12 February 1942 - The Channel Dash

by Don Caldwell

......The escape of two German battleships and a heavy cruiser from Brest through the English Channel to Germany was one of a series of setbacks to British arms in early 1942. It took place in their home waters, and was thus especially humiliating to the British. JG 26 was involved in the operation from start to finish.

......In the afternoon of 11 February Major Gerhard Schöpfel, the JG 26 Kommodore, was informed that the General der Jagdflieger, Oberst Adolf Galland, was en route to the JG 26 command post to conduct a briefing. Schöpfel's Gruppe and Staffel leaders were to attend, as were those of JG 2 and also JG 1, which was normally stationed in northern Germany. For the past few weeks the Geschwader's daily routine had been interrupted by unusual orders detailing away a number of staff personnel, especially communications specialists, and calling for supply dumps to be set up at several coastal airfields. Obviously, something out of the ordinary was going on, but no-one at the Geschwader level, not even Kommodore Schöpfel, had been let in on the plan.

......Oberst Galland soon arrived from Germany in a Ju 52. His news was indeed extraordinary. In a few hours, the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were to leave Brest and make for Germany through the English Channel. The ship movement had been ordered by Hitler himself. Galland had argued for a nighttime departure, which would bring the ships into the Straits of Dover in broad daylight. He reasoned that the first part of the voyage could probably be made in secret, and that based on recent experience, the Jagdgeschwader along the Channel could fend off the RAF's attacks during daylight. Galland further believed that the very audacity of a daylight passage would work in its favor, given the fondness of the British for complete planning and their consequent slowness to react to unanticipated situations. This argument won the day, and Hitler rewarded the brash young colonel with command of the air aspects of the operation, which was codenamed Donnerkeil (Thunderbolt).

......Galland's forces comprised only 252 day fighters-the full strength of JG 1, JG 2, JG 26, and the fighter school in Paris-plus a few night fighters. The success of the operation would be possible only if secrecy could be maintained until the last possible moment-that is, until the fleet was in the Channel itself. Galland did all of the planning himself, in his Berlin office. The Luftwaffe personnel necessary to man fighter control staffs on the ships were assembled under various subterfuges and smuggled aboard, along with the necessary communications equipment. For continuous daylight coverage the fighter escorts would need to parallel the ships' course, land on fields to the east of their original takeoff point, refuel, and return to escort duty-some units as many as three times.

......Galland's plan was laid out in great precision. It called for continuous escort by four Schwärme, two at low and two at high altitude. One of each pair of Schwärme would be on the English side of the formation, and the other would be on the French side. Each Schwarm was to fly in broad figure eights along the length of the formation. All aircraft were to fly at minimum altitude and in complete radio silence until the code words "open visor" were received, at which time the fighters were to begin an immediate climb to their patrol altitude. The sixteen aircraft were to remain over the ships for thirty minutes. Relief was to take place over the naval formation, so there would be a ten minute overlap. Ramming was authorized if necessary to prevent enemy aircraft from approaching the ships. A small reserve force was held at cockpit readiness, but any ship damaged severely enough to cause it to fall behind the formation would have to be left unprotected, as the fighter force was too few in numbers to cover two areas simultaneously.

......At the end of the briefing, Galland announced that he would command the air operation from Schöpfel's own Audembert command post. Gerhard Schöpfel then left for the Third Gruppe base at Coquelles. Since he had no command function in the forthcoming operation, he would lead his old unit in combat. The formation leaders returned to their bases to brief their own pilots, who were then confined to their quarters until the next morning. Guards were posted at the barracks doors to ensure that no-one entered or left.

......The German fleet weighed anchor and left Brest at 2245. The departure had been delayed three hours by an untimely Bomber Command raid on Brest, but was unobserved by the British submarine screen.

......During the fleet movement Oberst Max Ibel, Jafü 3 in Brest, served as "Jafü Schiff" (Shipboard Fighter Controller) aboard the Scharnhorst. His diary of the operation, plus the British Board of Enquiry's report and the usual JG 26 sources (logbooks, claims listings, loss reports) permit the following minute-by-minute summary of the day's activity. Pilots whose documents supplied specific information are indicated in square brackets.

