Invasion of England
THE German High Command has prepared a detailed plan for the invasion of Britain, and has assembled men, ammunition, ships, and planes which can be launched whenever the weather permits. This much is beyond doubt. Reports trickling through from occupied France, Belgium, and Holland all agree that embarkation troops similar to those that seized Norway have been ceaselessly drilling all winter, just as the expedition to Norway was drilled during the winter of 1939-1940.
All of this — and much more — is confirmed by what the British intelligence experts see on the tremendously enlarged photographs from negatives brought back by their observation planes. Just as the Germans daily photograph the damage to London and British troop positions in the island, so the British know with deadly accuracy just what is going on in and behind the circle of ’invasion ports’ which extends from State Cape in Norway down to Brest in occupied France. Germany has few secrets from these intelligence experts trained to study aerial photographs, comparing today’s with those taken last week and the week before. Because of their reports the R. A. F. bombers this spring have practically abandoned long flights which late last year frequently took them over Berlin, Milan, or the Skoda works, and instead, night after night, have pounded the invasion ports, to produce those red glares in the sky which the British coast artillery observers watching from the tops of the chalk cliffs see rising along the eastern horizon beyond the Channel.
There hasn’t been an invasion attempt yet, although some months ago the American press carried a lurid story about German invasion barges’ being blasted by British destroyers and finally burned by flaming oil poured on the waters. What probably happened was that a British Channel patrol came on a German detachment engaged in invasion drill off the coast of France — a routine in which men are embarked and the barges towed out to sea a dozen miles or so, after which, returning to France, they rehearse a surprise landing. The British took the detachment unawares during these innocent manoeuvres and may have drowned a few thousand Germans, but you can be sure that if a serious invasion attempt is made there will be no doubt about it.
If further evidence were needed, Americans returning from Berlin have reported that the German propaganda machine this winter was preparing the German people for the sacrifices involved in an invasion, just as in January 1940 it was explaining to the people that the war could only be ended with a German offensive which would be launched through Holland and Belgium in the spring, and that fighting would be over and the soldiers back home by August. During the past winter months both sides were accumulating reserves of planes. In September, October, and November, British pilots were agreed that the Luftwaffe was all out against England — making its maximum sustained destructive effort, although its activity was curtailed by the gradual settling down of winter over British targets as well as German landing fields.
During December, January, and February, however, it was obvious to the British that the Germans had switched tactics. The raids lightened and there were sometimes several consecutive days in which sirens did not sound even in London. The weather accounted for only a part of this lull, British pilots were convinced. ‘It wasn’t bad enough to keep us down,’ they would tell me, ‘and when we were flying over France we could see that Jerry’s flying fields were also clear.’
German winter raids were all at night, on a greatly reduced scale, and each served a specific purpose. London had only two important raids, and these were obviously experimental. On December 31, the Nazis concentrated a two-hour shower of incendiaries on the small City district, returning next day to photograph the result. About two weeks later they gave central London the shortest but most severe shower of high explosives it had received since the war began — omitting incendiaries entirely — and compared the photographic results.
Frequently during this period they would abandon London and concentrate all their force — as at Coventry — on a single small town. If their reports were accurate, they learned that such raids, though spectacular because they heavily damaged a small target, did no more actual damage to England than the same number of bombs spread out over fifty square miles of London. A few more than 300 people were killed at Coventry, which is the average score for London during a night raid. An important armament factory on the outskirts was hit, but its assembly line was moving again in thirty-six hours and production was completely normal within a week. Most of these raids on other lesser towns, however, like Liverpool, Manchester, Southampton, and so forth, were sized up by the British Air Force as practice and reconnaissance flights in preparation for invasion. Pilots whose ultimate mission it might be to tow gliders to or dump bombs on Manchester were being taught the way and given practice. These German pilots may also have learned much about the location of important groupings of British anti-aircraft artillery guarding various towns and military targets, and still more about the efficacy of various mixtures of incendiaries and high explosives of different calibres. But the experimental raids benefited the British hardly less. If Goring learned that a concentration of incendiaries can be used to burn off one and a half square miles of Coventry or two thirds of a square mile in London’s City district, the British simultaneously discovered that their roof-watcher system was inadequate, and found that plenty of roof watchers is the complete answer to any number of incendiaries. Quickly they profited by this experience, and a few weeks later a German raid on a South Coast town which was planned on the Coventry formula was a complete failure.
