Air Power at Sea: A Fiasco in Flexibility

How did the Nazi cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau manage to run the gantlet of British sea and air power and escape unscathed from their French base through the English Channel? CAPTAIN RUSSELL GRENFELL,who has served for over thirty years in the Royal Navy, accounts for the failure of British intercepting forces. He is widely known for his books, The Bismarck Episode, from which two excerpts appeared in the Atlantic, and Nelson the Sailor, a biographical study. His latest book is Unconditional Hatred (Devin-Adair).



FROM the start of the 1939 war, the British Admiralty and Air Ministry were at issue on general principles of strategy. It was the Admiralty’s complaint that insufficient attention was being paid by the Air Ministry to sea-air warfare, and that in particular the R.A.F.’s Coastal Command was being starved of machines, equipment, personnel, and official favor. In sea warfare, contended the Naval Staff, the right place to apply air power, as with surface power, was at sea.

The Air Ministry took a different view. It believed in bombing land targets; and, so far as concerned maritime matters, these targets were considered by the airmen to be the building slips and the factories where ship components were produced, if, they claimed, ships were bombed in the construction stage, the supply would be cut off at the source.

As applied, however, to the urgent question of the German submarine offensive, this latter policy did not give satisfactory results. Intensive bombing of the U-boat building yards and factories was in progress from the middle of 1940. By February, 1943, the slips and yards at Wilhelmshaven alone had been bombed seventy-five times—at the average rate of once a fortnight for two and threequarters years — and m March the Secretary of State for Air declared that one half of the previous year’s total bombing had been devoted to antisubmarine targets. But all this bombing did not succeed in its proclaimed object of killing the infant U-boats at birth and preventing their ever leaving the nest. Intelligence reports showed that the number of German submarines in service grew steadily larger during 1940, 1941, and 1942. The bombing of production points was not preventing the increase of submarine tonnage afloat. When the U-boat offensive fell away in intensity in the middle of 1943, it was not because of any lack of U-boats. It was because the Atlantic had been made too hot for them. The acute pre-war shortage of British surface escorts had just about been overtaken by wartime construction, and the new escort carriers were proving very effective. The U-boats were suffering too heavily in trying to attack, and the offensive was called off while other methods were sought. The German submarines had at last been defeated — temporarily at least.— at the place which the Admiralty had all along declared was the right one to do so: afloat. Coastal aircraft had also made a valuable contribution to this end, but were much handicapped by shortage of numbers and grudging reinforcement by the Air Ministry. Had the latter devoted less effort to antisubmarine bombing in Germany and more to Coastal Command’s antisubmarine work on the ocean, the check to the U-boat campaign would almost certainly have come earlier.

As one means of countering the Admiralty’s constant pressure for more aircraft for sea work during this period, the Air Ministry produced the slogan of air “flexibility,” which was vigorously propagated for many months. The argument was that air power was so flexible in operation that there was no need for specialization of function between aircraft employed over the land and those employed over the sen. Airplanes could be switched without difficulty from one job to another as the call arose. They could bomb Hamburg one day and be sent with equal efficiency to sink German warships the next.

The Navy had strong doubts about the soundness of this doctrine, which ran counter to all naval experience of the basic importance of training as an essential preliminary to skilled performance. Bluejackets had often been landed in an emergency to fight on shore, but they did not pretend to be as capable at that business as soldiers. It seemed reasonable to suppose that airmen were not immune from similar influences.

In the early part of 1942, the Air Ministry’s flexibility theory was put to the test. The German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had broken out into the Atlantic early in 1941, and after causing a serious amount of destruction of Allied shipping had appeared at Brest in March. There they were repeatedly bombed by R.A.F. aircraft during the ensuing eleven months. This bombing was undertaken reluctantly, and was carried out only under strong pressure from the Admiralty, the Air Ministry being loath to transfer any aircraft, in spite of its own “flexibility” claims, from the bombing of industrial targets in Germany. However, the bombing of Brest was carried out. Frequent hits were said to be obtained, and many optimistic reports were put out regarding the heavy damage being done to the two vessels, so that the British public gained the impression that they were crippled in port and unlikely again to go to sea. It came, therefore, as something of a shock when it was announced one day in January, 1942, that the Scharnhorst had been out and had cruised down the French coast to La Pallice, later returning to Brest.

