Towards the end of March 1941 the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the port of Brest, France. Dispatched into the Atlantic on a commerce-raiding expedition, they narrowly escaped falling into a trap when the Admiralty took the precaution of adding battleships to the escorts of the more important convoys. Whether their retirement to Brest was due to damage, shortage of fuel or fear of encirclement, has never been made clear, but all three causes may have operated. Some two months later the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which had parted company with her consort, the battleship Bismarck, after the latter's speed had been reduced by a torpedo hit, also took refuge in Brest. She was first sighted there, in dry-dock, during an air reconnaissance on June 4.
The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were sister ships with an actual standard displacement of nearly 32,000 tons, though it had been given officially by the Germans as 26,000 tons. Similarly, their speed appears to have been a knot or two in excess of the nominal figure of 27 knots. Each mounted nine 11-in. guns in triple turrets. Together the two ships had been responsible for the destruction of the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi in October 1939, and had destroyed H.M.S. Glorious at the close of the Norwegian campaign in the following year.
Nominally a 10,000-ton cruiser, armed with eight 8-in. guns, the Prinz Eugen actually displaced considerably more. According to a recent report the correct figure is 19,550 tons, but this is probably the deep load displacement. Her speed appears to have been in excess of 32 knots, and she subsequently enjoyed the distinction of being the largest German warship to fall into the hands of the Allies intact.
For month after month a series of bombing raids by the R.A.F. kept the enemy ships fully occupied in adding to their anti-aircraft defence and in devising fresh methods of camouflage, with an occasional shift of berth. On one occasion the Scharnhorst slipped out under cover of darkness and was located next day (July 23) at La Pallice, but that port proved a more uncomfortable haven under air attack than Brest, to which she soon returned. From that date until the middle of December all three ships remained in dock, and thenceforward at least one of them was usually in dock. But at the beginning of February 1942 all three were out of dock, apparently in seaworthy condition.
From the fact that a flotilla comprising two destroyers, five large torpedo boats and eight minesweepers, had appeared in Brest towards the end of January it seemed evident that a sortie was contemplated. The sudden arrival at Trondheim, in Norway, on January 23, of the big new battleship Tirpitz, sister of the Bismarck, suggested that the enemy were trying to divert attention from the group of ships lying at Brest.
Though it was possible that the three ships might return to commerce raiding into the Atlantic, or make for a Mediterranean port such as Genoa, it seemed far more likely that their destination was Wilhelmshaven or some other German base. In that event they would hardly take the hazardous route north-about the British Isles, where there was more chance of their being intercepted. This caused the Admiralty to forecast on February 2 that the ships would most probably proceed up Channel and through the Straits of Dover. This view was supported by recent enemy concentrations of light craft at various points along the coast from Le Havre to the Hook of Holland. A plan which had already been concerted between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry in April 2941 was therefore prepared for execution.
Under this plan, known as “Operation Fuller”, the Commander-in-Chief at the Nore was ordered to arrange for six destroyers to be ready at six hours' notice in the Thames estuary. Six motor torpedo boats were to be in readiness for operations under the Vice-Admiral, Dover; and six Swordfish aircraft were ordered to move from Lee-on-Solent to Manston, in Kent, where they would come under the same command. The submarine Sealion was ordered to join two old submarines patrolling a line to the west of Brest.
Three night air patrols were organized by Coastal Command, these being the “Stopper” patrol, off the entrance to Brest; the “Line S.E.” patrol, between Ushant and the Ile de Brenat; and the “Habo” patrol, between Havre and Boulogne. All these patrols were composed of Hudson aircraft fitted with A.S.V. radar gear of an elementary type compared with that now in use. A squadron-and-a-half of Beaufort torpedo-bombers was stationed at Thorney Island as a striking force, and a further one-and-a-half squadrons were held ready at St. Eval, in Cornwall.
