World War II: Saving Britain

Figure 1.--.

Our British reader objects to the assertion that America saved Britain. Churchill makes it very clear in his menoirs that he was not sure that Britain would survive until America entered the War. We don't say this to denegrate Britain, but our point is that without American resources there was no way that Britain after the fall of France could have been truly undependent in a NAZI dominated Europe. Our British reader raises a number of interesting topics concerning the War andd Britain's role in it. He writes, "In my mind, counter-factual history is one of the more interesting sides of the subject - due to its immense scope for debate."

Britain's Objectives

"With regards to your email, I think we need to differentiate between the argument about Britain's ability to win the war and its ability to defend itself. They are not the same thing. The need for American supplies was derived from Britain's desire to carry the war to the Germans at all times. After the Battle of Britain, the island had already been secured against invasion (though his wouldn’t be apparent to the British leadership for some time). You are most certainly correct in your conclusion that Britain could never have defeated Nazi Germany unaided. This is a no-brainer, and would not be resources and industrial capacity of Western Europe could outproduce Britain." Here we have a fundamental disagreement with our reader. It is quite true that Hitler was prepared to and in fact willing to make peace in Britain. He was in 1940 prepared to allow Britain to keep its fleet and collonies in exchange for a free hand in Europe. He was in fact surprised that the British did not seek peace. The point is, however, that Munich had shown that Hitler could not be trusted. If the British had made peace in 1940, what would have been their position after Hitler waged an won his war in the Soviet Union. They would have been at his mercy and no longer a truly independent country. Our point is that Britain's independence was not possible without defeating Hitler.

The Soviet Union

"As you fail to recognise, there are a great deal many more factors to war than just practical capabilities. German strategy was dictated by more than just 'the possible'. Fortunately for Britain, Hitler (who was of course pre-eminent in his control over the Nazi war machine) had other motives than focussing German aggression on Britain. As you know, Russia was Hitler's Holy Grail - and in 1941, after it had become apparent that the total defeat of Britain was a different prospect to what it had previously seemed, he invaded the Soviet Union. Studies of Hitler show that this decision was inevitable, such was the intensity of the ideological difference between these two giants (not to mention the importance of the ancient recurring clash between Slavic and Germanic ethnicities in central/eastern Europe). The Nazis were pre-disposed to war against the Russians, whereas war with their British cousins was an unwanted sideshow. Incidentally, Hitler was actually deeply respectful of, and possibly inspired by, the fact the British - a small Northern European people - built and maintained a vast empire containing 1/3 of the world's population!" We do not disagree with this. Hitler from the beginning saw the East as the future for the German people. This is clearly stated in Mein Kampf as well as accounts of those around Hitler. And it is true that he admired the British. He also respected the Danish, Dutch, and Norwegians for racial reasons, but the occupation of all three countries showed the obedience he required and what resistance meant. After a successful war in the East, any agreement signed with the British in 1940 would have had no value. And the resources from the East would have given Hitler the ability to ammass military forces with which Britain which was already bankrupt by December 1940 could not have resisted.

The Wehrmacht

"the best thinking on the subject of war is given by Clausewitz, who identifies (amongst many other ground-breaking concepts) that each military power has a centre of gravity, upon which their ability fight rests. Destroy this, and you win the war. For Germany, the centre of gravity was always the Wehrmarkt. Not until the land army had been eradicated could Nazi Germany be decisively put to death. And it was not British and American action on the Western Front that ultimately achieved this: it was the titanic struggle with the Soviets in Eastern Europe. Many argue that whether the US joined the war or not, Germany was doomed to failure as soon as it attacked the USSR. Of course, the whermarkt was as much defeated by the great generals of 'Janvier & Fevrier' (Winter) as it was by actual fighting. Note that this decision was also the undoing of Napoleon in 1812." We do not basically disagree with this. In fact the great bulk of German casualties during the War came from the fighting on the Eastern Front. We would, however,had a few caveats. First Britain's continued participation in the War meant that the Germans had to retain sizeable forces in France and was a factor in the Balkan side-show (April 1941) which delayed Barbarossa. In addition, American pressure on the Japanese caused the Japanese to strike America (December 1941) rather than join the NAZI attack on the Soviet Union. If the Japanses had attacked the Soviets, almost surely the Soviet Union would have been defeated. The strategic bombing czmpaign later in the war impaired the German ability to produce weapons on a scale needed to defeat the Red army.

