When Brits think of the words Germany and invasion, they tend to think of those desperate times in 1940, when it seemed that the German blitzkrieg, after crushing the French forces, would roll on across the Channel and crush us as well; those desperate times when radar and the bravery of our fighter pilots and navy was pretty much all that was keeping us safe.
This invasion, Operation Sea Lion, fortunately ended up as a non-invasion and didn’t happen. By comparison, what we don’t tend to think so much about is all the times that British forces actually have invaded German territory.
As long ago as the early fourth century, Constantine was leading an army out of Britain and making his temporary capital at Trier in Germany before his push south. And in AD383 Magnus Maximus did exactly the same, even if his attempt was ultimately rather less successful. Or a lot less successful.
Anyway, this section is going to contain a lot about advancing armies and so on, so let’s look at a quiet, peaceful and almost forgotten invasion. Who can name the Brit who was elected King of Germany and died at Berkhamsted? Technically, he was King of the Romans, which is an impressive title in itself, although also a confusing one since ruling the Romans wasn’t what it was all about. Yes, it was Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John, one of those lesser known but fascinating figures that pepper British history. In a close and extensively bribed election in 1256, he fought off hot competition from Alfonso X of Castile to take the title and was crowned by the Archbishop of Cologne at Aachen in May 1257. He didn’t achieve very much as King of the Romans (or as King of the Germans), but it’s an interesting little story nonetheless and an early example of our royal connections to Germany.
Assorted minor military operations linked to Germany, or rather to the assorted entities that controlled different parts of what later became Germany, followed after Richard. We clashed with the Hanseatic League, for instance, though most of the clashing was done in the Channel and North Sea. And we sent knights to fight on Crusade with the Teutonic Knights, though most of their fighting was in what’s now Poland or Lithuania. In the seventeenth century, the Thirty Years War devastated Germany. We didn’t send armies officially but we did send plenty of volunteers to fight unofficially or semi-officially.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century we had graduated to sending official armies. The War of the Spanish Succession broke out because Spain was about to get a French king unless we moved fast. So we did, along with assorted other people also very unchuffed at the idea, particularly the Dutch and the Austrians. And this, of course, is where John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, one of our most skilful ever military commanders, comes in. Most of his fighting was done elsewhere, but in 1704 he launched a successful invasion of German territory in support of the Austrians against combined French and Bavarian forces.
What with Blenheim Palace and so on, Blenheim today somehow seems such an English name that it’s easy to forget it’s actually a place in Bavaria, pronounced not �?Blenim’ but �?Blen-heim’ or �?Blindheim’, because that is what it’s called. On 13 August 1704, Marlborough and his allies crushingly defeated the French and Bavarian forces, and knocked Bavaria out of the war. It also enabled us to capture the Moselle Valley. Shame we didn’t keep it. Lovely views and some gorgeous wines.
As the eighteenth century wore on, more wars followed and more British armies headed for Germany. There was, for example, the War of the Austrian Succession (the eighteenth century seems to have been a particularly popular time for fighting wars over disputed successions). In 1742, a British army landed at Ostend, still a popular destination for Brits. From here it headed south into Germany in 1743 with a bunch of troops from Hanover. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we had Hanoverians on our side, because our king at this stage, George II, was, of course, one of them. He turned up himself in June 1743 to take command of the army and eventually we ended up fighting the French at Dettingen in Bavaria on 27 June. It is the last time a British monarch has personally led his troops in battle. Fortunately, he won, and to round things off, Handel composed some victory music to commemorate the day.
Then came the Seven Years War. Again we were teamed up with Hanover. The Duke of Cumberland, who had eventually defeated the Jacobite ’45 Rising, found things rather different this time round. He had been sent to defend Hanover against French attack, but instead found himself defeated, retreated and forced into a humiliating peace deal signed at Zeven in northern Germany in 1757. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick later had to come in to save the day, or at least, save Hanover. In 1759, the British and Hanoverian forces won a major victory at Minden over French and Saxon troops. Due to a famous misunderstanding, British and Hanoverian infantry found themselves advancing, but advancing successfully in this case, against French cavalry. To this day, the victory at Minden is commemorated in the Minden regiments by the wearing of roses on Minden Day, 1 August.
Then there were the wars against Revolutionary France and Napoleon. In 1803, the French finally succeeded in doing what they had been trying to do on and off for some time. They captured Hanover and the Hanoverian army ceased to exist. Although in some ways it didn’t – a lot of Hanoverian soldiers joined the King’s German Legion, a unit of the British Army that fought throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Included in its list of operations is the deployment to the (now German) island of Rügen in 1807. In other little-known facts about our operations in Germany during the Napoloenic Wars, there was our expedition to northern Germany in 1805 and we had one unit at the massive Battle of Leipzig in 1813 that crushed Napoleon and sent him back to France (a couple of years before we had to defeat him again at Waterloo). It’s known as the Battle of the Nations because of all the different countries involved, and we had a Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery, with Congreve Rockets, attached to the bodyguard of the Crown prince of Sweden. It wasn’t exactly the biggest military contribution by a single nation, but we were there.
Anyway, we got Hanover back once Napoleon had been kicked out of it, then in 1837 we lost Hanover forever. Succession in Hanover was under the Salic Law so when we got Victoria as queen, they didn’t.
On the subject of our German possessions and the Napoleonic Wars, let’s not forget Heligoland. Yes, they are German islands today, and they were Danish islands when our navy turned up during the Napoleonic Wars. From then until 1890 (when we swapped them for Zanzibar), they were British and became a popular seaside resort. After they went back to Germany, they became a not-so-popular (at least with us) German naval base, and we flattened it thoroughly during and after the Second World War. With the loss of Hanover and unification of Germany in the nineteenth century, we had fewer opportunities to invade it again. We had, of course, to wait for the twentieth century for that.
In the First World War, we conducted assorted naval operations in German waters, including the Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1914, and we built the Vickers Vimy aircraft with the intention of bombing Germany, but the war on land ended before our armies reached the German border and before the Vickers Vimy reached German skies. Nevertheless, following the signing of the armistice, British troops entered Germany in December 1918 as an army of occupation. We took Cologne and the surrounding area to control. Lieutenant General Fergusson, the British military governor, raised the British flag over his headquarters in Cologne at the Hotel Monopol on 11 December 1918. We finally left Cologne in 1926, but we still had troops in Wiesbaden all the way through until 1930. It’s a little-known but interesting aspect of our military history and of German history.
Our invasion of Germany in the Second World War is such a vast subject and people know so much more about it than other events in this book, that I’m only going to give very brief details here. We conducted extensive air operations against targets in Germany throughout the war and after fighting our way across Europe after D-Day, in early 1945, Montgomery advanced into German territory with Operations Veritable and Grenade. This was followed in March 1945 when Operation Plunder was launched to cross the Rhine. As German resistance crumbled, Montgomery’s troops moved north-east. Our second Army reached the Elbe south of Hamburg on 19 April. It took a week of fierce fighting to take Bremen. On 29 April, we crossed the Elbe. We captured Hamburg on 3 May and, on 4 May, Montgomery accepted the surrender of all German forces in Denmark, Northern Germany and the Netherlands.
After the end of the war, our second British army of occupation in Germany was formed from 21st Army Group. We occupied Hanover (quite appropriately), Saxony and Cologne again, and the Moselle Valley that Marlborough had taken centuries before, and this time a bit of Berlin too. As West Germany got back up and running, the role of the British Army of the Rhine became purely military and rapidly became more focused against a potential threat from Warsaw Pact forces rather than any threat from West Germans.