But probably the principal purpose of the winter lull in Nazi bombing was to build up reserves of planes and particularly of trained pilots for a single smashing blow in the spring. Since September the British have killed or captured about 7750 German airmen while bringing down 3101 German planes over England. The British, in turn, have lost 851 of their own planes over England, from which they have managed to save 427 pilots.
These estimates of both British and German losses are probably a little low. In addition to the 3000 Nazi planes whose destruction is confirmed by the British, a number of others undoubtedly cracked up on the return trip while landing at their own fog-bound airdromes. Similar casualties to British home-bound bombers may not be included in the casualty list admitted by the British, because their loss was not due to enemy action.
But on the whole it is fair to estimate that Germany, fighting an offensive air war over British territory, must be prepared to lose two or three planes and four or five pilots for every British plane and pilot shot down. The winter lull in the air war gave the Luftwaffe a chance to accumulate a large reserve of planes and trained pilots to fling into the spring air offensive. Is the reserve sufficient to crush England?
In the first place, we must remember that if the Nazis are to ‘soften up’ England for invasion they must return to daylight bombing, which is terribly expensive in planes and men, but necessary if British airdromes, rail centres, and military targets are to be destroyed. And the first; objective will be the fighter planes and fighter airdromes of the R. A. F., which is defending them. It is theoretically possible to bomb hangars and mess halls and so pockmark a field with craters that planes can no longer land on it—except, that I have never seen it done in England. I have seen many bomb craters on fighter landing fields — and I have also seen the ground crew come out with its shovels and steam rollers and have the whole place perfectly smooth within half an hour. I talked with a pilot whose airdrome had been attacked by fourteen bombers. They blasted two big hangars and killed half a dozen men. But they didn’t get away. Anti-aircraft ground fire got two of them within sight of the field, and British fighter planes brought down the last of the remaining dozen when it was still five miles from the Channel coast. England isn’t Poland, whose air force was caught and smashed in a surprise raid while it was still on the ground within an hour after the declaration of war. And it isn’t France, where the pilots carelessly left their planes conveniently moored in orderly close ranks, so that a single stick of bombs could blow the wings off twenty planes.
The best German tactic would probably be to try to crush the fighter squadrons of the R. A. F. by sheer weight of numbers, if, as is entirely possible, the Luftwaffe can bring these numbers to bear. The strategy would be to send over bombers at 20,000 feet covered by Messerschmitts at 30,000. The R. A. F. fighters usually are on patrol at 25,000 to 30,000 feet, and the Germans would attempt to use the bombers as bait to lure the British fighters into dogfights with the covering Messerschmitts.
According to this computation, if the British had 3000 fighter planes and the Germans attacked with 9000, the Nazis could sustain losses of two to one and at the end of a month’s terrific fight ing the R. A. F. would be wiped out and the Nazis would have 3000 fighters left, while Heinkels and Stukas would then be free to roam the length of the island encountering no greater hazard than barrage balloons and ground fire.
The trouble with this neat little equation is that it leaves out of account the fact that a German fighter plane operating over England has the same handicap as a British bomber attacking Berlin. The average modern fighting plane flying at 350 miles per hour or better consumes gas so rapidly that it can stay in the air only about an hour and a half. Then why not build planes with bigger gas tanks? It would be easy — but it would add to the weight, and for every extra gallon you must subtract something from speed and manoeuvrability in the air, so the equation is unbeatable.
That hour and a half in the air is spent, somewhat as follows. It probably takes the German plane half an hour to take off from its inland airdrome in Holland or Belgium, gain altitude, and cross the Channel, throttled down to pace the slower-moving bombers it protects, until it reaches the target in central England.
Then it must allow for another half hour to get home and land. This means that it has only about half an hour’s fighting time in the air over England.
