Thursday, 4 October 2012

Operation Fuller memorial unveiled on Dover's Marine Parade to commemorate the 'Channel Dash' - JG 2 and Donnerkeil Channel Front aces

The weekend before last (22 September) I popped down to Dover for the unveiling of the new 'Channel Dash' memorial on the town's seafront Marine Parade. The Royal Navy's Type 23 frigate HMS Kent and the First Sea Lord were also in town for the ceremony, along with the RAF Band and there were fly-pasts from a Swordfish and Spitfire. A Spitfire and Me 109 were on ground display. HMS Kent provided a guard of honour for the unveiling ceremony of the memorial to the bravery of those who lost their lives during Operation Fuller. In this 70th anniversary year of the 'Channel Dash'  the theme of the unveiling, also attended by German dignitaries, was "recognition, remembrance and reconciliation ". To coincide with the dedication of the memorial HMS Kent opened her gangway to members of the public.

Operation Fuller was launched on 12 February 1942 to intercept and attack the powerful German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen which had left port in Brest, France undetected the day before to return to Germany. The three battleships were protected by an accompanying flotilla of some further 50 warships of varying sizes. Planned by Admiral Bertram Ramsay in the tunnels below Dover Castle, the chief air component of the British response comprised six Fairey Swordfish biplanes of No. 825 Sq crewed by 18 Fleet Air Arm aviators. The Swordfish were airborne from RAF Manston near Ramsgate in appalling weather conditions. Supporting in the attack were MTBs from Dover, shore batteries of the Royal Artillery, destroyers from Harwich and aircraft of Fighter and Bomber Command RAF. Due to the surprise element of the movement of the German battleships and hampered by poor visibility including sleet and snow showers in the Channel over the two days of the transit, the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force were on the back foot and, with ineffectual air cover the Swordfish torpedo bombers under the command of Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde took off and flew to almost certain destruction, managing to inflict only relatively minor damage to their German targets before being shot down. Only five men from the total of 18 who undertook the mission survived and only one of these survivors was uninjured. The bravery and self-sacrifice of these young aviators was noted both at home and by the German forces. Most accounts of this operation from the German side rely heavily on Adolf Galland's memoir and tend to feature Galland's former unit JG 26. However the latest volume of Erik Mombeeck's history of JG 2 just published features new and detailed coverage of Donnerkeil from the perspective of Jagdgeschwader 2 with rare personal accounts from Lt. Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel, Oblt. Franz Fiby, Staffelkapitän of 3./JG 2 and Oblt. Siegfried Bethke, Staffelkapitän of 2./JG 2 among others.

On 11 February I./JG 2 departed Caen in Normandy for Calais-Marck on the Channel coast in weather conditions that ordinarily would have kept the Gruppe grounded. The pilots were briefed later that day, secrecy was paramount. Tactics involved Staffeln orbiting the ships in shifts of 50 minutes duration and among the most surprising of instructions were orders to ram any RAF bombers that penetrated the fighter screens. Oblt. Elmar Resch of the operational training unit 4./JFS 5 was one of the first Luftwaffe units airborne that day over the Channel - their attempts to even locate the German convoy were fruitless as a result of the poor weather conditions;

" ..none of our ships were sighted and as intermittent snow falls grew heavier and more prolonged and the cloud base got lower and lower we had to break off to seek out our landing ground at Wevelgem. With snow lying on the ground it was extremely difficult to get any bearings. Fortunately I had been trained on instruments, and we were able to land on the Belgian airfield at 10h27 after sixty minutes in the air and our fuel running low. A Schwarm led by Hptm. Zink continued the search.."

Franz Fiby of 3./ JG 2 continued;

" ..we were airborne at 11:45 from Marck with sixteen aircraft. My Schwarm was to furnish cover on the land side of the convoy. We caught sight of our ships off Boulogne and escorted them as far as Cap Griz Nez where we were relieved by Fw 190s. At that time the ships were still undetected by the British so we saw no action. The sortie was hard work - high levels of concentration had to be maintained in very gloomy visibility some 200 metres below the cloud deck and in total radio silence. We landed back at Calais Marck after an hour's flying time and had lunch. From the airfield we could hear the booming of the coastal batteries as they opened up...the sixteen of us then went back to cockpit readiness. From the ground we caught brief glimpses of a dogfight going on overhead..."

As is known Operation Fuller condemned the men manning the Swordfish torpedo bombers to almost certain death - all the attacking Swordfish were shot down. In this new account of the operation the author details how the Swordfish had the misfortune to reach the convoy and launch their attack in the precise sector where JG 26 and JG 2's fighter coverage coincided. Banks of cloud and fog could offer little protection when setting up for a straight run-in against the ships.  Out of the ensuing hail of withering fire and the confusion of battle that blasted all six Swordfish out of the air, II./ JG 2 eventually claimed and was credited with no fewer than 8 Swordfish, while III./ JG 26 claimed three and the ships' anti-aircraft batteries were credited with a further four!  Lt. Graf von Einsiedel was credited with two Swordfish shot down;

" ..we had just overflown the Scharnhorst when I sighted six torpedo bombers on my port side which we identified as Swordfish types. They were flying in two formations; a group of four and two together on their own. The crews did not appear particularly experienced, they were making no evasive manoeuvres. I focused on the first formation, ploughing along at no more than 110 kph, their fixed undercarriage barely cresting the tops of the waves...."

In total JG 2 filed some seventeen claims for 12 February and, unlike JG 26, sustained no losses. A Spitfire brought down by Staffelkapitän 'Assi' Hahn was his 50th victory. III./ JG 2 claimed Whirlwinds of No. 137 Sq shot down. Two Hampdens and two Blenheims from a late afternoon raid mounted by some seventy RAF Bomber Command machines were also claimed by JG 2, one of the last actions of the Geschwader before cover duties were taken over by JG 1 based in the Netherlands..

" the narrowest part of the Channel is the Tommies wake up.." German newsreel footage of Donnerkeil

Below; a 'pre-digital' view taken on the hills above Folkestone looking across the Channel to Cap Blanc Nez between Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer on the other side. While the lens has shortened the effect of distance (22 miles!) on clear days when it is easy to see across to the other side I often wonder what a Kriegsmarine battle group would have looked like steaming up the Channel ..according to Siegfried Bethke the poor visibility and heavy seas played a crucial role in the safe passage of the convoy on 12 February 1942...