Wartime secret: How Churchill tried to blow up his own navy

Was invasion plan using warships floated on air bags just hot air?

Even at the start of the Second World War, the accountants ruled. Sir David Nicholas, the retired former chairman of ITN, has discovered that an astonishingly bold scheme to invade the Baltic hatched by Winston Churchill before he became Prime Minister was never put into practice, partly because of the cost - pounds 8m to pounds 10m, or about pounds 250m in today's money. The other reason? Probably, it was just plain mad.

The idea was to put a powerful naval force including three 28,000-ton battleships into the Baltic, attacking Germany from behind. To evade German defences in the Baltic approaches - the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden - Churchill proposed to send the massive warships through an unguarded but shallow channel. Normally, the channel would have been too shallow for the giant vessels, so Churchill came up with a brilliant idea: float them through buoyed up on airbags.

At the outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September 1939 Churchill was re-appointed First Lord of the Admiralty - a position with no modern equivalent but which gave him enormous power as political and military supremo of the Royal Navy. Sir David's research, which he described as "a kind of hobby", began several years ago when he was browsing through Churchill's Admiralty papers.

Like Churchill's ill-fated brainchild of the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign, the potential strategic advantages were enormous. Churchill's aim was to divert huge German naval and air forces into the Baltic, cut off Germany from the supplies of iron ore it received from Sweden, threaten Hitler from the rear and possibly bring Sweden and Norway into the war on the British side.

None of these materialised: the cost and complexity of the operation, and the risk to the force weighed against it. The first battleship to be earmarked, Royal Oak, was torpedoed the next month. But in the end , the decisive factor may not have been the cost, but the risk that a British fleet in the Baltic might start war with the Soviet Union - then a formal ally of Nazi Germany.

According to papers discovered by Sir David, Churchill's plan relied on reducing the 30ft draught of the 28,000-ton Royal Sovereign class battleships by 9ft so they could pass through "a certain channel where the depth is only 26 feet". Later correspondence reveals the channel was the "Vengeance Shoal", between Fyn Island and Zeeland.

"There are at present no guns commanding this channel", wrote Churchill, "and the states on either side (Sweden, Denmark) are neutral. Therefore there would be no harm in hoisting the armour belt [on the battleships, normally below the water-line] temporarily up to the water level."

Churchill proposed to do this with "caissons" - air-filled floats , designed to lift the giant battleships nine feet. Codenamed "galoshes", they would be attached in two layers either side of the battleships, increasing their beam from 102 to 141 feet.

Churchill recognised that a naval force operating in the Baltic would be subject to heavy air attack. He also proposed reinforcing the armour on the battleships' decks, codenamed "umbrella". The force would also need a dozen smaller vessels with strengthened bows to withstand bumping into mines, and ships designed to take on enemy aircraft, including ships carrying barrage balloons.

During December, Operation Catherine was in effect cancelled. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, wrote that "sending a fleet of surface ships into the Baltic is courting disaster". But On 9 April 1940, the shock news came that Hitler had invaded Norway. Thatmorning Churchill received a telegram from Admiral Lord Cork, who had been in charge of Operation Catherine: "If only Catherine had gone ahead. What an ideal force we would have together to go right in and break up the German fleet. It would have been ready, according to your last date, nine days ago."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Super BowlAfter Katy Perry madness it's back to The Independent's live coverage of Super Bowl 49!
News
See what Twitter had to say about the first half of the Super Bowl
News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

Dropout generation failed by colleges

£800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

Homeless Veterans appeal

Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch