I’ve been racing through my friend Paul Reid’s biography of Winston Churchill like a panzer through France, stopping only to refuel.
Reid, who shares billing with the late William Manchester, author of the first two volumes of “The Last Lion,” in this third and final installment, "Defender of the Realm," magnificently recreates the look, feel and smell of Londoners under the pounding of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, seemingly surviving only on the inspirational exhortations of their heroic prime minister.
That Reid, a journalist with no previous books under his belt, has succeeded brilliantly at building on Manchester’s foundation has been well noted elsewhere.
But a major revelation in the 1,182-page tome has drawn scant notice, as far as I can see.
And that is that even in the darkest early months of the war, Churchill had secretly concluded that Hitler would not invade Britain--and even if he did, the Fuhrer would be decisively beaten.
The conventional view, hammered again and again over the years in popular books, documentaries and movies, is that Hitler did not invade England because he stupidly chose to invade the Soviet Union, a strategic blunder that cost him the war. That indeed was Hitler’s most costly mistake, Reid agrees--but not the primary reason he chose not to cross the channel.
Hitler, Reid writes, wasn’t even remotely equipped to invade England. And he was doomed to lose if he tried. Why?
First, air power:
“Although Royal Air Force fighters and bombers were outnumbered by the Germans almost 3 to 1, Churchill was confident that they could maintain air superiority over British territory,” Reid writes.
“The Battle of Britain is often described as a battle for air supremacy,” Reid adds. “In fact, it was a battle for daytime air supremacy.” By day, over British soil, the brave Spitfire and Hurricane pilots more than held their ground against the numerically superior ME-109’s. At night, the German fighters stayed home. The Reich’s bombers were on their own. So were Hitler’s ships.
“Everything changed after dark ... Fighter planes went aloft at night only when the moon was full, or nearly full, to protect their bombers or search the skies for the enemies.... In order to land at dawn, an invasion armada would have to sale at night, but with German fighter planes grounded during darkness, the Royal Navy – it’s largest ships equipped with radar – owned the night.”
Second, transports and landing craft. The Germans didn’t have enough of them.
Churchill “estimated that to put the first wave of 60,000-80,000 troops ashore would require almost 60 per cent of all German merchant shipping," Reid writes. "To put a second wave of 160,000 ashore, along with ammunition, tanks, and heavy artillery, would require far more shipping than Germany had at its disposal....”
Moreover, “Germany lacked the specialized landing craft that could put tanks and heavy artillery right on the beach....”
Finally, sea power.
“The Royal Navy was overwhelmingly more powerful than the German Navy,” Reid notes. Only overwhelming air power “could destroy” the almost 1,000 British warships deployed around England, Churchill wrote, “and then only by degrees.”
Germany would have to overcome all four obstacles to succeed, Churchill believed. Nevertheless, he remained wary that Hitler, in his madness, would attempt a massive channel crossing anyway.
* *The wily prime minister kept his beliefs to himself, lest the resolve of ordinary Britons, defiant under incessant German bombing--largely due to Churchill's exhortations--flag with the invasion threat removed. In any event, the p.m. needed the home forces to remain desperately vigilant should an invasion actually come.
Equally important, Churchill needed to keep the invasion threat potent to isolationist Americans, his desperately needed but reluctant ally, so that they might begin to see their own survival linked to Britain’s.
To Roosevelt’s emissaries in particular, he constantly raised the threat of imminent invasion--even though, privately, he had concluded it was unlikely.
One of those emissaries was Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest aides, “who was sold on Churchill’s resolution and on the inevitability of invasion,” and so told Roosevelt, Reid writes.
“The most important single observation I have to make,” Hopkins told Roosevelt, “is that most of the cabinet and all of the military leaders here believe that invasion is imminent. They believe it may come at any moment but not later than May 1.”
“Indeed, many in the military in the cabinet believes that, but Churchill did not. He believes the surest way for Hitler to lose the war would be to invade England, which would exposes shipping to annihilation, and likewise any Germans who made the shore.”
Churchill elaborated on his beliefs to a closed session of the House of Commons, in Reid’s account:
Churchill warned the House it would be impossible for the Royal Navy “to prevent raids by 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly across [the channel] and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning.” But those raiders would soon find themselves surrounded by units of the British Army. If such of course came ashore in northern England or Scotland, it would find itself hundreds of miles from London, and irrelevant. No, the Germans had to come in overwhelming force, and land within one hundred miles of London. Churchill believed that Hitler – if he came – would try to decapitate the British government in London, in order to force a settlement with a new, more malleable government. A military conquest and occupation of all Britain, from Devon to the Midlands to Scotland, was simply beyond the means of the Wehrmacht, not because the German army lacked the men and tanks, but because Germany lacked the shipping to even try to carry such a force to England.
Still, they had to remain ready, Churchill warned.
“He never told Britons that Hitler was coming,” Reid puts it, “but only that they must be prepared if Hitler came.”