'Brest is so placed as though God made it expressly for the purpose of destroying the commerce of these two Nations' [i.e. Holland and England]. Vauban. Memorandum regarding war expenditure on which the King might effect economies. August 1693.
The concentration of his U-boats in the Western Atlantic did not cause the enemy to neglect our coastal convoy routes, and the New Year saw renewed activity by E-boats and aircraft in laying mines off the east coast. Magnetic and acoustic mines, as well as those worked by a combination of the two influences, were all used; and the new designs enabled them to be laid in deeper water, which meant that many more miles of channel had to be swept. In January we lost eleven small ships (10,079 tons in all) on mines, mostly laid off the east coast, and the destroyer Vimiera also fell victim to one when escorting a south-bound convoy. In February our losses dropped to two ships, but E-boats and aircraft constantly appeared on the convoy routes and the vigilance of the escorts could never be relaxed.
Our defences had, however, improved out of all knowledge since the tribulations of the early months of the war.1 Not only were the escorts better equipped and more experienced, but co-ordination with shore-based aircraft now worked smoothly; and great benefit was beginning to be derived here, as elsewhere, from the radar sets being fitted in escort vessels, and from the unceasing vigil of the shore radar stations. The Thames estuary, with its vital but vulnerable channels into the Port of London, was now comparatively well defended. No less than four commands - the Commander-in-Chief, The Nore (Naval), Fighter Command (R.A.F.), Anti-Aircraft Command (Army) and Balloon Command (R.A.F.)-were concerned in discharging this important responsibility. The plan towards which they all worked was to make minelaying too difficult and expensive for it to continue to be profitable to the enemy. Early in
1941 work had been started on constructing forts which could be sunk in the approaches to the Thames, and would be provided with heavy anti-aircraft armaments. The first of them was placed in position in February 1942, and by August there were two in the Thames and two more off Harwich, all manned by naval crews. In addition to these, three more similar forts were manned by the Army.2 All of them were linked to the Area Combined Headquarters at Chatham and to the naval plot at Harwich. They proved a valuable addition to the defences. Another important contribution to the defence of the Thames estuary was that, by the end of February, no less than twelve of the specially converted anti-aircraft ships known as 'Eagle Ships' were available. They were mostly paddle steamers, built to make excursions in these same waters, and the early ones like the Royal Eagle and Crested Eagle gave their name to the whole class. Their manoeuvrability, and the good gun platforms obtained from their wide beam, made them very suitable for this class of work. They made many 'excursions' during the war in the waters where, in peacetime, they had carried thousands of trippers between London, Southend, Margate and Ramsgate. Apart from the fixed batteries in the forts and the floating batteries in the 'Eagle Ships', A.A. Command's shore guns were re-disposed, and in some zones they were now allowed to fire by radar at unseen targets, which had been forbidden up to the present because of the danger to our own aircraft; the fighters of Nos. 11 and 12 Groups, controlled by our low-searching coastal radar stations, were sent to intercept enemy minelayers far out at sea; and Bomber Command's No. 2 Group made 'intruder' raids to disturb the peace at the enemy bases. Thus, by a typically British combination of improvisation and adaptation, and by the co-operation of a large number of arms belonging to many commands of all three services, were the enemy's attempts to interfere with the traffic in and out of the Port of London increasingly frustrated.
It will be remembered that the diversion of the main strength of the Luftwaffe to the Russian front in 1941 substantially reduced the air threat to our coastal shipping.3 None the less, sporadic and widely separated attacks in the Channel and off the east coast still occurred, generally with fast, low-flying fighter-bombers such as the Me-109 and FW-190. The enemy at this time reduced his day
attacks in favour of dusk or night raids, and we were still finding these difficult to deal with. Radar sets capable of detecting fast low-flying aircraft were lacking, and new methods of air interception also had to be devised.
It was told earlier how Fighter Command came to shoulder a large share of the burden of defending our coastal shipping.4 To prevent a wasteful amount of its strength being employed on standing patrols, a system was devised to enable the groups concerned to make their effort proportional to the value and importance of what they were protecting. The ships were divided into five categories, ranging from units of exceptional or irreplaceable value in the first category, through important groups such as the main fleet or troop convoys, down to vessels of minor importance. The protective measures were also divided into grades. 'Fighter escort' was given to the irreplaceable ships; 'sweeps or patrols' were made over the routes taken by important vessels; and distant 'protection' or 'cover', which meant only that aircraft were available if attacks developed, was given to the least valuable ships. The escort vessels communicated with the fighters by radio-telephony, and thus in some measure controlled their movements. This system, which was disliked by Fighter Command, was replaced by control from the shore headquarters when the coastal radar stations became capable of detecting the low-flying raids already mentioned. Although his 'tip and run' attacks sometimes got through our defences, we now had the measure of his daylight bombing of our coastal shipping, and losses were few. The fighters normally withdrew at dusk, and the ships then had to rely only on their guns. Although this was not entirely satisfactory, the development of night fighter control had not yet reached a point where protection could be given to the convoys during dark hours or low visibility. None the less the general picture regarding air defence of our coastal shipping during the first six months of 1942 is a favourable one. The extent of the enemy's effort throughout this phase, both in direct attacks and in air minelaying, and the shipping losses suffered by both sides will be analysed later.
Before the month of February was many days old all the southern commands became involved in a more exciting event than the daily toil to keep the swept channels open, for it was then that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped up-Channel from Brest. It is to that event that we must therefore turn.
The German decision to bring the Brest squadron back to their home waters was part of the plan made at Hitler's instigation to defeat the imagined British intention to invade Norway.5 Before the end of 1941 Hitler had decided, against Raeder's advice, that the
Brest squadron should return to Germany, and that this could best be accomplished by 'a surprise break through the Channel'. Should the German Naval Staff declare this to be impossible Hitler would favour paying the ships off, a bitter pill for the creator of the German fleet.
On the 12th of January 1942 Hitler reiterated his views regarding the importance of defending Norway and the movement of the Brest ships. He compared the latter to 'a patient with cancer who is doomed unless he submits to an operation'. The passage up-Channel 'would' he considered, 'constitute such an operation and had therefore to be attempted'. Raeder now agreed to the Führer's proposal, and the plans were sketched in outline at the conference. Since surprise was essential Hitler ordered that the squadron must not leave Brest until after dark; he accepted that this would mean passing through the Dover Straits in daylight. The transfer of the battleship Tirpitz to Trondheim, described in the last chapter, was decided by Hitler at the same conference.
The detailed plans for the movement of the two battle cruisers and the Prinz Eugen were worked out by Vice-Admiral Ciliax, whose flag was flown in the Scharnhorst. Great care was taken over choosing the best possible route, to enable the ships to steam at high speed and yet avoid our minefields. Channels were swept and mark buoys placed to show the way. That the Admiralty was alive to the significance of the enemy's minesweeping activities is shown by the fact that they asked Bomber Command to mine the five areas considered likely to prove 'the most fruitful'. Between the 3rd and the 9th of February ninety-eight magnetic mines were laid in the enemy's swept channels.
