Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

On 12th February 1942, 18 young men took off on a daring mission from RAF Manston, in outdated and out gunned biplanes, to attack the German fleet sailing through the English Channel.

Leaving Brest harbour, a force of mighty ships including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, attempted a break out, supported by sixty-six surface vessels and 250 aircraft, they were to head north through the Channel out into the North Sea and homeward to Germany where they could receive valuable repairs.

For many weeks the British had been monitoring the vessels awaiting some movement out to sea. Then,  German transmitting stations based at both Calais and Cherbourg, began a cat and mouse game transmitting false readings to interfere with British radar sets on the south coast. In mid February, the Luftwaffe organised themselves over northern France and the radars went wild with false readings and interference. Temporarily blinded by these measures, the British were unable to ‘see’ the mighty armada slip out into the Channel waters. Their escape had been a success.

The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron at nearby RAF Manston in readiness for the breakout. Ageing biplanes, they were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.

In front of their Swordfish, Lieut Cdr E Esmonde, RN, (2nd Left) on board HMS Ark Royal, October 1941. This photo was taken after the attack on the Bismark, and includes the various aircrew who received decorations as a result of that daring attack. (Left to right: Lieut P D Gick, RN, awarded DSC; Lieut Cdr E Esmonde, RN, awarded DSO; Sub Lieut V K Norfolk, RN, awarded DSC; A/PO Air L D Sayer. awarded DSM; A/ Ldg Air A L Johnson, awarded DSM). (© IWM A 5828)

In the cold winter of 1942, the Swordfish were kept ready, engines warmed and torpedoes armed, when suddenly and unexpectedly, at 12:25 on the 12th February, the fleet was sighted. They could no longer wait, and instead of attacking as planned at night, they would have to attack during the day, and so the order was given. The crews started their engines and set off on their daring and suicidal mission.

Shortly after take off, the escort arrived, merely ten Spitfires from No. 72 Squadron RAF, led by Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe, and not the five Spitfire squadrons promised. The six Swordfish, led by  Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde, dived to 50 feet and began their attack. Hoping to fly below the level of the anti-aircraft guns each of the six Swordfish flew gallantly toward their targets. Eventually hit and badly damaged, they pressed home their attacks, but they were out-gunned, and out performed, and just twenty minutes after the attack began, all six had fallen victim to the German guns. No torpedoes had struck home.

Of the eighteen men who took off that day, only five were to survive.

Leading the attack, Lt. Cdr. Esmonde was warded the V.C. Posthumously, he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack on the Battleship Bismark; an award that also went to: S/Lt. B Rose, S/Lt. E Lee, S/Lt. C Kingsmill, and S/Lt. R Samples. Flying with them, L/A. D. Bunce was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve of the airmen were mentioned in dispatches.

In their honour and to commemorate the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen men are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.

Operation 'Fuller'

The memorial stands in Ramsgate Harbour.

Operation 'Fuller'

The names of the 18 airmen and the Swordfish they flew.


11 thoughts on “Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

  1. The timing of the attack could not have helped. Midday! The only word to describe this whole terrible affair is “blunder” of the type that blighted the British in WW1 more than WW2. So close to the British mainland with a huge armada of bombers and fighters up and down the east coast of England and all that was sent was 6 Swordfish and 10 Spitfires to attack three highly prized naval assets. That is just shocking and a complete waste of men and material.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A dreadful story, well told as always. The Kriegsmarine were extremely audacious in what they attempted with the British their usual low achieving selves in 1942. For me, it was dreadful to have all six of those Swordfish shot down and so many brave men sent to their deaths. I would have expected that the Royal Navy might have been involved more. They might have sent out a large number of MTBs and attacked the German ships that way. I also have the sneaking feeling that the arrival of 10 Spitfires rather than five squadrons might have been due to inter-service rivalry. Let’s hope not!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I suspect you may have been right there John, inter-service rivalry played a part on more than one occasion! Certainly it could have been better planned and considering the prize at stake, you’d have thought a better combined force would have been thought of.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This event has fascinated me for as long as I can remember: It really was an incredible action by both sides. The audacity of the Kreigsmarine to run three capital ships through the narrow and hostile Channel almost beggars belief. At the very least it shows that the supremacy of air power over naval – as demonstrated by the Japanese on Prince of Wales and Repulse almost a year earlier – had perhaps still not fully struck home in Berlin.
    On the other hand your line “The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish…” shows just how beleaguered Britain’s defences remained in September ’42. Once again, the nation had to rely on the courage of its aircrews. And once again, those aircrews were not found wanting.
    Thanks for keeping ‘The Channel Dash’ in the limelight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. The original plan was to attack at night, perhaps under the cover of darkness, the six aircraft may have stood a slightly better chance of success, but because the German fleet was sighted late, this was not to be. Sending those six out when they did was suicide and I’m sure the crews knew their chances were slim. You are absolutely right, Britain’s ability to attack such a fleet was weak at best, the only hope being the determination and bravery of those flying in the aircraft. It’s certainly a fascinating operation to study further.

      Liked by 1 person

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