Interesting books of Yesteryear: Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming

This is the first of a series of blogs on interesting, out of print and hard to find books. They will mostly be more than 20 years after their first publication.

“Invasion 1940” by Peter Fleming

Invasion 1940‘ by Peter Fleming was published by Rupert Hart-Davis in London in 1957. An American edition of the book was published in the same year by Simon and Schuster as ‘Operation Sea Lion.’ The book is an account of the invasion plans that Adolf Hitler and the German military high command prepared for an Invasion of the United Kingdom following the fall of France in June 1940. The book also documents British preparedness, or the lack thereof. This was the first published account of these events, predating the Official War History account, Basil Collier’s “The Defense of the United Kingdom” by five years.

 Historical background

 The order to prepare the first plans for a cross-channel invasion was issued on 15th November 1939 by High Admiral  Erich Raeder, the senior commander of the German navy. At the Nurenberg War Crimes trials, Admiral Raeder said that he did this as a precautionary measure, in case Hitler suddenly demanded such a plan from him.

The first discussion on the topic between Hitler and Raeder was initiated by Raeder on 21st May 1940, during the German army’s successful armoured thrust into France, which had commenced on 10th May 1940, and just before the successful British evacuation of some 338,000 troops from Dunkirk, which took place between the 27th May and 4th June1940. France collapsed and surrendered on 25th June 1940. The outcome of the discussion between Raeder and Hitler was the issuing of Directive No. 16 on 16th July 1940 by Hitler. The beginning of Directive No 16 is quoted by Peter Fleming thus:

As England, in spite of the hopelessness of her military position, has so far shown herself unwilling to come to any compromise. I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out, an invasion of England.This operation is dictated by the necessity of eliminating Great Britain as a base from which the war against Germany can be fought, and if necessary the island will be occupied.

I have therefore issued the following orders…

from Adolph Hitler, Directive No. 16, 16th July 1940

 The invasion plan was given the code name Operation Sea Lion, ‘Unternehmen Seelöwe’.

An outline of the book

Fleming gives many details of the plans for Operation Sea Lion in the book and documents much of the information he uses. He gives many logistical as well as strategic and tactical details of the invasion plans. In two fascinating chapters, he explores what the German military intelligence knew of the British military forces, and vice versa. He also gives an excellent account of the English response which went from apathy through denial to preparedness and resolve, catalysed by the crucial change of leadership from Chamberlain to Churchill on 10th May 1940.

He start with a very brief account  of the opening military actions of World War II in Poland, Norway, Belgium and Holland and finally France. This approach somewhat assumes that the reader is already familiar enough with this (to the author) very recent history. While this attitude was probably true for his readership in 1957, I doubt that this is so today.

Fleming does give the reader much more detail of the attitudes of the English up to May 1940, and includes this wonderfully complacent quotation from Britain’s then leading military historian:

England…is…more secure than ever before against invasion…. There is sound cause for discounting the danger of invasion.

from ‘The Defence of Britain’ by Basil Liddell-Hart. July 1939

A fairly full and satisfying account of the naval and air situations is presented and a full and detailed account of the crucial failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain is also very well presented by Fleming. There is quite a lot of speculation about how seriously the Germans really contemplated an invasion, which, while planned as if it was an extension of a military crossing of a large river while under enemy fire, was clearly going to require an operation of a much larger order of magnitude. No modern amphibious operation on this scale had ever been contemplated, involving 9 army divisions in the first wave and requiring close co-operation of land sea and air forces.
It does seem that Hitler was hoping for a British capitulation or, at least, a willingness to negotiate a position of armed neutrality, while agreeing not to interfere with the German military activities in continental Europe, particularly looking to the East. Fleming suggests that, probably, no-one in the senior German military leadership was really keen to commit to the scheme due to its inherent riskiness. From the outset of the planning, the following prerequisites were identified:

  • Elimination or sealing off Royal Navy forces from the landing and approach areas.
  • Elimination of the Royal Air Force.
  • Destruction of all Royal Navy units in the coastal zone.
  • Prevention of British submarine action against the landing fleet.

Fleming describes how the German Navy was very concerned by their large losses after the campaign in Norway in 1939 and could not neutralise the Royal Navy. This, coupled with the Luftwaffe’s failure to eliminate the RAF, left all four of the pre-requisites for invasion unmet.

 Ultimately, the invasion plan was formally abandoned on 17th September 1940. Interestingly, Fleming tells us that, although Hitler joked about the invasion in a speech given on the 4th September, he had probably already decided that the invasion was impossible. Fleming also reveals that some of the units that, were earmarked for the invasion of Britain, were not released for other action or theatres of war until the spring of 1942.

The book also gives an interesting account of the German plans for the governance of a successfully defeated and occupied Britain, including a reproduction of four pages of the famous ‘Black List’ of leading Britons to be ‘neutralised.’

The book is illustrated by contemporary black and white full page photographs, that are of mainly very high quality, and also has many vignettes of contemporary cartoons which underscore or lampoon the history and politics of the time.

I can thoroughly recommend this book as a well written interesting insight into what might have been, two generations ago. Fleming’s writing style is lively and relatively undated.

About the Author

Peter Fleming 1907-1971

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) was one of four sons born to a World War I hero and victim, Colonel Valentine Fleming MC, MP (1882-1917). Peter Fleming was essentially a travel and real life adventure writer who was initially far more famous than his now illustrious younger brother Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!). After his education at Eton and Oxford, Fleming first came to fame after participating in an intrepid journey through the Amazon basin, that had been undertaken to search for the lost British explorer, Colonel Fawcett. The subsequent book that Peter Fleming wrote about his experiences, his first, ‘Brazilian Adventure’, was published in 1933 and made his name. It is still in print. His next two books ‘One’s Company’ (1934) and ‘News from Tartary’ (1936) documented his rail journey from Moscow to Beijing and then his overland trek from China to India, in the company of a French female travel writer who he met along the way.

In 1940, Peter Fleming published a light-hearted novel ‘The Flying Visit’ , with illustrations by the celebrated New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low. The book describes an accidental visit to wartime Britain by Adolf Hitler. It eerily foreshadows the real flight of Rudolf Hess to Scotland in 1941.

After distinguished service in the Second World War, where Peter Fleming served in the first commando unit in Norway, and was involved in intelligence and deception of the enemy in South East Asia, he continued his writing career, producing another dozen or so books of travel, essays and novels, but became completely overshadowed by the growing fame of his brother Ian through the late 1950s and 1960s.

Peter Fleming was married to the famous British actress Celia Johnson, imortalised by her starring performance in the film ‘Brief Encounter.’ They had three children.
The official biography of Peter Fleming was written by his godson, Duff Hart-Davis, the son of the publisher of ‘Invasion 1940’, Rupert Hart-Davis.

Further reading

Brazilian Adventure’ by Peter Fleming, Alden Press, (1933)
‘One’s Company’ by Peter Fleming, Jonathan Cape, (1934)
News from Tartary‘ by Peter Fleming, Jonathan Cape, (1936)
‘The Flying Visit’ by Peter Fleming, Jonathan Cape, (1940)
‘Peter Fleming, A Biography’ by Duff Hart-Davis, Jonathan Cape (1974)


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