To gain as long a period of darkness as possible the enemy timed his movement to take place four days before the new moon, and the squadron was ordered to start from Brest at 7:30 p.m. A spring tide would then be flooding up-Channel to speed the ships' progress and, as it rose, it would reduce the danger from our mines. Fighter protection was very carefully worked out. There were to be sixteen aircraft constantly over the ships during daylight, and cover was to be at its strongest during the mid-day passage of the Dover Straits. Six destroyers were to escort the big ships for the first part of the eastward dash, ten torpedo-boats would join next morning and more torpedo-boats, E-boats, R-boats and small escort craft would meet the squadron off Cape Gris Nez. By the 9th of February all three ships had completed trials inside Brest roads, and the decision was taken to carry out the plan on the 11th.
The preliminary movements of the German ships were not shrouded from the eyes of Coastal Command's watchful aircraft. Enemy activity, including the westward movement of destroyers and his minesweeping in the Channel, made it appear almost certain that
a big operation in which all three heavy ships would be involved was imminent. On the 2nd of February the Admiralty distributed an 'appreciation' in which the various alternatives open to the enemy were weighed and considered. The Admiralty concluded, firstly, that an Atlantic sortie was improbable, because after their long spell in harbour the enemy ships could not be fully efficient; secondly that the enemy must wish to get the ships into quieter waters where they could work up efficiency, and thirdly that the most probable route to such waters was up the English Channel. Although, said the Admiralty, 'at first sight this passage appears hazardous' they considered that it was, from the enemy's point of view, greatly to be preferred to the long journey by the northern passages to the North Sea, or to an attempt to force the Straits of Gibraltar and reach an Italian harbour. With remarkable prescience the Admiralty concluded that 'we might well find the two battle cruisers and the eight-inch cruiser with five large and five small destroyers and ... twenty fighters constantly overhead . . . proceeding up-Channel.'
On the 3rd the Admiralty's appreciation was read to the naval officers attached to the three R.A.F. commands, and they were told to pass it to the Air Officers Commanding-in-Chief. All naval authorities at home were informed by signal, the Nore Command was told to keep six destroyers with torpedo armaments at short notice in the Thames, and to be prepared to reinforce the few motor torpedo-boats already at Dover with six more. The fast minelayer Manxman was allocated to the Plymouth command to work in the approaches to Brest and the western end of the Channel, while her sister-ship the Welshman was placed under Admiral Ramsay at Dover. Owing to recent heavy calls for submarines for the Mediterranean station, very few were at this time left in home waters. Two old boats normally employed for training purposes were sent on Biscay patrols and, on the 6th, the Sealion, the only modern submarine available, was given discretion to penetrate inside Brest roads, to try and catch the German ships in the enclosed waters where they had been seen to carry out their trials and exercises. Lastly, all the six serviceable Swordfish torpedo-bombers of No. 825 Fleet Air Arm Squadron were, at Admiral Ramsay's suggestion, moved from Lee-on-Solent to Manston in Kent6, to augment the striking power available in the Straits. The Admiralty also asked Admiral Somerville of Force H how he proposed to act if the battle cruisers attempted another Atlantic foray or tried to pass Gibraltar to the east, and told the British mission in Washington that we must know American plans and dispositions well in advance if strategic co-ordination was to be effective in the event. Though the Admiralty
considered the break up-Channel the most probable action they were taking no chances over the safety of our Atlantic shipping.
Having received the Admiralty's broad appreciation of the enemy's probable intention Admiral Ramsay, who was plainly the naval commander most concerned in frustrating the enemy's intention, considered the matter in greater detail. His conclusion was that the Germans would adjust their departure from Brest, and their subsequent movements, so as to arrive in the Straits of Dover at or before daylight. He also expected them to choose a day when high water occurred near the expected time of their passage through the Straits, in order to reduce the danger from mines. It has already been mentioned that Admiral Ciliax was actually planning to pass Dover in daylight.
The reader may, with reason, feel that the British naval forces thus made ready in the south to stop three powerful warships were extremely slender. The Assistant Chief of Naval Staff responsible for home operations later told the Board of Enquiry set up by the Prime Minister to investigate the escape of the enemy ships that no more could possibly have been produced. The Home Fleet was at an extremely low ebb. Admiral Tovey had at Scapa only the King George V, Renown and Rodney (which was long overdue for refit), the aircraft carrier Victorious, four cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The Tirpitz was at Trondheim and might at any time attempt to break out into the Atlantic or attack our Russian convoys, and, moreover, a great troop convoy, WS 16 of twenty-six large ships with between forty and fifty thousand soldiers and much equipment on board, was about to sail from the Clyde. It was bound to pass not very far off Brest. The Rodney had actually been detached from the Home Fleet to escort this convoy on the first part of its long journey, and the greater part of Force H had been brought home from Gibraltar for the same purpose. Lastly the light forces at Scapa were already inadequate to enable the Home Fleet to perform its principal function, and none could therefore be spared to reinforce the southern commands. But it was realised that a few destroyers, motor torpedo boats and torpedo-bombers were unlikely to do more than inflict some under-water damage, which might put the enemy ships into dock for a time. Experience had taught that Bomber Command was very unlikely to hit such difficult and fleeting targets, while Coastal Command's striking power was little greater than that of the naval aircraft available.
A plan to deal with a break up-Channel had long since been prepared by the Admiralty and Air Ministry. On the 3rd of February it was brought into force. The naval part of this plan has already been outlined. Simultaneously with the naval dispositions Coastal Command established the pre-arranged reconnaissance patrols, of which
Map 15. The Escape of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, & Prinz Eugen up-channel from Brest
12th - 13th February 1942.
more will be said shortly, and prepared its striking forces. One torpedo-bomber squadron (No. 42) of fourteen Beauforts was at Leuchars in Scotland, ready to strike at the Tirpitz. It was ordered south to Norfolk on the 11th, but because there was deep snow on the East Anglian airfields, it did not move until next day. Twelve more Beauforts of Nos. 86 and 217 Squadrons were at St. Eval in Cornwall, and seven were at Thorney Island near Portsmouth. About a dozen Hudsons were at airfields on the east coast.7 Bomber Command possessed about 240 aircraft suitable for day bombing at various airfields all over the country, but none was properly trained to identify and attack warships at sea; and Fighter Command had some 550 aircraft, mostly Spitfires, in the south. On paper the air forces available were therefore considerable. The weakness lay in the small proportion of torpedo-bombers, and in the lack of training of the heavy bombers for the work which might be needed. It was perhaps now that the consequences of the long delay in providing Coastal Command with a properly trained and well-equipped torpedo striking force were most seriously felt8 ; and that the pre-war preference of the Air Staff for the bomb, as opposed to the torpedo, as the main weapon for use against ships was shown to have been mistaken.9 In passing it is interesting to remark how the enemy realised, though too late, that he had committed a similar error. In July 1943, at a conference with his naval leaders, Hitler commented bitterly on how certain 'cleverly executed demonstrations' carried out by the Navy and Air Force in 1938 - 'probably the only time they were ever in full agreement'-had made him abandon his intention to build up a strong torpedo striking force. By mid-1943 it was obvious to him that the conclusions 'proven so expertly by those wretched demonstrations' had been wholly erroneous.