Between February 3 and 9, H.M.S. Manxman and H.M.S. Welshman laid 1,000 mines of both contact and magnetic types in six fields between Ushant and Boulogne, while Bomber Command laid 98 magnetic mines in five specified areas off the Frisian Islands. On February 8 the Commander-in-Chief, Coastal Command, ordered a squadron of torpedo-bombers, which had been stationed at Leuchars in Scotland, to proceed south as a reinforcement in view of the probability of the enemy ships coming up Channel. This had been increased by the arrival in Brest of two more German destroyers. On February 11 it was observed that still another pair of destroyers had appeared.
Clearly the critical moment was at hand. The submarine Sealion, exercising the discretion given to her captain by his orders, crept into Brest with the tide on the afternoon of the 11th, remaining there until the evening without seeing anything of the enemy ships. Undoubtedly the enemy chose this time for emergence on the basis of weather reports obtained by special flights made from Bergen and Brest westwards into the Atlantic. He knew that it was going to be cloudy, with poor visibility. Fortune now proceeded to play into his hands in more than one respect. “Stopper” patrol was undertaken by three aircraft, which relieved each other at intervals. The first of the three, en route to the patrol area, found its A.S.V. Equipment had become unserviceable, and as the fault could not be detected, returned to its base, where the crew transferred to another aircraft. This left a gap of three hours during which the entrance to Brest was unwatched. Still worse, the “Line S.E.” patrol aircraft had a failure of its A.S.V. Gear which caused it to return nearly two hours after leaving; during this time there was no effective reconnaissance, and a relief aircraft was not sent. Thus for practical purposes this patrol might as well have been non-existing. “Habo” patrol was carried out without incident, but the enemy vessels did not reach this zone until after it had been withdrawn. Had they been operating with full efficiency, there is no doubt the “Stopper” and “Line S.E.” patrols would have had every of picking up the German squadron when it left Brest.
From about 9.20 a.m. on February 12 the enemy tried hard to jam our radio direction-finding screen. Significance of this deliberate interference does not seem to have been appreciated for about two hours. By that time an order had already been issued by Fighter Command for a reconnaissance to be made over the Channel. The two Spitfires constituting this reconnaissance sighted what appeared to be a convoy of 20 to 30 vessels off Le Touquet. Landing at Hawkinge about 10.50, this was reported, a sergeant adding the useful note that he had spotted a ship with a tripod mast and heavy superstructure.
By the time this fact was elicited other aircraft had sighted and definitely identified the German ships, information reported shortly after 11. This news, together with instructions to attack, was received at 11.30 by Lieut.-Commander E. Esmonde, D.S.O., in command of the six Swordfish aircraft at Manston. Fighter protection for these was hurriedly arranged, but it was not until nearly an hour later that a single squadron of fighters arrived at Manston from Biggin Hill. Esmonde thereupon decided to carry out his attack without further delay.
By this time the enemy squadron was about 10 miles north of Calais. It was well protected by fighters, which attacked the Swordfish before they reached their target. Torpedoes were dropped by some of the six before all were brought down into the sea, but there is no evidence that they scored a hit. There were few survivors, Esmonde himself, who had won great distinction in the pursuit of the Bismarck in May 1941, losing his life. He received the posthumous award of the V.C..
Almost at the same time five motor torpedo boats from Dover sighted the enemy and discharged their torpedoes at ranges of from 3,000 to 5,000 yards. Again there is no reason to suppose that any hits were scored. In spite of the risks they were taking none of the m.t.b.s from Ramsgate sighted some of the German small craft between 1 and 2 p.m., but were not able to get near enough to attack the large ships.
Between 3 and 5 p.m., seven Beauforts of Coastal Command from Thorney Island did their best to locate the enemy, and got near enough to drop torpedoes, but no results could be observed. One of the Beauforts was destroyed. Shortly after 4, nine Beauforts from Leuchars attacked, seven torpedoes being released; again heavy anti-aircraft fire prevented observation of results. Meanwhile, 12 more Beauforts had reached Thorney Island from St. Eval and followed the others over the North Sea. Four German minesweepers were seen, but the rest of the squadron could not be found. Two of these aircraft were lost.
