This was the German naval dash to the north-east along the English Channel by the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and a number of destroyers, from Brest in Brittany to German ports under cover of the Luftwaffe’s ‘Donnerkeil’ (i) air umbrella (11/13 February 1942).
The major warships had arrived in Brest after commerce-raiding cruises into the Atlantic, and had since endured a protracted series of British bombing raids. Though Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the German navy, was convinced that the ships should remain at Brest for further raids into the Atlantic, Adolf Hitler demanded that they be brought home to Germany as insurance against the British invasion of German-occupied Norway that he thought inevitable as the northern part of this country was, in his estimation, a ‘zone of destiny’, or alternatively be scrapped at Brest so that their armament could be transported to Norway for a strengthening of the German defences of that country.
Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet had gained increasingly complete control of the regions through which any long return route to German ports via the North Atlantic would have to be made, and this left as the only alternative the short but dangerous route to the north-east up the English Channel in the teeth of large British naval and air forces which could not be deceived of the position or intention of the German squadron.
Once the removal back to Germany had been ordained, it was decided that a high-speed dash, under the major fighter protection umbrella which the Luftwaffe guaranteed to provide, offered the best chance of breaking through the inevitable British attacks.
After weeks of minesweeping in the English Channel and southern part of the North Sea by the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 12th Minensuch-Flottillen (commanded by Korvettenkapitäne Karl Neitzel, Kurt Thoma and Walter Burger, Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Lell and Korvettenkapitän Fritz Breithaupt respectively) and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Räumboots-Flottillen (commanded by Korvettenkapitäne Jost Brökelmann, Arnulf Hölzerkopf and Waldemar Holst respectively), the German squadron, under the command of Vizeadmiral Otto Ciliax, departed Brest at about 22.45, more than three hours later than planned as a result of various problems, during the night of 11/12 February.
The timing of the departure caught the British unprepared, so the disappearance of the German ships from Brest escaped detection until 10.42 in the following morning, when the pilots of two Supermarine Spitfire fighters spotted the German squadron. The heavy warships were initially escorted by the destroyers Z 25, Z 29, Richard Beitzen, Paul Jacobi, Friedrich Ihn and Hermann Schoemann of Kapitän Fritz Berger’s 5th Zerstörer-Flottille, and later additions to the escort force were the torpedo boats T 2, T 4, T 5, T 11 and T 12 of Korvettenkapitän Erdmann’s 2nd Torpedoboots-Flottille from Le Havre, T 13, T 15, T 16 and T 17 of Korvettenkapitän Hans Wilcke’s 3rd Torpedoboots-Flottille from Dunkirk, and off Cap Gris Nez Seeadler, Falke, Kondor, Iltis and Jaguar of Korvettenkapitän Moritz Schmidt’s 5th Torpedoboots-Flottille. Also involved in the operation were a number of other vessels including the S-boote of Korvettenkapitän Klaus Feldt’s 2nd Schnellboots-Flottille, Kapitänleutnant Niels Bätge’s 4th Schnellsboots-Flottille and Korvettenkapitän Albrecht Obermaier’s 6th Schnellboots-Flottille.
The ‘Donnerkeil’ (i) air umbrella used 166 single- and twin-engined fighters (largely of the Jagdgeschwadern 2, 26 and later 1) of Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle’s Luftflotte III under the tactical command of Oberst Adolf Galland.
By the time they were first spotted by the British, the German ships were off Boulogne and Le Touquet, and thus approaching the Strait of Dover. The British response was co-ordinated by Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who had at his disposal six fleet destroyers, whose most potent weapons for attacks on larger warships were their torpedoes. The destroyers should have been at four hours’ notice in the Thames estuary, but were not. There were also three smaller ‘Hunt’ class destroyers, but these had been designed as convoy escorts of only modest speed and also lacked torpedo armament, and as a result were of little use in this situation. Ramsay could also call on the 32 motor torpedo boats of the flotillas based in Dover and Ramsgate, but this coastal force was counterbalanced by the presence of flotillas of S-boote. In the event only eight motor torpedo boats left harbour (five from Dover and three from Ramsgate), but their attacks were fruitless and three motor torpedo boats were damaged.
