By James Hall
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The first such theme was, inevitably, "Operation Sealion," and the quality of submissions was excellent. So much so that we will be releasing a collection of them in the near future.
The following vignette was the first in a linked series, which will all be in the Sealion collection. Enjoy.
Tee Im Schwarzwald
While I am not particularly well-travelled, my limited forays abroad have given me a few things that I hold true. The first is that, however much I try to learn the local language, after a few awkward stumbles, the other party will seamless switch to English. To my eternal shame, their English is often far closer to the standard RP than my own. Growing up on Tyneside, followed by a decade in Manchester, this writer does not possess the expected accent of the Englishman abroad. The second truth is that the plumbing seems designed to purposefully baffle travellers. The third is that, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, a decent mug of breakfast tea cannot be obtained outside the UK. It is this third rule that has been the longest lasting. The first, as it must, was swiftly challenged by a visit to France. Subsequent visits have seen our friends over the Channel made an honourable exception. The second, despite the lunacy of one particular shower in Turin, has been shown to have a few glimmering lights of sanity in Continental Europe. The last has held firm, from my first trip abroad at the age of eight. Until now. Sitting on the shaded veranda of a property nestled in the Black Forest, it has shattered. I have a perfect mug of tea. Warm, strong, a dash of milk, and one that my Grandfather in County Durham would say was a 'proper brew'. I mention this to the old man sitting with me. He gives a throaty chuckle,
“I have taught my whole family how to make tea the English way.” This cup, made by his cheery Granddaughter Greta, definitely hits the spot. I tell her such, to a nod of approval from her Grandfather,
“The real English way, you understand. Not the officers’ tea, in its fancy cup, the Earl Grey. A real mug: that the real English drink, in Liverpool, in Glasgow, in your Newcastle.” I feel duty-bound to inform the General that there are few Glaswegians who would happily accept the label of English,
“Ah yes, the Scots, they are very proud. I must say British. I never did get the hang of that. Four years in Britain should have been enough. That was when I discovered tea. I took to it during my little holiday to your country, and I have had a cup at breakfast; and another in the afternoon, ever since.”
His little holiday. An interesting phrase for internment. Eccard Freiherr von Gablenz spent four years as a prisoner of war, first in a camp outside Aldershot, and then the North Yorkshire Moors. He is one of many who ‘enjoyed’ such holidays, and I intend to speak to several more over the next few weeks. Operation Sea Lion. It is a name that has resounded in the British psyche for twenty-five years. Both the history and fiction sections of libraries overflow with books on the subject. Films, plays, artwork and music have celebrated and commemorated those momentous events. But for all the depictions, the gruelling war in the air, the exploits of the Royal Navy, and the bravery of the Army and Home Guard; there has been one perspective that has been lacking in the UK. That of the Germans.
My current host was pivotal for this idea. Since returning to Germany, he has refused countless invitations to speak to academics and journalists. No historian has gained audience, no reporter an interview. But my speculative pleading letter was answered with an invitation, so I’ve made the trek to a sleepy village outside Karlsruhe. Even if it wasn’t glorious summer in the Black Forest, it would be worth it, merely for the opportunity to talk to von Gablenz. He was the one who took over command at Lewes. At Uckfield, he sent a chill through the hearts of the British military and political establishment. Yet von Gablenz was also the one who brought the clamour to a halt.
“I still maintain that Pease Pottage is a silly name. A name only the English could give a place. Look at battlefields in Europe. Rossbach. Waterloo. Vittoria. Sedan. Solid names. Names with gravity. How can the culmination of such a campaign end at Pease Pottage? It sounds like a place for Agatha Christie, or Bertie Wooster.” He waves his gnarled hand out towards the trees, frustrated at the foolishness of Sussex placenames; while I ponder the reading matter he sampled during his 'holiday'.
Sergeant John Pearson, of the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars, was the first person to hear von Gablenz’s disgruntled thoughts on the village south of Crawley. He had been hastily brevetted to Colonel, in order to discuss terms with the Major General. By the time Generals Auchinleck and Barker had arrived in Pease Pottage, the German invasion was over.
“It was a fool’s errand from the start. We made such detailed preparations when looking to cross the rivers and canals of Holland and Belgium. Gliders, deceptions, coup de main: every issue was thought about. Yet the OKW decided that they could throw tens of thousands of men across twenty miles of water after planning the thing in a couple of cigarette breaks.”
A bit unfair, surely? I insist, to which the avian head nods in assent.
“I exaggerate, yes, but not by too much. It is another habit of you… British.” He smiles at his success, as Greta rolls her eyes fondly, “For all your understatement, you can also use enormous hyperbole. But it was planned in a dreadful hurry.”
In June 1940, the Wehrmacht was triumphant. Six weeks after the phoney war turned to blitzkrieg, France and the Low Countries were utterly defeated. Germany’s armed forces stared across the Channel, where Britain stood at bay. Major General von Gablenz never imagined that Britain and the Empire would fight on.
“Your Churchill was incredibly stubborn. Any other man would have sought terms. We expected an armistice. Peace, even.”
