The Channel Dash or Unternehmen Zerberus (Operation Cerberus) was a German naval operation during World War II.[a] A Kriegsmarine (German navy) squadron of both of the Scharnhorst-class battleships, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and escorts, ran a British blockade from Brest in Brittany, where they had been a fleet in being and a latent threat to British trans-Atlantic convoys. At Brest and La Pallice, the ships had been attacked by Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command and by RAF Coastal Command torpedo-bombers from March 1941, which inflicted periodic damage to the ships, reducing their seaworthiness. In late 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered Oberkommando der Marine (OKM Navy high-command), to plan an operation to return the ships to German bases, to counter a possible British invasion of Norway. The short route up the English Channel was preferred to a detour around the British Isles, to benefit from surprise and from air cover by the Luftwaffe.
The British exploited decrypts of German radio messages coded with the Enigma machine, air reconnaissance by the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) and agents in France run by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to keep watch on the ships and report the damage caused by British bombers. Operation Fuller, a joint Royal Navy-RAF contingency plan, was devised to counter a sortie by the German ships against Atlantic convoys, a return to German ports by circumnavigating the British Isles or a dash up the English Channel. The concentration of British ships in southern waters was inhibited by a need to keep ships at Scapa Flow in Scotland, in case of a sortie by the German battleship Tirpitz from Norway. The RAF had been required to detach squadrons from Bomber and Coastal commands for overseas service and also kept torpedo-bombers in Scotland ready for Tirpitz, which constrained their ability to assemble large numbers of aircraft against a dash up the Channel, as did the winter weather which reduced visibility and unpredictably blocked airfields with snow.
On 11 February 1942, the Kriegsmarine ships left Brest at 9:14 p.m. and escaped detection for more than twelve hours, approaching the Strait of Dover without discovery. The Luftwaffe conducted Unternehmen Donnerkeil (Operation Thunderbolt) to provide air cover and as the ships neared Dover, the British belatedly began operations against the German ships. The RAF, the Fleet Air Arm, Navy and coastal artillery operations were costly failures but Scharnhorst and Gneisenau hit mines in the North Sea and were damaged (Scharnhorst being put out of action for a year). By 13 February, the ships had reached German ports and Winston Churchill ordered an inquiry into the debacle and The Times denounced the British fiasco. The Kriegsmarine judged the operation to have been a tactical success and a strategic failure by exchanging a threat to Atlantic convoys by German surface ships, to oppose a hypothetical threat to Norway. On 23 February, Prinz Eugen was torpedoed off Norway, repaired and spent the rest of the war in the Baltic. Gneisenau went into a dry dock and was bombed on the night of 26/27 February, never to sail again; Scharnhorst was sunk at the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Memorial and commemorations
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 Footnotes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Port of Brest, 1940–1941
German commerce raiding against British north Atlantic convoys was made easier by the capture of Norway and France in 1939 and 1940. An abortive sortie by the cruiser Admiral Hipper ended at Brest, at the west end of the Brittany peninsula, on 27 December 1940. After five weeks of bombing to no effect, the ship put to sea on 1 February 1941, sank numerous ships and returned on 14 February, before sailing Germany using the roundabout route via the Denmark Strait the next day, reaching Kiel on 28 March. The commerce raids in the north Atlantic during the winter of 1940–1941 by Scharnhorst-class battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper sank 115,622 long tons (117,477 t) of British shipping, a higher rate than German surface ships achieved for the rest of the war. The British reformed 19 Group for Coastal Command in January 1941, which kept watch on the German ships at Brest; Scharnhorst and Gneisenau arrived at the port of Brest on 22 March 1941.
British air offensive, 1941
From 10 January to mid-April 1941, Bomber Command aimed 829 long tons (842 t) of bombs at the ships in Brest harbour. Winston Churchill issued the Battle of the Atlantic directive on 9 March, directing the British war effort temporarily to counter the German campaign against Atlantic convoys. 1 PRU of the RAF discovered Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in port on 28 March and Bomber Command flew about 1,161 sorties against the ships in Brest, through poor weather for the next two months. Gneisenau was hit by a bomb which failed to explode and was moved from dry dock to the outer harbour, where it was photographed by a 1 PRU Spitfire on 5 April. Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers attacked at dawn next day and one aircraft found the harbour through the haze and torpedoed Gneisenau in the stern. The ship was docked again and on the night of 10/11 April, Bomber Command achieved four hits and two near-misses; Scharnhorst was not damaged but the bomb hits on the docks delayed its refit. Along with the mines dropped in the vicinity, the ships were not available for Unternehmen Rheinübung (Operation Rhine Exercise), in which the battleship Bismarck was sunk in the north Atlantic. The Hipper-class cruiser Prinz Eugen survived and arrived at Brest on 1 June.
