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A Triumph of Delusion over Despair: British Strategic Readjustment, June 1940 – June 1941

Ian Gooderson

Senior Lecturer, Defence Studies Department

16 July 2021

In the spring of 1939, Britain and France agreed on a strategic policy in the event of a war against the Axis powers - Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Believing that their enemies would be, at the outset, better prepared and also superior in land and air forces, the Allies would initially have to withstand the heavy offensive anticipated by remaining firmly on the defensive. Thereafter, they would contain Germany while defeating Italy, and build up their strength for a final offensive against Germany.

The underlying premise was that if the Allies could prevent their enemies from winning a short war, they would ultimately be defeated in a long one, in which the Allies’ superior military and economic strength would eventually prevail.

The viability of this strategy was undermined later that year by the Nazi-Soviet Pact agreed between Hitler and Stalin. For as long as it served the interests of both dictators, there was no likelihood of Britain and France having an ally powerful enough to impose an eastern front upon Germany, and it also meant that, if attacked by Germany, Poland was doomed.

Moreover, in the event of war, Britain and France would depend upon the support of the United States, yet American public opinion remained resolutely neutral, seriously limiting possible support from the Roosevelt Administration. Nevertheless, the assumptions underpinning the strategy were sound; indeed, it broadly foreshadowed the strategy that would ultimately bring Nazi Germany to defeat. That, however, lay in the future. First, would come the initial shock of war.

The opening stages of a war are an unforgiving test, and in 1939 - 40 Germany’s victories ruthlessly exposed the inadequacies of its opponents’ military and strategic policies. For Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France, the rapid pace of military defeat brought collapse, and occupation. For Britain, while it had shared the heavy defeats sustained in Norway and in France, its geographic position, the considerable barrier of the English Channel, and the relative intactness of its air and naval power, gave its leaders a measure of time for strategic reappraisal; though in June 1940 they faced immense peril.

The war strategy, previously agreed with France, was in ruins. With France seeking an armistice from Hitler there was no longer a continental ally nor French land, air, and sea forces to share the burdens across the theatres of war. Much of Britain’s only field army had been rescued from across the Channel in a feat of improvisation but leaving behind equipment that could not be replaced quickly.

Britain, and its crucial sea lines of communication, would soon be vulnerable to attack by an enemy controlling the ports and airfields along a seaboard extending from occupied Norway to the border of Spain. A German invasion of Britain would become an increasingly credible threat. Britain’s position in the strategically vital Mediterranean was menaced by Italy.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939 Mussolini had preferred to remain neutral, confounding earlier Anglo-French strategic thinking, but now, emboldened by German victories, he entered the war as Hitler’s ally. Hitler’s conviction following the fall of France that Britain would be unable to continue the war, and must surely accept peace on his terms, was hardly without logic.

Unrealistic in terms of military calculation, Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet resolved to fight on with support from the British public, the Commonwealth, and those who had escaped occupied Europe or volunteered from across the free world to join the struggle against Nazism. The challenge was in how to prosecute the war in circumstances that six months before would have been unthinkable.

The principal strategic considerations were whether Britain could hold out against attack, and how and in what form the offensive could be taken against Germany. Already, in late May 1940, the Chiefs of Staff had considered what British strategy should be in a French collapse. Although not formally adopted as a strategy, their reports presciently identified that Britain’s ability to continue the war would depend upon denying the German Luftwaffe air superiority over Britain. Otherwise Britain’s sea lines of supply and the continued functioning of its war industries which relied upon this, would be threatened and a German invasion might follow.

The Chiefs of Staffs’ confidence in British resilience and that Britain could withstand the Luftwaffe’s onslaught would be vindicated in the weeks ahead. The RAF, its fighting strength augmented by pilots from occupied Europe, including Polish and Czech squadrons, and volunteers from neutral countries including the United States, battled the Luftwaffe over southern England, denying it the decisive knock-out blow it sought.

Identifying Germany’s vulnerabilities and how to attack them was far more problematic. It was considered that Germany might be defeated by a combination of economic pressure, air attacks on German economic targets and by fostering revolt in German occupied countries. It was a strategy that would take time, but it was also one of impotence, acknowledging Britain’s inability to strike directly at German military strength and Britain’s limited ability to prosecute it effectively.

Nevertheless, the emphasis upon economic pressure would remain a foundation of British strategy against Germany. British attempts to exploit Mussolini’s ill-fated attack on Greece and to encourage a Balkan League against the Axis proved a questionable concept. It prompted Hitler to invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. A successful German invasion of Crete soon followed in May.

Strategies are unlikely to succeed when high stakes are played for with too weak a hand, but if British strategic readjustment after the fall of France proved to be delusory in its efforts to weaken Germany, it did indicate that those directing Britain’s war effort were determined to fight whatever the odds. This in turn was an important factor in gaining increased American sympathy and support.

In the 12 months between the fall of France, 1940, and Hitler’s own strategic miscalculation in invading the Soviet Union, 1941, that gave Britain a major continental ally once again, Britain and those who rallied to it in the cause against Nazism fought on: delusion then was better than despair and nurtured a fighting spirit that would endure until victory was finally achieved.


This piece is part of a series of blogs produced by scholars from the School of Security Studies Military and Political History research theme

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Ian Gooderson

Ian Gooderson

Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department

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