Operation Berlin (i)

This was a German naval raid in the Atlantic by the battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst (20 January/22 March 1941).

Postponed after the ships had suffered storm damage while attempting to break out from Kiel on 28 December 1940, the operation began on 20 January under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, the Flottenchef (fleet commander) as the two battle-cruisers departed Kiel, then passing north between the Shetland islands and Norway before turning west to debouch into the North Atlantic into the area to the south of Iceland.

To supply oil and other supplies, a squadron train comprising six support vessels (6,358-ton Adria, 7,021-ton Uckermark, 6,528-ton Ermland, Schlettstadt, 10,397-ton Friedrich Breme and 9,849-ton Esso Hamburg) had previously been despatched to prearranged oceanic rendezvous points.

On 20 January the Admiralty had warned Admiral Sir John Tovey, commanding the Home Fleet, that a raider might be attempting to break out, and Tovey had despatched two cruisers from Scapa Flow to patrol in the area to the west of the Iceland/Færoe islands passage. On 23 January definite intelligence of the passage of the German warships from the Baltic into the North Sea via the Great Belt (the passage between the Danish islands of Sjælland and Fyn) reached London, and at 24.00 on 25/26 January Tovey departed Scapa Flow with the battleship Nelson with two other capital ships (battleship Rodney and battle-cruiser Repulse), eight cruisers of the 2nd, 15th and 18th Cruiser Squadrons, and 11 destroyers to attempt an interception south of Iceland, as from this position both of the possible exits to the Atlantic could be covered.

The Admiralty also organised air patrols to maintain surveillance of the sea between the Færoe islands group and Iceland. On 27 January Tovey divided his force, so allowing some of the ships to return to Scapa Flow for refuelling while the others continued their patrol. Just before daylight on 28 January, the light anti-aircraft cruiser Naiad sighted and reported two large vessels and turned to keep contact with them. Tovey at once moved his heavier warships to support Naiad and ordered his other cruisers to spread for a high-speed search.

The German ships' radar had detected the presence of two vessels of the British cruiser line some six minutes before Naiad made her sighting, however, and this made it possible for them to turn away at once and increase speed, causing Naiad to lose radar contact. Although his instructions ordained that if he was spotted during the breakout he was to continue on his course and, presumably, accept battle, Lütjens in fact turned away to the north and disengaged at high speed.

The German ships made rendezvous with the oiler Adria on 30 January and refuelled in a process which, as a result of bad weather, was completed only on 2 February: each of the German capital ships took on about 3,400 tons of fuel. Immediately after this the German warships began their passage to the south through the Denmark Strait and, at dawn on 4 February, steamed out into the Atlantic without being spotted. On 5/6 February the battle-cruisers took on 1,500 tons of fuel from the oiler Schlettstadt.

The planning for 'Berlin' (i) had been posited on a choice of two hunting areas. One lay to the north, where the HX and SC convoys crossed the Atlantic between Canada and the UK, and the other to the south, where the SL and OG convoys travelled between the UK, Gibraltar and Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa. Lütjens decided to concentrate first on the North Atlantic route.

After losing contact on 28 January, meanwhile, Tovey’s force had first steamed west to cover a Halifax convoy and then returned to Scapa Flow on 30 January.

After their second refuelling off southern Greenland, the German battle-cruisers began to search the Halifax convoy route, at 08.30 on 9 February sighting the masts of an eastbound convoy which German intelligence had reported as departing Halifax on 31 January and adopting a north-westerly course. This was the HX.106 convoy which, as the Admiralty had begun to provide battleship escort for as many oceanic convoys as possible, was accompanied by Ramillies. Lütjens ordered his ships to separate and attack simultaneously from the north and south, and it was Scharnhorst which, at 09.58 and a range of less than 17.5 miles (28 km), sighted the British battleship. This at once altered the entire tactical situation, and as the German admiral had been ordered that under no circumstances was he to enter combat with a British capital ship, Lütjens immediately turned away without engaging, leaving the convoy to continue without interference.

