Mythbuster: Operation Seelöw

Discussion on World War 2 in general.
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Mythbuster: Operation Seelöw

Postby Ricky » Wed Oct 15, 2008 1:13 pm

See here for a much better-written essay!

A popular ‘what if’ question is ‘what if the RAF was defeated in the Battle of Britain?’ Various possible options are put forward to allow this, such as giving the German fighters drop tanks to enlarge their range, or omitting the switch of targets from RAF airfields to London. However, the ‘what if’ always ends with Operation Seelöwe being launched, and Britain (without RAF protection) falling to the Germans.

But was this possible?

For the purposes of this Mythbuster, we will assume that RAF Fighter Command had been effectively destroyed, and was in no position to contest the Luftwaffe for air superiority or to adversely affect any German operations in the Channel or even on English soil.

For Seelöwe to be successful, 3 things need to happen:

1) The invasion needs to be adequately planned
2) The initial wave of troops needs to successfully reach England and secure a bridgehead
3) A regular and reliable system of re-supply needs to be established and maintained

1) Planning

It is an oft-repeated truism that the German Army seemed to view crossing the Channel as simply a scaled-up river crossing. Only 9 Divisions were intended to launch the invasion, across a very wide front, with almost no specialised landing craft available. The Navy was not consulted

2) Invasion

In line with the Planning aspect, the vessels intended to transport the assault wave across the Channel were a rag-tag mixture of hastily-indentured barges, most designed for a life carrying cargo along Europe’s rivers. As such, they were mostly slow, unmanoeuvrable, and with a low freeboard, making them vulnerable to stormy weather. These craft had a limited capacity for armoured vehicles or artillery pieces. In addition, there were a limited number of them – even fewer given the attentions of RAF Bomber Command during the Battle of Britain. Very few specialised landing craft were available, and the only specialised armoured vehicles available were 168 waterproofed Pz III tanks. The Germans also lacked sufficient heavy naval assets to conduct a suitable bombardment. The good news for this invasion force was that British coastal defences were horrendously inadequate. After the Fall of France, the British embarked on a programme of building defensive works (‘Stop Lines’) to contain the Germans in case of an invasion. They also raised the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) – later re-named the Home Guard – from those unable to serve in the Armed Forces due to age or occupation. The ‘Stop Lines’ were based largely in the tactical thinking that had worked so well for the British in France, but properly constructed defensive works along the coast would make any landings a struggle. However, work on these defences was slow, mostly due to a lack of raw materials (steel and concrete) – it was not until 1943 that there was any significant level of fixed defences in Britain. The Regular Army was in poor shape, having abandoned much of its heavy equipment at Dunkirk. Everything, from tanks to rifles, was in short supply. Older or obsolete equipment was being mass-produced in favour of newer designs, on the principle that something bad now was better than something excellent in 6 months. The LDV / Home Guard was in even worse straights, with no uniform save an armband, few rifles, and almost no heavy weapons.

However, one branch of the British Armed Forces was still in excellent shape – the Royal Navy. While the bulk of the Home Fleet was based in Scapa Flow, and most warships had been withdrawn from South-Eastern harbours for protection from German bombers, a sizeable naval force could reach Dover within 24 hours of being called.
The German surface fleet was in no way able to defend itself against the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, especially after the Norwegian campaign. While U-boats could have caused casualties to the RN, they would themselves be very vulnerable in the relatively shallow waters of the English Channel. The only German hope was the Luftwaffe. Unfortunately, by this point in the war the Luftwaffe did not have sufficient training or suitable ordnance for anti-shipping work (particularly anti-warship), so while there may have been successes, overall the aerial assault on the RN would prove ineffective. Once in among the invasion fleet, the RN would cause havoc. Slow-moving, unarmed merchantmen, towing barges capable of being sunk by the wake of a fast-moving Destroyer… Bottom line, the RN would likely suffer casualties from aircraft, U-boats and surface units of the Kriegsmarine – but nowhere near enough to prevent them from smashing any invasion fleet.

3) Logistics

Supposing that the German first wave does manage to get ashore – maybe they attack under cover of darkness, or the British Intelligence makes horrific errors of judgement – what then? Two factors come into play here – firstly, the Germans have chosen to land comparatively few troops. While this will limit their advance, it does have the advantage of requiring them to provide fewer supplies. In terms of actual fighting, it is unlikely that the British resistance will prove anything other than hopeless – though doubtless fierce. However, lacking the specialised landing craft the Allies used in Normandy, the Germans would be forced to capture a port as soon as humanly possible in order to facilitate the unloading of supplies. The most suitable port would be Dover – though the town of Dover is a dream come true for anybody wishing to mount a dogged defence, with a high density of buildings and steep terrain. The second, and more worrying weak point in the German logistic chain is the Channel. Again, the collection of ships earmarked for Seelowe would cause problems. Will there be enough? Especially after any losses taken in the initial invasion are factored in. More worrying, though, is the effects of British action against the re-supply vessels. The might of the Home Fleet, having somehow missed the initial invasion attempt, would thunder down the Channel at high speed, sinking anything that moved and shelling German positions on the shore. Again, no force the Germans possessed – nor any combination of them – could prevent this.


Seelöwe was poorly planned, improperly resourced, and had it been launched it would have resulted in a large number of German ships and soldiers resting at the bottom of the Channel. Had any force managed to get ashore, it would have been forced to surrender due to a lack of supplies. Germany would suffer a huge reverse, and Britain would gain a huge boost in morale and reputation (if at the cost of a large chunk of the Home Fleet). With the Kriegsmarine shattered, Allied convoys would be safer (no worry of German capital ships attacking them). The loss of merchantmen and river barges would be a huge blow to the German logistical system, which moved a significant amount of resources by river. The loss of troops and equipment would obviously affect other theatres – either North Africa or the Eastern Front would be significantly easier for the Allies. It is not impossible that Hitler would refuse to ever allow his forces to cross a sea again, effectively removing any German involvement in North Africa (in the same way that the high losses on Crete led to his refusal to deploy paratroop assaults again).

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