Bomber Command Versus Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest I

Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF bombing the German battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU in dry-dock at Brest, 18 December 1941.
Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight attack on German warships docked at Brest, France. Two Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF fly towards the dry docks in which the battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU are berthed (left), and over which a smoke screen is rapidly spreading.

On 28 March 1941, a photo-reconnaissance of the docks at Brest on the French coast confirmed the presence of the two 26,000-ton battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. These warships had destroyed 115,622 tons during the cruise which finished at Brest on 22 March and if they were allowed to join forces with the Bismarck all three warships would wreak unprecedented havoc on the British trade routes. They at once became a target of real importance not only for Coastal but also for Bomber Command, but during the next three days weather conditions were unfavourable. Finally, on the night of 30/31 March, 109 aircraft including 50 Wellingtons were ordered to attack the battle cruisers, in what was the first of 63 raids to be launched against Brest during 1941. All the aircraft returned safely. No hits were achieved.

The weather in April improved steadily permitting operations to be flown on most nights, and on 3/4 April, 90 aircraft attempted to bomb the warships at Brest again. One Blenheim was lost without trace and a Whitley was shot down. Two Whitleys on 77 Squadron were lost, one in a crash landing at Waddington, which killed four of the crew, and the other in a crash at Eartham near Chichester, which claimed three more crew members. Shortly after midnight H-Harry, a Wellington on 115 Squadron, was returning to Marham after the raid but when over The Wash the Wimpy was hit by a burst of fire and rapidly lost height. Sergeant C M Thompson the pilot and Sergeant Humphrey Yule Chard succeeded in holding Harry on an even keel until it eventually hit the mud flats at Ongar Hill, Terrington St Clement near King’s Lynn. Sergeant Russell the rear gunner was the only man to get out alive and he was finally reached by rescuers several hours later suffering from exposure.

Fifty-four aircraft returned to Brest the night following when a Hampden on 106 Squadron at Coningsby, flown by Wing Commander Patrick Julyan Polglase MiD, was shot down by flak and crashed at St-Renan with no survivors. Some bombs hit the Continental Hotel in the port just as the evening meal was being served and several German naval officers, including some from the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, were believed to have been killed. A direct hit was claimed on the Gneisenau, which was in dry dock, but the 250lb bomb did not explode. It did however cause the Gneisenau to be removed on 5 April to the outer harbour. Ten Hampdens set out for Brest but only one of the bombers bombed the objective because of cloud and a 50 Squadron aircraft exploded off the Isles of Scilly killing all four crew. On 6 April a Coastal Command Beaufort torpedo bomber flown by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, the only one of four aircraft to locate the target in the haze, scored a direct hit on the Gneisenau, which had been moored at a buoy in the inner harbour alongside one of the shore quays. To her seaward was a long stone mole; behind her was sharply rising ground; in dominating positions all around were 270 anti-aircraft guns. Three flak ships moored in the outer harbour and the Gneisenau’s own formidable armament added to the strength of the defences. Campbell flew in below mast height and launched his torpedo from a range of 500 yards before he was instantly shot down with the loss of all the crew, but the torpedo ran true and pierced the Gneisenau’s stern beneath the water line. The battle cruiser was so badly damaged that eight months later the starboard propeller shaft was still under repair. Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

That night Brest was bombed again but Bomber Command could not emulate Campbell’s supreme effort. In bad weather only 47 out of 71 aircraft dispatched got their bombs away, all aircraft returning safely. Twenty-four Hampdens carried out minelaying operations off Brittany and the Frisians and a Hampden on 83 Squadron at Scampton was lost without trace.

After the raid on Brest on the night of 10/11 April, when the port was attacked by 53 aircraft, it was determined that four bombs had hit the Gneisenau and there were two near-misses. Extensive damage was done to the gunnery and damage-control rooms and to the living quarters, and 50 Germans were killed and 90 injured. The Scharnhorst was not hit but her refitting was delayed by the damage to dock facilities. One Wellington crashed off Brest and the crew were lost. Five Hampdens failed to return from an operation on Düsseldorf by 29 Hampdens and 24 Whitleys and one Wellington was lost from the 11 Wimpys that attacked Bordeaux-Mérignac airfield. It was Brest again on 12/13 April, when 60 aircraft were dispatched but conditions were poor and only 37 aircraft bombed. Most of the others dropped their bombs on Lorient as an alternative. Ninety-four aircraft were sent to Brest two nights’ later but again bombing was poor because of cloud. All the bombers returned safely.

