German Warships' Escape: Inquiry.

Part of War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 17th February 1942.

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."

I shall deal first with the naval episode which has attracted attention in the last few days. In March last the two German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took refuge in Brest harbour, where they were joined in May by the Prinz Eugen after the destruction of the Bismarck. The position of these three ships became a serious preoccupation for the Admiralty. They lay on the flank of our main convoy route to the East, and they could make a sortie at any time on to the Atlantic trade routes or into the Mediterranean. Accordingly, the Admiralty have pressed for their continued attack from the air in the hopes of disabling them and preventing them being repaired. This process continued for more than 10 months, during which time the ships were undoubtedly hit several times and repair work was made very difficult. No less than 4,000 tons of bombs were dropped, and 3,299 bomber sorties were made upon them, with a loss of 247 Air Force personnel and 43 aircraft. As we were never in a position to know when some or all of these ships might put to sea, the situation entailed almost continuous naval precautions in the hope of being ready at all times to meet the various threats which these ships constituted. A further serious feature was the very grave subtraction from the bombing effort against Germany.

The bombing of these ships was, however, so severe that the Germans evidently came to the decision that they could not maintain them any longer at Brest and that they roust return to Germany. We do not know whether this was for the purpose of effecting final repairs or to enable them to work up to full efficiency in the sheltered waters of the Baltic. However this may be, the Germans resolved to try to bring the ships back to Germany. This was a very hazardous operation. It could be done either by sailing round the British Isles and returning via Norway, or by a dash up the Channel. The Germans rejected the plan of returning north about and preferred to run the admittedly serious risks of the Channel passage. In the Atlantic Ocean they would have run a great risk of being picked up by our extensive air reconnaisances from the shore and from aircraft carriers, or of being slowed down by torpedo attacks and brought to action against overwhelming forces, as was the Bismarck. The Channel route, on the other hand, was a run of under 24 hours, part of which could be made in darkness, possibly by surprise, and they had the opportunity of choosing the weather which would be most favourable. The whole way through the Channel and along the Dutch coast they had the advantage of a powerful air umbrella. The dangers of running past the Dover batteries, under suitable weather conditions, were not great. Our slow convoys repeatedly traverse the Straits of Dover, and are repeatedly bombarded by the German guns on the French shore, but this has not stopped our convoy traffic. One great danger was mines, but this they might hope to avoid by energetic sweeping. There remained, therefore, the action of surface ships and aircraft. Air reconnaissance would show the Germans that neither heavy ships nor even cruisers were in these narrow waters, and, therefore, attacks by flotillas of destroyers and of small torpedo boats were all that need be expected, apart from the air.

Some people seem to think that heavy forces should have been stationed so as to be able to intercept them in the Channel or the North Sea. Had we done so, our ships would have been open to the same scale of air attack as were the German ships at Brest. Further, any such disposition would have dangerously weakened the preventive measures which we have to take to safeguard our convoys and guard the Northern passage, and to deal with the other German heavy ships, the Tirpitz, Lutzow and Scheer. The Admiralty did not consider that the attempt to run through the Channel would be an impossible operation under the conditions which prevailed, and this was certainly much less to be apprehended than that the ships should break out on to the trade routes or into the Mediterranean. No one can doubt the vigour and courage with which the enemy squadron was attacked as soon as its movement was perceived, and, of course, everyone is very sorry that these ships were not sunk. The only questions which are open are, first: Why was their movement not detected shortly after daylight, and secondly, Was the contact and liaison between the Coastal Command and the Admiralty, and also between the other R.A.F. Commands and the Admiralty, as close as it should have been? At the suggestion of the Admiralty and of the Air Ministry, I have directed that an Inquiry shall be held into these points. The Inquiry will be secret. I doubt very much whether, when completed, its results will be suitable for publication. I am not prepared to give any information about the Inquiry or any undertakings that its results will be made public.

Although it may somewhat surprise the House and the public, I should like to state that, in the opinion of the Admiralty, with which I most cordially concur, this abandonment by the Germans of their position at Brest has been decidedly beneficial to our war situation. The threat to our convoy routes has been removed, and the enemy has been driven to leave his advantageous position. The diversion of our air bombing effort, which, though necessary, was so wasteful, is over. A heavier scale of attack on Germany is now possible, in which all the near misses will hit German and not French dwellings. Both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau have received damage in their passage which will keep them out of action for some time to come, after which they will have to be worked up in gunnery and other practices. Before they can again play any part in the war, the Royal Navy will be reinforced by various important units of the highest quality, and the same strengthening process is going forward in the Navy of the United States. Whatever smart of disappointment or annoyance may remain in our breasts that the final forfeit was not exacted, there is no doubt that the naval position in the Atlantic, so far from being worsened, is definitely eased.