Chapter 12: The Struggle at Sea
The First Battle of the Convoy Routes, the Anti-Shipping Offensive, and the Escape of the ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’
.’The main target for the Navy during the Eastern campaign still remains Britain.’ Admiral Raeder’s ‘Barbarossa’ directive of 6th March 1941 removed any doubt that might have existed in the minds of his subordinates. Whatever fresh fields of conquest Hitler might discover for his army and air force, the task of the Deutsche Kriegsmarine remained obstinately the same.
It was not, then, for want of trying on the part of the enemy that the months following the fateful attack of 22nd June saw a great reduction in our shipping losses. In June, which from our point of view was a big improvement on May and April, the two Axis powers had still managed to sink over 400,000 tons of British, Allied and neutral merchant shipping. But in July they sank only 120,000 tons; and in August, though the total against slightly increased, the U-boats continued to show declining returns. For a few hopeful moments victory in the Battle of the Atlantic seemed almost within our grasp.
This new situation resulted from a combination of factors. Our naval and air action had destroyed, damaged or bottled up most of the German capital ships. Stronger surface forces were accompanying our convoys over longer distances. Evasive routeing was being practised without outstanding success. We had captured or killed the most skilful and experienced of the U-boat crews—including, by May, the last of the ‘pre-war’ captains. And by no means least, there was the effect of our strengthened and extended air patrols.
Up to March 1941 by far the greater part of our losses had occurred in the Western Approaches. In that month Nos. 107 and 114 Bomber Squadrons were lent to Coastal Command for work over the North Sea, and a strong Coastal force was concentrated in the north-west under No. 15 Group. The effect was almost instantaneous. In April the U-boats began withdrawing to mid-Atlantic. By June they were scoring nine-tenths of their success beyond the limits of our air patrols. So profound a transformation was, of course, not merely a change of battleground. To reach their new operational areas the U-boats had to spend far longer on patrol, and when they got there they found no such wealth of targets as in the narrower waters nearer home.
This pattern of cause and effect was repeated off the West African coast. Losses suffered towards the end of 1940 led to the decision to form a Sunderland squadron (No. 95) to operate from Bathurst and Freetown. Various difficulties supervened, and it was not until 24th March 1941, that the first two flying-boats started work. By that time the Germans were fully alive to the possibilities of the area, and in May they sank in West African waters no less than thirty ships. Obviously our air patrols, as yet carried out by only five aircraft, were too thin. A reinforcement of six Hudsons—the future No. 200 Squadron—was accordingly sent out from home during June, and during September a further Sunderland Squadron (No. 204) followed. By October, when a West African Command was set under Air Commodore E. A. B. Rice, the flying effort had increased fourfold in as many months. Pari passu, the shipping losses declined. In June the U-boats sank five vessels within six hundred miles of the shore; in July one; in August one; and in September none. Disgusted by this lack of success, to which the diversion of independently routed shipping and the destruction of German supply ships by the Navy also powerfully contributed, Dönitz soon acted as we had hoped. He withdrew his forces from West African waters.
Among the many incidents of this encouraging phase of the struggle, when losses in all waters were lower than at any time since May 1940, one stands supreme. On 27th August 1941, an aircraft captured a U-boat.
In the early morning of that day the crew of a Hudson of No. 269 Squadron, on patrol from Iceland, spotted the swirl which betokens a diving submarine. Visibility was poor, and a hour passed before close search yielded a glimpse of the vessel. The pilot at once seized his chance, but as he came in to attack the depth-charges hung up, and the enemy escaped. His wireless reports, however, had by then brought other aircraft towards the scene, and at 1050 hours—over
four hours after the original sighting—a second Hudson of the same squadron, piloted by Squadron Leader J. H. Thompson, came up with the quarry. The U-boat, which was in the act of breaking surface, at once crash-dived, but not before the Hudson launched a salvo of depth-charges. These straddled it squarely as it disappeared beneath the waves. For a few seconds the crew of the aircraft saw only four great plumes of sea and spray; then, as the disturbance subsided, they descried on the surface, its nose slightly down, the U.570. Then or twelve German sailors were on deck. Treated to a burst of the Hudson’s guns they scrambled rapidly into the conning-tower, whence they cautiously waved a white article bearing a suspicious resemblance to a dress-shirt. Such, indeed, it proved to be—the captain’s. Soon afterwards other members of the crew appeared on deck bearing a large white board. The Hudson reported these curious proceedings to base, then, in foul weather, circled her prize until relived by a Catalina of No. 209 Squadron. ‘Look after our sub., which has shown the white flag,’ signalled the Hudson. ‘O.K.,’ replied the Catalina; and the watch continued. Shortly before midnight the first trawler came on the scene, but mountainous waves mad a boarding-party impossible. Relays of aircraft accordingly kept vigil throughout the night, with the help of flares; and the following afternoon, when the seas has lessened and several more trawlers and a destroyer had arrived, the U.570 was boarded and taken in tow. Interrogation revealed that she was on her maiden voyage, and that the depth-charges had extinguished her lights and started a small discharge of chlorine. This had demoralized some of the crew, who had insisted on instant surrender. The captain, also on his first operational trip, had lacked the experience of the character to deal with the situation.
The capture of this U-boat had far-reaching effects, for it enabled the Admiralty to study the details of her construction. It also represented not merely a loss to the enemy but a gain to ourselves. Some months later, when the curiosity of our technicians was sufficiently satisfied, the U.570 was commissioned for service in the Royal Navy as H.M.S. Graph—under which name she was soon in action against one of her sister-vessels.
The satisfactory state of affairs of July and August 1941 was not quite maintained in September, when losses increased to 267,000 tons. But only three of the fifty-three ships torpedoed by U-boats were sunk within 350 miles of our air bases, and in the second week of the month convoys brought into British ports the largest volume of goods for any week since August 1939. Another encouraging feature was the success of our ship-borne aircraft. August had already seen the
fighter-catapult ship drawing first blood against the Focke-Wulf Condor. Now, in September, came the auxiliary, or escort, carrier—a great improvement on the C.A.M. and F.C. ship in that it carried more aircraft and received them back on deck. Its début was triumphant. five hundred miles south-west of Brest a Condor attacked one of our convoys. From the auxiliary carrier H.M.S. Audacity, a captured and converted enemy merchant vessel, a Martlet took off and engaged. The result was quick and decisive—one less Condor to prey upon our shipping.
The most important development of September 1941 was the increasingly generous interpretation of neutrality take by the United States. Earlier in the year the Americans had decided that there was little point in sending aid across the Atlantic unless it reached it destination. Towards the end of April, American naval and air forces accordingly began to search for Axis vessels far out into the western half of the ocean. When they found them, they reported the matter to base in plain language signals, a procedure much appreciated by the Royal and Royal Canadian Navies. The next step had followed in July, when American forces joined our own in Iceland. Now, at the beginning of September, the Americans announced their intention not merely of reporting but of destroying any axis raider found approaching the convoy routes between North America and Iceland. Under this arrangement by the middle of the month the United States Navy was escorting convoys two-thirds of the way to Britain. ‘In waters we deem necessary to our defence,’ thundered President Roosevelt on 11th September, ‘American naval forces and American planes will no longer wait until Axis submarines lurking under the water, or Axis raiders, working on the surface, strike their deadly blow first. … Let this warning be clear. From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter water the protection of which is necessary for American defence, they do so at their own peril. …’ Four days later Congress modified the Neutrality Act so that American vessels could carry war materials to our possessions in the Near East, the Far East and the Western Hemisphere.
All this was quite enough to make Admiral Dönitz complain to Hitler on 17th September of ‘the great difficulties caused by the very strong Anglo-American escorts and the extensive enemy air patrols’. At the same time the German U-boat chief reported that the could achieve results equal to those of the previous year only if he had three or four times as many U-boats in service. In this he was certainly not exaggerating; for at that moment, with an average of some forty operational U-boats at sea, his forces were proving
rather less successful than in the autumn of 1940 with an average of nine.1
All this was the more remarkable in that our Sunderlands, Whitleys, Hudsons and Catalinas were still only at the beginning of their powers. Formidable enough to inspire the enemy with a determination not to break surface in their presence, they were not formidable enough to destroy him when he did. By the end of September 1941, Coastal Command’s 245 attacks on U-boats had resulted in only one sunk, one captured, three destroyed in conjunction with surface craft, and a dozen or so seriously damaged. Dönitz’s forces had retired beyond the range of our aircraft, not because these had proved deadly in themselves, but because they were the eyes of the Navy. The use of depth-charges instead of bombs had not yet altered matters. Our aircraft could seek, find, report, strike and wound. They could not yet kill.
