Operation "Cerberus" (11 - 13 February 1942)
Above all, the timing was important. Vice-Admiral and Fleet Commander Otto Ciliax had judged it essential that his command should be clear of Brest by 22:30 on 11 February. As things turned out, it very nearly missed the deadline.
The time was 20:30. Captain Kurt Hoffmann was at his post on Scharnhorst's bridge; Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were in a similar state of readiness. The destroyers Z 29 (the leader, which wore the flag of Rear-Admiral Erich Bey - Flag Officer Destroyers), Paul Jacobi, Richard Beitzen, Friedrich lhn, Z 25, and Hermann Schoemann were taking up their stations. Everywhere there were signs of quiet, controlled activity, and then, at this very worst of times, the air-raid alarm sounded. The mines had been swept away, at airfields along the coast pilots were waiting to go into action at first light, torpedo boats, destroyers, and Schnellboats were in readiness; the complements of the two battleshipss had been augmented by detachments of naval coastal gunners - sailors who normally never went to sea, but whose 20 mm quadruple-mounted guns were intended to strengthen the anti-aircraft defences. The moment had come, the preparations were complete, and now this. The one occurrence beyond the control of Ciliax and his officers threatened the entire project.
For one and three-quarter agonizing hours it looked as if the departure might have to be put off. The ears of everyone above deck were alert for the distant rumble of aircraft engines, the crump of exploding bombs. But no sounds broke the silence of the night. The time dragged by with horrible slowness. Just after 22:00 Ciliax was on the point of cancelling. But at 22:14 the "all clear" sounded. It had been a very close thing, but the operation could now go forward. By 23.45 all the ships had slipped their moorings and were out in the roadstead.
There were some small mishaps - such as when the hawser from a tug became entangled in Prinz Eugen's starboard propeller, and when Scharnhorst nearly fouled the nets of the boom defences. Driven by the wind the smoke that enshrouded the dockyard in an attempt to confuse bomber pilots obscured the buoys marking the channel. Consequently the ships had to be navigated by dead reckoning which, in such an enclosed space, was difficult. But despite these set-backs the fleet was off Ushant by 01:30 steaming at 30 knots and only 72 minutes behind schedule. What was even more to the point, nobody in Britain knew that it had put to sea. The destroyer Z 29 was leading, then came Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. Two destroyers were deployed on either flank, and Z 25 brought up the rear.
A young French leutenant, Jean Philippon who worked in the dockyard at Brest, helped the British as agent and supplied them with valuable information. Jean Philippon believed that the German fleet would leave Brest in darkness and pass through the Straits of Dover in daylight.
Captain (later Vice-Admiral) Normann Denning, head of the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Centre, was less certain though he admitted the possibility. At the end of January he had issued a warning that the three ships were in a position to put to sea, and that some major operation should be expected. Later in a note to the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound he observed:
The short cut for the German ships is via the English Channel. It is 240 miles (almost 400 kilometers) from Brest to Cherbourg and another 120 miles (almost 200 kilometers) from Cherbourg to the Dover Straits." While ships could make the passage from Brest to Cherbourg or from Cherbourg to the Dover Straits in the same dark period, they could not make the complete passage from Brest to Dover in one dark period.
At first sight this passage up the Channel seems hazardous for the Germans. It is probable, however, that as their heavy ships were not fully efficient, they would prefer such a passage, relying for their security on the destroyers and aircraft which are efficient, and knowing full well that we have no heavy ships to oppose them in the Channel....
Taking all factors into consideration, it appears that the Germans can pass east up the Channel with much less risk than they will incur if they attempt an ocean passage.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, chief of Coastal Command, agreed with this appreciation of the probable route. He added that, in view of the necessity for a long night with no moon and a spring tide on the flood, the exodus from Brest could be expected any time after 10 February.
Unfortunately, the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the heads of Coastal, Fighter and Bomber Commands, and Bertram Ramsay (Vice-Admiral Dover) were unanimous on one point. Contrary to Philippon's opinion, they all expected the ships to leave Brest in daylight, and to reserve darkness for the most perilous part of the trip - the passage through the Straits of Dover. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. The far from adequate forces at their disposal could best be used by night.
In spite of Ciliax's insistence on security and his efforts to mislead, there was no lack of clues. It was noticed that the destroyers that had escorted Tirpitz to Trondheim had not remained there, but had departed for a destination in the south. On 8 February aerial photographs of Brest revealed the three big ships in the harbour, four large destroyers and a number of Schnellboats and minesweepers. Photos taken on the following day brought the score of destroyers up to six.
