In early 1942, the Kriegsmarine found itself in a very tricky situation: moored in the occupied French port of Brest they not only had the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, but also the two battleships of the Scharnhorst-class. This was considerably problematic, as Brest was well within striking range of the Royal Air Force, and it was a matter of time before the ships were bombed in harbour; the Battle for Britain was long over and British air superiority over their home waters definitively secured. In addition, the memory of Bismarck‘s sinking was still fresh for both the Germans and the British, with differing consequences for both sides: the British were confident in their sea power in the Atlantic, to say nothing of the Channel, and the Germans, while they wanted to sortie Tirpitz, didn’t dare send her out even with an escort for fear of another Bismarck incident happening.
While Britain could – and very much did – survive the loss of several capital ships, the loss of Bismarck alone was an almost crippling blow to the Kriegsmarine. If they were to have any chance of holding a chokehold on British and Soviet shipping, they needed as many capable ships as they could, and the two Scharnhorst-class battleships were key to this.
Hemmed in at Brest, however, there was little the German ships could do. When they acted, it wasn’t out of tactical consideration, but out of desperation.
Above: Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen, the three ships starring in the Dash
Three of the core ships of the navy were trapped in hell, and only the right combination of luck and skill could get them out. For once in the turbulent war at sea, the Germans managed to completely outfox their British opponents.
The codename given to this operation by the Germans was Cerberus, a finely appropriate mythological reference, all things considered: if the German surface fleet was trapped in the hell of vulnerable Brest, in order to escape they would have to pass Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entry to Hades – in this analogy, the strait of Dover, which hadn’t been passed by an enemy fleet since the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.
To try to force the Channel was already an audacious move. To move back through the Denmark Strait would have been potentially safer and less tightly controlled by the British, but the much longer journey would give the British more opportunities to intercept the German fleet.
There was no shakedown run for the operation. The key focus in the planning of the Channel Dash was surprise; even though it would no doubt be safest to go through the most dangerous stage of the mission – the push through the narrow Dover strait – in the cover of darkness, because it would take at least some time for the British to prepare and launch air raids on the speeding fleet, the later the ships were noticed the better.
The Germans did their level best to deceive spies in Brest and British observation, ordering oil barrels marked “For Use in the Tropics” and white uniforms for the crews as though they were headed back down to West Africa, and spread rumours that the departure would take place shortly after the 12th of February, shifting focus away from the 11th, the true date of the operation. Even this carried with it a bit of luck; Gneisenau had been damaged by bombing in January, and only by a miracle were her repairs finished in time for the 11th. Not only that, but an air raid siren went off just as the ships were about to leave, nearly leading to the operation being scrapped – but in truth, this delay was a bit of fortune, as there had been a British Coastal Command aircraft watching for signs of a departure. A German fighter chased the aircraft over Brest, leading to the air raid warnings, but by the time the British plane had escaped its pursuer, it had to return to base due to faulty equipment.
Otto Ciliax, ‘the Black Tsar,’ who commanded the German force in Brest, could hardly have asked for a more perfect situation.
So it was that the two battleships, one heavy cruiser, and six destroyers began their journey just before midnight on February 11th.
For fear of Tirpitz breaking out into the Atlantic, numerous British ships, including Rodney and King George V, were waiting far north to keep the big German battleship in check. This, as well as the submarine HMS Sealion being forced away from its watch over Brest by a bomber, meant that the only threat to the German fleet would come in the form of mines and aerial attacks.
The British firmly believed that the Germans would leave in daylight, however, and cross over the Channel in the night. For all the ingenuity and skillful preparation on the part of the German commanders in charge of the operation, it really can’t be denied that part of the operation’s success was made in British blunders. Perhaps had there been more prudence on their part, the Kriegsmarine would have suffered more than they did, even losing a capital ship, but history is what it is, and for various reasons the German ships were only detected just as they were entering the strait of Dover.
It wasn’t until around 11:30 on February 12th that the Vice Admiral in charge of the British forces in the area, Bertram Ramsay, was informed that the German fleet had been spotted.
Caught unprepared, the British had to make due with what they had, aiming to damage or destroy the German ships no matter the cost. While the British had more than six hundred aircraft involved in the counter-operation, over twice as many as the Luftwaffe had offering support for the Brest group, they were woefully outgunned on the surface, even taking the Dover coastal artillery into account.
The first air assault on the ships was made by Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, the same type that disabled Bismarck‘s rudder the year before. In fact, the leader of the squadron of six that bravely attacked the Channel Dash fleet was one Eugene Esmonde; Esmonde, during the hunt for the Bismarck but before her fateful rudder damage, led an assault on the battleship with nine Swordfish biplanes, getting in one torpedo hit with little effect, but also returning with no casualties. This time, however, Prinz Eugen would take revenge for her fallen partner: Esmonde flew out with six bombers, launching all torpedoes but with none hitting home, and all of the Swordfish were shot down. Esmonde did not survive, but his valour was commended by even Otto Ciliax, and his valour earned him the Victoria Cross posthumously.