It was the firm intention of the Sir Philip Joubert to remedy this defect. The new Coastal chief was determined not to rest until the aeroplane was thoroughly lethal to the submarine. In this resolve he was powerfully and ably supported by his staff, among whom special mention must be mad of the Senior Naval Officer, Captain D. V. Peyton-Ward—an office who was at Coastal Command Headquarters throughout the entire war, and who, an ex-submarine officer himself, fully vindicated the principle of ‘set a thief to catch a thief’. the months that followed Joubert’s accession were accordingly crammed with important tactical and technical development. Not content with existing weapons, Joubert pressed for heavier types of anti-submarine bomb, bomb-sights for low attack, and depth-charge pistols which would detonate at less than fifty feet below the surface. To make the most of the available experience, he ordered all reports of air attacks on U-boats since the beginning of the war to be analysed by the Coastal Command Operation Research Section, so that a standard attack-procedure could be devise. To render the attack invisible for as long as possible, he encouraged tests with various forms of camouflage (already initiated by Sir Frederick
Bowhill, with the result that the sides and under-surfaces of all anti-U-boat aircraft were eventually painted white.2 he also made every effort, in cooperation with the Telecommunications Research Establishment and the Radar Directorate at the air Ministry, to secure improvements in the two existing marks of A.S.V., besides urging speed in the development of a 1 cm. equipment which promised to be greatly superior. To many other requisites for locating and attacking a submarine in darkness or poor visibility, such as a suitable illuminant and an accurate low-reading altimeter, he and his staff also gave the closest attention. All this activity was to reap its reward later.
Meanwhile the increased shipping losses of September 1941 had once more raised the question of the employment of our bombers. Should they, or should they not, be called upon to play a greater part in the war at sea? In June the Air Staff, with the approval of the War Cabinet, had at last freed Bomber Command from its defensive preoccupations, and had begun a systematic offensive against German transportation and morale. Obviously, a carefully planned strategy so recently undertaken would not be abandoned for any save the most compelling of reasons; and the Air Ministry could point out that even under the existing policy a quarter of our bombing effort was still being directed against German maritime targets. The Admiralty, however, naturally viewed matters from a different standpoint. On 21st October—a date already not without significance in naval history—they accordingly asked for heavier air attack against U-boat bases and construction yards.
This request might have been easier to meet had the naval authorities consented to forgo operations by our bombers against the German warships in Brest. They still expected, however, a harassing scale of attacks on these objectives; and before the year was out their demands were to go much higher. Unable to satisfy all requirements, the Air Staff ordered a compromise. While agreeing to pay more attention to the construction yards in German, since these could be fitted into the general framework of the current offensive, they refused to accept as a priority target the operational bases on the Biscay coast. With this the Admiralty we perforce content. The Air Ministry then issued a new directive to Bomber Command call for attacks against the yards in Hamburg, Kiel, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven whenever the weather was such that the Commander-in-Chief
decided to concentrate on north-west Germany. Only one operational base was mentioned in this document. If the weather was unsuitable over the Reich, Bomber Command was recommended to attack Lorient.
On the night of 23/24th November, Lorient was duly attacked by fifty-three Hampdens and Manchesters. No great damage resulted. Apart from an earlier raid on the same town by forty-seven Hampdens and Wellingtons on 4/5th July, this was the only serious attempt to bomb a U-boat base in the second half of 1941. Six or seven times this weight of attack was directed against Brest during December alone, but the targets there were the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen, which lay at the opposite extremity of the port from the U-boats.
In the light of after events, it may well have been a mistake to send in the latter half of 1941 over a thousand sorties against the three German warships and little more than a hundred against the operational bases of the U-boats. Such, however, was the Admiralty’s preference. Leaving aside our superiority over the Germans in major vessels, which was seriously impaired by the events of November and December 1941, the most remarkable feature of this choice was that in five of the bases—Lorient, Brest, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux and La Pallice—the Germans were known to be building bomb-proof submarine shelters. And as they had to start by digging down very deep behind caissons, we had an excellent chance of causing flooding and heavy damage by bomb-blast during the early stages of the work. Indeed, the shelters remained susceptible to attack up to the time when their concrete roofs, many feet thick, were in position. But in face of the generally declining losses at sea, the small bomber effort available, the Air Ministry’s preoccupation with Germany, and the Admiralty’s preoccupation with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, very little was done to hinder their construction. By the beginning of 1942 the chance had passed, for all shelters at Brest and Lorient, and most of those at St. Nazaire and La Pallice, were beyond the stage at which they were likely to be much affected by air attack. The full consequences of the omission were to become plain a year later, when the shipping losses reached a new peak. Our heavy bombers, as described in Volume II (Chapter XIII), were then at last directed in force against Lorient and St. Nazaire. From the cascade of fire and high explosive which descended on the two ports practically nothing emerged intact—except the U-boat pens.
In the closing months of 1941, however, bombardment of the Biscay bases did not appear essential. After the scare of September, the October shipping losses showed a decline of 218,000 tons; and
the total for November—100,000 tons, of which only 62,000 tons were sunk by U-boats—was better still. Unfortunately these figures were less a reflection of our counter-measures than of autumn gales in the Atlantic and the development of events elsewhere.
Worried by the mounting success of our naval and air offensive against the Axis convoy routes to Libya, on 26th August Hitler had decided to send six U-boats into the Mediterranean. They reached their destinations in the closing days of September. By the end of the year several more had followed. Five were sunk en route and six so damaged that they abandoned their attempt, but eighteen got through. The effect of this move was certainly felt in the new zone of operations, where November saw the loss of the Ark Royal and the Barham. But it was equally apparent in the Atlantic, where the U-boats found November less profitable than any previous month of the year.
The enemy’s increased interest in the Mediterranean made it essential to strengthen our air organization at Gibraltar. Thus far, No. 200 Group had controlled only one Royal Air Force squadron—No. 202, whose London flying-boats had operated from the harbour since the earliest days of the war. These obsolete aircraft had by now given place to Catalinas, but the squadron still retained a few Swordfish float-planes on loan from the Fleet Air Arm. Other Fleet Air Arm Swordfish, of the normal type from carriers, also operated under the Group, suing a ‘strip’ which had been built across the old racecourse on North Front and during the autumn, long-range A.S.V. had enabled one of these squadrons—No. 812—to perform fine work against U-boats attempting to enter the Straits. The general resources of the Group, however, were clearly inadequate for the new situation, and at the end of November a number of important changes were made. The Group was abolished and a new organization directly responsible to Coastal command, and known as Royal Air Force Gibraltar, was formed under Air Commodore S. P. Simpson. At the same time, liaison between the Navy and Air Force was greatly improved by the setting-up of an Area Combined Headquarters, working on the lines of those in the United Kingdom. Equally important, ten Hudsons on No. 233 Squadron were sent out from home as a reinforcement.
The prospect before the pilots of this squadron was not enviable. In fast modern with more than a slight tendency to swing on take-off, they were required to operate from a strip only 950 yards long—a strip beset by winds of unpredictable behaviour and terminating abruptly at the water’s edge. The job could certainly be done, for Wellingtons were already using the runway on reinforcement flights
to the Middle East. The conditions, however, left no margin for error, and the accident rate for long continued high.
The Hudsons’ first task was to give a good start to the next homeward bound convoy. Several U-boats were known to be lying in wait, and the departure of the convoy was accordingly delayed until the strongest possible air and surface escort had been assembled. On 14th December, HG76 at length sailed—thirty-two merchant vessels under an escort which included the auxiliary carrier Audacity. At once the U-boats gained contact. Gibraltar’s Swordfish, however, were also present, and three times during night of the 14th and the early hours of the 15th they drove off the enemy. At 0815 on the 15th the Hudsons and Catalinas took over, helped by the Audacity’s Martlets. The repeated patrols of these aircraft, continued throughout that day and the next, forced the U-boats completely out of touch. Such good fortune could not last; during the 16th the inevitable Focke-Wulf appeared and put the hunters back on the scent. As night came on they drew up with their quarry. The morning of the 17th dawned, the convoy was beyond air range from Gibraltar, the U-boats had their chance. On the next four days no less than nine closed in. The escort, however, was fiercely effective and disposed of four of the attacks and two Condors. On our side the losses were two merchant-vessels, a destroyer, and the Audacity. So, with superb courage and seamanship, HG76 battled on; and at 1054 on 22nd December it was met, 750 miles out from our Ulster base of Nutts Corner, by a Liberator of No. 120 Squadron. This aircraft at once drove off a shadowing Focke-Wulf, then, two hours later, sighted and attacked a U-boat. At 1620 another Liberator took its place; within three hours it had forced three more U-boats to submerge. Reaching ‘prudent limit of endurance’, the aircraft then turned for home, but its appearance had been enough, and the enemy decided to break off the action. The next day the convoy came within range of continuous air support from our north-western bases. HG76 had won through, to illustrate what happened when air cover was, and was not, present.
