- Published on Sunday, 11 March 2012 00:01 Robin Jenkins
Run the Gauntlet - The Channel Dash 1942
Published by Osprey
U.K. Price £11.99 direct from Osprey
ISBN 978-1-84908-570-0 Paperback 80pp Illustrated 24.9 x 18.5 x 0.8 cm
During WW2, Britain experienced many dark days in relation to the naval war. The debacle when U-47 crept into the heavily defended base of Scapa Flow and sank HMS Royal Oak in October 1939, the sinking of HMS Hood by the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941 and the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to air attack by Japanese land-based standard and torpedo bombers were 3 such days. However, to many at the Admiralty, the darkest day did not involve the loss of any major vessel; it was the "Channel Dash" on February 12th 1942, the 70th anniversary of which has just passed.
This was a day that, for the first time in several generations, Britain was unable to command the shipping lanes of the English Channel, either through the use of the navy, shore mounted weapons or via aircraft. On that day, 2 German battleships (the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, having sailed from the port of Brest in western France the previous evening, sailed boldly up the English Channel and on to their home ports in Germany. Despite Britain realising that this voyage was a distinct possibility, the combined actions of coastal guns, motor torpedo boats, destroyers and both standard bomber and torpedo bomber aircraft from the RAF and Fleet Air Arm could not halt the enemy. Indeed, the only real damage done to the vessels was via previously laid mines which damaged both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off the River Scheldt and the Dutch Island of Terschelling late in the day.
The whole day was viewed as a major defeat by the British and Ken Ford takes the reader through the planning stages of the Dash, its onset and execution, the aftermath and the conclusions that could be drawn. The individual elements of the story each make fascinating episodes on their own: the thorough planning of the breakout by the Germans and the lack of readiness on the part of the British; the Luftwaffe cover screen; the perfect weather conditions for the Germans; British aircrews' ill-luck with faulty equipment; the good luck that helped the German fleet stay hidden until after 10 am in the morning; the ineffective barrage from the coastal guns at Dover; the unsuccessful attacks by groups of Royal Navy MTBs and destroyers; attacks by Coastal Command and RAF aircraft that were equally ineffective; and the attack of 825 Squadron's Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, lead by Eugene Esmonde of Bismarck fame which lead to the total annihilation of the squadron, with only 5 aircrew out of 18 being saved.
In hindsight, it was only a partial victory for the Germans. Yes, they dumbfounded the British and the ships escaped, but 2 of the 3 vessels would never see major active service again on open waters and the Scharnhorst was sunk on her first major voyage, at the Battle of North Cape in December 1943, with the loss of all but 36 of her 1700-plus crew.
It is a day full of luck and harrowing actions, captured in a concise manner extremely well by Ford.
My selection of pages this time to illustrate the book is: an aerial view of the battleships at Brest (below)
a view of part of the escorting German destroyer screen n overall (above) a battleplan schematic of how the various attacks on the German ships unfolded (below);
and, last of all, one of the colour illustrations from the book, showing the gallant attack by the Swordfish of 825 Squadron (above).
The illustration above has brought home to me an issue more than any other I have read recently: the further away in time from an event that research is carried out, the more likely that information can be lost. I carried out my own research in 1991 and 1992 on 825 Squadron's involvement in the attack and via a contact at Manston was put in touch with an ex–groundcrew member of the squadron and 2 groundcrew who had been based at Manston when 825 Squadron arrived on the afternoon of 11th February. All 3 men confirmed to me that all of the Swordfish had been painted overall black in the early evening because it was anticipated that the German ships would attempt passage by night, either that night or in one of the succeeding nights (20 years later, these gentleman are now all deceased).This information became known and one decal manufacturer commented on it later in the decade when some 1/48 decals were released for the resin MDC Swordfish kit. Then, the information seemed to become lost or discredited. Even Tamiya's decals and markings for Esmonde's aircraft were completely wrong in their excellent 1/48 Swordfish kit – and now the artist Howard Gerrard, who illustrated some of the book, has incorrectly portrayed the Swordfish in their standard daytime camouflage in the final attack; they should have been overall black.
Finally, one small fact that for some reason has been sadly omitted from this excellent little book; when describing the aftermath and impact of the events, Ford has completely neglected to mention the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Eugene Esmonde for his gallant leadership of the suicidal attack by the Swordfish; I think this does a true hero some disservice, even though 70 years have passed. His award is mentioned in an illustration description, but not that he was awarded it for this attack.
So What Do We Think?
An excellent short volume on a critical day in WW2 for the Royal Navy and one that genuinely shamed Britain's combined armed forces. The balance is right and some of the analysis is both detailed and shows good insight. Excellent value for money as well.
Our thanks to Osprey for the review copy.