Due to poor weather and an especially effective German fighter screen, the RAF inflicted no damage on the ships despite persistent attacks; little more could be expected of them in such conditions, though, even taking into account the fact that the bombers didn’t take off until three hours after the German fleet had gone through the strait.
The six British destroyers also did little if anything to halt the German advance. On the bright side, while HMS Worcester was heavily damaged, she survived, losing 26 men to gunfire from the capital ships.
The air attacks, the principle German concern during the operation, turned out to be ineffectual, due in no small part to the support of the Luftwaffe.
The full fleet from Brest had made it through the narrow English Channel, a “mortifying” fact to the British, as reported in The Times, though Winston Churchill downplayed the damage to the Allied war situation, focusing on the abandonment of Brest as being beneficial, saying “the naval position in the Atlantic, so far from being worsened, is definitely eased.”
As it happened, the concentrated efforts of the RAF and British home defence weren’t nearly as debilitating to the moving German fleet as the Dutch coast.
Just before the benign destroyer attack launched against the Germans, Scharnhorst, thought to be in clear waters, hit a mine just off Vlissingen. This was just about the worst time for something like this to happen, as the British destroyers – even though all their torpedoes ended up missing – were about to make a strike. Scharnhorst was dead in the water, and Ciliax, not wanting to leave the rest of the fleet behind, opted to move his command to the destroyer Z29. As it happened, this ended up being a bit difficult in itself, as Z29 crashed into Scharnhorst‘s side, breaking off some of her own superstructure.
Ciliax and his key officers ultimately just jumped from the battleship’s quarterdeck onto the partially-destroyed bridge of the smaller vessel.
Thankfully for Scharnhorst, her lights and all her engines were back in action in only half an hour after striking the mine, and despite the damage she proceeded at full speed. Still, the crew were on edge, and perhaps things wouldn’t have ended so well for the battleship if not for the still poor weather and the onset of an early winter night. By the time Scharnhorst caught up with the rearmost ships of the rest of the fleet, Ciliax had transferred to yet another ship – a small cutter – because Z29 had to stop and make repairs due to a prematurely exploding anti-aircraft shell.
At 17:55 in the night, it was Gneisenau‘s turn to hit a mine, six miles off the coast of Terschelling, in the Netherlands. Like her sister, Gneisenau‘s engines stopped, and she was stuck drifting for half an hour as repairs were done. Despite the engine failure, the damage from the mine was more or less superficial owing to the explosion being a few yards away from the ship.
An hour and a half later, and Scharnhorst had her second nasty encounter with a British mine. This time, however, even though her engines and lights were out again and she took on two hundred tons of water and a seven degree list, she was near the Heligoland Bight – home, in other words. Thankfully, the damage to the ship was only material, with only one man severely wounded.
Scharnhorst managed to steam along, her troubles finally over, but Gneisenau proved to be ever the unluckier of the sisters; as she was navigating near the mouth of the Elbe, trying to get into harbour, her stern crashed into a shipwreck, disabling her starboard shaft due to flooding. However, she got along with her centre and port engines, navigating ice and sandbanks in order to finally return home.
Though the Germans expected dawn to come with renewed air attacks by the RAF, no threat arrived, and even though they were moving at a snail’s pace, both battleship sisters returned to port.
If there was a bright spot in the whole operation besides the eventual success, it was that Prinz Eugen went happily undamaged the entire way, with only one death due to air attack.
On the 13th of February, 1942, two very different messages were sent out, on both sides of the conflict: Ciliax send in his report, proudly stating that Operation Cerberus had been a success.
Sadly, for Gneisenau the daring Channel Dash would be her last great exploit. She was bombed in her harbour while undergoing repairs, and later sunk as a blockship before her planned refits were complete. Her sister, Scharnhorst, would survive almost two more years before being sunk on Boxing Day in 1943 in the one-sided Battle of the North Cape; only Prinz Eugen out of the three would see the end of the war, ending up as an American war prize to be used in the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests before running aground at Kwajalein, where she remains to this very day.
This is only a concise account of Operation Cerberus, mind you; it was a very exciting and audacious mission by the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe both, and I recommend reading more about it if you’re interested in the full, detailed story. I decided to write about this today, after the leak of Prinz Eugen as a premium, along with the Scharnhorst sisters coming to the game soon as well.
Source: Scharnhorst and Gneisenau by Richard Garrett