But Ramillies, having spotted only one ship, and then at long range, could not provide the Admiralty with exact intelligence, and signalled that she had sighted what was possibly a 'Hipper' class heavy cruiser, which accorded well with the expectation that Admiral Hipper herself, or possibly the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, might attempt a break-back by the northern passage at this time. Certainly this was Tovey’s appreciation of the situation, and he accordingly sailed all his available forces west to take up positions from which the routes back to German waters could best be covered.

Other British moves at this time included the instigation of air patrols and the issue of orders diverting other ships to the area in which they might be needed. By the evening of 9 February these potent forces, organised in three groups, were all available for the interception of any German ship taking the course anticipated by the British.

After breaking contact with HX.106, however, Lütjens remained quiet in or near his refuelling rendezvous. The two battle-cruisers refuelled from the oilers Esso Hamburg and Schlettstadt on 15 February, and then two days later moved once more to interdict the Halifax convoy route, although now at a point farther to the west, where Lütjens calculated British shipping would be less strongly protected. Though eastbound and therefore fully laden convoys were powerfully escorted along the full extent of their journeys, westbound convoys, which were often empty or loaded only with trade goods, were more poorly protected and dispersed to their various destinations in the North America at about the longitude selected by Lütjens for his second attempt.

The German ships missed the HX.111 convoy, but then headed farther to the west and soon after sunrise on 22 February sighted the smoke of several ships at a point some 660 miles (1060 km) to the east of Newfoundland. These were largely unladen vessels which had recently dispersed from a westbound convoy and were scattered over a considerable area. Despite the fact that the ships were altogether less valuable targets that eastbound ships carrying war matériel and other vital supplies such as raw materials and foodstuffs, Lütjens decided to attack, and the two battle-cruisers used their superior speed to engage the merchant vessels piecemeal, and sank five ships totalling 25,784 tons: at 10.55 Scharnhorst and Gneisenau together sank the 3,237-ton passenger/cargo ship Kantara; at 13.12 Gneisenau sank the 4,689-ton passenger/cargo ship Trelawny; Scharnhorst dispatched the 6,156-ton tanker Lustrous; and at 16.23 Gneisenau sank the 5,866-ton cargo ship A. D. Huff as Scharnhorst pursued a tanker, which escaped.

The 5,483-ton passenger/cargo ship Harlesden was known to be about 50 miles (80 km) distant and might transmit a sighting report, so the crew of one of Gneisenau's floatplanes was given the task of preventing this and, on returning about an hour later, reported the destruction of Harlesden's radio antenna while under machine gun fire. But the freighter’s time was running out: she was detected by radar, pursued and sunk at 23.08.

As the two ships had undertaken this entire engagement at long range, their ammunition expenditure had been comparatively high. Lütjens broke radio silence for the first time since 8 February to report his success and to order two oilers, Esso Hamburg and Schlettstadt, to rendezvous with his battle-cruisers in the area of the Azores islands.

However, several of the British ships had managed to send raider reports, and although the Germans used their usual jamming technique, one message was picked up at Cape Race and within a few minutes the Admiralty knew that powerful surface raiders were operating off the eastern coast of North America.

Appreciating that with the alarm raised shipping would be diverted from these waters, Lütjens now steamed south, refuelled in mid-Atlantic on 26/28 February from Ermland and Friedrich Breme, and offloaded to Ermland some 180 prisoners, including 11 wounded, who had been taken during the attack of 22 February. With the refuelling completed at 07.00 on 28 February, Lütjens ordered his two ships to head toward the Sierra Leone route. On 3 March the two German warships reached the area of the Cape Verde islands, and two days later one of Scharnhorst's floatplanes went missing for four hours before being discovered on the water after running out of fuel.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau met U-124 on 6 March. The battle-cruisers were now steaming up and down a line between the Cape Verde islands and the African coast at a speed of only 12 kt to conserve fuel. At 09.20 on 7 March one of Scharnhorst's lookouts spotted a mast on the horizon, and closer examination showed that this was the mainmast of a British battleship, soon identified as Malaya. It was reasonable to assume that where there there was a battleship there was likely to be a convoy it was escorting, and two hours later Scharnhorst's lookouts sighted 12 merchant vessels heading due south. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were still under orders to avoid engagement with British capital ships, and Lütjens accordingly decided not the attack the convoy. Even so, the German ships shadowed this SL.67 convoy and were able to guide U-boats to the area, some 460 miles (740 km) to the north of the Cape Verde islands. At 01.42 on 8 March Kapitänleutnant Georg-Wilhelm Schulz’s U-124 picked up the convoy and an hour later Kapitänleutnant Georg Schewe’s U-105 did likewise: during the following 15 minutes, U-124 sank four ships totalling totalling 24,159 tons and U-105 accounted for one 5,229-ton vessel.

