Did the Navy win the Battle of Britain?

Discussion in 'The War In The Air' started by adrian roberts, Aug 25, 2006.

  1. adrian roberts

    adrian roberts Senior Member

    This theory is being touted as the latest controversial bit of revisionism - below is the Daily Telegraph's report on it:

    The Battle of Britain was not won by the RAF but by the Royal Navy, military historians have concluded, provoking outrage among the war's surviving fighter pilots.

    Challenging the "myth" that Spitfires and Hurricanes held off the German invaders in 1940, the monthly magazine History Today has concluded that it was the might of the Navy that stood between Britain and Nazi occupation.

    advertisementThe view is backed by three leading academics who are senior military historians at the Joint Service Command Staff College teaching the future admirals, generals and air marshals.

    They contend that the sheer numbers of destroyers and battleships in the Channel would have obliterated any invasion fleet even if the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain.

    The idea that a "handful of heroes saved these islands from invasion" was nothing more than a "perpetuation of a glorious myth," the article suggests.

    "Many still prefer to believe that in the course of that summer a few hundred outnumbered young men so outfought a superior enemy as solely to prevent a certain invasion of Britain. Almost none of which is true," reports Brian James, the author.

    Dr Andrew Gordon, the head of maritime history at the staff college, said it was "hogwash" to suggest that Germany failed to invade in 1940 "because of what was done by the phenomenally brave and skilled young men of Fighter Command".

    "The Germans stayed away because while the Royal Navy existed they had not a hope in hell of capturing these islands. The Navy had ships in sufficient numbers to have overwhelmed any invasion fleet - destroyers' speed alone would have swamped the barges by their wash."

    Even if the RAF had been defeated the fleet would still have been able to defeat any invasion because fast ships at sea could easily manoeuvre and "were pretty safe from air attack".

    While admitting it was an "extremely sensitive subject", Dr Christina Goulter, the air warfare historian, supported the argument. "While it would be wrong to deny the contribution of Fighter Command, I agree largely that it was the Navy that held the Germans from invading," she said.

    "As the German general Jodl put it, so long as the British Navy existed, an invasion would be to send 'my troops into a mincing machine'." Any challenge to the long-held theory that the 2,600 pilots of Fighter Command defeated the might of Germany would be subject to "more than a modicum of hostility", she added.

    The Battle of Britain was "a sacrosanct event" for the RAF, like Waterloo for the Army and Trafalgar for the Navy.

    It inspired Churchill to say: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

    Although six destroyers were lost during the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 this was due to them being stationary as they picked up troops.

    Tackling capital ships would have been an even greater task because at the time the Luftwaffe, unlike the Japanese during the destruction of the fleet at Singapore, did not have armour-piercing bombs, the article says.

    It has been argued that German minefields strung across the Dover Straits would have prevented the Home Fleet, based at Scapa Flow, from destroying slow troop barges.

    But Dr Gordon disputed this saying that Britain had 52 minesweepers and 16 minesweeping trawlers arrayed against four German minelayers.

    The disparity between the navies was huge with Britain having 36 destroyers close by and a similar number two days away. The Navy also had five capital ships on hand, whereas the Kriegsmarine had lost or had damaged their battleships.

    "Anyway, in an emergency, the Royal Navy steams straight through minefields as they did when pursuing the Scharnhorst," Dr Gordon said. "They have a drill, following line astern. 'Each ship can sweep one mine' is the rather grim joke."

    Can you imagine the RN's targets? An invasion fleet of Rhine barges, moving at about two knots over the water, with a freeboard of a few feet. . . an absolute field day for our navy. So that was the nightmare for the German navy. They knew it just couldn't happen."

    Prof Gary Sheffield, the JSCSC's leading land warfare historian, said while some Germans might have got ashore it would have been near impossible for them to be re-supplied with the Navy so close by.

    The article also argues that while the RAF had 644 fighters to the Luftwaffe's 725 at the beginning of the battle by October 1940 Britain was far out-producing the enemy.

