Operations - Brest, Cherbourg and La Pallice - 24th July 1941
The Battle of the Atlantic was probably the most important single campaign fought during the entire war in the West with the threat of the U-boats against allied merchant shipping constant and for long periods extremely serious. On the occasions that German capital ships ventured out of their home ports they also posed a formidable threat that had to be addressed. The German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had recently been devastating merchant shipping in the Atlantic and had now sought refuge in the French port of Brest. With the cruiser Prinz Eugen also in the same port they now presented a tempting target for Bomber Command.
A major daylight attack was planned with 150 aircraft but this was revised when the Scharnhorst departed for the port of La Pallice further down the French coast for repairs.
The new plan was for 100 bombers to attack the Gneisenau that was in a dry dock at Brest. Three RAF Boeing Fortresses were to bomb from 30,000 ft to try to draw up the fighters prematurely. In addition 18 Handley Page Hampdens escorted by three Squadrons of Spitfires would attack to draw up the remaining enemy fighter reserves. The main bombing force of 79 Vickers Wellingtons from No 1 and 3 Groups would then attack whilst the fighters were refueling and before reinforcements could arrive from the Cherbourg area. As a further diversion 36 Bristol Blenheims in waves and escorted by Spitfires would attack Cherbourg docks to discourage German fighters in that area from heading for Brest.
15 Handley Page Halifaxes of 4 Group, from 35 Sqn and 76 Sqn were also tasked to fly to La Pallice to attack the Scharnhorst. This attack was carried out without fighter escort as it was beyond fighter range even with long-range tanks.
In the 2 days prior to the operation 103 Sqn had been preparing for a daylight raid. The target was unknown but Squadron morale was high and every crew wanted to be involved. The day before seven Wellingtons aircraft and crews flew south to Tangmere. Six aircraft were to be used on the operation and one as a spare. On the morning of the 24th July the target was confirmed at the crew briefing. The aircraft were loaded with 6 x 500lb armour piercing bombs each. S/L Lane, F/L Scott and Sgt Bucknole took off at 1100 followed by F/L Max, P/O Ball and Sgt Grey at 1115.
The visibility was excellent and there was no cloud.
The diversionary attack by the Blenheim force on Cherbourg failed to draw up the any fighters but good bombing results on the docks were achieved. The German fighters were, however, up in force over Brest for the first attack by the Hampdens shooting down two of the bombers. The 79 Wellingtons arrived soon after and met strong opposition from both flak and fighters.
As the first 3 Wellingtons from 103 Sqn approached the target they were attacked by 3 Bf109s from astern. The first fighter dived and came up under the formation attempting to shoot down S/L Lane’s Wellington from below and behind. The German pilots timing was bad and as he broke off at 50 yards he presented a point blank target to S/L Lane’s rear gunner, Sgt Blair, who fired several bursts into the attacker. The Bf109 was seen to dive to earth spinning twice.
The remaining two fighters continued to attack and Sgt Bucknole’s aircraft was hit and his starboard engine caught fire. He was no longer able to maintain his formation and fell back as the Wellington lost altitude. At this time the formation was flying through a fierce flak barrage at the start of their bombing run. Sgt Bucknole’s Wellington was last seen at about 8,000ft and it was noted that his rear gunner Sgt E C MacDonald RNZAF shot down one of the attacking Bf109s that was seen to spin into the ground. Sgt Bucknole’s Wellington crashed and there were no survivors.
S/L Lane bombed from 15,500ft at 1516. The bombs were seen to straddle the dock with one bursting very near the bow of the Gneisenau. F/L Scott was unable to release his bombs due to a fault in the release gear and they were later jettisoned in the sea.
The second formation led by F/L Max was attacked by two Bf 109s as the approached the target. All three tail gunners held their fire until the first fighter was at 200 yards and then opened up. The fighter was seen to rear up and turn on its back with the pilot baling out. The second fighter attacked and was also hit. It was last seen corkscrewing down to earth.
F/L Max bombed from 14,800ft at 1520. His bombs were seen to drop in a line SW to NE along the top of the dry dock. P/O Ball and Sgt Grey released their bombs successfully but were unable to observe any result due the heavy flak and fighter attacks although it was thought the bombs had fallen along the western edge of the dry dock.
All five aircraft returned to base. The Squadron had performed very well. They fought their way to a very heavily defended target through heavy flak and fighters without escort bombing accurately for the loss of one aircraft and crew. The returning gunners claimed 3 Bf 109s destroyed with the gunnery and fire control of the highest standard.
The Wellington force claimed six hits on the Gneisenau for the loss of ten aircraft.
The attack by the Halifax force on La Pallice was spotted by a German destroyer as the formation flew low past the Ile d’Yeu. With all element of surprise lost the bombers were subjected to intense fighter and flak opposition. One Halifax was shot down by flak and several more damaged as they approached the target. The fighters ignored their own flak to press home their attacks with great commitment. Four more bombers were shot down in the target area including one that was seen to score a direct hit on the Scharnhorst. During the fighter attacks the bombers that managed to stay in some semblance of formation fared better than the stragglers. One Halifax was subjected to 20 separate attacks but managed to get home. All the aircraft sustained damage to a greater or lesser degree. The returning Halifax crews claimed only one hit on the Scharnhorst. In fact they had done much better and managed five hits on the battle cruiser. Three bombs had hit the ship and passed right through and two had exploded but caused only minor damage. The air gunners had shown excellent marksmanship and claiming five fighters destroyed, three probables and several more damaged.
The Germans immediately decided to sail the Scharnhorst back to Brest where the repair facilities and flak cover were better. She sailed that night with several thousand gallons of water in her hull and was laid up for four months whilst the damage was repaired.
The Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen never did venture out into the Atlantic. They were the subject to further damaging attacks by Bomber Command including two notable daylight raids on the 18th Dec and 30th Dec 1941 in which 103 Sq was not involved. Finally the Germans were forced to withdraw all three warships out of harms way and they made their famous “Dash” up the Channel and back to their home ports on the 12th Feb 1942.
Written by David Fell Source 103 Sqn ORB Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook.