● ‘The English are now throwing their mothball navy at us’... One of the six Swordfi sh disintegrates as it plunges into the sea and (left) the choppy w
snow, very cold, bitter days,” Edgar Lee remembered 65 years later – the inexperienced
surprise, they voiced their enthusiasm for the mission.
patrols in the dark. “With the protection of darkness the Swordfi sh will have a chance of delivering their attacks and getting away,” a staff offi cer assured the naval aviators. But it would, he conceded, “be pretty fi erce when it starts.”
For two days HMS Sealion had lurked in the waters off Brest. Hurriedly dispatched from Gosport to stand guard off Brittany in case the Germans should emerge,
the submarine had
fought against the strong tides ripping from Biscay to the Channel through the narrows between Brest and the Finistère
archipelago. For despite
Continued from page i damaged once again.
“The only possibility is a surprise breakthrough
with no previous
indications that it is to take place,” Hitler insisted. There was another prerequisite: air
cover. The ships needed an aerial umbrella from daylight – somewhere off the Cotentin peninsula – to nightfall, off the Rhine estuary. The Luftwaffe could provide such an umbrella – Operation Donnerkeil (Thunderbolt) – but even by committing every available fi ghter in France and Germany, some 250 Messerschmitt 109s, twin-engined long-range Messerschmitt 110s and the new Focke-Wulf 190s – it could not guarantee round-the-clock cover. Germany’s senior fi ghter pilot, the
cigar-loving Adolf Galland, promised his men would “give their all – they know what is at stake”. But he could not promise success. “We need total surprise – and a bit of luck to boot.” Adolf Hitler took the fi ghter pilot to one side. “Most of my decisions have been bold,” he told Galland. “Only those who accept the dangers deserve luck.”
Long before Adolf Hitler decided on a breakout through the Channel, the Admiralty had suspected he might take such a gamble. Over the winter of 1941-42, there had been growing intelligence
surface ships were being readied for action:
to suggest the Brest crews were being
sent to the Baltic for training while the vessels themselves were making short forays from Brest to work-up. They might lunge once again into the Atlantic to strike at Britain’s supply lines – but the Admiralty thought it more likely that the trio would “break eastwards up the Channel and so to their home ports”. They would, of course, have to be stopped. But
in the Channel, the most
powerful navy in Europe had little to challenge the three German heavy ships – and certainly nothing gun for gun. Plymouth, Portsmouth, Portland and Chatham all proved every bit as vulnerable as Brest to aerial attack. That vulnerability, compounded by the Royal Navy’s global mission – the Battle of the Atlantic, Russian convoys, the struggle in the Mediterranean and the new and terrible conflict in the Far East – left Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the senior naval officer at Dover, with meagre forces to halt any breakout: half a dozen destroyers and a similar number of torpedo boats. Ramsay, architect of the Dunkirk evacuation, could call upon the forces of the RAF – Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Command – and half a dozen Fleet Air Arm Swordfish
bombers, to be transferred to RAF Manston near Ramsgate.
And that was pretty much all that was allocated to Operation Fuller, the yang to Cerberus’ yin.
Still, Ramsay and his staff set about planning to stop the Germans. The motor boats and Swordfi sh would launch a co-ordinated attack to cripple the ships, destroyers would then close in to deal further blows, while the RAF would rain bombs from above, protected by a shield of fi ghters.
ii : FEBRUARY 2012
Success – or failure – depended on forewarning. Staff officers studied the charts and concluded that the moon and tide favourable for a breakout suggested the
strike any day from February 10 onwards. They made just one error in their calculations. The Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, intelligence
would use the shield of night to hide their passage through the Strait of Dover.
t HMS Daedalus by the northern shore of the Solent, 825 Naval Air Squadron was still in the process of re-forming. It numbered just six antiquated
Swordfi sh torpedo bombers with crew – pilot, observer and telegraphist/air gunner for each aircraft – and a small number of engineers.
Just a couple of months before, the squadron had been fl ying from HMS Ark Royal, until a German torpedo sank the legendary carrier in the Mediterranean – and took several of 825’s Swordfi sh down with her. The re-constituted squadron would
take at least a month to train, perhaps two. But when volunteers were sought for a special unit to attack the German Fleet, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde stepped forward and offered 825. His comrades weren’t “particularly happy” at the prospect, recalled observer Edgar Lee. But they took comfort in the fact that Esmonde was a hugely experienced pilot – and that they would strike at the Hun ships by night and the Swordfish was a very good night-time torpedo bomber. “We never envisaged in our worst nightmares that we would be asked to attack a fleet in daylight with enormous air cover,” the 20-year-old observer said. On February 4 1942, the Swordfi sh of 825 Naval Air Squadron began to arrive at Manston in a snowstorm. From then on, whenever conditions permitted – “the weather was terrible,
Hitler’s instructions to the contrary, the Brest warships were making sporadic forays outside the safety of the port to conduct trials and exercises. News reached British shores. So far Sealion’s patrol had proved fruitless: no sign of the German trio. The boat moved to the edge of the channel leading out of Brest harbour in the hope of finding richer pickings. After dark on February 9, the submarine surfaced in the hope of catching the Germans sailing. The ships did not come. But a
Luftwaffe Do217 bomber did, sweeping over the bay on a routine patrol. Sealion dived – but the game was up. She was subjected to depth charge attack, rocking but not damaging the boat. It was clear to her captain that the waters off Brest were unsafe. He took Sealion further out to sea.
