Saturday 2 January 2016

Existential Threats

I wrote a while ago regarding Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of the United Kingdom by German forces in 1940. Most of the post was devoted to trying to explain how even the most optimistic accepted that Sealion was never going to work.  There are, in summary, a variety of reasons. Firstly, of course, the Luftwaffe would have to establish at least local air superiority. Secondly, something would have to be done about the Royal Navy and, given that the purpose for the existence of the Royal Navy is to stop the UK being invaded, that plan would need to encompass sinking, or at least mission killing all RN units above, say, corvette size. Thirdly, the Luftwaffe would be seriously over stretched, having to provide combat air patrol over the beaches, the artillery for the land forces (no heavy weapons were really envisaged as being landed on the beaches) and the ability to sink the RN. And so it goes on. Invading Britain is no easy task.

There is, however, a strategic problem lurking in the plans for Sealion, which the British government was well aware of. The fact is that with the whole of the southern coast of the Channel being held by hostile forces, defending the south of England becomes rather difficult. There is quite a lot of it, for one thing, and the invaders can choose from a variety of jumping off ports and land anywhere from East Anglia to Cornwall. As a worst case scenario, of course, the invaders could land at two or three points and working out which is the main thrust could be quite a lot harder. Defending Britain is no easy task.

I am currently reading the third volume of Jonathon Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War. If you have not dropped across this, and the first two volumes, you are missing a wargamer’s feast, even if you are not a medieval wargamer. The ideas and detail are such that if your imagination is not reeling with the possibilities after a few pages, you should call your doctor. The third volume deals with a bit of English history which we do not major on, from 1369 – 1399, when the English lost most of what they had gained between 1346 and 1360.

By 1386, the English faced the familiar strategic problem described above: the coastline of Europe was firmly held by a hostile power. The coast from Brest (held by the English) to Holland was dominated by France, except for Cherbourg and Calais. Not only that, but the French were determined to invade England and dictate peace terms. Furthermore, the Scots, having been under truce for a fair number of years, were raiding again. Finally, the English crown had terminally run out of money and, as representative assemblies are wont to do under these circumstances, Parliament did not believe that the money already voted had been spent, a refused to saddle the nation with any more tax demands.

The French war aims were clear. They wanted to get rid of the English enclaves in France, which were the result of the English ‘bastide’ policy. The English idea was that, with command of the sea, expeditionary forces could enter France at will. The bulk of the Hundred Years war was fought in France, after all. It had already been pointed out that the English were unlikely to win the war, because the most they could do was to send smaller forces, while the French could, ultimately, concentrate against the English enclaves. The fact that this did not happen for another fifty years or so speaks more to the disunity of the French body politic than the resilience of the English bastides. The other aim that the French had was that the English crown should pay homage for Gascony.

With all this at stake, and a full war treasury, the French decided to invade, via East Anglia, using Sluys, the newly acquired port of the French King’s uncle as the embarkation point. This policy proved to be extremely popular among French subjects and nobility. Firstly, there was some patriotism there, and the idea of taking to war to the English did appeal. Secondly, there was the prospect of pay, as the French taxation system was functioning quite nicely again. Thirdly, there was the prospect of plunder among towns and villages that had not been endlessly fought over for years. French troops flocked to the Low Countries.

The English government was not really in a fit position to do anything. There was no money, for a start. They had little idea where the invasion might come, and not too many means of discerning that. England did not have command of the seas, quite the opposite. While invasion fleets could be gathered and land their troops, much of the raiding was by French and Castilian ships against south coast communities. As Sumption says, this was the gravest existential threat to medieval England before the Armada.

How, then, did Richard II and England survive? The answer says a lot about both invasion plans and logistics. The fact is that the idea of invading England was so popular that the army gathered was much larger than expected and planned for, and hence got through its supplies before anyone embarked. Extra shipping had to be acquired as well, and the men paid. Even the renewed French treasury became exhausted. The army was dispersed when the autumn storms set in.

Sumption observes that, perhaps with a smaller, or more tightly controlled army, England could have been knocked out of the war at this point. Even if you are not a medievalist, surely your wargaming juices are churning at this point. If you even managed to get the French vanguard ashore, all they will face initially are local forces. Could the English gather up enough force to prevent the landing or take out the vanguard before the rest arrive? The French had even built a prefabricated timber fought for their protection.

So, over to you. Can you turn the Hundred Years war is the Fifty Years war?


  1. I must admit I have a fondness for blowing up parts of that green and pleasant land.

    I've done Sealion a bit and the less well known German parachute landings on Sodor. We're playing a campaign in soviet occupied England circa 1979at present.

    I've not done anything napoleonic in that line. Time for Operation Otari perhaps?

  2. When you start to look into history a bit, there are loads of ideas out there.

    The other interesting thing about 1386 is that the French were going to bring a prefab wooden fort with them, as they knew the initial landing force would be weak and vulnerable.

    A sort of Mulberry in reverse?