0600:Reveille for the JG 26 pilots. The weather is very bad-rain and low clouds at 300-400 feet; visibility beneath the clouds is about 800-1000 feet.

0814:The first protection Schwarm of the day, four Bf 110 night fighters, takes off from Abbeville.

0850:The Bf 110s reach the fleet, which is now north of Cherbourg, and take position on the port (English) side.

0920:Fifteen Bf 110s take off from Abbeville.

0921:Eleven Bf 109s from the Jagdfliegerschule 5 Einsatzstaffel, normally based on Villacoublay, take off from an unspecified base, probably Octeville.

0925:The fleet is now north of Le Havre, unseen and unsuspected by the British. The RAF's routine early morning reconnaissance of Brest had missed the formation's departure owing to equipment defects and a good German smoke screen. The routine Channel patrols sight only German torpedo boats (S-boats). Radar reports of low-altitude enemy air activity in the Channel are attributed to ASR operations.

0949:Twelve II/JG 26 Fw 190s [including Glunz] take off from Abbeville on the day's first mission of the Second Gruppe.

0950:Ten Bf 109s and nineteen Bf 110s are on station around the ships.

1018:Sixteen II/JG 26 Fw 190s [including Mayer] take off from Abbeville on the second mission for the Gruppe.

1045:Sixteen I/JG 26 Bf 109s take off from Arques on the first mission of the First Gruppe.

1100:British radar reports enemy aircraft circling a specific area, moving eastward at 20-25 knots. No. 11 Group orders additional reconnaissance missions.

1103:The second II/JG 26 mission lands on Abbeville.

1108:Sixteen I/JG 26 Bf 109s take off from Arques on the second First Gruppe mission.

1110:G/C Beamish, the Kenley station commander, takes off with his wingman for an independent Rhubarb to the French coast.

1114:The first II/JG 26 mission lands on Abbeville.

1125:Two No. 91 Sqd. Spitfires take off from Hawkinge on the reconnaissance mission ordered at 1100.

1125:G/C Beamish follows two Bf 109s to the fleet and correctly identifies all of its vessels, but "following standing orders", does not break radio silence to report the largest formation of enemy shipping seen in the Channel since the Spanish Armada.

1135:The No. 91 Sqd. flight leader sights and reports the fleet. The radio message is intercepted by the Germans and immediately reported to Galland. He delays giving the order "open visor", however, believing correctly that the British will take some time to react to the sighting.

1200:The No. 91 Sqd. report reaches the headquarters of No. 11 Group and Vice-Admiral Dover.

1209:G/C Beamish lands and reports to No. 11 Group.

1215:Fifteen III/JG 26 Fw 190s begin taking off from Coquelles on the first Third Gruppe mission [Fischer, Pistor].

1224:The RAF radio intercept (Y-intercept) service logs its first message from Jafü 2: a fighter patrol operating between Calais and Dunkirk is ordered to return to base. The Jafü is maintaining its routine daily patrols and radio traffic. This small deception delays the RAF's already dilatory response by no more than a minute. The Jafü 2 fighters patrolling the fleet continue to operate in complete radio silence.

1225:The Kenley flight's report is logged in at No. 11 Group, which orders all fighter squadrons brought to readiness and notifies other Commands.

1231:Two III/JG 26 Fw 190s scramble from Coquelles [Martin, Starke]. This is documented as an Alarmstart rather than a late takeoff for the fleet patrol, implying that they took off to intercept a suspected RAF intruder.

1250:The fleet passes Cap Gris Nez.

1253:Sixteen III/JG 26 Fw 190s take off from Coquelles on the second Third Gruppe mission [Naumann, P. Galland, Koslowski, Stavenhagen]. The fleet is just off the coast and can be seen immediately after takeoff.

1315:Sixteen II/JG 26 Fw 190s begin taking off from Abbeville on the third Second Gruppe mission [Mayer].

1316:The Dover coastal batteries open fire on the fleet.

1318:The first III/JG 26 mission lands on Coquelles.

1319:Royal Navy motor torpedo boats (MTBs) attack the German S-boats and destroyers screening the port side of the fleet.

1320:After taking their escort positions, the two III/JG 26 Schwärme to the port side of the fleet fly between the dueling surface forces, under orders not to fire on surface targets.

