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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Channel Dash

11-12 February 1942

Theatre: United Kingdom
Area: English Channel
Players: Allies: Dover Flotilla of Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs); 16th and 21st Destroyer Flotilla, Royal Navy; 825 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm; 42 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command; 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command; 2 and 5 Groups, RAF Bomber Command. Germany: Squadron under Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax, including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, plus ten destroyers, 15 fast torpedo boats and three flotillas of E-boats (MTBs); Jagdgeschwader 1, 2 and 26 of Luftflotte 3 of Luftwaffe.
Outcome: An audacious German dash through the English Channel caught the RAF and Royal Navy unawares and inflicted heavy casualties on RAF personnel.

The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, pictured in 1940
The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, pictured in 1940©
Three German cruisers - the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen - were among the ships occasionally used in attacks on Allied shipping. However, after the sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941, they were confined to the French port of Brest for safety.

By early 1942, Hitler ordered them to Norway, where he feared an invasion. He planned a surprise daylight dash up the Channel on 12 February, when the tide would be strongly in their favour. They would be protected by a squadron of ships and fighter aircraft.

The plan succeeded through a mixture of audacity, luck and human error. The German departure went unnoticed and the ships were not spotted until the following morning. Five MTBs at Dover attacked, but the attack was unsuccessful and the accompanying Swordfish torpedo-carrying aircraft were all shot down.

As the Germans entered the North Sea, the RAF and Navy continued their attack, but in vain. The only serious damage to the ships came when the Gneisenau struck a mine.

The operation was a humiliation for the RAF and Royal Navy. For the first time since the Spanish Armada, a hostile fleet had sailed through the English Channel. Unlike the Armada, this one got through.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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