A Bomber Command Navigator 80 Years On – 12th February 1942, The “Channel Dash”

Stirlings in Flight (Right, Source: RAF Museum)

Following his 6th mission on 20th January 1942, Alan undertook several flights ferrying various Wellingtons across the country. On 22nd January 1942, he had his first experience in one of 218 squadron’s new aircraft, when he flew as a passenger from the base at Marham to RAF St Eval in Cornwall in Stirling N6129, flown by F/O Allan. The mighty Stirling, the RAF’s first 4-engine bomber, had first started to arrive at the squadron in December 1941. Later that day, Alan operated as Navigator on Wellington R1497, when it was flown from RAF Portreath back to base by 31-year-old South African born Wing Commander Paul Holder DFC, who had taken over command of the squadron at the start of the year.

Extracts from Alan’s Logbook (Source: S Green)

As this was a quiet period for the squadron, it was 15 days before Alan did his next flight which was to deliver Wellington R7797G to Doncaster on 6th February, followed by the collection of another Wellington (R1496R) on 8th February, both under the command of Sgt Griggs. At 1450 on the 12th February 1942, Alan embarked on his 7th operational mission during what proved to be a disastrous day for the Royal Navy and the RAF.

As noted in previous blogs, Alan’s 3rd, 4th and 5th sorties, from 8th to 11th January, involved bombing the German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which had been sheltering in Brest harbour since 22nd March 1941 following a successful campaign (Operation Berlin) against British merchant ships in the Atlantic.

In June 1941, these 2 ships were joined in Brest by the heavy cruiser, the Prinz Eugen, fresh from its involvement in the ill-fated operation Rheinubung, in which the Royal Navy sank the famous German battleship (27th May 1941), Bismarck, in revenge for its destruction of HMS Hood, the British flagship (24th May 1941). Hitler was keen to get these 3 ships back to the relative safety of their German bases. In late 1941 he instructed the German Naval High Command to draw up a plan (Operation Cerberus) to achieve this objective, using 2 possible routes: a longer one around the UK to the west and a shorter one up the English Channel. While the final order was given on 12 January 1942, it was not until 2114 on 11th February that the 3 ships embarked on the shorter route with an escort of 6 destroyers, 14 torpedo boats, 26 E boats, 32 bombers and 252 fighters.

The Route of Operation Cerberus – 11-13th February 1942 (Source: Naval War College Review)

As far back as April 1941, the British had anticipated such a move and devised its own plan, Operation Fuller (involving Royal Navy ships, Coastal Command and 100 RAF aircraft on 4-hour standby), in the event the German ships attempted to leave Brest. Despite this “readiness”, the Royal Navy and RAF were caught completely off-guard, thanks to radio jamming, atrocious weather and the Germans decision to sail in daylight up the Channel. As a result, some of the British forces had been “stood down”, with the result that the German ships went undetected for about 12 hours.

At around 1000 on 12th February, RAF radar tracked plots of Luftwaffe aircraft circling in the Channel. This prompted the RAF to send up 2 Spitfires to reconnoitre the area at 1020 which led to sightings of some of the smaller ships in the German flotilla. This was confirmed by a flight of other Spitfires which reported seeing 2 big ships and their escorts off the coast at Le Touquet at around 1040. Shortly afterwards, the German ships came under fire from the coastal guns at Dover, but they were soon out of effective radar range. There then followed a series of attacks by smaller RAF aircraft and motor torpedo boats, before the Bomber Command finally launched it first wave of 73 aircraft at 1420, although their efforts were severely hampered by the poor weather.

The most notable of the earlier airborne attacks was that by 6 aged Fairy Swordfish torpedo bomber aircraft, all of which were shot down, resulting in a posthumous Victoria Cross for their commander, Eugene Esmonde.  Admiral Ramsey later said “the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed“. According to the German Admiral Otto Cilliax, the attack was by “a handful of ancient planes piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day”.

Scharnhorst (Source: maritime-executive.com) and Gneisenau (Source: forum.worldofwarships.eu)

Alan’s involvement in the “Channel Dash” started at 1450 when he and his crew took off in Wellington R1448 to join the second wave of bombers sent by Bomber Command against the German flotilla. His was one 6 aircraft deployed by 218 Squadron (3 Wellingtons and 3 Stirlings) against the “toads” which “had moved out of Brest and were sighted in the English Channel”. This was the last time Alan was to operate in the Wellington, as these were to be the last sorties on this type before the Squadron converted fully to the 4 engined Stirling.

Unfortunately, 2 of the Wellingtons failed to take off, while R1448 had to return shortly after departure, as the hydraulics in the front turret had failed. It can be seen from the Squadron Records below that, following a hasty repair, the Wellington was airborne again 1 hour 45 minutes later. The report goes on to say “came down from the cloud on ETA and found ships below us. One ship believed destroyer seen accompanying to starboard. Attacked from ahead against the ships in line astern at about 300ft. Aerial and rear turret u/s through flak”.  Meanwhile, Alan’s best friend, another Navigator called Philip Gales, was aboard Stirling N6128, which was attacked by 3 Messerschmitt 110 fighters, as reported in combat report shown below. Despite being outnumbered, the Stirling managed to shoot down one of the attackers “which was last seen in an almost vertical dive” and “was lost to sight through cloud”. Philip was subsequently “mentioned in despatches” for bravery on the night of 3rd/4th March 1942, when he went back into a burning Stirling (N3712) to rescue his fellow crewmen, even though he himself had been badly injured.  On 23rd/24th September his Stirling was lost without trace; the only formal recognition of his ultimate sacrifice is reference to his name (and those of his crew) on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede.

Despite the efforts of the Royal Navy and RAF, all 3 capital ships made it back to Germany, even  though the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst hit mines in the Channel, with the latter stationary for more than 30 minutes at one point, before engineers got her going once more. The Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen arrived in Brunsbuttel at 0630 on 13th  February, while the Scharnhorst limped into  Wilhelmshaven at 1000, prompting the Germans to declare “Cerberus” a success, whereas for the British the “Operation Fuller” was considered a total failure.  The Scharnhorst was eventually sunk in the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943 by the Royal Navy ships (including HMS Belfast) with the loss of 1,932 of her crew, while the Gneisenau was damaged by repeated bombing and ended up being decommissioned. The Prinz Eugen survived the war and was handed over to the Americans, who used her in atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, with her finally sinking on 22nd December 1946 after developing a leak.

While all 4 of the 218 Squadron aircraft made it back to base, despite the dreadful weather and intense enemy fire, the Channel Dash resulted in significant losses for the British with 1 destroyer severely damaged, several torpedo boats damaged and 42 aircraft shot down with around 250 sailors and airmen killed or wounded. The German ships suffered relatively minor damage with 13 men killed and 2 wounded, while the Luftwaffe had 22 aircraft shot down with the loss of 23 men.

See below some more extracts and records of the Channel Dash, and for an interesting article on the operation – see this link: https://www.manstonhistory.org.uk/channel-dash-bravest-brave/.

Extracts from 218 Squadron’s Operational Records (Source: National Archives):

Combat Report for Stirling N6128 12th February 1942 (Source: National Archives):

Lecturer in Air Transport Management at Buckinghamshire New University, Module Leader in Aviation Sustainability Management. Experienced Airbus/Boeing Captain.

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