Operation Sea Lion

Employing fast-moving tanks backed up with air support, Germany defeated Poland in four weeks. This victory was followed by the occupation of Norway (four weeks), Netherlands (five days), Belgium (three weeks) and France (six weeks). The situation became even worse when Italy declared war on Britain on 11th June, 1940. General Henri-Philippe Pétain formed a government and at once asked the Germans for an armistice, which was concluded on 22nd June, 1940. Northern France and all her coastline down to the Pyrenees fell under German occupation. Pétain then agreed to head the Vichy government in occupied France, (1)

The English Channel meant that German's Blitzkrieg tactics could not be continued against Britain. Hitler had great respect for Britain's navy and airforce and feared that his forces would suffer heavy casualties in any invasion attempt. Hitler, who had not seen the sea until he was over forty, lacked confidence when it came to naval warfare. Hitler was prone to seasickness, with little aptitude for things nautical and told his naval commander-in-chief, Admiral Karl Donitz: "On land I am a hero. At sea I am a coward." (2)

At this stage Adolf Hitler still hoped that Britain would change sides or at least accept German domination of Europe. General Guenther Blumentritt later claimed that Hitler told him that his dreams of a large German empire were based on the empire created by the British during the nineteenth century. "He (Hitler) astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world.... He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church - saying they were both essential elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany's position on the Continent. The return of Germany's lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere.... He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept." (3)

Saving France - for GermanyPhilip Zec, The Daily Mirror (11th October, 1940)
Philip Zec, Saving France - for Germany, The Daily Mirror (11th October, 1940)

General Franz Halder, Chief of General Staff, wrote in his diary that Hitler was keen to reach a peace agreement with Britain: "The Führer is is greatly puzzled by Britain's persisting unwillingness to make peace. He sees the answer (as we do) in Britain's hope on Russia, and therefore counts on having to compel her by main force to agree to peace. Actually that is much against his grain. The reason is that a military defeat of Britain will bring about the disintegration of the British Empire. This would not be of any benefit to Germany. German blood would be shed to accomplish something that would benefit only Japan, the United States, and others." (4) The following day he added: "The Führer confirms my impressions of yesterday. He would like an understanding with Great Britain. He knows that war with the British will be hard and bloody, and knows also that people everywhere today are averse to bloodshed." (5)

On 19th July, 1940, Hitler made a speech to the Reichstag: "In this hour and before this body I feel myself obliged to make one more appeal to reason to England... I do this not as a victor, but for the triumph of common sense... "Despite my sincere efforts it has not been possible to achieve the friendship with England which I believed would have been blessed by both." Without delivering any ultimatum, Hitler said that it had never been on his desire or his aim to destroy the British Empire. He warned against interpreting his appeal as weakness and said that "Churchill may parry my words with the claim that I feel doubt or fear, but in any case I will have my knowledge that I acted rightly, according to my conscience." Hitler made it clear that rejection would mean an attack with all of the forces at the command of the Axis powers. (6)

When he failed to receive a reply he ordered his generals to organize the invasion of Britain. The invasion plan was given the code name Operation Sea Lion. The objective was to land 160,000 German soldiers along a forty-mile coastal stretch of south-east England. "As England, despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued and, if necessary, to occupy completely." (7)

General Kurt Student, the highest-ranking member of Germany's parachute infantry, had a meeting with Hitler: "At first Hitler developed in detail his general views, political and strategical, about how to continue the war against his principal enemy... He (Hitler) had not wished to provoke the British, as he hoped to arrange peace talks. But as they were unwilling to discuss things, they must face the alternative. Then a discussion followed about the use of the 11th Air Corps in an invasion of Great Britain. In this respect I expressed my doubts about using the Corps directly on the South coast, to form a bridgehead for the Army - as the area immediately behind the coast was now covered with obstacles.... He then pointed to Plymouth and dwelt on the importance of this great harbour for the Germans and for the English. Now I could no longer follow his thought, and I asked at what points on the south coast the landing was to take place." Hitler replied that operations were to be kept secret, and said: "I cannot tell you yet." (8)

Hitler finally gave the order to land on a broad front from the Kent coast to Lyme Bay. Admiral Erich Raeder, the German naval commander-in-chief, declared that he could support only a narrow landing around Beachy Head and demanded air superiority even for this. The generals agreed to this, though they regarded Raeder's plan as a recipe for disaster and still accumulated forces for a landing in Lyme Bay. Hitler gave an assurance that the proposed landing would take place only when air attacks had worn down the British defences. (9)

Within a few weeks the Germans had assembled a large armada of vessels, including 2,000 barges in German, Belgian and French harbours. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was put in charge of the operation: "As the first steps to prepare for an invasion were taken only after the French capitulation, no definite date could be fixed when the plan was drafted. It depended on the time required to provide the shipping, to alter ships so they could carry tanks, and to train the troops in embarking and disembarking. The invasion was to be made in August if possible, and September at the latest." (10)

