Operation Cerberus took place in February 1942. Operation Cerberus is the name given to a dash up the English Channel by three major warships of the German Navy – the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen. They had been effectively trapped in Brest harbour by the British but Hitler ordered that they should return to Germany. Any run through the English Channel was seen as being fraught with danger – but a Fuhrer Order had to be obeyed.

cerberusThe Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen during the ‘Channel Dash’

On March 22nd 1941, the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst had sunk 22 British merchant ships in the Atlantic– totalling 115,000 tons. Such losses simply could not have been sustained and destroying the two ships was seen as critical if the English were going to win the Battle of the Atlantic. Both formidable ships returned to Brest harbour for repairs after their triumphs on the 22nd.

Brest was an unusual choice for a refuge as the ships could easily be trapped in by the British Home Fleet if they attempted to sail back to Germany or by the fleet in Gibraltar if they attempted to get the Mediterranean. Brest was also in reach of RAF bombers. When it became known that both ships had berthed in Brest, Bomber Command made them a primary target following an order from Winston Churchill. Several bombing raids had damaged the two ships but did not disable them. In one raid, Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell of No 22 Squadron hit the Gneisenau with a torpedo – but to no avail. Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery. In June 1941, the Prinz Eugen joined both ships in Brest

In April 1941, the French Resistance had gained information that the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau were about to break harbour and make a dash for Germany. The Royal Navy covered this threat with ‘Operation Fuller’ should it have taken place. In fact, there was no dash for Germany but the addition of the Prinz Eugen made the force even more formidable.

The Royal Navy assumed that Raeder, the head of the German Navy, would not tolerate three ships remaining in harbour and not doing anything. The Royal navy therefore assumed that the three ships would make a dash. It concluded that:

  • The three ships would make their dash at night
  • They assumed that this would be done on a cloudy night to give the ships cover and make it impossible for bombers to operate
  • The assumed that any dash would be as near to the French coast as was possible for such large ships so that fighter cover could be called if the Germans needed it – night time or not.

Admiral Ramsey’s force at Dover was suitably strengthened for any attempt by the Germans to get to Germany. The Royal Navy and the RAF worked in unison on the plan to destroy the German ships – a plan that involved the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Command, Bomber Command and Fighter Command. Though Bomber Command would not fly at night, it made plans for any attempt by the three ships to make a daylight dash.

In June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – the attack on Russia. While the attack was massively successful in its initial stages, Hitler became more and more obsessed with defending his northern flank – believing that the Allies would launch an attack via Norway or land men and equipment in Murmansk. He therefore ordered that all three ships should return to Germany rather than risk yet more damage from bombing raids in Brest. Hitler had already ordered the massive Tirpitz to Norwegian waters. The addition of the Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would make for an awesome naval presence there. On January 12th, 1942, Hitler gave the order for them to return to Germany.

The British very quickly became aware of increased Germany activity not only in Brest but also along the French northern coastline. The French Resistance reported that former French coastal airbases were being more and more used by the Luftwaffe. The Royal Navy concluded that they knew the ships would be leaving Brest at night – they just did not know when! In response to this, the Royal Navy tried to predict the route the ships might take and laid more mines – a total of 1000+ British mines were already placed in the English Channel.

A study of weather predictions led the Navy to conclude that the ships would sail between February 10th and 15th 1942, as cloud cover would make such a journey much safer. Coastal Command, the Fleet Air Arm, Fighter Command, etc were all put on the alert. A submarine, the ‘Sea Lion’, had been positioned off of Brest – its task was to watch the harbour as opposed to attacking the ships.

The Germans had put a great deal of thought into Operation Cerberus. British coastal radar had been jammed as a matter of course – but by February 1942, the success of the jamming had become extensive. Vice-Admiral Ciliax, commander of the battle-cruisers, could also sail knowing that the Luftwaffe could provide a total of 280 fighter planes to give aerial cover for the duration of the journey. Colonel Adolf Galland, charged with the task for the Luftwaffe, had mostly formidable Me-109’s and FW-190’s at his disposal, along with Me-110’s. From the start of the journey, Ciliaz could expect a minimum of 16 fighters covering his force and a maximum of 32. When he got near to the Straits of Dover, this number would be increased significantly.

