Hermann Göring was not solely to blame for the failure of Operation Sea Lion in 1940.

By Blaine Taylor

At one point Operation Sea Lion, the planned German invasion of Britain, was set to start on July 8, 1940. One week earlier, the Germans seized the British Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and Alderney. The actual air assault on England had begun four days before that, when the Luftwaffe raided St. Peter Port on Guernsey on June 28.

Describing that initial attack in his superb new book Hitler on the Doorstep: Operation ‘Sea Lion’–The German Plan to Invade Britain (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1998, $30), Egbert Kieser writes: “The sounds of aircraft were heard and shortly thereafter a bomb whistled down and fell in the harbor….Six German airplanes swooped down on the defenseless town. By sheer luck, most of their bombs fell into the harbor and the sea. Flying low, they attacked with their guns, boats anchoring in the harbor and columns of lorries standing in front of the port warehouse….The attack lasted 15 minutes, during which 31 people were killed and 47 wounded.”

All previous accounts of Operation Sea Lion have stressed that the campaign could not be successful without Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe first defeating the British Royal Air Force (RAF), since the Germans required air superiority over the English Channel before an invasion could proceed successfully. Interestingly enough, Kieser, who is German, has written his account mostly from the German perspective, and he also subscribes to that view. But Kieser also asserts that Göring saw his aerial Battle of Britain as the operation itself and believed that an actual invasion would be unnecessary. In Göring’s view, his air force–which had suffered a major setback at Dunkirk just a few weeks before–was the only weapon needed to bring the British to their knees.

Moreover, as a longtime intimate of Adolf Hitler, Göring knew from the start that his Führer was not serious about invading the United Kingdom. From first to last, Hitler wanted the British as allies and looked forward to a day–after the expected defeat of the Soviet Union–when Britain and the Third Reich would unite to face their common ultimate enemy, the United States of America. The British themselves, of course, never saw the conflict from Hitler’s perspective. They did, however, fully expect a German invasion. And some postwar studies concluded that such an offensive would have been successful had it transpired.

Some books have depicted Hitler and Göring as the chief obstacles to a successful invasion effort, together with an inadequate Luftwaffe, and much has been written contrasting the German air force to the machines and pilots of the RAF. But Kieser asserts that it was only at the Luftwaffe’s top rung of leadership–Göring, Erhard Milch and technical chief Ernst Udet–that the German air force was faulty, and that the Germans could have won the Battle of Britain had the right strategic decisions been made during the operation. In fact, when I heard former Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland and former RAF ace Peter Townsend speak at a Battle of Britain symposium in 1990, they agreed with that assessment as well.

Kieser does not assign total responsibility for the failure of the operation to the two top Nazis; instead, he places blame where it has not been put before–on the German army and navy. Both during the war and in postwar accounts, members of those services had blamed the air force for the operation’s failure. Kieser also blames the army and navy for trying to force Hitler and Göring into making a landing that neither of them wanted. The army wanted to end the war by a quick landing in Britain against a weakened British army that it was sure to beat; the navy wanted to steal glory from Göring’s air force by ferrying troops across the English Channel from the Continent. The problem was that the German navy never even had sufficient ships to ferry the troops, let alone defeat the Royal Navy. In fact, the greatest fear of Grand Admiral Erich Raeder was that a single nighttime raid by the British fleet would wipe out the bulk of his invasion craft.

Additional problems surfaced over army-navy disagreements about where and when to land, and with how many men and how much equipment. Ironically, the only Luftwaffe officer who was truly enthusiastic about Sea Lion was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who wanted to subdue Britain from the air–but by a massive German paratroop drop, not by the bomber fleet he commanded during the operation.

This is an excellent, informative and exciting reassessment of what is perhaps history’s most famous air operation, and it is likely to be unequaled for years to come. It also sets the stage for a renewed look at Göring’s wartime leadership.