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 Eugene 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.
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) and 41 Squadrons were based at RAF Westhampnett and were to be thrust into the action to help stop the break out, both armed with cannon equipped Spitfire Vbs and were scrambled from RAF Westhampnet into the Frey. 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 of 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 do I 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”.
The Goodwood Aero Club will be taking a trip across the channel later this year which will give Members an opportunity to reflect on the Dash when they visit La Coupole in July, located just 5km from Saint-Omer. It is now a museum and planetarium, and was originally a bunker built as the base for launching the V2 rockets against London during the World War II.