The next day Adolf Galland’s fighters completed their final sweep of the Channel. On eight
January 22 and February 10, he sent his aircraft aloft – not too many to arouse British suspicions, but enough to prove that the aerial umbrella would work. His pilots knew nothing of their missions – these were just routine patrols. With the Donnerkeil practices complete, Galland was summoned to the Palais du Luxembourg, the Luftwaffe’s sumptuous French headquarters in the heart of Paris. The weather forecast for the next day, Thursday February 12, was far from encouraging, for fl ying especially – worsening through much of the hours of daylight until a front passed – but the Navy decided that Cerberus should begin that night, passing through the Channel on the 12th. It could, of course, postpone the breakout by 24 hours... but superstitious sailors did not relish the prospect of carrying out the operation on Friday 13. From Paris, Galland fl ew to the Pas de Calais to brief his front-line fi ghter commanders on the breakout and handed them sealed envelopes containing detailed instructions for Donnerkeil. News of the mission “hit them like a bomb”, but despite the
While Adolf Galland was briefi ng his commanders, Joseph Goebbels was closeted with Hitler in the gaudy but imposing Reich Chancellery in Berlin’s government quarter.
Propaganda Minister found his Führer rather unsettled; he had returned to the German capital for the state funeral of his friend and engineer Fritz Todt, killed three days earlier in a mysterious plane crash. Todt’s death “has badly shaken the
him”, Propaganda Minister
observed. Also weighing on Hitler’s mind was the impending breakout by his warships at Brest. “We’re all shaking in case something happens to them,” Goebbels recorded in his voluminous diary. “It would be dreadful if one of these ships were to suffer the same fate as the Bismarck.”
After a week of trying to bring his scratch squadron up to operational status, Eugene Esmonde had been given the day off to go to London. The 32-year-old had more than a
dozen years’ fl ying experience under his belt: fi ve in the RAF, a similar number as a civilian pilot for Imperial Airways before donning uniform once more on the eve of war, this time in the fl edgling Fleet Air Arm.
Esmonde knew what it meant to lead obsolete Swordfish against German capital ships; he had guided the torpedo bombers of 825 squadron against the Bismarck eight months previously. He had done so in the dark, in foul weather, and in the face of ferocious flak – and he had scored a hit; a torpedo struck Hitler’s flagship. For his actions that night, Esmonde was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. This Wednesday he would receive his medal from George VI at Buckingham Palace.
In Brest, the captains of the Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau joined their counterpart from the Scharnhorst in the admiral’s cabin on the fl agship. It had fallen to Otto Ciliax to lead the three ships up the Channel – although he had little belief in the mission, less still the reasons for abandoning the Atlantic coast. The
Befehlshaber der Schlachtschiffe (Commander of Battleships), was not an especially popular leader – a rather dour figure known by some as the Der schwarze Zar (Black Tsar). Ciliax was a stern disciplinarian who expected his orders to be followed to the letter. This counted more than ever now, he told Otto Fein of the Gneisenau, Helmuth Brinkmann of the Prinz Eugen, and his own flag captain, Kurt Hoffmann. “It is a bold and unheard of operation for the German Navy,” Ciliax impressed upon them. “It will succeed if these orders are strictly obeyed.” Beyond the narrowest circle, the
50-year-old admiral, torpedo
Motto: Scharnhorst immer voran (Scharnhorst always in the vanguard) Class: Scharnhorst-class Schlachtschiff Builder: Kriegsmarinewerft, Wilhelmshaven Laid down: June 15, 1935 Launched: October 3, 1936 Commissioned: January 7, 1939 Displacement: 38,000 tons Length: 772ft (235m) Beam: 98.4ft (30m) Draught: 31ft 9in (59.7m) Speed: 31 knots Range: 7,100 nautical miles at
Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst 19 knots
Complement: up to 60 officers and 1,908 other ranks Propulsion: 3 x Germania/Brown, Boveri and Cie geared turbines generating 151,000 shp Armour: between 50mm (2in) on the deck and 350mm (14in) on the belt and conning tower Armament: 9 x 28cm (11in) guns; 12 x 15cm (5.9in) guns; 14 x 10.5cm (4.1in) flak; 16 x 3.7cm (1.4in) flak; 38 x 2cm (.7in) flak; 6 x torpedo tubes Aircraft: 3 x Arado Ar196A seaplanes
crews of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen knew nothing of their impending charge up the Channel. They believed they were heading south, not north – pith helmets and barrels of lubricating oil were being stored aboard. Nor did they believe their departure from Brest imminent. Preparations for one of the most important dates in the German calendar, Shrove Monday – on February 16 – were in full swing. It would be celebrated in the traditional manner – with a costume
ashore. More pressing for the ships’ offi cers were two days in Paris as guests of Admiral Alfred Saalwächter, the Kriegsmarine’s commander in France. Lists were circulated with the names of offi cers who were to attend a dinner with Saalwächter, followed by a day’s hunting in Rambouillet on the edge of the French capital.