Repeated attacks were made on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau throughout April. On 10/11 April, 53 bombers – 36 Wellingtons, 12 Blenheims and five Manchesters, headed for Brest to try and finish off the Gneisenau which had been recently damaged by a Coastal Command torpedo bomber. Four hits were claimed on the Gneisenau. Returning crews joked that ‘the Scharnhorst doesn’t look so Gneisenau’… but the ships were undamaged. Twenty-nine Hampdens and 24 Whitleys went to bomb Düsseldorf and minor operations were flown to Bordeaux/Mérignac airfield and to Rotterdam. One Wellington failed to return from Brest and five Hampdens were lost on the raid on Düsseldorf.28 On 12/13 April, 66 aircraft including 35 Wellingtons returned to Brest. Only 37 aircraft bombed in poor cloud conditions and most other aircraft bombed Lorient as an alternative target. There were no losses. Two nights later 94 aircraft including 46 Wellingtons returned to Brest but bombing was again thwarted by cloud and the results were poor. Cloud also interfered with the bombing of Kiel on 15/16 April which was raided by 96 aircraft, 49 of them Wimpys.

On 6/7 July, 88 Hampdens and 21 Wellingtons returned to Brest where smoke screens concealed the warships. A Hampden and a Wellington were shot down. Forty-seven Wellingtons returned to Münster, where crews claimed many fires in the target area. A 40 Squadron Wellington from Alconbury, flown by Pilot Officer John Edwin MacKenzie Steeds, a New Zealander, crashed off Texel with the loss of all the crew, while a 115 Squadron Wimpy piloted by Sergeant Oswald Arthur Matthews RNZAF crashed in the North Sea. All six crew perished. Two Whitleys failed to return from the raid on Dortmund by 31 Whitleys and 15 Wellingtons. Haze was present over the target but fires were claimed.

Three German warships – Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen – had not been hit during recent bombing as they sheltered in Brest harbour, and the enemy decided it was time to move the Scharnhorst more than 200 miles further south to La Pallice. A large tanker covered with camouflage netting was left in the Scharnhorst’s former berth at Brest after the battle cruiser had slipped her moorings and sailed south. The warship was spotted by reconnaissance aircraft at La Pallice on 23 July. That same evening a formation of six Stirlings – three on 7 Squadron and three on XV Squadron – were immediately dispatched to bomb the warship. As far as XV Squadron were concerned the operation was a failure. Flying Officer Robert Balmain Campbell RAAF bombed the target but was forced to ditch 50 miles from Milford Haven on the homeward trip. All the crew perished in the sea. Sergeant Jones bombed a ship at Fromontine instead of La Pallice and Pilot Officer Frank James Needham, unable to raise his undercarriage of his aircraft, was forced to jettison his bombs and fuel and return to Wyton.

Next day Wellington, Hampden and Fortresses crews just could not believe it when they were told that they would make daylight attacks on the Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen at Brest while Halifaxes attacked the Scharnhorst at La Pallice. The German fighter opposition was stronger and more prolonged than anticipated by Group HQ and 16 bombers – 10 of them Wellingtons (12.5 per cent of the total force) – failed to return. Two other aircraft were lost when they ditched on the way home. The Wellingtons on 405 ‘Vancouver’ Squadron at Pocklington in Yorkshire now received their first real test. All nine of the Wimpys succeeded in getting over the target, severely pasting the docks and surrounding area. One crew estimated a direct hit on the Prinz Eugen. On their way back five of the bombers were intercepted by Bf 109s. Two, including U-Uncle flown by the CO, Wing Commander P A Gilchrist DFC, whose Halifax on 35 Squadron had been downed returning from Le Havre four months earlier, were shot down. Gilchrist and two of his crew evaded capture.3 Another, badly mauled by the fighters, crash landed at Plymouth. V-Victor, after having fought off four fighters, flew on, though rapidly losing height, with its fabric on fire, the rear turret out of action and extensive damage to the whole aircraft. Nevertheless the pilot, Sergeant Craig, brought the stricken Wimpy within 300 yards of home shore for a successful ditching off Torpoint.

Six hits were claimed on the Gneisenau and five direct hits were registered on the Scharnhorst, putting her out of action for four months. Of the 15 Halifaxes attacking La Pallice, five were shot down and all the remainder damaged. Two of the 18 Hampdens were lost to fighter attacks. Despite the losses it was considered a highly successful operation.

Further abortive attempts were made to sink the German warships holed up in Brest and though black smoke was reported rising from the Gneisenau, the ships remained afloat. On 18 December, during a raid on Brest by 47 aircraft, Wing Commander Basil Vernon Robinson DSO DFC was forced to ditch 60 miles off the coast of England. The Halifax floated for 20 minutes and the 35 Squadron CO twice re-entered the aircraft, the second time to look for his favourite pipe!19 The crew was picked up that same evening. Five other crews – four of them Stirlings – failed to return. One of the Stirling crews was captured and there were no survivors from the other three bombers. A fifth Stirling returned damaged and a 97 Squadron Manchester crashed at Coningsby on return to take the Squadron’s losses to two. The night following, 19 Whitleys tried without success to hit the warships at anchor in Brest harbour.