The British Service Ministries were, of course, in closer touch with the situation regarding the German ships than the public. Early in February, 1942, intelligence information began to come in suggesting that the battle cruisers were about to leave Brest. Scouting aircraft were noticing destroyers and E-boats passing west down the Channel, which were later seen to have arrived in Brest, and German mine-sweeping along the north coast of France was observed to be unusually active.

Assuming that the German heavy ships were about to depart on some new enterprise, the Admiralty Staff thought there were three main possibilities. The enemy ships might be intending another commerce-raiding cruise in the Atlantic; or they might be bound for the Mediterranean to operate in conjunction with the Italian fleet; or they might be meaning to break back to Germany via the English Channel. In the Admiralty’s opinion, the passage up the Channel was most likely.

The Admiralty’s “appreciation of the situation" was communicated to the Coastal, Bomber, and Fighter Commands of the R.A.F. in the first week of February; and on February 8 Coastal Command issued its own “appreciation” to the effect that the Germans would try to pass up the Channel shortly after February 10, a remarkably accurate guess.

A general plan for dealing with the contingency of an up-Channel dash by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been concerted between the Admiralty and Air Ministry as early as April, 1941, soon after the German ships had appeared in Brest. In brief outline, the plan was as follows. There was to be a night, air reconnaissance from dusk to dawn consisting of (a) a watch on Brest itself, (b) a sweep from Brest eastward along the coast for about 75 miles, and sweeps along the coast from Havre to Boulogne (called the HABO patrol) between about 1 A.M. and 6.30 A.M. — all the aircraft involved being fitted with radar and provided by Coastal Command. It was calculated that one or other of these patrols would sight any German warships trying to escape from Brest up-Channel.

If the enemy ships were sighted, they would be attacked by bombers of Bomber Command, torpedo-carrying aircraft of Coastal Command, and by destroyers and motor torpedo boats. It was not expected, however, that the two latter would obtain decisive results against an armored and well-escorted force, and major reliance was undoubtedly placed on air attack, and especially attack by the hundreds of bombers operating from southern airfields and which the Air Ministry boasted were well qualified to deal with any German ships trying to use the Channel.


WHEN, early in February, intelligence data foreshadowed an imminent move by the German battle cruisers, various precautions were taken on the British side of the Channel. The air searches as previously described were put into operation, and Coastal Command ordered a squadron of torpedo aircraft to come south from Scotland. Fighter Command was to stand by to provide fighter cover for bombers and torpedoplanes, and the Air Ministry directed Bomber Command to have all available bombers ready to attack during daylight.

On the naval side, six destroyers and six motor torpedo boats of the More Command were put under the Vice-Admiral at Dover, who was to control any surface operations against the German ships, and six naval Swordfish aircraft were flown to Mansion in Kent and also placed at his disposal. Finally, extensive mine-laying took place oil the French coast, 1000 mines being laid by naval vessels and about 100 by aircraft of Bomber Command.

On the 8th and again on the 9th of February, photographic reconnaissance showed one of the German battle cruisers in dock. But on the afternoon of the 11th, the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, and the cruiser Prinz Eugen (which had joined them at Brest in June) were all seen to be in the stream. No reports of enemy ship movements were, however, received during the night of February 11-12.

From about 8.30 A.M. on February 12, radar stations on the Sussex coast began to pick up plots of circling aircraft on the French side of the Channel moving slowly up the coast to the eastward. One might think that to forces on the alert for a German naval dash up the Channel, these signs would immediately have been recognized as distinctly suspicious. Yet no special significance was attached to them by the Air Force authorities for the next hour and a half. Persistent enemy jamming of radar reception also began at about 9.30 A.M.; but this, too, was not regarded as particularly interesting by the same authorities.

About 10 A.M., indications of ships off the French coast began to appear on the radar screen at Beach Head, but owing to telephone delays the information did not reach Dover till 10.40 A.M. This was, however, the first news to reach the Vice-Admiral, Dover, to suggest that the German battle cruisers might have left Brest, and it came in the alarming form of placing them already within 30 miles of Calais. Ten minutes later, ships were identified on the radar screen at Fairlight, near Hastings, and Dover was informed at once. The Vice-Admiral’s Staff thereupon gave warning to the leader of the Swordfish aircraft at Mansion, Lieutenant-Commander E. Esmonde, to bring his flight to instant readiness. This was the first preparatory measure to be taken for nearly an hour.