    It also said that after the defeat in France in early 1940 it was vital for Britain to have a victory to reassure the public it was winning the war and the RAF fighter pilots were an obvious choice. "In 1940, the total acceptance of the story's simple broad-brush strokes was very necessary," the historian Richard Overy said.

    Dr Gordon added: "The RAF's was a substitute victory - a substitute for the certain victory over Sealion, had the Germans been mad enough to attempt invasion."

    The story attracted a huge amount of comment on the on-line Telegraph. One of the first comments was that it was not a new idea at all - a book had been written by an RAF Wing Cgr in the 1950's saying that the Royal Navy had been largely responsible for preventing invasion.

    My own feeling is that is probably a flawed theory, but not one to be dismissed out of hand. If it remained at its July 1940 strength, the Navy could certainly have prevented a seaborne attack. But if the RAF had been eliminated, the Navy would have been gradually worn down by the Luftwaffe and by Uboats and Eboats. If the RN concentrated in the channel to attack the invasion fleet, they would have been easy targets for all of these. By then, British Skua divebombers had sunk the Konigsberg, and the Luftwaffe had sunk the Lancastria, so it was proven to be possible for air attack to sink large ships. Apparently the Luftwaffe did not have armour piercing bombs - but there was only a small proportion of RN ships where AP bombs would have been necessary, i.e the Battleships; the armour on cruisers could be penetrated by ordinary bombs, and destroyers had no armour. The Battleships would have had to be tackled by Uboats - the Bismarck and Tirpitz were not yet available, and the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were smaller than the British BBs.

    However, it may well have taken the rest of the summer and autumn to wear down the Navy, so the invasion would have had to be postponed to the next year. And then it would have depended on whether Hitler had made a priority of invading the Soviet Union or Britain.

    The fact is we needed both the RAF and the RN, and if the invasion had got ashore we would have needed the Army. The RAF pilots made better propaganda for Churchill; its much easier to be an individual hero in a flying service than in the depths of a ships engine room or shell room where you do your job anonymously, where you would never know what happened if you got blown up, and everyone has to work as a small but vital cog in the machine.

  2. Gerry Chester

    Gerry Chester WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Thank you Adrian for your post.

    The Battle of Britain, which lasted from 9th July to 31st October was the the attempt by the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over the RAF - its very name speaks for itself. Militarily a battle is defined as a large-scale fight between armed forces involving combat between armies, warships, or aircraft, not a might-have-been!

    Problem is that folks are forever attempting to re-write history - The Battle of Britain is not an abstract as opined by those so-called 'military historians' - shame on them - trying to term it the Battle for Britain!

  3. lancesergeant

    lancesergeant Senior Member

    Academics is the word. Academics can argue over the possibility of this and what if of that.
    Repulse and Prince of Wales spring to mind. I can understand if this issue was presented in a sensitive manner but it is either some media trying to stir up publicity or these academics trying to make a name for themselves.

    As Adrian says it was a team effort, I say this in respect that the RAF were watching the air, the Navy the sea lanes for possible invasion. If the RAF had been knocked out then what would have stopped the Stukas? How would the mainland be protected from the bombers. Once over the mainland -straight run to the major cities and heartlands. No service has the monopoly on the nation's defence. These academics have the benefits have hindsight. I can't remember hearing of Jodl ringing Whitehall and saying we won't invade while the Navy's there. Hitler has no intention of invading. If they were sensitive in their attitudes and professionalism to their subject matter, they would have worded their comments in a more sensitive manner. At first glance it seems a slap in the face to those who fought and those who died in the RAF and an attempt to damp down their contribution.

    Their only basis for an argument would be that to successful invade Britain, the logistics would dictate that a major amphibious force would have to cross the Channel which wouldn't have been feasible because of the strength of the Navy at this time. This would have played a major part in any potential invasion and was thus countered/ neutralised by the Navy at this time. The actual deployment of a major required force negated by not being able to cross the channel. If they had put it across as a successful invasion was impossible while Navy had superior numbers, and not de-cried the efforts of the RAF, it might have been took/accepted by a receptive audience willing to see the merits of their dissertation. They have tact of a herd of elephant in a china shop,demeaning one services efforts and playing one off against the other.

