Nazi Germany prepared to invade Great Britain in the summer and early fall of 1940, and many still debate why Hitler pulled the plug on the plan on September 17 that year. For two or three years afterward, large numbers of British subjects remained convinced that the Nazi invasion of Britain might still happen. But the fact that the Germans never did land on England’s shores, and in reality couldn’t have done so, is perfectly obvious in hindsight. Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion was a dead letter by September 1940. And in The Last Ditch, the classic study of Britain’s preparation to meet the invasion, David Lampe inadvertently makes the case.
“Britain had a complete Resistance organization—trained, armed and waiting”
The Last Ditch chronicles the extraordinary efforts by Britain’s government and military to organize Resistance forces in advance of a Nazi invasion. And as David Lampe tells the tale, those efforts were truly breathtaking. “Alone among the countries that opposed Germany in the Second World War,” Lampe writes, “Britain had a complete Resistance organization—trained, armed and waiting more or less patiently for German invaders to arrive.”
The Last Ditch: Britain’s Secret Resistance and the Nazi Invasion Plans by David Lampe (1968) 256 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Hitler’s troops would have paid a very high price
Working in airtight secrecy under orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, planners in Military Intelligence assembled a network of Resistance cells throughout the island that incorporated the most capable men—yes, all men—from the Home Guard. (Later, smaller numbers of women were recruited to operate radios in underground bunkers to relay intelligence reports from Resistance cells to military commanders.) Although at least one officer in the Resistance (Ian Fleming’s brother) suggested after the war that his unit could not have stood up to a determined German invasion force, it’s nonetheless clear that Hitler’s troops would have paid a very high price had they ventured onto English or Scottish soil.
If Hitler had ordered the Nazi invasion of Britain, World War II could have ended
Of course, following the country’s pyrrhic victory at Dunkirk in May 1940, the UK was as vulnerable as it had ever been in modern history. “Britain could muster a mere twenty-seven divisions to defend the entire country against invasion.” With fewer than 400,000 soldiers at arms, the nation could hardly stand up to the millions of troops Hitler had mobilized to seize Western Europe. Theoretically, if Germany had invaded England that summer, World War II might have ended precipitously.
But here are three reasons why that didn’t happen—and wouldn’t have:
1. Germany wasn’t ready.
From the outset, Hitler planned to launch Operation Sea Lion in September. Although his military planners had researched possible landing sites and gathered intelligence about British geography, government, and culture beginning several years previously, workable German plans for the invasion weren’t in place for an earlier invasion. Thus, when the UK was at its most vulnerable, the enemy wasn’t ready to launch an attack.
2. There weren’t enough ships and barges
Furthermore, German efforts to assemble a flotilla of ships and barges to transport hundreds of thousands of troops across the Channel had fallen short even by September. Presumably fearing Hitler’s rage, military commanders told the Führer otherwise, but they were lying—and he may have been aware of that.
3. The Luftwaffe failed to gain control of the skies
However, the critical element that dictated whether a German invasion of the island was feasible was airpower. Hermann Göring assured Hitler that his forces could eliminate Britain’s RAF Fighter Command and gain control of the skies. But his pilots proved incapable of doing so. In the Battle of Britain (July 10 through October 31, 1940), the courageous young pilots of Fighter Command gained ascendancy in the air. By September, an invasion was no longer feasible—and apparently Hitler knew that, too.
Lampe’s account of the Resistance is amusing at times. “Colonel the Lord Glanusk was the third officer to take command” at the secret Resistance training center, and he did so long after any real threat of an invasion had passed. “He arrived in his own Rolls-Royce, appointed Lord Delamere his staff captain, and, when he had installed himself in the headquarters, sent to London for his cellar . . . The place became like a Guards’ Mess in peacetime, public school accents predominated, and there was more talk of shooting animals and less of shooting Germans.” Keep in mind that this was the man who was to lead the Resistance of a Nazi invasion of Britain. Only in England, right?
About the author
David Lampe (1923-2003) was a veteran of the United States Air Force who settled in Great Britain. He wrote two popular histories about World War II, including Hitler’s Savage Canary: A History of the Danish Resistance in World War II (published in 1957) and The Last Ditch (1968).
For further reading
For a look at what might have happened if Operation Sea Lion had taken place, check out: SS-GB by Len Deighton (In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England) and Farthing (Farthing Trilogy #1) by Jo Walton (Chilling alternate history: If Nazi Germany had won the war).
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- 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up);
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