Knowing that his ships had been sighted and reported, Lütjens now departed the Sierra Leone convoy route and, after sinking one independently routed 6,352-ton ship on 9 March, again refuelled and resupplied in mid-ocean from Ermland and Uckermark, and decided to make a further attempt on the Halifax route with the two supply vessels in company to extend his visual search horizon.

Meanwhile the British were making strenuous efforts to cover the convoys and to intercept the battle-cruisers if and when they broke for home. Rodney and another battleship, the new King George V, were despatched from the UK to provide cover for a pair of convoys scheduled to leave Halifax on 17 and 21 March and, when wireless intelligence indicated a possible break by the German ships back into Arctic waters, Tovey positioned Nelson, with the light cruiser Nigeria and two destroyers, to the south of Iceland.

The German squadron (the two capital ships and their two support vessels) was now to operate in the western part of the North Atlantic convoy route, between 39° N and 46° W, steaming in line abreast with an interval of 35 miles (56 km) between each ship. Given reasonable visibility, the four ships were therefore able to scan across a distance of about 135 miles (220 km). The order of the line was Uckermark, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Ermland.

At 21.00 on 11 March Lütjens received a signal from Generaladmiral Alfred Saalwächter’s Marinegruppenkommando 'West' informing him that as of 18 March Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were to cease operating against the North Atlantic convoy route. The pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer and heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper were due to break back into the Arctic through the Denmark Strait during the period of the forthcoming new moon as they returned to Germany and, according to the B-Dienst, a British force comprising the battle-cruiser Repulse, fleet carrier Furious and two destroyers had already left Gibraltar on a westerly course. The two German battle-cruisers were now to act as a diversion while Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer negotiated the Iceland passage.

The best way in which Lütjens’s squadron could achieve this object would be to head for Brest in north-western France. This was not all, however, for by the last week of April the battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen would be ready for service, and it was therefore desirable for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to return to port so that they could be refitted for involvement in the forthcoming 'Rheinübung' operation with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

The two German battle-cruisers completed another refuelling on 12 March and headed north, and three days later Uckermark sighted several tankers steaming without escort. This led to the operation’s greatest success when the German ships sank or captured 16 merchantmen (82,000 tons) from recently dispersed convoys, some distance to the south of the position off Newfoundland where they had made their earlier attack. Gneisenau captured the 5,688-ton Norwegian tanker Bianca at 10.20, the 8,046-ton British tanker San Casimiro at 13.40 and the 6,405-ton Norwegian tanker Polykarb at 17.50. Prize crews were put on board each ship with orders to sail for Bordeaux, but only Polykarb reached her destination, for Bianca and San Casimiro encountered the battle-cruiser Renown: 46 British prisoners were released and the German sailors taken prisoner, but before leaving the tankers the Germans managed to scuttle them. In addition to the three prizes, Gneisenau sank the 6,197-ton British tanker Simnia. Scharnhorst sank the 6,554-ton British tanker Athelfoam and 7,139-ton British tanker Strength.

At 01.00 on 16 March, Uckermark and Ermland signalled that they had sighted the silhouettes of merchant vessels against the night sky. At dawn, it became clear that the German squadron had steamed right into the middle of a convoy. Gneisenau sank the 4,507-ton British passenger/cargo ship Rio Dorado at 04.28, the 3,648-ton British cargo ship Empire Industry at 08.55, the 1,577-ton Norwegian passenger/cargo ship Granli at 10.22, the 4,564-ton French passenger/cargo ship Myson at 13.25, and the 4,364-ton British passenger/cargo ship Royal Crown at 15.50. Scharnhorst sank the 8,298-ton Dutch (former German) freighter Mangkai, 4,347-ton British freighter Silverfir, 5,251-ton British freighter Demerton, and 3,491-ton British passenger/cargo ship Sardinian Prince.

