How the Royal Navy Fought During the Battle of Britain (Yes, They Did)

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: The Royal Navy did a fine job helping in fighting the German Air Force.

By June 1940, Hitler’s Panzer Divisions had rolled up to the English Channel. The German Luftwaffe had just taken on the air arms of France and the United Kingdom, the two other most advanced air forces on the planet, and defeated them after a month-and-half of sustained aerial warfare.

The Royal Air Force was forced to hastily withdraw its fighter squadrons from France lest they were wiped out by attrition. Miraculously, 338,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated at Dunkirk—leaving nearly all their heavy weapons (tanks, artillery, trucks) behind, as well as 68,000 soldiers killed or captured.

Germany’s Panzer Divisions could easily have smashed aside the U.K.’s battered defenders if only they could be ferried across the Channel—but therein lay the problem. How were the vehicles and men to be physically landed on a beachhead?

By that time, the Kriegsmarine had only tested a few prototype landing craft, and certainly did not possess the vast fleet of specialized, ramp-equipped vessels used by the Allies in landings in Normandy or Iwo Jima. The best solution the Kriegsmarine could come up with was to transfer barges known as Peniche and larger Kampine from the Rhine River to Calais and convert them. More than 2,400 were assembled for an invasion of the UK, codenamed Operation Sea Lion and modified with bow-ramps.

Of the barges, only 800 were self-powered, meaning the rest had to be towed at a speed of roughly two miles per hour. Some were later converted by the Luftwaffe with airplane engines, and others were loaded down with extra armor. Even the best of these riverine platforms were only minimally seaworthy, with top speeds of seven miles per hour. This is to say they were sitting ducks.

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