Barbarossa or Sealion?

Ralph Zuljan

To outside observers, an invasion of the UK was the obvious strategic direction for Germany to pursue after the defeat of France, but there is a great deal of doubt about Hitler's seriousness about it. The planning that went into Operation Sealion - the German plan to invade the British Isles - was halfhearted when compared to that for the invasion of the USSR - Operation Barbarossa. Hitler ordered contingency planning for an attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, shortly after the fall of France and around the time an invasion of Britain was being considered. Planning and preparation for both possibilities continued into the summer of 1941, but it was obvious by then that the campaign against the USSR was taking shape while that against the UK was not.

The best hope of militarily defeating the UK was to invade the home island and occupy London. German military contingency planning for an invasion of Britain began shortly after the conclusion of the French campaign. With the forces available in 1940, it might have been a risky undertaking. Nazi Germany was a traditional continental power with a large army and a small navy. It was not ready to do battle with a naval power such as the UK. Preparing to invade in 1941 was probably more feasible but it would have required the Third Reich to focus on the production of naval and air assets at the expense of its army. Furthermore, even if the Nazis conquered the British Isles, they would not improve their overall strategic situation. There are no significant resources to be had in the UK, and the bulk of the imperial territories would have fallen to the US - enriching an already rich great power - or declare independence.

Another alternative toyed with was a peripheral attack on the British empire. Strikes against British territories in North Africa and the Middle East were given some consideration, but such actions would have involved the same production and planning problems as Operation Sealion. To begin with, a substantial German naval presence would have to be brought into the Mediterranean Sea. At best, Germany would conquer Egypt, or possibly all of the Middle East by the end of 1941, turning the Mediterranean into a German lake. But the infrastructure required to benefit from any resources found there would have to be created. By 1942, all Hitler would have is a huge pile of sand, populated by militant nationalists. More importantly, taking the Middle East would not defeat the UK. The war would continue.

In the meantime, these strategies would leave the Third Reich dependent on the USSR for food and raw material. The Soviets could make more territorial demands on Romania (a primary source of oil for Nazi Germany) and possibly Turkey as well while the Germans were busy fighting in the UK. Hitler had good reason to be concerned as the Soviet Union had invaded the Baltic states and annexed Bessarabia from Romania during the French campaign. Worse yet, from Hitler's perspective, the Soviets could take advantage of the German pursuit of a non-eastern strategy by attacking Germany directly since the Third Reich did not have the capability to maintain a continental sized army and produce the air and naval forces necessary for a western or southern strategy. Given the huge Soviet army deployed on the eastern border of the Reich, these were not trivial concerns.

During a meeting in Berlin in November 1940, Hitler actually suggested to Molotov that the Soviets join the Tripartite Pact. Despite the fact that German military planning for an attack on the Soviet Union was underway at this time, the invitation to the USSR was legitimate. The point was to deflect the focus of Soviet attention away from eastern Europe, which threatened and conflicted with German interests in the region, towards central Asia specifically Persia and India. For the Germans this offered all sorts of opportunities since, with the USSR effectively going to war with the UK, Germany's eastern frontiers would be relatively secure. This, perhaps, reveals Hitler's criteria for proceeding against England - the Soviet Union had to be an active partner in the enterprise. In this case, the British would have been forced into deciding whether pursuit of war with Germany was worth the very definite loss of its eastern empire to the Soviet Union.

Molotov refused the offer to join the Axis. From the Soviet perspective it implied relinquishing historical Russian interest in the Slavs of eastern Europe for the sake of territorial gain in the Middle East and central Asia. Just as important, the ideological divide between the communist USSR and the fascist Third Reich had been temporarily forded during this period, but not bridged. Joining the Tripartite Pact entailed additional security risks for the Soviet Union without any serious alleviation of existing threats (specifically from Germany). It could only benefit Nazi Germany. However, the Soviet refusal to join forces against Britain probably ensured Hitler's preference for Operation Barbarossa.

Beyond the strategic considerations, Operation Barbarossa was preferable to Sealion for operational reasons. Landing an army across the English Channel was unlike anything the German army had ever attempted while Barbarossa required rather straightforward military planning from the German military's perspective. Barbarossa was a campaign that the German High Command felt competent to plan. Sealion was not. Hitler probably felt the same way.

In the end, what stopped Operation Sealion was the reality that, after the defeat of France, the Soviet Union was the only significant threat to German hegemony in Europe. So long as the Red army stood on the eastern frontier of the Third Reich there was a risk of war. Britain was not viewed as a serious threat to Nazi ambitions. In fact, most of the evidence suggests Hitler wanted the UK to remain a world power and by striking eastward he hoped to eliminate the only potential continental ally of Great Britain and bring about a peace settlement with the British.

Originally published in "World War II" at on January 1, 1999.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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