    The U-boats could have sat off Plymouth or Portsmouth, while the Luftwaffe bombed the docks and mainland. Think also of the bottle neck of the Channel I wouldn't envy ships caught in that area of possible invasion.

    Another small thought it might have been a subterfuge to cover that there was no intention of invasion, but why the barges and troop deployments in the occupied countries - a bluff? Take the RAF out of the way and then concentrate on the Navy, but don't think of taking on the Navy then the RAF. The logic seems get the RAF out of the way so then the combined German services can concentrate on sinking the Navy without enemy air interference in effect a straight run - and not until. With the RAF out of the way any definite invasion advance force would have laid into anything that was in the English Channel.

    Then saying that BofB will be still around when these academics are long forgotten.
  4. morse1001

    morse1001 Very Senior Member

    It would only be true if the Germans had mounted their invasion plans and the RN had engaged them in the channel.

    However the reality was and still is, the RAF won the BofB by the very faact of destroying enemy aircraft. Which raises the point of, if there were so many destroyers etc in the posrt, then why could they have been employeed as flak ships in the channel, give the matelos someform of gunnery practise.
  5. spidge


    Those brave men, "the few", did win the BoB and if Hitler had invaded, the RAF would have kept the Luftwaffe away from those ships and allow them to wreak havoc on the invasion force.

    What may also have been forgotten, is that the RAF, (up until September 21st?) had flown across the channel and destroyed 18% of the intended landing craft that was to be used for "Sealion".

    Even Hitler was smart enough to know that if he did not defeat the RAF, he could not invade Britain.
  6. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor

    I read another version of the article in the Times this morning. I would generally agree with it, the Navy was another detterrant, if the RAF had been defeated and an invasion launched the RN would have likely defeated it. As it was the RAF was not defeated and so won the Battle of Britain but had they lost it would be plausible to say that the RN would of won the Battle of Britain.
  7. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    There is another element in this discussion.While the Battle of Britain was being fought, RAF Bomber Command was utilised against the Germans preparation for the forthcoming "Operation Sea Lion".

    Hitler had no prepared plans to invade the British Isles until after the fall of France.Consequently he had to requisition invasion barges for whatever source he could.What invasion barges he could muster were targetted by Bomber Command at ports from Boulogne to Antwerp and much of his intended craft were destroyed.

    Focussing on the availabilty of invasion barges for Hitler's invasion,it took the Allies two years to develop equipment for the invasion of Europe, a notable feature was the constuction of tank landing craft,the completion of which were not completed until late May 1944.

    Hitler would have found it very hard to mount and sustain an invasion without adequate shipping to transport his armour and heavy equipment.No doubt had he attempted an invasion then he would have been met with the defensive screen of the Royal Navy,another layer of the defence of the British Isles.The Royal Navy had previously given the Kriegsmarine a bloody nose in the Norwegian campaign and were to follow the strategy of the Great War in mounting a blockage of the continent.In the end Hitler's Kreigsmarine, save for early U Boat successes around the British Isles did little better than the Kaiser's Imperial Fleet in disputing ownership of the "home waters".

    Overall,Hitler did not come because the RAF controlled the airspace,the Kriegsmarine were not the force that the Royal Navy was and the lack of invasion barges would have, at best, see the Heer land on these shores with insufficient armour.
    It is worth remembering that operations against Hitler's invasion preparations
    RAF Bomber Command, sometimes referred to as the "Battle of the Barges",cost Bomber Command, 500 aircrew in the period that is now termed the Battle of Britain.
  8. Kyt

    Kyt Very Senior Member

    The original writers' response from:


    There are three other papers (links can be found at the bottm of this post)

    "The Royal Navy did not win the ‘Battle of Britain’:
    But we need a holistic view of Britain’s defences in 1940

    Christina Goulter, Andrew Gordon and Gary Sheffield

    In response to the History Today controversy, the three authors of this short article have each written separate papers – from the Land, Air and Maritime perspectives – on the Battle of Britain, which are published for the first time on RUSI’s website.

