The German High Command called it, “Operation Cerberus”, it passed into history as “the Channel Dash” or the “Channel Fiasco” depending on how you see it.
At a meeting at Rastenburg, Hitler pressed for the pocket battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, and Prinz Eugen, to be withdrawn from Brest, were they had been for nearly 12 months under going repairs. He said, It was to counter an expected invasion, of Norway.
Completed in January 1939, the ship was armed with a main battery of nine 28 cm C/34 guns in three triple turrets, though there were plans to replace these weapons with six 38 cm (15 in) SK C/34 guns in twin turrets.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau operated together for much of the early portion of World War II, including sorties into the Atlantic to raid British merchant shipping.
During her first operation, Scharnhorst sank the auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi in a short engagement. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau participated in Operation WeserŸbung, the German invasion of Norway.
During operations off Norway, the two ships engaged the battlecruiser HMS Renown and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious in the engagement with Glorious, Scharnhorst achieved one of the longest-range naval gunfire hits in history.
For the many Wulfrunians late arriving in town let me tell you a bit about Pipers Row before the War.
Just take the east side as shown in this picture where the new Bus Station and County Court Building stand Well that was about the same length it covered then.
Just than one side of the street at one time it had a licensed house on each corner. and amongst the many varietes of shops that existed then there were another three amongst them.
The tall building on the left in the picture was the “Old Bush Inn” as you can see an Atkinsons House, Two doors on its left was as many old Wufflers will recall was The Rope Shop, and it was behind this block in a court of little cottages Len Edwards was born in 1912.
Here is an eyewitness account of that famous ‘Channel Dash’, which took part during World War II.
Forty – eight desperate hours, in the wartime experiences of one Able Seaman, Len ‘Bungy’ Edwards; a good friend, born in Pipers Row Wolverhampton.
Whilst protected by a constant umbrella of Luftwaffe fighters and smaller naval units.
On February 12, 1942, the German pocket battleships, Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and the Cruiser Prinz Eugen, made the dash from Brest.
They came straight up the English Channel, passing through the straights of Dover, and eventually reached the port of Wilmshaven.
Taken completely by surprise, the British Navy and Airforce where unable to stop this operation, losing a considerable number of planes, and naval vessels in the attempt.
I was a Wireless operator on board the British Destroyer H.M.S.Campbell. It was 1942, and the war at this time was beginning to go in our favour.
The Campbell under the command of Captain Pizey was part of the 21st Destroyer Flotilla off the coast at Harwich.
On the day in question I was on watch, when an operations signal came through.
The message, to all ships said, “Three Battleships, Five Destroyers, an unknown number of E boats and Aircraft,” and then the coded position of origin, the time, was just after 11.00am, on Feb 12th, 1942.
When Petty Officer Wilkinson decoded the message, he said, ‘Bungy,’ (he called me by my nickname,)
“Oh my God,! somebody’s cocked it up this time, they’re somewhere of the coast of Bournmouth!”
As he spoke another message came through addressed directly to H.M.S. Campbell which was decoded, a fast as I could read it.
As I, remember it said “The 21st flotilla, is to proceed to intercept three German battleships, and destroyers off Dungerness Light.”
We knew immediately the three ships mentioned were, the Pocket Battleships, Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, and Cruiser Prinz Eugen.
No one! in their right mind, would have expected them to come up our strip of water, but anyway, here they were!
We raced from Harwich to engage them but first, we had to cross a mine field, which Captain Pizey manouvered us safely through. The weather conditions that day were terrible, and when we emerged from a squall of rain the visibility was about fifty yards.
As we came out of this depression , in line, ahead of us were the Vivacious, the Worcester, and with the Mackay, Whitshed and Walpole, we made up the six destroyers in our group.
When you stop to think about it, what chance did we have?, six destroyers against sixty odd ships protecting the big three, and these vessels included minesweepers destroyers and an unknown number of
The mist lifted and we saw the Scharnhorst, it was so huge, I thought, we had sighted land.
I was standing in the radio office just underneath the five inch gun, the visibility had brightened by then, and as I looked out, I could see the battleship, quite clearly now it was about eight hundred yards away.
The next thing I remember, was a big orange flash, and something screamed overhead which turned out to be a 14inch shell, it struck the Worcester alongside the Bridge, we then stopped to pick up survivors.
Abandon ship had not been given, but a lot of the crew had gone overboard, with the explosion.
While we were picking up the survivors, some Beauforts, from the R.A.F. came over, and now I thought we will at least we’ll have some air cover.
No such luck!, the next thing we knew, in all the confusion, our own planes started bombing us, and we had their torpedoes to avoid as well, and the really funny thing about this bizarre turn of events, was at this time, out of the blue flew a group of Messerschmitts and instead of attacking us, they opened fire on the Beauforts, which drove them off.
Now, we set about trying to tow the crippled Worcester back to base, fortunately she got one engine going, and did make it back to Harwich.
We also returned to Harwich, and I went off watch, and being so tired I quickly fell asleep.
The next thing I knew, we were underway again, I went up to the upper deck, were I learned that we had loaded up with more torpedoes, and were going back to find them.
I was informed it was the Captains belief the Scharnhorst had been hit by a mine, and had stopped, so we are going back to finish her.
The next morning February 13th although we searched for her, she had gone, and quite frankly I was glad, because I believe If we had encountered her she would have blown us out of the water.
I can still see the picture of this huge ship in my mind even today, and the one account of it, IÔll always remember, was from the gunner, who was on the five inch gun just above me, firing at the Scharnhorst, he said to the gunnery officer, “I might just as well have a pea-shooter, because the shells are just bouncing of it. I realise now, we would never have been able to penetrate its armour plating.”
Although this was a life threatening incident for me on the day, I don’t dwell on it now.
I loved the sea, was never, sea sick, and carried on undeterred in the Navy until 1946…….
As I walked out of the Bony Park that dry cold January night it was close on Midnight and the long still night provided a blanket of shadows to cover what has become a drab and grimy Pipers Row.
The solitary gent on the right peers down the street alongside the Old Bush were last orders were called many years ago and the residents of the courtyard behind have handed over their living quarters to small industries.
Now after the traffic has faded and the last stray merrymaker has tottered out of the Blue Ball there is only the whisper in the trees around the church or the snore of a tramp in the bushes. The night covers all.
The Pipers Row I knew has now finally gone. But fond memories linger on.