As soon as the precautionary orders were issued on the 3rd, Coastal Command started to carry out its planned night air patrols. These comprised three patrol lines. The first was flown off the entrance to Brest, the second from Ushant to the Isle de Brehat, and the third between Havre and Boulogne.10 All were flown by Hudsons fitted with a radar set theoretically capable of detecting a large ship at thirty miles' range. We shall see shortly how these patrols fared on the night of the 11th-12th of February. In addition to these Hudson patrols, it was already the practice for fighters of No. 11 Group to reconnoitre the Channel between Ostend and the mouth of the Somme for enemy shipping soon after dawn each day. So much for the naval and air preparations.
Admiral Ciliax had intended to sail from Brest at 7:30 p.m. on the 11th, but a British air raid caused a postponement until 10:45 p.m. The night was very dark with a light south-westerly. wind and scattered clouds. Just after midnight the three ships, steaming at twenty-seven knots, rounded Ushant and shaped course up-Channel. They passed the island of Alderney at 5:30 a.m. on the 12th, and then altered to a more easterly course.11 At dawn the first sixteen German fighters appeared overhead.12 The Hudson aircraft detailed for the British night patrol off Brest on the 11th had returned to its base, because of a radar failure, at about 7:30 p.m. The same crew exchanged into another aircraft and took off again two hours later. They remained on patrol until shortly before midnight, and were then relieved by another Hudson. Post-war analysis reveals that only for a few minutes early on the 12th was the enemy within radar range from this aircraft, and no contact was obtained. A worse misadventure made the second patrol, between Ushant and the Isle de Brehat, totally ineffective. That Hudson's radar also failed, and at 9:50 p.m. it returned to base. No relief aircraft was sent out, nor was the failure of the patrol reported to Admiral Ramsay. The third patrol, between Havre and Boulogne, functioned normally, but sighted nothing. The enemy squadron never actually passed within its range. It thus happened that the morning of the 12th of February was well advanced, and the enemy squadron had reached the mouth of the Somme at about 10:30 a.m., before any firm intelligence that it had sailed from Brest was received in England. At about 9:20 the enemy started to jam our shore radar stations' reception; but, as this had been happening intermittently for some weeks, no particular significance was attached to it until an hour later, when the interference became continuous. Plots of enemy aircraft to the north of Havre appeared on our radar screens between 8:25 and 10:00 a.m.; but these were a common occurrence and, again, their significance was not realised.
The arrangement for a fighter sweep to be made down-Channel by No. 11 Group soon after dawn each morning has been mentioned. The two Spitfires which made the sweep on the morning of the 12th reported, on landing at their base, a good deal of small craft activity between Ostend and Boulogne. A 'strike' against them was ordered by No. 11 Group at about 10:00 a.m. Meanwhile the radar plots of enemy aircraft caused No. 11 Group to send out a further reconnaissance at 10:20 to search from Boulogne to Fecamp. One Spitfire of this patrol sighted what was thought to be a convoy and its escort
(some twenty to thirty vessels) off Le Touquet. Only when the crew was interrogated on return to base was it revealed that an enemy capital ship had been among the vessels sighted. Almost at the same time two other Spitfires, which were not actually looking for enemy shipping but were engaged with German fighters, flew right over the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The time was 10:42 a.m. Because the Spitfires were flying nearly at sea level, and in such conditions a wireless message could not have got through, no report was made until after they had landed at 11:09. Thus it was getting on towards 11:30 a.m. before all the carefully planned machinery to make coordinated attacks on these very ships was set in motion on the strength of the reports issued from Fighter Command Headquarters.
But the earlier signs that something abnormal might be afoot in the Channel had not gone unheeded at Dover. Lieutenant-Commander E. Esmonde, commanding No. 825 Squadron at Manston, had been warned, and had brought his six Swordfish to immediate readiness. The need for Coastal Command's Beauforts to attack at the same time was realised, and was discussed between Dover and No. i6 Group; but the slow speed of the Swordfish made such tactics difficult to carry out. Moreover, it was by this time plainly essential to attack as soon as possible with whatever forces were ready. Accordingly it was decided that No. 825 Squadron would attack at about 12:45 p.m. No. 11 Fighter Group had already been asked to cover and escort the slow and vulnerable Swordfish with five squadrons of fighters. They were to meet the torpedo-bombers over Manston at 12:25, which gave very little time for the fighter pilots to be briefed and for the movement of aircraft from other stations. Esmonde was warned that some or all of the fighters would be late. He decided that he could not delay his departure. At 12:28 the first fighter squadron appeared, and Esmonde set course for the targets. Two more fighter squadrons having missed the rendezvous at Manston, made straight for the enemy and were engaged with his fighters during the Swordfish attack. The last two fighter squadrons of Esmonde's intended escort searched for the enemy off Calais, but failed to find him.
The six Swordfish, escorted by ten Spitfires, accordingly flew to a position some ten miles north of Calais, which the German squadron was believed to have reached. Enemy fighters soon got among the Swordfish. Esmonde himself led the first flight and was last seen pressing in over the German destroyer screen towards the battle cruisers, through a hailstorm of fire. He was shot down before he had completed his attack, and all that gallant crew were lost. The next two aircraft got in close enough to release their torpedoes, but were then shot down; five survivors were picked up later. The other three Swordfish were last seen closing in towards the enemy. No survivors
were ever found. There can, in the history of forlorn hopes, be few more moving stories than that of the last flight of No. 825 Fleet Air Arm Squadron. Its leader-the same officer who had led the Swordfish from the Victorious to attack the Bismarck in May 194113 - typified all that was finest in the newest branch of the naval service; and the junior members of his squadron followed him faithfully to the end. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Unhappily the sacrifice was made in vain, since none of their torpedoes found the targets.
The five serviceable motor torpedo-boats at Dover cleared harbour at 11:55 a.m., and sighted the enemy about thirty minutes later. One boat broke down and, lacking fighter or motor gun-boat escort, the leader decided that it was quite impossible for him to penetrate the powerful enemy screen with the remaining four. Torpedoes were therefore fired at long-range from outside the screen. No hits resulted. Three more M.T.Bs, the Ramsgate flotilla, left harbour at 12:25. They sighted the screening vessels but never found the heavy ships. Worsening weather and engine trouble caused them to return without having attacked.