    In August 2006 the British media seized on an article published in History Today that argued that ‘it was the navy, not the RAF, that prevented a German invasion [of the UK] in 1940’.[1] On the front cover of the magazine this was simplified to ‘Who Won the Battle of Britain’? This proved to be a silly season story par excellence. Articles and leader columns appeared in the national press; letters to editors hotly debated the merits of the case; and there were items on television and radio. The original History Today article, by a journalist, Brian James, had leaned very heavily on verbatim quotations from interviews with the three of us, and we were duly denounced as the villains of the piece, as stirring up controversy for its own sake, to gain publicity, or to sell books.
    In fact, none of us argued that the Royal Navy and not Fighter Command ‘won the Battle of Britain’. All three of us recognize that defeat of the Luftwaffe by the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command was a critical factor in preventing the German armed forces from attempting an invasion. Moreover, this victory was of enormous strategic, political, and psychological importance, for which Fighter Command deserves full credit. However, this was not the subject of our interviews. We understood that we were being interviewed about the prospects of Operation Sealion, the putative German invasion of England in 1940; in other words, the Battle of Britain in the sense it was first used by Winston Churchill on 4 June 1940, when he was referring to the coming struggle for Britain’s survival, before it came to be associated solely with the air battle. We are three independent scholars and do not have a ‘party line’ on the subject, but we all believe, as did Churchill, in the necessity of adopting a holistic view of Britain’s defences in 1940. This must include consideration of the role of the RAF’s Bomber and Coastal Commands, the Royal Navy, and land forces, as well as Fighter Command. This is a rather different, and certainly more subtle argument from the self-evidently ridiculous notion that a fleet ‘won’ an air battle.
    Andrew Gordon received a couple of day’s warning of the appearance of the article, but Christina Goulter and Gary Sheffield (on holiday in Greece and the UK respectively) only found out about the story through the national press. Sheffield had spoken to Brian James some years previously, possibly in 2001. Subsequently, James had interviewed Andrew Gordon. Goulter had never spoken to James but had been interviewed by a female research assistant. The article is entirely Brian James’s. The three of us had no part in writing it and we were not given, ahead of publication, the opportunity to comment on the use that was made of the interviews with us. None of us have a book on the subject to plug. Suffice it to say that if we had been consulted about the article we would have asked for numerous changes. These would have included: altering the catchpenny title ‘Pie in the Sky?’; contextualizing the quotations from the interviews; exercising some basic editorial work on the quotations, one of which is so garbled as to appear nonsensical; and, above all, refocusing the article so as to remove the false dichotomy implied in the statement that the RN not the RAF ‘saved Britain in 1940’, for we believe that the contribution of both the services were vital. For this some discussion of the full significance of the Battle of Britain would have been necessary. Read carefully, James’s article gave some indication of the subtleties of the arguments, but they were largely lost in the furore that occurred once the national press picked up on the story. We were reminded of the truth of the saying that one should not believe everything one reads in the press.
    In truth, the notion that in John Keegan’s words ‘some 2500 young pilots had alone [emphasis added] been responsible for preserving Britain from invasion’[2] has long been disputed by historians. As far back as 1958 Duncan Grinnell-Milne made the case for the principal role of the RN in preventing invasion, and two years later Captain Stephen Roskill, the British Official Historian, argued for the primacy of ‘lack of adequate [German] instruments of sea power’ and the knowledge of their use in the thwarting of Operation Sealion.[3] A few years later Telford Taylor produced what is still probably the most thorough study of the question, in which he integrated the air and maritime dimensions. Wing Commander H.R. Allen, himself a Spitfire pilot, published in 1974 a controversial book on the subject.[4] Allen defined the Battle of Britain widely, to encompass more than just the air battle, and concluded that the importance of the air and maritime dimensions had been respectively exaggerated and underestimated.
    A particularly interesting take on the topic was a 1974 Kriegspiel held at the Staff College, Camberley. With British and German officers as participants, and an impressive panel of umpires including 1940 veterans Adolf Galland, and Friedrich Ruge, the game supposes that the invasion is launched before the Luftwaffe gain air supremacy. The umpires’ unanimous decision was that the Germans would get some troops ashore, but a combination of RAF attacks and stubborn defensive actions and local counterattacks by ground forces delay their advance. Eventually, the Royal Navy destroys the German second echelon in the Channel, condemning the invasion to failure.[5] In 2003 a scholarly work on the Royal Navy contended that ‘from June 1940 to June 1941, the Home Fleet was the last line of defence in British strategy’. [6] As recently as 2005, the novelist Derek Robinson published a popular history, complete with an endorsement from Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College London, that argued that in the context of Operation Sealion, ‘the only relevant force was the Royal Navy’.[7] Thus, far from being a novel idea, the defence of Britain in 1940 has been a live topic of debate for at least fifty years.
    [1] Brian James, ‘Pie in the Sky?’ History Today, September 2006, p.38.