Meantime the war at sea had entered a new climacteric. On 7th December the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor and Singapore. With the Prince of Wales, the Repulse and the American Pacific Fleet alike victims of Japanese aircraft, the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant damaged by Italian ‘human torpedoes’, and the merchant shipping losses soaring to 486,000 tons, December 1941 was indeed a black month. In the Atlantic, things still went well; but even there the picture was about to change. Having, for better or worse, declared war on the United States, Germany could now throw the last
restraints on U-boat warfare to the winds. Along the eastern seaboard of North and Central America there plied an endless variety of unprotected shipping; and as 1942 opened, six of Dönitz’s largest vessels, sent across to sample the fare, settled in to a rich repast.
The Battle of the Atlantic continued.
Besides playing an increasing part in the defensive struggle against the U-boats, the Royal Air Force during 1941 developed an offensive against the enemy’s merchant shipping.
At the beginning of the war there was in force, on the British side, a carefully drawn-up code of regulations governing attacks on merchant vessels. Its safeguards were so comprehensive that if our airmen stopped to observe them they were virtually certain to be shot down. ‘Legality’ was the order of the day, Bomber and Coastal Commands were in any case heavily engaged against German naval units, and the enemy’s merchant shipping went its way largely unmolested from the air.
This state of affairs altered when the Germans attacked Norway and Denmark in April 1940. Enemy merchant ships were now accomplices in treacherous aggression against small and inoffensive neutrals. Our respect for formalities accordingly declined. In certain areas the full rigours of search etiquette were relaxed, and our pilots warmed to the attack.
The process of emancipation from pre-war regulations was completed when the enemy overran France and the Low Countries. The marine traffic of a nation in control of the whole European coastline from the North Cape to the Spanish frontier was obviously a matter of great importance: if allowed to flourish without interference, it could take a heavy load off overburdened roads and railways. For the moment, however, we were more concerned with the fact that German-controlled vessels were about to be used in ‘Operation Sealion’. During the ensuing three months our attacks were accordingly concentrated on the barges and other shipping lying in the crowded docks and harbours across the Channel. Vessels under way offered fewer attractions as targets, and were rated lower in our scale of priority.
By October 1940 conditions were ripening for a change. The Government had relaxed its scruples to the extent of declaring ‘sink at sight’ areas in the North Sea, the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay; Coastal Command had at last acquired a small but efficient striking force in the form of the Beauforts of No. 22 Squadron; the German invasion-flotillas had been dispersed and the days of purely
defensive bombing were drawing to a close. Attacks against ships at sea grew more frequent.
The progress of events at the opening of 1941 added further point to this new offensive. As Hitler was obviously about to strike in the Balkans, the more aircraft we could force him to retain in north-west Europe the better. We were already flying ‘Circuses’—offensives sweeps in daylight by escorted bombers against ‘fringe’ targets designed to inflict casualties on the German fighter force. If to these we could add systematic attacks on coastal traffic, so forcing the enemy to provide strong and regular fighter escort for his convoys, the effect on developments in Greece might be considerable.
Unfortunately Coastal Command was at this time quite unable to mount a full-scale offensive of this kind in the most obviously profitable area, the waters to the south and east of our island; for the much more important struggle against the U-boats demanded concentration on the waters to the north and west. The main weight of effort against vessels sailing along the Dutch and Channel coasts was accordingly borne by the ‘Circus’ forces—the Blenheims of No. 2 Group, Bomber Command. From the middle of March these aircraft bombed ‘fringe’ targets only when they found no vessels to attack. Between the end of February and the middle of June, Bomber Command carried out twelve, and Coastal Command six, major attacks under fighter escort against previously detected shipping. Both Commands also delivered lesser attacks against ships reported beyond fighter range, and Coastal Command continued to fly a large number of individual search-and-strike missions.
April 24th, 1941, ushered in a fresh development. On that day a flight of Blenheim bombers of No. 101 Squadron was moved to Manston, in Fighter Command’s No. 11 Group. Assured of immediate escort, the flight began a sustained attempt to close the Straits to all enemy ships during daylight; for the M.T.B.s at Dover could be relied upon to look after matters if the Germans had to make the passage by night. In this modest fashion, with half a dozen bombers, began the ‘Channel Stop’—an operation which, with enlarged resources, soon became as good as its name.
By June 1941 the anti-shipping campaign was gathering momentum. Single aircraft of Coastal Command, equipped to take full advantage of suitable occasions for attack, were carrying out regular offensive reconnaissance along the enemy coastline from Stadlandet to Lorient. Unarmed Spitfires were periodically securing photographs of all the main ports. Beauforts and Hudsons, in free-lance patrols at irregular intervals, were scouring the Channel and North Sea. And whenever the opportunity arose, the Blenheims of No. 2 Group,
escorted within range by Fighter Command, were attacking targets at sea rather than on shore.
The fruits of this activity were soon visible. The enemy convoys began to sail under the protection of stronger surface escorts, special ‘ flak-ships’ and regular fighter cover. At the same time the Germans began to devote to ship-building resources already earmarked for other purposes. Unfortunately there was also another side to the picture. To score hits our aircraft had to come right down and bomb from mast-height, or little over; and the armament of merchant-ships and escort alike was becoming truly formidable. Between 1st April and 30th June 1941 the Blenheims of No. 2 Group flew over a thousand sorties against merchant-shipping at sea; 297 managed to attack, and 36 were lost. During the same period, 143 aircraft of Coastal Command delivered attacks at a cost of 52 machines. Out of every aircraft which attacked, one failed to return. As a healthy occupation for aircrew in mid-1941, bombing German ships by day had much less to command it than bombing German towns by night.
Hitler’s invasion of Russia was another landmark in the development of these operations. A few days before the German attack the Chiefs of Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands were ordered to report on the best way of forcing the enemy to maintain a strong air force in the West. They recommended that the Blenheims of Bomber Command, in cooperation with Fighter Command, should operate in strength against the Béthune-Lens industrial area and that Coastal Command should attack all enemy shipping reported during daylight in the Channel. When combined with Bomber Command’s night raids against communications in the Ruhr such operations would, it was thought, seriously affect the enemy’s transport system. The primary object, however, was to make the Germans hold back their fighters from the forthcoming advance into Russia.
These proposals were accepted, and on 27th June Coastal Command’s No. 16 Group, employing Nos. 22 (Beaufort) and 59 (Blenheim) Squadrons, began intensive operations against Channel shipping. But the arrangement was scarcely in force when it was succeeded by another. A disagreement between Joubert and Peirse about responsibility for bombing led to a clearer definition of spheres of interest. On 15th July it was agreed that Bomber Command should be primarily responsible for anti-shipping operations over the sea area between Cherbourg and Texel—an eastern limit shortly altered to Wilhelmshaven—and Coastal Command over the rest of the sea round the British Isles. If a target required greater resources than were available to the Command primarily responsible, the other Command would do its best to supply reinforcements. These would
be operated by the Command borrowing them. At the same time, to increase the effectiveness of the ‘Channel Stop’, two squadrons of No. 2 Group were to be stationed permanently near the South-East Coast. These were to be a ‘fire brigade’, always available for sudden calls—though to create rather than extinguish fires. Fighter Command would help by supplying escort and shooting up the decks before the bombers went in.
