Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationTHE CHANNEL DASH
The attack on the  Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen during their "Channel Dash" by the V & W Class destroyers of the 21st Destroyer Flotilla (Harwich) and 16th Destroyer Flotilla (Sheerness)
HMS Campbell, Vivacious, Worcester, Mackay, Walpole and Whitshed
12 February 1942




At the end of 1941 the pocket battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen had gathered at Brest where they could put to sea and wreak carnage upon the Atlantic convoys. Fortunately they were within range of Bomber Command and were subjected to continual bombing raids which failed to sink them but did at least prevent them from putting to sea.  The Admiralty believed Hitler would decide to move these ships back to Germany for refitting and then send them to Norway, which he considered the pivotol area, and began to make plans to intercept them, which became known as Operation Fuller.  The German High Command came to the same conclusion and decided that the best route for the ships to take would be the most direct one, through the English Channel, and proceeded to make plans for Operation Cerberus.  The thinking of one Command was mirrored by the other, both selected the same route and the same period for the operation, the only difference being in the time of day the ships would pass through the Straits of Dover.

Plan 1 Channel Dash
Passage of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen through English Channel 12 Feb. 1942
Number 11 in the Battle Summaries series of Naval Staff History – Second World War (1943)
The Bucknill Report produced as a result of a government enquiry after the Channel Dash (ADM 234/328)
Plan 1: Position of attack by British Naval Forces (ADM 186/803)
Double click the image to view full size and zoom in

The Admiralty saw this as a golden opportunity to remove the threat posed by the German Battle fleet and issued orders which should see the German ships were detected as soon as they moved, torpedoed by M.T.Bs, attacked by torpedo carrying aircraft, bombed, shelled by the big guns at Dover, mined at intervals on their passage and, if anything was left, torpedoed by destroyers east of Dover. Orders were issued, units moved to their positions and everyone settled down to wait for this golden opportunity.

The German High Command also issued its orders, the route was swept by minesweepers piecemeal to conceal the planned route, the swept areas were gradually joined up to give a clear run, destroyers, torpedo boats and E-Boats gathered at ports along the route and the Luftwaffe moved aircraft to suitable bases and everything was set for 12 February 1942.

The big ships prepared to move at dusk but were delayed by an air raid and finally set off at 22.00 accompanied by six destroyers, five more to join them off Le Havre, a further five from Dunkirk, five more from Flushing and three flotillas of E-Boats along the way forming a considerable armada guarded by night fighters.  A British submarine patrolled the approaches to Brest to report any movements by the German ships and to attempt an attack should they leave but she had to be withdrawn to charge her batteries and the German Battle Fleet left Brest unobserved. There were also three Coastal Command aircraft on patrol around Brest but as luck would have it all three suffered malfunctions and returned to base leaving the area open and so the Battle Fleet sailed on into the night.

By 8.00am the following morning, 12 February, the German ships had steamed about 250 miles with another 40 miles to go before reaching the Straits of Dover, about an hour away.  The night fighters were replaced
with continual cover by Me 109s which leap-frogged along the coast, dropping in at a series of airfields to replenish fuel and ammunition.  This massive array of ships and aircraft was still undetected. The Admiralty thought the big ships were still at Brest but that was about to change.  Spitfires routinely flew a coastal patrol each morning and evening to discover any ship movements. The pilots were under orders not to break radio silence but to report after landing and, more crucially, they had no knowledge of the imminent breakout of the German forces. One of the pilots spotted some E-Boats leaving Boulogne to join the fleet but was 15 minutes too early to see the main body of ships which steamed on unchallenged.

