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The Channel Dash, 12 February 1942

Posted by Frank Donald, on February 12th, 2022

My father, Colin Donald, joined HMS Venomous in 1926, for his first full sea appointment. She was one of the V and W Class, built in the final years of the First World War, to serve with the Grand Fleet.  He went on to serve in two other ships of the Class, HMS Versatile in the early 1930s, and HMS Vimy at the beginning of World War Two. It is therefore appropriate that I am now acting as a researcher and adviser for the website of the V and W Destroyer Association, which records the histories of the ships and their people, and serves as a forum for the veterans and their families. My father also left a fine collection of Navy Records Society publications, to which I have added.

On 12  February we are commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the ‘Channel Dash’, and the attack on the German Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen, by the V and W Class destroyers of the 21st and 16th Destroyer Flotillas, HMS Campbell, Vivacious and Worcester, and Mackay, Walpole and Whitshed, commanded by Captain Mark Pizey.

At the end of 1941 the German ships were gathered at Brest, threatening the Atlantic convoys. Fortunately they were within range of Bomber Command, and were subjected to continual air raids, which failed to sink them, but prevented them from putting to sea. The Admiralty believed that Hitler would move the ships back to Germany for refit, and then send them to Norway. They made plans to intercept them, under the name Operation Fuller. The German High Command came to the same conclusion and decided that the best route for the ships would be the most direct one through the English Channel, and made plans for Operation Cerberus. The thinking of one Command was mirrored by the other – both selected the same route and same period for the operation. The only difference was the time of day that the ships would pass through the Straits of Dover.

The Admiralty saw this as a golden opportunity to remove the threat posed by the German battle fleet and issued orders which should see that the German ships were detected as soon as they moved, and attacked by M.T.Bs and torpedo carrying aircraft, bombed, shelled by the big guns at Dover, mined at intervals on passage, and if anything was left, torpedoed by destroyers east of Dover.

The German High Command also issued its orders, the route was swept by minesweepers piecemeal to conceal the planned route, destroyers and E-Boats gathered at ports along the route, and the Luftwaffe moved aircraft to suitable bases. Everything was set for 12 February 1942.

The big ships prepared to move at dusk, but were delayed by an air raid and finally set off at 2200 accompanied by six destroyers, with five more to join off Le Havre, a further five at Dunkirk, five more at Flushing, with three flotillas of E-Boats, forming a considerable force guarded by night fighters. A British submarine had been patrolling the Brest approaches, but had withdrawn to charge batteries. Three Coastal Command aircraft on patrol had suffered malfunctions and returned to base.

By 0800 the following morning, 12 February, the German ships had steamed 250 miles, with 40 miles to go to the Straits of Dover. The night fighters were relieved by ME109s. The Admiralty thought that the big ships were still at Brest. Spitfires on morning coastal patrol spotted some E-Boats leaving Boulogne, but the pilots were observing radio silence, and had not been briefed on the imminent breakout of German forces.

The radar station at Swingate, near Dover, detected three big blips at about 1000, and connected them with Operation Fuller, but the telephone line to Dover Castle was defective, and the Naval authorities did not receive the information until 1040. Two spitfires on patrol ran into the ME109s and overflew the big ships, but again did not break radio silence. The weather worsened as the day wore on, there was low cloud, rain and poor visibility. By noon the armada was off Cap Gris Nez, and about to enter the narrowest part of the Straits. The heavy guns ashore fired a few rounds to no effect. M.T.Bs from Dover attacked at 1235, but no hits were scored.

At 1130 six Swordfish torpedo aircraft of 825 Squadron, commanded by Lt Cdr E K Esmonde RN, were ordered to stand by for an attack at about 1245. A later attack, coordinated with RAF Beaufort torpedo bombers, was considered, but it was decided that the slow, 80 knot speed of the Swordfish meant that no delay could be accepted. For the same reason only one of the planned escort of five fighter squadrons arrived in time to provide a close escort, though two arrived later. It was difficult for 250 knot Spitfires to escort the 80 knot Swordfish, and their wing top camouflage and the poor visibility made it hard for the fighters to find them if they lost contact. Lt Cdr Esmonde was shot down before completing his attack, but at least two Swordfish, and probably the other three dropped their torpedoes before crashing.

At 1156 the combined force of V and W destroyers were at sea off Harwich when Captain Pizey received a signal that the enemy were passing Boulogne, and the destroyers set off to intercept. A further signal reported that the enemy’s speed had increased, so that the only way of catching them was to cross the British minefield, which they did without damage. Walpole’s engines broke down but the other five pressed on at 28 kts, being bombed by Luftwaffe and RAF alike.

They were formed in two divisions, with Campbell, Vivacious and Worcester to attack Gneisenau, and Mackay and Whitshed destined for Prinz Eugen. Scharnhorst had struck a mine and dropped behind. The weather had deteriorated still further, there was a choppy sea and it was snowing when at 1517 Campbell’s radar showed two large blips at 9 miles. Gun flashes were seen and as they closed the range they were fired on by the battle cruiser’s main armament, and attacked by aircraft with guns and torpedoes.

 At 3300 yards a shell burst under Campbell, and Captain Pizey decided to fire, and Vivacious followed suit. Worcester closed to 2200 yards before firing, and was hit repeatedly by the Germans, totalling six 11 inch and 8 inch shells, with considerable damage and loss of life.

After standing by Worcester, Campbell and Vivacious returned to Harwich to refuel and re-ammunition. Worcester was eventually able to restore power, and returned to Harwich independently. The German Battle Fleet steamed on their way. Scharnhorst hit another mine, as did Gneisenau, but they all arrived in home ports on Friday 13 February.

