Channel Dash – The Bravest of the Brave
12th February 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the Channel Dash in 1942. Three of Germany’s largest battleships were to run the gauntlet of the Dover Strait from their location at Brest back to Germany where Hitler believed they would be essential for the defence of Norway. The German operation was known as “Operation Cerberus”.
In response, the Royal Navy and RAF as part of the pre-planned “Operation Fuller” – a series of combined attacks, would attempt to destroy or disable the mighty warships.
As part of that operation, slow, aged and fabric covered Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm, would be ordered to attack the ships from the base at RAF Manston. Without the majority of their fighter cover, the airmen knew that their chances of success and survival were slim, but pressed on regardless. All six aircraft were shot to pieces by the intense German defences, including up to date Luftwaffe fighter cover, with only five of the 18 aircrew surviving.
The three battleships at Brest were Sharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen.
Scharnhorst was 234.9 metres long, with 11 inch guns amongst her armoury that had an effective range of 10 miles. Her displacement was over 38,000 tons when fully loaded. She could travel at the 31 knots (36 mph) and had a maximum range of 8,200 miles. She had taken part in many battles including the sinking of the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on 8 June 1940, hitting her from well over 14 miles away – one of the longest naval gunfire hits ever recorded. She had been taken to Brest for safety and for remedial work to her faulty boilers. She had a compliment of 56 officers and 1,613 enlisted sailors.
Gneisnau was the sister ship to Scharnhorst and they often operated together to attack the Atlantic Convoys, but were themselves often vulnerable to attack from the larger ships of the Royal Navy. After the last successful raid on convoys, she too docked at Brest for refuelling and repairs.
Prinz Eugen was smaller than the other two massive ships, as a heavy cruiser of 18,710 tons and 207.7 metres long. Her armament included 8 inch guns and had taken part in the devastating blow to the Royal Navy and British morale that was the sinking of HMS Hood on 24 May 1941. She had a compliment of 42 officers and 1,340 enlisted sailors.
With little in the way of ports available directly to Germany, Brest was one of the major ports used by the German Navy as part of the then occupied France. Its location did provide some protection and also included a large U-boat base for attacks as part of the Battle of the Atlantic.
The location, however, also meant that it was easily reached by RAF heavy and medium bombers, so it was easily attacked. All three ships would suffer frequent damage and lost many crew. By February 1941, Adolf Hitler decided that the ships needed to return to their base at and around Wilhelmshaven in Northern Germany. He thought that the allies would be likely to invade Norway and also intended them to attack the convoys supplying the Russians.
It was decided to take the shorter route through the English Channel instead of the much longer route around the British Isles to benefit from surprise and allow the Luftwaffe to provide air cover. Preparations were made to take the best route, avoiding British minefields, with minesweepers also clearing channels. Air cover was to be provided by the Luftwaffe under the command of Adolf Galland, with six destroyers and later E-Boats then further craft at Cap Gris-Nez. Included as part of these plans for Operation Cerberus, false rumours were spread of a departure for tropical areas, as there was no hiding the fact that the ships were being prepared for departure.
Operation Fuller had been devised back in April 1941 as a plan for combined operations between the Royal Navy and the RAF. It was a plan to attack ships stationed at Brest should they try and travel up the English Channel. The British were confident that with radar and air patrols, any dash up the Channel could be easily discovered. The Operation would combine the 32 Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) based at Dover and Ramsgate that would attack with a Motor Gun Boat (MGB) escort from 3,700 metres. Following up would be Swordfish torpedo bombers with fighter escort, plus Beaufort torpedo bombers and the coastal guns at Dover whilst the ships were in range. Bomber command would then attack any damaged ship that had been slowed or stopped.
Once out of the Dover Strait, six Royal Navy destroyers would make torpedo attacks and the RAF would continue to bomb and lay mines in the fleet’s path.
As part of the preparations, the six operational Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from 825 Squadron Fleet Air Arm under the control of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde were moved from Lee-on-Solent to RAF Manston in the morning of 4 February 1942.
After the success of the Engima code breaking, decoding of German messages told the British that Vice-Admiral Ciliax had joined Scharnhorst on the 5 February. That and the recent exercises made the Admiralty realise that a departure was imminent. On 8 February reconnaissance showed the battleships were still in dock but another two destroyers had arrived. Decoded messages using Enigma were also reporting that the Germans were minesweeping a route up the Channel.