The new arrangement came into effect on 18th July. In the months that followed, up to the end of 1941, Coastal Command’s No. 18 Group attacked 160 vessels in the northern half of the North Sea. Many of these were undoubtedly carrying Norwegian and Swedish iron ore, a traffic of outstanding importance to the German war economy. Fifteen vessels (34,702 tons) were assessed at the time as sunk, besides many others damaged, and the sinking of sixteen (16,024 tons) has since been verified. The cost was 33 aircraft. During the same period No. 2 Group, Coastal Command’s No. 16 Group and Fighter Command, operating between Wilhelmshaven and Cherbourg, found 499 ships to attack. Their sinking were assessed at forty-two ships (89,429 tons), of which twenty-three (22,933 tons) have since been confirmed. Fifty-five bombers, twenty-three coastal aircraft and four fighters were lost in the course of this work. West of Cherbourg and in the Bay, Coastal Command’s No. 19 Group attacked 36 ships at a cost of eight aircraft, and Bomber Command three ships without loss. Between them they sank, according to the contemporary estimate, two vessels. The loss of two vessels in this areas has since been confirmed—though one of them did not figure in the claim! All told, 698 merchant ships were thus attacked by the three Commands between 1st July and 31st December 1941. Fifty-nine were thought to have been sunk; at least forty-one are now positively known to have been sunk; and total cost on our side was 123 aircraft.
This achievement was regarded with different degrees of enthusiasm in different places. The Admiralty throughout expressed a firm belief in the value of the offensive; but the Air Ministry, increasingly disturbed by the cost in aircraft, was less convinced. Its doubts were fully echoed at Bomber Command. Almost from the start Peirse pressed for some of the new Hurricane fighter-bombers, but Portal ruled that those should be operated by Fighter Command. On 9th October, when the first squadron—No. 607—was ready for action, it took over the ‘Channel Stop’ and to that extent released Peirse from what was by then rapidly becoming a distasteful task. By November the Bomber chief, who a few months earlier had asserted that anti-shipping operations would be ‘an economical and profitable
role for the light bomber force’, had reached the point of asking to be relieved entirely of the work. The Blenheim, he was now convinced, was an unsuitable aircraft for the job—an opinion which reflected, somewhat belatedly, the views of the Blenheim crews. Fortunately his request coincided with an increased requirement for Blenheims in the Middle East, and on 25th November he was freed from responsibility for all except occasional attacks on shipping. Thenceforth primary responsibility over the Wilhelmshaven—Cherbourg area, as over the other sea areas round the British Isles, rested with Coastal Command. Fighter Command, however, continued to operate the ‘Channel Stop’ in the limited area Manston–Ostend–Dieppe–Beachy Head.
But if the offensive was regarded with growing disillusion in Whitehall and at High Wycombe, it was viewed in another light across the North Sea. On 13th November Raeder made one of this periodic reports to Hitler. ‘The decided enemy air superiority in the Western Area’, stated the Admiral, ‘has mad the sea transport situation and the mounting threat to our defence forces more acute. In addition to attacks by aircraft and motor-boats, the enemy is laying mines on a large scale … Utmost demands are mad on the matériel and personnel of our inadequate escort forces; the physical and nervous strain on the men is very great. By using al available forces it has so far been possible to escort convoys and keep the routes open despite most difficult conditions … Losses [in October] include two steamers and one dredger sunk, and sixteen minesweepers, motor minesweepers and patrol boats damaged, some severely. We cannot afford such losses … The only way to rectify the position at sea is to reinforce the fighter units, an urgently needed step. According to information from the Air Force, this is not possible for the time being …’
Already, then, whatever their cost, our attacks were forcing the Germans into a dilemma—a dilemma in which they must choose between the safety of their ships and the safety of their armies.
During the late summer of 1941 the Führer’s celebrated intuition led him into the belief that the British intended to invade Norway. A venture which would at once deprive Germany of Scandinavian iron-ore and at the same time safeguard the passage of Anglo-American supplies to Russia must inevitably, Hitler thought, appeal to an enemy who knew his business.
On 17th September, when Admiral Raeder was explaining how he proposed to employ his battleships in the Atlantic, the German
dictator therefore suggested a contrary plan. The major units should instead be stationed along the Norwegian coast, where, apart from defending Norway, they would be much safer from air attack than at Brest. The idea made little appeal to Raeder, who was a reasonably sound strategist, and for the moment he was able to maintain his own viewpoint.
Opposition to the Führer’s opinions was not, however, a characteristic of those who retained high command in the German armed forces. During the next few weeks the long-suffering Admiral accepted Hitler’s suggestion that the Tirpitz, when ready, should move from Germany to Trondheim; and on 13th November he found himself discussing the possibility of operating the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen from German or Norwegian waters instead of the French Atlantic coast. Again he succeeded in avoiding a decision, but when he admitted that it might be possible to bring the Prinz Eugen home through the Channel, Hitler at once asked it the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau could not be withdrawn by the same route. Raeder replied that such an operation did not appear feasible, but that he would give it further study. Meantime, had he the Führer’s permission to send the Scheer into the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean? He had not. Emphasizing that the ‘vital point’ was now the Norwegian Sea, Hitler answered that the Scheer would be better employed at Trondheim or Narvik.
On 27th December, British forces carried out a ‘combined operation’ against Vaagsö, an island off the Norwegian coast mid-way between Trondheim and Bergen. At the same time a diversionary raid was made on the Lofotens. Hampdens bombed the Vaagsö defences to cover the approach of the assaulting forces, Blenheims attacked the airfield of Herdla some eighty miles to the south, and Blenheims and Beaufighters from Wick and Sumburgh supplied fighter protection. Ten British aircraft were lost and one damaged, as against one destroyed and four damaged of the enemy, but our air action fully achieved its objects, and the operation proved a success. Among other activity, the raiders destroyed industrial plants and defence points, captured German troops and local ‘quislings’, and embarked Norwegian volunteers for the Allied forces.
This profitable little foray strengthened Hitler’s belief in a forthcoming invasion. On 29th December he again held a conference with his naval chiefs. According to the official record, Raeder first gave a preliminary report of the raid, then turn to the question of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. To bring the two battlecruisers back through the Channel, asserted the German Commander, was ‘impossible according to information to date … The risk is
tremendous … It is impossible to safeguard the route sufficiently … It is impossible to evade air attacks in the narrow channel swept clear of mines.’ But ‘impossible’ was not a word which the Führer cared to hear applied to his own projects. ‘If the British go about things properly.’ he declared, ‘they will attack northern Norway at several points. By means of an all-out attack with their fleet and landing troops, they will try to displace us there, take Narvik if possible, ‘and thus exert pressure on Sweden and Finland. This might be decisive importance for the outcome of the war. The German fleet must therefore use all its forces for the defence of Norway. It would be expedient to transfer all battleships and pocket-battleships there for this purpose … The return of the Brest ships is therefore most desirable.
Hitler then went on to explain how this could be done. So far from the crews of the three vessels undertaking a programme of practical training, as the Naval Staff maintained was essential, they should put out from Brest without any previous movement, and so take their opponents completely by surprise. In view of the extreme efficiency of the British intelligence services, any preliminary exercise ‘would lead to intensified torpedo and bomb attacks, which would sooner or later damage the ships’. The vessels must sail during a spell of bad weather, when the Royal Air Force would be out of action, even if the navigational difficulties of the German crews were thereby increased. And as the main British fleet, including aircraft-carriers, would bar the passage by way of the Iceland Straits, withdrawal could only be mad through the Channel. If such a course was impossible, the ships should be decommissioned and the guns and crews sent to Norway. In any case battleships would have no place in future warfare.
These views moved the German Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Fricke, to ardent protest. All his arguments, however, were brushed aside. The best that he could do, after hearing Hitler emphasize ‘again and again’ the importance of defending Norway, was to secure permission to go into the whole question once more.
The fruits of the new investigation were presented to Hitler on 12th January 1942. While confessing that he could not ‘take the initiative in advocating such a breakthrough operation,’ Raeder stated that he had given orders for the necessary plans to be prepared, and asked the Führer for his final decision. Hitler, according to the official records of the conference, at once expressed himself in positive terms—‘The naval force at Brest has, above all, the welcome effect of tying up enemy forces and diverting them from making attacks on the German homeland. This advantage will last exactly as
long as the enemy considers himself compelled to attack because the ships are undamaged. … If he—the Führer—could see any chance that the ships might remain undamaged for four or five months and thereafter be employed in operations in the Atlantic … he might be more inclined to consider leaving them in Brest. Since, in the opinion of the Führer, such as a development is not to be expected, he is determined to withdraw the ships from Brest, to avoid exposing them to chance hits day after day.’ Moreover, Hitler asserted, northern Norway now appeared likely to be the scene of a large-scale Russian offensive. The entire German Fleet, virtually speaking, was required along the Norwegian coast for purposes of defence.