Meanwhile, certain routine fighter patrols of the French coast had already identified German heavy ships, although there were avoidable delays in reporting this vital information. About 10.35 A.M., a patrolling fighter sighted a crowd of distant shipping not far southwest of Boulogne. It was falsely assumed to be a commercial convoy, and the sighting aircraft, obeying the rules for wireless silence, went back to base to report. It was not until after the pilot had reported in the above sense and his N.C.O. companion was being interrogated that it came to light that the latter had seen a tripod mast. More than twenty minutes had, however, passed since the aircraft had landed before this all-important fact was elicited, and by then it was already obsolete. At 10.42 A.M., another patrol aircraft had flown right over the German squadron of the two battle cruisers, the Prinz Eugen, and attendant, destroyers and E-boats, and had recognized it for what it was. But this second aircraft also obeyed the rule of wireless silence and returned to base before reporting.

It was therefore not till 11.10, or practically half an hour later, that the definite presence of the enemy slops was known onshore. Steps were at once taken to pass this vital news to every command concerned, but it was almost 11.30 before they had all received it, and by that time the German ships were entering the Straits of Dover.


How had they traversed almost the whole length of the Channel without being sighted? Examination of this question reveals an instructive series of failures. The first aircraft of the Brest patrol had left at dusk on the evening before, and when it arrived in its area at about 7.30 P.M. the crew found that their radar was inoperative. As the night was a pitch-dark one, they were useless without radar, and so the crew flew home for another aircraft and did not again reach the approaches to Brest till three hours later. It was during this blank interval that the German squadron sailed. Had Coastal Command sent out a relief aircraft when it learned that the first one was returning, the blank period of three hours could have been halved.

The aircraft patrolling east along the coast from Brest also experienced radar failure a little after 7.30 p.m., the cause being obscure and “still under investigation" three weeks later. This aircraft was allowed to remain ineffectively on patrol for two hours, when it was recalled. The base authorities did not trouble to replace it.

Thus, during the crucial period when the German squadron was leaving harbor and steaming up the adjacent coast, there was no real aerial watch at all. What of the HABO patrol between Havre and Boulogne? This patrol had been planned on the assumption that the German ships would try to pass the Straits of Dover in darkness. As they chose otherwise, the patrol was too far east and had no chance of a sighting. The other detection agencies involved — the shore radar stations anti the fighter patrols — were remarkably slow in apprehending or reporting the presence of the German ships, the station at Fairlight only excepted. These various miscarriages cannot all be ascribed to ill fortune, since some were due to defective organization and staff work.

Nor would it be accurate to describe this series of breakdowns as a uniquely unfortunate combination of mechanical and organizational mishaps, giving a misleading impression of aerial reconnaissance potentialities. This happened to be the third occasion in under ten months when the limitations of air power in enemy reporting had been conspicuously demonstrated. When the Bismarck was escaping from the North Sea in May, 1941, adverse weather conditions had caused aerial touch with her to be lost for over sixty hours. No aircraft had seen her leave her fiord in Norway, and aerial watch on the Denmark Strait, north of Iceland, was missing just when the Bismarck was passing through. But for two patrolling British cruisers, she would have got away unseen.

Much the same occurred off Malaya at the end of the year. Japanese convoys were discovered near the Indo-China coast but thereafter were lost to sight and knowledge until, thirty hours later, they began to disembark their troops for the invasion of the Malay Peninsula. The signal failure of aircraft reconnaissance to notice the sailing of the German battle cruisers from Brest or their passage up the Channel until they had almost reached the North Sea was therefore not exceptional.

To return now to the situation at 11.30 A.M. on February 12. All British authorities were faced with the agitating certainty that the German Brest squadron was not only out but. bad got far on its way without discovery. In an hour it would be through the Straits and thereafter be increasing its distance steadily from English shores and English naval and air bases. There was no time to be lost if it was to be brought to action under favorable conditions.

Unfortunately, the various attacking forces were at very different degrees of availability lor immediate offensive action. There were the heavy guns at Dover at full readiness. These, though they opened fire, were hampered by the misty weather and enemy smoke screens and scored no hits. After them, the forces most nearly prepared for early movement, against the enemy were the naval Swordfish at Mansion, the motor torpedo boats in Dover and Ramsgate harbors, the destroyers at Harwich, and a few lighter aircraft.

