The RAF and the Channel Dash

On 11 February 1942, the prestigious German battleships the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen broke out of the westerly French port of Brest and sailed east, up the English Channel, in a break for the security of the German-controlled waters beyond it. This operation, daringly carried out under the noses of the British, became known as the Channel Dash. It was known by the Germans as Unternehmen Zerberus or Operation Cerberus (click HERE for German film footage of the operation accompanied by very triumphalist music).

After leaving Brest, the Kriegsmarine ships escaped notice for more than twelve hours, and it was not until they approached the Strait of Dover that they were spotted. Air operations now began against the ships. The ships were heavily armed and defended by the Luftwaffe, and the attackers met with little success and suffered heavy losses. It was only the mines in the North Sea which finally inflicted severe damage on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

On 13 February, the Kriegsmarine ships reached German ports. It was a huge national humiliation for the British, part of an almost two-year run of defeats and reversals, and the Bruneval raid which came at the end of that month, Bruneval Raid, 27/28 February 1942, although ‘a mere flea-bite’, was made much of because it helped to restore national pride.

Amongst the RAF aircraft which took part in the attacks on the Kriegsmarine ships was an Avro Manchester of 83 Squadron. On board were men who would later become Pathfinders when 83 Squadron was transferred to the Path Finder Force the following year. The following accounts are from the papers of John Henry Allen, a mid-upper gunner, whose logbook entry for 12 February 1942 is below:

logbook allen, 12 Feb 1942

What happened to Allen’s aircraft comes across vividly in the summary by the Gunnery Officer of 83 Squadron:

gunnery officer, scampton, 13 feb 1942

As told, the rear gunner, Leonard Whibley, who had so ably defended his aircraft, suffered fatal injuries in the attacks and died later in England. His family gravestone, which remembers him, is below:

whibley gravestone, 12 feb 1942

Robert McFarlane, the pilot, was awarded an Immediate DFM for his skill in getting the severely damaged aircraft home.

damaged avro manchester

Corinne Mitchell, John Allen’s daughter, wrote to us in October 2019:

I have been in touch with David McFarlane, Robert’s son, who sent me a beautiful print of his father’s Manchester painted from the information given to Paul Wharmby, who incidentally is an RAF pilot himself. David also had 83 and 12 Squadron added to the memorial of that battle which is sited at Dover.

Below is a detail from the Paul Wharmby painting

painting of McFarlane aircraft

With many thanks to Corinne Mitchell.