Of Coastal Command's striking forces the Beauforts of No. 217 Squadron at Thorney Island were closest to the enemy when he was first definitely reported. Only four of the squadron's seven aircraft were immediately available. They left for Manston, to pick up a fighter escort, at 1:40 p.m., but became split up in the process. Attacks were made in ones and twos in bad visibility between about 3:40 and 6:00 p.m. Of the last three Beauforts from Thorney Island one was shot down, but the other two got in attacks. Neither did the enemy any damage. The next effort was made by No. 42 Squadron, from Leuchars in Fife, which had only been ordered south that morning. Nine of its fourteen Beauforts left Leuchars armed with torpedoes, while the other five were ordered to pick them up on an airfield in Norfolk. Unfortunately the thick snow on the Coastal Command stations in East Anglia forced them to land at a fighter station, where there were no torpedoes. Efforts were made to bring the weapons by road to the waiting aircraft, but they arrived too late. The result was that only nine Beauforts left for Manston in Kent, armed with torpedoes, early in the afternoon. At about 3:30 they set course for the target accompanied by five Hudsons. Seven of the Beauforts got in attacks, and some of the Hudsons managed to bomb the enemy in the worsening visibility. Again no damage was done. Lastly the twelve serviceable Beauforts from St. Eval in Cornwall arrived at Thorney Island at 2:30 p.m. and were ordered to Coltishall in Norfolk to pick up a fighter escort. None was, however, found
there, and the squadron commander therefore left at 5:40 to attack without escort. Dusk was already falling by the time they reached the waters where the enemy was now believed to be. No attacks were made, and two of the Beauforts were lost.
The destroyers at Harwich, which had been placed under Admiral Ramsay's orders, comprised two ships of the 21st Flotilla - the Campbell and Vivacious - and the Mackay, Whitshed, Walpole and Worcester of the 16th Flotilla. All were of 1914- 18 war design and more than twenty years old. Their normal duty was to escort and cover the east coast convoys. Captain C. T. M. Pizey of the 21st Flotilla, in the Campbell, was the senior officer present; and the 16th Flotilla was commanded by Captain J. P. Wright in the Mackay. The six ships were, by good chance, exercising off Harwich when, at 11:56 a.m., a message was received from Admiral Ramsay to attack in accordance with the orders already issued. At 1 p.m. Dover told Captain Pizey that the enemy's speed was much greater than had been expected. The only chance of catching him lay in crossing the undefined German minefields, and making for a position off the mouth of the River Scheldt. This risk was at once accepted by Pizey. At 3:17 his radar picked up two large ships some nine miles off, and at 3:43 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were sighted at 4 miles range. The Walpole had already had to return home with her main bearings run, so only five destroyers remained with the flotilla commander. The worsening visibility had so far shielded them from the greatly superior enemy, but they now came under heavy gun fire. Captain Pizey drove his ships on until, at 3,500 yards he felt that his luck could not last much longer. The Campbell and Vivacious fired their torpedo salvoes at about 3,000 yards; the Worcester pressed in even closer and was severely damaged in doing so. The Mackay and Whitshed, which were following astern of the others, got in their attacks a little later. The four undamaged ships then went to the help of the Worcester; but she managed finally to get back to harbour under her own steam. It had been a fine effort, and deserved better success than it achieved. Though hits were believed to have been obtained, the enemy actually avoided all the torpedoes. However, at 2:31 p.m., while the destroyers were closing to the attack, the enemy received his first check. The Scharnhorst struck a mine and came to a stop; but the damage was not serious and she was soon able to go ahead again at about 25 knots.
The main attacks by Bomber Command also developed during the early afternoon, and it is to them that we must now turn. The prevailing low cloud and poor visibility made high-level bombing with armour-piercing bombs impossible, and this eliminated the only means whereby the heavy bombers might damage the German warships seriously. General-purpose bombs could not penetrate the
armoured decks, but might do some damage by blast. Most of the bombers which were available when, at 11:27 a.m. all groups were warned to be ready to attack, were armed with general-purpose bombs. The Commander-in-Chief organised his forces to attack in three successive waves, and hoped that this would distract attention from the torpedo attacks by the Navy and Coastal Command. Of the 242 bombers which set out during the afternoon thirty-nine are believed to have attacked some enemy warship; fifteen were lost and the rest were prevented from attacking by low cloud and bad visibility. No damage was done to the enemy, and a heavy price was exacted from the bombers. While all these brave, but ineffective, air and surface actions were in progress Fighter Command was doing its best to protect our torpedo-bombers, the light coastal craft and the heavy bombers, and also to attack the enemy's escort vessels. But the confused nature of the battle made the fighters' work extremely difficult. Many actions took place with enemy fighters, but few were decisive. Of the 398 aircraft sent out seventeen were lost.
As night fell the enemy entered on the last lap of his race for home, and Admiral Ciliax must have felt well satisfied with the result of the air and surface actions fought while he was steaming to the east. But he was not yet clear of the mines which had been laid by the R.A.F. As already mentioned, the Scharnhorst had hit one early in the afternoon when to the north of the Scheldt estuary. She had in consequence become separated from her consorts. At 7:55 p.m. the Gneisenau was mined off Terschelling, but after a short delay she was able to steam at 25 knots. At 9:34 p.m. in nearly the same position, the Scharnhorst hit a second mine, and this time she was seriously hurt. Both main engines stopped, her steering was put out of action and her fire control failed temporarily. Not until 10:23 was she able to go ahead at slow speed. She had shipped 1,000 tons of water and her port engines were useless. She limped into Wilhelmshaven in the early hours of the 13th. The other two ships reached the mouth of the Elbe at 7 a.m. that day.
Apart from the magnetic mines laid in the previous fortnight, Bomber Command had tried to drop others ahead of the enemy ships on the 12th. But the weather made it next to impossible to place mines accurately, and only thirteen more were actually laid. It is not known which lays caused the damage to the enemy; nor was the fact that any damage had been received known in London until much later. The belief that the enemy squadron had passed unscathed through what were almost our home waters, under the very noses of the Royal Navy and Air Force, caused a wave of indignation to pass over the country. Vehement criticisms were made in Parliament and the press. Even The Times abandoned its customary restraint and wrote that 'Vice-Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where
the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed . . . Nothing more mortifying to the pride of sea-power has happened in home waters since the 17th Century'.14 The German Naval Staff, however, with a more just realisation of the fundamental issues involved, summarised the outcome as 'a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat', and today that judgement must surely be admitted to be the correct one. The gain for Britain lay in the elimination of the long-standing threat to our Atlantic convoys from Brest, and in the fact that the enemy had abandoned his offensive purpose and had concentrated his ships for defence against an expected invasion of Norway.15
It remains to discuss the undoubted tactical success achieved by the enemy. The Admiralty's analysis of his intention was proved correct on all important issues. Admiral Ramsay, it is true, had been wrong in his prophesy of the time at which the enemy squadron would sail, and when it would pass through the Straits. But this misjudgement was not important enough by itself to give the enemy his success. It is, however, possible that it contributed to excessive confidence in the measures taken to detect the moment of the actual departure of the enemy squadron. The main cause of the failure to do more damage to the German ships was that they were at sea for twelve hours, four of them in daylight, before they were discovered. And it was undoubtedly the failure of our air patrols, already recounted, which brought that about.
