Goodwood Aerodrome and the Channel Dash

01st March 2016

In March 1941 the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisnau were taking refuge in the French port of Brest.  They were joined by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen which had recently left the battle-cruiser Bismarck to its fate at the hands of a British Navy who were determined to avenge the sinking of HMS Hood.

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Responsible for heavy losses of allied shipping in the North Atlantic, these ships were subject to constant surveillance and regular air raids from the other side of the Channel. The British ensured they remained bottled-up on France's Atlantic coast, which was one of the reasons the Scharnhorst and Gneisnau had been unable to assist the Bismarck. 

Adolf Hitler needed his ships for the defence of German occupied Norway and for intercepting supply convoys bound for the Soviet Union, so he ordered their return to Germany.  A plan was developed to get the ships out and make for Germany via the English Channel, through the Straits of Dover. Some thirty escort ships accompanied the cruisers.

On 11th February 1942 under cover of darkness, the cruisers slipped undetected into the English Channel and made for the Straits of Dover at speed.  Operation Cerberus got underway, this was later to become known by the Allies as the Channel Dash

129 (Mysore) Squadron were based at RAF Westhampnett from 29th August 1941. Little did they know they were to be involved in a very costly operation that was to see significant losses as the allies tried to stop the German Pocket battleships.

129 (Mysore) Squadron with cannon armed Spitfire Vbs were scrambled from RAF Westhampnett initially to escort cannon armed Hurricanes from RAF Manston. They arrived on the scene in the afternoon of the 12th February in poor visibility and were thrown into the thick of the action. The Luftwaffe always had at least 16 fighters over the flotilla day and night and the sky would also have been full of RAF fighters and bombers.  In total the RAF put up 398 fighters over the period of the dash and over 300 bombers. Sergeant Drew of 129 was almost immediately shot down and another Sergeant Pilot Mick Wilson lost a third of his wing to flak from the enemy ships. Using a Spitfires cannon to try and stop these ships would have been like throwing a tennis ball against a brick wall.

Ray Sherk, one of the veterans of the operation who is still alive and flying in Canada remembered this day vividly “We were called to readiness at noon (without dinner) and took off at 1:15 p.m. to escort some cannon armed Hurricanes of No 1 Squadron to shoot up some shipping off Calais that turned out to be the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau with some destroyers. Several aircraft missing, Dixie Davis was shot down and killed in action, McPhie got a bullet in his shoe which grazed his heel and had several bullet holes in his aircraft. Sergeant Mick Wilson bailed out over Ipswich after losing part of his starboard wing. Bowman got two Bf 109s damaged. It was a pretty shaky I do recall avoiding ship masts. I was involved in the melee but was not hit although a shell from a destroyer just missed me! Upon our return, the intelligence officer Flying Officer Chapman was very interested in our individual recollections and we were interviewed extensively. It was much later on that we learned the full extent of the operation”.

41 Squadron who were also operating at Goodwood alongside 129 similarly took part in the operation as recalled by Wing Commander Bob Middlemiss DFC:-

“February the 12th 1942, 41 Squadron escorted Hurricane Bombers carrying 250 lb bombs against the German Battleships Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau that travelled from Brest up through the English Channel to German ports in Wilhelmshaven. The squadron on this operation was led by S/L Hugo who destroyed one and damaged another enemy aircraft.  Pilot Officer Roy Frank Cambridge destroyed a Bf 109 and Flight Sergeant Ronald Edward Green destroyed one of the enemy aircraft.  Sergeant Bruce Paul Dunstan was listed as missing on this operation”.

It was also during this air battle that the Royal Navy put up their Swordfish torpedo bombers in a last ditch attempt to stop the ships, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde RN lead the raid and was killed in action along with the loss of his entire detachment of torpedo bombers. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Only five of his crewmembers survived out of eighteen. 

All in all not a very successful operation, but yet another important chapter in the history of the airfield. Both Bob Middlemiss and Ray Sherk returned to Goodwood for the Revival in 2009 to share their memories of flying from this historic wartime base, sadly Bob passed away in 2014.

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