Among this group of essentially passive merchant ships, however, was the 1,831-ton Danish freighter Chilean Reefer. The moment he sighted the German ships, her captain sent off an accurate sighting report, made smoke and actually returned Gneisenau's fire with his ship’s single small gun. Gneisenau's commanding officer, Kapitän Otto Fein, was uncertain as to whether this show of force meant that that the Chilean Reefer was in fact a disguised armed cruiser possibly armed with torpedoes, or a scout for a group of warships. Fein edged his ship away to a safer distance, and then opened his with his ship’s 280-mm (11-in) main guns, but it took 73 rounds (more than the total expended on any other single target during the operation) to send the little freighter to her death in flames.

The possibility that Chilean Reefer might be a scout was supported by the appearance of a radar echo indicating the approach of a ship at a range of 20,000 yards (610 m). Some 15 minutes later, the bulk of the British battleship Rodney became evident, and when the British ship flashed a challenge, Fein replied with the call sign of the British light cruiser Emerald. This 7,550-ton ship had been commissioned in 1920 and had three funnels, whereas the design of the 'Scharnhorst' class battle-cruiser was altogether larger, more modern and included only one funnel. Rodney flashed another challenge, but Lütjens was already steaming his vessels away to the south at a speed of 31 kt, which was 8 kt more than Rodney could achieve.

Another British battleship, King George V, was immediately ordered to depart Halifax and cover the threatened area, while Tovey strengthened his cruiser patrols in the northern passages against any German attempt to break back toward German waters, and kept what remained to him of the Home Fleet in the covering position south of Iceland. This was all to no effect, however, for Lütjens had been instructed to be clear of the North Atlantic by 18 March.

On this day Scharnhorst and Gneisenau refuelled once more from Uckermark and Ermland, and transferred 200 prisoners to the supply ships. Early in the morning of 19 March, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau headed for Brest at 23 kt. For the moment, the most important problem facing Lütjens was that of reaching the French port. The German admiral knew that Malaya was in the vicinity of the Cape Verde islands, and that the ships of Force 'H' were somewhere at sea. Beyond this, even B-Dienst had little to offer in the way of information, so the best for which Lütjens could hope was to make the final, and most dangerous, stage of the voyage by night, and planned to reach the approaches to Brest at dawn on 22 March.

If Lütjens was uncertain about the disposition of the British warships searchoing for his squadron, the British were equally unsure as to the whereabouts of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. After the sighting of Gneisenau by Rodney on 16 March, there was no new information until 20 March, when an aeroplane from the fleet carrier Ark Royal, part of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force 'H' from Gibraltar, caught a glimpse of them. Lütjens altered course to the north, and the ships presently overtook Polykarb, which was making her way slowly toward the estuary of the Gironde river with her prize crew.

In London, meanwhile, confident that the raiding force comprised the two German battle-cruisers, the Admiralty had still found it difficult to estimate with any accuracy the German ships' probable movements in the middle of March and so deploy the available British strength. Experience suggested that the German raiders would try to make a return to Germany by one of the northern passages, and the British had therefore concentrated on these northern waters over the next few days. The Home Fleet’s dispositions were based on this assumption, as were the Admiralty’s requests to Air Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill’s RAF Coastal Command for air reconnaissance and patrols. In the period 17/20 March there followed concentrated patrolling over the Denmark Strait and the Iceland/Færoes passage. But at 17.30 on the latter date a reconnaissance aeroplane from Ark Royal of Force 'H', summoned north by the Admiralty, had sighted the two battle-cruisers about 795 miles (1280 km) to the west-north-west of Cape Finisterre. As soon as he had been spotted, Lütjens had turned his course from north-east to north, but then returned to north-east as soon as the aeroplane had departed. A series of mishaps now prevented any information of the course of the German ships, as they were first sighted, from reaching Somerville quickly. The aeroplane could not make a radio sighting report as its equipment had failed, and had therefore to return before making its visual report. The latter was signalled as the aeroplane passed Renown while returning to Ark Royal but gave the course of the German ships as north without indicating that it had first been north-east. This latter fact was not mentioned until after the aeroplane had landed on, and the staff of the carrier, which had become separated from the flagship by about 25 miles (40 km), failed to signal the fact to Somerville, who was thus deprived for some hours of intelligence which might have allowed him to deduce the German warships' destination.