Five destroyers exercising off Harwich were luckier. These were H.M.S. Campbell, Mackay, Vivacious, Whitshed and Worcester, which proceeded in the reported direction of the enemy at their utmost speed. In order to make certain of gaining contact, Captain C. T. M. Pizey, commanding the flotilla, took the risk of crossing a minefield off the Maas, Shortly after 3.15 the enemy ships were sighted at a distance of 9½ miles. Regardless of the heavy fire that was opened upon him. Captain Pizey pressed to within 3,000 yards before three of his destroyers fired their torpedoes; one destroyer, the Worcester, got as close as 2,400 yards, though the Mackay was obliged to turn at about 5,000. The Worcester was the only ship hit, but managed to struggle into port with severe damage. Again there is no record of torpedo hits.
The final attack was made by 242 bombers, the majority of which were unable to locate the German squadron owing to low cloud and failing visibility. Only 29 contrived to carry out attacks, and 16 were lost. Fighter Command also sent out aircraft to the number of nearly 400. Of these, 102 made attacks on various enemy vessels; one small merchantman and a German coastal craft were sunk and at least 16 enemy aircraft brought down. Seventeen of our own fighters were lost. Mines laid by Bomber Command in concert with the Admiralty Torpedo and Mining Department caused damage to both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; the latter ship, indeed, received sub serious injuries that she never proceeded to sea again.
It was considered bu the Board of Inquiry into the whole circumstances (whose report was published recently) that, in view of the failure of two of the night patrols to function efficiently, a daylight reconnaissance down Channel to the westward should have been flown. Failure to send another aircraft to replace the one which had an A.S.V. Failure on the “S.E. Line” patrol was criticized. No. 11 Fighter Group, it is suggested, “were not sufficiently alive to the fact that the German ships might be coming out at about this time” when reports of numerous enemy aircraft circling about to the northward of Le Havre appeared on their radio direction-finder plots. If the significance of the persistent radio interference by the enemy had been appreciated earlier, these plots might have been investigated and the ships detected sooner.
On the question of co-ordination between the Admiralty and Air Force, it is considered that all reasonable plans were made. Those in command of the various striking forces were naturally more concerned to delay the enemy in any way possible by immediate attacks than to risk losing the opportunity in the effort to arrange co-ordinated attacks. On February 4, when the “Fuller” scheme became operative, bomber forces were put in a state of two hours' readiness. Unfortunately, some days later, in spite of the Admiralty pointing out that with more favourable tides there was more rather than less danger of the ships coming out, this was altered to four hours' readiness. The Board of Inquiry thought Bomber Command should have informed the Admiralty of this.
Lieut.-Commander Esmonde's decision to deliver his Swordfish attack as soon as possible, without waiting for the arrivel of a larger fighter escort, was approved by the Board. That the torpedo bomber force of Beauforts was not used with maximum effect was a result of the failure to know in good time what the German ships were doing. The action of the motor torpedo boats and of Captain Pizey's destroyer flotilla received full approval. As regards mines, it is observed that “the work appears to have been skilfully done by the two Services in co-operation”.
It is considered doubtful whether the forces employed to attack were sufficient to cripple the German ships, even if their movement out of Brest had been known at once. As the attack had to be made by day, the best prospect of disabling the ships lay with the bombers and torpedo-bombers.
Having been continuously employed on other duties, some of the crews of the Beaufort torpedo-bombers had not had sufficient training and experience for such an operation.
Owing to the low cloud, the bombers played a comparatively ineffective part in the battle. Evidence indicated that the training of the greater part of Bomber Command was not designed for effective attack on fast-moving warships by day. Bad visibility aided the motor torpedo boats, which could not otherwise have been expected to carry out their attack in broad daylight without loss. To sum up, the main reason for the failure to do more damage to the enemy was that he was not detected earlier.