The Whale and the Albatross

The Whale and the Albatross

15 Sep 23
Posted by: Andrew Gordon
Message from the Editor

Sixteen years ago, in response to a History Today article for the 66th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Rules of the Game author Andrew Gordon examined the question of the strategic significance of the air battle (in which FAA pilots took part), and emphasized the RN’s role in stopping the German invasion before it could begin. Republished here from NR 95/1 for the 83rd anniversary of the Battle. A 15 minute read.


As a maritime historian, my problem with Battle of Britain culture rests on just one specific point: the often stated and always implied[1] claim that ‘nothing stood between Britain and Nazi occupation except Fighter Command’. This is quite untrue. Among other things, the largest operational fleet in the world stood between. Whatever opinions may be held elsewhere about Operation SEALION (the vaunted German invasion), it was the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) that was going to have to sign the chit for a logistical, resources, force-protection and seamanship nightmare, and the more they studied the daunting obstacles facing them, the more anxious they became to be let off the hook.

There was so much wrong with the materiel and methods available for SEALION that it is difficult to know where to start.

The basic order-of-battle facts are that, having lost 10 destroyers in Norway, the Germans now had only 10 to protect four beach landing areas. At the beginning of September the Admiralty had disposed 67 (plus six cruisers) for immediate response to an invasion alarm. The first warning of the invasion’s sailing would come, it was hoped, from RAF reconnaissance over the assembly ports. But in case – as was likely – the Germans waited until after dark before commencing their 12-hour[2] toil across to England, the Royal Navy had a pool of 700 armed patrol craft (requisitioned motor yachts and trawlers) of whom around 200 were on picket duty “off the north coast of France”[3] every night. So, owing to either the air reconnaissance or the trip-wire patrols, there was a high likelihood that the German invasion armadas would have found British destroyers[4] between them and their intended landing-beaches when they approached on the morning of D-Day. As well as torpedoes and guns, each destroyer carried 40 depth-charges filled with 600-800 lbs of Amatol (depending on Mk) which could have demolished the tows of wallowing barges packed with soldiers and horses.

The second tranche of RN interventions would have been the 34 corvettes and sloops, and the MTBs, employed on east coast and Channel convoy routes. Then, within 24 hours of the alert, the cruisers and capital units of the Home Fleet would have started to arrive from the far north and west. 165 minesweepers of varying pedigree were at hand to maintain swept channels. Finally, many of the 35 submarines based in home waters would have headed for the Channel to disrupt the shuttling back and forth of barges required by the German build-up for the next 10 days.

The RN would have taken casualties – it’s never baulked at that. But to inflict serious losses the Luftwaffe would have had to discover capacities it had yet to demonstrate and yet to train for. Off Norway, the Home Fleet had been bombed for days on end, but only two of its destroyers (out of an inventory of over 80) were sunk. During Dunkirk, many destroyers were damaged by air attack, and for a while the most valuable ones were withdrawn (in the manner of Fighter Command from France), but none of the four sunk[5] by the Luftwaffe were in open water and free to manoeuvre at speed when fatally attacked. In brief, the war so far had provided no evidence that, in extremis, air-power – German or British[6] – was a naval operations show-stopper. In 1940, the Luftwaffe’s Stukas were specialists in Army close-support, and the anti-shipping skills which they were to display in the Mediterranean in ’41 (starting with Fliegerkorps X’s attack on Illustrious in January) cannot be retro-fitted to the previous summer.

A German view

The ‘Brief Statement of Reasons for Cancellation of Invasion of England’, prepared by the German Naval Historical Staff in 1944,[7] states:

“As the preliminary work and preparations proceeded, the exceptional difficulties became more and more obvious. The more forcibly the risks were brought home, the dimmer grew faith in success… just as in Napoleon’s invasion plans in 1805, the fundamental requirement for success was lacking, that is, command of the sea. This lack of superiority at sea was to be compensated for by air superiority. But it was never even possible to destroy enemy sea superiority by use of our own air superiority… The sea area in which we were to operate was dominated by a well prepared opponent who was determined to fight to the utmost of his ability. The greatest difficulty was bound to be that of maintaining the flow of supplies and food. The enemy’s fleet and other means of naval defence had to be considered as a decisive factor. Owing to the weakness of our naval forces there could be no effective guarantee against the enemy breaking into our area of transports, despite our mine barrages on the flanks and despite our air superiority.”

Grand Admiral Raeder (head of the Kriegsmarine in 1940) said much the same, in almost the same words, after the war; and had tried to dodge out of the invasion as early as 11 July.[8] The last sentence quoted above appears to mean that, even if the Luftwaffe had won the air battle of Britain, the Kriegsmarine would still not have wanted to attempt SEALION.

