Heroic Channel Dash aircrew remembered after 75 years

The 75th anniversary of one of the bravest episodes in the history of the Fleet Air Arm has been remembered at a special memorial service in Ramsgate.

Attended by members of ‘The Channel Dash Association’ as well as senior Royal Navy Officers, the commemoration honoured the sacrifices made by 825 Naval Air Squadron, whilst trying to stop three German Battle Cruisers breaking through the English Channel in February 1942.

‘The Channel Dash’, as it is known  was a heroic but futile attempt by six Swordfish torpedo bombers to stop the German Warships breaking through the Dover Strait and reach safety in their home waters. Shielded by a massive flotilla of ships and torpedo boats, the Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen also had over 300 fighters escorting them.

Against an overwhelming force the 825 NAS Swordfish, temporarily based at Manston in Kent attacked the mighty German battle group.  Flying towards anti-aircraft fire from the big ships and the Luftwaffe, the aging Bi-planes stood little chance.  All the Swordfish were shot down and only five of the eighteen men who set out survived. Some of the aircraft got their torpedoes away but none hit their intended targets.

825 NAS’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde DSO was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross and five of the surviving aircrew received Distinguished Service Orders or Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, for their gallant actions on February 12. 

The sacrifices of the Channel Dash heroes is a legacy we are very proud of and being here today to remember them, is a fitting tribute to their bravery.

Commander Simon Collins, Commanding Officer of 825 Naval Air Squadron

Friend and foe alike noted the courage of the Swordfish crews. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey, Commander in Chief Dover later wrote, "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed". Whilst Admiral Otto Ciliax in the Scharnhorst described "The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".

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

Only five of the eighteen Swordfish aircrew survived the attack, the last Lt Cdr Edgar Lee passed away in 2009 at the age of 88. Veterans groups and members of the Channel Dash Association gather annually to remember at the Chanel Dash memorial in Ramsgate Harbour. The memorial, erected by Kent Fleet Air Arm Association (KFAAA) in cooperation with the Museum Trust, is the only one to mark where the brave men of 825 NAS left Manston on that fateful day in February 1942.

“It is an honour to be Commanding Officer of 825 Naval Air Squadron,”  said Commander Simon Collins. “The sacrifices of the Channel Dash heroes is a legacy we are very proud of and being here today to remember them,  is a fitting tribute to their bravery.”