Germany had conquered much of Europe and even seized British territory, but the might of the Royal Navy, still the largest maritime force in the world, continued to represent a formidable obstacle to the Reich’s ambitions. Whereas the British army was much weaker and smaller than the German army, the Royal Navy was far stronger than the Kriegsmarine. As Grand Admiral Raeder wrote later of the first serious discussions within the Reich’s High Command about Operation Sea Lion,
A German invasion of England would be a matter of life and death for the British, and they would unhesitatingly commit their naval forces to the last ship and last man, into an all-out fight for survival … We in the Navy doubted that we could establish conditions that would guarantee even reasonably safe protection for a crossing of the Channel … It could not be expected that our Air Force could make up for our lack of naval supremacy.
The man charged with upholding that supremacy was the uncharismatic Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord since 1939. A stolid, uninspiring figure, dogged by the poor health that would kill him within three years, he was also dedicated and reliable, having never failed in any of the commands he had held since becoming a captain in 1914.
He had a colossal force under his command. Whereas Britain had thirteen battleships and battlecruisers in mid-June 1940, Germany had just two, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, both of which had suffered serious damage in Norwegian waters and were undergoing major repairs. The chasm was even wider when it came to destroyers. After the heavy losses of Norway, the Kreisgmarine had just 10 in operation, whereas the Royal Navy could deploy 169. Nor was it just a matter of quantity. Although many of Britain’s capital ships were of First World War vintage, they had undergone substantial reconstruction in the 1930s and could be highly effective in combat. Contrary to the fashionable idea that all Britain’s armed forces were run down by penny-pinching, appeasing, insular governments during the 1920s and 1930s, Britain’s navy had been significantly modernised. In the interwar years, it was building more ships than any other navy: during the period in which the Royal Navy constructed five aircraft carriers, the Germans built none.
Moreover, Britain possessed a tremendously powerful force in its own waters to tackle any invasion threat. At the start of July 1940, the operational Home Fleet comprised five battleships, three battlecruisers, eleven cruisers and fifty-three destroyers, with a further twenty-three destroyers based in Liverpool, which were designated for convoy duties but could be available in an emergency.
Even this is to underplay the Navy’s strength. The total potential destroyer force in home waters was actually 115 ships, including vessels under repair and refitting, many of which had sustained damage at Dunkirk but would soon be operational again, as well as those from the Royal Canadian Navy. In support of this were a huge number of other vessels, including 700 armed coastal fast patrol craft, of which between 200 and 300 were always at sea between the Wash and Newhaven, seen as the most likely points for a German landing. There were also 25 fast minesweepers, 20 corvettes (a light, manoeuvrable warship), and 140 minesweeper trawlers operating between Sunderland and Portsmouth. For wider reconnaissance, the Admiralty could deploy 35 submarines, as well as the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm.
With the invasion threat deepening, the Admiralty expanded the Royal Navy Patrol Service, which was largely staffed by former merchant seamen and trawlermen operating auxiliary vessels for minesweeping, reconnaissance and escort duties. With its headquarters in Lowestoft on Suffolk coast, the RNPS had around 800 adapted trawlers, drifters and other, smaller boats, as well as 100 harbour defence patrol craft that also operated on inland waterways.
Further maritime defences came from the erection of mine barrages. One, stretching along parts of the east coast, was laid 30 to 70 miles offshore and was made up of 35,000 mines. Another barrage of 10,000 mines was laid just outside Dover. By the end of June, the Admiralty had also installed 150 6-inch gun batteries along the eastern and southern coasts, manned by 8,000 naval ratings and Royal Marines.
The officer in charge of the Home Fleet was Sir Charles Forbes, appointed in 1938. Technically able, outspoken and forthright in his views, he was even willing to stand up to Churchill on occasions. In the summer of 1940 a serious controversy arose when his ideas on the disposition of the Home Fleet clashed with those of other senior members of the Admiralty. At the crux of this row was Forbes’s reluctance to place a sufficiently strong naval force in the most vulnerable areas along the southern and eastern coasts.
Pound and other senior admirals felt that the Home Fleet had to be ready to strike quickly if the Germans came across the Channel or the North Sea. This meant, in particular, building up strong naval protection in the Nore Command, which covered the English coast from the Humber to Dover. At this point of maximum danger, the Admiralty wanted a minimum of thirty-six destroyers, which were to be divided into four flotillas based at the Humber, at Harwich in Essex, and at Sheerness and Dover in Kent. The Nore Command, which was led by the splendidly named Sir Reginald Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, was also to be supported by five cruisers and other vessels taken from escort duties, including sloops, corvettes and anti-aircraft cruisers.
But Forbes was less worried about the enemy threat in the south and east; his priorities were the protection of the western approaches to the Atlantic and keeping his fleet, especially the big capital ships, intact. Indeed, it was over the issue of the battleships and battlecruisers that he clashed most fiercely with the rest of the Admiralty.