Invading Britain

"If Hitler had ever launched an invasion of Britain (for which air superiority would have been a pre-requisite), we should not take the pattern of previous invasions as the format for what would have happened. The unmistakeable pride and unity of the British people was above that of their continental counterparts, and they were presided over by an enormously charismatic leader, who had more than just a clue about strategy (and was ertainly superior to Hitler in this arena). One need only listen to Churchill's "we will fight them on the beaches..." to see how resolute and ferocious British defence would have been. Britain had weathered the storms of the Spanish Armada, of Napoleon, and had consequently not been invaded for an unparalleled 900 years! Although extremely badly prepared for war in 1939, within two years Britain had become a fortress. Defences were substantial and all eventualities had been planned for... if only due to the fact they were to enjoy a lot longer to co-ordinate such an effort than was experienced by France and the Low Countries." Here we would not take issue with the courage of the British people or the capabilities of Prime Minister Churchill. We would note, however, that key to Britain's survival was the Channel. The British rmy had not learned how to fight the Germans yet. It was the Channel which stopped them and the RAF. It is certainlt true that Britain's vulnerability was in the Summer of 1940 when the BEF returning from Dunkirk had almost no equipment, including tanks and field artillery. It is true that a subsequent German invasion of Britain would gave been a much more difficult undertaking. It must be considered, however, that German progress in jet planes and missles would have given them the ability to attack Britain on a much larger scale than during the Blitz. Also the emense industrial capacity of a NAZI controlled Europe would have supported a much larger U-boat campaign than Britain faced in 1940-43.

The Luftwaffe

"You over-emphasise German control of the channel. Even when Britain was on the back foot, a large proportion of the Battle of Britain fighting took place over the channel, especially in the latter stages of the battle, by which time the RAF had become immensely efficient at scrambling to the incoming Luftwaffe. Whilst, the Germans did enjoy a general control of most of the channel following the battle, this was to be steadily eroded over the following months and years, especially after the most of the Luftwaffe was deployed to the East in 1941. The ineffectiveness of air-cover in 1942 was due to other factors: German ground/air defences were massive at the port, and the beaches were covered with a deliberately-laid smoke screen. The significant defeat of the Luftwaffe over Britain in 1940 indicates that the Nazis never would have been able to gain air superiority. Germany's 'superior resources' were largely irrelevant, given that the Luftwaffe was tactically and strategy inept against the RAF. Also, German resources were much more directed towards Panzer and U-Boat production than to fighter aircraft. Their pilots were encouraged to act individually and to gain impressive scores, rather than being the professional and highly-coordinated force that the RAF was. The Luftwaffe never used radar effectively (for them, it was a naval technology) and failed to adapt ineffective formations. Also crucial, one of Hitler's greatest flaws as a leader was his tendency to reward loyalty rather than competence. This explains Goering's continued presence as Chief of the Luftwaffe - he was entirely loyal to the Nazi cause, but absolutely unaware when it came to strategy. Throughout the war, he assumed that all he had to do was put his fighter boys to the air, and everything else would take care of itself. Pilots were forbidden from attacking the same airfield twice in consecutive days, allowing RAF bases to quickly recover. So, for the Luftwaffe to ever defeat the RAF, Goering would have to have been replaced (something that Hitler was never prepared to do), tactics would have to have been comprehensively re-drawn and war-production would have to be re-directed. Even then, it would have been a close-run thing." Here we both agree and disagree. We certainly disagree that the RAF was a more prefessional force than the Luftwaffe. Just compare the performance of the RAF and Luftwaffe in France. Both the Luftwaffe's leadership and the tactics were outclassed. The difference in the Battle of Britain was that 1) the Luftwaffe was opperating at the outer range of its operational 2) an appreciastion of the importance of radar, and, as our reader points out, 2) the politcal leadership (Goering and Hitler) overode the professional Luftwaffe commanders. These two failings gave the RAF the breathing space it needed to develop the tactics to defeat the Luftwaffe.


"Yes, the fairey swordfish was obsolete, but it was operated by the one of the best-trained groups of pilots in the war, and used to deadly effect on more than a couple of occasions. Incidentally, the reason for Japan building a modern carrier fleet lie in the astonishing success of Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm at Taranto, when a large element of the Italian Navy (7 ships in all, I believe) was disabled whilst still in port! The Emperor was inspired by this singular event. Amazingly, the Swordfish sunk more enemy ships (by Tonnage) than any other aircraft acting in the same roles during the war!" The Japanese of course committed to carrier aviation in the 1930s well before the war began. The British raid on the Italian fleet at Toranto was, however, influential and ekped inspire the attack on Pearl Harbor.