The Radar station at Swingate picked up three big blips at about 10 am and connected these with Operation Fuller but attempts to telephone this information to Dover Castle came to nothing as the telephone line was defective. Two Spitfires flew off from Kenley on a routine sweep and at 10.30 am ran into the Me 109’s providing air cover and in evading them flew over the big ships but didn’t break radio silence to report them but waited until returning to base. The news was finally out but Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were approaching the Straits of Dover.  The weather worsened as the day wore on, by now there was low cloud, rain and so poor visibility. By noon the armada was off Cap Gris Nez and about to enter the narrowest part of the Straits and face the heavy guns; these guns fired a few shots but to no effect.  The next attack came from five MTB’s which left Dover and sighted the German ships at a distance of about 5 miles; they risked everything to close the range, fired their torpedoes and managed to retire but no hits were scored.

The next attack was by the  Fleet Air Arm’s 825 Squadron which had flown their Swordfish biplanes against the Bismark the previous year.  They had been training for this but had not expected to make their attack by day as the Admiralty believed the German ships would pass through the Straits at night.  Daylight, a slow aircraft and a massive array of fighters waiting to shoot them down, it could only be described as a suicide mission. Lt. Cdr. Esmonde knew this, requested fighter cover, was promised five squadrons to cover his single squadron and set off. Only one squadron of fighters accompanied him, the others never arrived. All the Swordfish were shot down without scoring a hit. The Channel Dash carried on unscathed.

The attack by the V & Ws

Plan2: the attack by the V & Ws
Passage of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen through English Channel 12 Feb. 1942
Number 11 in the Battle Summaries series of Naval Staff History – Second World War (1943)
The Bucknill Report produced as a result of a government enquiry after the Channel Dash (ADM 234/328)
Plan 2: Torpedo attack by destroyers of 16th and 21st Flotillas (ADM 186/803)

The V & Ws in the 16DF at Harwich (Mackay, Worcester, Whitshed and Walpole) and
the 21DF (Campbell and Vivacious) at Sheerness were merged to make a temporary flotilla to attack the German warships with Capt Charles Thomas "Mark" Pizey RN as Captain D in HMS Campbell (D60).  The Type 1 Hunt Class destroyers in the two flotillas were kept in Reserve and remained on standby in the Thames estuary. They were slower than the V & Ws and not fitted with torpedoes but their 4-inch HA Guns could provide anti-aircraft fire if required.

The combined Flotilla of V & Ws at Harwich had been coming to instant readiness every night and stood down to 4 hours notice at dawn but Cpt. Mark Pizey felt that the 12 February was likely to be the day and had taken the V & W class destroyers in the 16th and 21st Destroyer Flotiilas out for a practice shoot that morning with the Hunt Class destroyers in the two Flotillas providing anti-aircraft cover wth their 4-inch HA guns.  At 11.56 am he received a signal informing him that the enemy battle cruisers were passing Boulogne at about 20 knots.

The targets were cast adrift and Campbell, Vivacious, Worcester, Mackay, Walpole and Whitshed set off to intercept.  They, like the Swordfish, had been expecting to attack at night, off the Hinder Banks, but a further signal gave the enemy’s speed as having increased which meant the only chance of catching them was by crossing our own minefield which they did without damage. Walpole’s engines broke down and she had to return to Harwich leaving the remaining five to steam on at 28 knots, though being bombed by Luftwaffe and RAF alike. It was at this point that they formed up into two Divisions with the 1st Division (
Campbell, Vivacious and Worcester) attacking the battleships Gneisenau (Scharnhorst had struck a mine and was some miles behind) and the 2nd Division 2 (Mackay and Whitshed) attacking the Battle Cruiser Prinz Eugen.

By now the weather had deteriorated still further; there was a choppy sea and it was snowing when at 1517 Campbell’s radar showed two large blips at a range of between 9 and 10 miles followed a couple of minutes later by a third.  As they closed the range gun flashes were seen and at 15.43 the enemy ships were sighted about 4 miles away and the destroyers, already in 2 divisions, turned in to attack. Campbell, Vivacious and Worcester attacking the leading ship while Mackay and Vivacious attended to the second.  Cpt. Pizey in Campbell led the First Division. As they steamed in they were fired on by the battle cruiser’s main armament and attacked by aircraft guns and torpedoes, at 3,300 yards a shell dive under Campbell, feeling that their luck couldn’t hold out much longer Pizey turned to fire her torpedoes and Vivacious followed suit. Vivacious did not suffer any major damage or casualties.
 

