The Channel Dash as it has become known – officially designated Operation Fuller by the British, Operation Cerberus by the Germans – took place when the Germans sought to take three warships from the French port of Brest, where they had been under constant attack by the RAF from January to December 1941 and into 1942, back to the safety of German ports.
The RAF’s attacks had included the attack by Kenneth Campbell on the Gneisenau, which had won him a posthumous V.C.. Now other men were called upon to fly into the wall of fire that the pocket battleships were so capable of throwing up:
At 1042 on the 12th, Spitfires on reconnaissance sighted two large ships off Le Touquet steering a northerly course at high speed. These subsequently proved to be the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in company with the Prinz Eugen and a number of destroyers, E-Boats and small craft, under strong air protection.
At 1230 eight M.T.Bs. from Dover and Ramsgate carried out an attack, in which one torpedo hit is claimed on the Prinz Eugen. At 1300 a torpedo attack was made by six Naval Swordfish, escorted by five squadrons of fighters. None of the Swordfish returned, but all released their torpedoes and their fighter escorts estimated that they obtained a hit on a battle-cruiser.
At 1545, when about 20 miles west of the Hook of Holland, H.M. Destroyers Campbell, Vivacious and Worcester, which had proceeded across the mine barrier, attacked the battle-cruisers at 2,500-3,500 yards range and claimed one probable and two possible hits with torpedoes. H.M.S. Worcester was set on fire but succeeded in reaching port under her own steam. At about the same time, H.M. Destroyers Mackay and Whitshed attacked a single ship, probably the Prinz Eugen.
Starting at 1240 a total of 243 bombers and 41 Coastal Command aircraft, of which 27 were torpedo-carrying Beauforts, with a further 338 fighters and 18 Hurricane bombers, was despatched in the course of the afternoon. Owing to poor visibility and low cloud, which was at times down to 500 feet, only 34 of the bombers and 14 Beauforts were able to attack. No definite hits were claimed on the ships although a Beaufort may possibly have obtained a torpedo hit.
Combats with the fighter cover resulted in 17 enemy aircraft being destroyed, 5 probably destroyed and 17 damaged. Our losses were 15 bombers, 5 Coastal Command aircraft and 17 fighters missing.
From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/22/23
The three German ships were shielded by nearly 300 fighters and bombers, while the British response was poorly co-ordinated – the Situation Report was slightly misleading – much of the fighter cover promised for the Swordfish attack did not arrive.
Despite that lack of cover, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde – a veteran of the attack on the Bismarck nine months earlier – led his sluggish torpedo bombers in to sink the ships. Although some got torpedoes away, none hit the ships, all the Swordfish were downed and only five of the 18 crew were rescued. Esmonde was not among them; he received a posthumous Victoria Cross:
Recommended for award of Posthummous Decoration. – Immediate.
Description of Services for which Officer is recommended.
On the morning of Thursday the 12th February, 1942 Lieutenant- Commander (A) E. Esmond, D.S.O., R.N. as Officer Commanding No. 825 (F.A.A.) Squadron, a detachment which, comprising six Swordfish aircraft, was with him at a South Coast aerodrome, was informed that the “SCHARNHORST” “GNEISENAU” and “PRINZ EUGEN”, heavily escorted by some thirty surface craft, including destroyers, were approaching the Straits of Dover, and that he would be required to attack them with torpedoes as soon as possible before the ships could reach the protection of the sandbanks N.E. of Calais. Lieutenant- Commander Esmonde well knew the difficulties and dangers with which he was faced and that, in view of the fact that his little squadron of six had not flown together before, having had no collective training, leadership of an exceptionally high order would be required of him.
The six Swordfish took off at 1220 and set course for the enemy, accompanied by only one of the five Fighter Squadrons arranged to escort him. After ten minutes flight his small force was heavily attacked by Messerschmitts and F.W. 190’s; despite these attacks, which had inflicted some damage on all his aircraft and separated him from his fighter escort, he flew on undeterred.
He them encountered a withering anti-aircraft fire, which shot saw most of his port wing, but was observed to regain control of his aircraft , straighten up and fly on steadily towards the battle cruisers. In this manner he led the whole of his formation over the enemy destroyer screen into a position where they could launch their torpedoes. He was then seen to be attacked and shot down by an enemy fighter and his aircraft crashed into the sea.
His most conspicuous bravery, extreme devotion to duty and supreme self sacrifices inspired the remainder of his gallant flight to continue and rendered possible an attack from which none retuned and which resulted in one of the German battle cruisers being hit by at least one torpedo. Such bravery as was his is in keeping with the highest naval traditions and will remain through generations to come a stirring memory.
(Signed ) B.H. RAMSAY.
Captain Hoffmann of the Scharnhorst:
Poor fellows. They are so very slow. It is nothing but suicide for them to fly against these big ships.
Willhelm Wolf, also on the Scharnhorst:
What an heroic stage for them to meet their end on. Behind them their homeland which they had just left with their hearts steeled to their purpose still in view.