1320:The only British air unit in England specifically trained to attack enemy capital ships, the six Swordfish of No. 825 Squadron's Manston detachment, take off. Of the five No. 11 Group squadrons assigned as escorts, only No. 72's ten Spitfires make rendezvous. After circling for a few minutes the Swordfish head out to sea, screened closely by the ten fighters.

1334:The Prinz Eugen opens fire on Swordfish approaching from 240°.

1340:Fw. Glunz of the 4th Staffel, delayed by aircraft problems, takes off alone from Abbeville on his second mission of the day.

1340:Nos. 124 and 401 Squadrons, two of the Fighter Command escort squadrons that had missed the Swordfish, sight big ships 10 miles north of Calais, and are immediately attacked by German fighters.

1340:No. 72 Sqd. maintains close escort of the Swordfish until the latter begin their torpedo runs, at which time the Spitfires are fully engaged with JG 2 Bf 109s and two Schwärme of III/JG 26 Fw 190s.

1344:The Gneisenau's 150cm secondary battery opens fire on the approaching Swordfish. Schwärme of JG 2 Bf 109s attack the Swordfish headon from close range.

1345:The Dover coastal batteries cease fire after thirty-four rounds owing to the presence in the target area of Swordfish and Royal Navy MTBs.

1345:Two Schwärme of III/JG 26 Fw 190s, at the southern end of their last patrol leg, sight the Swordfish in the distance and open fire at extreme range, ca. 1000 yards. Oblt. Naumann sees his target pull up sharply, fall off over its right wing and crash into the Channel. The other Schwarmführer, Lt. Paul Galland, claims a second Swordfish, and two minutes later Naumann claims a third.

1348:Jafü Schiff requests permission to assume control of the fighter defenses.

1349:The last of the six Swordfish crashes into the Channel. Although several torpedoes are dropped, none find a target. Of the eighteen Swordfish crewmen only five survive to be pulled from the Channel by Royal Navy light craft. The German ships are ultimately credited with downing six Swordfish. JG 2 pilots claim ten, of which seven are confirmed; JG 26's three are all confirmed.

1350:Galland issues the order "open visor", ending radio silence and authorizing the fighters to climb to any altitude required by the tactical situation.

1350:Jafü Schiff signals the General der Jagdflieger on the "Galland line" re the Swordfish attack: "Two Red attacks at 1345 and 1347 hours were taken care of by the Blue defenders in comradeship with their nephews."

1350:Obfw. Martin lands on Coquelles. His wingman Obfw. Starke has been lost during the mission-possibly striking the water-and does not return.

1400:The second III/JG 26 mission lands on Coquelles. Two 9th Staffel pilots, Obfw. Eduard Koslowski and Uffz. Günther Stavenhagen, do not return. They are probably the victims of No. 72 Squadron, which claims 3-0-4 Fw 190s for no losses.

1417:The British radio intercept service detects two controls, one aboard ship, directing the German fleet protection operations.

1425:The fleet passes out of range of the British coastal radar stations. The British will no longer know its position with certainty. Continuous reconnaissance is not possible owing to the German fighter screen and the weather.

1447:Sixteen III/JG 2 Bf 109s take off, probably from Calais-Marck, and within eight minutes are in combat with Whirlwinds and escorting Spitfires.

1503:Twenty-two German fighters are reported in position over the fleet.

1503:Fw. Glunz lands on Abbeville after his lone sortie. He had approached a formation of twenty-five Spitfires in the belief that it was his own Gruppe, realizing his error too late to reverse course. He later related to a correspondent, "I burst into the middle of the formation with my guns firing, attempting to break up the enemy's attack. With one Spitfire it became a matter of life or death. I sweated myself dry, but I was rewarded, for my splendid Fw 190 took not a single hit. Nevertheless, the five-minute battle seemed like an eternity."

1505:The third II/JG 26 mission lands on Abbeville.

1515:Sixteen I/JG 2 Bf 109s take off from an unstated location.

1516:I/JG 26 Bf 109s take off from Arques on the third mission for the Gruppe [Babenz, Fast, Fröhlich, Pilkenroth, Uiberacker].

