Operation Sealion

Reviewed by: Andy Field

The notes on the inside front cover tell us that David Wragg “studies all aspects of the Nazi’s plans, their available capability and resources and their record in Norway and, later, Crete. These are weighed against the state of Britain’s defences and the relative strengths of the opposing land, air and naval forces.” This is with the aim of producing an authoritative and fascinating study of “what was arguably the greatest threat to the British nation in its history – or was it?”
Fair enough. I can see how David Wragg has attempted to bring a new perspective on Operation SEALION. I don’t feel that he’s quite managed it in this book, though, and it just didn’t work for me. I would have liked a shorter, but more focused book. What I got was a study which, in its first three chapters, took me through Germany’s conquests up to the evacuation of Dunkirk and a short chapter, which basically described, ‘what next?’ in Britain.
I was expecting to next read about the air battles and the preparations to defend Britain. Instead there was a section which dealt in some detail with Roman, Viking and Norman invasions, which were interesting but I wasn’t entirely sure why they were there. The chapter was called ‘Lessons of Invasions Past’ but for me these were largely irrelevant when looking at SEALION. Perhaps it would have made more sense to examine the landings at Gallipoli. Not Britain, I know, but maybe more pertinent. There certainly didn’t seem to be any explicit links between these earlier landings and the proposed German invasion. It all seemed slightly contrived.
Chapter Four covers the German invasion plans, which were unrealistic compared with the later invasion of Normandy. The Germans, for example were planning to use 67,000 airborne and seaborne troops, but only 2,000 invasion barges. These craft, converted from commercial barges, would have had to have crossed the English Channel in the teeth of naval and aerial opposition, land their troops and then sail back across the Channel to pick up the second wave, leaving the first wave of troops alone and unsupported by naval gunfire.
All three arms of Germany’s military faced tremendous difficulties in planning for an invasion, and co-operation was distinctly absent. In short, the Germans were not geared up in any way for amphibious landings. As David Wragg points out, whilst the Luftwaffe felt that they could do the job alone, there were tensions between the German Wehrmacht and Kreigsmarine over the location and breadth of the landing site. The army described the navy’s preferred, narrow, landing front as a sausage machine, unable to ferry or adequately support the landings in the face of Royal Navy and RAF counter attacks. I have one big gripe here. The picture of the German Graf Spee, already sunk, but with two sisters which could have been used to provide gunfire support, was captioned, “The four 12-inch guns in two turrets.” Did no-one check facts, or even look at the picture?
So, we move on, through Chapter Five to the Battle of Britain, and Chapter Six, ‘The State of the Navies in 1940′. So far, so good. There have been a few repetitions of facts and statements, but generally we have had a steady account of the war in 1939 and 1940. It is here that the book lost me, to the point that I almost gave up on it. The next four chapters cover the German occupations of land in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the attack on Crete and the invasion of Russia. Given the supposed focus on SEALION, why?
What David Wragg is trying to do is to outline what might have happened in Britain, had the invasion succeeded; there would have been identity cards, work permits, deportations, persecution, collaboration and resistance. None of these chapters, though, link what happened in, say, Yugoslavia, France or Russia, to what may have happened in Britain. It is an ambitious undertaking to write history about something that never happened, but as this is what David Wragg seemed to be doing, then I felt that the information he was presenting about European occupations should have been more clearly identified as what could have happened had Germany succeeded.
As it is, we have to wait until Chapter Eleven, ‘What Would German Occupation Have Meant?’, for this. Only now, do we learn that Operation SEALION was devised ‘on the hoof’. That an invasion of Britain wasn’t an original German war aim, that an occupation of the British Isles would have been a drain on German resources even if, as stated, Germany only took southern England, leaving the rest of the country divided up into semi-autonomous, military zones, with men between the ages of 17 and 45 deported and any resources of value seized.
By this time, I should have really been interested and engaged by the book, but I am afraid that I wasn’t. Those four, seemingly irrelevant chapters, had done for me. So, when I came to the next chapter, ‘The Lessons of Normandy’, I’m afraid I just skipped it, wondering how an invasion which occurred in 1944 could offer lessons to one that was planned for 1940. This isn’t completely fair of me, I suppose. I do understand that Normandy was a different beast, that it involved years of planning and preparation and that, by comparison, and as David Wragg himself writes, the Germans could not have managed to successfully invade southern England. By now, though, I was just seeing this information as more irrelevance. What do the experiences of the men of HMS Danae have to Operation SEALION?
I don’t like being negative in reviews and in fact, I’ve enjoyed several of David Wragg’s previous books, but I’m afraid this one just didn’t engage me at all. I thought that there was too much material, presented in too much of an ad hoc fashion, which limited its relevance and usefulness. As I’ve said, I think that this was an ambitious approach but certainly, for me, it just didn’t work. If I wanted to read about Operation SEALION and the German plans to occupy Britain I think I would look elsewhere, possibly even to the fiction of Len Deighton and Robert Harris. As it stands, I don’t feel that I can recommend this book to readers of The Naval Review.