The same Kriegsmarine document acknowledges that “there was an air of relief among leading [naval] personalities when sufficiently solid grounds were found to warrant postponement and finally cancellation.” And it is obvious that in August-September 1940,[9] the best outcome for the Kriegsmarine would be for the invasion to be cancelled and for someone else to take the blame. Thanks to Fighter Command’s victory over the Luftwaffe, that is what they got – their get out of gaol card. But that is not at all the same thing as there being nobody but the RAF ready, willing and able to defeat Operation SEALION.

Whether the air battle was the cause or the occasion for the cancellation of SEALION is therefore a moot point. Hitler’s order on 17 September to “postpone” the invasion appears directly consequent on the Luftwaffe’s losses of the 15th, held to be the climactic day of the Battle of Britain. But as Ian Kershaw tells us, “Hitler had never been convinced that the German air offensive would successfully lay the basis for the invasion of which he was in any case so sceptical.” And between 10 and 13 September there were signs that Hitler had gone utterly cold on the idea of a landing. On 14 September he then told his commanders that the conditions for Operation SEALION had not been attained. The military chiefs themselves did not believe that a landing at that stage could be successfully carried out. “I had the impression at this discussion,” wrote Nicolaus von Below many years later, “that Hitler had given up hope of a successful invasion of England the following spring. In autumn 1940 the great unknown, the fairly improvised crossing over the sea, frightened him. He was unsure.”[10]

No doubt the result of the air battle on the 15th assisted this attack of cold feet – but so too may have the deployment of the Home Fleet southwards from Scapa Flow to Rosyth on the 13th, bringing the heavy ships eight hours closer to the invasion arena. Further, to launch a laborious and protracted invasion into the equinoctial gales would have been inviting disaster. The German High Command had actually been warned way back in July that “the weather in the North Sea and Channel during the second half of September is very bad and… the main operation would therefore have to be completed by September 15.”[11] The pencilled-in date kept slipping, but by mid-month Hitler’s mind was diverting to the bombing of London and (covertly) to Russia. To borrow a Napoleonism, he was learning that an albatross cannot easily kill a whale.

The German plan

The first misconception about the summer of 1940 is that German planning was a thing of Teutonic rigour and logic. In fact they had no coherent game-plan for prosecuting the war against Britain after the collapse of France, and it took them some time to realise that the war was not over. Then, Goering boasted that he would bring Britain to heel through a campaign of shock and awe, which would include the destruction of the RAF, making an invasion unnecessary. Partly as a Psy-Ops ploy against British morale, Hitler ordered SEALION to be prepared, but executed only as a last resort,[12] and if necessary (which logically meant: if Goering failed to fulfil his boast).[13]

Local air superiority would have sufficed for invasion, but within Goering’s grand scheme was the desideratum that the Luftwaffe somehow achieve air supremacy over England, from airfields in France. Partly because the other German Services were anxious to raise the ‘air’ bar to an improbable height, the invasion project became illogically linked with this sweeping precondition which could most plausibly be attained from airfields in England after an invasion. An obvious parallel is the Allies’ invasion of Sicily in ’43: given the distance from fighter bases in Tunisia and Malta, it would have been daft to make air supremacy over the island a condition for invading. Instead, the Allies exploited air superiority over the landing areas until airfields ashore, from which supremacy could be contested, were up and running. Ditto Normandy.

German leaders were thus unfocused and irrational about the linkages between the air campaign and a mooted invasion; and they were hopelessly disunited. Goering remained dismissive of SEALION and never bothered to attend a planning meeting, possibly because the project anticipated the Luftwaffe’s failure to defeat Britain single-handedly. Long before the air battle started, Dowding understood that defence against invasion was going to be a joint business, as his famous letter of 16 May calling for Fighter Command to be withdrawn from France demonstrates. The conditions he specified were: “… if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised…” This seminal letter is commonly quoted by Battle of Britain celebrants, but the words italicised here by me, and the bit about the Army, never seem to get mentioned.

A most telling piece of evidence, and one whose implications cannot be evaded, is the War Cabinet’s despatch in mid-August of an armoured brigade with “nearly half our best available tanks”[14] to fight the Italians in North Africa. This seemingly bizarre decision must have been permitted by one of two possible ‘home defence’ assumptions: either Churchill was already taking for granted a decisive RAF victory in the developing air battle; or he (First Lord of the Admiralty until three months previously) did not really believe that SEALION would get ashore, irrespective of the air battle.

Perceptions of SEALION’s prospects varied between, and within, every Service, British and German, with varying degrees of bias, and none can be validated. In the analysis of Wing Commander H R Allen (himself one of The Few):

“It was seapower that ruled the day in 1940, and fortunately Britain had a sufficiency. The air situation was, of course, important, but by no means fundamental. Without doubt the 500 or so section, flight and squadron leaders of Fighter Command earned their laurels. But the real victor was the Royal Navy, the Silent Service…”[15]

In reality, the issues are impossible to separate so categorically. But clearly the Home Fleet, along with Bomber Command, Coastal Command, the Army, the weather (worse, that summer, than remembered), Goering’s grandstanding, disunity in the German High Command, and the huge practical obstacles facing SEALION, all went into the witches’ stew which cursed the project.