Although Coastal Command’s patrols were adjusted to cover the approaches to the Bay of Biscay as soon as it was known that the German ships had been sighted, it was not until the following day that the Admiralty decided that Brest was the German ships' most likely destination. When Ark Royal's aeroplane made the first sighting at 17.30 on 20 March, Somerville was about 215 miles (345 km) away to the south-east, this distance being too great to allow the immediate launch of an air attack force. It was therefore essential to keep in touch with the German ships as the carrier tried to close the distance. Poor visibility prevented night shadowing or attack by carrierborne aircraft, however, and on the following morning conditions were little improved, and contact was thus lost almost as soon as it had been made. The brief sighting had, of course, redirected the Admiralty’s attention from the northern passages to the Bay of Biscay, and the British forces were shifted on 21 March. The battle-cruiser Hood and battleship Queen Elizabeth had just joined Nelson to the south of Iceland, and all three ships were now ordered south at full speed.

Coastal Command’s patrols over the Bay of Biscay were increased in number, and Bomber Command formed a striking force of 25 Vickers Wellington bombers to attack as soon as contact was re-established. The available cruisers of the 10th and 18th Cruiser Squadrons were also ordered to concentrate farther to the south. But unless Ark Royal's torpedo bombers could slow the German ships, a possibility removed by the adverse weather of 20/21 March, there was little chance that the German ships could be intercepted, for Tovey’s capital ships were many hundreds of miles distant and the German ships were quickly nearing the waters in which they would receive cover by shore-based aircraft. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were sighted once more at sea, by a Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance aeroplane of Coastal Command’s No. 220 Squadron, during the evening of 21 March, but by that time the German ships were a mere 265 miles (425 km) off the French coast and the last chance of a British interception had disappeared.

An air escort was due to meet the two battle-cruisers at 12.00 on 21 March, but the day began with fog and it was not until 16.30 that the visibility had improved sufficiently for three Heinkel He 115 floatplanes to lift off. At 19.00 the torpedo boats Iltis and Jaguar arrived from Brest to act as an anti-submarine escort.

The rest of the voyage was without incident. At 03.00 on 22 March the two ships were met by destroyers of the flotilla stationed at Brest and at 07.00 the entrance to the port loomed in sight. Two days later, Uckermark and Ermland docked at La Pallice, an outer port of La Rochelle, which had been constructed to accommodate large ocean-going passenger liners.

The cruise of 17,800 miles (28650 km) in 60 days was a record for German capital ships. In the course of 'Berlin' (i), Scharnhorst had sunk eight merchant vessels totalling 47,588 tons, while Gneisenau had sunk or captured 13 merchant vessels totalling 62,865 tons, and the two ships together had sunk only one merchant vessel of 3,237 tons. Thus 'Berlin' (i) had resulted in the sinking or capturing of 22 merchant vessels totalling 113,690 tons. Scharnhorst was now berthed alongside the Quai de la Ninon at Brest, while Gneisenau, which needed a few minor repairs, was installed in the no. 8 dry dock. Lütjens was about to return to Germany for a new assignment: in only six weeks he would once more be worrying about the problems of breaking through the Denmark Strait: Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were almost ready for action, and Lütjens had been appointed to lead them in 'Rheinübung'.

Though the two battle-cruisers had entered Brest on the morning of 22 March, they were not definitely sighted in this haven for another six days after Coastal Command’s aircraft had scoured all the French ports between Cherbourg and Bordeaux. The weather was generally unfavourable to air reconnaissance and Lütjens had disguised his real destination with skill right up to the last hours of his approach to the French coast.