It was Mers-el-Kébir that eradicated those hopes. The destruction of the French fleet at anchor convinced Hitler that Britain needed to be invaded. Plans were hastly drawn up. They were then redrawn, and redrafted. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were huge hindrances. No matter how detailed the plan, it wouldn't work if the seas and skies weren't clear. July and August saw the Luftwaffe throw everything at those hindrances, in an attempt to clear the way for the Wehrmacht. Goering was confident of success, and soon, the intelligence reports agreed. Fighter Command withdrew behind London; surrendering its Kentish bases as indefensible. Nothing larger than a destroyer moved in the Channel, and they did so very reluctantly. The orders went out. On the twenty-first of September, the Germans would invade the British Isles. The war would be won in another few weeks. It went wrong within hours, if not minutes.
“I was overseeing the troops boarding the barges in Boulogne when a message came through that something had gone wrong in the West.” He wrings his hands as he remembers. “A minor hitch, but the invasion was to go ahead.”
This minor hitch was a flotilla of Royal Navy destroyers, accompanied by HMS Revenge, which had arrived in Plymouth two days earlier. The fact that their attack on Cherbourg happened on the very night of the invasion: at the very time that von Manstein’s corps was loading, is still the source of speculation. Whether the government’s archives will eventually reveal answers, only time will tell. What cannot be denied is that it wrecked the Western flank of the landings. The Heer’s original plan was for three armies landing on a front from Kent to Dorset. The 6th Army was relegated to reserve, thanks to a lack of landing craft, and now half of the 9th Army was evacuating the docks as fifteen inch shells blew up the harbour; being scattered across the shores of Normandy; or missing presumed dead.
“I spoke to a lot of those boys that day. They thought they were invincible, as only nineteen year old boys who’ve conquered half of Europe can. Such a waste.” He shakes his head. I ask if he wants to stop, but he presses on.
“Those barges were totally unsuitable: too shallow, too slow. Moving coal and grain on the Rhine is very different to moving men, tanks and horses in a choppy sea. Keeping them together was a nightmare.”
This was a challenge becoming apparent to all of the Kriegsmarine, and the soldiers they were accompanying. They were halfway across the Channel when that task became far more difficult.
“Then the Navy arrived.”
Torpedo boats swarmed the columns of barges, with destroyers fighting off anybody who attempted to stop them. In one sense, von Gablenz and his companions were lucky. The force leaving Calais, aimed at Dover and the surrounding area, was attacked by destroyers of the Harwich Force. While the 4.5” guns caused havoc; the order for “full ahead both” was worse still. Destroyer captains have often had a reputation for recklessness in Naval circles. When that recklessness sees 2,500 ton ships crash through an invasion convoy at 36 knots, it is dreadfully effective. Barges were scythed in two, overturned, swamped by wash, and thrown into chaos. The wreckage, and men (living and dead) washed ashore from the North Norfolk coast to the Frisian Islands.
However, for all the heroism of the Navy, the Germans made it ashore. In a confused fashion, undoubtedly, but ashore nonetheless. From the Solent to Kent, the Germans attempted to restore some order to the Operation. This was when the RAF deigned to make an appearance.
“Goering had promised that neither the sun nor the rain would touch our heads. The Luftwaffe would shield us from everything. The drug-addled swine.”
The Me-109s had more than clouds to deal with when the selfishly husbanded resources of Fighter Command appeared. Spitfires turned the air into a giant swarm of death, and the opening allowed the Hurricane squadrons to shred the much vaunted Stukas and their fellow bombers to pieces.
“We had been promised that the Navy would not intervene. They lied. We had been promised that the Air Force was driven from the skies. They lied.”
At this point, I decide that we definitely should take a break. The old man is shaking, and his voice cracking. I do not know whether it is with anger, regret, or the memory of the horrors he saw. I steer the conversation towards our current surroundings: the gardens are magnificent, are they not? Greta seizes the opportunity, and she whisks me off, giving the General time to recover. My guide idly takes my across the terrace, and down the sloping lawn. She shows me the stream which marks the end of the grounds, pointing out the wooded hillside where it begins, and detailing its descent to the village. I hope I am not causing her Grandfather undue stress.
“I do not know. You were very kind to stop.” A genuine smile graces her sun-freckled face. “It upsets him, to think about the thousands of lives. I have been helping him to write his memoirs. Your letter, it persuaded him that it was important that he set down his version of events. But the sheer number of men who died, it upsets him.” She speaks in a mix of English and German, the emotion easier to express in her own language. War is always a waste of young men, this is true, but the burden of command weighs deeply,
“The deaths in France and Belgium were bad. The later deaths equally wasteful. But the invasion, that was different. He led the only real concerted effort. He wonders if he could have stopped the bloodshed earlier, at least in England.”
I opine that this sort of thought process is what separates her Grandfather from some of the more infamous German leaders of the war.
“They were monsters. He is a good man. Then, I think, if they’d ordered it, he might have done bad things, as others did. He would have more regrets now, but some of them were monsters.” I believe he is a good man, and he is currently ambling down the lawn, stick in hand, to join us in the sunshine. Dismissing the fussing of Greta, he invites me to join them for a bite to eat. After that, we will discuss matters further. He fears my readers will be unimpressed if we leave his forces huddled on a beach outside Newhaven.