sea. Gun crews manned their turrets while a tug was brought alongside to shepherd the cruiser out of harbour. She would be the last of the three ships to sail. Scharnhorst, as flagship, would lead, followed by her sister, then the Prinz. Once in open water, they would sail in Kielwasserlinie – in line astern – with a protective shield of half a dozen destroyers, more than a dozen torpedo boats, and fast patrol craft – S-boats to the Germans, E-boats to the British. In half an hour, the force was ready to sail. But suddenly the alarms sounded once more: air raid. For the next 30 minutes the sailors waited tensely, while smoke screens billowed across the harbour. Five parachute flares lit up the entrance to the port. But the handful of bombs dropped by the Wellingtons fell over the city, not the harbour.
A It was another hour before the all-
clear sounded – and 15 minutes more before the red lamp on Scharnhorst’s bridge flickered through the gloom. A B L E G E N. Cast off. It took another hour to clear the narrow entrances to Brest. By 10.30pm, the tugs had done their duty and turned about. On the bridge of the Scharnhorst,
t 7pm the
aboard the Prinz Eugen. Seeklarmachen. Ready
increased speed to 27 knots – did the loudspeakers come to life. They broadcast Otto Ciliax’s order of the day. “The Führer has summoned us to new tasks in other waters,” he told them. The force was to sail east through the Channel to the German Bight – a diffi cult mission, one which demanded a supreme effort from every man. “The Führer expects from each of us unwavering duty. It is our duty as warriors and seamen to fulfi l these expectations.”
of Hudson Command
de Calais to the tip of the Brittany peninsula,
the skies from the Pas using their
sweep the Atlantic and Channel for movement. Tonight was no exception. Except that tonight was an exception. For the radar on the fi rst Hudson failed mid-Channel. It returned to base in St Eval on the north Cornish coast. By the time a replacement arrived off Brest, Ciliax was gone. A second Hudson, due to scour
the waters between Ushant and Brest fared no better. Its radar failed. It too turned for home – 90 minutes before Ciliax sailed. No replacement was sent.
In a hotel near Versailles, a bleary- eyed
Krumbholz had been summoned to the telephone to take a call from his commander. The Luftwaffe observer had barely returned from a lengthy reconnaissance fl ight in a Junkers 88 bomber over the English south coast, grabbed some food and retired to bed. Still
dressed in his pyjamas,
Krumbholz took down some coded instructions, woke his three other crew members then sat down to decipher the message: before fi rst light they would be over the Channel once more, this time providing cover for the breakout of the battleships.
Officer of the Watch Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Wolf asked the ship’s navigator for the course to steer. “Steuerbord drei vier null,” Helmuth Gießler told him. Turn starboard to 340 degrees. Wolf queried the course – it would take the ships out into the Channel. “The course is correct,” Gießler grinned. “Tomorrow you’ll be at home with your wife.” The rest of Scharnhorst’s crew still knew nothing of their mission – or their destination. Only a little after midnight – as the force cleared the narrow and hazard- ous waters between Ushant and the Brittany insula
At least the radar on a third RAF reconnaissance aircraft was functioning. So far this night it had completed two sweeps of the Channel between Boulogne and Le Havre. Nothing. It would have made a third, but with the weather closing in on its base, it was recalled early. At 6.15am on Thursday February 12, it set course for Thorney Island.
Adolf Galland had slept little. A
good 90 minutes before dawn he had opened his aerial umbrella, sending night fi ghters over the warships. The Me110s fl ew just a few feet above the waves to avoid being picked up by British radar stations across the Channel.
Aboard the Prinz Eugen, individual sailors were released from their action stations to grab food from the galley or to enjoy a cigarette.
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