During the summer, small formations of the new RAF four-engined heavy-bombers attacked Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen at Brest and Scharnhorst; Prinz Eugen was hit on the night of 1/2 July and put out of action. The sailing on 21 July of Scharnhorst to La Pallice, the deep-water port of La Rochelle, down the French coast, forestalled an attempt by Bomber Command to attack the ships in Brest by surprise. Scharnhorst was attacked by six Stirling bombers on the evening of 23 July, about six German fighters intervened and one aircraft shot down. The attack on Brest took place in daylight on 24 July with a loss of 13 bombers and La Pallice was bombed again by 15 Handley Page Halifaxes. One bomber failed to find La Pallice and the rest were met by 12–18 Bf 109s and anti-aircraft fire (flak) and all 14 Halifaxes were hit, and affecting their bomb-aiming. Five bombers were shot down, five were seriously damaged and Scharnhorst was hit five times.[b] While returning to Brest containing 3,000 long tons (3,000 t) of seawater, a Beaufort attacked and was shot down before the torpedo was dropped.
From 28 March to the end of July, 1,962 long tons (1,993 t) of bombs were dropped in 1,875 sorties, 1,723 by Bomber Command, which also sent 205 minelaying sorties, with another 159 from Coastal Command, laying 275 mines off Brest; the British lost 34 aircraft, three being minelayers. For the next two months, Bomber Command made frequent small attacks, then 56 bombers attacked on the night of 3/4 September, followed by 120 bombers on the night of 13/14 September. Frequent small attacks were resumed and about 1,000 sorties were made from July to December. At the start of the month, the Brest Group was made the Bomber Command priority again and from 11 December, bombing and minelaying took place nightly. When Prinz Eugen was found out of dry dock on 16 December, a plan for a big night raid, followed up by a day raid was implemented, with a 101-bomber raid on the night of 17/18 December and a daylight raid by 41 heavy bombers on the afternoon of 18 December, escorted by ten fighter squadrons. Gneisenau was lightly damaged and dock gates were smashed, stranding Scharnhorst for a month, for a loss six bombers. Big attacks continued all month and another day raid by Halifaxes was made on 30 December. From 1 August to 31 December, 1,175 long tons (1,194 t) of high explosive and 10 long tons (10 t) of incendiaries were dropped, eleven heavy bombers were shot down and considerable damage inflicted on the docks and the town but none of the ships were hit again. Gneisenau was damaged on the evening of 6 January and between 10 December and 20 January 1942, 37 percent of Bomber Command sorties were flown against the ships at Brest.[c]
Ultra was the code name used by British military intelligence, for signals intelligence obtained by breaking German radio and teleprinter communications encrypted by Enigma, a German electro-mechanical rotor cipher machine. The decryption was carried out at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park and the information was passed on to operational commands. From May 1941, Bletchley could read the Enigma Home Waters setting used by surface ships, with few failures or interruptions, which combined with the PRU and reports from agents, kept watch on the ships at Brest. By April 1941, the British knew that the three ships had been hit but not the extent of the damage and from 16 to 23 December, Enigma decrypts showed that the gunners of the ships were on the Baltic, conducting gunnery training; next day, the Admiralty warned that an attempt to break out was likely. On 25 January 1942, the ships were photographed in the harbour and two short periods in dry dock by two ships were seen. From the end of January to early February, torpedo boats, minesweepers and destroyers joined the big ships; together with news that the battleship Tirpitz in Norway had moved to the south, this led the Admiralty to issue an appreciation on 2 February, that the three ships were going to attempt to sail up the channel and sent the signal Executive Fuller. Next day Enigma and RAF photographic reconnaissance (PR) found that the number of German ship reinforcements from Brest to the Hook of Holland had risen to seven destroyers, ten torpedo-boats, more than 30 minesweepers, 25 E-boats and many smaller craft.
During 1941, Hitler decided that the Brest Group should return to home waters in a "surprise break through the Channel", as part of a plan to thwart a British invasion of Norway. OKM preferred the Denmark Strait passage to Germany and Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Erich Raeder called a journey along the English Channel impossible. Hitler said that the break-out should be planned with no training period, since British intelligence was bound to find out and have the ships bombed. Hitler ordered that a period of bad weather should be chosen, when the bulk of the RAF would be grounded. Vizeadmiral (vice admiral) Kurt Fricke (Chief of Staff of the Seekriegsleitung SKL, Maritime Warfare Command) opposed Hitler but was allowed only a short time to review the policy. On 12 January 1942, Raeder again opposed the channel route but planned for it, provided that Hitler took the final decision.
Hitler noted that the ships at Brest had diverted British bombing from Germany but that the advantage would end as soon as the ships were sufficiently damaged. Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax outlined a plan for a standing start at night to gain surprise and to pass the Strait of Dover during the day, to benefit from fighter cover at the danger point. The Luftwaffe refused to guarantee that the 250 fighters available could succeed in protecting the ships but Hitler accepted the plan. Hitler ordered that the battleship Tirpitz, already in Norway, was to be moved south to Trondheim. At a conference on 22 January, Hitler announced that all ships and U-boats should assemble for the defence of Norway and on 25 January, Vizeadmiral Karl Dönitz, the (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU, Commander of Submarines) was ordered to withdraw eight submarines to patrol off Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland; despite protests from Dönitz, another twelve U-boats were reserved for Norway, along with the surface ships being concentrated in Norwegian waters.
