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How close was Germany to defeating Britain?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: October 02, 2012 
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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had afflicted, the Royal Air Force was close to exhaustion, between aircraft lost, airfields bombed, shot-up aircraft withdrawn for repairs and literally exhausted airmen rotated to quieter sectors—with Britain's ability to replace those losses falling behind all that cumulative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
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History 


6 Responses to “How close was Germany to defeating Britain?”

  1. 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. 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. 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.

    • 3.1
      Dave says:

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

      • 3.1.1
        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. 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.

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