Osprey - We March Against England: Operation Sea Lion, 1940-41
Robert Forczyk is a retired US Army officer who has written several top-notch books on WW2. His most recent is We March Against England: Operation Sea Lion. Recently we reviewed his Case Red (review here: http://www.amps-armor.org/SiteReviews/ShowReview.aspx?id=4118&tf=4&sf=3&mf=-1&rf=693&nf=&df=&p=1&s=-4 ).
We March Against England and Case Red make a terrific pair of studies of the war in the west in 1940-41. Forczyk is uniquely qualified, in my opinion, to write top notch books on this subject. He combines excellent research skills, a willingness to look beyond the old myths and accepted explanations, a professional Army officer's operational/analytical skills, and great writing that keeps things interesting. He's not afraid to ask "what if" other decisions had been made or other outcomes had occurred. Unlike many other authors (I cannot stress this enough) Forczyk has the professional training to take a hard look at accepted explanations and reassess them.
Forczyk's introduction sets the stage in an extremely engaging way. The popular story is that, after the fall of France, Britain stood exposed to German invasion. The hard-won Battle of Britain, fought by a few hundred fighter pilots, essentially stopped any threat of invasion since the Germans would not have risked an invasion in the face of British air attack. Some authors have gone so far as to claim that Germany's loss in the Battle of Britain ensured its eventual defeat. Others have claimed that Sea Lion was never a true threat, merely a bluff designed to get the British to negotiate a peace.
Forczyk takes these arguments apart. His position is that victory in the Battle of Britain was one part of a multifaceted, interrelated campaign that included what we have traditionally called the 'blitz' (German bombing raids on the UK) and the Battle of the Atlantic. All three of these were part of one campaign designed to force British negotiation. Indeed it is hard to argue against Max Hastings' conclusion - which Forczyk calls "an admission of the obvious" that the Battle of Britain ensured British survival, but little else, and that Britain's strategic position in 1940-41 was far worse than Germany's.
This book is an explicit attempt to take on the orthodox histories of the June 1940-June 1941 period, reassess the old explanations, and offer newer ideas about this important phase of WW2. Forczyk rightly notes that the older histories have mostly been written by authors who lacked either the professional skills to really evanuate their evidence, and who lacked the objectivity to do so dispassionately. In particular, he develops three themes throughout the book:
- The accepted wisdom that the British navy would easily have destroyed any German invasion attempt mid-channel in a "turkey shoot"
- That, even if the Germans had managed to put a force ashore in Britain, the Navy could have easily cut off that force, leaving it stranded and forcing a quick German surrender
- That the British Army could quickly have defeated any German beachhead.
Forczyck ends the introduction with an assurance that while his book is not a "what if" or counterfactual fantasy, neither will he simply accept these old, shallow conclusions. His intent is to remind readers that everything is contingent; other outcomes were possible along the way; plans have options and branches. The outcome of Sea Lion occurred through a long series of actions, not a single heroic or preordained explanation.
The strategic situation in June 1940 was dire for Britain. The author describes the incredible weakness in the British army, which started the war already weak, tied to colonial missions, without coherent doctrine and at a low level of training that was not really corrected throughout the war. Territorial and home guard units were weaker. The author notes the extremely low value of 'militia' type troops throughout WW2, whether British Home Guard, Volksturm or People's Militias in the USSR. Forczyk is deeply critical of Churchill's military leadership (as opposed to his emotional leadership of the country) arguing that he tended to go all-in on bizarre ideas that did nothing to advance Britain's strategic goals, but that consumed resources unwisely.
The Germans, on the other hand, made serious preparations for invasion, including massing barges, improvising ferries and allocating units to specific missions. I want to acknowledge here that I have long believed German preparations were a bluff, and that they certainly did not have the ability to ferry troops across the channel. Here is where Forczyk's skills shine: as a professional, he assesses the German record in moving troops and improvising other, similar situations. German logistical operations in the mediterranian, for example, consistently showed an ability to move units and materiel in the face of what looked like greatly superior allied air and sea power. As late as August 1943, Germany was able to evacuate two divisions from Sicily, with their equipment, in good order, despite the presence of US and British air power. His conclusion is that the Germans could indeed have gotten a force of several divisions ashore had they chosen to try.
The reader may ask "what about the British Navy?". Here the author points out that despite the huge size of the British Navy, it was scattered across the globe on maintenance-of-trade missions. Most of it was not available to stop an invasion and could not quickly have gotten on site.
Finally, Forczyk runs through a short scenario, based on actual German plans, of how an invasion might have worked. Putting ashore several divisions, the authoer believes the Germans would have been able to establish and hold a small bridgehead. The weak and untrained British Army would not have been able to do much more than weakly contain this bridgehead. This would have forced Britain to the negotiating table.
This is an outstanding piece of work, well worth spending the time to closely read. I felt the author was on his weakest ground when, in the final section of the book, he strays a bit from the rigor of the first ~80% of the book to walk through the 'what ifs' of a German ground invasion. There is simply too little to go on to make predictions at the level he makes them.
That said, the rest of this book is very rigorous, solidly backed up and interesting as hell. I cannot recommend it highly enough, particularly paired with the same author's Case Red on the French campaign. Taken together, there is a strong basis for a new interpretation fo the first two years of the war in the west.
Highly Recommended for Beginner to Advanced builders; Must Have for students of the early war period in the west.
Thanks goes out to Osprey Publishing for this review sample.
Reviewed by Danny Egan
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