Hitler preferred the Channel route and responsibility was delegated to Marine-Gruppenkommando West (Naval Command West, Admiral Alfred Saalwächter) for planning and operational directions; Ciliax, was commander of the Brest Group (flagship, Scharnhorst). Care was taken to choose the best route, to avoid British minefields and to steam at high speed. Minesweepers cleared channels through the British mines and marked with buoys (from 3–9 February, Bomber Command laid 98 mines in the channels). U-boats were sent for meteorological observations and several destroyers steamed westward down the Channel to Brest to strengthen the escort screen. To have the longest period of darkness possible, the departure was to be four days before the new moon and at 7:30 p.m., to benefit from a spring tide flowing up-Channel, which would add speed and possibly lift the ships over mines. Air cover was to be provided by the Luftwaffe and six destroyers would escort the Brest Group on the first leg, to be joined by ten E-Boats at dawn and a mixture of E-boats, R-boats and small craft would join at Cap Gris Nez. During January, the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe rehearsed the operation but the ships had lost seaworthiness and many technicians and experts had been transferred from Brest to more pressing duties. By 9 February, the ships had completed their trials in Brest roads and the sortie was set for 11 February. Morale of the crews was high, no sabotage had occurred at Brest and the crews went ashore freely. Among locals there was no doubt that the ships were preparing to depart and as a deception, tropical helmets were brought on board, French dock workers loaded oil barrels marked "For Use in the Tropics" and false rumours were spread around town.
Hans Jeschonnek the Luftwaffe chief of staff refused to guarantee the success of Cerberus or to reinforce the fighter forces in the west. Adolf Galland was given command of the air operation, to be called Unternehmen Donnerkeil (Operation Thunderbolt). Details of the plan were arranged with Oberst (Colonel) Karl Koller, chief of staff of Luftflotte 3 (Air Fleet 3 Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle). Some training units were mobilised to make up for the bulk of the Jagdwaffe being absent in the Soviet Union. The Funkhorchdienst (signals intelligence service, General Wolfgang Martini) attempted to jam British radio-telephone frequencies by using a technique to increase atmospheric interference to reduce the performance of British coastal radars. Dornier Do 217s of Kampfgeschwader 2 (Bomber Wing 2) were to fly electronic deception sorties over the western Channel to divert British aircraft. Fliegerkorps IX (General der Flieger [Luftwaffe General] Joachim Coeler) prepared to bomb RAF bases in south-west England and to attack and distract British naval forces attempting to intercept the Brest Group. Fernaufklärungsgruppe 123 (Long-range Reconnaissance Group 123) was to keep watch on both ends of the Channel and support Fliegerkorps IX.
The convoy route was divided into three sectors using the Jafü (Fighter Sector) boundaries but to ensure local control Max Ibel, the former commander of Jagdgeschwader 27 (Fighter Wing 27) was appointed Jagdfliegerführer Schiff (Jafü Schiff, Fighter Controller: Ship) and embarked onto Scharnhorst as a signals officer to communicate with Luftwaffe units during the operation. Eight rehearsals, involving around 450 sorties, were made from 22 January – 10 February. The Jagdgeschwader (day fighter wings) and the night fighters of Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 (Night Fighter Group 1), were swiftly to prepare aircraft for the next sortie by rearming and refuelling in thirty minutes or fewer. Galland decided that the aircraft should fly high and low cover, the low groups flying under British coastal radar. A standing patrol of least 16 fighters was to be maintained, in two groups of eight aircraft for their patrol altitudes, with each formation in two Schwärme of four aircraft. One Schwärme was to fly out to sea and one towards land in a zigzag and all Schwärme were to fly back and forth along the line of ships in wide figures of eight, in radio silence. Every sortie was timed to allow the fighters 30 minutes over the ships, just enough time for relieved units to refuel and rearm and return. During Donnerkeil, the relieving sortie arrived after only 20 minutes which meant that fighter cover for half the dash would be 32 fighters.
In April 1941, the Royal Navy and the RAF devised Operation Fuller, a plan for combined operations against the ships in Brest should they sortie. Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay of the Dover Command was to be responsible for operations to confront a German squadron sailing up the Channel with continuous co-ordinated attacks by Coastal Command, the Navy and RAF. The British coastal radar had a range of about 80 nmi (92 mi; 150 km) and with the five standing air patrols, the planners expected a dash up the Channel easily to be discovered, even at night or in bad weather. As soon as the alarm was raised, the offensive provisions of Fuller would begin as a combined operation. The 32 Motor Torpedo Boats of the Dover and Ramsgate flotillas, with a Motor Gun Boat (MGB) escort, would make torpedo attacks from 4,000 yd (3,700 m). The boats would be followed up by Swordfish torpedo-bombers with fighter escorts and Beaufort torpedo-bombers and the coastal guns at Dover would fire for as long as the ships were in range; Bomber Command would attack any ship damaged enough to have been slowed or brought to a stop.
As the German ships moved beyond the Straits of Dover, six Harwich destroyers of the Nore Command would make torpedo attacks and the RAF would continue bombing and lay mines in the paths of the ships. Bomber Command intended to have 100 aircraft at four hours' notice (about 1⁄3 of its operational strength), by reserving around 20 aircraft from each group. Of the other 200 aircraft, half would continue operations against Germany and the rest would be preparing for operations next day. The aircraft reserved for Fuller were rotated and weather permitting, 20–25 would bomb Brest. Fighter Command would escort the torpedo-bombers with fighters from 10 Group in the south-west and the 16 fighter squadrons of 11 Group in the south-east. Each service arm had exchanged liaison officers at headquarters and operations rooms but did not use a common communications system.
