Warships turn to the English Channel | The Second World War

(February 11, 2022) A huge German warship sailing up the English Channel under the nose of the most powerful navy in the world? Absurd! In broad daylight? Impossible! Three huge German warships? Incredible? Believe it, because it happened this week, 80 years ago! And the Brits knew it was coming!

After the armistice between Germany and France in June 1940, France was divided into “occupied” and “unoccupied” zones. The Germans occupy all the coastal areas. They thought this would allow their navy better access to the Atlantic. In this they were right. But it also gave the Royal Air Force greater access to naval units stationed in occupied France.

In the fall of 1941, the hammering of German naval units into French ports by the RAF, Allied convoys to Murmansk, USSR, and Hitler’s belief that the British intended to invade Norway, came together. combined to cause “The Channel Dash”, eighty years ago, this week.

At a naval conference on November 13, 1941, Hitler refused to allow further commerce raids by the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were moored at the French port of Brest, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. He wanted no more embarrassments like those that had befallen Admiral Graf Spee and Bismarck.

Faced with this decision, Großadmiral Erich Ræder, head of the Kriegsmarine, agreed that the three ships be sent back to Germany. The Grand Admiral suggested that the best route would be around the British Isles and up the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland, then into the Arctic Ocean and out to the Baltic Sea.

The Grand Admiral conceded that the Prinz Eugen might be able to sail safely up the English Channel. When Hitler asked if it would be possible to get the three ships through the channel, Ræder replied that “it would involve very great danger and I would urgently warn you, mein Führer, against any such attempt. ” It was there ! The seed had been planted.

At the December naval conference, Hitler declared that “every ship that is not in Norway is in the wrong place”. Later that month, Ræder reiterated his position saying, “According to the evidence available so far, an escape through the channel is not possible due to the enormous risks.” Hitler disagreed, saying “the best strategy is a complete surprise escape across the channel”. Der Fürher had spoken! The task of planning and directing the breakout was given to Vizeadmiral Otto Ciliax.

Admiral Ciliax was 50 years old and was the first commander of the Scharnhorst, which was now his flagship.

At a “decisive conference” on January 12, 1942, Admiral Ciliax unveiled his plan for “The Channel Dash”, which was codenamed “Operation Cerberus”. The admiral advocated leaving Brest at night, so that the warships could, “…make the most of the element of surprise by crossing the Strait of Dover by day.” Endorsing the plan, Hitler said, “I don’t believe the enemy is capable of making and executing snap decisions.” Events proved him right. He also accurately predicted that “…this operation will be our most spectacular naval success of the war”.

Admiral Ciliax planned to leave Brest at 7:30 p.m. on February 11, 1942. But the British had also thought about it. They had determined that the German ships were likely to return to Germany and, due to a number of factors, had reduced the date to February 12, 1942.

An RAF bombardment delayed the departure of the warships by 90 minutes. However, the Germans knew how to turn it to their advantage, leaving while the port was still covered by the artificial fog that occurred during air raids. The Germans also delayed the sound of “All Clear” until dawn, so that the Allied spies did not learn of the departure until too late.

A British comedy of errors now combined to make Hitler look clairvoyant. The two submarines, stationed outside Brest, are withdrawn at the same time, to recharge their batteries. RAF radar was not working and replacement aircraft refused to start. And, the British command thought that no news was good news, and so did not ask when no reports had been received.

Meanwhile, it was not until after midnight that Admiral Ciliax, ironically copying Lord Nelson’s address to his sailors before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, informed the German sailors of their mission, saying: “The Fürher expects unwavering dedication from each of us. , and I lead the squadron aware that everyone will do their duty to the fullest.

Admiral Frederick Ruge’s minesweepers had swept a mile-wide path across the English Channel, which the fleet navigator had to cross without radar, lest the radar itself reveal the German secret. The passage was at a speed of 27 knots on a moonless night, with Scharnhorst in the lead, followed by Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen.

The German fleet passed through the German-occupied Channel Islands at 5 a.m. and by 7:15 a.m. had passed Cherbourg. Dawn broke 30 minutes later and within five minutes Luftwaffe fighters, led by ace Adolf Galland, joined the operation.

The German warships go undetected, until finally, at 11:10 a.m., two Spitfire pilots report them. At this time, German warships were approaching Dover and the narrowest part of the English Channel – 21 miles in diameter. It was only an hour later that the British finally swung into action. At this time a coastal defense battery began firing and a squadron of motor torpedo boats attacked. They would be followed by a squadron of 18 Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes and six destroyers.

The German warships had passed through the Strait of Dover by 2:30 p.m. None had yet suffered damage. That changed when the Scharnhorst hit a mine at the mouth of the Scheldt and shuddered to a halt. The other two ships never stopped. The Z-29 destroyer came alongside and removed the Admiral from his flagship. However, the damage was not severe and within 20 minutes the Scharnhorst was on its way.

At 3:20 p.m. the British destroyers began to enter. But, in addition to dealing with the far superior range and firepower of the German ships, the Royal Navy also had to contend with two bombing attempts by its own Royal Air Force! Once again the British inflict no damage on the German ships.

In a last ditch effort, the RAF sent 242 aircraft to intercept the German warships. Nothing!

The Gneisenau struck a mine, at 7:55 p.m., off the island of Terschelling, which left a gaping hole in its starboard side. In less than 30 minutes, her crew got her moving again. Near the same island, the Scharnhorst struck a second mine, at 9.30 p.m., which caused significant damage. At 7 a.m. on the 13th, Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen arrived at Brunsbuttel, at the western end of the Kiel Canal, Germany. Scharnhorst finally arrived in Wilhelmshavern at midnight on the 13th.

The British were appalled. The Times of London said that,

“Vice-Admiral Ciliax succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia [commander of the Spanish Armada] failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our sea power has occurred since the seventeenth century. And more than pride is involved; because the strength of the naval forces against which we will have to protect ourselves will soon be increased by … two battleships and a cruiser [which had previously been] fixed targets for our bombers over Brest.

For his role in Operation Cerberus, Adm. Ciliax was awarded the Knight’s Cross on March 21, 1942.

Next week: Butch O’Hare

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law and represents those charged with criminal and traffic offenses, and those who have suffered injuries through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: [email protected]