Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939 – 1945
When the British realised what was coming their way their will to resist would crumble. From mid July the Luftwaffe stepped up the military pressure by attacking the channel ports and shipping to establish command of the Straits of Dover, while German heavy guns were installed around Calais to bombard the Dover area where the first shells started to fall during the second week of August.
By the end of July the Royal Navy had to pull all its larger warships out of the channel because of the threat from German aircraft. All seemed to be going to plan; perhaps this mounting military pressure and the prospect of invasion would break British spirits and make Operation Sealion unnecessary? But by the end of July neither the threat of imminent invasion nor offers by Germany of 'honourable' peace had done the trick. It appeared that Germany would actually have to execute one of the most difficult military operations imaginable: It was immediately clear that this could not even be attempted until the Royal Navy - still one of the most formidable fighting forces in the world - had been either destroyed or diverted and after the Royal Air Force had been eliminated.
The first reaction of Hitler and the German high command, when it appeared that a real rather than a bluff invasion would have to be organised, was to change the schedule. On the last day of July Hitler held a meeting at the Berghof. He was told of the difficulty in obtaining barges suitable to carry invasion troops and about the problems of massing troops and equipment while the German navy argued for the invasion front to be reduced from the proposed miles from Lyme Regis in the west to Ramsgate in the east and for a postponement of the invasion until May Hitler rejected these requests that, if granted, would have undermined the invasion as a political threat, but the start date was postponed to September the 16th.
There is evidence that, during this meeting, Hitler decided that the invasion of England was effectively a bluff operation and that resources should be diverted to the east in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, for the bluff to work, the build-up for invasion had to continue and Britain had to be kept under military pressure.
So, after the 31 July meeting it was decided that the Luftwaffe should tighten the screw by attempting to clear the channel of British warships and the skies over southeast England of British aircraft. Hermann Goering saw no problems.
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The attack was due to start immediately, but bad weather delayed the German air offensive against Britain until 12 August. At the same time a new force had been organised to help defend the country. The Local Defence Volunteers LDV had been raised on 14 May and comprised men too old or too infirm to join the regular army or in protected trades and thus exempt from conscription. By the end of July one and a half million men had volunteered, a huge figure which reveals the seriousness with which ordinary people took the threat of invasion in the summer of Ironside's only option was to set up a static system of defence which, he hoped, could delay German invasion forces after landing He had a large force at his disposal, but one that was poorly armed and equipped and generally poorly trained.
In the circumstances, Ironside's only option was to set up a static system of defence which, he hoped, could delay German invasion forces after landing and so give Britain time to bring its small mobile reserves into play. If the Germans could be delayed on the beaches and then delayed as they pushed inland their timetable could be thrown off balance, they could lose impetus, direction and initiative and the British army might be able to counter attack effectively. The key to Ironside's pragmatic plan was defence in depth. Southeast England was to offer a series of barriers or stop-lines formed by concrete pillboxes, gun emplacements, anti-tank obstacles, trench systems, minefields and barbed wire entanglements and utilising natural and man-made features such as rivers, canals and railway embankments.
They were to ensnare and delay the German forces. The Germans, of course, had their own script for the battle and their detailed air reconnaissance of Britain in early meant that the stop-lines would have held few surprises for the attackers. But, whatever happened, Ironside was determined that this would be a battle of attrition.
At the very least the Germans would be made to bleed before they achieved their objectives. This Instruction gave detail to Ironside's defence theory. There was to be a coastal 'crust' that was to consist of a thin screen of infantry deployed along the beaches. This crust was to disrupt enemy landings long enough to allow the arrival of local reinforcements. Behind the coastal crust a network of stop-lines of various strengths and significance were constructed to slow down and contain or channel any German advance. This was the backbone of Ironside's coordinated defence plan.
The line was planned to stretch from around Bristol in the west then east to Maidstone and running south around London passing just south of Guildford and Aldershot, then northeast to the Thames Estuary. Then beyond that, through Cambridge and the fens and up the length of England, running inland parallel with the east coast but able to defend the major industrial centres of the midlands and the north, and up to central Scotland.
An auxiliary GHQ line was also to be established around Plymouth. By the time they realized what was happening, it was 1 am on February 12, and the ships were about to pass Boulogne. The British scrambled Swordfish biplanes to attack the German ships. They had scored successes during the hunt for the Bismarck and in attacks on supply ships.
Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945
They were outdated aircraft, and their fighter escort arrived too late. No match for the German Messerschmitts, they still courageously pushed their attack to the end. None of their torpedoes hit. Another wave of bombers was launched, complete with fighter cover.
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Those that did once again faced the Messerschmitts as well as anti-aircraft fire. As at Brest, they were unable to do serious damage to the battlecruisers. One RAF pilot, a French exile, and former sailor escaped death by pure luck when he joined a German formation in the confusion above the Channel.
The fighting at sea went no better for the British. They did not have in the region a fleet capable of engaging with the Germans. Motor torpedo boats were held off by German escorts, and bad weather kept the Dover shore batteries from hitting their targets. A group of WWI era destroyers, usually used as escort vessels, rushed to intercept.
However, they arrived too late to engage with the Germans effectively or to block their path. The bombers crossed the area laying mines only hours before the German ships arrived.
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