    [2] John Keegan, The Second World War (London, Arrow Books, 1990) p.102.

    [3] Duncan Grinnell-Milne, The Silent Victory (London, Bodley Head, 1958); S.W. Roskill, The Navy at War 1939-1945 (Ware: Wordsworth, 1998, first published in 1960), p. 88.

    [4] Hubert Raymond Allen, Who Won the Battle of Britain? (London, Arthur Barker, 1974).

    [5] See Richard Cox, Sea Lion (London, Futura, 1974). This is a novelization of the wargame, with some interesting factual background articles reprinted from the Daily Telegraph magazine.

    [6] James Levy, The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet in World War II, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003) p.68.

    [7] Derek Robinson, Invasion, 1940 (London: Constable, 2005).

    Battle of Britain: The Naval Perspective
    Andrew Gordon


    Battle of Britain: The Air Perspective
    Christina J.M. Goulter


    Battle of Britain: The Land Perspective
    Gary Sheffield

  9. MalcolmII

    MalcolmII Senior Member

  10. Hugh Allan

    Hugh Allan Member

    As I read the post's on this thread, I am sure many members like I have felt great dismay that journalists, academics have chosen to "disect" with no thought to the sacrifice made to all branches of our forces at that time. Is it really worth responding to and providing fuel to such a debate? What is often forgotten by those who instigate such controversy, is that we as a Nation, rich, poor, civilian or in our countries service at that time, HELD THE LINE! I never saw active service in the 1980.s TAVR or met an enemy in combat, neverthless I will say this, had our then perceved enemy at that time (soviet) ever crossed the "line" I would deeply resent those that in later years reduced in the slightest any sacrifice I or my mates may have made. So let the "armchair warriors" vent their spiel and treat such "bellybutton contemplation" with the contempt that anyone who cares more for human beings than historical debate, may impart upon them.
  11. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

  12. Wills

    Wills Very Senior Member

    Good sport these days - revisionist history. Truth is probably somewhere in the middle the threat of the fleet had to be within German planning. Did radar win it? Was it not Montgomery who said a battle is won in the Quartermaster's stores.
  13. fredleander

    fredleander Senior Member

    advertisementThe view is backed by three leading academics who are senior military historians at the Joint Service Command Staff College teaching the future admirals, generals and air marshals.

    "The Germans stayed away because while the Royal Navy existed they had not a hope in hell of capturing these islands. The Navy had ships in sufficient numbers to have overwhelmed any invasion fleet - destroyers' speed alone would have swamped the barges by their wash."

    Poor Britain if their Joint Service Command Staff College consists of people like this...."...swamped the barges by their wash...."

    The Germans might have believed the RN was overwhelming (and thereby preventing it), or rather admiral Raeder was very keen on having it look like that - he didn't like the invasion plans at all.