Hitler's generals were very worried about the damage that the Royal Air Force could inflict on the German Army during the invasion. Hitler therefore agreed to their request that the invasion should be postponed until the British airforce had been destroyed. On 1st August, 1940, Hitler ordered: "The Luftwaffe will use all the forces at its disposal to destroy the British air force as quickly as possible. August 5th is the first day on which this intensified air war may begin, but the exact date is to be left to the Luftwaffe and will depend on how soon its preparations are complete, and on the weather situation." (11)

William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) told his British listeners: "I make no apology for saying again that invasion is certainly coming soon, but what I want to impress upon you is that while you must feverishly take every conceivable precaution, nothing that you or the government can do is really of the slightest use. Don't be deceived by this lull before the storm, because, although there is still the chance of peace, Hitler is aware of the political and economic confusion in England, and is only waiting for the right moment. Then, when his moment comes, he will strike, and strike hard." (12)

Hitler instructed that there was to be no "terror bombing" of civilian targets but otherwise gave no direction to the campaign. On the 12th August the German airforce began its mass bomber attacks on British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter airfields. During these raids radar stations and airfields were badly damaged and twenty-two RAF planes were destroyed. This attack was followed by daily raids on Britain. This was the beginning of what became known as the Battle of Britain. (13)

Hitler told Admiral Erich Raeder that: "The invasion of Britain is an exceptionally daring undertaking, because even if the way is short this is not just a river crossing, but the crossing of a sea which is dominated by the enemy... For the Army forty divisions will be required; the most difficult part will be the continued reinforcement of military stores. We cannot count on supplies of any kind being available to us in England. The prerequisites are complete mastery of the air, the operational use of powerful artillery in the Straits of Dover and protection by minefields. The time of the year is an important factor too. The main operation will therefore have to be completed by 15 September... If it is not certain that preparations can be completed by the beginning of September, other plans must be considered." (14) In October, 1940, Hitler issued orders that preparations for Sea Lion were to be limited to sustaining diplomatic and military pressure on Britain. (15)

Operation Sea Lion was finally cancelled in January 1941. Field Marshal Rundstedt later recalled: "The military reasons for its cancellation were various. The German Navy would have had to control the North Sea as well as the Channel, and was not strong enough to do so. The German Air Force was not sufficient to protect the sea crossing on its own. While the leading part of the forces might have landed, there was the danger that they might be cut off from supplies and reinforcements." (16)

Primary Sources

(1) Gerneral Guenther Blumentritt, chief of operations under General Gerd von Rundstedt, was interviewed about the views of Adolf Hitler on the plans to invade Britain in 1940.

Hitler was in very good humour, he admitted that the course of the campaign had been "a decided miracle", and gave us his opinion that the war would be - finished in six weeks. After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France, and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain.

He then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh, but "where there is planing, there are shavings flying". He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church - saying they were both essential elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany's position on the Continent. The return of Germany's lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere. He remarked that the colonies were primarily a matter of prestige, since they could not be held in war, and few Germans could settle in the tropics.

He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.

(2) General Franz Halder, diary (July, 1940)

13th July: The Führer is is greatly puzzled by Britain's persisting unwillingness to make peace. He sees the answer (as we do) in Britain's hope on Russia, and therefore counts on having to compel her by main force to agree to peace. Actually that is much against his grain. The reason is that a military defeat of Britain will bring about the disintegration of the British Empire. This would not be of any benefit to Germany. German blood would be shed to accomplish something that would benefit only Japan, the United States, and others.

14th July: The Führer confirms my impressions of yesterday. He would like an understanding with Great Britain. He knows that war with the British will be hard and bloody, and knows also that people everywhere today are averse to bloodshed.

(3) General Walter Warlimont was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about Operation Sea Lion in his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

There is no doubt in my mind as to the long-cherished and almost guiding political principle of Hitler's to come to terms with England, on a world-wide and lasting basis. Also I think it true that after the collapse of France he returned to this scheme - but far a short while only, and for the last time. It was during this short period, late in June and early in July, 1940, that he showed himself at first entirely unwilling and later on rather reluctant in taking up the problem of the invasion of England. The only explanation of this unusual attitude came to me at the time from a Foreign Office member of his entourage - he told me about Hitler's intentions of approaching England once more by way of a public peace offer. Hitler's speech, when delivered in the Reichstag on 19th July, seemed to me disappointing. But Hitler in turn may have been still more disappointed that his endeavour met with no response from the British side.

After this renewed disillusion his further steps were certainly no longer guided by political considerations. On the contrary, it seems to me that subsequent events can be understood only by the underlying idea of how to defeat England in the quickest and most effective way. Hitler pursued this aim in four different ways: the combined air and sea attack against British trade and industry; the air attack as a preparatory step to the invasion of the British Isles; the plan of attacking the British positions in the Mediterranean; and finally the initial preparations for a campaign against Russia, which was deemed England's last resort on the Continent.

