November 21, 2016 by crew
Good afternoon, Beasts of War. Oriskany here, ready once again to resume our explorations of Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s hypothetical invasion of Great Britain in September, 1940. Through research, theorisation, and wargaming, we hope come up with a prognosis of what this “invasion-that-never-was” might’ve looked like.
So far, we’ve taken an introductory look at Sea Lion and a cursory view of its prospects in Part One. In Part Two we actually launched the invasion with games depicting German airborne drops and beach landings in Kent, near the town of Folkestone. Now we’ll take a look at what’s happened to the west, along the shores of Sussex.
Landings at Newhaven
The date is September 16th, 1940. Initial German landings have been carried off by the Sixteenth Army at Hastings, New Romney, and Folkestone. However, German mines, bombers, and U-boats have failed to completely shut down ferocious Royal Navy counterattacks against the German invasion fleet crossing the English Channel.
Losses have been grievous on both sides. Already two of the Royal Navy’s most powerful battleships, HMS Nelson and Rodney, have been sunk by Luftwaffe bombing, while U-boats have torpedoed HMS Hood off the Isle of Wight. She’s been burning in a massive oil slick for the last eighteen hours.
One British task force, however, built around the battleship HMS Warspite, has broken into the westernmost convoys of the Ninth Army. Many transports carrying the 6th Mountain Division have lost, and the overall Ninth Army landings have been delayed by twenty-four hours. But as dawn rises on S-Day +1, these landings are on again.
As powerful as the Royal Navy was in 1940, one must remember their carrier force was small, and battleships are terribly vulnerable to air and submarine attack. Capital ships like HMS Courageous, Royal Oak, Barham, Prince of Wales, and Repulse, historically all were destroyed by Axis aircraft and submarines early in the war.
Naval actions of World War II teach one immutable truth: The battleship’s day had passed, aircraft and submarines were the new weapons of note. And in 1940, the Royal Navy (particularly the Home Fleet) was a force of battleships, hopelessly prepared for the previous war. If the Germans indeed own the skies over southern England …
Still, it’s tough to ignore this much firepower. This may well have been the death of the Home Fleet’s dreadnoughts, but we have to assume they would have fought like hell to defend their home shores. Thus, we’re imagining that the Home Fleet has weakened and delayed the Sea Lion landings, even if they couldn’t stop them entirely at first.
At 06:50 hours on S-Day +1, the German VIII Corps (Ninth Army) hits the beaches, running from Brighton in the west to Beachy Head in the east. In the centre of this attack, the 8th Infantry Division lands at Newhaven. Waiting for them is the under-strength 45th Infantry Division, part of the I Corps commanded by General Harold Alexander.
A solid commander, Alexander has made the best preparations he could. But he’s being hit by three German divisions, while other beaches like Folkestone are only being hit by two.
One reason the Germans are hitting these western beaches with additional forces could be their planned thrust to isolate London from the rest of the country, for which additional forces will be needed in the west. Also, these beaches are out of range of the German coastal artillery batteries at Calais and Boulogne.
The landings of September 16th are a bloodbath. It’s tough to decide who is more badly prepared, the Germans with their wooden canal barges and hastily-converted “assault ships,” or the British who have little more than sandbags, mines, and some barbed wire to offer as “coastal defences.”
Many of the German “tauchpanzer” submersible tanks don’t perform nearly as well as expected. Although they’ll perform well in river crossings in other theatres, the English Channel is no river. Also, even ancient 18-pounders and underpowered 2-pounder anti-tank guns can easily pop holes in approaching German landing craft.
German heavy equipment also presents a problem. Much of it is still horse-drawn, and horses are not creatures made to endure the pitching and rocking of landing craft, much less when under fire. When the doors finally open, the usually stampede ashore in a panic, often pitching their towed equipment into the surf.
Yet again, it’s the Luftwaffe that saves the day. With Heinkel He-111C, Junkers Ju-88A, and Dornier Do-17 bombers hitting British reserve assembly areas, communication points, and bridges, and Ju-87B Stukas hitting more tactical targets right on the front, the Germans soon claw out just enough of a toehold to secure a tenuous lodgement.