    In my recent book on Operation Sea Lion - River Wide, Ocean Deep - I am putting ten or twelve torps....:p... into such fantasies. As a matter of fact it is reason to believe that the RN leadership wasn't at all interrested in taking the first brunt of an eventual invasion, but to save their powder, much like Dowding did. Read all about it in my book!......:)....at a website near you...
  14. Son of POW-Escaper

    Son of POW-Escaper Senior Member

    Hmm, I don't even recall the RN being involved in the Battle of Britain.

    Did I miss something?

    Yes, they certainly would have been a mighty deterrent to any invasion force attempting to cross the Channel, but thanks to the RAF, the Nazis never got that far.

    Therefore, the assertion made in this paper would seem to be a moot point. It was Hitler's avowed intention to invade England, but he would not/could not attempt same until Air Superiorty was achieved. It never was, and the invasion was cancelled. The RN was never a part of this battle (no offense to the RN intended).

  15. Tab

    Tab Senior Member

    Well a lot of these arguments are thought up by different people for publicity to sell books. Now if the RAF had lost control of the skies I can't see that the naval aircraft like the their Swordfish defeating the Germans ion the Air.

    Now with a string of U Boats lined up in the North Sea would have taken a heavy toll of the British Fleet making its way down to the Chanel. Mines were also laid by U Boat and Aircraft, let alone the E Boats which would have taken their toll on the ships heading south.. Then there was the Luftwaffe who have controlled skies could turn around well over a thousand JU87 on these ships and being so close to France would have got quite a few sorties in per day.
    Now we all know what happened to the Prince of Wales Battleship along with the Repulse. In those narrow confines of the channel it would have been a shooting gallery for the Germans, and when you think of the heavy land based guns they could bring into action I think the Navy would have taken a pasting.
  16. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    During the Russian Campaign the Stuka Pilot Hans Ulrich Rudel sunk the Battleship Marat with a well placed bomb, we of course will never know how the RN would have fared against aircraft in the Channel but the loss of Capital ships would have provoked as much shock a the loss of the Prince of Wales and Renown off Malaya
  17. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Good sport these days - revisionist history. Truth is probably somewhere in the middle the threat of the fleet had to be within German planning. Did radar win it? Was it not Montgomery who said a battle is won in the Quartermaster's stores.

    And who filled the stores .... ?
  18. phylo_roadking

    phylo_roadking Very Senior Member

    A particularly interesting take on the topic was a 1974 Kriegspiel held at the Staff College, Camberley. With British and German officers as participants, and an impressive panel of umpires including 1940 veterans Adolf Galland, and Friedrich Ruge, the game supposes that the invasion is launched before the Luftwaffe gain air supremacy. The umpires’ unanimous decision was that the Germans would get some troops ashore, but a combination of RAF attacks and stubborn defensive actions and local counterattacks by ground forces delay their advance. Eventually, the Royal Navy destroys the German second echelon in the Channel, condemning the invasion to failure.

    IIRC there was a major problem with the result of the game which Cox didn't pick up on, nor has it been corrected until this day.

    The specific result of the game was that HOME FLEET entered the Channel and blocked the sea bridge...

    Unfortunately - historically Adm. Forbes refused to consider bringing Home Fleet any further south than Great Yarmouth! :p He ALSO specifically refused permission for elements of Home Fleet to exercise ground-controlled shore bombardment!

    All parties accepted at the time that Home Fleet's capital ships would be wallowing great whales in the Channel, and very liable to running ashore in any of the very many shallows and sandbars. And the requirement for air cover would have completely prejudiced the defensive air battle still ongoing over Kent and Sussex.
    James S likes this.
  19. Old Git

    Old Git Harmless Curmudgeon

    Interesting that this should appear now when all the services are fighting for funding and the Navy is the one that is most losing out (Carriers anyone)!
  20. Gage

    Gage The Battle of Barking Creek MOD

    No doubt the Navy would have shot down all the 88s & 87s without any air cover.

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