Britain There was a mood of tension in the air that bright morning in the summer of 1940, as the military personnel, scientific experts and government officers gathered at the top of the cliff overlooking the Solent estuary in Hampshire. Next to this distinguished group stood a row of 10 large Scammell petrol tankers, from each of which stretched a long pipe, snaking down the 30‑foot-high cliff, across the shoreline and out into the sea. At a given signal, the valves on the 10 petrol tankers were opened, and almost immediately the pipes began to deliver oil into the water at a rate of 12 tonnes an hour.
What happened next profoundly impressed the gathering. A series of flares and sodium pellets were fired into the sea. As they ignited the oil, a gigantic wall of flame raged up from the surface with such intensity that it seemed as if the sea itself had begun to boil, while thick black smoke climbed thousands of feet above the fiery barrage.
The remarkable sight of the burning sea sent a wave of excitement through the military and the government. Why? Well this experiment, held at Titchfield on 24 August 1940, took place at a moment when the fate of Britain hung in the balance. With most of western Europe now under the control of Hitler’s Reich, an imminent German invasion seemed inevitable.
In the skies over southern England, the RAF fought heroically to stop the Luftwaffe gaining air superiority, one of the essential conditions for any seaborne assault launched by Hitler. But now the British authorities felt that they might have another weapon that could be highly effective against an invader. One of those who witnessed the Titchfield trial, Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Arbuthnot, called it “an outstanding success”, adding: “I do not believe that any landing forces would attempt to pierce the flames even if the force were aware of the width of fire.”
Yet, for all the combustible inspiration it provided, the burning sea trial was hardly unique in the summer of 1940. Britain’s determination to resist a German assault could be seen in everything from the creation of new types of bombs to the mass installation of road blocks. With the invasion looming, Britain bristled with a fortress mentality.
This was a land where signposts were removed from every road, where 18,000 pillboxes were built and where beaches were protected by miles of barbed wire.
The idea of Britain as a well-prepared nation, ready for a German attack, runs counter to the usual narrative of 1940. According to the myths about this period, Britain was in a state of ill-defended, poorly equipped weakness, thanks to years of complacency from prewar governments.
This chronic feebleness was supposedly symbolised by the laughable inadequacy of the Home Guard, subsequently immortalised in the TV comedy Dad’s Army, whose weaponry was said to be as woeful as the calibre of its recruits. According to this account, Britain was only saved from inevitable defeat and subjugation by the courage of the Fighter Command pilots.
There is another fashionable argument which holds that the Germans were never serious about invasion, which meant that Britain survived, not through her own efforts, but simply because of the enemy’s hesitations. There is no doubt that Hitler was ambivalent about a direct attack on southern England, partly because of his fears about marine operations. “On land I feel like a lion, but at sea I am a coward,” he once said. Other factors that fuelled his doubts were his admiration for the British empire and his belief that London would be forced by military realities to negotiate.
Nevertheless, after the fall of France in mid-June, the German High Command embarked on extensive preparations for an invasion, especially the creation of a vast, makeshift fleet of barges to carry the invasion force, which would ultimately comprise 260,000 troops, to the southern English coast. In a series of military conferences from early July 1940, the Germans worked out in great detail the invasion plan, to be called Operation Sealion, even down to the number of guard dogs that would take part in the landings.
But the belief that Britain was hopelessly ill-prepared to tackle the invasion threat is a romantic fallacy that downplays the dynamism of Churchill’s government and the public. The Finest Hour belonged not just to the RAF but to the wider nation. Contrary to the image of institutionalised chaos in 1940, British military and political officialdom was tough, resilient, well organised and resourceful. The political ruthlessness that brought Winston Churchill to power in early May 1940, when the Tory party rebelled against the ineffectual leadership of Neville Chamberlain, was reflected in a host of other initiatives, like incarceration of all enemy aliens and political extremists, the destruction of the French fleet at Oran to stop it falling into the hands of the enemy and the control of the entire German spy network in Britain after turning several agents.