Can Germany Invade England?/Chapter7

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"As in a caravan, the speed is regulated by the pace of the slowest animal, so to keep transports together the rate of steaming should not exceed that of the slowest vessel."

Colonel G. A. Furse, C.B.

"A mass of transports and warships is the most cumbrous and vulnerable engine of war ever known."

Julian S. Corbett, LL. M.

"If he [the enemy] is sighted by any of our destroyers at night, they will have little difficulty in avoiding the men-of-war and torpedoing the transports."

Admiral of the Fleet Sir A. K. Wilson, G.C.B., V.C.

"Directing your chief attention to the destruction of the ships, vessels, or boats having men, horses, or artillery on board, and in the strict execution of this important duty losing sight entirely of the possibility of idle censure for avoiding contact with an armed force, because the prevention of debarkation is the object of primary importance to which every other consideration must give way."

Admiral Viscount Keith in 1803.

"But at this instant to rush into the interior of Spain [England] without any organised centre or magazines, with hostile armies on one's flank and in one's rear, would be an attempt without precedent in the history of the world. . . . According to the laws of war, every general who loses his line of communication deserves death."—Napoleon.

However much the desire to take England by surprise may necessitate rapidity in the execution of a German plan of invasion, the plan itself will have been prepared long beforehand; and, having regard to the known thoroughness of German ways and works, it is only fair to assume that all the difficulties of such an unprecedented undertaking will have been ascertained and carefully f weighed before the details of that plan were worked out. No access to it is possible, but the geographical and nautical facts on which it must be based are open to the inquirer, and in studying them we shall be able to form an opinion as to what that plan ought, or, at least, what it ought not, to be.

It is evident that the first point on which a German Government desirous of invading England must make up its mind, is the place where its army shall land. London, of course, will be its objective, for only by seizing the centre of Great Britain's life can it hope to paralyse British resistance; therefore, the nearer to London that landing place, the better. This conclusion points to the south coast of England, but the Straits of Dover bar the way, for whatever our despondent prophets may be pleased to predict, German naval authorities will never trust so implicitly to the carelessness and stupidity of ours, as to dare to send an enormous fleet of transports, escorted by all Germany's warships, through a passage only twenty-four miles wide. We may be fools, but it is part of the alarmist creed that the Germans are not, so our south coast may be reckoned as safe from attack.

The east coast of Scotland and the east coast of England north of the Wash, as too far from London, must also be ruled out, and we have, therefore, to find a landing-place for our invaders between the Wash and the Straits of Dover. Of the southern part of this district. Lieutenant Dewar tells us that "the estuaries and flats of the Thames have been used by some novel-writers for landing troops, but it is doubtful whether any one else would use them for this purpose. The approach to the small rivers is difficult, and Sheerness and Harwich, with their quota of torpedo craft a couple of hours off, would loom over any attempt in that area."[1]

This verdict, and it is one that every experienced officer, naval or military, will confirm, further limits our choice to the portion of the coast lying between the Witham, on the north side of the Wash, and the Stour, along which " there are beaches and small harbours such as Yarmouth suitable enough, but still rather too close to Harwich to be comfortable."[2]

I doubt the epithet suitable really applying to any of the harbours, for they all lie up shallow rivers difficult to navigate even by small ships at low water, inaccessible to large vessels at all states of the tide, and as all experienced embarkation officers will agree with Lieutenant Dewar that "it is very doubtful whether a force of any size would ever attempt to land on a beach,"[3] it follows that the German Government, at the very outset, must have found itself impaled on the horns of a dilemma, since its choice lay between a suitable harbour which it could not discover, and an open beach on which no experienced officer would counsel it to land its troops; and even if a suitable harbour could have been found, there was the probability that it would be so defended with mines as to render a rapid coup de main almost impossible.[4]

It looks, therefore, as if Germany's plans for an invasion of England must be lying in a pigeon-hole with the word impracticable written large across it; but to help a timid and easily deceived British public to realise to the full the folly of its fears, we will assume that German naval officers have given their voice in favour of landing on a beach, and do our best to find one suitable to the purpose.

To accommodate 246,000 men, 78,000 horses, 864 guns, 13,200 vehicles, such a beach must be, at least, from 12 to 15 miles long; it should have a firm sandy bottom, plentiful supplies of good water at intervals along its whole length, and it should be in the vicinity of a good-sized town, the larger the better, where fresh food and labour, skilled and unskilled, and the hundred and one things that an army, cut off from its own country, would soon find itself in need of, could be procured, and where the sick and wounded could be properly housed—in a word, a town fitted to serve as a base for subsequent land operations. There should also be a strong position at a convenient distance from the beach, the occupation of which would give some security to the army, whilst engaged in the complicated process of landing.