Text by Vic Green, son of Vic Green, Wireman of the Torpedo Branch, HMS Worcester

The Navy Records Society has published a number of interesting sources relating to this operation including the report by the Board of Enquiry of 2 March 1942 which investigated 825 Squadron’s attack. It is held in the National Archives at ADM 116/4528

 Extract from Ben Jones (ed.), The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War Volume II, 1942–1943, NRS Vol. 165 (2018), pp.38-40

 

Report by the Board of Enquiry 2 March 1942

825 Squadron’s attack.

  1. In addition to the aircraft plots referred to in paragraph 25, indications of surface vessels began to appear on the R.D.F. set at Beachy Head between 1000 and 1015. Telephone delays held up the transmission of this information to Dover and an attempt was made to pass it via Portsmouth. It was certainly in the possession of the naval authorities at Dover by approximately 1040, when it was telephoned to them direct. At 1050 the presence of enemy shipping was also detected by the R.D.F. set at Fairlight and passed to Dover. There is no doubt that, but for the jamming, other indications would have been received before this time.
  2. The Air Staff Officer to Vice-Admiral, Dover, judged these indications sufficiently important to warn Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde,2 who was in command of the six Swordfish referred to in paragraph 8 that there might be a suitable target for him. LieutenantCommander Esmonde at once gave orders for the squadron to be called to immediate readiness and for the torpedoes to be set “deep”. The squadron were accordingly well advanced in their preparations when news of the identification of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and instructions for the attack were received at 1130.
  3. The desirability of holding up the Swordfish until they could be joined by the first echelon of Beauforts from Thorney Island and so launch a co-ordinated attack was discussed between the Air Staff Officer to ViceAdmiral, Dover, and No.16 Group, Coastal Command. For a variety of reasons, but particularly because of the slow speed of the Swordfish and the importance of launching an early attack, it was decided that this delay could not be accepted and that the Swordfish attacks should be launched at the earliest possible moment. It was accordingly arranged that the squadron should be airborne at 1220 and carry out their attack at approximately 1245.
  4. The necessity for strong fighter protection for the torpedo aircraft was fully appreciated, and, as soon as the presence of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was definitely known, arrangements were made with No.11 (Fighter) Group for the support of five fighter squadrons. Of these five squadrons, three (the Biggin Hill Wing) were to provide top cover and two (the Hornchurch Wing) were to accompany the Swordfish to deal with enemy flak ships.
  5. The rendezvous was fixed for Manston at 1225. This gave the fighter squadrons very little time for briefing, take-off and flight to Manston, and, owing to unforeseen delays, it soon became apparent that the squadrons could not get to the rendezvous in time. The Controller at Hornchurch accordingly rang up Manston and spoke to the Leader of the Swordfish, whom he informed that some or all of the fighter squadrons would be late at Manston. Lieutenant Commander Esmonde decided that he could not delay his departure. The first of the fighter squadrons arrived at Manston at 1228, and on its appearance the Swordfish immediately set course for the target.
  6. The remaining two squadrons of the Biggin Hill Wing, although they missed their rendezvous at Manston, proceeded to the target, and were in the vicinity of the German battle cruisers at the time of the Swordfish attack. They were immediately engaged with enemy fighters, of which they destroyed two. Although their presence was unknown to the Swordfish, they thus contributed to the best of their ability to their protection. One Spitfire was lost.
  7. The Hornchurch Wing, which also missed the Swordfish at Manston, proceeded to search for them off Calais, but without success. After patrolling for some time between Calais and Mardyk, they returned to their base.
  8. At approximately 1230 the Swordfish, accompanied by 10 Spitfires, left for the target, which was estimated to be some 10 miles north of Calais. They flew in two flights of three, the first in line astern, the second in Vic formation. Some 10 miles from Ramsgate enemy fighters appeared and were immediately engaged by Spitfires. The task of escorting the 80-m.p.h. Swordfish with Spitfires flying at 250 m.p.h. proved a difficult one. The Spitfires, when engaging the enemy were necessarily manoeuvring over a wide area, and the effective camouflage of the Swordfish, combined with the poor visibility, made it hard for the Spitfires to pick them up again once they had lost contact. Although the Spitfires engaged the enemy vigorously and inflicted a number of casualties, it is clear that all the Swordfish were heavily attacked by fighters before they reached the enemy ships.
  9. Lieutenant Commander Esmonde, who was leading the first flight, was engaged by enemy fighters and his aircraft badly damaged. Nevertheless, he pressed on over the destroyer screen towards the enemy ships in face of heavy fire. He was shot down before completing his attack. The second two aircraft of this formation, although roughly handled by enemy fighters, flew on and released their torpedoes. Both aircraft subsequently crashed in the sea, some members of the crew being ultimately picked up.
  10. The second Swordfish flight was also damaged by fighters, but when last seen was pressing on steadily towards the German ships. It may be presumed that these aircraft also dropped their torpedoes satisfactorily. None of these three aircraft returned and there were no survivors …

 

“Passage of the Scharnhorst. Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen through the English Channel,Number 11 in the Battle Summaries series of Naval Staff History – Second World War (1943), The Bucknill Report produced as a result of a government enquiry after the Channel Dash (ADM 234/328), Plan 1: Position of attack by British Naval Forces (ADM 186/803)”

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About Frank Donald

Frank was born in March 1940, son of Lt Cdr Colin Donald RN (b  Stirling 1904) and Kyriena Nikolayevna Andreyeva (b St Petersburg 1908). His parents met in 1931 when Versatile visited Riga, and married in December 1936. His father was killed in May 1940, while in command of HMS Vimy during the Boulogne evacuation. Frank served in the Royal Navy from 1958-1990, serving in both submarines and surface ships. In addition to current involvement with the V and W Destroyer Association Frank has been singing with the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union since 1991, and previously the London Philharmonic Choir and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.