The weather report for that day showed overnight rain periods expected to clear and give way to a fine day with only a thin layer of cloud. Still cool for the time of year, with winds were expected to be light. A heavier cloud was expected by evening with the possibility of rain periods. A fine day with haze in the Straits of Dover. Winds north-westerly and light.

In the channel, the weather had improved enough during the early morning of 25th July 1940 for the German Luftwaffe to make an attack on Convoy CW8, while it was working its way through the Dover Straits. Consisting of 21 vessels, Convoy CW8 was heading west through the Straits with cargos including coal and coke for the factories of Southern England. Off the Kent waters today,  lay the Polgrange, Leo, Henry Moon, Corhaven and Portslade. It was a disaster for the convoy as they were also pounded by heavy guns from the French coastline as well. Nine merchant ships of Convoy CW8 out of twenty-one were sunk over the 25th and 26th of July. Six were lost during the air battle on the 25th and three more on the 26th by torpedo.

The afternoon of 25th July 1940 was a desperate one for the already exhausted fighter pilots of the RAF who were defending the South coast of England. A new tactic was used by the Luftwaffe. As Convoy CW8 made its way west through the English Channel, eight Spitfires of 64 Squadron Kenley were scrambled together with twelve Spitfires of 54 Squadron Hornchurch. Taking off from their newly captured airfields from Northern France, fifty Messerschmitt Bf 109s came in at sea level to be met by both Squadrons while forty Junkers 88 bombers and sixty Junkers 87 Stuka’s of I Gruppe, StG 1 (I/StG 1) and IV Gruppe, LG 1 (IV/LG 1) came out of the sky to dive-bomb the convoy. Hurricanes from 32 Squadron Biggin Hill and Hurricanes of 111 Squadron Croydon came in to assist the sea level dogfight with fifty Bf 109s. Spitfires from 54 Squadron Rochford also answered the call for assistance from the escorting naval vessels and engaged Bf 109s that had arrived to assist the Junkers 87s. The British pilots found themselves massively outnumbered, nevertheless put up a spirited fight against the teeming enemy. Like the previous day, 54 Squadron suffered badly, but with one Spitfire to every five Bf 109s downed, they were lucky not to lose more than three aircraft.

The air battle was said to be watched by scores of people from Abbott’s Cliff, Dover. Ultimately the convoy was badly attacked losing six merchant ships of SS Leo, SS Henry Moon, SS Corhaven, SS Polgrange, SS Portslade and SS Summity to bombs, with two escorting destroyers and four other merchant vessels damaged. During the following day, the remains of the convoy were attacked by German Kriegsmarine S-boats which claimed a further three victims of SS London Trader, SS Broadhurst and SS Lulonga from the S-19, S-20 and S-27 S-boats.

"The day's biggest battle was fought later, when more than 50 German dive bombers protected by as many fighters, attacked a convoy three times. Scores of bombs were dropped on the convoy, which consisted of over 20 small cargo vessels. It is believed that two enemy 'planes were shot down in flames by British fighters in a bitter battle. The pilot of the first bailed out, but was drowned. The roar of anti-aircraft guns gave the first warning of the approach by the raiders, writes a reporter who watched the whole action. The 'planes were stepped up in tier upon tier, with fighters well above them. Scores of British fighters streaked to ward off the blow, and were instantly engaged by German fighters. Then, with engines screaming, the bombers hurtled down. There were 27 in the first wave, and another formation of similar strength swept after them in perpendicular dives. Shells burst all around them. The raiders climbed steeply back, but soon returned and repeated their attack. "Flaming onions" dotted the sky all around them and they fled. Fighters closed in while they tried to reach the cover of clouds, and two raiders spun into the sea. All the time there raged a fierce battle between the fighter aircraft. The British pilots put the enemy into flight, and the convoy sailed on, but an hour later made a third attempt to destroy it. This time the attack was quickly broken up by anti-aircraft guns and fighters."

SS Leo [+1940]

SS Leo

The SS Leo was built in 1908 by the German Stettiner Oderwerk. She was 226 ft long, of 1,140 tons with a beam of 34 ft and draught of 14 ft. She had 128 hp triple expansion steam engines.

Leo was attacked at 4.00pm that day by four Junkers-87 German dive bombers, attacking her from the starboard quarter, dropping bombs and machine-gunning her.

She was placed astern of another collier called the Tamworth. The Merchant Navy Gunner on the Tamworth was John Gallagher. He described the end of Leo:

"At 4.00pm, the klaxon for action stations blared throughout the ship and out across the water to our mates. Astern, the Leo was already closed up. We waved to the gunners on the Leo and they waved back. Then there was the howl of the dive bombers. I fired our stern 12-pounder at them. Walls of spray burst up around us. Suddenly four Junkers 87s came rocketing over the waves towards us on the starboard quarter, machine guns going and hitting us. My gun wouldn't bear, but Eric Speakman on the bridge with our twin Lewis guns was grinning as he blazed away at them. Then the planes were over us and gone. I looked astern and there was no Leo, her hull steadily shouldering the waves away behind us. There was just the bottom of the ship rolling in the water with two men standing on the propeller shaft as the upturned hull drifted astern of the convoy."