The preliminaries of the German manoeuvre, especially minesweeping in the Channel and the transit of destroyers to Brest, led the Admiralty to issue a forecast that a sortie into the Atlantic was improbable and that a move to sheltered waters by a dash up the Channel rather than via the Denmark Strait or into the Mediterranean to Italian ports was to be expected. Next day the Nore Command was ordered to keep six destroyers on call in the Thames and be ready to send six torpedo boats to reinforce those at Dover. The Abdiel-class minelayers HMS Manxman and HMS Welshman were detached to Plymouth Command to mine the Brest approaches and to Dover to mine the eastern exit of the Channel respectively. Most submarines were in the Mediterranean but two training boats were sent into the Bay of Biscay. On 6 February, HMS Sealion the only modern submarine in home waters, was allowed to sail into Brest Roads, the commander using information supplied through Ultra on minefields, swept channels and training areas. The six operational Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers of 825 Squadron FAA (Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde) were moved from Lee-on-Solent to Manston in Kent, closer to Dover.
The RAF alerted its forces involved in Operation Fuller to indefinite readiness and on 3 February, 19 Group, Coastal Command began night reconnaissance patrols by Air to Surface Vessel Mk II (ASV) equipped Lockheed Hudsons, supposedly able to detect ships at 30 nmi (35 mi; 56 km) range. Patrol line Stopper was already being flown off Brest and Line South East from Ushant to the Isle de Bréhat and Habo from Le Havre to Boulogne began. Coastal Command had three Beaufort torpedo-bomber squadrons in Britain, 42 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. There were about 12 Hudsons on east coast airfields, 12 Beauforts of 86 Squadron and 217 Squadron in Cornwall and seven 217 Squadron aircraft at Thorney Island (Portsmouth). Two days later, Enigma showed that Ciliax had joined Scharnhorst and with the recent exercises, led the Admiralty to predict an impending departure. On 8 February, in a break in the weather, PR found that the ships were still in harbour, Scharnhorst was in dock and that another two destroyers had arrived.
Air Chief Marshal Philip Joubert de la Ferté, Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Coastal Command, sent an appreciation to Fighter and Bomber commands, that a sortie could be expected any time after 10 February. The Coastal Command groups were alerted and ordered 42 Squadron to fly its 14 Beauforts south to Norfolk (the move was delayed until next day by snow on the airfields in East Anglia). Air Vice Marshal J. E. A. Baldwin, AOC Bomber Command, stood down half of its bombers and reduced the other 100 aircraft from four to two hours' notice, without informing the Admiralty. On 11 March, Sealion moved towards Brest on the afternoon tide, found nothing and returned at 8:35 p.m. to re-charge batteries, ready for another try the next day. The German ships had been scheduled to depart Brest at 7:30 p.m. but were delayed by a Bomber Command raid, had been ordered after PR had found the ships still in harbour with torpedo booms deployed at 4:15 p.m. For the previous week, Enigma had been providing information that the Germans were minesweeping on a route that made a dash up the Channel a certainty and with reference to captured charts gave away the German route, which was passed on by the Admiralty at 12:29 p.m. on 12 February. (The daily naval Enigma Home Waters settings for 10–12 February took Bletchley Park until 15 February to break.)
Night, 11/12 February
A British agent in Brest was unable to signal that the Brest Group was departing because of German wireless jamming and Sealion, patrolling outside the harbour, had withdrawn to recharge its batteries. Patrol Stopper, near Brest, was being flown by an ASV Hudson from 224 Squadron when the Brest Group assembled outside the port at 10:45 p.m. At the patrol height of 1,000–2,000 ft (300–610 m) the ASV had a range of about 13 nmi (15 mi; 24 km) but the Hudson was flying south-west as the ships turned towards Ushant and received no contact. The last eight minutes of the next Stopper sortie came within about 9 nmi (10 mi; 17 km) of the ships but received no contact on the radar. Line South East, part of Operation Fuller, ran past Ushant to the vicinity of Jersey, to find a sortie from Brest which had turned up the Channel. The Brest Group crossed Line South East at 0:50 a.m., early on 12 February but the Hudson patrol was not there, having been ordered to return when its ASV failed. Joubert was short of aircraft and sent no replacement, also because Stopper had reported nothing untoward and if the Brest Group had sailed before Stopper began, it would already have passed Line South East. Habo, the third patrol line, from Cherbourg to Boulogne was conducted as usual, until a dawn fog was forecast over British airfields and the aircraft was called back at 6:30 a.m., when the Brest Group was still west of the line.[d]
The only patrol over the Channel was the routine dawn patrol by Fighter Command from Ostend, south to the mouth of the Somme, which the Brest Group passed at 10:00 a.m. From 8:25–9:59 a.m. RAF radar operators under Squadron Leader Bill Igoe, using an un-jammed radar frequency, noticed four plots of German aircraft circling in places north of Le Havre, which at first were thought to be air-sea rescue operations. At 10:00 a.m. 11 Group RAF Fighter Command realised that the plots were moving north-east at 20–25 kn (23–29 mph; 37–46 km/h) and sent two Supermarine Spitfires to reconnoitre at 10:20 a.m., about the time that news reached Fighter Command headquarters that radar-jamming had begun at 9:20 a.m. and that the station at Beachy Head was detecting surface ships. Radar stations in Kent reported two large ships off Le Touquet at 10:52 a.m. and when the Spitfire patrol landed at 10:50 a.m. having kept radio silence, the pilots reported a flotilla off Le Touquet (near Boulogne) but not the capital ships.
