Channel Dash heroes remembered in Dover ceremony

Veteran Bill Wedge joined sailors and airmen of today and tomorrow to mark one of the darkest yet bravest episodes in Royal Navy history: the Channel Dash.

The escape of the kernel of the Nazi surface fleet from Brest to the relatively safety of Germany in 1942 provoked howls of criticism at the time.

It also gave the Fleet Air Arm one of its most selfless acts of courage as obsolete Swordfish torpedo bombers ran the gauntlet of 200 German fighters and the flak of three mighty warships in a vain attempt to prevent the breakout.

All six Swordfish were shot out of the sky. Just five of the 18 crew were rescued. Their leader Eugene Esmonde posthumously earned the Victoria Cross for leading the ill-fated attack.

Those who gathered to mark the 75th anniversary (or rather 75½th as the dash occurred in mid-February) of the ill-fated operation (codenamed Fuller in the UK, Cerberus in the Third Reich) were reminded that the effort to stop the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen reaching Germany went beyond the doomed sortie by half a dozen Swordfish.

Destroyers from Harwich and Sheerness were dispatched to stop the break out, while the RAF tried to bomb the escaping ships.

We are here to remember the bravery of Royal Navy aircrew, the destroyers from Harwich and Sheerness and the RAF for their efforts in the air

Admiral of the Fleet The Lord Boyce

At 96, Sub Lieutenant Bill Wedge was the sole veteran of Operation Fuller to attend the ceremony. In 1942, he was serving in aged destroyer HMS Worcester.

"We were all pretty appalled at how close we actually got towards the ships," the veteran recalled.

"I was responsible for the pom-poms on the quarterdeck - it was very scary, everyone was biting their nails. But our captain was very gung-ho and I reckon we got to within 2,000 yards. However none of our torpedoes hit and in return they found their target seven times!"

HMS Worcester wallowed in the Channel for hours awaiting rescue, before her stokers managed to get the engines going and she limped back to Harwich.

Admiral of the Fleet The Lord Boyce led tributes to the men of the Channel Dash at the Operation Fuller Memorial beneath Dover's imposing White Cliffs.

"We are here to remember the bravery of Royal Navy aircrew, the destroyers from Harwich and Sheerness and the RAF for their efforts in the air," he said.

"We must also remember the astute leadership of the German ships who attempted such a daring endeavour.

"Fortunately for us their movements through the Channel resulted in the sinking of two of them soon after by mines and bombing, once they made it to Wilhelmshaven."

The Germans reached home waters, but both battle-cruisers were damaged by mines. The Gneisenau was subsequently wrecked in dry dock by an RAF air attack. Only the Scharnhorst would ever pose a threat to the Royal Navy again until she was sunk by HMS Duke of York off the North Cape on Boxing Day in 1943.

Representing today's German Navy was Rear Admiral Axel Deertz. "It is always moving to attend these events and like many ceremonies, you cannot help get attached to the human losses that result from these actions and fights."

Flying in the same squadron as Esmonde and his men, Lieutenant Commander Martin Van Duin, 825 NAS' senior pilot, represented today's FAA with a Wildcat flypast.

"It's a honour to be part of a Naval Air Squadron with such a valiant heritage," he said.

"Members of 825 NAS are reminded daily of the Channel Dash by our battle honours, which are proudly displayed at Yeovilton."

Representing the next generation were Sea Cadets from Dover's TS Lynx.

"It was really good today and very impressive to see such a big turnout by the standard bearers on parade," said 17-year-old Leading Cadet Tamsin Porter.

"You can't help but be moved when you hear the stories of the brave men who took part in the Channel Dash."