November 28, 2016 by crew
Good afternoon, Beasts of War. Once more we push deeper into our alternate history of Operation Sea Lion, the proposed German invasion of Great Britain in September, 1940. By gathering research and running a series of wargames, we hope to make some educated guesses about the engagements such an invasion might’ve produced.
So far, we’ve taken an introductory overview of Sea Lion in Part One. In Part Two we launched the invasion with German glider drops and beach landings. In Part Three we saw more landings by the Germans further west and the results of the first concentrated British counterattack.
Now we continue this harrowing tale of “what-if” history, watching what happens as “Unternehmen Seelöwe” enters its most critical stages. Does Britain fall? Does the Third Reich complete its lightning conquest of western Europe?
The Battle of Ashford
For almost two weeks now, German armies have clawed out a tenuous foothold on the coasts of Sussex and Kent. Initially successful landings have bogged down in claustrophobic villages and farmland, while supply problems and casualties continue to mount. Just to take a quick historical side note: does any of this sound familiar yet?
As the last days of September slip away, the Germans resolve to break things loose, and at last, they have the forces to do it. In the Sixteenth Army’s sector, XLVI Motorised Corps has finally managed a landing, over a week behind schedule because British defenders have blown up over a dozen ships to block the harbour facilities at Dover.
Nevertheless, by September 27th the German 10th Panzer Division stands ready for the climactic break-out. Their attack will fall at Ashford in Kent, currently held by the New Zealand Division. It is hoped this assault will rupture the thin Allied defence line and at last tear open the road to London.
Banking heavily on this success, the Germans also allocate much of their remaining air strength to the Ashford assault. They also commit the “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” motorised regiment, fanatical Waffen SS troops originally drawn from the Führer’s personal bodyguard. Soldiers just don’t come any better…or worse.
The British, however, have a few cards up their sleeve as well. For one, their intelligence on German plans is superb, thanks to intercepts of German “Enigma-coded” communications. Originally provided by Polish agents right before the war started, these Enigma ciphers practically allow British code-breakers a place at the German generals’ table.
With plenty of warning, the British have time to mobilise forces to meet the attack. Elements of the 1st Canadian Division are moved in beside the New Zealanders, along with rearmed French troops from Dunkirk and even Free Poles. A powerful armoured force is also ready, the 22nd Heavy Armoured Brigade, part of the 2nd Armoured Division.
The Battle of Ashford is a titanic clash, erupting into divisional-scale fury on September 27th, 1940 and burning its name into the history books forever. Even the Royal Air Force manages a showing, with rebuilt squadrons put back into the air from airfields in Yorkshire, with venerable Hurricanes fending off He-111s trying to bomb Kiwi infantry.
Losses, especially among the Allied infantry battalions holding the line, are horrendous. But once the Matildas and A13 cruisers of the 22nd Heavy Armoured Brigade show up, the 10th Panzer has lost the day. Although not a clear win, Ashford at least ensures that the big German breakthrough will not come in Kent. As for Sussex, however…
Special thanks to community member @yavasa for the idea of British defenders blowing up ships in occupied harbours, @jamesevans140 for the idea of rearmed Free French troops, and @cpauls1 for the idea of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Regiment representing 1st Canadian Division in this battle.
The Battle of Crowborough
In this alternate timeline of World War II, future British historians will not write quite so much about the Battles of El Alamein, Sword Beach, Operation Goodwood, or Arnhem. They will write about the Battle of Crowborough, and compare it forever with moments like Hastings or the Spanish Armada. Britain’s fate turns … today.
The date is October 5th, 1940. The German situation is becoming dire. Worsening weather over the Channel is neutralizing the Luftwaffe’s ability to fend off the Royal Navy, which (despite grievous losses), still has two battleships and plenty of cruisers that don’t need sunny skies to maul the ramshackle German “supply fleet.”
A last, all-out offensive is prepared by the German Ninth Army in Sussex. The place chosen for the attack actually makes sense. With the British 1st Armoured Division largely chewed up at Burgess Hill to the west, and the 2nd Armoured committed at Ashford, there seems no real British tank reserves at the centre.
The Germans, however, are wrong. Desperately scrapping together recovered battlefield wrecks and half-finished tanks from the factories, stripping every territorial reserve unit and even the first battalion of 7th Armoured Division just returning from Egypt, the British have managed a patchwork tank force to meet this new German threat.