News of the sighting was rushed to 11 Group and the Navy at Dover by 11:05 a.m. (One pilot then mentioned a big ship and a certain sighting was received as he was being debriefed.) By coincidence, two senior fighter pilots from RAF Kenley had decided to fly an intruder mission to the French coast at 10:10 a.m., while the other pilots were grounded due to the bad weather. The pair spotted two Messerschmitt Bf 109s (Bf 109) and attacked, then found themselves over a German flotilla of two big ships, a destroyer screen and an outer ring of E-boats. The Spitfires were dived on by about 12 German fighters and escaped through anti-aircraft fire from the ships, strafed an E-boat and made off at wave-top height. After they landed at 11:09 a.m., the pilots reported that the German ships had been 16 nmi (18 mi; 30 km) off Le Touquet at 10:42 a.m. by 11:25 a.m., the alarm had been raised that the Brest Group was entering the Straits of Dover with air cover.
At 11:27 a.m. Bomber Command had been alerted that the Brest Group was near Dover and warned the groups to be ready. Including aircraft that had flown the night before and those at four hours' notice, Air Marshal Richard Peirse had about 250 aircraft but the 100 bombers on two hours' notice had been loaded with semi-armour-piercing bombs which were effective only if dropped from 7,000 ft (2,100 m) or higher. Visibility was poor with rain and 8/10ths to 10/10ths cloud cover, down to 700 ft (210 m) and unless there were breaks in the cloud just when needed the task was impossible. Peirse ordered general-purpose bombs to be loaded, which could only cause superficial blast damage and attacks at low altitude, in the hope that the attacks would distract the Brest Group as Coastal Command and the Navy made torpedo attacks.
At Dover in 1940, there were four 6-inch guns with a range of 12,000 yd (11,000 m), two 9.2-inch guns with a range of 18,000 yd (16,000 m), two modern 6-inch batteries with 25,000 yd (23,000 m) range and four more 9.2-inch guns on new mountings with a range of 31,600 yd (28,900 m) and then 36,300 yd (33,200 m) with supercharging. (After the fall of France, Axis ships could avoid the Dover mine barrage by sailing close to the French coast.) A supercharged naval 14-inch gun could fire shells 48,000 yd (44,000 m) but was difficult to use against moving targets. The South Foreland Battery of the Dover guns, with their new K-type radar set, tracked the ships of the Brest Group coming up the Channel towards Cap Gris Nez.
At 12:19 p.m., the Dover guns fired their first salvo but with visibility down to 5 nmi (5.8 mi; 9.3 km), there could be no observation of the fall-of-shot. The gunners hoped that the radar would detect the shell splashes and allow corrections to be made, although this method had never been tried before. "Blips" on the K-set clearly showed the ships zig-zagging but not where the shells were landing. Full battery salvo firing began and 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) and 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. The coastal guns ceased fire when light naval forces and torpedo-bombers began to attack and by 1:21 p.m. the German ships passed beyond the effective range of the British radar.
The six Swordfish torpedo-bombers of 825 Squadron FAA, took off from RAF Manston in Kent at 12:20 p.m., when Esmonde decided that he could wait no longer and met the 72 Squadron escorts at 12:28 p.m., all setting off for a point 10 nmi (12 mi; 19 km) north of Calais. The escorts of 121 Squadron and 401 Squadron were late and cut the corner at Deal, to rendezvous en route to the ships, missed them and then turned back to Manston, found no Swordfish there either and flew back out to sea. (The squadrons had arrived a few minutes after the Swordfish attack and engaged German fighters.) The Spitfires of 72 Squadron flying close escort saw the German ships at 12:40 p.m. and were bounced by Bf 109s and FW 190s, losing contact with the Swordfish. The first section of three torpedo-bombers pressed on through the destroyer screen and Esmonde's aircraft was shot down before he could drop the torpedo. The other two continued and managed to launch torpedoes despite flak damage and wounds and then ditched; the second section of three were seen to cross the destroyer screen and disappear.[e] While the German fighter escorts were absent, two sections (eight aircraft) of 452 Squadron RAAF strafed several German ships and silenced the return fire of a destroyer, for a cracked perspex hood to one Spitfire.[f]
The five operational Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) based at Dover left harbour at 11:55 a.m. and sighted the German warships, at 12:23 p.m. The RAF fighter cover for this attack was not airborne in time, one MTB had engine-trouble and the rest found their approach blocked by twelve E-boats in two lines. The defective MTB fired torpedoes at the extreme range of 4,000 yd (3.7 km) before returning to Dover; the rest were not able to get much closer and torpedoed through the gap between the E-boat lines, mistakenly claiming a hit on Prinz Eugen. Two motor gun boats arrived from Dover in time to defend the last MTB from a German Narvik-class destroyer. Two more MTBs had left Ramsgate at 12:25 p.m. but approached from too far astern of the German squadron and were unable to get into a position to attack, before deteriorating weather and engine problems forced them to turn back.
