My post on behalf of a long-standing friend who is "computer-free" here:
reminded me of an account on the Channel dash in my later father's RAF reminiscences, which I've summarised below, adding appropriate background information and comment as appropriate.
The Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the gannets
There has been a lot of discussion over the years as to why the three German warships, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, together with their escort of destroyers and other naval craft and the protective fighter aircraft umbrella were not picked up by British coastal radar after they had left Brest in their attempt to sail through the English Channel to German waters. I have not so far come across a specific explanation in books or on the internet, but in some papers of my later father there is an explanation given.
My late father, J. W. W Whitehead, was the third or fourth member of the RAF to be appointed to 80 (Signals) Wing (The Beam Benders), when it was set up in 1940. He served with 80 (Signals) Wing throughout the war, leaving the RAF in 1945 with the rank of Wing Commander. In his later years he contributed to two books on the history of 80 (Signals) Wing and No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group, RAF, and left a number of reminiscences from his RAF days. One of these was entitled “The photo recce that never was...(but should have been).
In summary, this reads as follows:
“One day, during World War II, the radar operator at an RAF station on the N.E. coast of England drew the attention of his C.O. to a particular “blip” on the radar screen which had aroused his suspicions. If it was to be believed, an enemy aircraft was approaching the coast at a height of
2000 ft and a speed of 40 mph – a speed at which no existing aircraft could remain airborne, except for a few experimental helicopters. He had made a routine report to the operations room at Fighter Command HQ (FCHQ), but it had aroused no comment.
The radar site C.O. immediately grabbed his binoculars and went outside to attempt a visual contact with the mysterious object. The contact was immediate. Through his binoculars (being a dedicated bird-watcher) he instantly identified a flock of gannets.
The news of this discovery was immediately passed to the controller of the ops room at HQFC and the relevant plot was removed from the ops room map table.”
My father doesn't give an exact date for this event, but adds:
“At about the same time as the above incident, a reconnaissance aircraft of the RAF was photographing the docks area of the port of Brest in the extreme N.W. corner of France. The resulting prints revealed the presence of two enemy battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, in dry dock and under repair”
and it is known that the first aerial reconnaissance photos showing the two ships were taken on 28th March, 1941.
My father then goes on to briefly summarise the events following the first photo reconnaissance (28th March, 1941) which showed the Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau in dry dock at Brest undergoing repair until their attempt to break out of Brest overnight 11th/12th February, 1942. He then writes as follows referring to events on 12th February, 1942.:
“...a radar operator at Prawle Point, S. Devon was puzzling over an unusual “blip” on his screen. It indicated that an airborne object far to the south was moving west to east at about 20mph. He reported this to the ops room at HQFC. “Gannets” said the controller and the “blip” was not plotted on the plotting table.
Successive identical reports were treated in a similar manner, until the arrival of the source of the radar “blips” near to the Pas de Calais area revealed that the “gannets” were many fighter aircraft circling in a protecting umbrella over two warships which were limping along at less than 20 knots in an easterly direction.
Before a force of sufficient strength could be assembled to deal with the situation, the convoy was well through the Straits of Dover and on its way to a safer haven, probably in the Baltic area.
Had the source of the original “blips” detected by the radar station at Prawle Point been investigated by a visual and photo reconnaissance, there is little doubt that the ending to this story would have been very different.”
Adding a wider perspective to my father's account, RAF Fighter Command had experienced problems with what were most likely flocks of birds for a period of weeks beginning with the night of 20th March, 1941. It was assumed, though with some scepticism, that the “phantom” appearances on the radar screens on the south coast were possible German attempts to jam the British radar stations as, when aircraft were scrambled in response to the radar readings, nothing was ever found. Some 60 years after the events, Sir Edward Fennessey, who was responsible for the radar chain, said that no explanation was ever found “and because we were busy fighting a war we spent no time investigating this phenomena.”. It may well be that the incident above recounted by my father never came to the notice of Sir Edward and that it was simply logged by Fighter Command HQ and passed on for information to controllers' at Fighter Command HQ.
There were two aerial reconnaissances flights sent up from Hawkinge early mid-morning on the 12th of February, but both were inconclusive and were not photo-recces. It was two fighter pilots returning from an entirely unconnected flight over France who first definitely noted the flotilla of warships which included the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst but only reported this when they landed at about 11:10 as they were under radio silence.
As regards the penultimate paragraph of my father's account, there was a plan (Operation Fuller) in hand, but the brief notice available for putting this into action once it had been determined that the ships were Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen meant that it became a piecemeal operation and an unsuccessful one, certainly in terms of stopping the German ships getting through the English Channel.
It was later learned that the German Naval Command was forced into this risky venture solely because of the threat posed by the RAF bombers and their raids on Brest.