This VE Day, take a terrifying glimpse into an alternate reality — one where the Germans successfully invaded Britain — with our road trip itinerary of all the places they planned to attack
On 21 June 1940, the French government surrendered to Nazi Germany and Britain stood alone in the fight against a European continent dominated by fascism. A week later, the German military began to prepare plans for an invasion. As Hitler himself said:
“The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English mother country as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued and, if it should be necessary, to occupy it completely.”
The Germans codenamed their invasion plans as ‘Operation Sea Lion’ and it very nearly could have started, if it weren’t for the Royal Air Force’s victory in the Battle of Britain. Without control of the airspace, the Germans decided to delay the invasion. Military planning is believed to have continued until 1942, but by then Germany’s focus had shifted away from the UK, to the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front.
What could have been
But the Battle of Britain was a very close call. If the Air Force had been defeated, Operation Sea Lion would surely have gone ahead — and the history of the world could have changed forever, for the worst.
Friday 8 May 2020 is the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). In honour of the memory of all those who fought in the War, we thought it poignant to reflect on what could have been and to appreciate the efforts of everyone involved in stopping it.
So, if you have an eye for history and want to get out on the road, check out our interactive Nazi Invasion Plans map here.
During the research process for this trip — which we have codenamed Road Trip Operation Sea Lion — we found that a bit of imagination and an appreciation of the history really goes a long way. Travelling up and down the country, you really sense just how massive such an invasion would have to be. All of the money, manpower and artillery involved, not to mention Britain’s daunting coastline — almost immune to invaders, as history has shown time and time again.
The Germans planned to use Britain’s roads and transport systems against it
An enormous amount of appreciation can be gleaned just by driving along the key roads that the Germans dreamt of occupying in the early days of planning the Operation.
They were obsessed with securing and using the best roads in the country, and the strongest bridges for strategic positions and military vehicle advances. They extensively mapped Britain’s road networks, classifying them alphabetically in rank, from A (what we would classify today as motorways), B (town roads) to C (country roads).
The Germans were daunted by the prospect of trying to occupy a country with so many meandering, narrow country roads, and it looked like their main focus was to capture any area with a more usable road network. Such as in the big cities and mainly:
- Manchester and Liverpool
- Glasgow and Edinburgh
- Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry
Aside from the roads and bridges, the Germans also expressed an interest in some canal shipping lanes, the securing of power plants and oil fields, and even a BBC transmission centre near Newcastle. But it seems Britain’s first-class road networks would also have been its biggest weakness against a full-fledged Nazi invasion. They even had detailed schematics of car factories in Britain, no doubt so they could repurpose them for military use. Click on our itinerary below, and see for yourself how the Nazis planned troop movements, to seize key bridges and roads, and what ‘military objects’ it was they deemed necessary for capturing.
Road Trip Operation Sea Lion — The Itinerary
We’ve started our trip in the capital, London, but of course, you are free to do it however you want to.
Day 1: Capital Under Seige — If you are in Central London, start the day off by visiting all of the Capital’s major bridges. Blackfriars, Waterloo Bridge, the Hammersmith and Tower Bridges, and the grandfather of them all, Westminster Bridge, were all seen as vital control points for the occupying forces. Before you leave, check out the relic that is Battersea Station, which still sits on the Thames. The Germans planned to secure it, along with the key bridges it is situated near to.
Then take the relatively short drive on the M25 to Dartford’s Industrial Complex. Situated right on the Thames estuary, this Complex had the heavy industry and the transport links that made it so attractive to the enemy. You can almost imagine the sense of dread that would have been, had the German Navy entered the estuary.
Then head south via the A2 for just over half-an-hour to Brighton Road, coast along this road — which in 1940 could have been cracking under the weight of German army tanks, and swing east. Take another key road, the Kingston Bypass. On your way, drive under the key Tolworth Railway Bridge, which was a brand new and modern bridge in the 1940s. Keep heading east, towards the old Aircraft Research Unit in Farnborough. A key target for manufacturing bomber planes, nowadays, it is still a major place of importance for the Royal Air Force. You may not be allowed in, but you will be treated to the buzz of military helicopters and planes.
After a busy day of driving and exploring, we recommend you find a nice motorhome site in the area to rest for the night.
Day 2: Conquering The Countryside — Today is all about how the Germans planned to use Britain’s gorgeous countryside against it. Assuming you are still in the Farnborough area, head directly south to Southampton. Stop along the coast and gaze out to the Isle of Wight on the sea, and take in the immensity of what almost certainly would have been Ground Zero for a massive Axis water invasion.
Then head slightly north, to Bristol, and drive along the gorgeous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Even if you aren’t interested in history, this Bridge alone holds stunning views over the River Avon. After you have finished driving over this crucial military object, head to the former mining areas of South Wales. The remnants of what was once a crucial source of fuel for the British Empire is a sober reminder of how times can change, and so quickly.