Whirlwind fighter-bombers tried to engage the fleet around 2:00 p.m. but were intercepted by the fighter screen. The seven Beauforts at Thorney Island were closest to the Brest Group when it was sighted. Two Beauforts had been bombed up and one went unserviceable, before the other four took off at 1:25 p.m. The four Beauforts were late to meet their fighter escorts at Manston and the torpedo-bombers and fighters were ordered independently to the German ships. The position, course and speed of the Brest Group was given by voice (R/T) to the Spitfires and Morse (W/T) to the Beauforts. The torpedo-bombers failed to receive the orders, because 16 Group forgot that they had been fitted with R/T for Operation Fuller. When the Beauforts reached Manston they circled with numerous fighters which appeared to ignore them. Two Beauforts flew to the French coast, found nothing and landed at Manston where the confusion was resolved. The other two aircraft had already landed at Manston, where the crews found out what was going on and set off for the Belgian coast, arriving at 3:40 p.m. (when the Nore Command destroyers were attacking). Both bombers flew through the German flak and attacked Prinz Eugen, dropping their torpedoes at 1,000 yd (910 m), to no effect.
The 42 Squadron Beaforts from Scotland had to divert to Coltishall because of snow but the torpedoes to be loaded were at North Coates and came by road too late. Nine of the aircraft had flown south with torpedoes on and took off at 2:25 p.m., leaving the other four behind to rendezvous with their fighter escorts and several Hudsons, intended to create a diversion. The Beauforts reached Manston at 2:50 p.m. and tried to formate behind the Hudsons, which did the same thing; attempts to get the fighters to join the formation also failed. The Beaufort crews had been briefed that they would be escorted all the way, the fighters that they were to cover the Dover Strait in general and the aircraft circled Manston for thirty minutes, each formation under the impression that another one was leading. The Beaufort commander then set off, using the position of the Brest Group given at Coltishall and six Hudsons followed, the other five circling and waiting for the fighters, before giving up and landing at 4:00 p.m.
The Beauforts and Hudsons flew towards the Dutch coast and lost touch in the cloud and rain but the Hudsons made ASV contact and attacked the ships, two being shot down for no result. Six of the Beauforts then attacked through the flak and released their torpedoes, also with no effect. (The other three Beauforts had already attacked, possibly against British destroyers.) The two 217 Squadron Beauforts that had flown earlier had reached Manston, set off again independently and made ASV contact, attacking Scharnhorst at 5:10 and 6:00 p.m. The remaining Beauforts at St Eval in Cornwall had been sent to Thorney Island, arriving at 2:30 p.m. to refuel and be briefed to link with fighters at Coltishall in East Anglia, where they arrived at 5:00 p.m. to find no escorts waiting. The Beauforts pressed on to a position sent by wireless and at 6:05 p.m., as dark fell, with visibility down to 1,000 yd (910 m) and the cloud base at only 600 ft (180 m) saw four German minesweepers. One bomber attacked a "big ship" but flak damage jammed the torpedo and as night fell around 6:30 p.m., the rest turned for Coltishall; two Beauforts were lost to flak or the weather.[g]
The first wave of 73 Avro Manchester, Halifax and Short Stirling heavy bombers took off from 2:20 p.m. and most found the target area from 2:55–3:58 p.m. Thick low cloud and intermittent rain hid the view and only ten crews could see the German ships for long enough to bomb. The 134 bombers of the second wave, took off from 2:37 p.m. and reached the vicinity of the ships from 4:00–5:06 p.m. and at least 20 bombed. The last wave of 35 aircraft began at 4:15 p.m. and reached the Brest Group from 5:50–6:15 p.m. and nine were able to drop their bombs. Only 39 of the aircraft that returned managed to attack the ships and 15 bombers were shot down by flak or lost flying into the sea; twenty bombers were damaged and no hits were achieved.
