The Second World War was full of extraordinary operations many of which succeeded in their aim resulting in great jubilation on home shores, whilst others will always be remembered for their catastrophic fail and loss of life. In these operations, and even though the mission may have failed, those who took part went far beyond the ‘call of duty’, showing incredible bravery and self sacrifice for the better good.
One such operation took place on February 12th 1942.
Up until now, German warships had been causing havoc in the waters around Britain, sinking in excess of 100,000 tons of allied shipping since the opening days of the war; their ‘trophies’ including the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and the battleship HMS Hood. In January 1942, three of those German warships responsible the Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen, all heavily armed and battle hardened, were laying in the port of Brest. Even by remaining there, they were causing the Royal Navy an immense headache, as they were diverted from other important tasks, including operations in the Middle East against German supply ships supplying Rommel, and the valuable protection of allied shipping crossing the Atlantic. The small fleet were a major thorn in the Royal Navy’s side and had to be dealt with.
Aiming to sink these ships, the RAF became involved undertaking a total of 299 attacks against them whilst they were stationed in the port. During these attacks, 43 aircraft were lost along with 247 airmen. The ships were indeed hit, and in the case of Scharnhorst, damaged badly, but none badly enough not to be beyond repair.
The decision was eventually made to move the ships, Hitler’s fear of a second front being opened in Scandinavia proving to be the deciding factor. On that decision two routes were considered, the northern route around Scotland which would take the small, but powerful fleet in range of British carriers and warships at Scapa Flow, a fight the Germans did not want to engage in. Alternatively, they could attempt a daring dash through the narrow and well defended English Channel. It was a difficult decision to make.
Following a meeting on January 12th, 1942 between many top ranking German officials including Hitler, Raeder (the C In C of the Navy), Vice-Admiral Ciliax and Adolf Galland as commander of the Luftwaffe in the Channel area, a decision was finally made, the shorter English Channel route would be the one to take.
Both Galland and other Luftwaffe officials knew that there were too few available fighters in the region – some two groups and a few training units – to be able to provide 24 hour protection of the ships as they dashed through the straights. Night fighters were needed, a decision which was affirmed and granted by Major General Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff; but the numbers of aircraft available to Galland would still remain greatly inferior to those on British soil ready to attack.
So, Operation Thunderbolt was born with February 11th chosen as ‘X’ day, and a sailing time set at 8:00pm. In the weeks leading up to the ‘dash’, German transmitting stations based at both Calais and Cherbourg, began a cat and mouse game transmitting a series of elaborate but false messages to interfere with British radar stations along the south coast. They provided a cover story, suggesting that the fleet would set sail but head toward the Pacific in support of the Japanese and not north to Scandinavia. In preparation, trial runs were made to test engines, guns and communications. The British, now monitoring their actions, began a series of raids on the port, none of which proved to be successful.
During these attacks, which had been occurring regularly since early January, several aircraft were lost including: three Manchesters from 61 Squadron; two Hampdens from 144 Sqn; three Wellingtons, one each from 12, 142 and 300 Sqns and on the 10th February, another Manchester from 61 Sqn.
To meet this challenge, Galland had some 252 fighters, including a mix of 109s, 190s and some thirty 110 night fighters at his disposal, but still not enough to provide the cover he wanted.
As ‘X’ day approached, the radars went wild with false readings and interference. But the British, now aware of an impending escape, were on high alert, additional Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) were docked at Dover and Swordfish aircraft were drafted in to RAF Manston in Kent. Some 1,100 magnetic mines were laid along the projected route and Dover command was put on standby. At 8:00pm on February 11th, the flotilla began to assemble outside of Brest harbour, but miraculously the British launched a routine air raid and the port was shut down. Although only one aircraft was lost, a Wellington from 150 Sqn, the raid proved no more than a nuisance, only delaying the fleet’s departure by two hours.
Now temporarily blinded by false radio measures, the British were unable to ‘see’ the mighty armada finally slip out into the Channel waters. Their escape had been a success.
During the night, good progress was made by the fleet and the lost time was made up quickly. Meanwhile, the skies remained quiet, the British not yet realising the ruse. The early morning remained dark, night fighters patrolled along side the fleet at wave top level, thus avoiding detection by British radar. Day fighters joined them in a relay operation that would be held below the cloud ceiling of 1,500 feet.
At 11:00 am, the Germans intercepted a British message signalling the spotting of the fleet. But it remained another hour before further aircraft were seen, the British being wary and unsure of the message’s accuracy.
In the early hours of the afternoon, as the fleet approached the narrowest point of the Channel, British defences at Dover opened fire. A sea battle then raged between German and British MTBs, all to no avail though.
Now fully aware of the situation, the RAF and Navy were called into action. At RAF Manston, eighteen young men took off on what was a daring and almost suicidal mission in both outdated and out gunned Swordfish biplanes, to attack the escaping German fleet. The fleet, some sixty-six surface vessels, now sailed almost unopposed through the English Channel.
The six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron were ageing biplanes, they were no match for Galland’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.
The winter of 1942 was very cold, but the Swordfish were kept ready, engines warmed and torpedoes armed, now 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 mission in what was appalling weather.
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 down 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.
The attack became known as ‘The Channel dash’ officially called operation Fuller, and in honour of the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen Swordfish crew are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.
Operation Fuller was a disaster not only for the Royal Navy but also for the Royal Air Force. A force of some 100 aircraft made up from almost every Group of Bomber Command also made its way to the Channel. By the time evening had dawned it had become clear that some sixteen aircraft from the force had been lost. The loss of life from those sixteen aircraft totalled sixty-four, with a further five being captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war.*1
Bomber Command were not without their terrible stories either. The sad loss of W/C. R MacFadden DFC and his six crew who remained in their dingy after their Wellington from 214 Sqn ditched in the cold waters of the Channel. Over a period of 72 hours all but Sgt. Murray, slowly died from the cold, he being rescued at the last minute and incarcerated by the Germans. Of all the RAF squadrons that took part that day, their losses amounted to: 49 Sqn (4 x Hampdens); 50 Sqn (1 x Hampden); 103 Sqn (1 x Wellington); 110 Sqn (1 x Blenheim); 114 Sqn (1 x Blenheim); 144 Sqn (2 x Hampdens); 214 Sqn (1 x Wellington); 419 Sqn (2 x Wellingtons); 420 Sqn (2 x Hampdens) and 455 Sqn (1 x Hampden)*2
February 12th had been a disaster, so bad that The Daily Mirror reported on February 16th 1942, under the headline “9 Lost Hours in the Channel” that a demand had been put forward to Parliament for a complete statement on Naval strategy, and questioning the “suitability of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound”, to fulfil his role. The paper goes onto say that a lag of some nine hours had largely been ignored by officials, the time between the first notice and when action was finally taken against the fleet. It also says that although the initial sighting was no earlier than 10:42 am, it took another hour before it too was responded to. The public had been mislead it believed.
However, from that disaster came stories of untold heroism, bravery and self sacrifice by a group of men that have turned this event into one of Britain’s most remarkable and incredible stories of the war.
*1 To read more about Bomber Commands part in operation Fuller and a German film of the event, see the Pathfinders Website.
*2 Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War – 1942” 1994, Midland Counties publications.
A German account of the ‘dash’ is given in “The First and the Last” by Adolf Galland published in 1955 by Meuthuen & Co.. Ltd.
For further information on the Bomber Command role see the RAF Pathfinder’s archive Website.