The Prime Minister appointed a Board of Enquiry under Mr. Justice Bucknill to investigate the whole circumstances of the escape of the enemy squadron. In their report the Board criticised Coastal Command for the fact that, although it was known that neither the first air patrol off Brest nor the patrol between Ushant and the Isle de Brehat had functioned correctly on the night of the 11th-12th, no dawn reconnaissance was made down-Channel next morning. Stronger inferences might, they considered, also have been drawn from the enemy's jamming of our radar stations during the forenoon of the 12th. With regard to the heavy bombers' attacks the Board remarked that 'the evidence . . . indicated that the training of the greater part of Bomber Command is not designed for effective attack on fast-moving warships by day'. The reasons, they continued, were clear; rapid expansion of the force, the despatch of much of its strength overseas and the replacement of the heavy casualties suffered had 'enforced concentration of their training on their major role of night bombing'. 'Whether', stated the report, 'they should be trained in attacks on moving warships is a matter of high policy, but if they are to be expected to take a more important part in the control of sea communications, large additions to their training would
appear to be necessary, and this can presumably only be effected at the expense of their operating capacity in what is now considered their primary, if not their only role'.16
The Board accepted that it was the delay in finding the enemy which led to the air and surface attacks being made piecemeal; and that the need, at that late hour, to try to inflict some damage quickly eliminated all chance of making co-ordinated attacks. In face of the powerful defences organised by the enemy it was not surprising that those attackers who succeeded in finding the German ships, and pressed in to close ranges, were cut to pieces.
There remains the question of the disposition of our sea and air forces to deal with an event which was predicted with accuracy. The heavy responsibilities which lay upon the Home Fleet at the time have already been mentioned, and it is hard to see how more, and more modern, destroyers could, for example, have been sent south to wait at Plymouth or Portsmouth. Nor, owing to the reconnaissance failure, is it likely that such reinforcements could have attacked early in the enemy's progress. The reinforcement of Coastal Command's torpedo-bombers in the south by No. 42 Squadron from Leuchars was not started sooner because of the Admiralty's insistence on keeping a striking force ready to deal with the Tirpitz. When the move was actually ordered the need was already urgent, and every minute mattered. Haste combined with the weather conditions on the airfields in East Anglia produced some understandable confusion. Finally, in summing up the lessons to be learnt from this unhappy event, it seems undeniable that the organisation for the control of all the various sea and air forces involved did not prove adequate to the occasion. The orders designed to deal with a break up-Channel by the enemy ships had been issued as long ago as May 1941, but had not included any special arrangements for placing all ships and aircraft under one unified command as soon as the enemy move occurred, or appeared likely to occur. It now seems that in circumstances such as actually arose a specially created command system was essential to the efficient and flexible control of all our forces.
In the Air Ministry it was realised that co-ordination of their operations by the three commands concerned (Bomber, Fighter and Coastal) had not stood the severe test imposed. On the 20th of March they therefore requested the three Air Commanders-in-Chief to consider the matter, and to make recommendations. Sir Philip Joubert, C.-in-C., Coastal Command, took this opportunity once
again to stress the need for his Command to assume complete responsibility for all anti-shipping activities. His proposal was, however, rejected and a 'combined operational instruction', which had been agreed between the three Commanders-in-Chief, was instead approved by the Air Ministry. A month later Coastal Command renewed its claim, but the frequent transfer of much of its strength abroad (to be discussed shortly) had then made it impossible of accomplishment, and the whole matter was deferred.
After the German battle cruisers reached their home bases, Bomber Command renewed its efforts to destroy them. The Gneisenau was hit twice by heavy bombs while in the floating dock at Kiel on the night of 26th-27th of February. Though the British authorities could not, of course, be aware of it, the cumulative effect of the damage received in Brest, of the mine explosion while on passage and of these latest bomb hits was so serious that it was estimated that a year under repair was necessary. In fact her refit was finally abandoned in January 1943, and this fine ship, which had many times caused us trouble and anxiety, thereafter gradually decayed into a disarmed and useless hulk.
Before taking leave of Admiral Ciliax's squadron, and of the unfortunate impression made by what it accomplished almost within sight of England's shores, it must be remarked how it was the selfless efforts of British fighting men of Esmonde's ancient Swordfish and Pizey's superannuated destroyers, and of the many R.A.F. aircrews involved - which did most to mitigate the failure to stop the German ships. In conclusion it is fair to record that, even allowing for the advantage of the initiative, which in this case was bound to rest with the enemy, his plans were well-conceived, and were carried through with skill and determination.17
After these stirring actions and events we must return briefly to the more humdrum work of keeping the coastal convoys running smoothly. From March to the end of July our losses to mines averaged six ships of about 16,000 tons sunk in each month; and it was still off the east coast that most of these losses were suffered.18 Nor did the escorting destroyers escape the hidden menace. In addition to the Vimiera, already mentioned, the Whitshed, Cotswold and Quorn were all mined at this time, but only the Whitshed was lost; the Vortigern, however, fell victim to an E-boat's torpedo on the 15th of March. E-boats laid about 260 mines in the first six months of 1942, and
enemy aircraft added a good many more. In that period Nore Command minesweepers swept a total of 460 magnetic or magnetic-acoustic mines, fifty-three acoustics and ninety moored mines. In addition some 450 of our own mines had to be swept for one reason or another. In June the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Lyon, reported to the Admiralty that his minesweepers had accounted for 2,000 influence type and 400 contact mines since the start of the war.
Actions between the convoy escorts and the E-boats were still fairly frequent. On the night of 19th-20th of February the destroyers escorting a southbound convoy met and engaged a group of eight E-boats engaged in minelaying. One enemy was sunk and another badly damaged. The Germans were dissatisfied over this encounter, and their war diary remarks, doubtless with truth, that 'the British destroyers on the south-east coast knew their job'. It is plain that it was still the destroyers which the German light forces engaged on forays against our coastal convoys chiefly feared. Our motor gunboats were, however, now making offensive sweeps over on the Dutch coast, and they scored some successes. For example on the night of 14th-15th of March they caught a group of E-boats soon after leaving Ymuiden to attack our east coast shipping. After a series of fierce fights the enemy's purpose was frustrated, and one of his number sunk. Spitfires of Fighter Command joined in the pursuit of the retiring survivors next morning.
So far the share taken by our fighter aircraft in dealing with German E-boats had been of a somewhat fortuitous nature. If, while employed on other missions, the fighters sighted such targets, they would attack; but no operations specifically directed against E-boats had yet been planned. In January, however, Fighter Command began to take part with the other naval and air forces in a coordinated offensive, and in the first two months of the year about ninety attacks were made, mostly on E-boats returning to their bases in daylight. In addition to attacks by fighters of No. 12 Group, Coastal Command's Beaufighters also sometimes joined in. But these measures actually yielded no material success. The enemy light craft, though obviously very vulnerable to cannon fire, were elusive targets, and proved extraordinarily difficult to hit from a fast aircraft. None the less an entry in the German Command's war diary does indicate that, by the middle of the year, our air attacks were forcing the enemy to desist from daylight operations, and to send out his light torpedo craft only in darkness.
