The Channel Dash, codenamed Operation Cerberus by the Germans,[a] was a major naval engagement during World War II in which a German Kriegsmarine squadron consisting of both Scharnhorst-class battleships, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen along with escorts, ran a British blockade and successfully sailed from Brest in Brittany to their home bases in Germany via the English Channel. The move was ordered for two reasons: on the one hand Brest was within reach of British planes and became too dangerous, on the other hand, from a base further north, it would be easier to interdict North Atlantic convoys, which were giving the Soviet Union much needed and growing help.
On 11 February 1942, the Kriegsmarine 's ships left Brest at 21:14 and escaped detection for more than 12 hours, approaching the Straits of Dover without discovery. As the German ships passed through the straits and on into the North Sea, British armed forces intercepted them, and the Royal Air Force, the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Artillery attacked. The attacks and bombardment were unsuccessful, and by 13 February all the Kriegsmarine 's ships had completed their transit. In support of the German naval operation, the Luftwaffe launched Operation Donnerkeil (Thunderbolt) to provide air superiority for the passage of the ships.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived at Brest on 22 March 1941 after operations against Allied shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. Prinz Eugen appeared at dawn on 1 June at Brest Harbour after participating in Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine). Here the ships were able to repair and refuel but were also subject to frequent air attacks. In light of this, Adolf Hitler 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 more dangerous route through the English Channel.
The matter was quickly resolved by Hitler in favour 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.
As the operation had been ordered personally by Hitler, mine sweepers were deployed, additional radar jamming stations were set up, U-boats were sent for meteorological observations and several destroyers steamed westward down the Channel to Brest to strengthen the escort screen. Fighter ace general Adolf Galland attended planning sessions on Scharnhorst and promised day and night fighter cover along the route. During January, German navy and air force made several large scale practice runs, to ensure seamless cooperation between navy and air force.
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 pass on to the British) that they were heading for the South Atlantic, rumours 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 plan
In April 1941, the Royal Navy had formulated a plan to deal with this eventuality, in cooperation with the Air Ministry, under the name of Operation Fuller. The British commanding officer was Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay of Dover Command. Available to him were six destroyers, which should have been on four-hour standby in the Thames Estuary but were not. There were also three Hunt-class destroyer escorts, but they had no torpedo tubes and so posed little threat to the well-armoured German ships, while the 32 Motor Torpedo Boats of the Dover and Ramsgate flotillas under Ramsay's 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 by 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 12-hour warning that an early daytime departure would have given the British. The British were wrong-footed by the audacious German move. Night reconnaissance patrols of the Fleet Air Arm (ASW Hudsons) did not detect the departure of the ships from Brest because their radars failed or were jammed. Intensity of German jamming increased gradually over several days in preparation for the event to avoid a sudden change which might be perceived as evidence of unusual military activity. A British agent in Brest was unable to signal, also because of jamming. A British submarine, HMS Sealion, patrolling outside of the harbour, had left its station at the crucial time to recharge its batteries. Specially equipped He 111s fooled British radar into believing they were whole squadrons, while shipboard Ar 196 floatplanes kept an eye out and Ju 88s made low-level, below radar surprise raids to bomb the port of Plymouth and nearby airfields.
The first indication that something was happening came from RAF radar operators under Squadron Leader Bill Igoe, who noticed an unusually high level of German air-activity over the Channel. The frequency used hadn't been detected yet by the Germans and thus wasn't jammed or confused. This was around 9 o'clock, when the Germans were already close to Le Havre. It took another 90 minutes before the fleet itself was discovered by them. A pair of Spitfires of RAF Fighter Command were then sent out and these spotted them in the Channel, but as they were under strict orders not to break radio silence and had not been briefed to look for the German fleet, they did not inform their superiors until they landed at 10:40,  or according to German sources they did pass the message on, but it was intercepted and jammed. 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.
At noon on 12 February, 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 visual observation of fall of shot, but it was hoped that the radar would detect the shell splashes and allow corrections to be made, although this method had never been tried before. The "blips" of the K-set clearly showed the zig-zagging of the ships but were unable to determine where the shells were landing, and full battery salvo firing began without verifying fall-of-shot. The four 9.2 inch guns fired 33 rounds at the German ships, which were moving out of range at 30 kn (35 mph; 56 km/h), but all missed. German sources state that the fleet had already passed Dover when the Coastal Artillery opened fire, and that the shells landed well astern of the major German units.