Thanks to the initiative of the Admiral at Dover’s Air Staff Officer in alerting the Swordfish for possible action before 11 A.M., these six naval aircraft of slow speed and ancient design were already, by 11.30, in an advanced state of preparedness. Their leader, Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, was an officer of exceptional energy, enterprise, and gallantry, as he had shown some months before when he had led a difficult but successful attack against the German battleship Bismarck with almost untrained crews. He was now hurrying his Swordfish flight on to the earliest possible readiness to take off.

When the presence of the German ships became definitely established round about 11.30 A.M., the Vice-Admiral’s Air Staff Officer telephoned to Fighter Command for an adequate fighter escort for the Swordfish. It could be assumed that the German battle cruisers would have powerful fighter cover, and this would have to be neutralized it the Swordfish were to have a chance of successful attack. An escort of five squadrons of fighters was therefore agreed upon. Delays occurred, however, in these aircraft making their appearance at the rendezvous with the Swordfish; and by 12.30, an hour after the general alert, only ten fighters had arrived at Mansion. These were quite insufficient for proper escort and protection. But LieutenantCommander Esmonde, knowing that the German ships were already through the Straits and judging it imperative to attack them at the earliest possible moment, decided he would wait no longer and took off with the few fighters that there were. Later, unknown to him, additional fighters joined up over the Channel, but not in sufficient strength to save him.

His obsolete Swordfish flew along at their miserable speed of 80 m.p.h. and were heavily attacked by German fighters and antiaircraft fire from the ships. Pressing on with great gallantry, two of the Swordfish managed to get close enough to drop their torpedoes before being shot down. The remaining four aircraft were all destroyed, probably before they could drop. Only a few survivors from two aircraft were picked up, and it is known that no torpedoes hit. It was nearly three hours before any further air attacks were made.

The five motor torpedo boats at Dover left harbor half an hour before the Swordfish took off. They sighted the enemy about 12.20 P.M. Confronted, however, with the strong German screen of destroyers and E-boats, they felt their only hope was to fire their torpedoes from outside and at long range. This they did, but there were no hits. The three Ramsgate boats started later and had farther to go. Though they came across the German screening craft, they did not sight the bigger ships and returned to harbor without attacking.

The British destroyers, six in number under Captain Pizey, were exercising off Harwich when the enemy report came through, and were thus able to get off to a flying start for interception. But the long distance the enemy had covered in secrecy and the time of day at which he had now been sighted seriously upset the destroyers’ plans, based as these were on ample warning and the supposition of a night passage of the Dover Straits by the German ships. Captain Pizey now realized that his only hope of getting into an attacking position lay in taking a short cut across an extensive British mine field. Though the risk was great, he determined to accept it and he set course accordingly. Fortune smiled on his boldness and his ships all got safely across.

The destroyers had, however, some way to go, and it was not until about 3.15 P.M. that the enemy squadron was picked up on the radar. By this time the visibility was luckily down to 4 miles and the destroyers stood on to close. Twenty-five minutes later, the battle cruisers were sighted. The destroyers at once came under a heavy fire from the German big ships and destroyers, but they continued to press in. It was a question of how close they could get without being disabled, and at 3000 to 4000 yards most of them felt they had strained their luck to the utmost and fired their torpedoes. The Worcester went in further and was severely damaged and set on fire, but managed to get home. No torpedoes hit. Fighter aircraft detailed to cover the destroyer during their attacks did not succeed in finding them.


WHEN the German ships had first been discovered before noon, it caught Coastal Command on the wrong foot. The Command had only 33 aircraft immediately available for torpedo attacks on German warships; and of these, 12 were in Cornwall, 250 miles behind the German squadron, and 7 near Portsmouth, 100 miles behind. The remaining 14 had only just landed in Norfolk from Scotland, whence they had previously been ordered south, but which they had not been able to leave till that morning. Engine failures and lack of spare torpedoes in Norfolk reduced the number of serviceable aircraft, to 9, these being 100 miles north of the Straits of Dover. The 9 were therefore ordered, but not till 2.45 P.M., to fly to Mansion, where they were to pick up 5 Hudson bombers and proceed to attack the enemy, it was 3.35 P.M. before the combined force left Mansion.