The Dash Commences – 11 February 1942
The Swordfish of 825 Sqn were stood down from their 5 minute standby as there appeared to be no real threat. Lt Cmdr Esmonde also had an appointment in London to receive his Distinguished Service Order (DSO) from HM King George VI at Buckingham Palace for his part in the attack on the German battleship Bismark some seven months earlier. Others in the squadron took the opportunity to visit family. In the evening some RAF Officers and the FAA crews arranged a small party to celebrate the award with Lt Cmdr Esmonde. The party ended reasonably early with the crews sober enough knowing they would be on duty again early the next day.
12:00hrs: Vice-Admiral Ciliax, the German commander orders the battle fleet to prepare for departure at 19:30hrs.
The Royal Navy submarine, HMS Sealion, stationed close to the port to monitor the ships, moves away so that she could surface and recharge her batteries. By doing so, those on board lost sight of the port. HMS Sealion was the only modern Royal Navy submarine that was in home waters.
19:15hrs: An RAF Lockheed Hudson from No.224 Sqn takes off from its base at St. Eval in Cornwall for a reconnaissance patrol, flown by P/O Wilson, but they spot a German night fighter. As a result they turn off all their lights and radar as they approach their target of Brest. After the night fighter is lost, they find they cannot turn their radar back on, so return to St. Eval for a replacement plane.
19:30hrs: The RAF begins its nightly bombing raid at the port, just as the three battleships are casting off. They are ordered back to their berths until the bombers have left.
21:15hrs: After the air raid, reconnaissance photos show the fleet still in harbour, but the fleet is casting off. The replacement RAF aircraft from St. Eval is delayed due to engine problems, so the ships move out unobserved. A British agent in Brest was unable to signal the departure because of the jamming of wireless signals by the Germans.
Midnight: The fleet prepares to enter the English Channel, expecting to reach it by 01:25hrs the next day.
The Dover Straits – 12 February 1942
04:00hrs: 825 Squadron are brought to routine alert, standing by their aircraft ready for take-off at a time before dawn that the Admiralty believed the Germans would use to slip through the straits.
08:35hrs: As dawn breaks, the high alert of the British forces is cancelled by Admiral Ramsey. He was unaware that at this time, the fleet was passing Cherbourg.
825 Squadron are stood down again on what was a cold crisp morning, with freezing snow swirling over Manston. In the corner of the dispersal area, the six obsolete biplanes stood, fully exposed to the elements. Esmonde continues with crew training during the morning, oblivious that their target is making its way up the Channel.
10:00hrs: Sub Lt Brian Rose takes off from Manston on a practice torpedo run in Pegwell Bay.
10:16hrs: British radar finally confirms a large fleet of vessels and aircraft support in the English Channel. Due to the reduced alert, the report was to only slowly makes its way to Royal Navy headquarters and the fleet continued its dash.
10:30hrs: Two pairs of Spitfires take off, 10 minutes apart. The first pair are from RAF Hawkinge with Sqn Ldr Oxspring and Sgt Beaumont, the second from RAF Kenley with Grp Cpt Beamish and Sqn Ldr Boyd. Both find the fleet, however radio silence as part of Operation Fuller means that they have to wait to report the sightings back at base.
The pair from RAF Kenley spot two Messerschmitt Bf109s and attack them, finding themselves over a German flotilla of two big ships, a destroyer screen and an outer ring of E-boats. After being dived on by around 12 German fighters and attacked by anti-aircraft fire from the ships, they returned flying just above the waves.
The Hawkinge pair report at 10:50hrs and Kenley at 11:11hrs. It isn’t until the Kenley report is received that Admiral Ramsey at Dover is informed. It seems at this point that the full extent of the fleet wasn’t seen due to the poor visibility.
11:27hrs: Bomber Command is alerted to be ready, but although Air Marshall Richard Peirse had about 250 aircraft, the 100 bombers on two hours’ notice were loaded with semi-armour-piercing bombs which were only effective when dropped from 2,100 metres or higher; the poor visibility would make those useless. He therefore orders general purpose bombs to be loaded which would only cause superficial damage but might distract the fleet whilst Coastal Command and the Navy made their attacks.
11:55hrs: The five operational MTBs (44, 45, 48, 219 and 221) at Dover harbour leave to attack the fleet led by Lieutenant-Commander Pumphrey.
