Britain at War explores how commando forces might have helped facilitate a successful German invasion and how, it is alleged, one such raid in 1943 successfully made it to British shores.
The new BBC alternate history drama, SS:GB, depicts the fictional occupation of a defeated Great Britain, and what may have happened had Britain fallen under Nazi rule. While the dystopian TV drama has yet to detail how Britain fell, a chain of events is outlined in the original book by Len Deighton.
Just as in the historical reality, for invasion to be possible the core strength of the RAF had to be eroded, and Fighter Command and other assets destroyed or forced north. This would allow German forces to launch their invasion in late-1940. German troops land near Ashford, Kent, a first wave of paratroopers spearheading the main amphibious assault. Canterbury is captured and London quickly falls. Fighting a bloody retreat, the fiercest British resistance occurs near Colchester, where the advance is halted for long enough to allow the Royal Navy to escape Harwich. Within nine months of the invasion, the British surrender and Prime Minister Churchill is captured and executed.
The British secure the safety of most of the Royal Family, who escape overseas. Fine art, gold reserves, and other treasures are safely stowed away in Canada. However, King George VI is a prisoner of the Germans, held in the Tower of London. With the disgraced Duke of Windsor having fled overseas, Hitler realises that his ‘friend’ of Germany is anything but, and the German hope is the current monarch will play an important role in a new Britain.
It is roughly here, that SS:GB begins its dark tail of secrets, collaboration, and resistance.
In reality, it is unlikely a German invasion of Britain could ever have succeeded. Prior to Operation Overlord in 1944, various missions; beach reconnaissance, commando raids, heavy bombing, and clandestine activities, were completed in preparation. Conversely, while the Luftwaffe battled to secure the skies over the English Channel and south-east England, further preparation for a German invasion would be necessary and little was actually done to pave the way.
Invasion necessitated a number of key installations be destroyed, bridges captured and held, dock facilities taken in as operable condition as possible. Accurate assessments and depositions of local forces, effective reconnaissance, sabotage, all would be vital to German success.
The German military was capable of attempting such operations. Originally operating as part of the Abwehr, a special forces unit known as the Brandenburgers were tasked with special reconnaissance, covert operations, and amphibious warfare roles. Either acting as a special forces unit, or embedded within an enemy country or unit, they conducted acts of sabotage and intelligence gathering missions. Brandenburgers infiltrated The Netherlands and the Soviet Union long prior to invasion, posed as Arabs to observe British ships passing Gibraltar, and battled partisans in Yugoslavia. Famously, they helped capture the British-held Greek island of Kos in October 1943.
Any invasion would, at some stage, involve landing troops and equipment. Mines, wire, and other assets defended the beaches, but the most vulnerable areas were protected by Emergency Coastal Batteries. These batteries were armed with whatever was available, typically housing guns between 4 and 6 inches in calibre. There were also a handful of land-based torpedo launchers – similar defences in Norway had already sunk the cruiser Blücher in 1940. In the Solent, sea forts such as Spitbank and St Helens were two of many fortifications equipped with new defences. Horse-Sand Fort became part of extensive anti-submarine defences, while Nab Tower was fitted with anti-aircraft guns. Additionally, Kent’s 28-mile Royal Military Canal, still a formidable obstacle 140 years after completion, was an impressive barrier. Well-defended, the canal had limited crossings and in the event of invasion paratroopers from 7th Flieger-Division were tasked with the capture of crossing points. Elsewhere, obsolete Martello towers all along the coast were used as observation platforms and also armed with machine guns and anti-aircraft guns.
Another concern was the response to a German directive calling for control of access into the English Channel, and various static guns and railway artillery were positioned in the Pas-de-Calais. These were intended to block British merchant ships from passing through the channel, but, may have been useful during invasion – despite the necessary Luftwaffe control of the air, a night operation by massed destroyers and cruisers of the Royal Navy could potentially defeat the invasion. However, the British further fortified the coast around Dover, installing two 14-in guns, ‘Winnie’ and ‘Pooh’. Although primarily tasked with counter-battery fire and being largely ineffective against individual ships, they would barely have to aim at an invasion force. These guns were soon reinforced with two 15-in guns, three 13.5-in guns and several smaller types. General defences along the south coast were enhanced by a number of 9.2-in guns.