An original thinker as well as an outspoken one, he fought hard to keep his heavy ships in the far north at Scapa Flow, rather than send them south to Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, as was proposed, closer to areas where, according to the naval staff, the enemy might be expected to land or attack. It was Forbes’s profound conviction, however, that the Germans had no intention of mounting an invasion at all, and therefore it would be foolish to put men and resources at risk against a non-existent threat. The naval staff stubbornly believed that if the Kriegsmarine commanders knew that the Royal Navy had ‘no heavy ship south of Scapa Flow’, they would attack and ‘retire long before any equal British force could arrive to bring them to action’. Summing up the Admiralty’s view, Captain Cecil Harcourt, the Royal Navy’s Director of Operations, urged strongly that the main capital ships be based at Rosyth.
Ever more convinced of his position, Forbes sent a long, three-page memorandum to the Admiralty on 4 June, seeking to justify his deep scepticism about the possibility of a German invasion of England while praising the skill with which the Royal Navy had just evacuated 338,000 men from Dunkirk despite the Luftwaffe’s supposed dominance in the air. A far greater, more immediate priority than anti-invasion measures, he concluded, was the protection of supply lines and communications across the Atlantic. ‘The enemy has realized that he can only defeat this country if he can sever lines of communication.’ With the benefit of hindsight, several historians have held Forbes’s document to be a magisterial, cool-headed refutation of the invasion fever that gripped the British authorities in the summer of 1940, though at the time most of his colleagues found him stubbornly complacent.
The dispute raged on, while Forbes continued to show his independence of mind, writing to Pound with a tone of condescension on 15 June: ‘I should have thought that the German Army was fully employed in France, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium and Denmark and would therefore not be likely to stage an overseas invasion on the East coast during the next few weeks,’ and again insisting that most heavy ships remained in the north.
By now the naval situation was rapidly changing because of the collapse of France, which made the southern and eastern coasts even more vulnerable and also raised the possibility that the huge French fleet could fall into the hands of the Germans. Just as disturbingly, Italy was now an enemy in the Mediterranean, while there was a danger that Spain could also opportunistically join the Axis powers, thereby threatening Gibraltar. For the Admiralty as a whole, the developments in Europe made Forbes’s strategy for the Home Fleet all the more problematic, provoking further intense debate.
The deepening sense of urgency within the Admiralty about a potential invasion was reflected at a high-level meeting, chaired by Pound, on 30 June, where it was agreed that maritime reconnaissance had to be improved, patrols around Dover reinforced, better liaison with Ironside’s Home Forces established, and the destroyer force in the south and east increased. ‘Invasion might be attempted during the next fortnight,’ warned Pound, ordering his staff to ‘sift every commitment or application for destroyers most rigorously, as in his opinion as many destroyers as possible should be made available for anti-invasion duties.’ But Forbes’s stubbornness also bore fruit. Pound, who had never been as unequivocal about Rosyth as many of his subordinates, now signalled his willingness to reach a compromise, based on the intelligence that on 20 June the Gneisenau, the Kriegsmarine’s only operational battlecruiser, had been badly damaged by a torpedo attack and was undergoing repairs in Norway. When asked why the main Home Fleet had still not moved to Rosyth, Pound replied that ‘this seemed unnecessary so long as the only effective enemy battlecruiser was believed to be at Trondheim,’ an argument that ran counter to everything that most of his colleagues had been saying to Forbes for weeks. Pound had to admit to the Chiefs of Staff on 2 July that the measures ‘are not entirely in accordance with those recommended as necessary to meet the invasion’: in particular, ‘no battleships are at Rosyth’ and ‘the destroyer force available in the Nore Command is only little more than half the considered necessary number.’ Churchill himself said that he was ‘a little anxious’ at the decision to keep the capital ships at Scapa and ‘would prefer to see’ two of the vessels at Rosyth. Looking back on the mood in military circles during that period, the historian Basil Liddell Hart remembered that ‘the Navy’s dispositions did not promise a very prompt intervention in the Channel, for the admirals were almost as anxious about the menace of the German Air Force as the German admirals were about the interference of the Royal Navy.’
Forbes seems to have been completely sure in his convictions, shocking a naval strategy conference in the early summer of 1940 by stating that his heavy ships would not operate south of the Wash ‘under any circumstances’. Rather than exploding at this comment, Churchill, who was chairing the meeting, said that ‘he never took much notice of what the Royal Navy said they would or would not do in advance of an event.’ He continued in this mildly jocular tone: ‘Since they invariably undertook the impossible whenever the situation demanded, he had not a shadow of doubt … we would see every available battleship storming through the Straits of Dover.’