Having heard the Führer deliver himself of what the naval secretary judiciously termed ‘these fundamental observations’, the Commander of Battleships, Vice-Admiral Ciliax, then outlined the possible plan of operations. There must be a minimum before the break-out. The vessels must leave Brest at night, to achieve surprise, and pass through the Straits of Dover in daylight. This would make the best use of the strong fighter cover that must be provided. The Channel offered the only hope; the northern route was out of the question in view of the imperfect training of the German crews, the lack of air cover, and the disposition of the British Home Fleet.
With all this Hitler found himself in cordial agreement; and after the representatives of the Luftwaffe had expressed misgivings, and refused to guarantee immunity for the ships with the available force of 250 fighters, the Führer gave his formal decision. The scheme suggested appeared satisfactory. In the light of past experience, the British did not seem capable of making and carrying out lightning decisions, and would probably fail to concentrate their bomber and fighter forces in south-eastern England in the brief time available to them. The Brest group was like ‘a patient having cancer, who is doomed unless he submits to an operation. An operation … even though it may have to be a drastic one, will offer at least some hope that the patient’s life may yet be saved. The passage of our ships through the Channel would be such an operation.’ The plan must go forward.
Meanwhile, what of the vessels which were to run the gauntlet of British sea and air power?
Raids by Bomber and Coastal Commands in April 1941, had it will be remembered, put the Gneisenau out of action for several months. The Scharnhorst had suffered no direct damage at that time, but the destruction of dockyard facilities had delayed her refit. The third member of the trio, the Prinz Eugen, had put into Brest after
parting company with the Bismarck, and had been spotted there on 4th June by a photographic reconnaissance Spitfire. Various attacks had followed until on the night of 1st/2nd July a bomb found its mark on the cruiser, pierced the fore armoured deck, destroyed the switch room compartment, compass room and transmitting station, and killed fifty-one of the crew. The Prinz Eugen, like the Gneisenau, was ‘out for some time to come.
Later in the month the Scharnhorst, which had thus far escaped all harm, completed her refit. Two hours before midnight on 21st July she sailed south for La Pallice, where her captain hoped to carry out sea trials without undue attention from our aircraft. Her absence from Brest was detected by a Spitfire the following day, and in the early morning of 23rd July another Spitfire picked her up at La Pallice. Bomber and Coastal Commands than attacked at dusk, and again during the night, but without success. It was therefore decided, in spite of the grave hazards attending such a course, to attempt a daylight raid, and on 24th July fifteen of Bomber Command’s new Halifaxes took off for La Pallice under fighter escort. At the cost of five bombers they scored five direct hits, forcing the Scharnhorst to put back to Brest with 3,000 tons of flood water in her. In foggy weather the vessel was detected and attacked on the way by a Coastal Command Beaufort, but she succeeded in shooting down her assailant. All three ships were now immobilized; and repairs, so the Germans estimated, could not possibly be completed before the end of the year. Unfortunately we were not aware of the full extent of the damage we had inflicted, and in the following months put a good deal of unnecessary work into guarding against an escape.
Apart from two big attacks in September, our raids on the three ships during the late summer and autumn of 1941 were frequent rather than heavy. But in early December, although photographs showed all three vessels still in dry dock, a greater weight of attack was deemed imperative. Japan’s entry into the war and our consequent losses in the Pacific, coupled with our previous heavy losses in the Mediterranean, had greatly reduced our superiority over the Germans in capital ships; and at the same time repairs to the three vessels in Brest were reported to the nearly complete. From 11th December our raids on the part, and minelaying outside it, became a nightly routine. On 16th December reconnaissance revealed that the Prinz Eugen had left dry dock, and a heavy attack—by 101 aircraft—was promptly delivered the following night. It was followed on 18th December by a daylight raid, forty-one Manchesters, Halifaxes and Stirlings attacking under fighter escort. The second of these operations cost six of our precious ‘heavies’, but damaged the plating
of the Gneisenau and so thoroughly wrecked the lock-gates containing the Scharnhorst that the vessel was unable to move into the harbour for a month. Frequent and heavy raids continued, including another daylight attack by Halifaxes, and on the evening of 6th January 1942 the Gneisenau was again slightly damaged.
All this of course was achieved only be the most sustained gallantry on the part of our crews. To press home an attack on a well-camouflaged warship protected by fighters, balloons and one of the heaviest concentrations of anti-aircraft guns in Europe, and to know that as it was in dry dock not even the best-aimed bombs could sink it, demanded the highest qualities of morale. But the demand, as in every other task set to the crews of the Royal Air Force, was met to the full. Something of what these young men were called upon to face may be glimpsed from an account by Sergeant J. S. Boucher, a navigator of No. 144 Squadron. The squadron, still armed with Hampdens, was required to find three crews for a daylight raid under cloud cover: ‘Three crews’, writes Boucher, ‘were “drawn out of the hat”, and you can imagine our annoyance on being awakened by an orderly at 1:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to be told that we were to report to the Briefing Room at 2:30 a.m.—especially after a “stand down” evening at such a festive time of year. Our annoyance was only exceeded by our surprise when the C.O., Group Captain “Gus” Walker, explained the hazardous mission we were to undertake in a few hours’ time. The general opinion among the crews was that this was not a job for an obsolescent aircraft like the Hampden with its cruising speed of 140 m.p.h. and its very poor defensive armament. We kept these opinions to ourselves, however …’
In this frame of mind the crews climbed into their aircraft. Boucher’s machine, piloted by Sergeant P A. C. McDermott, took off soon after 0600 and made its way to a point west of Ushant:–
Cloud was 10/10ths with base at 1,000 feet, and everyone felt relatively safe during this part of the journey. When it was time to turn eastwards for the target the pilot broke cloud at about 900 feet and we could see Ushant in front of us. Neither of us had much experience of operating in daylight, and having experience the fierceness of this target at 12,000 feet at night we both felt a little apprehensive, to say the least—but we did not share our thoughts openly.
The pilot climbed into cloud again and headed south-east. A few minutes later he turned he turned north-east and broke cloud again. The enemy coast was very close and we nipped into cloud again. These zig-zag tactics were continued and accompanied by violent ‘jinking’ as soon as the coast was crossed. Everyone was strangely silent—apart from my curt navigational directions—until the rear gunner, who was experiencing his first operational flight, asked what the ‘tapping noise’
was. The wireless-operator told him that it was only ‘light flak’ bursting as it hit the wings and fuselage … We broke cloud again for a few seconds, just long enough to enable me to give McDermott a course which would bring us over the docks. The flak grew more and more intense, and although flying in cloud the aircraft was repeatedly hit. We could see the criss-cross of red tracer shells through the cloud haze a few yards in front of us. It seemed that all the anti-aircraft defences of the docks—as well as those of the battlecruisers—were directed against this one aircraft; and this was most probably the case.
The Hampden broke cloud again at 900 feet above sea-level and I picked out the target about half-a-mile ahead. To make a proper run would have been impossible if one was to survive to complete the task. I leaned over my bomb-sight and pressed the ‘tit’. For a few fleeting moments I could see the German gunners frantically firing at us. They seemed so close that I felt myself to be before a firing squad. The pilot opened the throttle and we roared up into cloud again at 180 m.p.h., too soon even to see the bombs burst. The sudden upward movement threw me back into my seat, and a second later there was a yellow flash as a shell exploded, shattering the perspex nose of my cabin and driving me backwards under the floor of the pilot’s cockpit. Stunned for a moment, I tried to open my eyes, but the pain was too great. I felt the wet blood on my face. The cold blast of air now passing through the gaping hole in the nose had blown all of my maps and my log through the pilot’s cockpit window. I crawled back through the fuselage to where the wireless-operator was sitting, and plugged in his ‘inter-comm’ gear. We were relatively safe now that we were in cloud again and leaving the coast behind us. A rough mental calculation enabled me to give the pilot a course for the Lizard …
Damage, wounds and lacks of maps did not prevent the crew bringing their aircraft back to England. Of the other two machines, one last half its tail plane to a balloon cable over Brest, but still struggled home; the other failed to return.
After 6th January our aircraft scored no further successes against the German vessels. On 25th January all three ships were photographed in the harbour. Two of them went into dry dock during the next few days, but only for short period. During the closing days of the month our reconnaissance observed the presence of several German torpedo-boats and minesweepers, and in early February these were joined by destroyers. The arrival of so many escorting vessels, the improved condition of the capital ships, and the fact that the Tirpitz had now sailed to Trondheim, together convinced the Admiralty that a break-out was imminent.
