WW2 Anniversary

|   5 August 2010

Battle of Britain

Did Churchill ‘hype’ the danger of a German invasion in 1940?

We’ve just released onto the site for subscribers our video on the Battle of Britain.

It was a fascinating video to make because of the divide on this subject that I detected between many academic historians and the popular myth. The prevailing view in popular culture is clear: the victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain saved this country from invasion. But to many experts the history is not quite as simple as that.

Take the views of Professor Adam Tooze, for example, now a Professor at Yale University but for many years an academic at Cambridge University. In answer to my question ‘Was there ever any real prospect of the Germans invading Britain in 1940?’ He answered: ‘No’. And then elaborated: ‘I do think one has to understand the timeframes here. They [ie the Germans] hadn’t started thinking about a war with Britain, let alone an invasion, until May 1938. The naval armaments programme doesn’t get into gear until January 1939. For the preceding five years Britain had been outspending Germany on the navy so the already enormous gap between the German navy and the British navy in 1933 had not been shrinking but growing larger every year. So when they then also go on to lose the vast majority of their modern naval forces in the Norwegian debacle which, from a German naval point of view, is a catastrophe, they essentially do not have a surface navy with which to protect an invasion in the summer of 1940. I believe they had three cruisers and four destroyers. Two of the cruisers are light cruisers, and so the preponderance of the home fleet is absolute, which basically makes any invasion attempt a huge gamble, because if the British decide to launch a suicidal charge through the Channel they can cut the supply lines and isolate the German army and that will be the end of that.’

Professor Tooze goes so far as to agree that it is ‘fair to say’ that Churchill was to some extent ‘hyping’ up the chances of a German invasion during this period.

Or listen to what the historian Andrew Roberts, author of the acclaimed history of WW2 ‘Storm of War’ told me: ‘I don’t think the Germans were going to be able to invade successfully in 1940. I think that the actual plans needed to get an army across the channel, even in the event that the RAF was neutralised for a long enough period, were just not in place. There weren’t enough of those flat bottom boats, they weren’t particularly sea worthy and if the Royal Navy had got amongst them there would have been a massacre.’

All of which begs the question, why is this reality not properly reflected in the massive coverage this summer of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain? Or do we know the answer already – that myth is more comforting than history?

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