In summary, the link between the air battle and the non-event of SEALION is much less direct and exclusive than commonly wished by Battle of Britain celebrants. Certainly, the RAF added daytime command of the air to the indisputable command of the sea which Britain already possessed, but the airspace over southern England did not thereby become the last court of appeal against invasion. None of the above is new; but the sailors have been silent for too long, and popular understanding of the ‘whole picture’ needs to be adjusted so that credit for strategic effect may be shared (belatedly) where credit is due.

To some extent, there is a parallel with Trafalgar (thank you Private Eye!). Let us suppose that Napoleon had remained intent on invading England. The Channel Fleet under Nelson’s senior, ‘Billy Blue’ Cornwallis, had been blockading the main French fleet in Brest for months, and to it was expected to fall the task of defeating the invasion. To assume (as some still do) that if Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet had failed to find Villeneuve’s Franco-Spanish fleet, or been beaten by it, the British would soon have been speaking French, is a leap of mythology which vaults over the very existence of the main British naval force. It also makes the security of Britain look a more hand-to-mouth affair than it actually was. In due course the ships of the Channel Fleet dispersed to other duties, their role in deterring Napoleon’s invasion overlooked by popular history. To point out that the public in time of war (like the press in August) demands simple, iconic images, painted in primary colours, detracts nothing from the bravery of Nelson and his men, or their extraordinary victory off Cadiz.

All that having been said, the air Battle of Britain, and the marvellous rhetoric which Churchill wove around it, very likely saved Britain in a less direct way: by persuading neutral America that we were worth backing. With our engineering industries diverted from exporting to war production, we were fast running out of the gold and dollar reserves with which to buy food and raw materials. Unglamorous as it sounds, balance-of payments meltdown was the real, if invisible, danger in late 1940, and Churchill’s real gamble. If Congress had not solved Britain’s ‘dollar problem’ in early ’41 by passing the Lend-Lease Bill, we would soon have had to make peace or starve. A succession of events – the ‘Deliverance of Dunkirk’, the sinking of the French fleet, the ‘Battle of Britain’, the Blitz, our military support for Greece – combined to tip the scales in favour of Lend-Lease. But of this list, the Battle of Britain presented the most powerful image: the first positive, media-visible, strategic-scale defeat of Hitler’s armed forces.[16] An ambient fleet-in-being victory could not possibly have had such an impact on its own.


[1] In the film The Battle of Britain, Dowding (Laurence Olivier) declares (words to the effect) that if Fighter Command loses today’s battle, ‘They’ll be in Whitehall within a week’.

[2] The shortest routes: Etaples and Boulogne to Eastbourne (around 50 miles); Calais to Rye (around 60 miles); Dunkirk to New Romney (around 70 miles).

[3] Words of the German Navy War Diary (Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 1939-45 (Naval Institute Press, 1990) p.139).

[4] Certainly the 37 based in Harwich, the Thames Estuary and Portsmouth.

[5] Grenade, Basilisk, Havant and Keith.

[6] Nobody has convincingly explained to me how the RAF would have destroyed the invasion once it was at sea. Carpet bombing (one suggestion) would have been far less productive than bombing the invasion barges packed together in harbour – which the RAF had been doing for weeks, destroying some 12% of them.

[7] Report on the German Naval War Effort, Part I, Appendix II (NHB).

[8] See Report of the C-in-C Navy to the Fuehrer on July 11, 1940 in Fuehrer Conferences pp. 114-5.

[9] In my view, had BARBAROSSA succeeded and Hitler revisited SEALION in the spring of ’42, the balance of naval Orbats would have been markedly less unfavourable to Germany.

[10] Hitler, 1936-1945, p. 310. There may be a word (either ‘until’ or ‘even’) missing after ‘England’. See also Fuehrer Conferences, op. cit.

[11] Quotation from ‘rough notes’ of a ‘Fuehrer Conference’ on 21 July. The insinuation in the notes, which were signed by Raeder, is that these views were expressed (or agreed) by Hitler, but that is not definite. (Fuehrer Conferences, p. 119).

[12] Report of the C-in-C Navy (ibid, p. 115).

[13] Hitler, Directive No.16 (Fuehrer Conferences, p. 116).

[14] Churchill’s own words, quoted in David Reynolds, In Command of History (Penguin, 2004), p. 191.

[15] Who Won the Battle of Britain? (Arthur Barker Ltd, 1974) p. 207.

[16] See for example, Richard P. Hallion’s ‘The American Perspective’ in Paul Addison & Jeremy A. Crang, The Burning Blue (Pimlico, 2000).