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'Channel Dash’ heroics to be remembered 70 years on

Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde (second from left) and comrades stand in the shadow of a Swordfish torpedo bomber (Picture Fleet Air Arm Museum)

04/01/2012

Three events are being planned to mark the 70th anniversary of the Channel Dash, one of the bravest episodes in the Fleet Air Arm’s history. Services in February and May will commemorate the sacrifice made trying to stop three German warships breaking through the Strait of Dover in 1942.

one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed
Admiral Bertram Ramsay

Arguably the bravest episode in 103 years of Royal Navy aviation will be commemorated with a series of 70th anniversary events, including historic flypasts.

Half a dozen antiquated Swordfish torpedo bombers were shot out of the sky by the Germans in February 1942 when they tried to stop a breakout of three enemy warships.

The Channel Dash as it has become known – officially Operation Fuller on the British side, Operation Cerberus on the German – saw the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen race from Brest to the safety of German ports.

The three German ships were shielded by nearly 300 fighters and bombers, while the British response was poorly co-ordinated – much of the fighter cover promised the Swordfish failed to materialise.

Despite that lack of cover, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde – a veteran of the attack on the Bismarck nine months earlier – led his sluggish torpedo bombers in to sink the ships. Although some got torpedoes away, none hit the ships, all the Swordfish were downed and only five of the 18 crew were rescued. Esmonde was not among them; he received a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The deeds of the 825 Naval Air Squadron aircrew received praise from both sides – Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the Commander-in-Chief at Dover, called it “one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed”; the German breakout commander Otto Ciliax said the Swordfish crews’ bravery surpassed “any other action by either side that day”.

Half a dozen Royal Navy destroyers also tried to intercept the German force, but their torpedo salvo missed – and the response from the enemy guns badly damaged HMS Worcester which was set ablaze; 24 men aboard her were killed.

All the deeds that day will be honoured over two weekends in 2012.

On Saturday February 11 there will be a memorial service in Ramsgate, where a monument was unveiled to the 825 NAS fliers in 2010.

Weather permitting, that service will be accompanied by a flypast from a Swordfish of the Royal Navy Historic Flight based at Yeovilton.

In addition to proceedings on land and in the air, patrol boat HMS Trumpeter and a Thames pilot launch will head into the Channel to lay wreaths.

That evening a formal dinner will be held in the Officers’ Mess at RAF Manston, from where the six Swordfish took off in February 1942 – and where Esmonde had enjoyed a party to celebrate receiving the DSO for his role in the Bismarck sinking.

On Sunday February 12, events move to St Mary-in-Castro Church at Dover Castle for a service of remembrance for all three Services; in the tunnels below the castle, Ramsay directed the naval battle. Once again the Swordfish will conduct a flypast if the weather allows.

Finally, on Saturday May 19 the Operation Fuller Memorial Monument will be dedicated on Marine Parade in Dover.

As well as a significant presence from all three Services, the Historic Flight Swordfish is due to be joined in Kent skies by the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

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