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This has just been on the local news here interviewing a survivor of a Swordfish torpedo plane after attacking these battleships 65 years ago today


The Fiasco of "the Channel Dash"

by Brian Grafton


Between the departure of Peirse (January 8) and the arrival of Harris (Feb. 22), Bomber Command was under the interim command of Air Vice-Marshal Baldwin, commander of 3 Group. It was on Baldwin's "watch" that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen humiliated the Royal Navy by sailing in daylight through the English Channel from Brest on their way to safer harbours.


Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived in Brest in April, 1941, where Prinz Eugen joined them on June 1 after separating from Bismarck on May 24. Because of the threat to shipping they represented, their presence was of great concern to the Admiralty. Bomber Command had attacked them countless times since their arrival, without success, though 22 Squadron of Coastal Command had disabled Gneisenau in a suicidal torpedo raid on April 6, 1941


When the German ships sailed from Brest just before midnight on February 11, they did so with a modest escort of 13 motor torpedo boats and five destroyers, and with expectation of air cover for most of their journey. They sailed in foul weather ­ a sensible precaution ­ and they steamed into the English Channel.


The Royal Navy did not see them. Coastal Command did not spot them (reportedly because of problems with their air-to-ship radar). The radar stations along the coast of Britain noted them and ignored them. Not until 11:30 a.m., when the ships were almost entering the Straits of Dover, were they spotted accidentally by a pilot with Fighter Command and reported to the authorities. Two hours later, at 1:35 p.m., the first aircraft of Bomber Command were airborne: by this time Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were through the Straits of Dover. Between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., 242 sorties were flown by Bomber Command against the ships, though many aircraft could not locate them because of the inclement weather. In addition, elements of Coastal and Fighter Command, together with Fleet Air Arm "Swordfish", joined in the attack. So did the Royal Navy, with World War I destroyers and MTBs. No damage was inflicted. Only later did Scharnhorst and Gneisenau strike mines dropped by 5 Group aircraft and incur some damage. By daybreak of 13 February all three ships were safe in German ports.


"The Channel Dash" was a tremendous blow to the prestige of the Royal Navy: the English Channel was, after all, the closest of 'home waters', and the RN clearly did not control it. The 'dash' was also one more all-too-familiar blow to Bomber Command, which demonstrated once again that it had no means of navigating or target-finding in poor weather and no ability to press home a strike against targets that were heavily defended (as these ships undoubtedly were).


It is reasonable to ask how this could have happened. The first answer must be that the Royal Navy was husbanding its resources. It had been late in realizing the vulnerability of its capital ships to air attack and to plunging fire, but by early 1942 it had lost a number of ships ­ Hood, Prince of Wales, Repulse and Glorious among them ­ to one type of attack or the other. Despite the threat to Britain implicit in Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord, was unwilling or unable to commit his capital ships to a test of fire. Instead, he chose to leave the work to smaller ships and to the RAF.


The Admiralty knew that the German ships were to be moved from Brest, surmised the move would be in February, and forecast that they would take the direct route through the Channel to Germany. Under the provisions of Operation 'Fuller', set up to counter the expected German move, Bomber Command aircraft were placed on two-hour alert, though on February 10, largely because of the bad weather, this was reduced to 100 aircraft on four-hour alert. Meanwhile, Coastal Command had issued an advisory stating that weather conditions would be favourable for a break-out beginning on February 10. At the same time, it was relatively plain that after February 17 the combination of tides, moon and lengthening hours of daylight would make the break-out from Brest much less attractive to the Germans.


Once they left Brest, there is no conceivable explanation why Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were not sighted long before they reached Dover. By that time, the three ships had been in the Channel for 12 hours. Granted, the weather was poor: that is why Coastal Command issued its advisory. But it remains a mystery how a combination of radar surveillance, Coastal Command reconnaissance and RN patrols could miss 21 ships doing what was expected of them at a time and place that was quite accurately determined.[1]


Admiralty and Air Ministry were to hurl accusations at each other over the fiasco, though in truth there was enough blame to go around. As a measure of Britain's ability to make war, the 'Channel Dash' placed British forces under a frightening microscope. The Royal Navy had implied by its inactivity that it was afraid to fight, and the RAF had provided a demonstration that it didn't have the tools to do so. After an initial spate of newspaper reports ­ entirely negative and occasionally scathing ­ severe restrictions were placed on the press in the interests of public morale.


