In late March 1941 the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reached Brest. Immediately a round-the-clock watch was put on the two battle cruisers to prevent a breakout. It was not practicable with heavy fleet units so it was aircraft. A nightly line patrol by one radar-equipped Wellington from dusk to dawn; a daily crossover patrol by one ASV Sunderland or Hudson from one hour after dawn to two hours after dusk; one daily pre-dusk visual reconnaissance off the Rade de Brest and one nightly patrol by a torpedo Beaufort.
Despite the laborious air patrols the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Prinz Eugen made a break for it on 12 February 1942. Hitherto one or all of them had been in dry dock since April 1941. The German ships went down the English Channel from Brest and got back to Germany more or less intact. The Germans had blacked out the United Kingdom radar and picked a period of very bad weather to do the operation.
Air and naval attack had failed utterly to arrest the progress of the enemy ships and this caused quite a flap in high places and many changes. After the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau incident in February 1942, Coastal Command made a new attempt to organize anti-shipping activities on a sound basis: Fighter Command operated Hurricane-bombers in the Strait of Dover.
At the time of the breakout from Brest by the German ships, Squadron Leader Robert (Bob) Morrow was at Warmwell in Dorset to pioneer the use of the Hurricane as a fighter-bomber on selected targets. Morrow was Commanding Officer of No 402 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. They had arrived at Warmwell on 5 November 1941 from Southend, where they had test flown the Hurricane armed with two 250 lb bombs.
When the bombs had arrived at Southend on 13 October 1941, the pilots of No 402 Squadron RCAF were sitting at dispersal on readiness and they could not believe their eyes when the three tractors, each towing two bomb trailers loaded with four 250 lb bombs pulled up in front of them. ‘Whose cocked this one up’, shouted one of the pilots. They all broke out laughing at the stupidity of the top brass for sending a load of bombs to a Hurricane fighter squadron. But, their laughter died away when Squadron Leader ‘Bob’ Morrow appeared and informed them that there had been no mistake, and that the bombs were indeed for them. ‘From now on,’ he said, ‘we will be known as Hurri-bombers’.
The following day Morrow’s Hurricane was armed with two 250 lb bombs and it was manoeuvred to the far end of the airfield to give him maximum length of take-off run. Chocks were then put under the wheels and four groundcrew held the tail down. Four more held on to the wings and two stood by to pull the chocks away. Morrow put the flaps half-way down and opened up the throttle, and then, at almost maximum rpm he gave the ‘all clear’ and everyone jumped out of the way. The Hurri-bomber roared down the runway and was soon airborne. It was a successful trial flight and the pilots soon discovered that the bombs had no appreciable effect on the flying characteristics of the Hurricane.
On the morning of 4 November 1941, Bob Morrow briefed his pilots for a low-level raid on a German airfield at Berck-sur-Mer in France. ‘Our job is to get the hangars,’ said Morrow, ‘and we will come into the target area at 100 ft.’ This was the first Hurri-bomber raid and it was successfully carried out.
On 16 February 1942, a few days after the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau broke out from Brest, a recce Spitfire spotted, again in bad weather, five of the German escorting destroyers returning to Brest. They were not seen until they were in the Cherbourg area. Immediately the German ships were sighted Squadron Leader Morrow was contacted at Warmwell and asked to take as many aircraft as possible to Perranporth in Cornwall, which was only a few miles from Land’s End. ‘At that time we were very low on aircraft,’ said Morrow, ‘we were about to convert to Spitfires – which we did on 4 March – and only had eight serviceable aircraft and only GP bombs with eleven-second delay fuzes.’
Previous experience in attacking the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest suggested that the chances of doing serious damage with existing bombs was remote. Nevertheless, Bob Morrow flew to Perranporth with his eight Hurri-bombers where he was told to try and intercept the German ships. He hurriedly briefed his pilots and he was given an excellent course to fly by the Ops Room. As it was bound to be a night return in bad weather Morrow left two Hurricanes behind.
Bob Morrow takes up the story: ‘We headed out at about 1,500 ft, which was the ceiling, and in bad visibility. We were escorted by a squadron of Spitfires. About ten miles off the Isle de Batz, which is just off the French coast near Roscoff, we made a perfect interception. The five destroyers were in line astern and going flat out. We split into three groups and flew straight ahead at sea level. I think the destroyer crews were relaxing after a hard trip and felt safe in the poor weather, because they did not start firing until we were close in. When they did open up fire, all hell broke loose, especially with the 40 mm guns. Streams of red tennis balls, which, while hard on the nerves, were fairly easy to avoid by skidding and constantly dropping under their tracer.’
The Hurri-bombers attacked the German ships under a hail of shells and bullets. The Germans threw everything they could at Bob Morrow and his gallant pilots. Under Morrow’s coolness they closed on their targets and the Spitfires reported that three bombs went off in two of the destroyers and they were credited with one sinking and one damaged. ‘Due to the delay fuzes I did not see any bombs explode,’ said Morrow, ‘I was too busy getting the hell out of it and gathering up the squadron to head home. We were advised to land at Portreath in Cornwall, due to bad weather and lighting availability. My log-book shows the operation took 1 hour 40 minutes of which 40 minutes is night. Fuel was very low and one Hurri-bomber ran out and crashed on the airfield perimeter. I was given the Distinguished Flying Cross for this effort.’
Bob Morrow modestly says he was awarded the DFC for his effort. It was his cool leadership that got his squadron of Hurri-bombers in, and out, of the target area, which resulted in a very successful operation, carried out in very poor weather conditions and under very heavy fire. Bob Morrow pioneered bombing with the Hurricane and the technique of low-level bombing where a short fall would likely bounce it into the target became known as ‘skip’ bombing in the Pacific and this is probably as good an example of the use of the technique as could then be found.