For various reasons the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF’s Bomber and Coastal Commands all failed to provide the level of rapid support they had promised. This was in part because all of the services expected the Germans to time their ‘Channel dash’ so that the ships made a nocturnal passage through the narrowest and therefore most dangerous section, namely the strait between Dover and Calais where they would be within range of the land-based heavy guns of the British coastal batteries. But the Germans had considered it more important to slip out of Brest unnoticed at night and thus to take advantage of the element of surprise for as long as possible. So Ciliax and his staff had decided to leave Brest at night and pass Dover during the daylight hours rather than give the British the 12-hour warning time which an early discovery would have provided.
The British were therefore ‘wrong-footed’ by the audacity of the German movement, even though they knew that a movement was likely as they had spotted the Germans’ clearance of lanes though the minefields of the area. Nocturnal patrols by Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté’s RAF Coastal Command, using three radar-equipped Lockheed Hudson maritime reconnaissance aircraft, nonetheless failed to spot the ships leaving Brest: off this harbour the first detected nothing, to the north of Ushant the second suffered radar failure, and the third did not get within range.
The first intimation that something was afoot came from RAF ground radar operators, who noticed the unusually high level of German air activity over the English Channel. As noted above, the pilots of two Spitfire fighters of Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas’s RAF Fighter Command spotted the ships at 10.42, but were under strict orders not to break radio silence (and had not been briefed to look for the German squadron) and so waited until they landed at 11.30 to report what they had seen. Because Fighter Command had not been expected to be the first to spot the German squadron in the Channel, valuable time was lost reporting the sighting up the chain of command and on to the Royal Navy and Bomber Command, the latter under the acting command of Air Vice Marshal J. E. A. Baldwin.
Unco-ordinated attacks by the motor torpedo boats and six Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 825 Squadron at 12.45 failed even to damage the German ships. Although they did not to hit their targets, the Swordfish crews displayed such bravery in their gallant attack that it was praised by friend and foe alike. All six aircraft were shot down. Bomber Command’s response was tardy, and only 39 of the 242 bombers which took part found and attacked the ships, and these scored no hits.
The five elderly fleet destroyers (Campbell and Vivacious of the 21st Destroyer Flotilla and Worcester, Whitshed and Mackay of the 16th Destroyer Flotilla) and four more modern ‘Hunt’ class escort destroyers were taken wholly by surprise, and therefore were not on station but on gunnery practice in the North Sea. The ships steamed south to intercept the German flotilla, but arrived in time to deliver just a single salvo of torpedoes, all of which missed. The German counter-fire severely damaged Worcester, which only just managed to regain port.
The British had therefore failed to stop the squadron before it reached the safety of German home waters, and had suffered severe damage to a destroyer and the loss of 42 aircraft to fighter attack and the excellently handled Flak fire of the German warships. The Germans did not escape wholly undamaged, however, for Scharnhorst hit a mine at 14.31 off the Belgian/Dutch frontier, Gneisenau hit a mine at 19.55 off the Friesian islands, and Scharnhorst struck another mine at 21.34. Though damaged, both of the battle-cruisers could still steam, and reached German ports in the morning of 13 February: while the more badly damaged Scharnhorst was slowed and had to enter Wilhelmshaven, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen reached Brunsbüttel. In addition to the two battle-cruisers’ mine damage, the cruiser had lost one man killed, the torpedo boats T 13 and Jaguar had been slightly damaged by bomb splinters and machine gun fire, the latter suffering one killed and two wounded, and the Luftwaffe had lost 17 fighters and 11 pilots.
Thus, in overall terms, ‘Cerberus’ vindicated Ciliax’s decision to secure tactical surprise by departing Brest by night and traversing the Strait of Dover by day, which was exactly the opposite of what the British had expected, but in overall terms the operation was a German strategic defeat inasmuch as Scharnhorst was out of service for many months as she was repaired, and Gneisenau was so badly damaged that she was dry-docked for repair and then upgrade, but then lost her bow in an air raid that resulted in the explosion of her forward main armament turret’s propellant magazine. Angered by what he perceived as the poor performance of the German navy’s large surface warships, however, Hitler decided in December 1942 that the upgrade of the ship with a 15-in (380-mm) main armament was to be cancelled and the ship decommissioned.
It can be argued, therefore, that ‘Cerberus’ represented a strategic defeat inasmuch as it left the German navy with no major warships based in French ports for anti-convoy forays into the Atlantic, but given the time needed to repair Scharnhorst and get her to northern Norway only on the third attempt, added little to the strength of the German naval forces for attacks on the Arctic convoys.