The Cornwall contingent would obviously have to come a long way east before it could go in to the attack, and an hour passed before it was ordered to do so. First it flew to near Portsmouth, and thence to the Norfolk base which the squadron from Scotland had just left. It did not leave this Norfolk base till 5 P.M., by which time the winter’s day was drawing to its close.

The Portsmouth 7 were sent east in two sections: 4 first and then the other 3, each section to call at Mansion before going on. None of these aircraft left Mansion for the target before 3 P.M.

How did these carious contingents of Coastal aircraft fare against the enemy? Of the original 33 torpedo carriers, 28 set out to find the enemy and 12 did not succeed in doing so, owing to rain, mist, and gathering darkness. The 9 from Scotland approached as one body at about 4 P.M., and 7 of them dropped their torpedoes. None hit. The 7 aircraft from Portsmouth attacked in ones and twos over a period of two and a quarter hours and, not very surprisingly, obtained no hits. The 12 from Cornwall left the east coast, as we have noted, very late in the day and had not sighted the enemy before darkness set in. It is pertinent to this lack of success to mention that Coastal Command, despite constant pressure from the Admiralty, had been kept so short of aircraft by the Air Ministry, and the demands on what it had for reconnaissance purposes had been so heavy, that there had been virtually no training in torpedo-dropping at all.

Now as to Bomber Command aircraft. It will be remembered that it was in relation to bomber aircraft and their concentration on the bombing of Germany that the Air Ministry’s “flexibility” theory had first been formulated. Aircraft were so flexible in operation, said the Air Marshals, that they could turn from bombing factories to sinking ships with ease and efficiency. Let us see what happened in this case.

On February 4, when a German naval breakout from Brest was considered imminent, Bomber Command had been ordered to have all available aircraft ready to bomb the German ships. Aircraft were accordingly put at two hours’ notice for this duty. Bomber Command could not, however, endure this interruption of its habitual occupation of bombing German factories for more than forty-eight hours without getting restive. On the 6th, it asked the Air Ministry to release it from naval stand-by duty. The Air Ministry replied that Bomber Command must first get the concurrence of the Admiralty. The Admiralty, on being asked, said that the emergency, far from declining, was getting more acute. Nevertheless, and without informing anyone, Bomber Command detailed 100 aircraft to stand by at the longer notice of four hours, and for the remainder to revert to normal procedure.

Hence, when the German ships appeared unexpectedly near the Straits of Dover, Bomber Command was not ready to deal with them. Despite the utmost speeding-up to meet the sudden emergency, the first, bombers were not airborne for three hours after the alarm, and only 73 could be mustered then. The next two waves could not be got away for another twenty minutes and two hours respectively.

Altogether, 242 bombers set out to attack the ships. What did they achieve? No less than 188 failed completely to find the target; 15 other aircraft failed to return, whether before or after attacking will never be known. Only 39, or 16 per cent, out of the whole armada are known to have carried out attacks on naval units, and a certain number of these attacks were made on the British destroyers. And not one bomb hit any German ship. An important enemy squadron had cruised under the nose of the most powerful bomber force in the world and had emerged entirely unscathed.

As so often happens when opportunities in war are not seized at the earliest possible moment, the weather, which had been reasonably favorable to high-level bombing in the morning, deteriorated badly as the day advanced. When the bombers came to make their attacks between 3 P.M. and 6.15 P.M., they were faced with low clouds and rain. They could not, therefore, gain enough height for the effective bombing of armored vessels without losing sight of the target, a limitation to aerial flexibility that had presumably not been foreseen.

The demonstration of “flexibility” on this occasion was, in fact, a complete fiasco. Two German heavy ships which it was intensely desired to destroy if they gave an opening had steamed within pointblank aerial range of English shores for a night and a day and had been untouched by either bomb or aerial torpedo. The Board of Enquiry set up at the time to investigate this egregious failure reached, indeed, the obvious conclusion as to its root, cause:—

The evidence before us indicated that the training of the greater part of Bomber Command is not designed for effective attack on fast-moving ships by day.

It was the point at which the Admiralty had been hammering away for the previous two and a half years. But no one had listened. The sailors were written off as prejudiced obsolescents, ignorantly jealous of the standard-bearers of the “new strategy.”