El Alemein

"You also greatly play down the significance of the British success at El Alamein. Here (having already conclusively outclassed the Italians), the British decisively defeated a large, very well-equipped and extremely well-led German force, ultimately leading to their ejection from North Africa (May '43). Montgomery, a hitherto unknown, outwitted and outfought Rommel, arguably the most gifted and most prominent commander of his generation. Indeed, Churchill (a figure as highly-regarded in the US as he is even in Britain) identified the battle as the turning point of the war, saying that there were no real allied victories to speak of before El Alamein, and no major defeats afterwards!" Here we have considerable differences with our reader. We do not disagree that El Alemein was a battle of considerable importance. It was as our reader explains the first important British victory over the Germans. It also demonstrated that the British had learned to fight the Germans. It was, however, a costly battle. There is some question as to whether it might have been best to wait for Torrch (November 1942). The Afrika Corps would have been forced to abandon their fixed defenses to meet the British and americans mocing toward Tunisia. But our primary objection here is the assertion that Montgomery "outwitted and outfought Rommel". The British victory at El Alemein was not a tactical one. It was a matter of the huge disparity of forces. Montgomery's forces greatly outnumbered the Germans. (Here we are discounting the largely ineffectual Italian units.) The Desert Air Force established aur supperority over the battle field because of supperior numbers of air craft and access to fuel. The 8th Army had a huge superority in tanks , rttillery, and all other classes of weapons. This was largely the result of massive deliveries of American Lend Lease equipment. The Afrika Corps not only had few tanks, but fuel and even water had to be severely rationed. At no time did Montgomery and Rommel face each other on eq=ual terms.

British Army

"In the 1930s, the British armed forces were extremely badly prepared, thanks largely to the ethos of liberal-idealism that dominated their politics in the post-Versailles years. Interestingly, what is little-known is that the German frontline that invaded France in 1940 suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any of the units involved in the war. Early German victories had a much higher price than is traditionally believed. But looking at the examples you highlighted, the British were often the smaller of the forces numerically, generally under-equipped and always outgunned. Much of these failures were inevitable but should not necessarily indicate that the British servicemen themselves were incompetent. With regards to Germany and to Japan, Britain was combating two modern, very well equipped and well trained forces. But no matter who was to join, or not join the war, it would be misconceived to assume that the early pattern of the war would be repeated through the following years. All of the great thinkers of war have recognised that in a long, drawn-out conflict, the effect it that the superior force essentially 'trains' their inferior foe how to fight (that is of course assuming that the inferior are not defeated early on). This had already started to happen to the British, irrespective of American intervention, so future successes were inevitable." Here we disagree that the British reverses were always due to inferior force levels. THe Allies (British and French) in 1940 did not face a German force that inordinately larger. The Germany victory was largely due to superior tactics. And in the Westwrn Dessert, Rommel's victories normally were achieved over superior Brirish forces. We do, however, agree with our reader's primary point. Our British reader makes a very important point. German success in the War was contingent on fighting its opponents separately and defeating them one by one before they could develop the tactics needed to fight a modern war. Many World War II historians downplay the importance of the Desert War. In fact, it was critical for the Allied syccess in the war. It was in North Africa that in a theater of maximum Axis weakness that that both the Americans and Germans learned how to counter the German tactics.


"Despite the general failure of British forces in fighting in the early stages of the war, one area in which they were always supreme was intelligence. The ability of British intelligence to acquire and interpret information, then respond to it, was incredible, as was their skill in purposefully misleading the enemy. One of the major factors in turning the tide of the war against the axis powers was the cracking of the enigma code machine, which was a German system light-years ahead of itself. Here, the British constructed what was world's first computer, and utilised the greatest minds of a generation to accomplish what was virtually impossible. The Hollywood film "U571" is about the enigma machine, and is based on a true story... except it was written as an American exploit, involving only American personnel! British intelligence also co-ordinated and supplied French, Dutch and Norwegian resistance throughout the duration of the war, training many thousands of operatives. They even convinced Hitler that the main allied invasion would be through Greece (by planting the body of a Royal Naval officer, carrying falsified information, into the sea off the coast of Gibraltar, knowing that the Spanish authorities would turn it over to Hitler). And on the eve of D-Day, they tricked the Germans into believing the landing would be made on the North East coast of France, thereby freeing up the Normandy beaches." Our reader is quite right here, although the role of the Poles needs to be mentioned. The exploits of Blechly Park greatly contributed to the Allied victory. The intelligence story of World war II is a fascinating story. One factor in the U-boat successes in the North Atlantic was the fact that the Germans broke the British naval codes. And perhaps the most important remaining secret of the War is the Soviet code breaking efforts.