12:19hrs: The South Foreland Battery of four 9.2 inch guns at Dover, open fire. Visibility is still poor and there would be no way for observers to see where their shots land. The gunners hope that the shell splashes would be detected by their K-type radar to allow them to correct, but that had never been tried before. Radar did show the zig-zagging path of the ships, but nothing for where the shells were landing. The Battery fires 33 rounds at the ships but with the ships moving at 35mph and sources stating that the fleet had already passed Dover by the time they opened up, all the shots missed. The guns cease fire when light naval forces and the torpedo-bombers began to attack, but by 13:21hrs the ships had passed beyond the range of the radar, but the barrage continued until 12:36hrs.
Swordfish Preparation and MTB Attacks
When the dash of the German fleet had been put beyond doubt, Admiral Ramsey came to realise that the old Swordfish aircraft were the only aircraft that was immediately available to attack. Torpedo carrying Beaufort aircraft were still in transit to Kent and it would be some time before they could be launched into the attack. Swordfish had previously been considered as it was thought the fleet would have to be attacked during the night. He must have known that to send these aircraft out against the fighter escort and might of the fire from the fleet, it would be a suicidal mission. Admiral Ramsay telephoned the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound and pleaded with him not to be asked to send the 18 men to what he considered would be their death. The response was a cold reality of war: “The navy will attack the enemy whenever and wherever he is to be found”.
Back at Manston, Lt Cdr Esmonde readies his crews. They all knew the importance of fighter cover. He is told by 11 Fighter Group that the Biggin Hill Wing of 3 squadrons will provide top cover against the Luftwaffe, with the Hornchurch wing of 2 squadrons providing close cover. They were to rendezvous over Manston and he was asked to confirm the time, to which he replied “Tell them to be here by 12.25 hrs. Get the fighters to us on time – for the love of God”.
At the command at Dover Castle, Wing Cdr Constable-Roberts telephones Esmonde to stress the Swordfish should only go if he was convinced that he had sufficient fighter cover. He left the final decision down to Esmonde but he his mind was already made up and told the Wing Commander to let the Admiral know the squadron would go in. It was felt that even with heavy cover, few Swordfish crews would return from a daylight mission such as this.
12:18hrs: Ten Spitfires of No.72 Sqd, commanded by Sqn Ldr Brian Kingcome take off from Gravesend and head towards Manston.
12:20hrs: The six Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers of 825 Squadron Fleet Air Arm, take off from RAF Manston. The Commanding Officer of RAF Manston, Wing Commander Tom Gleave stands alone in the middle of the snow covered airfield, giving a farewell salute whilst the aircraft went on to circle the airfield waiting for their fighter escort.
12:23hrs: The MTBs from Dover spot the German warships, but their fighter cover hasn’t been airborne in time to reach them. One MTB has engine trouble, the rest have their approach blocked by twelve E-boats in two lines. The faulty MTB fires torpedoes at the extreme range of 3.7km before returning to Dover, but the rest failed to get much closer, torpedoing between the lines of E-boats. One mistakenly claims a hit on Prinz Eugen. Two Motor Gun Boats (41 and 43) from Dover arrive in time to defend the last MTB from a German class destroyer after their crews had been absent in Dover.
12:25hrs: Three MTBs (18, 32 and 71) leave Ramsgate, under the command of Lieutenant Long, but approach too far astern of the German fleet and are unable to get into a position to attack before the deteriorating weather and engine problems force them back.
12:29hrs: The Swordfish still circle over the coast off Ramsgate, waiting for the fighter escort that should have arrived five minutes earlier. The weather is closing in.
12:32hrs: The Spitfires of No.72 squadron find the Swordfish. Both sets of aircraft circle for a further two minutes but no further aircraft arrive.
12:34hrs: Esmonde, knowing that it was a case of ‘now or never’, waves his hand and dives down to 50 feet above the sea to lead his squadron out to sea.
Sqn Ldr Kingscombe with the Spitfires is unaware of the real mission, due to the information blackout. His orders are to escort the Swordfish and intervene between German E-boats and British MTBs, which he thought was odd for such a small skirmish.
12:36hrs: The escorts from 124 Sqn and 401 Sqn from Biggin Hill both arrive late for the rendezvous. Squadron Leader Duke-Wooley with 124 squadron from knew they would be late, so crosses the coast at Deal, six miles south of Manston to try and catch the Swordfish up. With no sign of them, they carry on north-east and soon become involved with enemy fighters, changing the mission entirely.
