In March 1941, following many successful attacks on the Atlantic Convoys that were so vital to Britain’s survival, the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the port of Brest for repairs. They were shortly joined by Prinz Eugen. With the ships under constant Allied air strikes and Hitler demanding increased protection for occupied Norway, the German Naval War Command decided to bring all three vessels home to Germany by way of a heavily protected daylight dash up the English Channel and through the Dover Straits – code named Operation Cerberus.
Aware this run for home might take place, the Royal Navy set up Operation Fuller to deal with the threat and Coastal Command flew air patrols over Brest and the English Channel both day and night to monitor the situation. Their plans were based on the assumption the German ships would leave Brest by day and complete the most dangerous part of their journey, the narrow waters of the Dover Straits, by night. This was the first of an almost unbelievable catalogue of errors that would have disastrous consequences.
The German battle group of 66 ships, with continuous air cover provided by 250 day and night fighter aircraft, left Brest at night on 11 February 1942 and reached the Dover Straits, virtually undetected, at about 11.00am on 12 February. The Fleet Air Arm’s 825 Squadron, led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde and comprising six Swordfish aircraft and aircrews, were based at RAF Manston where they had been preparing for a night attack on the German ships. Promised fighter cover of five squadrons of Spitfires, Esmonde agreed to lead his squadron in a daylight attack. Just one squadron, No 72 Squadron RAF led by Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe, rendezvoused with Esmonde’s squadron and so with fighter cover of only 10 Spitfires, 825 Squadron attacked the mighty Germany battle group. Against the guns of the big ships and the power of the Luftwaffe, the slow, out-dated Swordfish stood little chance. All the Swordfish were shot down and only five of the eighteen men who set out survived.
Although more than 30 torpedo attacks were launched against the German battle group, not a single hit was achieved. As a last resort, in the largest Bomber Command daylight operation of the war so far, 242 British aircraft were sent out against the German battle squadron but all to no avail. The only damage inflicted was by mines hit by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau but even that was minimal.
All members of 825 Squadron were honoured after the Channel Dash. Lt Cdr Esmonde was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, gallantry awards were given to those who survived and a Mention in Despatches was given to those who died, the highest award possible as no gallantry award other than the Victoria Cross could be given posthumously.
Information sourced from Fleet Air Arm Museum.