The Luftwaffe, however, is quickly coming to the end of its tether. Simultaneously having to support the landings, sink British battleships and heavy cruisers, and protect the airborne drops from RAF squadrons being re-mustered from bases in the Borderlands and Scotland, endurance of men and machines is rapidly becoming a problem.
The German 6th Mountain Division just can’t buy a break. Not only do half their transports get sunk by the HMS Warspite trying to cross the Channel, but their weakened landings at Brighton have relegated them to a “flank covering” force for the other divisions of VIII Corps / Ninth Army.
Now, as the VIII Corps pushes its way steadily toward Horsham, Crawley, and Tunbridge Wells, perhaps even a breakthrough toward London and the Thames, the 6th Mountain Division is struck in the left flank by one of the first powerful British counterstrikes of the invasion, mounted by the 1st Armoured Division attacking at Burgess Hill.
By the third day of the invasion, the situation is growing critical for the British. Despite horrendous losses landing from both the air and sea, the Germans have managed to secure the ports of Folkestone, Newhaven, and Eastbourne. Second-wave German divisions are now being debarked in these ports, including two panzer divisions.
Airfields at Hawkinge and Lympe have also been taken, allowing for the fly-in of the German 22nd Air Landing Division. It isn’t all going the Germans’ way, however. A brigade of the 1st London Division, despite being cut off, is holding Dover against all comers, denying the Germans a key port planned for the invasion.
The British realize, however, that they have to strike back now. Accordingly, 1st Armoured Division is given some of Britain’s last tank reserves, reinforced with infantry, and ordered to hit the flank of the German VIII Corps, where the German 6th Mountain Division is braced at the crossroads town of Burgess Hill.
The British have chosen the place for their attack carefully. The 6th Mountain Division lost the better part of a regiment just crossing the Channel, and has had a rough go of its since then. Also, as a mountain division, they’re short of motorized transport, and they’ve been struggling to keep up with the rest of the German advance.
Thus, while the rest of VIII Corps, and especially von Manstein’s XXXVII Corps further east, have been driving north, their flanks become ever more vulnerable as the weakened, exhausted 6th Mountain Division tries to protect Ninth Army’s wing.
Knowing that the Germans will rule the skies, the British reinforce their attack with plenty of antiaircraft batteries. They’ve also been remobilising old stockpiles of 18-pounder howitzers left over from World War I. Far from the newest weapons on the field, they can still lay down plenty of fire support that just might turn the day.
The British launch their attack in the predawn hours, when darkness will still cover their approach from the Luftwaffe. By the time the sun is up fully, the ridges overlooking their advance bristle with 40mm Bofors AA guns. They don’t stop the Stukas entirely, but the Luftwaffe’s impact on this battle is much diminished.
The massed British artillery opens gaps in the sparse German flank protection north or Burgess Hill. The faster Mark VI light tanks, cruiser tanks, and armoured cars race through these breaches, while the slower infantry tanks grind into the German line and support a battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps advancing into Burgess Hill itself.
By midday, the flanking regiment of 6th Mountain Division has been badly mauled. Counterattacking German tanks are pinned by British artillery and shot up as they attack dug-in Matildas. To prevent a complete collapse of VIII Corps’ flank, 6th Mountain and 8th Infantry divisions are pulled back, largely halting this part of the German advance.
The British victory at Burgess Hill comes just in time for an embattled Winston Churchill. Remember that he was a compromise choice to replace Neville Chamberlain, who only resigned four months ago. In our timeline the British never won the Battle of Britain, so Churchill is still “Mr. Gallipoli” who has yet to win the confidence of the public.
Accordingly, there’s been a strong faction of Parliament who’s been anxious to cut a deal with the Germans – and they’ve been screaming for Churchill’s resignation practically since the first German soldier landed at Folkestone. In the wake of Burgess Hill, however, these opponents are silenced. Britain…will fight.
But with the spearheads of two German armies now on her shores, now including the lead regiments of two panzer divisions, is it too late? Drop your comments below. Is the tide finally starting to turn? Is German luck at last starting to give out? The fate of Western Europe could hang in the balance!
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"...we have to assume they would have fought like hell to defend their home shores"
"In the wake of Burgess Hill, however, these opponents are silenced. Britain...will fight"