The Channel Dash
The Channel Dash is the name given to an important action that took place during the WW2. It was known as Operation Fuller by the British and Operation Cerberus by the Germans. For several months, from March 1941, two German battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, had been trapped in the French west coast port of Brest. They were joined in June 1941 by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. These powerful units posed a very significant threat to our Atlantic convoys which was taken very seriously by the War Cabinet.
The ships were subjected to much heavy bombing by the RAF from March 41 including several attacks by 103 Sqn. The last bombing effort by 103 Sqn was on the night of the 11th Feb 1940 by seven aircraft. This turned out to be the night the German Fleet put to sea.
The Germans became increasingly concerned that the pride of their Navy was trapped in Brest and being subjected to regular attack and significant damage on occasions. It was decided to sail them back to the relative safety of the German ports by the direct route up the English Channel.
This course of action was approved by Hitler himself and an elaborate plan was conceived to this end. This highly secret and complex operation involved large numbers of escort ships and considerable day and night fighter cover along the whole route. Also substantial radar, radio jamming and counter intelligence measures were organised in support of the plan both before and during the operation.
On 11 February 1942 the ships left Brest at 21:15 and escaped detection for more than 12 hours, approaching the Dover Strait without check. This was partly due to a radar fault on one particular patrolling aircraft at a critical period.
The British had not expected the Germans to rush their ships through the Dover Strait in daylight and were caught completely off guard. The German Fleet and their air cover were finally spotted by a Spitfire pilot off Le Touquet mid morning of the 12th Feb.
The Admiralty had predicted that the German battle cruisers would come through the Dover Strait at night and a sophisticated plan of co-operation between 32 Motor Torpedo Boats and six torpedo carrying Fairey Swordfish aircraft based at Manston was devised to mount a converging attack on each side of the ship's bows, lit by flares from the aircraft.
The crews practised this from the start of February but just two days before the Admiralty decided that the threat level had lowered.
In spite of considerable misgivings a strike by the six Swordfish torpedo bombers of 825 Sqn Fleet Air Arm at Manston was hastily organised. These were old, slow and vulnerable aircraft and the operation, in broad daylight, was quite clearly suicidal. The Swordfish Flight was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde DSO.
Wing Commander Tom Gleave, the Station Commander at Manston, said of Esmonde: “He knew what he was going into. But it was his duty. His face was tense and white. It was the face of a man already dead.”
Gleave stood in the snow at the end of the Manston runway and saluted each Swordfish in turn as the Flight took off.
Ten Spitfires from 72 Sqdn were allotted for low level support with three other Spitfire squadrons from the Biggin Hill Wing for top cover. The Biggin Wing was unable to make contact with the Swordfish Flight in the poor visibility. Without the full fighter escort Esmonde was authorised to abandon the operation but, with time running out, he made the decision to proceed with the attack anyway.
Large numbers of German fighters engaged 72 Sqdn in a mass dog-fight and the Swordfish were on their own during the final stages of their strike. They approached the German ships in the face of considerable opposition from fighters and flak. Some were able to launch their torpedoes although there were no hits. All six Swordfish were shot down with the loss of 13 of the 18 crew. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his leadership in this action.
Further attacks were launched by Royal Navy motor torpedo boats and destroyers without success. Channel guns of the Coastal Artillery batteries fired at the German Fleet based on radar plots but were severely hampered by the poor visibility at sea level, estimated at approx. 5 miles, which prevented observation of the fall of shot.
The RAF attacked with Beaufort torpedo bombers and numerous bombing and mining sorties which were organised at very short notice. Of about 240 bombers dispatched only 39 reported to have made contact with the German fleet.
However air operations were severely handicapped by the low cloud cover over the Channel and beyond which made observation and tracking very difficult as the German Fleet changed course and zig zagged frequently throughout.
At Elsham Wolds 103 Sqdn, which had been stood down for the day, promptly detailed five crews and aircraft were frantically prepared for the operation. The captains were S/L I K P Cross, F/L D W Holford, F/S R S Kitney, Sgt G W Lewis and Sgt R E V Pugh. Both Holford and Kitney made contact with the German ships but were unable to attack due to the low cloud. However they were able to track the German Fleet for sometime.
Cross was shot down and ditched in the sea off Holland. He was picked up with three of his crew and made POW. Two members of Cross' crew are missing and commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial - Sgt M James and F/S D R G Holmes.
Ian Cross was later murdered by the Germans for his part in the Great Escape from Sagan in March 44. For that reason it is particularly appropriate that we make a donation to the Channel Dash Memorial in his memory and also the memory of his two missing crew members.
Both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines laid by the RAF during the final stages of their escape to Germany.
The German Naval Staff summarised the outcome as a 'tactical victory, but a strategic defeat'. These three powerful warships were no longer a menace to the Atlantic convoys but were instead re-assigned to the defence of Norway against an imagined invasion.
The Prinz Eugen was torpedoed by the submarine HMS Trident on the 23rd Feb 1942 which blew off her stern. She took months to repair and, from Aug 1944, was deployed solely in the Baltic. The Gneisenau was badly damaged by RAF bombing at Kiel on the 26/27th Feb 1942 and never sailed in anger again. Following "The Dash" the Scharnhorst took several months to repair and was finally sunk by the Navy in March 1943 at the Battle of the North Cape.
Written by David Fell