65th Anniversary of Operation Cerberus

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
I'm surprised Delycros and Udet havent posted anything about this audacious "Channel Dash".

The German Plan

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived at Brest on 22 March 1941 after marauding raids on Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Prinz Eugen appeared at dawn on 1 June 1941 at Brest Harbor after participating in operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine - loss of Bismarck). Here the ships were able to repair and refuel, however, they also were subject to frequent air attacks. Since Hitler was convinced of an Allied invasion of Norway, he ordered the Kriegsmarine to move the ships to their home bases. The Berlin admiralty preferred the Denmark Strait passage, but also considered the shorter but dangerous route through the English Channel.

The matter was quickly resolved by the Führer in favor of the Channel, and all planning for the fleet transfer was passed on to the German Naval Command West in Paris. Although the operation would be under Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax, who commanded the Brest Group (flying his flag on Scharnhorst), Naval Command West under Admiral Alfred Saalwächter was responsible for all planning and operational directions.

Since the operation was ordered by Hitler, resources were made available for mine sweeping, additional radar jamming stations were set up, U-boats sent for meteorological observations, several destroyers steamed westward down the Channel to Brest to strengthen the escort screen, and fighter ace Col. Adolf Galland attended planning sessions on Scharnhorst and assured day and night fighter cover along the route.

Admiral Ciliax, who was personally pessimistic about the success of Operation Cerberus, had his own problems. His great ships were no longer the fine fighting machines they had been, nor did they look like it. While at Brest, many technicians and experts were detailed away for urgent requirements elsewhere. But morale on the ships was good; there had been no sabotage at Brest and the crews went ashore freely. Among the sullen locals there was no doubt that the ships were preparing to depart. To make the French believe (and this to eventually reach the British) that it would be a southern Atlantic destination, rumors were spread in town, tropical helmets were brought on board and French dock workers loaded oil barrels marked "for use in the tropics."

The British response

The British commanding officer was Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay of the Royal Navy who was allocated six torpedo-equipped destroyers, which should have been on four hour standby in the Thames Estuary but were not. There were also three Hunt class escorts but they had no torpedoes and so posed little threat to the German capital ships, while the 32 Motor Torpedo Boats of the Dover and Ramsgate flotillas under his command were counterbalanced by the German flotilla of E-boats. For various reasons, aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm, RAF Coastal Command and RAF Bomber Command were unable to provide an effective level of support.

This was partly because all services expected the Germans to time their dash through the Channel so that the most dangerous point at Dover-Calais (where the ships would need to move within range of British coastal batteries) would be passed during the night. However the Germans considered it far more important to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible by slipping out of Brest unnoticed at night, thus avoiding the twelve hour warning that an early (day time) departure would have given the British. The British were wrong footed by the audacious German move. Night patrols of the Fleet Air Arm reconnaissance did not notice the departure of the ships from Brest because their radars failed. The first indication that something was happening came from RAF radar-operators, who noticed an unusually high level of German air-activity over the Channel. The ships were then spotted in the Channel by pilots in two Spitfires of RAF Fighter Command, but as they were under strict orders not to break radio silence (and they had not been briefed to look for the German fleet), they did not inform their superiors until after they landed.

Fighter Command was not expected to be the first to spot the German fleet in the Channel, and valuable time was lost reporting the sighting up the chain of command and on to the Royal Navy and Bomber Command. Uncoordinated attacks by motor boats and six Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish torpedo biplanes failed to inflict any damage. However, the courage of the Swordfish crews, all of whom were shot down while pressing their attacks, was particularly noted by friend and foe alike. Ramsay later wrote: "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed", while Ciliax said: "The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".

RAF Bomber Command's response was tardy; only 39 of the 242 bombers which took part found and attacked the ships and no hits were scored. In addition to the bombers, 398 Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command flew several sorties on 12 February 1942. Altogether 675 RAF aircraft (398 fighters, 242 bombers and 35 Coastal Command Hudsons and Beauforts) took off to search for and attack the German ships.

At noon on 12 February 1942 the Channel guns of the Coastal Artillery went into action. The South Foreland battery with their newly installed K-type radar set started to track the ships of the Brest Group coming up the Channel towards Cap Gris Nez. At 12:19 the first salvo was fired; since maximum visibility was five miles, there was no observation of "fall of shot" by either sight or radar. The "blips" of the K-set clearly showed the zig-zagging of the ships and full battery salvo firing began without verifying fall-of-shot. As the German ships at 30 knots were moving out of range, a total of 33 rounds were fired at them, but no hits were scored.

The six old destroyers and four more recently built Hunt class escorts assigned to Ramsay were taken by surprise. Instead of being on station, they were practising their gunnery in the North Sea. They steamed south to intercept the German fleet but arrived only in time to deliver one salvo of torpedoes, all of which missed. Counter fire severely damaged the destroyer HMS Worcester.

[edit] The Outcome

By mid-morning 13 February 1942 Admiral Ciliax sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter in Paris: "It is my duty to inform you that Operation Cerberus has been successfully completed."

The British services (RN, RAF and Army) had failed to stop the ships of the Brest Group before they reached the safety of German home waters and had suffered severe damage to a destroyer and the loss of 42 aircraft. The Germans did not escape damage free though: Scharnhorst hit two mines, off Flushing and Ameland; but arrived safely at 10:00 on 13 February 1942 at Wilhelmshaven. Gneisenau hit one mine off Terschelling and continued with the "lucky ship," the unscathed Prinz Eugen. Both ships then tied up at Brunsbüttel North Locks at 09:30. The torpedo boats Jaguar and T.13 were damaged by bomb splinters and machine gun fire; of the Luftwaffe umbrella over the ships, 17 fighters were lost.

The next day all Germany rejoiced over the feat, but officers and men of the three ships and their escorts were too exhausted and tired to share in the exultation.

In Britain the mood was somber. An editorial in The Times of London read: "Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our seapower has happened since the seventeenth century. [...] It spelled the end of the Royal Navy legend that in wartime no enemy battle fleet could pass through what we proudly call the English Channel."
All those interested in the Channel Dash and Operation Cerburus are invited to TG Aviation hangar at Manston International Airport, Kent on 10th June at 11am to join some 300 people for lunch, pleasure flights in WWII aircraft to emet spitfire over Dover, and hear a talk from one of the few survivors -Channel Dash Hero Edgar Lee - Only £10 includes lunch and wine etc. Email [email protected] for tickets.
Ian Lauder

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