“The Dover Strait became the scene of one of World War Two’s longest-running battles.”
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 19, 2014)
THE NARROW SPAN OF WATER separating Dover, England from the Pas-de-Calais, France has long been one of the most strategically vital spots in all of Europe. And at no time was that more the case than during the Second World War.
Not only does the 21-mile gap link the British Isles with the continent, it’s also tight bottleneck through which ships travelling between the North Sea and the Atlantic must squeeze.
Not surprisingly, the Dover Strait became the scene of one of World War Two’s longest-running battles.
Between 1940 and 1944, some of the heaviest artillery in the Axis arsenal hurled salvo after salvo of high explosive shells at England’s southeast coast. Britain responded in kind. The ensuing long-range duel sputtered intermittently for more than four years, killing hundreds. Yet to this day, the fight for control of the English Channel remains one of the lesser-known chapters of World War Two.
Hitler’s Big Shots
The Nazi cannonade began within weeks of the Fall of France. Following Germany’s stunning victory in June of 1940, Hitler ordered his military engineers to erect gun batteries for some of the Third Reich’s biggest guns along the French coast at Cape Gris Niz .
While the Fuhrer hoped the weapons would close the water to Allied shipping, he also imagined that his gun emplacements could provide fire support for a proposed Axis cross-channel invasion.
Soon, the area around Calais was bristling with firepower. Nearly 20 pieces were added to six batteries running from Boulogne-Sur-Mer eastwards towards Calais and beyond. The guns ranged in size from comparatively “light” 8-inch cannons capable of lobbing explosives up to 33 kilometers, to massive 16-inch radar-controlled weapons, which could hurl one-ton projectiles more than 50 kilometers. Commanded by Kriegsmarine admirals, the guns where originally built to be mounted on German battleships and heavy cruisers. Instead, the pieces were encased in massive bombproof concrete pillboxes on dry land. To support the effort, the Wehrmacht rushed in an assortment of 21-cm howitzers and 28-cm railway guns. The consignment even included an updated version of the notorious 210-mm Paris Gun of 1918. Known as the K-12 (E), the 100-foot long artillery piece could hit targets up to 130 kilometers away. In all, nearly 75 high-caliber weapons were trained onto England’s coast. Before the end of August of 1940, the first of these guns began dropping shells onto the channel as well as British soil. And this was just the beginning.
For the next four years, the German military subjected the Dover Strait and the nearby English countryside to a torrent of artillery fire. Some shells landed as far inland as Chatham — more than 50 kilometers from the coast. In all, at least 1,000 attacks were recorded in just over four years (that’s an average of one every two days). Dover, which is easily observed from the French shoreline, bore the worst of it. Up to 10,000 buildings in and around the city were damaged by shellfire and more than 200 civilians were killed. Hundreds more were injured.
Yet the real fury was reserved for coastal shipping traffic. Civilian transports carrying goods from North Sea ports to harbours along the south coast of England were forced to pass within range of the German batteries. In fact, so much artillery was directed onto the waters of the Dover Strait, mariners dubbed the area Hellfire Corner. Amazingly, the cannonades only sank two ships in four years: a freighter named the Sambut, which went down on June 6, 1944 (of all days) and the Empire Lough two weeks later. Most skippers ran the white-knuckle gauntlet while travelling at flank speed. Yet despite the seemingly long odds of actually suffering a direct hit from such a distance, merchant crews frequently refused to sail on vessels bound for the embattled stretch of water, which was also patrolled by e-boats and German bombers.
Churchill’s Guns Reply
By the fall of 1940, British prime minister Winston Churchill ordered his military commanders to mount batteries on England’s southeastern coast to match the German threat.
Two 14-inch guns slated for installation on the battleship HMS King George V were added to turrets at the small town of St. Margaret’s at Cliffe just east of Dover. The village was evacuated and soon the 80-ton weapons, dubbed Winnie and Pooh, were lobbing shells onto the German positions opposite. It took up to 45 seconds for each of the guns’ 1,500-pound projectiles to reach their targets.
A popular tale holds that Churchill himself was visiting the battery as a volley was going out.
“A direct hit, sir,” one of the gunners proudly reported to the prime minister.
“On what?” demanded the Churchill.
“France!” the officer replied.
Four more emplecements sprang up around Dover in the months that followed. They housed a total of 12 large-caliber artillery pieces, many of which were capable or reaching the continent. Among them were two 15-inch naval guns and a trio of 13.5 inchers with an effective range of 38 kilometres.
While the Allied guns were unable to knock out the German batteries, their shells did manage to destroy at least four enemy vessels between 1943 and 1944.
The Battle of the Channel peaked on Feb. 12, 1942 when a fleet of Axis warships en route to German waters made a surprise high-speed transit through the strait in broad daylight. Under the Nazi plan, codenamed Cerberus, 20 destroyers and escorts, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, slipped through an Allied air and sea cordon and sped before the guns of Dover. Low visibility prevented battery crews from getting a visual fix on the targets. Shore-based radar operators tracked the fleet and fed its position to two 9-inch guns at South Foreland, weapons that had an effective range of 27 kilometers. At precisely 12:19 p.m., the guns opened fire on the distant targets. Up to 33 shells were loosed in just a few minutes; most fell miles away from the vessels, which were moving at nearly 30 knots. Royal Navy warships closed in on the convoy to press the attack but were repulsed by salvos from the Nazi battleships. HMS Worcester was crippled in the exchange; twenty-seven of her crew were killed. As the battle raged, guns on the French shore began pounding the English batteries near Dover. Within the hour, the German flotilla had sailed out of range unscathed and the so-called Channel Dash was over.
The Guns Fall Silent
The German guns were finally silenced in the weeks following D-Day when Calais fell the Allies. On Sept. 26, 1944, British and Canadian troops closed in on the city. Knowing their channel batteries were about to be overrun, the German commanders ordered their artillery to unleash a final barrage on the English coast. As the day wore on, Dover was battered by as many as 50 shells. Five Britons died before the guns at Cap Gris Nis were finally silenced. Their last victim was a 63-year-old woman by the name of Patience Ransley. She was sheltering in a Dover area dugout known as Barwick’s Cave when a 16-inch German shell blasted into the concrete roof of the structure. The elderly woman was crushed beneath a pile of debris.