Friday, September 19, 2014

The funny side of invasion

This post has nothing to do with current world turmoil, except perhaps it says something about human nature. It takes us back to 1940.

Peter Fleming tells the story of the anticipated invasion of Britain with solid research, style and, where appropriate, wit in Operation Sea Lion, first published in 1957 and still available in various editions. Fleming (1907-1971), a widely traveled adventurer and writer, saw the war from the sharp end in Norway, Greece, and Burma. He was the brother of James Bond's creator Ian Fleming and was married to the actress Celia Johnson, best remembered for her role in Brief Encounter.

As Fleming tells it, Adolf Hitler dithered over whether to order an invasion of the U.K. With the German army having rolled up all northern Europe, including recently France, Hitler couldn't understand why the British government didn't just accept German victory as a fait accompli and acknowledge it in return for signing a peace treaty. (This was before the German military forces smashing through the Russian frontier showed what Hitler's peace treaties were worth.)

The invasion plans were originally drawn up in a document called Directive no. 16. Much of it was ill-considered. Fleming says:
Paragraph 1 postulated "a surprise crossing on a broad front extending approximately from Ramsgate to a point west of the Isle of Wight." Long before the Sea Lion plans reached their final version all hopes of surprise (save in the pettiest sense of the word) had been abandoned, and a narrow front had perforce been substituted for a broad one.

This paragraph also required each of the fighting services to "consider the advantages ... of preliminary operations such as the occupation of the Isle of Wight or the Duchy of Cornwall before the full-scale invasion". No more was heard of this project which, if adopted, would hardly have improved the prospects for a "surprise crossing".
The OKW (German General Staff) estimated the invasion plan would require 15 to 40 divisions.
In the event, ... this figure was reduced to 13. Obligatory though it was, this huge reduction lends an air of whimsy to the whole project; you cannot decide on the size of an army by the empirical methods with which you guess the weight of a cheese at a fair. During August and September the Germans over-estimated the strength of British forces in the United Kingdom by roughly 8 divisions, and they realised that their equipment and training were improving every day. It is impossible to see realism, logic or even common sense in the two incompatible theses that (a) 40 divisions were needed to conquer the island in mid-August and (b) 13 would suffice to do the trick a month later. This is strategy only in the sense that Procrustes was a surgeon.
Across the Channel, Britain had its own oddball preparations for the invasion. Most of the population, while following orders that would supposedly supplement the country's defense, had a hard time taking the idea aboard. The island had not been successfully invaded militarily since 1066, and there was a sort of unconscious expectation that 30 miles of water would see off anyone foolish enough to try.

But of course the technology of war, especially air power, had developed vastly in recent years -- a fact that was widely recognized in a nightmare of Germans dropping in for tea via parachutes. Paratroopers had been used earlier in the war in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. But they are effective only as advance units closely followed by land forces. Unless an actual coastal attack was under way, it would have made no sense for the Germans to undertake an air drop of soldiers.

That did not stop the idea from turning into a near-panic in the U.K. about things that go bump in the night.
The Times had published a selection from "a large number" of letters to the Editor urging the nation-wide enrolment and arming of volunteers to deal with airborne incursions; and that evening (14 May) the mustering of the Local Defence Volunteers was announced in a War Office statement and a broadcast by Anthony Eden. On 16 May a general warning against parachutists was included in the BBC's news bulletins, and on the following day guards were posted outside Broadcasting House and most of the Ministries in Whitehall.
The Air Ministry sent an urgent message to the Admiralty, War Office and Ministry of Home Security: "Information from Norway shows that German parachute troops, when descending, hold their arms above their heads as if surrendering. The parachutist, however, holds a grenade in each hand. These are thrown at anyone attempting to obstruct the landing."

Fleming comments:
That this message was, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsense would have been instantly apparent to anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of airborne operations. While in the air parachutists always "hold their hands above their heads as if surrendering", since they have to cling to the cords of their parachute in order to preserve equilibrium and a measure of control. When they land, they hit the ground with considerable violence and normally roll over several times before coming to rest. Even the most fanatical Fallschirmjäger would hardly carry in one, let alone in both of his hands a live grenade on the chance that he might find somebody waiting to "obstruct" his landing; if he did there would be no point in obstructing it.
A second Great Fear was of a so-called Fifth Column, a kind of invisible army of traitors masquerading as ordinary Britons. As one Labour politician put it, "There are [today] tendencies, conspiracies and movements totally unknown in the case of previous encounters between countries."
On 22 May a measure known as the Treachery Bill was rushed through Parliament. It superseded the Treason Acts, which since the fourteenth century had been found adequate to deal with this danger to the community. Besides blocking a legal loophole affecting non-resident aliens, the new Act curtailed and simplified the elaborate and ceremonious procedure prescribed for the trial of a suspected traitor. ...

The phrase "the Fifth Column" sanction a new and more pervasive concept of the dangers to be feared from the traitor or the secret agent. It directed vigilance not to suspicious characters, but to those not outwardly suspicious.
It was true, Fleming says, that many thousands of refugees from Nazi-conquered countries had been arriving in Britain and given asylum, and it was not impossible that some represented a German Trojan Horse. But there was no way to check their bona fides in most cases.

The mind-set the situation created led to a peculiar state of conflicting values. The British traditionally had a high regard for privacy and considerable tolerance for eccentricity. So to be on guard against a Fifth Column went against the grain. Fleming says, "When they start looking at their neighbours with curious or suspicious eyes they are apt to find much that is unaccountable in their habits and behaviour. A chance remark, an unexplained absence, a visitor arriving after dark, an unusual hobby, the wearing of dark glasses or a beard -- for a brief period clues such as these led many well-intentioned folk down many blind alleys."

While it seems nuts for an enemy secret agent to arouse suspicion by, for instance, wearing dark glasses in Britain's gray and rainy climate or a beard, the notion of disguise both by troops and Fifth Columnists spread.
A completely baseless legend that in Holland German parachute troops had descended from the skies tricked out as nuns had caught the world's fancy and in Britain was proving a godsend to humorists and comedians; it was supplemented by stories of Germans dressed as French staff officers misdirecting British troops. ...

"Most of you", an official pamphlet told the populace in mid-June, "know your policemen and your ARP [Air Raid Precautions] wardens by sight. If you keep your heads you can also tell whether a military officer is really British or is only pretending to be so." Wisely, though perhaps not deliberately, the pamphlet ignored the presence in the United Kingdom of considerable numbers of Polish, French, Norwegian, Dutch, Belgian, Danish and Czechoslovakian officers, all by this time wearing British uniforms; there were enough of these, as someone mildly pointed out in a letter to The Times, "to confuse people considerably". 

To make it hard for parachutist invaders to figure out where they were, street name and direction signs were removed. This often also left true British subjects lost when out of their familiar surroundings. 
What should a citizen do if a motorist asked him the way? The short answer was that the motorist should be requested to produce his identity card. But since everyone had been warned never, in any circumstances, to show his identity card to persons not authorised to see it, this solution got neither the benighted traveller nor the would-be Good Samaritan out of their dilemma.
War is hell and no laughing matter, but sometimes offers glimpses of the human comedy. 

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