"Could Britain have won the war against Germany without Soviet or American intervention? Ans. Most certainly, NO."

"Would Germany have been defeated by the Soviet Union and (to a lesser extent) Britain without American intervention? Ans. possibly, though this is debateable." Here HBC disagrees. We believe that the Soviet Union without Britain diverting the Germans in the West and the Americans diverting the Japanese in the East would have been defeated in 1941.

"Could Britain have continued to resist invasion for the duration of the war without American intervention [as was my original claim]? Ans. PROBABLY, taking account of the tactical ineptness of the Luftwaffe and the pre-determined conflict with the Soviet Union." HBC believes that as long as the Soviet Union continued to resist, the Germans could not have forced the British to make peace. The question of course is what would have happened after a German victory in the East.

" What I have never come across in any version of popular history emanating from the US media is that, in the period after the fall of France and before the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Britain stood alone! For the British, the war was a 6-year struggle on their own doorstep; personally affecting every man woman and child. It was not, as in America, a 3 1/2 year series of operations on the other side of the planet, involving only the armed forces! At this point, Id like to stress that I do not want to detract from the value of American sacrifice in the war. I merely want to highlight that the British and American experiences of the war were entirely different. [And likewise, British experience bears no comparison to that of the occupied countries, especially to the unfortunate peoples of Eastern Europe]. Sometimes I do not appreciate the self-preoccupation of 'popular' American history." Here we fully agree with our reader. His reference to the "U-571" film above is a good example of this.

"Clearly Dennis, you personally have an excellent knowledge in this area and your arguments therefore hold much weight; but I have too many times heard one of your countrymen, who know little of modern history, and nothing of sacrifice and hardship, look down upon Europeans, inspired into arrogance by what they have seen on HBO. In the 20th Century, there can be few deeds greater than that of ordinary young Americans running up a beach into machine gun fire, to liberate a country they have only ever read about. But I am sure they did not do it so that their descendants could boast "you would be speaking German in it weren't for us" at every possible opportunity. Last week I saw an advert on TV (sorry, I mean a 'commercial'), for a PC game called "Brothers in Arms", in which a computer-generated American GI notes how his unit were "the very first ones in" on D-Day. Not only is this in bad-taste (given that the trauma of the European conflict is still fresh in the memory of many ex-combatants), it is also incorrect. The first unit to land on D-Day was actually a British commando unit who glided into France under the shroud of darkness and secured 2 tactically crucial bridges in tact, in what was an extremely complex operation (as the bridges were already wired to be detonated), thereby ensuring the success of the subsequent beach-head landings. Of course, no one knows about this event, because Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg has not made a high-profile drama series about it! [Incidentally, Stephen Ambrose wrote his first book in the genre on what these British soldiers accomplished there at "Pegasus Bridge", but it seems that literature is unfortunately no longer the chosen medium of most of those who seek to educate themselves as to what happened in World War II."

"Happy to hear your are something of an anglophile! Likewise, I find myself constantly playing devil's advocate and defending US actions in the international arena - especially in the current climate, in which empathy for the American cause is at an all time low over here. Whilst I personally do not think Bush has handled "security threats" in Iraq at all well, I never tolerate any criticism of American motives in the 1940s. The sacrifice made by that generation of American young men should never be forgotten in Western Europe."

"To conclude, whilst American intervention was needed to guarantee victory against Nazi Germany (or at least, to expedite it, depending on how one sees the role of the Soviet Union), Britain had indeed already saved itself from invasion." Here we agree that Britain had saved itself in 1940, but we disagree that Britain was safe. Our point is that without America either Soviet Russia or NAZI Germany would have dominated the Continent. And that Britain by itself could have not remained an independent country from the either the NAZIs or Soviets. Churchill himself after the Battle of Britain did not believe that Britain was safe. This only came after Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the War.


Pearce, Stephen. E-mail message, April 12, 2005.


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Created: 4:43 AM 5/11/2005
Last updated: 4:43 AM 5/11/2005