Last in line Worcester pressed in even closer before turning to fire at 2,200 yards. Her 12 pounder gun (which had replaced the aft torpedo tube) and the starboard Oerlikon locker below the bridge were hit, causing many casualties and destroying the bridge communications. Cd. Gunner Wellman, assuming the bridge (and torpedo sight) was out of action fired the torpedoes by local control. Worcester was hit repeatedly and lost power, drifted round to expose her port side and received more hits. Lt. Cdr. Coats gave the order ‘prepare to abandon ship’ but due to the lack of communication and the deafening noise of the explosions some took the order to be 'abandon ship' and took to the water. The ship was on fire, without power, low in the water and seemed ready to sink. The Gunnery Officer aboard Gneisenau ordered cease fire, it seemed a waste of ammunition to fire at a ship that was going to sink.  The German Battle fleet moved on.


Chaos reigned aboard Worcester. She had taken six hits from 11-inch and 8-inch shells, had holes from 6 inches to 2 feet in size made by large splinters, both boiler rooms were flooded and there were many dead and injured. Gradually order was restored, the engineers, working by torchlight in icy-cold waist-deep water managed to get up steam in one boiler, got the water pumped out and, though low in the water Worcester started to move again.  Campbell and Vivacious picked up the men in the water but while doing this were attacked by a Beaufort which dropped a torpedo. Campbell had to go hard astern to avoid being hit and the wash swept some of the survivors away. After an hour or more in the water they were too weak to cling  to a rope and some were lost. The undamaged destroyers had been ordered back to Harwich to refuel and re-ammunition and Worcester was left to make her own way back. Anything moveable was jettisoned to keep the ship afloat, the boilers had to use salt water, the damaged feed pumps broke down but somehow she stayed afloat and limped home to Harwich.

Meanwhile the German Battle Fleet steamed on, Scharnhorst hit 2 mines, Gneisenau hit another but they all continued, Scharnhorst arriving at Wilmhelmshaven and Gneisenau at Brunsbuttel, both on Friday 13 February.
Vic Green
Secretary of the V & W Destroyer Association
and son of Vic Green, Wireman of the Torpedo Branch, HMS Worcester


Reports of Proceedings and first hand accounts by officers and men in the V & Ws

Capt Mark Pizey in HMS Campbell (D60) was Captain (D) for the temporary Flotilla of V & W Class destroyers in the 16DF and 21DF assembled at Harwich for the attack on the German  ships on their dash through the Straits of Dover. His report on Attempts to intercept German Battle Cruisers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen (ADM 199/620) includes the reports of the COs of the other V & Ws as enclosures. When time permits these reports will be added as PDFs to this website. In the meantime some brief extracts are noted below together with links to personal first hand accounts by officers and men in the V & Ws. Further contributions would be welcomed from the families of the men who served in these ships - see contacts details below.

1st Division:

MS
Campbell (D60) Capt Charles Thomas "Mark" Pizey RN

HMS Vivacious (D36) Lt.Cdr. Robert Alexander, RN

HMS Worcester (D96) Lt.Cdr. Ernest Colin Coats, RN

The report of the part played by HMS Worcester in the action (ADM 358/4029) in the National Archives at Kew but can be seen here as a PDF. You can also read first hand accounts of the action by Sub Lt J.F.N. "Bill" Wedge, RNVR and Harold Barnett, Engine Room Artificer (ERA), on the website of HMS Worcester.  The most detailed first hand account was written by Surg Lt David C. Jackson RNVR in his book One Ship, One Company (GS Publishing, 1996) but for copyright reasons can not be reproduced on this website.