The destroyers HMS Campbell, HMS Vivacious of the 21st Flotilla and HMS Mackay, HMS Whitshed, HMS Walpole and HMS Worcester of the 16th Flotilla (Captain C. T. M. Pizey), from Nore Command were First World War-vintage and usually escorted east coast convoys. The ships were practising gunnery off Orford Ness in the North Sea when alerted at 11:56 a.m. The destroyers sailed south to intercept the Brest Group but it steamed much faster than expected and to catch up, Pizey took the destroyers over a German minefield. At 2:31 p.m., just before the destroyers attacked north of the Scheldt Estuary, Scharnhorst had hit a mine and was stopped for a short time, before resuming at about 25 kn (29 mph; 46 km/h). At 3:17 p.m. the destroyers made radar contact at 9 nmi (10 mi) and visual contact at 4 nmi (4.6 mi; 7.4 km) at 3:43 p.m. Walpole had already dropped out with engine trouble and as the other five emerged from the murk, they were immediately engaged by the German ships. The destroyers pressed on to 3,000 yd (2,700 m) and two destroyers loosed torpedoes, Worcester closed further and was hit by return fire from Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, then the last two destroyers attacked but all the torpedoes missed.[h]
Night 12/13 and 13 February
Scharnhorst had fallen behind after hitting a mine and at 7:55 p.m. Gneisenau hit a magnetic mine off Terschelling. The mine exploded some distance from the ship, making a small hole on the starboard side and temporarily knocking a turbine out of action. After about thirty minutes, the ship continued at about 25 kn (29 mph; 46 km/h) and as Scharnhorst sailed through the same area, it hit another mine at 9:34 p.m., both main engines stopped, steering was lost and fire control was damaged. The ship got under way with the starboard engines at 10:23 p.m., making 12 kn (14 mph; 22 km/h) and carrying about 1,000 long tons (1,000 t) of seawater. Scharnhorst arrived at Wilhelmshaven at 10:00 a.m. on 13 February, with damage that took three months to repair. Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen reached the Elbe at 7:00 a.m. and tied up at Brunsbüttel North Locks at 9:30 a.m. After receiving Ultra intelligence about German minesweeping in the German Bight, Bomber Command had laid 69 magnetic mines along the swept channel on 6 February and 25 mines the next day. When the route of the channel was more accurately plotted on 11 February, four mines were laid, then more on 12 February when the Channel Dash was on. Enigma decrypts revealed the mining of the German ships but the news was kept secret by the British to protect the source.
Ciliax sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter in Paris on 13 February,
It is my duty to inform you that Operation Cerberus has been successfully completed.— Saalwächter (13 February 1942)
but OKM called Cerberus a tactical victory and a strategic defeat. In 2012, Ken Ford wrote that the German ships had exchanged one prison for another and that Bomber command raids from 25–27 February terminally damaged Gneisenau. Operation Fuller had failed, a destroyer had been severely damaged and 42 aircraft had been lost in 398 RAF fighter, 242 bomber and 35 Coastal Command sorties. British public opinion was appalled and much prestige was lost at home and abroad; a leading article in The Times read,
Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our sea-power 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 Times (14 February 1942)
Stephen Roskill, the British naval official historian, wrote in 1956 that the German verdict was accurate. Hitler had exchanged the threat to British Atlantic convoys for a defensive deployment near Norway, against a threat that never materialised. Roskill wrote that the British had misjudged the time of day when the German ships would sail but this mistake was less influential than the circumstantial failures of Coastal Command reconnaissance to detect the ships, which had been at sea for 12 hours, four of them after dawn, before the alarm was raised. Churchill ordered a Board of Enquiry (Sir Alfred Townsend Bucknill), which criticised Coastal Command for failing to ensure that a dawn reconnaissance was flown to compensate for the problems of the night patrols off Brest and Ushant to Isle de Bréhat. The inquiry also held that there should have been more suspicion of the German radar jamming on the morning of 12 February and that involving Bomber Command in an operation for which it was untrained was a mistake.
The board found that the delay in detecting the German ships led to the British attacks being made piecemeal, against formidable German defensive arrangements and the few aircraft and ships that found the group, were "cut to pieces". In 2012, Ford wrote that the inquiry was, perforce, a whitewash, blaming instrument failures rather than incompetence but the report was kept secret until 1946. In 1991, Buckley wrote that the ASV Hudsons had been forbidden to use flares off Brest, because of Sealion and that one of the technical faults to an ASV could have been repaired, had the operator carried out a fuze check properly. Joubert was criticised for complacency in not sending replacement sorties despite his earlier warning that the Brest Group was about to sail, because of the assumption in Operation Fuller since 6 April 1941, that a day sailing was certain,
...a classic example of befuddled tactical thinking, poor co-operation and almost non-existent co-ordination.— Robertson
The dash exposed many failings in RAF planning, that only three torpedo-bomber squadrons with 31 Beauforts were in Britain, that training had been limited by the lack of torpedoes and the example of Japanese tactics had been ignored. The effectiveness of Bomber Command against moving ships was shown to be negligible and the failure to ensure unity of command before Operation Fuller began, led to piecemeal attacks using unsuitable tactics.
R. V. Jones the Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, wrote that on 11 February, Lieutenant-Colonel B. E. Wallace of the army radar Interception Unit, had called for his assistance. For several days, army radar stations on the south coast had been jammed and Wallace had reported this internally but a gradual increase in jamming had misled most operators to its intensity. Martini, the General der Luftnachrichtentruppe (General of Air Force Communications Troops) had unobtrusively made the British radar cover "almost useless". Jones wrote of the ASV reconnaissance,
Nay, it were better, to meet some Dangers halfe way, though they come nothing neare, than to keepe too long a watch, upon their Approaches: For if a Man watch too long, it is odds that he will fall asleepe.— Francis Bacon, Of Delayes
and included an anecdote, that the chain of command broke down under the shock of the Brest Group sailing so far up the Channel undiscovered. Air Marshals were said to have sat on each other's desks, thinking of pilots they could telephone to find the ships; even after the Brest Group had been found, contact was lost several times. In 1955, Jones met Captain Giessler, the Navigating Officer on Scharnhorst, who said that the worst time in the operation was the thirty minutes that Scharnhorst was stationary, after hitting a mine just beyond Dover; in the low cloud none of the British aircraft found them.[i]
British aircraft losses to the Luftwaffe were two Blenheims, four Whirlwinds, four Wellingtons, six Hurricanes, nine Hampdens and ten Spitfires. Kriegsmarine gunners shot down all six Swordfish and a Hampden bomber. Worcester lost 23 men killed, four died of wounds and 45 wounded of the complement of 130; the ship was out of action for 14 weeks.
