The Channel Dash

The German sister battleships Gneisenau and
Scharnhorst had for some months been using the
dockyard facilities at Brest on the Atlantic coast of
Brittany, France for refit and repair and were joined
by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in June 1941.
Late in that year Hitler ordered the ships to return
to German bases to counter a possible British
Invasion of Norway.

Thus, Operation Cerberus, better known as the Channel Dash, was planned and started on 11th February 1942 when the three ships with destroyer escorts left Brest and broke the British blockade around the port.

Despite marine and airborne British reconnaissance, bad weather and poor visibility enabled the German ships to enter the Straits of Dover 12 hours after leaving Brest before they were discovered and serious attacks could be mounted. 42 Squadron were called into action to hunt the German ships and located them off the Dutch coast. Eight Beauforts abreast, including AW373, they attacked the ships but bad weather and extremely poor visibility hampered their efforts. The attack was unsuccessful with not a single torpedo finding a target. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau hit mines in the North Sea and were damaged but by 13th February, the three ships, under heavy Luftwaffe cover had reached German ports.

The Channel Dash was seen as a tactical victory for Hitler but a strategic defeat. The three ships had wreaked havoc in the Atlantic, sinking many cargo and other vessels, but after Operation Cerberus they were side-lined in the Baltic Sea without the ability to break back into the oceans where merchant ships supplied Great Britain with freight and food.

Goldfish Club Qualification

Bill had taken part in about 30 missions by early 1942, mostly against German shipping off Norway, and had survived. The only incident of note was on 20th March 1942 when their plane overshot the Sumburgh runway in atrocious weather and the aircraft ended on the rocks. The plane was badly damaged but the crew escaped the wreckage and were all safe.

The Prinz Eugen had been torpedoed by the submarine Trident and lost part of her stern as she steamed from Kiel on the Baltic coast to Trondheim in northern Norway. After being patched up, the cruiser set out with an escort of four destroyers to limp back to Kiel but was spotted by RAF reconnaissance aircraft. The twelve Beauforts of 42 squadron and those from 82 Squadron were dispatched to attack the Cruiser, taking off around 6pm on Sunday 17th May 1942 with an escort of Beaufighters and a diversionary force of Blenheims and Hudsons. They headed for Lista in south west Norway where Prinz Eugen was slowly travelling about 4 miles

off the coast.

The Beauforts were equipped with a new version of Anti-surface Vessel Radar which enabled them to obtain a position fix on a ship or, in different circumstances, a submarine. The equipment was top secret and so the planes were forbidden from flying over enemy territory because of the risk of the technology falling into German hands.

The planes flew low during the three hour flight to avoid radar detection but were attacked by German fighters on nearing the target. To make matters worse, when the Prinz Eugen was sighted they came under heavy anti-aircraft fire from the cruiser and her four destroyer escorts. They attacked the cruiser in two waves of six aircraft, each flying in Vic formation [first used during WW1, it comprises aircraft flying in close formation with the leader at the apex and the rest en echelon to left and right, the whole resembling the letter "V"]. AW373 was on the very left of six in the second wave of Beauforts to attack the cruiser. As they approached, a

Beaufort to the right was shot down and Bill’s plane took a hit on the port (left) engine. This not only reduced the plane’s performance so that it could not gain any height but also disablethe hydraulics powering the gun turret.

Prince Eugen firing her guns during the Channel Dash