Thursday, 6 October 2016
CHANNEL DASH by Terence Robertson
During February 1941 the German battle cruisers 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau' just disappeared. They had got past the Home Fleet's patrols through the Denmark Strait and into the north Atlantic where over the ensuing months they had sunk around 300,000 tons of Allied shipping.
This caused some disruption as the Home and Mediterranean fleets were depleted to provide escort along the shipping lanes. While, at the same time, trying to hem in both the 'Bismarck' and 'Tirpitz' in their Norwegian bases.
Eventually, by chance the two battle cruisers were found to have reached Brest where they had docked along with the heavy cruiser 'Prinz Eugen'.
Hitler was convinced that Allied forces were getting ready to make a possible invasion into Norway so he looked to Admiral Raeder to find a way to get the ships in Brest up to help with the defence. After much deliberation a plan was hatched - one that was so daring that many dismissed it as impossible.
However improbable a scenario it represented the Allies had long put into action 'Operation Fuller' that would be implemented should the threat become reality.
On the night of 14th February 1942 the R.A.F bombed Brest Harbour twice - on neither occasion were any of the ships hit. After the first raid photographic evidence showed them at anchor.
At 9:45 pm that night the three ships slipped out of the harbour and disappeared into the night.
A British spy tried to make contact but failed. The British submarine 'Sealion' that had been on watch had to dive in order to recharge the batteries and so missed their departure.
So began the hunt for the German warships as they steamed their way up the English Channel right under the Allied noses.
What followed was a series of blunders that would cost the life of Eugene Esmonde (who would be given the Victoria Cross) and his squadron of Fairey Swordfish as they attacked through unrelenting fire in an attempt to destroy their targets. Not so long before Esmonde and his squadron had distinguished themselves against the 'Bismarck'.
As the German fleet approached Dover on the Kent Coast the task of halting the dash fell into the hands of the man behind the successful evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk - Admiral Ramsey.
For the Germans it was a victory - for the Allies it was just a bewildering mass of confusion, bungling, mis-communication and disbelief by some.
It had Churchill demanding: "Why?"
Terence Robertson's book attempts to answer the question but it does boil down to a plan that was made for a contingency that no one really believed would happen. The drama of those twenty four hours comes vividly to life in this book - and for those who don't know about this episode from the second world war then this book is a good place to start.