In the Channel too the initiative was passing into our hands. The Germans realised this, and commented on the growing danger to their convoys and the declining effects of their attacks on our own. They attributed this largely to the work of our shore radar stations. 'The British', so they commented, 'can see what is happening . . .
whilst we can only listen to the enemy's wireless traffic and warn our boats accordingly'. The fitting of radar sets in our coastal force craft themselves did not actually start until the autumn of 1942. Until then they had to rely on visual sighting, or on listening devices to detect the enemy; but they also received a steady stream of information from the shore plots, which themselves were fed by the radar stations. Thus, off the east coast, a line of M.Ls and M.G.Bs was stationed some miles to seaward of our convoy route, to intercept approaching enemies.
Our light coastal forces were now expanding rapidly. By the middle of the year there were six motor gun-boat flotillas, two of motor torpedo-boats and eight of motor launches in the Nore Command. At full strength each flotilla consisted of eight boats. The M.G.Bs were used to protect our convoys and to attack the enemy E-boats; the M.T.Bs were used offensively against coastal shipping, and the M.Ls performed multifarious services such as minelaying, air-sea rescue work, and escort or patrol duties. As the spring of 1942 changed to summer, attacks on our east coast convoys declined. We now know that early in June the enemy decided that, because his recent experiences had been unprofitable and the short nights so favoured the defence, he would transfer his effort to the Channel. At the end of June two of his flotillas arrived at Cherbourg with the object of attacking our Channel convoys. On the 7th of July they scored a substantial success by sinking six ships of 12,356 tons in Lyme Bay. Then most of the E-boats returned to their Dutch bases, and in August they renewed their attacks on our east coast convoys. These sudden shifts of his coastal craft, to seek weak spots in our defences, were analogous to the constant changes of theatre made by Dönitz with his U-boats, as has been recorded in other chapters.19
Though the trend of this 'mosquito' warfare was now favourable to our cause, and it is plain that the spring of 1942 marked the turn from the defensive protection of our own coastal shipping to the onslaught against the enemy's, it is none the less the case that successful attacks on enemy convoys were still few and far between. The German traffic moved along the North Sea and Channel coasts almost entirely by night, and in short stages from one port to the next. Full advantage was taken of bad weather, and for specially important movements very powerful and numerous escorts were provided. It was thus not only hard for our light forces and aircraft to find the enemy, but very difficult for the former to penetrate the screening escorts in order to engage the principal targets. We now know that two disguised raiders passed successfully down-Channel during the present phase. The first one was the Michel (Raider H)20 which left Kiel on the 9th of March and reached Flushing four days later. There
she picked up a strong escort of five torpedo-boats and nine minesweepers, and started her passage down-Channel on the evening of the 13th. Early next morning light forces (six M.T.Bs and three M.G.Bs) sent out from Dover were in touch with the convoy; but our wireless traffic had given the enemy warning of their approach. The coastal craft located their quarry close to the French coast, but the enemy had been thoroughly alerted. His shore batteries fired starshell to illuminate the scene, and the attackers were met by such concentrated gunfire that they could not penetrate the screen. Soon after this skirmish five destroyers, which had been on patrol off Beachy Head, arrived and engaged the German escort; the Windsor and Walpole fired torpedoes, but none of them hit. Little damage was in fact done to either side, and the raider safely reached Havre on the afternoon of the 14th. She then coasted by stages to La Pallice, where she made her final preparations for her cruise. She sailed for the South Atlantic on the 20th of March.
In May another raider, the Stier (Raider J), made a successful passage down-Channel. It is to be remarked that whereas in 1940 and 1941 most disguised raiders broke out by the Denmark Strait21, the enemy had now wholly abandoned that circuitous passage in favour of the much shorter Channel route, where powerful escorts could be provided, and there were many ports of shelter ready to hand. The Stier left Rotterdam on the 12th of May escorted as strongly as the Michel had been. Very early next morning she was fired on by the Dover long-range guns, but received no damage. Then our coastal force craft gained touch, and a fierce action between them and the numerous escort developed. Two German torpedo-boats, the Seeadler and the Iltis, were sunk with heavy loss of life. We lost one M.T.B., but the raider herself was unscathed. She entered Boulogne that same morning, and then followed the example of her predecessor by making short coastal journeys by night to the Gironde. We shall recount the adventures of both these ships on their raiding cruises in the next chapter.
To turn now to Coastal Command's efforts to disrupt the enemy's coastwise shipping, the old handicap of lack of really suitable strike aircraft had not yet been overcome, and the Command was only able to continue its campaign by means of loans from other sources.22 Three squadrons of Bomber Command Bostons and some naval Swordfish were all at this time lent for such purposes. Furthermore the very-low-level bombing attacks, which had been started in the previous autumn, resulted in severe losses being suffered. By July we were losing one in five of the attacking aircraft, a rate of loss which could not be sustained. The very low attacks were thereupon stopped.
It had long since been brought home that the torpedo was the best weapon for aircraft to use against ships23; but it was not easy in the middle of a war greatly to increase the emphasis on torpedo striking power. Not only were we still suffering from a severe shortage of torpedoes, but there were very few suitable modern aircraft capable of carrying them. The Beauforts were excellent for the purpose, but they had not reached Coastal Command in anything like the predicted numbers, largely because new squadrons had been sent to the Middle East as fast as they were formed, in order to meet the urgent need of attacking the enemy's supply traffic to Libya.24 At the beginning of 1942 Coastal Command still only possessed three squadrons of Beauforts (Nos. 42, 86 and 217). They were allocated to stations from which they could deal with a break-out by the enemy's major warships from Norwegian ports and from Brest. In the spring the situation got worse, for Nos. 42 and 217 Squadrons were ordered overseas. By way of compensation two squadrons (Nos. 415 and 489) of torpedo-carrying Hampdens were formed early in the year, and in April two more similarly equipped squadrons (Nos. 144 and 455) were transferred to Coastal from Bomber Command. They were not, however, ready to start work until July. Nor, apart from its good range, was the Hampden a satisfactory substitute for the Beaufort. It was too slow, not manoeuvrable enough and too vulnerable to fighter attack. In the middle of the year it was decided to try to improve matters by converting Beaufighters to carry torpedoes; but none were available until the autumn.25
Table 12. The Air Offensive against Enemy Shipping by Direct Attacks at Sea.
(All Royal Air Force Commands - Home Theatre only)
January - July, 1942
No. Tonnage No. Tonnage January 498 52 2 2,152 2 11,131 14 February 1,674 174 5 1,245 Nil 64 March 898 63 1 200 Nil 16 April 766 83 1 1,494 Nil 18 May 960 208 14 31,787 9 30,973 45 June 904 240 1 1,497 3 8,172 24 July 917 180 6 1,764 Nil 14 TOTAL 6,617 1,000 30 40,139 14 50,276 195
NOTE: The high figure of sorties flown in relation to losses inflicted on the enemy is partly attributable to the big effort made by Fighter Command over the Channel, where targets were few and were generally only small enemy auxiliary craft.
Quite apart, therefore, from the shortage of torpedoes, supply of which was an Admiralty responsibility, there was throughout nearly the whole of the present phase a very severe shortage of torpedo carrying aircraft in Coastal Command. Only one Hampden squadron was fully operational until the summer. It is certain that the small results achieved and the heavy losses suffered in the air offensive against enemy shipping stemmed from these causes. They are shown in Table 12.