Many of the above facilities were vulnerable to a concentrated bombing effort, but some, the coastal guns in particular, were well-camouflaged, well-protected, and covered by a strong anti-aircraft defence. These defences were of insignificance during the Battle of Britain, but may well have caused havoc amongst the barges and light craft tasked with transporting Germany’s first wave. With German warships concerned with the invasion and the activities of the Royal Navy, could commando-style units have been the most viable means to disable these big guns and other defences?
Another key defensive asset was the chain of radar stations running along the southern coast, which were vital to British survival. By the time war broke, in September 1939, 21 such radar stations were operational and had been calibrated. Linked with an extensive network of observers, control centres, and a central filter room, this effective system could provide early warning of high-flying aircraft before they crossed the French coast. By the time of the Battle of Britain, the network had been expanded, and radar covered the UK from Orkney to Dorset.
The bombing of such stations proved ineffective, and it seems German intelligence, at least at that time, failed to grasp the vital importance radar played in the British defence. By the end of the Battle of Britain, the threat of invasion had passed. Although there was little need for both sides to extensively prepare for an invasion of any sort, there were still sites of strategic interest to German forces – radar stations in particular – and these remained largely untouched. One peculiar exception, however, is of note – especially to those stationed at RAF Ventnor in 1943.
Did German Commandos raid the Isle of Wight?
A British author, Adrian Searle, has caused something of a stir by claiming a German commando raid was mounted against the RAF’s Chain Home radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. The RAF station at Ventnor, high above the beaches of the island’s southern coast, had already been the subject to probably the heaviest Luftwaffe attacks against such facilities in August 1940.
According to Searle, the raid has been a national secret for more than seventy years and although he states the official line in the United Kingdom has always been that it never happened, his work challenges the assertion that no German forces ever set foot on British soil during the Second World War (the Channel Islands excepted) on active military service.
Allied bombing of mainland Germany was growing in frequency and scale, and was becoming very destructive. Germany’s own radar network was alerting their defences to the approach of massed bombers, but could the British, who used radar so decisively three years earlier, have technology which may have been of use in the defence of the Reich? Searle certainly thinks so, and claims up to 12 highly-trained commandos were transported in U-Boats from the occupied Channel Islands to steal equipment from Ventnor station, allegedly coming ashore on the night of 15/16 August 1943 in rubber dinghies to carry out this audacious operation.
Part of the basis for Searle’s claim lies with an unexplained entry in a local ARP diary which records for this date: ‘Special Report: Police report two dinghies full of Germans in the sea. Seen at 02.18 hours, reported to Police through Navy.’
However, he goes on to reveal he also uncovered an account from a former German soldier, Dr Dietrich Andernacht, who claimed to have been part of the secret German operation and despite the lack of any formal German or British record of the operation a local resident, Derek Kent, then a teenage ARP Dispatch Rider, recalled he had heard about the raid through his ARP colleagues and discussed it, ‘… but then a man dressed in a suit came down to see us and I was asked to sign the Official Secrets Act.’
Despite the apparent paucity of any material to firmly corroborate the raid story, and the assertion of a former WAAF operative at RAF Ventnor that she ‘…would have known about it’ had it happened, Adrian Searle said:
‘The Germans had a relatively easy crossing but I think they were shocked to be met by regular British soldiers rather than the Home Guard. It is unclear whether any British soldiers were killed or wounded. The incident was wiped from the war history within hours of it taking place, with witnesses made to sign the Official Secrets Act. It is time for the Government to come clean. The incident should be added to Britain’s wartime story.’
Whilst 17 British forces fatalities were reported in the UK on that date, there is no apparent evidence any of these men were involved in the alleged Ventnor incident. Furthermore, there are certainly no German fatalities of this raid for whom burials can be traced in the UK. Coincidentally, though, a heavy Luftwaffe raid was mounted on Portsmouth on the night of 15/16 August, where two of the raiding bombers were brought down. Additionally, on 16 August a photo-reconnaissance Messerschmitt Me109 was shot down over Newchurch on the Isle of Wight, although its mission had been to photograph the aftermath of the Portsmouth raid and has no connection to anything that may or may not have happened at Ventnor.
