This was a British daylight bombing attack by aircraft of Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse’s RAF Bomber Command on the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, lying in Brest and La Pallice in the west of German-occupied France (24 July 1941).
A major daylight operation against the German warships in Brest had been under consideration and preparation for some time. The original plan was to despatch about 150 aircraft, but this had to be changed at the last minute because of Scharnhorst's departure for La Pallice. Thus the force actually dispatched to Brest was 100 aircraft: three Boeing Fortress heavy bombers, attacking from 30,000 ft (9145 m) would, it was hoped, draw up German fighters prematurely, then 18 Handley Page Hampden medium bombers, escorted by three squadrons of Supermarine Spitfire single-seat fighters with long-range tanks, would complete the process of drawing the defence’s fighter into the air, and finally the main force of 79 Vickers Wellington medium bombers, provided by the squadrons of Air Vice Marshal R. D. Oxland’s No. 1 Group and Air Vice Marshal J. E. A. Baldwin’s No. 3 Group, would deliver their attack; there was no fighter escort for the Wellington bombers.
The operation proceeded according to this plan in clear visibility, and six hits were claimed on Gneisenau although this fact cannot be confirmed. The German fighter opposition was stronger and more protracted in its attentions than had been expected, and the British losses were 10 Wellington and two Hampden aircraft to the fighters and Flak.
As a diversion for the Brest raid, 36 Bristol Blenheim light bombers, flying in several waves and escorted by Spitfire fighters, attacked the harbour of Cherbourg with good results, but the diversionary aspect of the plan failed. No German fighters appeared, and none of the Blenheim bombers was lost.
Some 15 Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers of Nos 35 and 76 Squadrons carried out an entirely unescorted raid on Scharnhorst at La Pallice. The Halifax bombers met fierce fighter opposition and some Flak, resulting in the loss of five aircraft and damage to all of the others. Five direct hits were scored on Scharnhorst, but three of these were armour-piercing bombs which passed straight through the ship, leaving only small holes in her bottom, and the two bombs which did explode caused only slight damage. The Germans decided, however, that Scharnhorst should return at once for the better repair facilities and Flak cover at Brest, and the ship sailed that night with between 3,000 and 7,000 tons of water in her hull.
Though it did not sink either of the German capital ships, or even cause them severe damage, the operation was successful inasmuch as it ensured that Scharnhorst was forced to remain in harbour for four months as repairs were effected.