It was Jodi who had a considerable share in killing off the "sea-lion" when, in the late summer, he summarized his views in a memorandum to Hitler. The plan for an invasion of England, he wrote, would mean from the start a great risk - which had been further increased by the unsatisfactory results of the air offensive, due to the bad weather. If the landing did not succeed, this failure would endanger the whole of the achievements of the war thus far obtained. The invasion should therefore be executed only if there were no other way of forcing England to her knees. Such a way, however, offered itself by attacking and usurping the British positions in the Mediterranean - of which Jodi enumerated Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez Canal. The loss of these positions, he concluded, would bring the war to an end.

Hitler apparently was only too willing to endorse these considerations against the invasion. From this time on no more serious efforts were made. Early in December the plan was altogether abandoned - the 'sea-lion' was definitely dead.

(4) Adolf Hitler, Directive No. 16 (16th July, 1940)

As England, despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her.

The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued and, if necessary, to occupy completely.

(5) Adolf Hitler, Directive No. 17 (1st August, 1940)

The Luftwaffe will use all the forces at its disposal to destroy the British air force as quickly as possible. August 5th is the first day on which this intensified air war may begin, but the exact date is to be left to the Luftwaffe and will depend on how soon its preparations are complete, and on the weather situation.

(6) In January 1941, Kurt Student had a meeting with Adolf Hitler to discuss the invasion of Britain.

At first Hitler developed in detail his general views, political and strategical, about how to continue the war against his principal enemy. Herein he also mentioned the issues in the Mediterranean. After that he turned to the question of invading England. Hitler said that during the previous year he could not afford to risk a possible failure; apart from that, he had not wished to provoke the British, as he hoped to arrange peace talks. But as they were unwilling to discuss things, they must face the alternative.

Then a discussion followed about the use of the 11th Air Corps in an invasion of Great Britain. In this respect I expressed my doubts about using the Corps directly on the South coast, to form a bridgehead for the Army - as the area immediately behind the coast was now covered with obstacles. These doubts were accepted by Hitler. I then proposed that, if it proved absolutely necessary to use the 11th Air Corps on the south coast, then airfields in the hinterland (25 to 35 miles distant from the coast) should be captured, and infantry divisions landed on them.

Suddenly Hitler pointed to the Cornwall - Devon Peninsula, and drew a big circle on his map round Taunton and the Blackdown Hills, saying: 'Your airborne troops could be used here as flank protection. This is a strong sector and, besides, this important defile must be opened.' He then pointed to Plymouth and dwelt on the importance of this great harbour for the Germans and for the English. Now I could no longer follow his thought, and I asked at what points on the south coast the landing was to take place. But Hitler kept strictly to his order that operations were to be kept secret, and said: 'I cannot tell you yet'."

(7) Gerd von Rundstedt was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about Operation Sea Lion in his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

As the first steps to prepare for an invasion were taken only after the French capitulation, no definite date could be fixed when the plan was drafted. It depended on the time required to provide the shipping, to alter ships so they could carry tanks, and to train the troops in embarking and disembarking. The invasion was to be made in August if possible, and September at the latest. The military reasons for its cancellation were various. The German Navy would have had to control the North Sea as well as the Channel, and was not strong enough to do so. The German Air Force was not sufficient to protect the sea crossing on its own. While the leading part of the forces might have landed, there was the danger that they might be cut off from supplies and reinforcements.

The responsibility of commanding the invasion fell to me, and the task was assigned to my Army Group. The 16th Army under General Busch was on the right, and the 9th Army under General Strauss was on the left. They were to sail from ports stretching from Holland to Le Havre. The 16th Army was to use ports from Antwerp to Boulogne, while the 9th Army was to use the ports between the Somme and the Seine. No landing was to be made north of the Thames.

We were then to push forward and establish a much larger bridgehead along an arc south of London. It ran up the south shore of the Thames to the outskirts of London, and then south-westwards to Southampton Water.

(8) William Joyce, Germany Calling, broadcast on the radio station Reichssender Hamburg (6th August, 1940)

I make no apology for saying again that invasion is certainly coming soon, but what I want to impress upon you is that while you must feverishly take every conceivable precaution, nothing that you or the government can do is really of the slightest use. Don't be deceived by this lull before the storm, because, although there is still the chance of peace, Hitler is aware of the political and economic confusion in England, and is only waiting for the right moment. Then, when his moment comes, he will strike, and strike hard.

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References

(1) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 594

(2) David Fairbank White, Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic (2006) page 21

(3) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) page 200

(4) General Franz Halder, diary entry (13th July, 1940)

(5) General Franz Halder, diary entry (14th July, 1940)

(6) Adolf Hitler, speech in the Reichstag (19th July, 1940)

(7) Adolf Hitler, Directive No. 16 (16th July, 1940)

(8) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) page 229

(9) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 605-606

(10) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) page 217

(11) Adolf Hitler, Directive No. 17 (1st August, 1940)

(12) William Joyce, Germany Calling , broadcast on the radio station Reichssender Hamburg (6th August, 1940)

(13) Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (1990) page 132

(14) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 594-595

(15) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 421

(16) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) page 217