Motor torpedo boats
Meanwhile, the five Fairmile D motor torpedo boats (or MTBs) based at Dover had left harbour at 11:55 am and were the first British forces to confirm the identity of the German warships at 12:23. The planned RAF fighter cover for this attack was not airborne in time. The MTBs found their approach blocked by twelve E-boats in two lines. The leading MTB suffered partial engine failure but was able to launch its torpedo at the extreme range of 4,000 yards (3.7 kilometres) before returning to Dover. The remaining four were not able to get much closer, launching their torpedoes through the gap between the E-boat lines, reporting one hit on Prinz Eugen which proved to be false. Two motor gun boats arrived from Dover in time to defend the last MTB from an escorting Narvik class destroyer. Two further MTBs left Ramsgate at 12:25 but approached from too far astern of the German squadron and were unable to get into a position to attack.
Swordfish torpedo bombers
The next phase was that six Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish torpedo biplanes were launched from RAF Manston in Kent, but failed to inflict any damage. However, the courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by friend and foe. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde—a veteran of the chase of the battleship Bismarck—was lost along with his entire detachment of torpedo bombers, and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Only five crewmembers survived out of eighteen. 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 remarked on: "...the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day". The flight of six should have been escorted by three whole fighter squadrons, but only one turned up and was engaged by enemy fighters. The Swordfish continued nonetheless, losing three to ship flak and three to enemy fighters.
RAF air attacks
RAF twin-engined Whirlwind fighter bombers tried to engage the fleet around 14:00, but were beaten off with losses by Galland's tight fighter screen: there were always 16 fighters covering the fleet, Bf 109s and the very first Fw 190s during the day, and Bf 110 nightfighters during dawn and dusk (some squadrons flew four missions per plane). Bomber Command's response too was tardy. The first bombers took off almost three hours after the fleet had passed Dover. Only 39 of the 242 bombers which took part found and attacked the ships and no hits were scored. Even Manchester, Halifax (one captained by David Holford) and Stirling heavy bombers were deployed. In addition to the bombers, 398 Spitfires, Hurricanes and Whirlwinds 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. The weather was reported to be from 8/10th to 10/10ths cloud cover, down to 400 feet (121 metres) with rain showers, making any air attack especially difficult.
The six destroyers assigned to Ramsay were taken by surprise. Instead of being on station, they were practising gunnery off Orford Ness in the North Sea. They steamed south to intercept the German fleet, but arrived in time to fire only one salvo of torpedoes, all of which missed. Counter fire from Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen severely damaged the destroyer HMS Worcester, which suffered 26 dead (23 died on 12 February and three died during the next two days) and 45 wounded. Several salvoes from Gneisenau destroyed the starboard side of the bridge, and the No.1 and No.2 boiler rooms. Prinz Eugen hit the destroyer a further four times, setting it on fire. Captain Fein, aboard Gneisenau, ordered firing to cease, believing the destroyer to be sinking.
By mid-morning on 13 February, 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 lost 42 aircraft. The Germans had suffered unexpectedly small damage and losses: Scharnhorst hit two mines, off Flushing and Ameland, but arrived safely at 10:00 on 13 February at Wilhelmshaven (the damage took three months to repair). Gneisenau hit one mine off Terschelling, but suffered little damage; the magnetic mine exploded some metres off the ship, making a small hole on the starboard side and temporarily knocking one of her turbines out of action. The ship was brought back to action after thirty minutes, thus perpetuating her "lucky ship" epithet. The undamaged Prinz Eugen suffered one dead from attacking British aircraft. Both ships then tied up at Brunsbüttel North Locks at 09:30. The torpedo boats T13 and Jaguar were slightly damaged by bomb splinters and machine gun fire, the latter suffering one killed and two wounded; of the Luftwaffe air umbrella over the ships, 17 fighters were lost with eleven pilots. However, the Gneisenau later entered a floating dry dock at Kiel for repair, where she was hit by two heavy bombs dropped by the RAF on the night of 26 and 27 February; the damage was so severe that repairs were never completed and she finished the war as an unarmed hulk.
In Britain, the mood was sombre. 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." The German fleet had successfully slipped through the Channel, reaching their new port safely. Some of the ships were later transferred to Norway, to threaten the North Atlantic Convoys. In September 1943, for example, Scharnhorst participated in the successful Operation Zitronella. Churchill ordered a board of enquiry to investigate, headed by Sir Alfred Townsend Bucknill.
His handling of the Luftwaffe cover earned Adolf Galland a promotion to Major General, at 30 the youngest of the Luftwaffe. Although losing 17 fighters, his pilots had managed to down 2 Blenheims, 4 Whirlwinds, 4 Wellingtons, 6 Hurricanes, 3 Swordfish, 9 Hampdens and 10 Spitfires. Kriegsmarine gunners shot down an additional 3 Swordfish and 1 Hampden.
A granite memorial to all those Britons involved in Operation Fuller was erected in Marine Parade Gardens in Dover, to mark the 70th Anniversary Remembrance of the event. Sailors from HMS Kent provided a Guard of Honour as part of the parade held to mark the unveiling.
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- The Channel Dash Association
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