Biplanes vs. Battleships: The Channel Dash Disaster

On a February morning 68 years in the past, 18 members of British No. 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, took off in six Fairey Swordfish on what amounted to a suicide mission. Their project: to torpedo a German flotilla in transit from France to Germany through the English Channel. Inside 20 minutes of leaving the airfield at Manston, close to the Straits of Dover, all of the Swordfish had been shot down. Solely 5 crewmen would survive what got here to be referred to as the Channel Sprint.

Already out of date by the start of the conflict, No. 825 Squadron headed out of their six Fairey Swordfish to confront among the most superior warships within the German navy. (IWM A 3532)

Why did a handful of out of date biplanes tackle the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen— plus destroyers, flak ships and a swarm of fighter planes? As a result of radar and communications snafus, the “Stringbags” have been the one plane available at Manston as soon as the British belatedly realized the enemy was on the transfer on February 12, 1942. When phrase reached 825 Squadron that they might be attacking the fleet, the navy fliers anticipated to have a large Supermarine Spitfire escort, in addition to the help of motor torpedo boats, destroyers, bombers, fighters and coastal artillery. However the Germans slipped out of Brest at night time, stunning the British. By the point RAF Bomber Command, Fighter Command and Coastal Command plane took off to brush the Channel, the Swordfish had dropped their torpedoes in useless—and all six biplanes had been misplaced.

The flotilla suffered solely minor harm— primarily from mines—earlier than reaching security. German Vice Adm. Otto Ciliax commented on the Swordfish crews’ daring and valor, referring to their mission as “The mothball assault of a handful of historic planes, piloted by males whose bravery surpasses every other motion by both aspect that day.”

During its run through the channel the Scharnhorst fires its aft guns while two German fighters bore in on the attacking British planes. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
Throughout its run by means of the channel the Scharnhorst fires its aft weapons whereas two German fighters bore in on the attacking British planes. (Ullstein Bild through Getty Photographs)

In October 2009 Lt. Cmdr. Edgar Lee, the final Swordfish crewman survivor of the Channel Sprint, died at age 88. Lee served because the observer in a Swordfish piloted by Sub-Lt. Brian Rose, who focused Gneisenau with their torpedo. After the wounded Rose ditched their biplane, Lee helped him clamber into their dinghy, they usually have been quickly rescued by a motor torpedo boat. However the third member of their crew, Main Airman A.L. “Ginger” Johnson, died within the cockpit.

Lee, who obtained the Distinguished Service Order, later grew to become a schoolmaster, in addition to a member of the Royal Navy Reserve. He additionally served as president of the Channel Sprint Affiliation, which is devoted to constructing a memorial to the Stringbag crewmen. For extra on their efforts, go to


Initially revealed within the March 2010 problem of Aviation Historical past. To subscribe, click on right here. 


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