Stop in Cardiff for lunch before heading to Monmouth and Hereford Hills, which the Nazis identified as “commanding high-ground” straddling the English-Wales border. The high terrain, and the rich agriculture, was pivotal in the invasion plans for troop movements from the west, into the heartlands of Britain. The Hills are absolutely beautiful, so make sure you stay here for as long as possible — if not just for a joy ride or walk in the countryside.
Finally ride into Coventry, as far into the town centre as possible, and see for yourself why the road layout so terrified the German military planners. That’s the end of Day 2, so maybe visit the great Coventry Cathedral if you have the time, and enjoy a drink in the pub to unwind.
Day 3: Britain’s Choke Points — The third day is all about how the Germans planned to use Britain’s own ingenuity against her. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was the “workshop of the world”, building great iron constructions, including bridges. Still, in 1940, the country had some of the strongest and finest bridges in the world. In order to occupy the country completely, it was necessary for the Germans to commandeer those bridges.
Start by heading out of Coventry, driving back into the beautiful Welsh countryside to Conway Bridge in North Wales. It’s another stunning suspension bridge, equally as breathtaking as Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Then take the short drive into Liverpool and down to its historic docks. A 20-minute drive along the industrial coast will take you leaps through time. From the derelict relics of what was once the most eminent shipyard of the world — the “Second City of the Empire” — to the modern Royal Albert Dock, which is now stuffed with art galleries, museums, cafes, a World Heritage Site, and which was voted the most beautiful waterfront in the UK.
Head out of Liverpool along the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge towards Manchester. There’s a nice modern new Bridge there, overlooking the old Runcorn Bridge (which is still not the same bridge that the Germans planned to capture). Still, the Bridge is epic to drive across and gives you a clear sense of why the crossing over the Mersey is so important. Be prepared to pay up to £8 for the privilege, however. Depending on the size of your motorhome.
Keep heading North-East. Between Runcorn and Warrington is also a great place to drive along the widened Manchester Ship Canal, still of importance in transporting cargo today. Take some time to stop and sit by the Canal, and you will see why this was the one canal that the Germans were keen to take control of.
From then on it’s a leisurely drive on the M62 towards the stunning market town of Knaresborough in the Borough of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. The views on the way are scenic enough, echoing Game of Thrones more than a Nazi invasion. (Unfortunately, the Kirkstall Power Station was demolished in the 1970s so have to skip that part, but there is a golf course on the present site if you are keen for a bit of sport.)
Take a trip under one of the huge arches of the Knaresborough Bridge, then unwind, and rest easy for the night in this beautiful corner of the globe.
Day 4: The Northern Route — Wake up early and enjoy a nice Yorkshire tea in North Yorkshire, then head cross-country to the “Mountains of Cumberland” as the Germans called them. See for yourself the “narrow corridors” through the hilly countryside that would have served as entry points for specialised German “mountain units”. If nothing else, this beautiful part of the world is just a whole lot of fun to explore.
Find lunch in Cumbria and then head north, on the two-hour journey to Glasgow. Feel free to explore the City if you want, but our key interests lie in the (now modernised) M8, M9 and M80. The main transport links — the wide roads that would have served so well for German military units — that bridged the two major settlements in Scotland.
Now you can either stick around Edinborough or head straight to Newcastle, which is a 104-mile trip that takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes. Both cities are fantastic, and great starting off points for the final day of Road Trip Operation Sea Lion.
Day 5: The Eastern Front — In Newcastle, it’s impossible not to see the famous Tyne Road Bridge spanning over the river. Back in 1940, it was virtually brand new. And strong enough to cross with heavy military gear.
From Newcastle, head south along the east coast from Durham to Darlington. The modern-day car factories and bus depots, with their relative nearness to the coasts, still look like easy-pickings for a German eastern advance to this day. (The Germans planned to repurpose them to make their own war materials.)
Before you leave Durham, visit the site of Billingham’s old Imperial Chemical Industries facility. During the War, Britain carried out crucial atomic research here — though the Germans didn’t know it at the time. It would have been a vital military target for the Germans to occupy.
The final stop on Road Trip Operation Sea Lion is a lengthy trip (about four hours) down the M18 to East Anglia. Be sure to rest and stop often if you need to on the way. East Anglia was a prime target for German troop movements, mostly because the land was so flat and easy to cross, but also because of its good quality roads and tracks — which you should also enjoy driving around in.
Explore the gorgeous flatlands till sunset, and then settle down in one of East Anglia’s abundant motorhome sites to finish the journey.
Remember the fallen this VE Day, with Road Trip Operation Sea Lion
Thankfully, the German invasion never happened. But these records, obtained after the War and held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, reveal exactly where Hitler was looking to strike. Giving us a glimpse into a horrifying alternative universe, and making us immeasurably thankful for our scientists, engineers and servicemen for fighting against fascism.
Note: All of the information here was gathered from the Bodleian Library’s records on ‘German Invasion Plans for the British Isles 1940’. The work was translated from German into English by Alastair Matthews.