German losses were the torpedo boats Jaguar and T. 13 damaged by bombing, two sailors killed and some badly wounded by bomb splinters and small-arms fire and 17 Luftwaffe aircraft and eleven pilots.
Gneisenau entered a floating dry dock at Kiel for repair, and was hit by two heavy bombs dropped by the RAF on the night of 26/27 February. One bomb hit the battleship on her forecastle and penetrated the armoured deck. The explosion ignited a fire in the foremost magazine, which detonated, throwing the forward turret off its mount. The extensive damage prompted the German Naval Staff to rebuild Gneisenau to mount the six 38 cm (15 in) guns originally planned, rather than repair the warship. The damaged bow section was removed in order to attach a lengthened bow. By early 1943, the ship had been sufficiently repaired to begin the conversion process, but Hitler, irate after the failure of German surface forces at the Battle of the Barents Sea in December 1942 ordered the cessation of all work. On 23 February off Norway, Prinz Eugen was torpedoed by a British submarine and put out of action until October and spent the rest of the war in the Baltic. On 28 March the British raided St Nazaire in Operation Chariot and destroyed the Normandie dock, the only one in France that could accommodate the largest German warships. Scharnhorst participated in Operation Zitronella on 8 September 1943 and was sunk at the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December.
Memorial and commemorations
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 in 2012. Sailors from HMS Kent provided a Guard of Honour as part of the parade held to mark the unveiling.
On the 10 February 2017, at the Fleet Air Arm memorial church at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron), a ceremony and flypast by four Wildcat HMA2 helicopters of the current 825 Naval Air Squadron was conducted, marking the 75th anniversary of Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde and 825 Naval Air Squadron's attack.
- Zerberus the German for Cerberus, a three-headed dog of Greek mythology who guards the gate to Hades.
- The plan had been to make a surprise attack on the ships at Brest in daylight, escorted by five long-range Spitfire squadrons, which by then had been fitted with external fuel tanks. Only 30 single-engined and nine twin-engined German day fighters were thought to be based near Brest, with another 60 at Cherbourg and the Channel Islands. Bomber Command planners thought that 140–150 bombers would be needed but the bomber pilots were inexperienced in formation flying and the number of long-range Spitfires was insufficient to escort a loose formation. Unescorted Fortress Is were to attack first at height, followed 15 minutes later by 18 Hampden bombers with three Spitfire squadron escorts, to attract German fighters and leave them short of fuel and ammunition. The main force of 120 Wellingtons and heavy bombers were to attack for 45 minutes, with the last two Spitfire squadrons in the vicinity for any German fighters that managed to make second sorties. The fighters near Cherbourg were to be diverted by Blenheim bombers covered by normal Spitfires of 11 Group. The Hampden crews trained for a month but the plan was upset when Scharnhorst was found to have sailed to La Pallice, beyond the reach of the long-range Spitfires. The heavy bombers were taken out of the Brest attack and Manchester bombers were withdrawn due to mechanical defects, reducing the main force to 78 bombers. The rest of the bombers attacked Brest on 24 July; the Fortress crews saw a few German fighters and the Hampdens reported about 24 more but the main force was too small to swamp the German ground defences and 11 bombers were shot down by fighters and flak; two more bombers crashed on their return flights.
- A Directorate of Bomber Operations paper of 5 April 1941 concluded that achieving one hit on each ship took from 2,200 to 5,000 bombs dropped.
- Stopper was usually conducted by four consecutive flights but this night, the ASV on the first Hudson broke down and the crew flew back to change to a spare, putting back the 7:30 p.m. start until 10:38 p.m. The Board of Enquiry found that the German ships had sailed through the Stopper patrol line before it was re-established but this was later found to be untrue, the delayed patrol had begun before the Brest Group sailed.
- Five of the six crew were rescued by small craft, but the second section was lost with all hands, a loss of 13 aircrew. Esmonde, who had flown in the sinking of the Bismarck, was killed and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. 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".
- Bluey Truscott was awarded a Bar to his DFC for this action.
- Coastal Command aircraft with ASV independently shadowed the Brest Group from 4:00 p.m., gained two sightings, then several ASV contacts after dark, one at 1:55 a.m. on 13 February, showing that the Brest Group had split up, but the information was too late to use.
- Several salvoes from Gneisenau hit Worcester, destroyed the starboard side of the bridge and No.1 and No.2 boiler rooms. Prinz Eugen hit the destroyer a four times, setting it on fire, then Captain Fein, aboard Gneisenau, ordered firing to cease, believing the destroyer to be sinking. Worcester limped to Harwich at 6.5 kn (7.5 mph; 12.0 km/h).
- In 2013, Goodchild wrote that although Operation Fuller was a scientific and technological failure, Jones exaggerated for effect in his memoir. Too much had been expected of radar and German countermeasures were underestimated, given earlier attempts to jam British radar in 1940 and British research into Window.
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