1520:The first of three waves of Bomber Command aircraft take off from their bases. The bombers, flying in vics of three, are soon split up by the weather. They are armed only with general purpose bombs, as they are flying too low for armor-piercing bombs to arm, and their attacks are intended to facilitate proper attacks by Coastal Command aircraft and Royal Navy destroyers. No hits are scored by any of the bombers.

1530:Fw. Heinrich Pilkenroth of the 3rd Staffel is shot down and killed near Calais by a Spitfire, probably from No. 401 Squadron, which flies a successful patrol along the coast from Dunkirk to Calais, claiming 2-0-2 Bf 109s for the loss of one pilot later reported a prisoner.

1530:The fleet flagship Scharnhorst hits a mine, loses power, and drifts to a stop. A destroyer comes alongside and takes off the fleet commander and Obst. Ibel and the fighter staff; the rest of the fleet proceeds eastward, as ordered.

1530:The weather, which had improved in early afternoon, suddenly deteriorates-light rain is now falling from a continuous cloud deck at 500 feet. Visibility on the surface is about one mile.

1546:III/JG 26 Fw 190s take off from Coquelles on the third mission for the Third Gruppe [Fischer, Pistor]. Forced to keep their distance from the fleet by antiaircraft fire, a 7th Staffel Schwarm shoots down three Spitfires from a formation of six, and then downs two Wellingtons approaching from the direction of France, but the claims are apparently not filed.

1550:After brief attacks on fleeting targets appearing in and out of the overcast, First Gruppe pilots claim two Hampdens, a Spitfire, and a Hurricane.

1600:Twelve III/JG 26 Fw 190s take off from Coquelles on the fourth mission for the Gruppe [Ragotzi, Martin]. Their specific mission is to defend the fleet against attacks by torpedo bombers.

1610:Sixteen II/JG 2 Bf 109s take off, probably from Calais-Marck.

1620:Oblt. Ragotzi of the 8th Staffel claims a Spitfire. Coastal Command Hudsons and Beauforts make uncoordinated torpedo attacks on the fleet, scoring no hits.

1640:Sixteen II/JG 2 Bf 109s take off from an unstated base, possibly Ostend.

1643:JG 1 fighters make their first appearance over the fleet; they claim several Spitfires and bombers over the next hour.

1644:The Dover flotilla of twenty-year-old ex-American Royal Navy destroyers attacks the German fleet. HMS Worcester is damaged, but reaches port under her own power.

1648:The third III/JG 26 mission lands on Woensdrecht. It is now snowing. The Fw 190s skid across the field out of control, and are abandoned wherever they finally come to a stop. None are seriously damaged, but no servicing is attempted until morning.

1652:The fourth III/JG 26 mission lands on Coquelles.

1656:Eleven III/JG 2 Bf 109s take off from an unspecified base.

1700:II/JG 26 Fw 190s take off from Abbeville on the fourth mission for the Gruppe [Glunz].

1708:Fw. Glunz shoots down a Spitfire east of Eu.

1730:Eight Bf 110 night fighters take off from Coxyde.

1738:In the last known fighter combat of the day, a pilot of IV/JG 1 shoots down a Spitfire.

1740:The fourth mission of the Second Gruppe lands on Abbeville.

1831:The Gneisenau suffers a mechanical problem and is forced to reduce speed temporarily.

1935:With the onset of total darkness, all fighter activity ceases.

2055:The Gneisenau hits a mine and slows to 25 knots.

2237:The Scharnhorst, which has gotten steam up and is trailing the fleet, strikes another mine and slows to 10-15 knots.

...... By midnight the Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen had reached the Elbe River and sanctuary; the Scharnhorst followed at 1030 the next morning. No British shell, bomb, or torpedo had touched a German ship.

......According to the OKW communiqué, seven aerial victories were confirmed and six probables were recorded for JG 26 pilots. The British lost seventeen fighters, twenty RAF bombers, and the six Fleet Air Arm Swordfish. Seven fighters were lost or written off from the three Jagdgeschwader engaged; the only pilots lost were four from JG 26. Operationally, the German victory had been complete, and the damage to British prestige, incalculable. After the war, Adolf Galland called the operation the "greatest hour" of his career. The end result, however, was a strategic defeat for the German Navy, which had by its own action bottled up its capital ships in home waters.

©Don Caldwell


JG 26 Claims 12 February 1942


JG 26 Losses 12 February 1942


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