Now, no beach on the east coast of England answers to this description; but a German army corps on the march, with its first and second lines of transport, stretches 32 miles[5]; consequently each army corps would require a road to itself,[6] and what our invaders must discover is not one beach fifteen miles long, but six beaches two and a half miles long, each possessing all the attributes detailed above, and, in addition, good anchorage in deep water,"for, no matter what may be the advantages offered on shore, unless there is good anchorage and deep water near shore, no place can be deemed a good one for the disembarkation of an army."[7]

Assuming that these six suitable landingplaces exist, we will now turn to the consideration of the difficulties that will be met with in the attempt to reach them.

There is the weather—any one can see that good weather will be essential to the success of such an enormous combined movement as that of three fleets, sailing from three ports, timed to arrive together at a point over 250 miles away; yet who can guarantee that the weather will be fine? The North Sea has a bad reputation; according to Colonel P. H. N. Lake, in summer and autumn one day in five " there would be a swell or other difficulties of the sea to prevent a disembarkation, and about one day in twenty, in addition, when the sea is seriously rough, and vessels would not care to lie off a lee-shore "[8]; and if he is right—and most sailors will, I think, agree with him—it will be no easy matter to fix a starting-day for the German Expedition.

Then there are fogs: fogs, of course, go with a smooth sea, and, as we know. Lord Roberts reckons them as a factor favourable to our invaders, but captains and crews regard them with hearty disfavour; and if single ships go cautiously, feeling their way through their blinding veil, and giving notice of their whereabouts by incessant blowing of their horns, how much more bewildering and alarming must that veil be to a large number of vessels sailing in company, and how loud the notes of warning by which each would try to keep clear of all the rest; and even if they succeed in this endeavour and escape running each other down, disembarkation must wait till the veil lifts.

Those foghorns would not tend to the maintenance of that secrecy on which the success of the expedition depends, and if there were no fog, "as all the ships will be obliged to carry lights for mutual safety, they will be visible nearly as far by night as by day. How can they hope to escape discovery?"[9]

The answer to this question is clear enough—the expedition would not escape discovery, and as both sides to the Invasion Controversy agree that, if its coming were known it would come in vain, we are once again driven to the conclusion that no such expedition will ever threaten our shores; nevertheless, for the sake of the lessons to be learnt from following its fortunes to the end, we will allow the three German flotillas to sail from their respective ports, pass safely through the sand-banks and shallows which shut in Germany's coast,[10] and issue out into the North Sea. Here the troopships must be got into something like a compact formation—a difficult matter, having regard to their different sizes and powers, and to the rule that the speed of the slowest must determine the pace.[11] Not being a sailor, I shall not attempt to decide whether the three fleets will merge into one, protected by all Germany's cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo-boats, or whether each fleet will sail independently, escorted by its own quota of warships of every kind.

But most naval officers will, I think, agree with General Bronsart von Schellendorff that a troopship to-day '* is quite defenceless when opposed to a modern man-of-war, which can sink it without difficulty. Troopships must therefore keep outside the range of an enemy's guns or torpedoes. For this reason it is very inadvisable that a fleet of transports should be escorted by the battle fleet to protect it against the enemy's ships. A naval engagement under these conditions would be the more serious, as the battle fleet would be deprived of its freedom of manoeuvre by the fleet of transports. The decisive naval engagement must be fought out by the battle fleet alone."[12]

But whatever the formation adopted, the area will be very large, and the difficulty of affording adequate defence to the troopships correspondingly great; whereas the British attack, delivered by far more numerous destroyers and other small craft, though only supported by half the men-of-war that ought to be on guard, would be very strong, since it could be concentrated on any point or points that should appear most vulnerable. I know that the assumption underlying the whole discreditable scare, is that there will be no attack; that all our sailors will be blind, all our captains and admirals dupes; and that an armada, far exceeding in strength that Spanish Fleet which found its grave in northern seas, flying from the shores of the land it came to conquer, will reach those same shores intact, because invisible. I know, too, that the reverse of all these anticipations would be true.

A British attack would certainly be made; there might, or might not, be a great general engagement, or in such engagement our Fleet might suffer as heavily as the German Fleet; but with the transports spread over many square miles, one after the other would find itself cut off from its defenders, and go to the bottom, sunk by cannon shot or torpedo, or, disabled and leaking, would lie helpless, looking to friend or foe to bring them into safety, whilst those that escaped destruction or disablement would steer for German harbours, not for an English beach, since it is the whole expeditionary force, not a part of it, that must land, if the march on London is not to end before it has begun.[13]