The next table shows how the enemy's parallel effort against our coastal shipping fared. Here again the meagreness of the results accomplished by direct attacks is to be remarked. The losses suffered by the Luftwaffe in this form of warfare cannot, unfortunately, be separated from its other losses.
Table 13. German Air Attacks on Allied Shipping and Royal Air Force
Sorties in Defence of Shipping
(Home Theatre only)
Day and Night
Aircraft Sorties for
Allied Shipping Sunk
by Direct Attacks
(Day and Night)
No. Tonnage January 452 180 4 9,538 3,643 1 February 644 160 4 4,776 4,772 4 March 685 190 2 884 3,868 11 April 592 227 Nil 4,509 2 May 648 230 Nil 3,956 4 June 589 220 2 1,465 4,425 6 July 828 93 4 1,868 4,270 6 TOTALS 4,438 1,300 16 18,531 29,443 34
NOTES: (I) As we cannot distinguish Allied losses due to air-laid mines from losses caused by mines laid by other means, it is impossible to compare the achievements of the enemy's minelaying with those of his direct attacks on shipping.
(2) Allied shipping sunk includes Merchantmen, Naval Vessels and Fishing Craft.
(3) The great majority of the sorties made in defence of Allied shipping was flown by Fighter Command aircraft.
While the give and take in direct air attacks on shipping was thus proving of little profit to either side the Royal Air Force's minelaying campaign was continuing and expanding, and with very different results. The Admiralty had now raised mine production to 200 per week, and had taken steps to increase it to 300. This created the need to review the number of aircraft available for the purpose. It had always been the case that the more distant, and more fruitful waters could only be reached by Bomber Command's long-range aircraft.26 That Command now intended gradually to modify all its aircraft to enable them to be so employed. Because it was less
economical to use the few torpedo-carrying aircraft of Coastal Command, in March it was suggested by Air Marshal Joubert that minelaying should cease to be a routine duty for his aircrews. This proposal was accepted, and new directives were accordingly issued to both the commands concerned. Bomber Command was instructed that it would take over all minelaying in home waters, but would carry it out with inexperienced crews, as part of their training, or with `veteran crews' who had been taken off bombing raids. Minelaying was not to prejudice the command's bombing effort. Coastal Command might still carry out such operations as part of its training in night-flying or for special purposes, but was to consult Bomber Command before doing so.
Accordingly in March bombers of Nos. 1 and 3 Groups (equipped with Wellingtons and Stirlings) were added to those of No. 5 Group, which had formerly been the chief minelayers and had recently received some Manchester squadrons. In that month a total of 355 mines were laid, but in April and May the bombers' accomplishment rose steeply to 559 and 1,027 mines respectively. In all 3,468 mines were laid, nearly all by Bomber Command, in the first six months of 1942 at a cost of sixty-nine aircraft. The waters which were mined stretched from the River Gironde to the Bay of Danzig. At the end of the present phase the Admiralty was ready with an acoustic firing mechanism, but it was decided not to use it until stocks were large enough to cause the enemy serious embarrassment.
The results achieved by the campaign are shown in the table below and it will be seen how, as remarked earlier,27 the greater economy of minelaying compared with direct attacks on shipping received renewed emphasis.
Table 14. The R.A.F.'s Air Minelaying Campaign
(Home Theatre only)
No. Tonnage No. Tonnage January 100 61 5 4,380 Nil 4 February 319 306 4 11,372 2 62,600 13 March 266 355 6 6,783 Nil 14 April 344 559 7 16,902 2 1,977 12 May 456 1027 25 14,967 2 7,426 16 June 516 1160 15 27,260 4 12,902 10 July 434 898 22 22,394 4 14,268 12 TOTALS 2,435 4,366 84 10,4058 14 99,173 81
Before leaving this subject it is relevant to mention that in this same seven month period the British and American air forces flew
7,476 sorties against enemy ports. The target given to the bombers was not invariably shipping in those ports, nor the area containing the docks and wharves. In many cases U-boat building slips, war industries in the port district, or workers' housing were named as primary targets. The total losses to enemy shipping in the ports caused by those raids were eleven ships (17,635 tons) sunk and three (39,851 tons) damaged. Four hundred and seven Allied bombers were lost.
With the Tirpitz now known to be operational, the possibility that she, like the Bismarck28, would be sent on an Atlantic foray and then make for a base in western France, was one of the Admiralty's greatest cares. Should she do so there was only one place where she could be docked-in the great lock at St. Nazaire originally designed to take the liner Normandie, and bearing that ship's name. Access to this lock, which was 1,148 feet long and 164 feet wide, could be gained direct from the river Loire.29 At each end of it were giant caissons worked by hydraulic machinery which, when in place, enabled the lock to be pumped dry, and so used as a dry dock. The suggestion that a surprise attack should be made with the object of destroying the outer caisson and as much of the dock's operating machinery as possible originated in the Plans Division of the Naval Staff, whose Director passed it to Admiral Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations. The outline plan was then worked out in the latter's headquarters, and submitted for approval by the Chiefs of Staff.
It was an exceedingly bold plan, for the attacking forces would have to make a 400 mile open-sea passage, during which they might be detected at any time, and then a five mile journey up a closely guarded river estuary, during which it would be hard to disguise their presence, and their purpose. The plan was that the ex-American destroyer Campbeltown with three tons of explosive on board, timed to blow up about two-and-a-half hours after impact, would be lightened sufficiently to enable her to steam straight up the river estuary across the numerous sandbanks, instead of keeping to the tortuous dredged channel. This reduced the navigational hazards and increased the possibility of surprise; but it meant that the attack could only take place at the top of a spring tide. The Campbeltown was then to ram the outer caisson of the lock. Meanwhile Commandos would land from motor launches, and hold a small bridgehead while demolitions were being carried out. The naval forces comprised one motor gunboat (M.G.B.) as headquarters ship, in which were embarked the senior naval officer (Commander
R. E. D. Ryder) and the military commander (Lieutenant-Colonel A. C. Newman), sixteen motor launches (M.Ls), some carrying troops and some armed with torpedoes, and one motor torpedo boat (M.T.B.). The Campbeltown (Lieutenant-Commander S. H. Beattie) also carried troops. For the outward passage all the headquarters staff embarked in the destroyer Atherstone. She and her sister ship the Tynedale formed the escort force, while two more Hunt-class destroyers (the Cleveland and Brocklesby) were to reinforce the expedition for the homeward passage. After the plan made by the Chief of Combined Operations had been approved by the Chiefs of Staff, the training of the various forces and the meticulous preparation of all the details of the expedition's equipment were done under the direction of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes, now Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth.