But Forbes did not get his way over the cruiser and destroyer forces. Throughout the summer, he kept asking for the coastal defences to be reduced so as to provide more support in the western approaches and on the Atlantic routes, a request he made with ever greater urgency as British shipping losses mounted. In June, Britain lost the equivalent of 284,000 gross tons of shipping to German U-boats, followed by 196,000 tons in July and a gross tonnage of 295,000 in August. Pound and the other admirals stuck to their strategy of maintaining as strong an anti-invasion force as possible in the south. From late July onwards, the Nore Command could deploy at least four cruisers, thirty-two destroyers and seven sloops, the bulk of them being out on patrol every night. In the same period, twelve destroyers and a cruiser were stationed at Portsmouth, as well as at least forty vessels, including motor torpedo boats, at Dover, while cruisers continuously patrolled the east coast from the Forth to the Thames. Churchill backed up this policy, stating that ‘the losses in the western approaches must be accepted’, although this made him press Roosevelt all the more strongly for a large batch of US destroyers.
His case at the White House was helped by one of his most ruthless, controversial decisions of the entire war, reverberating throughout the world and impressing upon both Hitler and Roosevelt the seriousness of Britain’s determination to continue the struggle. It was driven by fears that, following France’s conquest, the French fleet would be taken over by the Axis nations. Such a step would not only transform the balance of maritime power in Europe but would also increase the potential risk of invasion, since the Kriegsmarine would be massively reinforced by the arrival of Gallic ships.
In June 1940, France still had a potent navy. Led by Admiral Jean François Darlan, it consisted of seven battleships, twenty cruisers, two aircraft carriers and several dozen destroyers. Its flagship, the Richelieu, had been launched in 1939 and was one of the biggest, most modern vessels on the seas, weighing 35,000 tons and carrying seventeen 6- and 15-inch guns. For Pound, it was ‘the most powerful battleship in the world today’.
As early as 7 June, when it was obvious that the French were heading for defeat on land, the Admiralty had discussed the problem. According to the official note of the meeting, Pound took the view that, in the eventuality of an armistice, ‘the only practical way to deal with the matter was to sink the French fleet’, since he was doubtful that the French government would ‘turn it over to us’. The one other possibility that would help Britain would be a decision by the French to scuttle their own ships.
Through diplomatic channels, the US warned France that if its fleet were to surrender to Germany, the government would lose American goodwill. During the days leading up to the official armistice, Darlan tried to reassure America and Britain that there was no risk of any German seizure of the fleet, declaring, ‘I will never surrender it – I do not yet know where it will go or whether it will be destroyed, but the Germans will never have it.’ Attempts were made to persuade the French government to send the fleet to British ports, without success, although the French promised that ‘the ships would fight the Germans and if necessary scuttle’ rather than surrender.
In fact, Hitler, never very interested in naval affairs, viewed the French navy as something of an irrelevance. The agreed peace terms reflected this attitude. The French fleet, with the exception of the vessels based in the colonies, was to be assembled in France’s home ports, where the ships would be demobilised or disarmed. Furthermore, under Article 8 of the armistice, the Germans ‘solemnly and expressly’ declared that ‘they have no intention of making any claim to the French war fleet at the time of the conclusion of the peace.’
Soon after the armistice’s signing, Churchill told the Commons that Article 8 ‘makes it clear that French warships pass into German and Italian control while fully armed. What was the value of the solemn declaration that they would not be used for their own war purposes? Ask half a dozen countries what is the value of such a solemn assurance.’ Nor did the government have much trust in Admiral Darlan, whose anti-British credentials were later displayed when he became a minister in Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime.
As concern intensified about French and German intentions, Churchill was inundated with advice about the French fleet. The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw urged him to ‘to declare war on France and capture her fleet (which would gladly strike its colours to us) before AH [Adolf Hitler] draws breath’. The unorthodox idea was even put forward of purchasing the fleet, but it was recognised that the money would have gone straight to the Reich.
Rigorous action was required, the Admiralty decided, a view that was increasingly shared by Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff, who said that if the French ships reached their home ports, Britain should be ‘under no illusions as to the certainty that, sooner or later, the Germans will employ them against us’. Uncertainty about the French fleet must end so that the Royal Navy could concentrate on measures ‘to meet the imminent threat of invasion’.
Importantly, the White House also informed Britain that America would not object to any steps that kept the French fleet out of German control. Following an interview with President Roosevelt, the British ambassador Lord Lothian reported to London, ‘I asked him whether this meant that American opinion would support forcible seizure of these ships. He said certainly. They would expect them to be seized rather than they should fall into German hands.’
At this stage, the bulk of the French fleet was widely spread across Europe and North Africa, with by far the most important element being the main striking force or Force de Raid, which was gathered in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, near Oran. Commanded by Admiral Marcel Gensoul, a figure described by one senior British officer as a ‘somewhat pig-headed, negative touchy French admiral who, like many small men in big positions, was rather full of his own importance’, the Force de Raid was made up of six destroyers, an aircraft carrier and no fewer than four capital ships, including the modern battlecruisers the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg. It was the sheer weight of this naval power that convinced the British that they had to act.