That is what would really happen, but once again, accepting the impossible, we will assume that, one summer's morning, six German flotillas, each carrying an army corps, will be lying at anchor, off the places assigned to them, and ask ourselves — what next? Certainly not what the scaremongers would have us believe—a landing one day, a rush on London the next. There can be no flinging of men and horses on shore; slowly, laboriously, in carefully arranged order of precedence, the contents of the transports must be conveyed to the beach. The main body of Infantry first, to protect the landing of the horses, guns, wagons, stores, etc.—for now, at last, all hope of concealment has vanished, and every step will be taken as in the presence of an enemy, beginning with the position taken up by the troopships, which must lie well out of range of field Artillery, though every furlong farther off land will be a handicap.[14]

It will be no light task to put 41,000 men, at each of the six landing-places, nearly half of them undisciplined, into boats tossing about in a restless sea, but that will be easy work compared to the labour of the lowering into them of horses and guns and wagons, with no mechanical appliances save those which the ships can furnish; and that labour and those difficulties will be multiplied a hundred-fold when it comes to transferring the contents of the boats to the beach, with no appliances of any kind, only ropes and men's hands to carry out the operation. Terrified, sick, shaken, the horses may yet be coaxed, or coerced into wading or swimming ashore; but how are the guns, how are the wagons, to be lifted out and dragged through the shingle and sand, into which the wheels of the latter will sink up to their axles?

And how, if the day proves the one out of five when "a swell or other difficulties of the sea" would prevent a disembarkation, or the one day in twenty when "vessels would not care to lie off a lee-shore," or when a fog should enshroud them?[15] Such accidents maybe eliminated in planning a hypothetical invasion, but assuredly they will have been taken into account in the planning of a real one.[16]

But something worse than the fear of unfriendly weather will overshadow the work of disembarkation, and spur to a haste which can only create confusion—that something, the certainty that the alarm has been given, and that every British battleship and cruiser, every British destroyer, torpedo boat, and submarine that wireless telegraphy can summon, is hurrying towards the east coast, and may, at any moment, come into sight. Long before the last German soldier has set foot on land, one by one they will rise above the horizon, and the transports will find themselves in worse plight than had they been attacked in the open sea; for, caught between the British Fleets and the shore, they can no longer disperse in all directions. How many of these unhappy vessels will sink with troops and horses on board; how many suffer capture, or make good their escape, leaving troops and horses behind them on the beach; how many British ships will perish in destroying the German Fleet, it is impossible to predict; but one thing is certain, the end of the struggle will find us still in command of the sea, and Germany with no second fleet in her harbours to send to the help or rescue of the remnants of her expedition. Cut off from their base, with no hope of reinforcements and no line of retreat, those remnants can but surrender to the enormously superior forces that will be brought against them; for, however much the friends of conscription may belittle our present military arrangements, they will hardly contend that 464,487 fighting men are incapable of dealing with a broken and disheartened Army. Fortunately for the Germans and fortunately for ourselves, we shall never be called upon to deal with a stranded German army, for even the slight indications of the difficulties attendant on an oversea expedition on a vast scale that I have laid before my readers, prove that at no state of its development could it and its objective have been concealed from the knowledge of the whole world, and such knowledge is all that is needed to ensure its failure. Every concession that I have made to bring an enemy's forces to our shore has been a denial of that enemy's foresight, knowledge and common sense—qualities in which the German people are not deficient.

The difficulties and dangers which our authorities see clearly, must be equally visible to theirs; not one of these difficulties, of that we may be sure, has been overlooked; and we may be equally certain that the German Government, with the reports of its experts before it, will never run the risks of which we are asked to believe they think so lightly. To sum up:

1. England holds a perfect strategical position, of which nothing can deprive her.

2. The half of her battleships and cruisers in the Home and Irish waters, is stronger than the whole of the German Navy of the same class of ships in the North Sea and Baltic; and in the small craft—specially useful for intercepting transports conveying troops, and for harbour and coast defence—her superiority is nearly as 2 to 1.

3. All experts agree that so long as her regular Army is at home, no foreign Power will venture to invade her, also that her Army will never be sent abroad till she has gained full command of the sea, i.e. till she is in a position to seal up' the harbours of any would-be invaders.

4. Only a surprise expedition could hope to reach her shores.

5. Neither Germany nor any other Power can take her by surprise, because the organisation of an oversea expedition on a large scale—and no other has a chance of success—is a lengthy and difficult business, involving action which could not be concealed; the attempt to hide what would be going on in her ports being in itself a betrayal of hostile intentions.