2nd Division:

HMS
Mackay (D70) Capt. John Piachaud Wright, DSO, RN

Capt (D) in Campbell quoted this statement by Capt J.P. Wright in Mackay in his own report of the action:

"The mixture of aircraft in the vicinity of the heavy German units was extraordinary. Low there were large numbers of ME. 109's and occasional Beauforts: a bit higher up Hampdens, Dorniers and Me 110's were mixed up: while higher up still a few Halifax's etc were to be seen. In the course of the afternoon the following types were sighted: Me 109, Me 110, Junkers 88, He 111, Dornier 215, Spitfire, Whirlwind, Hampden, Beaufort, Wellington, Halifax, Manchester. Many of the enemy aircraft obviously thought we were friendly while a few of our own aircraft made it evident that they considered us hostile. We on our part opened fire on several occasions on aircraft later recognised as friendly. The aircraft on both sides must have found the situation very confusing. We were fortunate in being attacked by Dorniers and Heinkels only and not by Junkers dive bombers."

HMS Walpole (D41) Lt.Cdr. John Henry Eaden, DSC, RN

HMS Walpole took no part in the attack and did not submit a Report.

HMS Whitshed (D77) Lt.Cdr. William Anthony Juniper, RN


Books

The Channel Dash: the drama of twent-four hours of war;
by Teremce Robinson. London: Evans Brothers, 1958.

Fiasco: the break-out of the German Battleships;
by John Deane Potter. London: Heinemann, 1970.


Conclusion

The Bucknill Report into the failure of the RAF and the RN to intercept and destroy the German warships during their Channel Dash, Passage of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen through English Channel 12 Feb. 1942 (ADM 2324/328),  was published by the Admiralty as Number 11 in the Battle Summaries series of Naval Staff History – Second World War (1943). It was controversial and was not released until 1947.

Robertson stated in Channel Dash (1958) that Capt(D) Pizey in Campbell was apparently unaware that the "short cut" he took though the British minefield to intercept the German ships had been swept some days earlier and there was no risk of detonating mines. 
The destroyers were attacked by both British and German aircraft but not identified by the enemy warships as unfriendly until after they began their attack. There is no obvious reason why Worcester should have pressed on to within 3,000 yards of the enemy after Campbell and Vivacious had completed their attack but the general opinion was that Coats had not realised that the other ships were turning to fire. The Admiralty was critical of the RAF for the attack on Campbell and Vivacious by Beaufort Torpedo bombers while picking up Worcester's wounded but had failed to notify the other Commands including the RAF that destroyers were in the target area.

An article in Wikipedia provides a useful analysis of what went wrong. British public opinion was appaled at the failure to stop the German warships in the Channel and the losses suffered but even the German Navy High Command regarded it as "a tactical victory and a strategic defeat". The view of the naval historian Stephen Roskill  that "Hitler had exchanged the threat to British Atlantic convoys for a defensive deployment near Norway against a threat that never materialised" is widely accepted today.




A memorial service was held on the 75th. anniversary of the Channel Dash on Sunday February 12th 2017 at the 825 Squadron Memorial, Ramsgate
Rear Admiral Keith Blount (Fleet Air Arm) and representatives of 825 Squadron, 72 Squadron RAF and civic dignitaries attended
The service was followed by a flypast of Wildcat helicopters of 825 Squadron and Tucarnos of 72 Squadron.
Sub Lt John F.N. "Bill" Wedge RNVR of HMS Worcester was present
And Vic Green represented the V & W Destroyer Association.
For news of future events see the website of The Channel Dash Association.

A detailed description of the part played by the V & Ws can also be seen on the website of HMS Wildfire, the shore base at Sheerness


If you have stories or photographs of the part played by the V & Ws  you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Vic Green or Bill Forster




Return to the Home Page of the V & W Destroyer Association
Return to the Index Page for the 69 V & W Class Destroyers