Before the end of February, Bomber Command would finally catch up with Gneisenau at Kiel, inflicting severe damage and effectively knocking her out of the war. This attack killed 116 of her crew; the British had lost 127 aircraft in raids on Brest attacking the German warships in the months before the 'Channel Dash'.


After the disastrous Berlin/Mannheim raids of November 6/7, 1941, Bomber Command had seen its strategic mandate drastically curtailed and its C-in-C sent packing. But with the events of February 12 ­ 242 sorties against targets less than 50 miles away, and not one hit ­ Bomber Command was at the nadir of its fortunes. At this lowest point, a new commanding officer was to appear. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris ­ 'Bomber' Harris ­ was to be indelibly linked to Bomber Command.




[1]. There are a number of circumstances in the 'Channel Dash' that are prescient of 'Overlord', the invasion of Europe by allied troops on June 6, 1944. The weather played a major role in both: the aggressor accepted marginal weather, while the defender assumed the weather too severe for action. In both cases, military leaders were absent: Baldwin and Saundby were at the Air Ministry on 12 February, and Rommel was visiting his family on June 6, while his subordinates were holding war games away from the front.

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It was as a Swordfish pilot that the great Eugene Esmonde won his posthumous VC. In 1940 he wrote: "I can think of no greater honour, nor a better way of passing into Eternity than in the cause for which the Allies are fighting this war". A Tipperary man born in 1909, he came from a very traditional Catholic background and had no love for things English. Having failed to gain a missionary priesthood he did the obvious next best thing and got an RAF commission! After five years as a fighter pilot with 43 Sqdrn and time in the new Fleet Air Arm his commission terminated so he became a pilot for BOAC. He flew the classic Empire air routes and pioneered several before being invited to join the Fleet Air Arm in 1939.


On the fateful day, Feb 12 1942, he had volunteered 825 Sqdn for the task. His group of six aircraft set off and were met by Messerschmitts and heavy flak as they attempted to attack the German ships. Esmonde's plane received a direct hit from an AA shell ripping off the port lower mainplaine. Despite this he continued to make his torpedo run on the Scharnhorst, the aircraft crashing in flames after release.

Only one man returned unwounded from the whole flight and the fate of the second vic of three aircraft remains unknown! There were only five survivors. They were awarded four DSOs and a CGM. Esmonde's body washed ashore in April 1942. He is buried in Gillingham. He had a line of bullet holes down his back. His mother received the VC from King George VI on 17th March 1942. Esmonde has the unique distinction of being a RN officer who was recommended for a VC by an RAF officer (the great Tom Gleave).


The German War Diary for the day records "...the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other by either side that day".

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A bit more info:


On the 11th of Feb Esmonde was in London to receive the DSO for his part in crippling the Bismarck and returned to Manston in readiness for Operation Fuller. (This was the Admiralty's contingency plan to prevent the breakout of the German capital ships. He had volunteered 825 Sqdn for the task while it was reforming at Lee-On-Solent). 825 had arrived at Manston on the 4th. The squadron had been training to attack the German ships at night, because the Swordfish was considered past it, but was all they had. On the 12th Esmonde was confronted with the prospect of leading a daylight attack.


He planned to attack the Germans ships at 50 feet in two vics of three aircraft.


Esmonde flew W5984 'H' with Lieutenant William Henry Williams (buried in Aylesham, Kent) and Leading Airman (Petty Officer William John Clinton (buried in Ruislip, Middx. Sub-Lieutenant BW Rose piloting W5983 'G' was No 2 followed by Sub-Lieutenant CM Kingsmill in W5907 'L'. The second vic were W4523 'F' (27 year old Lt John Chute Thompson from Southampton; W5985 'K' (Sub-Lt Cecil Ralph Wood) and W5978 'M' (20 year old Acting Sub-Lt Peter Bligh from Palmers Green in London).


Rose's aircraft crashed after making it's torpedo run after Esmonde had crashed in flames. He and his observer Sub-Lt Edgar Lee got into a dinghy, but the gunner AL Johnson was dead. Kingsmill released his torpedo at the Scharnhorst at 1500 yards before ditching. All his crew survived. Edgar Lee was the only unwounded survivor who got back to Manston that evening. As said previously, the fate of the other three aircraft remains unknown.


The missing men are recorded on the Lee-On-Solent memorial.



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