A British plan known as Operation ‘Fuller’ had long been in existence to deal with a move by the German vessels. On 2nd February the Admiralty issued an appreciation pointing to an early attempt. It correctly anticipated that the enemy would take the short cut through the Channel, but considered that the ships would sail
during daylight (or sail by night and lie up near Cherbourg during the following day), so that they could pass through the Straits of Dover by night. This, of course, was the very reverse of the German plan. The following day the signal ‘Executive Fuller’ was passed to the home Commands, and the stand-by arrangements and extra patrols arranged under the operation plan were at once brought into force. No large British ships were available to challenge the enemy in the Channel, but our submarine patrols off Brest were strengthened, and the light forces at Dover and in the Thames estuary were brought to a high degree of readiness. On the air side, a whole train of action was initiated. Coastal Command flew extra patrols off the Brittany coast and between Le Havre and Boulogne; our small forces of torpedo-bombers stood ready at St. Eval, Thorney Island and Manston, while another little group at Leuchars awaited the sailing of the Tirpitz; and all available aircraft in Bomber Command were bombed up and brought to two hours’ notice. Arrangements were also made for fighter cover over the Channel, and for mine-laying in the path of the enemy vessels if they succeeded in passing beyond the range of our light naval forces.
From 4th to 7th February bad weather prevented effective reconnaissance of Brest, but on the 8th the vessels were seen to be still in the port; indeed the Gneisenau was back in dry dock. That evening Joubert issued an appreciation from Coastal Command indicating that a break-out was particularly likely between 10th and 15th February. On the 9th the Gneisenau was seen to have returned to the harbour; but on the 10th reconnaissance again proved impossible. meanwhile, as day succeeded day, the strain on Bomber and Coastal Commands grew ever more intense. With only two squadrons of Hudsons to maintain the night watch off Brest and in the Channel, Joubert found it increasingly difficult to fulfil his task in the face enemy fighters, bad weather and repeated failures of A.S.V. equipment; while Peirse could obviously not keep his whole force indefinitely at two hours’ notice, able neither to train, nor to strike against other objectives, nor even to secure proper rest. On 10th February the Bomber chief accordingly put a hundred of his aircraft at four hours’ readiness, and ordered the rest to stand down.
At 1615 hours on 11th February a Spitfire of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit covered Brest completely for the first time since the 9th. The three major units were all in the main harbour. Six destroyers, together with a large number of minesweepers and torpedo-boats, were also present. The torpedo booms protecting the big ships were still in positions, and though the flotilla could obviously depart a short notice there was no definite indication that it
would do so that night. All the same, sixteen Wellingtons were at once sent off to attack the waiting vessels. They did no damage, but they laid Brest under air-raid warning from 1935 to 2114. The result was that Vice-Admiral Ciliax, who had intended to sail with his whole force that evening at 1930, put to sea some hours late.
The German commander had prepared his plans with supreme care. He had mapped out a course which would take advantage of deep water, yet avoid, as far as possible, detection by our low-scanning radar. He had ordered channels to be swept and marked in our minefields. He had selected a time of departure—four nights before the new moon—which would give him a flood tide up the Channel and a long initial stretch of darkness. He had arranged for fighter protection throughout the whole of the following day, including a continuous ‘umbrella’ of sixteen aircraft between 9630 and 1700. He had asked for diversionary raids against our ports and airfields in southern England and ‘jamming’ against our radar stations in the Straits. He had omitted nothing to give the operation every chance of success. And though he had been prevented from weighing anchor at his appointed hour, he had duly sailed on the night of 11th February without his opponents being aware of the fact.
The German convoy formed up outside Brest and headed out to sea at 2245. At that moment a Coastal Command Hudson of No. 224 Squadron was on patrol ‘Stopper’—a routine patrol of over seven months’ standing, backed up by others to the south, west and north, and designed to cover the exits from Brest during the hours of darkness. The night was intensely black—so black that the crew of the Hudson cold barely see the wing tips of their aircraft—and there was no chance of detecting the enemy with the human eye. But the Hudson was of course fitted with A.S.V.; and at the normal height of the patrols—1,500 to 2,000 feet—this should have been capable of picking up a large ships some thirteen miles away. As it happened, the aircraft was travelling away from the German vessels, towards the south-west extremity of its patrol, when they began to shape towards Ushant; and it was only during the last eight minutes of the next sortie, as the succeeding Hudson approached the northward limit of the patrol, that one of our aircraft came within A.S.V range of the enemy. This we now know from examination of the recorded tracks of the German ships and the Hudson. It was completely unknown at the time, for the A.S.V. operator in the Hudson saw no ‘blip on his screen which could have been interpreted as anything larger than another aircraft. The apparatus was apparently working
well, and thus it remains uncertain why the ships were not picked up during this vital eight minutes.3
The German vessels had eluded Coastal Command’s main watch. But another patrol—‘Line South East’, a special measure applied under ‘Fuller’ now lay across their path. Running from north-west of Ushant towards Jersey, this was intended to detect any vessel turning from Brest into the Channel. At about 0050 on 12th February the German convoy actually crossed the line of this patrol. but at that moment the patrol was not being flown. The A.S.V. having failed, the Hudson had been ordered back to base. And Joubert had sent out no relief—partly because he was short of aircraft, partly because ‘Stopper’ had reported nothing. For if the ships had sailed before ‘Stopper’ was established they would by this time be past ‘Line South East’, and would be picked up by the next patrol further east.
The second of Coastal Command’s night patrols athwart the enemy’s route, like the first, had failed. But there remained the third and last—patrol ‘Habo’, from a point her Cherbourg to a point near Boulogne. This, like ‘Stopper’, had become a routine measure, and it was flown as usual during the early hours of 12th February. Unfortunately a forecast of dawn fog over the southern airfields cause the aircraft to be recalled at 0630, a little before schedule. At that time the enemy were still well to the westward. Had the aircraft been able to continue the patrol until first light, as normally, it might conceivably have picked up the German vessels. As it was, they sailed past undetected.
So Coastal Command’s treble line of defence was pierced, and the enemy had succeeded in his first object of escaping discovery during the night. But he was also likely to avoid being spotted for several hours during the day: for we had arranged no other patrols in the Channel except the routine Fighter Command reconnaissance known as ‘Jim Crow’, and this went no further west than the mouth of the Somme. By 1000 the vessels were steaming, still unobserved, past this point. From 0830 onwards, however, our radar stations had begun to
register plots of the German fighter ‘umbrella’. These were at first interpreted by No. 11 Group and Fighter Command as air/sea rescue operations; and it was not until 1020, when it became clear that the aircraft were flying in a particular orbit which moved up Channel at a speed of 20–25 knots, that two Spitfires were sent up from Hawkinge to investigate. By then visibility was rapidly declining; and though the two pilots observed a large number of sloops, destroyers and E-boats off Le Touquet, steering north-east, they failed to notice the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau or Prinz Eugen.4
By that time our radar was plotting two ships near Le Touquet. Only vessels of great size could be picked up at such a range. Added to the fact that the Kent stations had now been jammed intermittently for the last hour or so, this caused No. 11 Group to send off another reconnaissance. Before the pilot could return, the ships’ long immunity from detection had at last ended.
At 1010 Group Captain Victor Beamish, the Station Commander at Kenley, and Wing Commander R. F. Boyd, the ‘Wing Leader’ of the three Kenley squadrons, had taken off for the French coast. The weather was too bad, in Beamish’s opinion, for the younger members of the squadron to operate; and to enliven what appeared to them to be ‘one of the quiet days of the war’, the two pilots had sought permission to carry out a cross-Channel sweep, ‘with the idea of picking up a stray Hun’. Their wish was speedily granted, for as soon as they came within sight of the enemy coast they encountered a pair of Me.109s. Giving chase, the British airmen within a few moments found themselves over a powerful contingent of the German Fleet—two large warships, as it seemed to them, with an inner screen of destroyers and an outer screen of E-boats. At the same time they were hotly attacked from above by a dozen German fighters. Unable to pull up on to the tails of the enemy, the British pilots dived down through the flak from the ships—into which the Me.109s did not attempt to follow—poured their cannon-shells into an E-boat, and mad a rapid escape at sea-level. Though neither Beamish nor Boyd knew that a move by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was considered imminent, the import of their discovery did not escape them. They headed back to Kenley at full speed, and at once reported what they had seen. They landed at 1110. By 1125 all naval and air authorities were aware that the enemy battlecruisers, under strong air and surface escort, were entering the Straits of Dover.
