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How close was Germany to defeating Britain?

10/2/2012 • Ask Mr. History

How close was Germany to bringing Great Britain to its knees in WW2? Clay Blair seems to refute the belief Britain was about to fall. Taking into account all the setbacks that Doenitz had, was it not possible that Churchill used it as an excuse to gain Roosevelt’s sympathy?


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Dear Rob,

In early September 1940 Germany was probably as close as it would ever come to conquering Britain. In spite of the losses it had afflicted, the Royal Air Force was close to exhaustion, between aircraft lost, airfields bombed, shot-up aircraft withdrawn for repairs and literally exhausted airmen rotated to quieter sectors—with Britain’s ability to replace those losses falling behind all that cumulative attrition. At the same time one had one of the top U.S. diplomats to London, Joseph Kennedy, not only writing off Britain’s prospects of survival, but actually applauding its imminent downfall (sentiments not shared by his son John). The bombing of London and other cities from that month on never achieved the “terror” factor Adolf Hitler sought, but it did give the RAF the reprieve it needed in the nick of time. The concurrent German effort to blockade Britain by sea is more problematic—it started out with too few U-boats and as they grew in numbers, so did the escorts and anti-submarine measures to counter them—but there is no disputing the Battle of Britain as a tipping point in the war.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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9 Responses to How close was Germany to defeating Britain?

  1. Larry C says:

    Had Herman Gering stuck with his original plan of elimination the RAF, he would have succeeded. Fortunately, for England, he reacted to the bombing of German towns and went to terrorize the citizenry.
    Once he eliminated the RAF, an invasion would have been possible and highly probable to be successful. At the time there was not much of a British army and what was there, was poorly equipped as compared to the Germans and the best most citizens could do was use pitch forks.
    A landing on the beaches in the vicinity of North Somercotes would have been easy and a strong beach-head would have been established before the Brits had time to react. After that, it would have been a chase and the capitulation of Britain.
    Battles and wars are lost when politicians make the strategic and tactical decisions rather than the professionals (Generals & Colonels). (Ex. Hitting Russia before eliminating England, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Viet Nam)

  2. […] Hitler sought, but it did give the RAF the reprieve it needed in the nick of time. – See more at: How close was Germany to defeating Britain? How close was Germany to defeating Britain? Reply With […]

  3. Jerry F says:

    I believe you left out one decisive element, Britain’s navy. Its hard to imagine the Germans invading and supplying an army capable of capturing and holding Britain. This would have been across the North Sea with its difficult weather. The German navy was unable to protect that supply line. They may have been able to execute a landing on the South East coast but keeping an offensive force supplied and capable in the face of the British navy is not very likely.

    • Dave says:

      Had Germany eliminated the RAF, andcontrolled the sky, Britain’s navy would not have lasted long.

      • Allan says:

        Remember that this was the most powerful fleet in the world at the time and would have fought to the last to destroy an invasion fleet. The Luftwaffe had no torpedo bombers. Many ships would have been lost, but as well as capital ships the navy had many fast torpedo boats.

        Compare the German invasion plans with those of the Allies.

  4. Allan says:

    Jon Guttman is quite wrong. The truth is, in terms of serviceable aircraft and pilots the RAF was actually stronger at the end of the Battle of Britain than it had been at the start. At their respective rates of loss, the Luftwaffe could not sustain the battle and the RAF could. The Luftwaffe were losing aircraft at a rate of about 2:1, given that both forces were a comparable strength at the start and the British were building new aircraft at a faster rate, it really points to one outcome..

    The RAF could have lost, but the odds we stacked (and remained) in their favour. The switch to bombing cities did, of course, make the RAF’s job less difficult.

    • Dalan says:

      I agree with you on the fact that the RAF had increased the number of pilots and planes that were combat ready and that the Royal Navy would have caused problems for a German invasion fleet. However, the Germans did in fact have aircraft capable of carrying torpedoes, also the Germans were working on improving the qualities of the Bf 109 which was definitely a worthy opponent of the spitfire.

  5. Allan says:

    My mistake, there were torpedo-carrying aircraft, but I think it’s still fair to say that the Luftwaffe would have needed to be much more effective than they had been at Dunkirk to eliminate the Royal Navy. Have a look at footage of the invasion barges – then wake of a destroyer would be enough to sink one!

    I think the threat of invasion was just that, a threat to force Britain to negotiate – and it must have felt more real in the wake of stunning German successes in mainland Europe than it does to us looking back from a safe historical distance!

  6. Richard Caves says:

    It seems from all I’ve seen and read that while the BOB was conducted in earnest by the LW, there was no real intent to put Sealion into effect. The Nazis had neither the means to safely cross the channel, nor an agreed detailed plan to do so, nor the means to resupply and sustain the proposed operation. OpSea was a “statement of intent” if peace negotiations failed – a bluff by the inveterate gambler Hitler, that was bolstered by a blustering Goering. That said, the BOB did come within a week or two of causing a temporary withdrawal of some squadrons from 11 Group forward airfields to others in 10 & 12 Groups sectors. This never happened because of the accidental bombing of London, the retaliatory Berlin raid, followed by the Blitz. All the computer modelling I’ve seen confirms that British fighter production was increasing faster than losses, German pilot losses were reaching such a critical level that in another two weeks they would be facing the same pilot shortage as the British, and that even if the German concentration on airfields had continued, the goal of air superiority over the proposed landing beaches would not have been reached, let alone the necessary air supremacy achieved by the allies over the D-Day beaches in Normandy. My conclusion is that the BOB called Hitler’s bluff well and truly and should up the deficiencies in both the LW capabilities and the German industrial capacity (that never reached its fullest until late 1944). Hitler was already committed to the Soviet campaign, scheduled for early May 1941, but this was delayed by the Balkans invasion following Mussolini’s disastrous adventure. So, no, the BOB campaign never got close, despite Churchill’s rhetoric, but it did send a huge boost of badly needed confidence through the BE and provide an inducement to US assistance in the form of firstly, Lease-Lend, then direct supply. After a string of victories in the West, the BOB was a nasty surprise for the Nazi hierarchy, and paved the way for the ultimate allied victory in 1945.

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