A memorial service has been held in the English Channel to mark the anniversary of the ‘Channel Dash’. Watch a report about the service from BBC News.
The Channel Dash is the name given to an action that took place during the Second World War. For several months, from early 1941, three German ships (the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen) had been trapped in the French port of Brest, where they were subjected to heavy bombing by the RAF.
On 12 February 1942, RAF Spitfires reported that the German ships were making a break for the safety of a North German port. The British hastily assembled a force of six Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers. These were slow and vulnerable aircraft. To have any success reaching and attacking the German ships they would need a large escort of fighter planes. Unfortunately the Spitfire squadrons were too far away and speed in launching the attack was critial. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde – who was in command of the Swordfish bombers – made the decision to go after the German ships with a small escort of just ten Spitfires.
The RAF Station Commander at Manston said of Esmonde:
“He knew what he was going into. But it was his duty. His face was tense and white. It was the face of a man already dead. It shocked me as nothing has ever done since.”
German Messerschmitts engaged the Spitfires soon after they had set out and the Swordfish were left on their own. They approached the German ships, under heavy attack from the fighter planes escorting them. Some were able to drop their torpedoes, although none made contact with the ships. All six Swordfish were shot down with the loss of 13 of the 18 crew. Those 18 crew were decorated for their part in the action, with Esmonde receiving a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Further attacks were launched by Royal Navy ships and RAF fighters and bombers but the German ships were able to reach safety. It did however mean that the German navy was never again able to launch attacks on Atlantic convoys from Western French ports.
This photo shows the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau travelling in a line with their guns firing. It is believed to have been taken during the Channel Dash on 12 February 1942.
There are a few memorials commemorating this action. These include a wooden memorial board in Manston, Kent. It reads:
THE FLEET AIR ARM CREWS OF/ 825 SWORDFISH SQUADRON WHO LOST THEIR LIVES/ IN THE “CHANNEL DASH ACTION” AGAINST/ THE GERMAN BATTLESHIPS/SCHARNHORST, GNEISENAU AND CRUISER PRINZ EUGEN/ FEBRUARY 12TH 1942/ (NAMES)/ 825 SQUADRON WAS TEMPORARILY BASED HERE AT/ RAF MANSTON AND THE OPERATION TOOK OFF FROM HERE/PRESENTED BY THE EAST KENT BRANCH/ FLEET AIR ARM ASSOCIATION
HMS Belfast, now a floating museum and a branch of the Imperial War Museum, was later involved with the sinking of the Scharnhorst, on Boxing Day 1943.