By contrast the British fighter plane which meets it takes off from an airdrome near the target. It needs only to gain altitude before it can go into action, and can spend a full hour fighting in the air before it must land to refuel, while its German opponent can fight only half an hour before it must return to the continent to refill its tanks.
So, because of geography alone, a German fighter squadron attacking the R. A. F. over England would need to have twice as many planes as the defending force in order to equal it in fighting hours. But, if invasion is to succeed, the Nazis must do more than equal the striking power of the British fighter planes — they must overwhelm them and sweep them completely from British skies, and to do this might require not a mere two-to-one numerical superiority, but four or six to one.
For invasion can only be achieved if British fighter protection can be completely removed, in the invasion’s first phase, so that German bombers can then swarm safely over England in broad daylight and at low altitudes, thus attaining the accuracy which would enable them to blast rail centres and paralyze transport, preventing the British from moving their army quickly about the island to repel the main landing attempt which must come by sea.
But before we go into this third phase of the German invasion strategy, the High Command has in readiness another weapon which could be used to immobilize Britain. Neutral observers in Germany report that the Nazis have 28,000 troops carrying gliders, each capable of holding fourteen men. Two of these gliders can be towed behind a single bomber, and Americans traveling through central Germany have watched from train windows as the operators practised landing and taking off with full loads. The principal value of the gliders is that they make no noise. Also, they can be quickly and cheaply manufactured.
Taking off from continental airfields at night, they can be towed across the Channel and cut adrift while they are still forty or fifty miles from the target. They would then float silently toward it, with no telltale propeller noise or exhaust flames to betray them to the defending anti-aircraft fire. Of course such lightly armed troops could not long survive in a country as heavily armed as England is today, but their function would be to destroy railroad yards, dynamite bridges, and disrupt communications, supplementing the work of the daylight bombers in immobilizing England in preparation for the third and final phase of the attack, which would be the landing by sea.
As we have seen, the success of these first and second phases of the German attack depends on air superiority so crushing that the R. A. F. will be annihilated on its home ground. Just how great is the German superiority? British production, in spite of winter bombing, is at least 1500 planes a month. To this can be added American production, which could be an appreciable factor by late spring or summer, but which during the fall and winter consisted of only about 200 planes a month, many of them obsolete in design and fire power.
Now for the German striking power. While armchair computers put German production as high as 5000 planes a month, neutral observers in Berlin agree that Nazi factories are probably turning out between 2500 and 3000 a month. If we take the higher of these last two figures and compare it with England’s monthly 1500, we find the Nazis have that two-to-one ratio which would give them only equality in the air over England and not crushing superiority. If, however, German production during the winter has been 5000 planes a month, the Nazis would have a good chance — but not a certainty — of being able to annihilate the R. A. F. and so complete the first and second phases of the attack.
No British military expert denies that the Germans can make a landing — or even half a dozen — in a single night. It’s a simple matter to shove ashore, under cover of night, bargeloads of ten or fifteen thousand men at various places along the coast from Scotland to Kent or Cornwall — not forgetting Ireland. But then, according to the British, the fun really begins. Because a successful infantry landing at any point must be supported by further landings of tanks and artillery and maintained by a constantly flowing supply of reenforcements, food, and munitions, in order to equal the British force that will confront it within a few hours.
And within these same few hours the British sea patrols will have discovered the landing, and a screen of destroyers and corvettes will cut off all further communication with the continent. For if British sea power, in spite of German air power, E-boats, and submarines, was sufficient to cover the withdrawal of 300,000 men from Dunkirk last summer, why shouldn’t it now be equal to the simpler task of smashing German water communications, particularly if the Germans prudently avoid the heavily fortified Dover area and attempt to maintain a bridgehead at some other point which will require longer sea lines of communication?
Of course, the smaller ships of the British Navy which bore the brunt of Dunkirk took heavy punishment; but repairs, plus American reenforcements, long ago enabled them to recover their original position, which is now much improved by the addition of newly constructed small fighting ships under the naval construction program.