The two squadrons from Hornchurch Wing, tasked with attacking the German ships to suppress the anti-aircraft fire arrive five minutes late, so they cross the coast and head out to look for the enemy. However they move too far to the west and are unable to find the ships. They are then attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and get caught up in aerial dogfights.
The Swordfish Attack
12:40hrs: The Spitfires of 72 Sqn spot the German ships and are attacked by the fleet’s escort of Bf 109s and Fw 190s, losing contact with the Swordfish. Twenty or more German aircraft circle to make a mass dive on the Swordfish, but three of the Spitfires attack and scatter them.
All ten Spitfires engage with the Luftwaffe aircraft, fighting furiously, whilst the Swordfish pilots sight the battle fleet.
The first section of three Swordfish, led by Esmonde presses on past the screen of the destroyers. Expecting the greatest danger of all to their ships, a suicide attack, the German ships spot aircraft attacking at sea level. When they are 2,000 yards away, every flak gun in the fleet opens up on the slow aircraft. In the rear of Esmonde’s aircraft, P/O Clinton fires his machine gun at the diving Luftwaffe planes that had now joined the attack. Gold tracer shells and flak bursting all around them, cannon shells from the enemy aircraft rips large holes in the fuselage and wing fabric.
One of the Spitfire pilots, F/L Michael Crombie is shocked to see P/O Clinton climb out of his cockpit and crawl along the back of the fuselage to the tail where he beats out flames on his aircraft with is hands.
Once past the destroyers, the 11 inch guns of the battleships open up, creating smoke and flame whilst throwing spray into the aircraft. One shell bursts in front of Esmonde’s aircraft and it destroys the lower port wing. The shuddering aircraft dips, but Esmonde keeps it flying, whilst being badly wounded from wounds in his head and back, aiming for the Prinz Eugen. By this time, P/O Clinton and the Observer Lt Williams are dead from the last attack by a Fw 190.
In a last desperate effort, he raises the Swordfish’s nose and releases his torpedo just before receiving a direct hit, which blows the Swordfish to pieces. Spotting the torpedo, the Prinz Eugen turns easily to avoid it.
The aircraft behind Esmonde is piloted by Sub Lt Brian Rose. When the observer Sub Lt Edgar Lee, who had seen Esmonde crash into the sea, gets a clear sight of the ships, he instructs the pilot to fire, unaware that the speaking tube has been severed. Rose, wounded in the back by cannon shell splinters, holds onto the controls. The same cannon fire kills the rear gunner Leading Airman ‘Ginger’ Johnson. Rose releases their torpedo towards the Gneisenau but they have been hit in their main petrol tank, which doesn’t catch fire but deprives the engine of fuel. Rose switches to the emergency fuel tank and manages to bring the plane down half a mile from the Prinz Eugen. Lee manages to get Rose out of the aircraft and into the dingy, just as the Swordfish sinks, taking Johnson’s body down with it.
The two survivors wait until the German ships have moved off before firing two distress signals from their Verey light pistol, and are picked up by an MTB after 1½ hours.
The third aircraft flown by Sub Lt Pat Kingsmill, sees Leading Airman ‘Don’ Bunce get credited with shooting down a German fighter. One cannon shell hits their aircraft immediately behind the pilot and explodes, wounding both Kingsmill and the observer ‘Mac’ Samples. Failing to line up the first time, the pilot turns for a second run through the intense flak. Whilst Samples is wounded again, their torpedo is released from about 2,000 yards. Heading back over the screen of destroyers, a shell damages the engine, reducing its power. Unable to maintain height, the engine bursts into flames and the port wing catches fire, so they head for the British MTBs whilst watching the second set of three Swordfish, led by Lt J C Thompson, head towards the Prinz Eugen.
The three remaining Swordfish, maintain a steady course, but are blown to pieces by the exploding shells. Of the nine crew, only the body of Leading Airman William Granville-Smith is recovered.
None of the Swordfish’s torpedoes find their targets.
Amongst the five survivors of the Swordish attack, only Edgar Lee was not wounded. Bunce was slightly wounded, Kingsmill and Samples had serious leg injuries and Rose had back injuries. He would die in his aircraft two years later.
