'A Stirring Memory' - The Anniversary of the Channel Dash
On this day in 1942, the Royal Navy attempted to stop a breakout by the core of Hitler's Navy from Brest to Germany - the 'Channel Dash', a date which has entered Fleet Air Arm history.
With its vast natural harbour – 70 square miles in all, formed by the convergence of three rivers – and easy access to the Atlantic via the narrow strait, the Goulet, the Breton city of Brest had been a vital naval base since the days of Cardinal Richelieu, home first to the La Royale, and later Marine nationale.
In the summer of 1940, came a new inhabitant: the Kriegsmarine, which regarded the port as its greatest prize when France fell to the seemingly-unstoppable German Army.
No longer did the great ships of the German Navy have to run the gauntlet of the North Sea between the Shetlands and Norway, or the Iceland Gap. From the Atlantic shores of France, they could strike at the supply lines of the British Empire.
Or at least that was how the leaders of the German Navy viewed the ports of France in the summer of 1940. The reality proved to be very different – for the German surface fleet especially.
Brest in particular became not a sword lunging into the Atlantic but a sanctuary for German warships escaping the clutches of the Royal Navy.
It was to Brest that the sisters Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – the British determined the 38,000-ton leviathans with their nine 11in guns apiece were battle-cruisers, the Germans insisted they were Schlachtschiffe, battleships – had fled after a two-month-long sortie in early 1941.
It was for Brest that the damaged Bismarck made in May that year. The torpedo of one Swordfish bomber and the guns of the Home Fleet ensured she never got there – but her escorting heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen, did reach Brittany.....
At 12.25pm precisely, six Swordfish – codenamed F, G, H, K, L and M – with 18 souls – one pilot, one observer and one telegraphist air gunner apiece – lumbered into the Kentish sky and sluggishly climbed to 1,500 feet where they circled for four minutes awaiting the five RAF squadrons.
Only one appeared. Ten aircraft. Spitfires. The other four squadrons failed to materialise. With time pressing, Esmonde signalled the other five torpedo bombers. They set an easterly course and struck out over the Channel, dropping to 50ft. They expected to run into the German warships two dozen miles east of Ramsgate.
Beneath “grey and scudding clouds” telegraphist Reg Mitchell and his shipmates on MTB 48 saw the Swordfish pass overhead – at the very moment the German Fleet came into view. At that very moment Mitchell’s radio gave up, a fact he reported to his skipper, Tony Law. “Come up top and grab a rifle or something,” Law advised.
The escorting Spitfires of 72 Squadron were struggling to provide cover for the plodding torpedo bombers and weaved constantly to prevent losing contact.
The weaving was of little use. Fifteen – or maybe 20 – Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs dived out of the clouds, past the Spitfires and pounced on the tails of all six Swordfish, damaging at least three of the biplanes.
From MTB 48, Reg Mitchell could clearly see the German fighters with their landing gear down and flaps extended, and he could hear the pilots gunning their engines to prevent stalling – and prevent them overshooting the Swordfish. To Mitchell it seemed the Germans “were queuing up to get a shot at them”.
Whilst trying to keep the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts at bay, Spitfire pilot Michael Crombie’s eye was caught by Esmonde’s bomber fending off repeated waves of attacks, its gunner PO William ‘Clints’ Clinton responding to the 20mm cannon of the German fighters with his much-less-potent Lewis machine-gun. When tracer set the tailplane alight, the senior rating left his cockpit and clambered along the fuselage to beat the flames out before returning to his seat to continue the struggle against the foe.
For seven or eight minutes, all six Swordfish came under sustained attack – and yet all six were still airborne. Perhaps they might succeed. They pressed on and when the German warships came into sight, Esmonde turned towards them.
A couple of Me109s buzzed Reg Mitchell’s torpedo boat. They were barely 40ft above the water – low enough for the 18-year-old to clearly see the German pilots. They grinned at the crew of MTB48 – but didn’t open fire. “They obviously all thought we were pathetic and insignificant,” Mitchell recalled.
Through the loudspeakers of the Prinz Eugen a tinny voice: Aircraft, bearing 240 degrees, four low-flying aircraft, biplanes, torpedo bombers! The broadcast, Paul Schmalenbach recalled, “electrified” the cruiser’s crew.
On the bridge of the Scharnhorst, Otto Ciliax was unperturbed. “The English are now throwing their mothball navy at us,” he observed acidly
In aircraft ‘G’, observer Edgar Lee watched as the anti-aircraft – or flak – guns on the escorting forces opened fire. The guns did not belch with full fury, however, for fear of hitting their own fighters.
Even with subdued fury, the German fire was fearful. The lower left wing of Esmonde’s Swordfish was all but shot away, his gunner dead, the canvas on the fuselage torn away, yet the rugged bomber flew on. It closed to within 3,000 yards – a little over one and a half miles – of the heavy ships.
It got no further. It plunged into the Channel. Edgar Lee thought it was shot down by a fighter. Prinz Eugen’s flak gunners were convinced they had downed the Swordfish. Nor is there agreement over whether Esmonde launched his torpedo. If he did, it failed to find a target.
Swordfish ‘G’ and ‘L’, following Esmonde, faired little better. L flew so low that bullets ricocheted off the waves and peppered the fuselage. Part of the upper wing caught fire, two engine cylinders were shot away, so too the floor beneath gunner Don Bunce who was forced to brace himself against the fuselage to avoid falling into the Channel. As for L’s pilot, S/Lt Pat Kingsmill was shot in the back, his observer ‘Mac’ Samples was also wounded.
Once again the Swordfish demonstrated its legendary ability to take punishment. It flew on. Bunce brought down at least one German fighter while Kingsmill turned the bomber 360 degrees to evade the Luftwaffe before bringing his aircraft to bear on the Prinz Eugen.
There is no dispute about Kingsmill’s torpedo. It launched and passed just astern of the heavy cruiser which moved violently as it took evasive action.
As for the aircraft, it turned for home but would never get there. Another hit detonated the aircraft’s distress flares and possibly wrecked the dinghy. With no hope of returning to base, Kingsmill sought to ditch. He was just about to do so when he realised the motor boats swarming just a few hundred yards away were German, not British. He continued until the Bristol Pegasus engine finally gave up then set the Swordfish down in the sea. The three crew spent ten minutes in the water before a British MTB rescued them.
Swordfish ‘G’ had also got its torpedo away after an equally horrific run-in. Pilot Brian Rose was badly wounded in the back. He and observer Edgar Lee were badly affected by fumes from the punctured fuel tank. At around 2,000 yards from the main German force, Rose released his torpedo, probably at the Gneisenau, observed its run briefly, then turned. The aircraft passed over the outer screen of destroyers but got no further, crashing into the sea. Lee freed himself, then the badly-injured Rose, helping the pilot into the dinghy. He could do nothing for gunner Ambrose Johnson, slumped over his gun and trapped in his seat. The Channel swallowed the Swordfish whole, taking Johnson with it.
The fate of the remaining three torpedo bombers is even more bleak. Lee last saw the three aircraft pressing home their attack on the Prinz Eugen, jinking wildly to avoid the flak. All three were shot out of the sky. Not one man survived and only one body was ever recovered.
Thus ended the Fleet Air Arm’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It achieved nothing, save to add a bitter but brave chapter to the annals of naval aviation. Having brushed aside the ‘mothball navy’ just minutes before, the icy Otto Ciliax reflected on the attack. The “handful of ancient planes” had been “piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day”.