Then there is the account of a former Detective Inspector, Brian Bridges, who told Britain at War:
‘Back in the 1970s a fellow Detective Inspector in Sussex, Patrick (Paddy) Nolan, related to me that he had as a friend a former German U-Boat commander. During one visit to the UK he had asked Paddy to take him to the Isle of Wight for a couple of days. The intention being that he wished to visit the site where he had landed a group of commandos for the purpose of raiding the Ventnor radar site. Paddy stated that he had never heard of such an incident whereupon his friend merely replied; ‘well you wouldn’t, the winners always write the history’.
Clearly, this does not take the investigation any further forward, but it could nevertheless be of interest to Britain at War and Adrian Searle.’
Although the station had been a Chain Home (CH) station in 1940, of vital importance to the defence of Britain, by July 1942 the site was modified for Chain Home Extra Low (CHEL) with Type 271 radar and an experimental centimetric radar in place. Thus, it could be argued the Germans, as the former U-Boat commander suggests, could have had an interest in these developments – although there seems to be no evidence that they were even aware of them.
Whilst reports about the Ventnor raid are sensational they are by no means unique in terms of stories about ‘raids’ conducted against British targets by German commandos. For instance, when the Battle of Britain was at its height and invasion scares an ever-present reality, rumours abounded of blackened corpses of German soldiers being washed ashore on British beaches. The story, of course, was that the men had been caught in Britain’s newest and most deadly secret weapon; setting the sea ablaze with floating petroleum. However, while the British experimented with such weapons, there seems to be no truth whatsoever in this fanciful story – although it was a tale that was not without equal during heightened ‘twitchiness’ about a possible German invasion.
Similarly, a story about an event called the ‘Battle of Graveney Marshes’ is put down to sensationalism. When a Junkers Ju 88 crew, after crash-landing in marshes near Whitstable, Kent, were said to have ‘…held out for hours’ against British soldiers. This was later proven to be incorrect. Instead, the German airmen had attempted to set fire to their aircraft but a platoon of the London Irish Regiment fired at them to dissuade them from their actions and this had been the basis for the untrue ‘battle’ story.
More significantly, though, are stories of other ‘German landings’ to capture secrets from other radar sites. One was at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk, where a plan is sometimes said to have been thwarted by the Navy and the Germans ‘driven away’. Similarly, a story of ‘men coming ashore in dinghies from U-Boats’ has been a strong rumour insofar as it relates to another RAF CH radar site; namely, at Pevensey in East Sussex. Again, the account tells how the German raiding party came ashore from U-Boats in dinghies but failed in their objective and withdrew after ‘flashing lights’ and ‘gunfire’ at sea.
Once again, the story goes that all accounts of the raids were ‘expunged’ from the official record.
The mysterious absence of German mentions of the Ventnor raid are also telling, as such an activity would presumably have been a propaganda coup. The idea that commandos penetrated Britain’s coastal defences and then slipped away with little or no trace would be an impressive feat – even had the raider’s failed to complete their objectives.
Considering Brandenburger units were ideally suited to carry out the alleged raid on Ventnor, and were typically very highly decorated (nearly 450 of the 600 men Brandenburgers serving during the Battle of France were presented with the Iron Cross) it would stand to reason that should a raid on Ventnor have taken place, Brandenburger men were likely to have been involved, and had decorations been bestowed on the unit for carrying out such a feat, the German military would have officially recorded their actions.
Despite being a fascinating tale, it seems such a raid likely did not occur. However, historians cannot completely rule out the possibility a German commando raid occurred at Ventnor station.
It is, of course, a fact that these radar sites were highly secret and the public at large had no idea of their purpose; the possibility they emitted a ‘death ray’ to disable German aircraft engines being a popular tale at the time. Under cloaks of such mystery and intrigue it might be easy to see why and how otherwise ‘unexplained’ happenings around these mysterious sites could be constructed into something they were not.
Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.