Surviving Officers were each made a companion of the DSO and Bunce received a CGM. The others who lost their lives received posthumous Mentions in Dispatches. Lt Cdr Eugene Esmond DSO received a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The Funeral of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, on 30 April 1942 at the Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham (British Pathé)
The Fleet move towards the North Sea
13:12hrs: By this time the last vain attempt by the MTB from Ramsgate has failed. The Navy launches its destroyers from Harwich and the RAF bombers make ready to attack the fleet in the North Sea.
14:20hrs: The first wave of RAF bombers take off.
14:32hrs: The Scharnhorst strikes a mine just off the Dutch coast. Damage is extensive with a large hole in the starboard side and compartments flooded. Vize Admiral Ciliax transfers to a Destroyer, the Z29 and the rest of the fleet steams on, leaving four S-boats to protect the ship.
15:00hrs: The Scharnhorst has been repaired and sails at 27 knots to catch up with the rest of the fleet, escaping before the RAF or Royal Navy have chance to find her.
15:45hrs: RAF bombers attack the fleet. Over 240 Beaufort, Manchester and Wellington bombers had been sent to find the fleet. The Manchesters and Wellingtons struggle with the low clouds and fighter escorts and fail to score any hits. The Beauforts struggle to find their targets and are also harassed by German fighters. German ships suffer virtually no damage, but they lose 17 escort planes. The RAF lose 15 bombers, 15 coastal command planes and 17 fighters, with 106 aircrew killed or missing.
15:55hrs: The five flotilla of five elderly destroyers engage with the German fleet and the three German battleships return fire.
16:00hrs: HMS Worcester is hit after coming within 400 yards of the Gneisenau and firing her torpedoes at her. The Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen open fire on HMS Worcester and it sustains several hits, killing 27 crew and crippling the ship. She and the rest of the fleet are ordered back to Harwich. RAF bombing continues without success.
18:10hrs: As evening falls, the RAF recalls the last of the 242 bomber signalling the failure of Operation Fuller.
19:55hrs: The Gneisenau hits a British mine off the Dutch Coast, near Terschelling, but although it creates a large hole in the side of the hull, the ship is repaired and back under way within 30 minutes.
21:35hrs: In the same minefield, the Scharnhorst hits another British mine. Despite taking in thousands of tons of water, total electrical failure and damaged engines, she is back under way by 22:15hrs.
The fleet is safe, for now (13th February 1942)
06:30hrs: The Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen arrive at Brunsbüttel before dawn and wake for daylight to dock.
08:00hrs: Admiral Ciliaz, with the damaged Scharnhorst limping towards Wilhelmshaven, calls Adolf Hitler to declare Operation Cerberus is a success.
09:30hrs: Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau dock at their berths at Brunsbüttel.
10:00hrs: The Scharnhorst finally docks aftecapr hitting two mines and being largely unprotected for a day, at her berth in Wilhemshaven.
In Germany, those involved with Operation Cerberus were hailed as heroes.
In Britain the press was outraged. An enquiry concluded that everything was done that could be done, but wasn’t published until 1946, even though considered to be a ‘white wash’.
Although they escaped, the German ships were virtually trapped in their Northern bases. They were no longer a threat to the Atlantic conveys and were to be continually bombed.
The Scharnhorst was sunk in the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943 by the Royal Navy with the loss of 1,932 of her crew.
The Gneisenau was damaged by repeated bombing and eventually had the ignominy of having her guns removed and used as coastal defences in Norway. She was eventually sunk on 27 March 1945 in Goteshafen as a blockade to the advancing Russians.
The Prinz Eugen carried out operations in and around Norway until the end of the war and was decommissioned on 7 May 1945. Awarded to the Americans she was used in atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll and sank on 22 December 1946 after developing a leak.
The Channel Dash Association unveiled their memorial monument located at Ramsgate on 12 February 2010. It is the regularly the location for a memorial ceremony on the anniversary of 12 February.
There is also a monument to all those that took part in the operations from both sides in Dover.
Part of the display at the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum
As any updated or additional information is obtained, we will update this post.
Visit The Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum. for a special display area on The Channel Dash, including transcripts of interviews with Lt Cdr Edgar Lee and Leading Airman Donald Bunce.
Book: Run the Gaunlet – The Channel Dash 1942 by Ken Ford https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/cka/Run-Gauntlet-Channel-Dash-1942-Ken-Ford/1849085706