80th anniversary of famous convoy duel with Luftwaffe off Dover

Mid-afternoon on Sunday July 13 1940. On Dover’s White Cliffs, journalist Charles Gardner was transfixed by the dogfight playing out before his eyes.

His impressions were recorded by BBC engineers. The next day the nation would hear them and, before the week was out, the rest of the free world.

 

Well now the Germans are bombing a convoy out at sea. There are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on his target now. Bomb. No. He missed the ship – he hasn’t hit a single ship...

There’s one coming down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down completely out of control. Ah, the pilot’s bailed out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87 and he’s going slap into the sea. And there he goes! Smash!

 

No-one had heard anything like it. Some thought Gardner’s style – more akin to describing a summer’s afternoon at Lord’s or a top-of-the-league clash at Highbury – was unworthy of the mortal struggle in the skies. Others thought it struck the perfect tone.

 

Outside broadcasts were in their infancy. The 28-year-old Gardner had joined the BBC in 1936 and, with another young journalist, one Richard Dimbleby, was dispatched wherever the story was.

In July 1940 the story was in the skies over the Channel as the Luftwaffe sought to sweep all shipping from coastal routes.

 

This was the third time Gardner and his two assistants had made the trip to the Channel coast. They pitched up near an anti-aircraft battery and, around 3pm, were rewarded with the sight of Convoy CW6 – around ten merchantmen, escorted by a veteran destroyer, HMS Vanessa – sluggishly making their way for Portsmouth.

 

Coastal convoys alleviated the burden on the nation’s railways in time of war, moving bulk goods around the country in large quantities, albeit slowly.

 

The convoys were slow. Top speed, perhaps 6kts. They were vulnerable. Few escorts could be spared with invasion imminent.

 

Despite his excellent vantage point, Gardner’s eyewitness account wasn’t always accurate – unsurprising given the confusing duel taking place at a distance in the summer haze.

Well over 60 aircraft – friend and foe – locked horns over St Margaret’s Bay that Sunday afternoon. Two dive-bombers were downed, but the ‘Stuka’ Gardner saw crash was probably a Hurricane from 615 Squadron based at Kenley; its pilot succumbed to his wounds the next day.

 

In addition, two ships in the convoy were damaged and the coaster SS Island Queen was sunk. A bomb landing 20ft from HMS Vanessa was sufficient to flood several compartments, cause a total loss of power and put the vintage destroyer out of action for four months.

 

And this was just the beginning. Convoy CW6 was one of the first transports to face the wrath of the Luftwaffe during what they dubbed Kanalkampf – the Channel Battle.

 

It was a struggle which would last a month until the Germans switched their attention to the RAF and its bases.

 

Had they not, the Kanalkampf may well have ended in a German victory, despite losing aircraft at twice the rate of the RAF: roughly one in every three merchant ships was damaged or sunk, a casualty rate the Merchant Navy could not sustain.

 

Instead, the Kanalkampf fizzled out in the second week of August. The stage was set for what has gone down in history as the Battle of Britain: the German onslaught against the mainland and its airfields.