the continent, Churchill needed a victory. He needed to destroy the aura of German invincibility to bolster the nation for the hard struggle ahead, and the RAF’s pilots provided just that.
His words at the start of this article above reflect the likely outcome of an invasion. But who were the “some” who would like to have seen (Hitler) try. For me, the words are written in such an uncritical way, that the most likely candidate is Winston Spencer Churchill himself. If he had disapproved of the view, I believe that the sentiment would show. How far might he have been tempted to go? With his history of military gambles, from the Dardanelles to Norway, he was well capable of turning such a feeling into bold, even reckless plan of action.
In An Invitation to Hitler, I explore this possibility, in a fictionalized, dramatized and hopefully thought-provoking way.
* * *
Bernard Neeson is a keen student of political and military history. Now retired after a long career in the technology industry, he lives in Dublin, Ireland where he indulges his pastimes of sailing and writing. His first novel, "An Invitation to Hitler" reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, and the shortlist for the UK SpaSpa awards.