It is said that you learn more from failure than success, but there can be a heavy price to pay.
The Channel Dash was a hurried attempt to inflict damage on a large flotilla of German capital ships taking the quick route to get from Brest to Danish waters, in a move to protect the occupied country from an expected allied invasion. Spotted by chance by HMS Sealion, a lone submarine in the western approaches and again by an RAF reconnaissance aircraft, the two battleships and one heavy cruiser – the Scharnhorst, The Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen supported by six destroyers and twenty-one other escorts – were making full speed up the Channel leaving very little time to prepare an attack against them despite them being just a few miles off shore.
Nonetheless with little air cover to support them the Fleet Air Arm launched an attack with six elderly Swordfish biplanes equipped with one torpedo each and a rear facing machine gun.
Pressing home their attack with incredible bravery, they faced the combined onslaught of the heavily armed ships and, now, the myriad of escorting Rocke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts.
All six aircraft of 825 Naval Air Squadron were shot down, 13 of the 18 airmen were killed, and four of the remaining five were injured. Some were fished out and others were never found. Some came ashore as far away as the Medway. Not one torpedo found its target.
On a bright but very cold February day marking the 75 Anniversary, the Master, Past Master Raines, and three Liverymen were privileged to attend a moving memorial service at the Yeovilton base, where the Chaplain told the story and led the service of remembrance. Packed into the little parish church were officers, men and women of the Squadron led by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce, who as Warden of the Cinque Ports is President of the Channel Dash Association, Admiral Blount, head of the Fleet Air Arm and Commander Simon Collins the Commanding Officer of today’s 825 NAS. Two of the congregations were direct relatives of airman who flew the mission including one who won a posthumous VC.
Together they emerged to cluster around one of the five remaining Swordfishes standing proudly on the grass, to watch the four-ship Wildcat fly-past in memory of the men who gave their lives in this heroic operation.
In Ramsgate there is a memorial to the Squadron members who lost their lives, and in Dover there is another memorial to all the many men from the other forces involved in the operation; 72 Squadron RAF who fought the 250 strong Luftwaffe air cover, and the motor torpedo and rescue boats who gave what assistance they could and also took many casualties.
In the autumn there will be a service of remembrance in Dover, when we hope to be represented to witness a fly past of all the aircraft types involved, escorted by today’s modern helicopters. We shall raise a glass of a special gin distilled in their honour and presented by Honorary Assistant Chris Parker.
Richard Watling, Master