At the time of Leo’s loss, she was carrying 1,536 tons of coal from Seaham to Portsmouth and owned by the Ellerman’s Wilson Line. Though Leo was upside down when seen by the Tamworth, only six of her twenty-seven crew were lost.

At just two miles from Dover, today she lays in 32m on a steep sloping seabed on her side and only 3m proud of the sand which is rolling down her.

SS Henry Moon [+1940]

SS Henry Moon

The SS Henry Moon was built by William Pickersgill of Sunderland for the Brighton Electricity Undertaking, a 1,091 ton collier carrying 1,450 tons of coal from Burntisland to the Firth of Forth for Shoreham on Thursday 25th July 1940. She got just about level with Folkestone on her way down Channel, when despite her attempts to weave away, a bomb from the belly of a Ju 87 hit her, killing one man out of her crew of 16 and sending her to the bottom in 25m. Now she stands upright with a big scour around her with the bow, bridge and stern around 7m proud. Amidships she seems to be covered with sand and mud. The identity of this ship was confirmed by the discovery of her forecastle bell.

SS Corhaven [+1940]

SS Corhaven

Built 1933, this collier of 991 tons was also in Convoy CW8, carrying 1,244 tons of coal from the Tyne for Portsmouth when she too was dive-bombed and sunk off Dover. All of her 15 crew were saved. Today the SS Corhaven lays on her starboard side with her bow to the north and across the tide at 32m and standing 5m proud. She is mainly intact with anchor chains and cranes showing at the bow with the iron propeller and rudder at her stern. The cargo holds are open and easily accessible, but divers should exercise caution as silt can be stirred up. The area does succumb to poor visibility due to the nearby spoil ground where the dredgers from Dover Harbour loads.

SS Polgrange [+1940]

SS Polgrange

A British collier of 804 tons, the SS Polgrange was carrying 990 tons of coal from Blyth to Portsmouth and Cowes. A direct hit killed two of her crew of 14. Today she lays with her cargo around her at 30m with a scour taking her depth down another metre. She has her bow to the west and this is her highest point at 9m.

SS Portslade [+1940]

SS Portslade

SS Portslade was carrying a cargo of 1,450 tons of coal from Sunderland and heading for Shoreham. She was hit by bombs from Junkers 87s, the dive bombers which had created such havoc during the German invasion of France. Her crew of 17 were all saved. She how lays with some of her cargo spilling out of her broken hull. Depth is around 30mand she stands 6m proud with her bow to the north-east. There is a 1m scour around her.

SS Summity [+1940]

MV Summity Circa 1939

Awash at low water, this 554 ton motor vessel was coming down the Channel when the German Air Force attacked from their new bases in Occupied France. The SS Summity, which was carrying a cargo of cement, was hit in the cement-filled holds once and suffered further damage from three near-misses by Stuka dive bombers off Dover. Covered with cement dust and sinking, she was beached by her captain underneath Shakespeare Cliff at Dover. Her steel mast and some plating have occasionally been used as an exercise mark by Air Sea Rescue helicopters.

"The Summity (Captain E Milton MBE), a small motor ship carrying cement for Plymouth was hit three times. The first bomb, on the port side abaft the bridge, blew a naval signalman off the bridge; the second, on the starboard side of the main hold, blew a second signalman off the bridge. The third landed in the main hold. The last one made a mess of the ship; the master, although her and the helmsman had been severely wounded in the wreck of the wheelhouse, decided to beach her. The engines were still running, but the Summity could not be steered by her rudder. By manoeuvring the engines ahead and astern, dropping and anchor and sheering with the tide, she was put upon the beach under the Dover Cliffs."

From the Appropriation Books of the era, Summity was registered in London on 2nd May 1939, official number 167243. Googling that name and number, it appears that she was lifted and in 1966 was renamed the Panagia and broken up in Greece in 1981. Various photos are available for sale on eBay.

The two Summity signalmen were among six of the dead and twenty wounded suffered by the convoy’s crews. While Summity went ashore, the other four ships were brought into Dover, assisted by tugs. The consequences of the diver-bomber attack was far reaching, but the ordeal was not over. Under the cover of darkness that evening, German S-boats ventured again and attacked. The three enemy torpedo boats of the Kriegsmarine, S-19, S20 and S-27 made every torpedo count, sinking three more colliers on the 26th July. Only ten ships of the initial twenty-one reached the waters off Portland with trawler escort.

26th July 1940 Losses

SS London Trader [+1940]
The cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel south of Worthing, Sussex by S-19 Kriegsmarine.

SS Broadhurst [+1940]
The cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel off Shoreham, Sussex by S-20 Kriegsmarine with the loss of four crew.

SS Lulonga [+1940]
The cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel,10 nautical miles south of Shoreham by S-27 Kriegsmarine

Cover Photo

Cover photo is an image of an oil painting titled “A Day for Heroes” by Ivan Berryman, depicting the Stuka attack on Convoy CW8. Although the original oil painting has been sold, prints and artist proofs are available for sale. Image Copyright © Cranston Fine Arts and Ivan Berryman.