Map 16. The Attack on St. Nazaire, 27th - 28th March 1942
The striking force and its escort sailed from Falmouth on the afternoon of the 26th of March. The Atherstone towed the headquarters M.G.B., and the Campbeltown towed the single M.T.B., whose function it was to use her torpedoes against the lock gates if the Campbeltown should fail to reach them, or against any other suitable targets which might be found. The southward course was carefully chosen to avoid the enemy's naval and air patrols. German colours were hoisted when Ushant had been passed, but the passage was uneventful except for encounters with French fishing boats, and for an attack on a U-boat by the escorting destroyers early on the 27th. The U-boat (U-593) was not seriously damaged; at 2 p.m. that afternoon she surfaced and reported the presence of our forces. But Commander Ryder considered that the encounter might have compromised his destination and plan, and to mislead the enemy he altered temporarily to a south-westerly course. The U-boat duly reported his ships to be steering in that direction and the German authorities did not guess that their presence had any connection with St. Nazaire. But it was a narrow escape from loss of surprise, on which so much depended. Detection from the air became less likely when, that same afternoon, the previously clear sky filled with low clouds. One of Commander Ryder's anxieties concerned the movements of five German torpedo-boats which had been located at St. Nazaire; but this superior force was removed from his path by the enemy's wrong assessment of U-593's report. The Germans sent their torpedo-boats to sea to make a night sweep off the coast.
Soon after sunset the Force Commanders transferred to the M.G.B., and the light craft took up their dispositions for the approach. The whole force then turned north-east, to pick up the submarine which had been stationed off the river estuary as a navigation mark. She was sighted at 10 p.m., and soon afterwards the escorting destroyers parted company. The eighteen coastal force boats and the Campbeltown were now entirely on their own. Embarked in them were sixty-two naval officers and 291 ratings, and forty-four officers and 224 other ranks of the Commandos - a total of 621 men proceeding to attack one of the most heavily defended bases in Europe. At midnight anti-aircraft gunfire was noticed ahead. The R.A.F. had been asked to raid the port in order to divert the enemy's attention; but this actually proved a mixed blessing to the attackers, because the low cloud prevented accurate bombing and the presence of our aircraft brought the enemy garrison to the alert. None the less our forces got to within two miles of their objective before the alarm was given or enemy searchlights were switched on. At about 1:30 a.m. the whole force was brilliantly flood-lit, but fire was not at once opened on it. Commander Ryder gained precious minutes of immunity by making false identification signals and,
when the guns did at last open up, at first rather uncertainly, by making protestations of friendliness. But this could not last for long, and very soon 'the full fury . . . was let loose on both sides, [and] the air became one mass of red and green tracer travelling in all directions'. In spite of this, and of the blinding glare of the many searchlights, Lieutenant-Commander Beattie steered the Campbeltown well and true for her target. At 1:34 a.m. on the 28th of March (four minutes late on the scheduled time) she rammed the lock gates hard, and stuck there well embedded in them. Her Commandos at once landed and set about their tasks of destruction to good effect.
Map 17. The Attack on St. Nazaire, 28th March 1942, The Approach
To land the rest of the soldiers from the motor launches was more difficult, as a torrent of point-blank fire from innumerable weapons, large and small was directed at them. The starboard column of
M.Ls was supposed to land its men at the 'Old Entrance' to the St. Nazaire basin, the port column at the 'Old Mole'.30 The former suffered heavy casualties; only M.L. 177 and M.G.B. 314 succeeded in landing their men as planned. At the mole the enemy resistance was even fiercer, and again only one M.L. (No. 457) managed to get her Commandos ashore. M.L. 177 and Commander Ryder's M.G.B. rescued many of the Campbeltown's crew, but the former was sunk on her way down river and the survivors, including Lieutenant Commander Beattie, were made prisoner. Ryder himself landed to see that all was well with the blockship's position and, finding that so, told M.T.B. 74 to use her torpedoes on the lock gate at the Old Entrance. He then went to support the soldiers on the Old Mole with his M.G.B.; but there matters were going badly. He lay about 100 yards off under a hail of fire, to which his crew answered as long as they could. Around him were many of the M.Ls burning and sinking. Though the demolition parties from the Campbeltown could be heard blowing up the buildings and machinery allocated to them, it was obvious that to rescue the soldiers now ashore was impossible, and that the attempt could only lead to the loss of the few surviving coastal craft. At 2:50 a.m. Commander Ryder, whose M.G.B. had 'by the grace of God' [not so far been] set ablaze' but had however been many times hit and was full of badly wounded men, decided to withdraw. He reached the rendezvous with the Atherstone five hours later. Meanwhile the five enemy torpedo-boats, which had caused the assault force anxiety the evening before, appeared at last on the scene. At about 6:30 a.m. a short engagement took place between them and the Tynedale, while Commander Ryder's much scarred M.G.B. was in the offing; but the enemy was driven off. Seven of our M.Ls, all damaged in varying degree, began the hazardous passage down river. One encountered the German T.B.Ds already mentioned and was sunk. Two others and M.G.B. 314 had to be scuttled by our own forces after the crews had been rescued; only four motor launches got home safely.
We cannot here follow in detail the desperate fighting of the heavily outnumbered Commandos ashore. At the same time as Commander Ryder realised that to rescue them was impossible, Colonel Newman decided to try and break through to the interior of France. After making a determined attempt the survivors were trapped and captured. Shortly before noon on the 28th the Campbeltown blew up. With incredibly little imagination a large number of German officers had just gone on board to inspect her, and casualties among them were heavy. M.T.B. 74's torpedoes, fired into the lock gates at the Old Entrance, blew up after about one-and-a-half
days' delay.31 These repeated explosions, combined with the loss of so many of their officers, caused German troops to panic, and in the ensuing indiscriminate firing many hundreds of their fellow-countrymen, and unhappily many French workmen, were killed.
As to the results of the raid, air photographs soon revealed that the main target, the gates of the giant lock, had been totally destroyed. This and the demolition of the working machinery made it certain that the Tirpitz could not be docked there - at any rate for a long time. Towards the end of March the German Naval Staff had ordered that all its operational centres should be shifted inland. The reason was that Hitler anticipated an Allied landing in western France. After the raid he ordered U-boat Headquarters to be transferred immediately, and on the 29th of March they accordingly moved from Lorient to Paris.
We lost, in all, fourteen coastal craft, and thirty-four officers and 157 men of their crews; but over half were taken prisoner and returned home after the war. The Commandos lost nearly all the officers and men who landed, but again many were made prisoner. The final totals of British killed and missing were eighty-five to the Navy and fifty-nine to the Army-astonishingly small casualties to have suffered, when it is remembered where the forces went and what they did. The enemy's losses were certainly far higher. But quite apart from the balance sheet of profit and loss, the success of the raid undoubtedly shook the Germans' confidence in their coast defences, and caused them to waste still more men and weapons in sterile garrison duties. Morally the success was as valuable to our own cause as it was detrimental to the enemy's; for in the raid on St. Nazaire were revived the calculated boldness in conception, the calm acceptance of great risks in planning, the steadfastness of purpose in execution and the unflinching courage of performance which has characterised British penetrations into enemy strongholds from Drake's 'singeing of the King of Spain's beard' in Cadiz harbour in 1587, through Cochrane's attack on Aix Roads in 1809 to Keyes 'giving the dragon's tail a damned good twist' at Zeebrugge in 1918.32
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