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Invasion of Britain

The Germans expected the British people to see the hopelessness of their military position, to overthrow the Churchill ministry, and to make peace on terms that would leave the British Empire virtually intact but impotent to interfere with Germany's mastery of western Europe. Before the downfall of France, Hitler had not planned an invasion of Great Britain. By the end of June 1941, the Germans began to realize that the British were determined to fight on.

"Britain probably still needs one more demonstration of our military might before she gives in and leaves us a free hand in the East," General Franz Halder, the Chief of the German Army's General Staff, recorded in his journal on 30 June 1940. On 16 July Hitler ordered the immediate preparation of detailed invasion plans. The decision to fight it out with England reoriented the whole German outlook toward the Atlantic front. To beat Britain to its knees would require a German-controlled front extending from the North Cape to Morocco. The Germans also planned to seize Iceland, occupy strategic positions in West Africa, and claim the French Congo and Belgian Congo as war booty.

Before the decision to invade Great Britain had been made, the German Naval Staff prepared a general program for base expansion and ship construction designed to make Germany a pre-eminent naval power in the Atlantic. In plans prepared for conferences with Hitler on 20 June and 11 July, the Navy advocated annexation of Iceland and its exploitation as a naval and air base; development of bases either in the Azores or in both the Canary and Cape Verde Islands; creation of a large united German colonial empire in central Africa; and construction of an Atlantic battleship force that would neutralize British and American naval power.

In his discussion with Hitler on 11 July, the commander in chief of the German Navy, Admiral Erich Raeder, pointed out the particular importance of Dakar as a base for conducting warfare in the Atlantic. Hitler at this time seems to have gone no further toward approving these proposals than expressing a desire "to acquire one of the Canary Islands from Spain in exchange for French Morocco." Until he decided to invade England, Hitler himself seems to have taken comparatively little interest in plans for expansion into Africa or extension of German naval power in the Atlantic. His brief interest in Iceland expired when he was told by his advisers that it would be impossible to construct airfields there. As already noted, Great Britain had begun a military occupation of Iceland on 10 May, and by the end of July relatively strong British and Canadian contingents had been brought in to defend the island - a factor that undoubtedly also contributed to the German decision not to attempt its invasion.

The other measures advocated by the German Navy became more attractive to the Nazi Fuehrer, primarily as adjuncts to a showdown fight with Great Britain. Fortunately for the United States, Hitler seems to have had very little realization of the strategic significance of German bases in French West Africa and on the eastern Atlantic islands for their own sake. Germany's military attach? in the United States during the prewar period, General Friedrich von Boetticher, stated after the war that, following the fall of France in 1940, he had stressed in his reports the strategic significance of controlling the South Atlantic-African-Red Sea belt. But, he added, Hitler and his intimate advisers ". . . had no clear idea of the geographical requisites for a world war. The significance of the British Empire's life-line through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, and the importance of the Middle East were not grasped at the time .... There was also no clear idea of the strategic significance of the narrowing of the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Africa, and of the land and air routes across central Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea."

On 10 July 1940 the German Air Force began its assault in force on Britain. After 16 July the German Army and Navy staffs worked feverishly on invasion plans, for they realized that an invasion must either take place in the early fall or be postponed at least until the following spring. At the same time, the Germans attempted to secure a revision of the armistice arrangements with France in order to obtain French consent to the establishment of German bases in southern France and along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of French North Africa. From their beginning Hitler appears to have viewed the preparations for a full-scale Atlantic war with misgivings. On 13 July General Halder recorded in his journal: "...the Fuehrer 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."

Very quickly Hitler came to the conclusion that Britain's reason for continuing the war was its hope for aid from the United States and the Soviet Union. He discounted the ability of the United States to render much aid to Britain, and he assumed that the British did also; the Russians were another matter. As of 21 July, the Nazi Fuehrer felt that Britain's obduracy could best be overcome by confronting the British with a political front embracing Spain, Italy, and the Soviet Union.

Too much depended on technical details that could not be improvised, and even more depended on the air force and navy. The Kriegsmarine collected barges and hoped for favorable weather, while attacking British shipping with a mixture of submarine and surface units. But the U-boat campaign was still in its infancy; the commerce raiders lacked a network of bases. Interservice rivalry, moreover, limited cooperation with a Luftwaffe increasingly focused on the Battle of Britain.

By the end of July 1940, ten days later, after the German Army and Navy had presented their blueprints for an invasion of England, Hitler arrived at a very different decision. While the Army and Navy told him that they could undertake an invasion in September 1940, provided that Britain had been sufficiently softened up by air bombardment, that the Germans had gained air superiority over the invasion area, that the weather was extremely favorable, etc., etc., it was rather clear that neither the German land nor sea forces had any stomach for the invasion project. Neither did Hitler.

Given French and British acquiescence in German eastern expansion, Hitler was prepared to leave them to vegetate, in power-political terms, in the West. At least until 1936 he had at the back of his mind the ideal of a working relationship with the British, for whose empire he had an enduring admiration. Of course if the western powers were obstreperous, he was prepared to shove them aside once and for all.

Hitler did not seriously believe it would be necessary to invade by force; he expected England to make peace and Ribbentrop held the same view. Not until four weeks after the conclusion of the campaign in the West did Hitler realize that this assumption was not correct. Hitler could pursue a goal with great obstinacy but he was an easily influenced, emotional character and now he shifted suddenly and ordered the General Staff (or at least part of it) to make plans for a Russian campaign which had never been mentioned before. He thought that England would change its attitude immediately, if Germany should attack the Soviet Union. Hess entertained the same opinion. Points of difference between England and the Soviet Union were well known, likewise Churchill's aversion to Bolshevism. If the English attitude took the course they expected, then invasion was superfluous.

On 21 June 1941, Churchill made clear his simple aim in the great conflict: "I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:57 ZULU