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Hitler's Armada: The Royal Navy and the Defence of Great Britain April - October 1940 Hardcover – September 22, 2008
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Top customer reviews
When it comes to the subject of Sealion, most authors decide a priori either for or against. This book is solidly in the "it could never have worked category," which is okay but not particularly imaginative. The opening short chapters cover the status of the Kriegsmarine surface fleet in the summer of 1940 (weak), followed by the evolution of the Sealion plan in July-September 1940 and the capabilities of the Germans to defend a crossing with mines, coastal batteries and U-Boats. German airborne capabilities are minimized and aerial resupply is ignored. The final chapters try to put it all together to assess Sealion's probability of success - as well as attempting to deflate the legend of the Battle of Britain - but the effort is only a partial success at best.
The author does present some very good points, that the Luftwaffe had a hard time sinking moving warships at sea, that neither mines nor coastal guns could effectively prevent the Royal Navy from operating in the English Channel and that ultimately, sea control was accomplished by naval forces, not airpower. I think the author also makes a good argument that traditional historiography of this period has tended to portray "the few" of the RAF as the sole defenders of Great Britain, while ignoring the Royal Navy. Readers will have little doubt after reading Hitler's Armada that the existence of the Royal Navy was a major reason why Sealion was cancelled.
However, the author's efforts to prove that the Luftwaffe could not have inflicted severe enough losses on the Royal Navy in the Channel to enable Sealion are undermined by the lack of real analysis or quantitative assessment. For example, he points out that although the Luftwaffe sank a significant number of Royal Navy warships off Dunkirk and Norway, that the navy still accomplished its mission and that these conditions (e.g. warships stationary in harbor vs. maneuvering at sea) were more favorable than they would have been in the Channel. However, in both these cases, weather and distance to target also negatively affected Luftwaffe performance more than they would have over the Channel in September 1940. Unfortunately, the author devotes much less space to Royal Navy operations off Crete, pointing out that the British intercepted a German convoy and succeeded in evacuating British troops, despite significant losses. In fact, the British intercept of the German convoy on 21 May 1941 was much less successful than portrayed here; only 297 German troops out of 2,300 were lost. He does not mention that British efforts to intercept a second convoy on 22 May were driven off by Luftwaffe bombers. Later, the Germans succeeded in getting both tanks and artillery to Crete. Furthermore, the Germans succeeded in sinking or damaging 26 of the 45 Royal Navy warships operating around Crete, indicating that the Luftwaffe could inflict crippling losses on the Royal Navy.
This author also fails to address the subjective factors that greatly influenced the first years of the Second World War. For example, the British made a great many avoidable mistakes in 1939-42 and the author's assumption that they would detect an invasion quickly and act accordingly are very contentious. In February 1942, the Germans sailed a major battle fleet through the English Channel for 12 hours before they were detected! In 1941-42, the British missed convoy after convoy going to North Africa, including two complete panzer divisions. Thus, the author should have addressed the possibility of the Germans achieving some kind of tactical surprise. Second, he ignores the fact that time and again, the Germans got lucky breaks - often due to risk-taking that no one anticipated - that led to success.
The final chapter deals with the author's conjecture that if the Germans had attempted Sealion, that it would have been blasted to pieces in mid-channel by the Royal Navy and even if a few troops had been landed, the British Army could have handled them. I found this scenario to be premised on the notion of a non-thinking opponent who would obligingly parade his entire invasion flotilla past British destroyers for target practice. Based upon how the Germans modified Fall Gelb and how they adapted to battlefield realities in Greece, North Africa and Russia, I doubt they would have been so dumb. The Sealion plan presented here is the one the British knew that they could defeat, but had it actually occurred - no plan survives first contact with the enemy - the Germans would have almost certainly modified it to get some force ashore and then work on a battle of attrition in the channel, which the Royal Navy could not sustain indefinitely.