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'Sealion'

by Lancshomeguard

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Contributed by 
Lancshomeguard
People in story: 
Charles RITCHIE
Location of story: 
England, South Coast
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4531899
Contributed on: 
24 July 2005

This story has been submitted to the People's War website by Don and Betty Tempest of the Lancshomeguard on behalf of Charles Ritchie and added to the site with his permission.

After my escape from Dunkirk and recuperation, I was eventually posted to the Liverpool Artillery. This was a new unit and because we had training and experience and had seen action, we were posted to it to help with training.

We subsequently were posted with this unit to Suffolk, about 80 of us, and our job was to defend the coast from invasion. We had two 75-millimetre guns to defend 10miles of coastline. Another battery, with two Naval guns, was guarding the R.A.F. Aerodrome at Martlesham. The infantry, that were stationed with us, had one rifle between ten men. The other nine men had bayonets welded onto the end of metal rods. That was our first line of defence in one of the most vulnerable areas of the South Coast.

I was in the Command Post one night in late August 1940, when a Dispatch Rider came with an urgent message for the Duty Officer.

The Duty Officer was asleep, so I woke him and gave him the message. He opened it and there was just one word. ‘Sealion’. This was the code word for ‘Imminent Invasion’. The Duty Officer was out of bed in a flash and everybody had to ‘Stand To’ immediately.

About an hour after the alert we were looking towards the beach and although we couldn’t see any flames, the sky was aglow from obvious flames on the water. We were on the alert for two days before we were stood down.

We later discovered that a German invasion fleet had been spotted coming towards England. British Naval boats had gone out, sprayed the sea with petrol and then set fire to it.

Apparently the German fleet was in the middle of the flames and was heavily damaged. None of their ships reached the English Shore. Some may have got back to Germany, but I don’t know.

The word came round that what had happened was ‘Top Secret’ and nothing must be said. The News was given out that it was a Germany Exercise and there was no danger.

Even today not many know about this event, but I feel it is time that people know how close we were to invasion, and but for the gallant crews of the Naval ships, things may have been very different.

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Message 1 - Re: Sealion

Posted on: 24 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Lancshomeguard

'Sealion' wasn't the British code word for 'imminent invasion'; 'Operation Sea Lion' (Unternehmen Seelöwe) was the German code name for the proposed invasion of England. To call the British response to 'Sea Lion' by the same name would have been a recipe for chaos.

You say that "British Naval boats had gone out, sprayed the sea with petrol and then set fire to it". However, petrol very quickly vaporises and the effect would be negligible, even so several large tankers would be required.

You also say that "The word came round that what had happened was ‘Top Secret’ and nothing must be said. The News was given out that it was a Germany Exercise and there was no danger". Why would it be kept secret? A repelled invasion would have been a resounding victory and news of it would have given a much a great moral boost to the British public and impressed neutral countries.

The story of an attempted invasion in 1940 which was repulsed by setting the sea on fire is a persistent myth which refuses to die. Indeed it has already been raised at least twice on this website. See "The Second World War" volume II "Their Finest Hour", Chapter 2 'Operation Sea Lion', by Winston Churchill, for a full explanation of how this myth arose. I give an extract below (page 249):

"During August [1940] the corpses of about forty German soldiers were washed up at scattered points along the coast between the Isle of Wight and Cornwall. The Germans had been practising embarkations in the barges along the French coast. Some of these barges put out to sea in order to escape British bombing and were sunk, either by bombing or bad weather. This was the source of a widespread rumour that the Germans had attempted an invasion and had suffered very heavy losses either by drowning or by being burnt in patches of sea covered in flaming oil. We took no steps to contradict such tales, which spread freely through the occupied countries in wildly exaggerated form ..."

Regards,

Peter

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