The convoy, which included 6 destroyers, left Brest harbour at 22.45 hours on February 11th 1942. The Sea Lion had ended its watch at 21.35 hours as it assumed that the ships would not leave after this time on that day as they would not get to the Dover Straits in darkness. Nine German naval vessels and their supporting ships left Brest without being seen – a Hudson spotter plane using radar had swept past the convoy but faulty radar was common in early 1942 and it ‘saw’ nothing. Any visual contact was impossible due to the cloud cover. Other spotter planes also suffered from radar failure, allowing the convoy to round the Brest peninsula unseen.

By dawn next day, February 12th, the convoy was sailing off Barfleur, south of the Isle of Wight. Fog had assisted in camouflaging its movements. Both Coastal Command and Fighter Command had failed to pass on to Admiral Ramsey at Dover Castle, the fact that their surveillance had been hindered by faulty equipment. On February 12th, Ramsey still believed that the German convoy had yet to sail and he stood down the forces that had been brought together to attack the Germans.

For three large warships and six destroyer escorts, to sail up the English Channel undetected for 300 miles seems incredible. However, the weather and faulty radar equipment served the Germans well and gave them 13 hours at sea undetected. Ramsey’s defence force was also in disarray. His MTB (motor torpedo boat) force based in Ramsgate had been in action the previous night and was still recovering from this;Bomber Command’s planes would have found it nearly impossible to operate because of the weather conditions and the Bristol Beaufort squadrons based around the coast were forced to use different air strips because the one they wanted to use (North Coates) was snow bound. One patrol pane had flown directly over Ciliax’s force but had not broken radio silence and only passed on its information when the plane had reached its base – by which time the convoy was steaming passed Beachy Head in Sussex.

At Dover, the gun batteries based there engaged the Germans. However, their shells fell short simply because they had to guess the exact whereabouts of the ships because of the poor weather conditions. MTB’s from Dover attacked but they could not get near to the ships and had to fire their torpedoes from a distance of 2 miles – none hit. German fighter cover was ferocious. An attack by torpedo-carrying Swordfish planes also failed. All six planes were lost in the attack and their commander, Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

As the German convoy continued to steam towards its base, there were more British attacks. Poor weather, poor communications and a curious desire for secrecy even among the British forces fighting during the attack all played a part in the Germans successfully getting through.

The bad weather (cloud at 700 feet) meant that bombers could not get to the 7000 feet they needed to drop their armour-piercing bombs if they were to be effective – they simply could not see their targets. Of the 242 bombers involved in the engagement, only 39 are known to have dropped their bombs – and none of them found their target. British destroyers sent out from Harwich to attack the Germans were attacked by planes from the RAF as no-one had told the RAF that destroyers from Harwich were being sent into action.

At dawn on February 13th, the German convoy sailed into port. The Scharnhorst had hit a mine but Ciliax was eager to contact Berlin that their operation had been a great success. The Germans had lost just one of their minor escort ships and seventeen fighter planes. The British response to the breakout from Brest had been ineffective from a military point of view. However, there were few recriminations as the Gneisenau, Prinz Eugen and Scharnhorst were now all bottled up to the east of Britain where they could play no part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Even the commander of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Raeder, stated that the Germans had won “a tactical victory (but) had suffered a strategic defeat.” Roosevelt contacted Churchill to congratulate him on what had occurred:

“The location of all the German ships in Germany makes our joint North Atlantic naval problem more simple.”

What happened to the three ships Hitler so desperately wanted back in Germany? The Gneisenau was hit by Bomber Command just 2 weeks after the ‘Channel Dash’ and never went to sea again; the Prinz Eugen was sunk during post war tests in the Pacific and the Scharnhorst, hit by a  mine, was out of action for eight months for repairs – but was sunk in December 1943.

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