6. Germany cannot organise such an expedition, either openly or in secret, because she has not sufficient shipping to convey 246,000 men with their impedimenta, and all the guns, and horses, and military carriage across the North Sea; and she will not organise it, because her Government knows the facts on which I base my conclusions a great deal better than many Englishmen seem to do, and because, though she, like this country, may contain a sprinkling of foolish or unscrupulous persons, her people as a whole are sensible and honest. Why, then, live in terror of a neighbour who cannot harm us if she would, and who, in my opinion, has no wish to do so, though her Government may play upon our fears for the sake of some advantages which it thinks she can extort from them? If that is Germany's policy, surely ours is to convince her that we entertain no fears for her to play on, that we know our strength, and that, however far from all desire to use it to her detriment, we can and will maintain our Naval supremacy, a supremacy on which, as the world is at present constituted, our whole national life depends. Germany's Fleet may, or may not, be a luxury; ours is the condition on which we hold not only our Empire, but our daily bread.

    its first line of transport—that is, with its ammunition columns and trains— would, when advancing by one road, require from twelve to twenty hours, according to circumstances, to march a distance of fourteen miles, and deploy into line of battle. " This, then, at once gives us the maximum force that should be moved by one road [the troops being at full war-strength], if it is at once to engage the enemy, or to be drawn up in position ready for battle."—Duties of the General Staff, by General Bronsart von Schellendorfif, pp. 353, 354.

  1. Is Invasion Impossible? pp. 35, 36.
  2. Ibid. p. 36.
  3. Is Invasion Impossible? p. 35.
  4. "Mines, again, tell almost entirely in favour of defence, so much so indeed as to render a rapid coup de main against any important port almost an impossibility.'—Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, p. 260, by Julian S. Corbett, LL.M.
  5. On a good high-road, a German Army Corps in ordinary order of march would cover 32 miles, exclusive of intervals between echelons, that is, intervals between the larger units of the Army, and those between the combatants and the first and second lines of transport:
    25 Battalions of Infantry, 6 Squadrons of Cavalry, and 24 Batteries of Artillery cover 15½ miles
    First line of Transport, Ammunition and Supply Columns 12½ ,,
    Second Line of Transport ,,
    Total 32¾

    See Duties of the General Staffs by General Bronsart von Schellendorff, pp. 349, 350,

  6. Without taking into account the second line of transport, which would be left in rear, an army corps with
  7. Lord Wolseley's Soldiers' Pocket-book p. 223.
  8. Evidence given before the Norfolk Commission, vol. i p. 103 [Cd. 2062, 1904].
  9. Admiralty Memorandum, see Appendix.
  10. On this coast the sands are constantly shifting and the courses of the rivers changing, which "explain, in conjunction with the frequent bad weather, the dense fogs, and the severe storms, the numerous accidents reported in the Press which occur in our German North Sea river-mouths, but . . . they afford at the same time most valuable protection to the trade centres and naval ports situated on them."—"The Defence of the German Coasts," translated from Die GrenzbotenNo. 3, of January 17, 1912. See Journal Royal United Service Institution for June 1912.
  11. "It will be borne in mind that a body of transports is always a tactical weakness in the day of battle, and will probably lower the fleet speed of a number of high-powered ships-of-war." —Naval Strategy, p. 265, by Captain A. T. Mahan, D.C.L., LL.D., United States Navy.
  12. The Duties of the General Staff, pp. 553, 554. On the Conduct of Expeditions," Julian Corbett writes: "Against an enemy controlling the line of passage in force, the well-tried methods of covering and protecting an over-sea expedition will no more work to-day than they did in the past. Until his hold is broken by purely naval action, combined work remains beyond all legitimate risk of war."—Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, p. 310.
  13. When, in 1744, Marshal Saxe's Army threatened these shores, Admiral Sir John Norris's plan for frustrating the invasion was as follows: "As I think it [so he wrote to the Admiralty] of the greatest consequence to His Majesty's service to prevent the landing of these troops in any part of the country, I have . . . determined to anchor without the sands of Dunkirk, where we shall be in the fairest way for keeping them in. But if they should unfortunately get out and pass in the night and go northward, I intend to detach a superior force to endeavour to overtake and destroy them, and with the remainder of my squadron either fight the French Fleet now in the Channel, or observe them and cover the country as our circumstances will admit of; or I shall pursue the embarkation [that is, the transports conveying the troops] with all my strength."
  14. "The greater range of modern artillery compels the transports to anchor further away from the shore than obtained in past days." —Military Expeditions Beyond the Seas, by Colonel G. A. Furse, C.B., p. 289.
  15. A sudden fog occurred during the Invasion Test at the Manoeuvres in July 1912. "Meanwhile Red had made a dash for Filey, and was near shore, protected from sudden attack by a screen of cruisers, when down came a thick fog, rendering the landing of the expeditonary force impossible"—The Naval Correspondent of Daily News and Leader, July 22, 1912.
  16. The German Military Authorities are quite alive to such accidents, and in planning an invasion of this country would certainly not overlook risks which neither foresight nor skill could avert. Mark what General Bronsart von Schellendorff says on the subject: " Further, it is necessary to be clear upon the point that any landing on an open coast is so dependent upon the weather, that the attempt may not only be undesirably delayed, but may even have to be given up altogether."—The Duties of the General Staff, p. 554.