The hunt was now on. But the vessels had already traversed the
whole length of the Channel; and visibility, poor in the morning, was rapidly becoming worse. Could we bring our strike forces to bear before the lowering clouds and swirling mists of the North Sea, combined with the oncoming gloom of the February afternoon, made our task impossible? During the next two hours our shore-based radar might continue to track the passage of the ships. After that all would depend on the weather, and on the A.S.V., the skill and the good fortunate of our shadowing aircrews.
The strike forces scheduled for Operation ‘Fuller’ included, it will be remembered, a hundred aircraft of Bomber Command. None of these was in the south-east of the country; and all were at four hours’ notice. Another 150 aircraft of Bomber Command could also be made available, but with no less delay. With the greatest possible despatch, none of the bomber squadrons could attack before 1500. Nor, though the Air Ministry had at once urged all Commands to exploit to the utmost ‘this unique opportunity’, could there be any great confidence that the bombers would secure decisive results. Lacking specialized training in work against moving vessels at sea, many of the crews would have difficulty finding the targets; and with the clouds thick and low, they were unlikely to be able to drop their armour-piercing bombs from the necessary height. The bombers might damage the German battlecruisers, and divert attention from other forms of attack; but in the given weather conditions Peirse could not, and did not, expect to sink the vessels outright.
As the naval units available consisted of nothing more powerful than destroyers, our main hope was thus pinned on our painfully slender force of torpedo-bombers—the Beauforts of Nos. 42, 86 and 217 Squadrons, and the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish of No. 815 Squadron. At 1130, however, very few of these were within range of the German ships. No. 86 and part of No. 217, were at St. Eval, in Cornwall; the remainder of No. 217 was at Thorney Island, near Portsmouth; and No. 42 was just coming into land at Coltishall, near Norwich, after flying down from Leuchars—a move ordered by Joubert two days previously, but delayed by snow on airfields. Only the six Swordfish at Manston and the seven Beauforts at Thorney Island were in a position to attack within the next two hours.
The endurance of the Swordfish was very short, and it was essential for them to take off within the hour if they were to get to grips with the enemy. It was also desirable for their attack to coincide with operations by the motor torpedo-boats from Dover and Ramsgate. The naval aircraft were at short notice, and had received very prompt warning; both they and the torpedo-boats could leave without delay. But could a substantial fighter escort be mustered
over Manston from Biggin Hill and Hornchurch within the desired time? Approached by the naval authorities, No. 11 Group at once undertook to provide five squadrons—three for cover and two for diversionary attacks—but stated that it would be a ‘rush’ to get them to Manston by the required hour of 1225.
Between 1200 and 1215 Biggin Hill and Hornchurch both passed word to Manston that their squadrons would be a few minutes late. The controller at Hornchurch spoke personally to Lieutenant Commander Esmonde, the Commanding Officer of the Swordfish squadron, who replied that whatever happened he must leave at 1225. At 1215, Esmonde, sitting in his cockpit, heard that the German vessels were travelling at 27 knots—three or four knots faster than previously estimated. If a quick take-off had been important before, it was now vital. At 1220 he led his flight into the air and circled above Manston.
At 1228, three minutes late on rendezvous, the first of the three escort squadrons—No. 72—reached Manston. This was good enough for Esmonde, who at once turned out to sea, perhaps expecting that the other two squadrons would join up before the attack. If such were his hopes, they were disappointed, for No. 121 Squadron and 401 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force, realizing that they would be at least five minutes behind time, avoided Manston and cut straight out across the coast at Deal. Failing to find the Swordfish on their way to the attack, the two squadrons turned back to Manston, drew a blank there, then headed out to sea again. They arrived over the German vessels only a few minutes after the Swordfish had delivered their attack, but were too late to help. They fought a stout engagement, however, with the German fighter force.
Meantime the ten Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron were keeping in close touch with their charges. At about 1240 they sighted the enemy ships, and at the same time found themselves attacked by F.W.190s and Me.109s. Fiercely beset by superior forces, the Spitfire pilots lost sight of the Swordfish as they crossed the enemy destroyer screen. Under furious opposition the naval aircraft swept on. First to fall, a victim of enemy fighters, was the gallant leader, with his crew; but the two remaining aircraft of his section survived the fighter attacks and pressed on into the storm of flak now coming up from the vessels. Repeatedly hit, and with their crews wounded, the two Swordfish still headed for one of the two big ships visible through the clouds of mist and smoke. Both crews managed to launch torpedoes before their aircraft, riddled with bullets, struck the sea. Five of the six men were afterwards picked up by our light craft. From the second section of Swordfish, which disappeared from view after crossing the destroyer screen, there were no survivors.
The first attack had thus cost six aircraft and thirteen men. Despite the extreme heroism of the crews—a heroism recognised by the posthumous award to Lieutenant Commander Esmonde of the first Fleet Air Arm Victoria Cross—none of the torpedoes had found is mark. Nor had our other measures met with any great success. The Dover guns, fired from 1219 until the Swordfish and light naval forces went in to action, scored no hits; the torpedoes from the Dover M.T.B.s also missed; the foray by the Ramsgate M.T.B.s miscarried; and four fighter squadrons detailed to attack the escort vessels all failed to find them. Twice more in the next hour Hurricanes equipped with cannon took off from Manston. On both occasions they found and attacked destroyers, but their best efforts could obviously not impede the progress of the main force. By 1321 the two battlecruisers were passing beyond the effective range of our radar. And they were still completely undamaged.
It was now the turn of the Beauforts at Thorney Island. Seven of these aircraft were available at short notice when the order to attack was received. Two were armed with bombs, which had to be changed to torpedoes, and a third developed a technical fault. Only four of the Beauforts took off at 1325, and when they did so they were twenty minutes late on planned rendezvous with their fighter cover at Manston. To make up for this delay both sets of aircraft were ordered while in the air to proceed independently to the targets, of which the position, course and speed were given. The signals were made by the usual means—R/T for the Spitfires and W/T for the Beauforts. Unfortunately No. 16 Group had forgotten that the Beauforts had temporarily changed their W/T for R/T, with the result that the torpedo-bombers did not receive the message. They therefore proceeded to Manston, which they circled for some minutes, unable to understand why the numerous fighters, also circling before departing on other tasks, would have nothing to do with them. Eventually the front section of two Beauforts set off for the French coast, found nothing, and returned to Manston, where they discovered for the first time the nature of their target. Meantime the two rear Beauforts, which had lost touch with their leaders, had already landed at Manston, learned their targets and the latest position of the ships, and set off towards the Belgian coast. At 1540, about the same time as our destroyers from the Thames estuary were making an extremely brave but ineffective attack, the two pilots sited a large warship which they took to be the Prinz Eugen. Despite intense flak they turned in and launched their torpedoes from a thousand yards range. Again the result was failure.
Meantime the enemy had suffered his first mishap. At 1431 a mine
previously laid by our air forces had exploded under the Scharnhorst. The damage was slight, but after some seventy minutes it caused the vessel to drop astern of the Gneisenau. The two battlecruisers were still in company, however, when at 1500 the first of Bomber Command’s aircraft came on the scene.
On hearing that the German vessels were entering the Straits of Dover, Peirse had at once warned all his operational groups except the Whitleys to prepare for attack. The force at his disposal, including machines which had operated the previous night and the hundred aircraft held at four hours’ notice, amounted in all to some 250 aircraft. But the hundred were bombed up with semi-armour-piercing bombs, which had to be dropped from at least 7,000 feet; and cloud was 8/10th–10/10ths, with base at 700 feet. Unless cloud-gaps occurred at precisely the right place and moment, the bomb-aimers would be faced with an impossible task. But the alternative armament, the general-purpose bomb, which could be dropped effectively from lower heights, would certainly not penetrate decks plated with several inches of steel. In this dilemma, Peirse decided for low attack with G.P. bombs, if the load could be changed without holding up the departure of the aircraft. By this means he hoped to damage the superstructure of the vessels and distract the attention of their crews from the torpedo-bombers.
The first wave of seventy-three bombers began to take off at 1420. Most of them managed to reach the target area, individually or in pairs, between 1455 and 1558, but in the thick low clouds and intermittent rainstorms only ten crews saw the German ships long enough to release their bombs. The next wave, of 134 machines, began to take off at 1437 and arrived in the target area between 1600 and 1706. Twenty of these are known to have delivered attacks. A third, a final, wave of thirty-five aircraft took off at about 1615, and was over the target from 1750 to 1915. Nine managed to attack. All told, 242 aircraft of Bomber Command attempted to find the enemy during the afternoon; and of those that returned, only thirty-nine succeeded in bombing. Our casualties were fifteen aircraft lost, mostly from flak and flying into the sea, and twenty damaged. No hits were scored on the vessels.
