Saturday 15 August 2015

The Silly Season

Most of the world seems to be on holiday, including blog readers. The rest of the world seems to wish it were on holiday, or back on holiday. I do have a feeling, however, that this might exclude any antipodean readers. On the other hand, why would anyone not want to be on holiday, at any time.

Anyweay, it does seem to be rather the silly season, and so it is rather time, I feel, for a rather silly post, or at least, a post sillier than usual. As a wargamer, of course, this has to be something to do with warfare and wargaming, which one might argue is not silly at all (or at least, war is a serious and deadly affair for those involved). As a historical wargamer, of course, it also has to be something silly by at least loosely historical.

Having considered all this, and bearing in mind the hours I spent procrastinating while reading the old alt.history.what-if newsgroup, I have come to the conclusion that one of the silliest bits of near history was, in fact, Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain that never was. The issue around Sealion, of course, usually revolves about what could be changed historically to make it viable, to make the invasion feasible, at least without the intervention of alien space bats. It was something of a permanent feature of the alternate history group.

I do not, of course, have a problem with alternate history. Historical wargaming is, after all, a fairly broad application of the practice, and, as Jeremy Black remarks somewhere, it can be useful as a check on what happened and a reminder, at least, that history is contingent. To make Sealion work, however, we have to bend history so much that it seems to have broken.

That might seem to be a sweeping statement (or it may not, most readers probably know an awful lot more about this that I do; I am not a World War Two wargamer, as I have mentioned). Let me try, briefly, to summarize why it is highly unlikely that Sealion would have been anything other than a disastrous defeat for the Axis.

Firstly, of course, we have to obtain air superiority, at least over the beaches. It is known that the Luftwaffe did not manage that in the Battle of Britain, although the switch to bombing cities rather than going after the fighter bases is usually blamed for this by apologists. However, it is clear that even if the Luftwaffe had managed to serious damage the RAF, the fighters would simply have been withdrawn to bases outside bomber range and kept in hand to oppose the invasion. Air superiority might look like it had been gained, but the invaders might be in for a large surprise on the beaches.

Secondly, there is the issue of command of the sea. As an initial point here, the Germans had no suitable invasion craft, and were having to bodge up Rhine barges and the like to carry troops, supplies and equipment. An issue here is both the low speed of the invasion force and the low seaboard, meaning that, say, a Royal Navy destroyer passing at twenty knots could, quite possibly, have sunk a barge without firing a shot. Secondly, of course, there is the issue that the Royal Navy’s job was to stop invasions of Britain. The home fleet, since at least Stuart days, was tasked with the very role of preventing invasion. That is why it was there. An extremely potent naval force was lurking, roughly two days steaming distance from the putative invasion beaches.

Of course, minefields and aircraft can damage such a fleet, but there are two things to bear in mind. While some naval assets were sunk off Dunkirk, it is a lot easier to hit a stationary target than a moving, zig-zagging one. Secondly, there would probably be decisive combat air patrols over the fleet which could rather spoil one’s aim. U-boats could also be deployed, but they did find it a bit uncomfortable in relatively shallow waters. Some home fleet assets would certainly get through and ruin the day of the invaders. And this ignores that fact that the RN had significant assets within the cordon of minefields the Germans planned.

It could be argued that the invaders would have surprise, and that would suffice. Indeed, it is also true, but once landed, it would quickly become clear where the invaders were and, perhaps more importantly, where they were expecting re-supply. Given this, it could be expected that a concentration of naval and air assets against the re-supply vessels (assuming there were that many left; there are significant problems here which I do not have space to describe). The invasion divisions would be fairly quickly cut off on the beaches. Even paratroops need air resupply, which is predicated on at least local air superiority which, again, once it is clear where they are, is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Of course, crack German invasion divisions would be pitted against defeated, demoralised and ill-equipped British divisions. The only problem here is that the majority of the army in England was not from the BEF and, even if it had been, against a lightly armed invasion force (without most of its tanks, artillery and transport) it might well have been effective at least at causing the invaders to use their supplies up a lot faster than they could be replenished. After all, if the Germans had managed to land a few tanks, the British could simply have let them drive along until they ran out of fuel, so long as stockpiles had been removed. A fuel-less tank is known as a vulnerable pill-box.

There are a whole load of other reasons why Sealion would have become an embarrassing dead duck (beached whale?). To make it successful, either Alien Space Bats would be required or the German government would have had to decide that war with and a successful invasion of Great Britain and her Empire was the specific aim. And that was politically hugely unlikely; after all, the UK government was trying to avoid war up to 1938. A build-up of, say, landing craft in Kiel would probably have ended Appeasement rather sooner than that.

I hope that none of that needed explaining to the assembled readership. As I say, it is the silly season, but there is a slightly more serious point underlying this: at what point does a scenario become unhistorical?

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