At 05:00 hours on October 5th, the German assault opens up. The massed howitzers and mortars of the entire XV Motorised Corps (Lieutenant-General Hermann Hoth) open fire along the British front in front of Crowborough. Gunfire can be heard as far away as Oxford, eighty miles away. At daybreak, the Luftwaffe joins the assault.
One of the most crucial sectors of this battle (over ten miles wide, extending from Chelwood Gate to Mayfield) is held by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, part of the 134th Infantry Brigade of the 45th Division (I Corps, General Harold Alexander). They hold the road leading straight through Crowborough, and from there, London.
This sector is struck by the 35th Panzer and 12th Infantry Regiments of the 4th Panzer Division, and there’s been no time for the Irish Fusiliers to build field fortifications. Yet even as tank support arrives, attached to 29th Independent Brigade, the defenders know these are the LAST British armoured reserves. The British win today, or lose it all.
For the Germans, the situation is just as dire. Their tenuous supply links to occupied France are breaking down. Many of these tanks have only half-loads of ammunition. The men have been eating whatever animals they can shoot. Fuel is low. Broken-down vehicles can’t be repaired. And behind the lines, a Resistance is stirring to life.
For both sides, it’s now or never.
The fighting that day is predictably furious. Unsuitable British tanks like the A11 Infantry Tank and the Light Tank Mark VI prove little more than scrap metal to German antitank fire, just as PzKpfw Is prove to British 2-pounder guns. But the rest of the tanks lock horns in murderous combat, sometimes at ranges of less than 75 yards.
Artillery is soon removed from the equation, as commanders can no longer avoid hitting their own infantry squads, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat between the burning hulks of tanks. The Germans try to call in air strikes, but at last the Luftwaffe can provide no more. British radio jamming is also instrumental in neutralising this advantage.
Of course, the Irish Fusiliers and 29th Brigade are fighting only part of this battle. Over the horizon to the east and west, the Battle of Crowborough is fought by Scotsmen, Welshmen, Englishmen from the Borderlands to Portsmouth and Southampton, even a battalion of Czechs. This will be an Allied battle, and an Allied victory.
At the end of the day, the 4th Panzer has failed to crack the reeling (but intact) British line. Orders are issued for 7th Panzer Division to carry the assault forward the next day, but the precious handfuls of German supplies have already been consumed. Like most battles, this one is decided on the supply clerk’s clipboard as much as on the battlefield.
In many ways, the Allied win at Crowborough is more a political victory than military pragmatism. After all, the 4th Panzer Division is far from eliminated, and the Rommel’s 7th Panzer looms right behind it. But the Battles of Ashford and Crowborough show that the British and her allies can fight and beat the Germans on the ground.
The battles electrify British resolve. Here is where Winston Churchill becomes the icon of defiance (much as he did after the Battle of Britain in the real historical timeline). No more is there talk of ousting him from Parliament and cutting a deal. The British will fight, and thus comes the end of any real chance of German success.
Over the next few months, the Germans withdraw everything they can out of their English beachhead. Much of this is accomplished by air, as the RAF still can’t close off the skies to German air traffic and the British army remains far too weak to actually drive the Germans back into the sea.
By December of 1940, it’s all over. Germany has suffered its first land defeat in World War II. Tens of thousands have been killed or wounded, with almost 120,000 taken prisoner. Losses in heavy equipment are even worse, the “Channel Airlift” almost resembling a “Dunkirk in reverse.” In 1941, a weakened Germany will turn east.
Thus we come to the end of our Sea Lion campaign. Despite a rushed timeline, a weak Kriegsmarine, and the English Channel, unchallenged air supremacy initially allowed the Germans to secure a successful landing. Ironically, that turned out to be the easy part, as sustaining a large campaign across enemy-controlled water proved just too much.
Please remember, however, that we have one more part in our Sea Lion article series. In next week’s Part 5, we really take Sea Lion apart and try to make a detailed, point-by-point prognosis of its prospects. If it would have failed, we list WHY it would failed. If it could have succeeded, we look at HOW it could have done so.
There’ll be plenty of debate, and I think some of what’s presented will surprise many readers. For now, keep the conversation going with your own observations, comments, and questions. Could YOU have taken Britain? What other plans, campaigns, battles, and games have you seen or participated in? Does YOUR Britain stand or fall?
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"Now we continue this harrowing tale of “what-if” history, watching what happens as “Unternehmen Seelöwe” enters its most critical stages..."
"For both sides, it’s now or never..."