The Germans, however, if they make the attempt, will count on surprise in strategy and probably in weapons as well. In particular we cannot overlook the torpedo bomber. It drops into the sea what is practically a standard-type naval torpedo, complete with motor and gyroscopic automatic steering apparatus. The plane which drops it is not vulnerable to depth charges, as is any submarine which comes within torpedo range of a fighting ship. It is also less vulnerable to well-directed anti-aircraft gunfire than the dive bomber, since it need not come directly down on its target, but can drop its torpedo at a comparatively safe distance and then veer off. The Germans are reported to have used it once last year with spectacular success against a convoy of British merchantmen, and then to have stored it for future surprise use. The British used it more recently, and with even more spectacular success, against the Italian cruisers in Taranto Harbor.
The torpedo bomber is undoubtedly deadly against large, slow-manoeuvring targets like cruisers and merchantmen. How effective can it be against the swarm of slim, agile destroyers and corvettes which the British would throw into the Channel to break up a German sea landing? How many flies have you ever killed by throwing rocks?
So invasion by sea would seem possible only after the Nazis had achieved a completely crushing air victory over the island, annihilating British fighter squadrons so that Stukas and Heinkels could roam the country at will and by day, selectively destroying not only inland communications but also the great ports on which the British fleet is based, rendering it as completely immobilized as the railway system, by which time the actual landing on the beaches would be practically a mopping-up operation.
Whether or not the entire scheme would be launched no man — probably not even the German High Command — could predict this spring. But the invasion force has been in readiness since midwinter. Sources close to the Royal Air Force, which constantly conducted both bombing and reconnaissance raids on the invasion ports this winter, — and they are very well informed, — seriously anticipated that it might be launched last Christmas under cover of fog.
Later, however, it became plain that the High Command’s strategists were delaying it for clear weather. German intelligence operators in the Western Hemisphere — remember that Europe gets our American weather when we are through with it — were being drilled into a weather-reporting organization that could send in reports on which longrange forecasts might be based. Very obviously the Germans were going to launch their air drive at the moment when these reports indicated a long period of clear flying weather in prospect. That moment might be delayed until May, the month in which the Nazis launched their combined air and land drive down through the Low Countries toward France.
Yet, once the drive was started, not even the High Command could be sure that the plan would ever unfold in regular stages to the final landing of barges. The only certainty was that England was in for a terrific air pounding, after which no one could be sure that the Nazis, reviewing air photographs of their work, would pronounce the island finally ripe fer a landing.
All winter and during part of the spring, air activity over England was light — the Germans obviously saving both planes and pilots to build a reserve which could be flung against England. Yet this semi-truce in the air also enabled England to build reserves to meet it, and British war industries came through the winter almost intact from bomb damage.
Even with these mighty reserves poised for the blow, the Germans seemed to have only a 40 per cent chance of climaxing their spring drive with a successful invasion. Yet was this a stupid gamble? Suppose they risked 20,000 planes and 500,000 men with chances GO per cent against success — what was this compared with the whole British Empire which might be won in a few weeks ?
And even if the attempt to paralyze Britain from the air failed to sweep the R. A. F. from the skies and prepare for a landing, yet it was clear that terrible damage would be inflicted on England.
But it was also clear that if the attack failed, and the Luftwaffe were forced finally to retreat to night raids, the damage to the German air power would be even greater. Germany’s losses in a spring drive could be closely estimated from the terrible punishment inflicted on the Luftwaffe during the daylight raids last fall, when Goring sacrificed two or three planes (on some days the number was five) for every British plane shot down. Still heavier would be the loss of German pilots, as the British estimated that the ‘all-out’ daylight bombings of London last September and October cost the Germans a major part of their most highly trained pilots before the Luftwaffe retreated into the darkness.
So it is not so strange that the British welcome the invasion attempt. The better-informed ones realize that German chances of success are not fantastically small, but they welcome the test because, in spite of the ordeal ahead for England, they know that a failure would be as costly for the German Luftwaffe in planes, personnel, and morale as the retreat from Moscow was to the Grand Army. But most of all the British, since they are sure it is coming, would like to get it over and done with, and see it for better or worse as a turning point in the war.