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Sixty years ago: The "Channel Dash"
Published February 2002
A Halifax bomber during a raid over Brest. The repeated attacks by the RAF convinced the Germans that their heavy ships should risk the dangers of the Channel
Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde (Photo courtesy Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton)
A Fairey Swordfish aircraft similar to those used by 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, in the attempt to stop the German battlecruisers: all six Swordfish in the squadron were shot down (Photo courtesy Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Gazette for Lt Cdr Esmonde's posthumous award of the Victoria Cross (Courtesy Fleet Air Arm Museum)
On 12 February 1942, the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, made their infamous "Channel Dash" from the French harbour of Brest up the English Channel to reach the North German ports. The British had anticipated such a move. Yet despite this, all three German ships reached safety, albeit certainly not unscathed, despite desperate and gallant efforts to stop them.
The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took shelter in Brest on 28 March 1941, after a raiding excursion in the North Atlantic. There they were joined by the cruiser Prinz Eugen, which had accompanied the battleship Bismarck on her fateful sortie into the Atlantic. A major French naval base, Brest offered excellent facilities for the ships. But, close to the British Isles, they were exposed to air attack and constant surveillance. The chances of them being able to mount successfully another raid from there were slim. This was well understood in Britain, where as early as 29 April 1941, Operation Fuller was drawn up - contingency planning against a possible attempt by the ships to break out for the relative safety of ports in Germany or Norway.
In the meantime, the Royal Air Force began a major air campaign against the three ships in Brest, where the Germans spared no effort in developing truly formidable anti-aircraft defences. The most famous incident was the heroic attack on 6 April 1941 by an RAF Beaufort torpedo-bomber from 22 Squadron, Coastal Command. Knowing full well the risks they were running, the Beaufort crew, piloted by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, penetrated the inner harbour at Brest in bad weather at extreme low level. Under massive anti-aircraft fire, and with little chance of avoiding crashing into the hills behind the harbour, they succeeded in torpedoing Gneisenau before being shot down. All four crew were killed. Their efforts put the battlecruiser into dry dock for repairs for several months, and Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in recognition of the crew's gallantry.
Bomber Command kept up the pressure, and by February 1942 had flown thousands of sorties against Brest, dropping some 3,500 tons of bombs, and had lost 127 aircraft. The ships had been repeatedly damaged, and the Germans recognised that their position was untenable. Hitler compared the risk of running the British blockade to an operation for cancer: the operation might cost the patient's life, but without it he would certainly die. Vice-Admiral Ciliax was ordered to attempt to run up the Channel to safety in Germany.
RAF reconnaissance noted the arrival at Brest in late January of German escort ships, and Royal Navy and RAF commanders were duly warned on 3 February that a breakout might be planned. The six Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers of 825 Naval Air Squadron were moved from Lee-on-Solent to RAF Manston, to help concentrate attacks in the chokepoint of the Dover Straits. Despite their night-bombing commitments, 100 Bomber Command aircraft were placed on standby each day as a reaction force. And HMS Manxman and Welshman, plus a number of RAF aircraft, conducted intensive minelaying operations along the possible route up the Channel and beyond.
The key flaw in the British plans was an assumption that the German ships would time their run through the Dover Straits for the hours of darkness for maximum safety. Thus, when a reconnaissance flight on the late afternoon of 11 February showed the ships still in port, with no obvious sign of imminent departure, it was assumed that it was again too late for them to set out and still reach the Straits in darkness. Three RAF Hudson aircraft were sent out to conduct routine radar patrols in the Brest area that night. But bad luck and the fragility of the still very new radar technology meant that the two aircraft which were most likely to have detected the German heavy ships and their escorts slipping out of Brest that night both suffered radar malfunctions. Similarly, good German luck spared them being spotted by the submarine HMS Sealion, patrolling the area.
The next morning at dawn, a pair of Spitfires from RAF Hawkinge patrolling the French coast noted unusual activity by light naval forces. The weather was bad, and getting worse, with snow on the ground, very heavy and low cloud, and poor visibility. At 0920, the Germans began efforts to jam the British radars along the South Coast. Given this unusual behaviour, a second pair of Spitfires were sent to investigate at 1020. On their return, they reported spotting a "convoy" including a possible capital ship. At the same time, two senior RAF officers flying Spitfires on another operation attacked German fighters, and whilst chasing them suddenly found themselves over the unmistakeable shapes of the German battlecruisers.
Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, commanding the six Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm at RAF Manston, was ordered at 1130 to mount an attack as soon as possible. It was recognised that his slow and vulnerable aircraft would need significant fighter escort to survive. Three fighter squadrons from RAF Biggin Hill and two from RAF Hornchurch were ordered to accompany him. The Biggin Hill aircraft were to defend against the now very large Luftwaffe fighter escort covering the ships, whilst the Hornchurch aircraft were to accompany his torpedo bombers in a low level attack, distracting anti-aircraft fire and strafing the ships to keep gunners heads down. However, the Hornchurch fighter controller telephoned Esmonde to warn him that his squadrons simply could not reach the rendezvous by the allotted time. The timing was also exceptionally tight for the nearer Biggin Hill units. But Esmonde feared that even a short delay might take the German ships out of reach. As soon as the first ten Spitfires from 72 Squadron appeared overhead at Manston at 1228, he set off with his Swordfish, with only one-fifth of his planned escort. The RAF Station Commander at Manston said of Esmonde:
German fighter attacks began only ten miles out from the English coast. The Spitfires engaged, but found it impossible to keep track of both their opponents and the Swordfish, flying at only about 100mph at very low level. The other two Biggin Hill squadrons arrived to engage German fighters in the general area. One Spitfire was lost, and two Messerschmitts were thought to have been destroyed. Esmonde's six Swordfish pressed on alone, under heavy fighter attack and then, as the battlescruisers came into sight, intense anti-aircraft fire. The lower port wing of Esmonde's biplane was shot away, but he somehow managed to keep flying until he was eventually shot down and killed with his two crewmen just before he got in torpedo range. The two Swordfish with him managed to drop their torpedoes before being shot down; five of their six crew survived. The second section of three Swordfish were also all shot down, with the loss of all nine men aboard. Their efforts were in vain, with no torpedoes hitting their targets. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, and the other seventeen men were also decorated.
Eight Motor Torpedo Boats from Dover and Ramsgate attempted to attack shortly afterwards, but a heavy screen of E-boats forced them to fire their torpedoes at long range, again without success. Seven Beaufort torpedo-bombers of 217 Squadron attempted to find their targets in the bad weather, and eventually five attacked, without success. One was shot down by fighters. Other Beauforts and Hudsons attempted attacks, with the loss of four aircraft.
Meanwhile, six elderly Royal Navy destroyers, usually used for convoy duties, dashed south along the East Coast, coming under several air attacks. A squadron of RAF Whirlwind fighters was sent out to try to ward off the Luftwaffe, but was bounced and lost four aircraft. The effort proved too much for the worn engines of HMS Walpole, and she had to turn for home. The other five made radar contact at 1517, and ran in under heavy fire. The destroyers were repeatedly straddled, and HMS Worcester set on fire. Torpedoes were fired, but once again the range proved too great for accuracy. However, all the destroyers survived and retired to Harwich.
Bomber Command joined the fray at the same time, launching no less than 242 aircraft in three waves. Visibility was by now appalling, down to 1000-2000 yards in heavy rain, and the very low cloud base meant that bombs could not be dropped from sufficient altitude to have a chance of penetrating armour. 39 bombers were able to attack the German ships or their escorts, but 188 could not find them, and 15 were shot down. Fighter Command also sent up a total of 398 fighters: 102 strafed German patrol boats in the area, and claimed 16 enemy aircraft shot down, for the loss of 17 RAF fighters.
Despite these massive efforts, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen slipped away into the safety of the night. But both battlecruisers had struck mines laid during the previous week, and suffered not insignificant damage. The failure to sink them was regarded in Britain as a humiliating failure. The Times leader on 14 February complained:
But perhaps the fairest judgement came from a senior German officer, General-Admiral Saalwachter:
The events leading up to and including 12 February, coupled with the Commando raid a few weeks later on Saint Nazaire, which destroyed the dry-dock there, helped ensure that large German ships never again operated from the Western French ports to endanger North Atlantic convoys.
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