While these attacks were in progress, the next group of torpedo-bombers was being launched against the enemy. No. 42 Squadron, it will be remembered, was landing at Coltishall on the way down from Leuchars when news of the break-out was received. The Beauforts had originally been ordered down to North Coates, but unfortunately both this and the alternative Coastal airfield at Bircham Newton were snowbound. At Coltishall, which was a fighter station,
the squadron arrived to find no facilities for torpedo aircraft. A Mobile Torpedo Servicing Unit had indeed been ordered over from North Coasts; but as the unit had not been required to move for several years it belied its name, and reached Coltishall too late to be of service. Nine of the Beauforts had flown down from Leuchars with torpedoes on, and these took off at 1425, despite the fact that their weapons had not been ‘topped up’. The remaining five, having no torpedoes, stayed on the ground.
On leaving Coltishall the nine Beauforts headed south. Their instructions were to link up at Manston with fighters and some Hudsons intended for diversionary bombing, and then follow the Hudsons out to sea. When they arrived over the airfield, at 1450, they found the other aircraft already in circuit. The Beauforts promptly tried to form up behind the Hudsons; but on each attempt the Hudsons obstinately endeavoured to get behind the Beauforts. Efforts to attract an answering move from the fighters were equally unavailing: for while the bombers had been told to expect escort all the way to the target, the fighters had been ordered only to supply general cover in the Straits area. The whole formation thus continued to orbit Manston for over half an hour, each element waiting for the other to take the lead. tiring of this the Beaufort commander finally decided to set a course based on information of the enemy’s position before he left Coltishall. As he turned out to sea with his squadron, six of the Hudsons followed him. The remaining five continued to circle till nearly 1600, then, despairing of attracting the company of the fighters, withdrew to Bircham Newton.
In thick cloud and heavy rain the nine Beauforts and six Hudsons now pressed on towards the Dutch coast. The two formations quickly lost touch, but after an A.S.V. contact the Hudsons sighted the enemy and attacked through heavy flak. Two of the bombers were shot down, and no damage was done to the ships. A few minutes later six of the nine Beauforts, flying just above sea-level, also came across the main German force—the other three had already released their torpedoes against what were possibly our own destroyers. All six crews attacked with the utmost determination, but though most of the torpedoes were seen to be running well none found its mark.
By this time the two Beauforts of No. 217 Squadron which had failed to find the ships earlier in the afternoon had set off again from Manston. Operating independently, both picked up the Scharnhorst off the Dutch coast with the aid of their A.S.V. But their attacks, delivered at 1710 and 1800, were as unsuccessful as all the rest.
One last chance now remained. There were still the Beauforts of Nos. 86 and 217 Squadron from St. Eval. These had been hastily
ordered to Thorney Island, which they reached at 1430. There, after adjusting torpedoes and refuelling, they were ordered to link up with fighters over Coltishall—for by this time the enemy was within easier range of our eastern than our south-eastern bases. The Beauforts reached Coltishall at the appointed time of 1700, but found no sign of the escort they were expecting. Determined to make the most of what remained of the daylight, they at once headed out to a position given them by wireless. At 1805, in the growing dusk, with visibility less than 1,000 yards and cloud base down to 600 feet, they came across four enemy mine-sweepers. One pilot caught site of what he took to be a big ship, but by then his aircraft was so damaged that he was unable to release his torpedo. Soon darkness was upon them, and at 1830 the Beauforts abandoned their search and set course back for Coltishall. Two of their number, victims of flak or the dangerous flying conditions, failed to return.
The ships had now escaped into the night, but all hope of inflicting damage was not yet abandoned. Despite the danger from enemy fighters single aircraft of Coastal Command had been trying to shadow the German formation since about 1600. They obtained two sightings before dark and two or three A.S.V. contacts afterwards—the last of them, again the Scharnhorst, as late as 0155 on 13th February. Their reports correctly indicated that the German force had split up, but were too late to be of any value. As a final effort, twenty Hampdens and Manchesters then laid mines in the Elbe estuary during the night. Contrary to the usual version of events, none of these did any damage, but in the course of the evening, mines laid on earlier occasions by our air forces exploded under both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.5 The latter, not greatly affected, maintained company with the Prinz Eugen and reached the mouth of the Elbe at 0700 on 13th February. The Scharnhorst, shaken for the second time, was more seriously damaged. With speed reduced to twelve knots and shipping a thousand tons of water, she nevertheless managed to limp into Wilhelmshaven.
The news of the escape of the German vessels was greeted in England with widespread dismay, not unmixed with indignation. ‘Vice-Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed,’ wrote The Times: ‘Nothing more mortifying to the pride of the sea-power in Home Waters has happened since the 17th century.’ And though opinion in the Services was not as deeply
stirred as elsewhere, since in the given conditions of weather and with the naval forces available the Admiralty had entertained no great hopes of success, it was decided to submit the events of 12th February to the examination of a special Board of Inquiry under the Chairmanship of Mr. Justice Bucknill.6
After careful examination of a large number of witnesses, ranging in rank from air marshals and admirals to sergeants and leading airmen, the Board established a coherent story of events on our own side. Such criticisms as it offered were expressed in moderate and tentative terms, with full allowance for all the difficulties of the situation. Among other points, the Board considered that after the failure of the first ‘Stopper’ and ‘Line South East’ patrols, it would have been ‘prudent’ to make a daylight reconnaissance by fighter aircraft down the westward half of the Channel. It would also have been ‘prudent’ to send out a relief when the A.S.V. of the ‘Line South East’ aircraft failed. Equally, the radar plots of enemy aircraft might have been investigated earlier if No. 11 Group had been ‘sufficiently alive to the fact that the German ships might be coming out at about this time’. On the other hand liaison, cooperation and coordination between the Services, and between the Commands (which had been criticized in some quarters), in the Board’s opinion ‘proved on the whole to be satisfactory’. That the earliest attacks were not fully coordinated followed inevitably, the Board thought, from the late discovery of the vessels. The state of readiness in Bomber Command—another point of criticisms in some quarters—was, the Board concluded, quite reasonable in the circumstances; but the decision to reduce readiness from two to four hours should have been communicated by Bomber Command to the Admiralty. No blame attached to the fighter squadrons that were late for rendezvous; and Lieutenant Commander Esmonde, for his part, was right to leave when only one escorting squadron had appeared.
In sum, the Board considered that apart from the weather and the general weakness of our forces, ‘the main reason for our failure to do more damage to the enemy was the fact that his presence was not detected earlier, and this again was due to the breakdown of the night patrols and the omission to send out a morning reconnaissance’. Finally, the Board emphasized how much it had been impressed by ‘the countless acts of gallantry’ which had come to its notice, and by the ‘evident determination of all forces to press home their attacks’.
There is no need to dissent from any of these conclusions—least of all from the last. But, in light of the information now available,
no one who studies the sequence of events can fail to be struck by one or two points. Whatever the normal excellence of the liaison arrangements, they did not on this occasion produced effective cooperation between our fighters and our attacking forces. Fortunately the thick weather which protected the German vessels also protected our aircraft. Equally striking, there seems to have been no attempt to inform those concerned all down the line what was afoot. Too many men in important positions—commanders of stations and squadrons—knew only, as they had known for months, that the German vessels might try to put to sea, but not that there was special reason to believe that they would emerge between 10th and 15th February. Some Beaufort crews took off knowing only they they were looking for enemy ships—possibly even merchant ships; and the two officers who first identified the enemy formation came across it purely by chance. After Joubert’s appreciation of 10th February a sort of ‘general alert’ passed down to comparatively low levels might have avoided at least some of the mistakes and delays.
On the air side, the escape of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was more or less a chapter of accidents. The weather was hopelessly against us; and from the beginning almost everything went wrong that could have done so. Only the skill of the Beauforts in locating the targets under such conditions, together with the unfailing gallantry of the crews, lights up what must otherwise be regarded as an unsatisfactory page on our history. It was not long, however, before British persistence silenced the fanfares of German triumph. On 23rd February the Prinz Eugen, despatched to Trondheim by the elated Hitler, was torpedoed by the submarine Trident. On the night of 27/28th February the Gneisenau, laying in Kiel, suffered two direct hits and the loss of ninety of her crew in a raid by Bomber Command. All three German vessels were out of action for many months. Their position astride our Atlantic communications had been abandoned for nothing. As Raeder himself put it, the German Navy ‘in winning a tactical victory suffered a strategic defeat’.