The forces detailed to oppose the progress of Ciliax's fleet were slender enough in all conscience. Six destroyers equipped with torpedoes had been loaned to Admiral Ramsay by the C-in-C Nore. They were normally stationed at Sheerness and Harwich, but they should have been at four hours' notice in the Thames Estuary. In fact, at the crucial moment, they were out in the North Sea off Orfordness, practising gunnery. In addition to this, there were the Hunt class vessels which had been built for escort work. They had no torpedoes and consequently were virtually useless in this instance. Finally there were thirty-two motor torpedo boats that were no match for the German Schnellboats (Fast boats).
So far as aircraft were concerned, Coastal Command had agreed to provide three squadrons of Beaufort torpedo bombers. The Fleet Air Arm was able to contribute one squadron of Swordfish torpedo-carriers. Bomber Command had 300 bombers on stand-by, and there was the promise of considerable fighter support. Ideally the torpedo-carrying aircraft would have made a concerted attack with fighter cover. But this was impossible. For one thing, the Swordfish had a cruising speed of 153 kilometers per hour (95 mph) whilst the Beauforts were very much faster. For another, there was the question of bringing them all together. One Beaufort squadron was stationed at Leuchers in Scotland, another at St Eval in Cornwall, and the third at Thorney Island near Portsmouth.
Any action taken against the ships depended on sufficient warning as it would take time to integrate all these scattered units into an effective whole. No such warning was given. The fiasco began in the sky over Brest when the crews of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were waiting for the "all clear" during the air-raid alarm.
Three Hudson aircraft of Coastal Command, each equipped with "Aircraft to Surface Vessel" (ASV) radar, were detailed to patrol the approaches to Brest by night. The first, code-named "Stopper", maintained a vigil between sunset and first light off the port itself. The second, "Line SE", watched over the area from the north of Brest to Ushant. The third, "Habo", covered the area between Le Havre and Boulogne between 01:00 and dawn. In addition to this, Fighter Command operated daylight sweeps, known as "Jim Crow" patrols, between the mouth of the Somme and Ostend. They began at daybreak and continued at two-hourly intervals until nightfall.
On the evening of 11 February, the "Stopper" aircraft set off for Brest as usual. At 19:25, just as it was approaching the area, a German night-fighter intercepted it. By the time the pilot had succeeded in shaking off the enemy and was back on course, the ASV equipment had become unserviceable. There was no point in continuing the patrol and he headed back to base at St Eval where he landed at 20:40. Meanwhile, a relief Hudson had been dispatched. It reached Brest at 22:38 and remained in the vicinity for the next few hours but the damage was done. During the period, when there was no aircraft to detect them, Ciliax and his ships had slipped away.
In theory, the fleet should have been picked up by the next Hudson, "Line SE", but this was a night of disasters. The ASV in this aircraft also packed up. The fault occurred at 20:55. At 21:50, when all attempts to repair it had failed, it too returned to base. No replacement was provided.
Everything now depended on "Habo". But, once again, the Germans was lucky. With the approach of dawn mist began to form over the aircraft's base at Thorney Island. The station controller foresaw conditions that would make it impossible for the Hudson aircraft to land. Consequently he recalled it one hour before the patrol was due to end - in other words, just as the warships were approaching the "Habo" zone.
When the "Jim Crow" request was dispatched it landed on the desk of Group Captain Victor Beamish at Kenley aerodrome. It was a vile day, with a great deal of cloud and patches of mist. Beamish judged the conditions too bad to send his relatively inexperienced pilots on operations, and so he decided to go himself. For company, he took with him Wing-Commander Finlay Boyd. Like the group-captain, Boyd was a veteran of the Battle of Britain. The two men climbed into their Spitfires and took off.
Over the Channel, they came across a pack of Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters that marked the edge of Galland's air cover. To avoid the opposition, they dived. Suddenly and much to their amazement, they saw the German fleet spread out in line ahead beneath them. It was, perhaps typical of the day that while they had some knowledge of the Scharnhorst-Gneisenau situation, they had not been told to expect anything of this nature. They turned and hurried homewards.
The rules of Fighter Command were emphatic: its pilots were, under no matter what circumstances, to maintain radio silence. Consequently Beamish and Boyd had to keep their sensational discovery to themselves until they landed. They had sighted the ships at 10:42 and it was 11:09 before they landed at Kenley. Another precious 27 minutes had been lost and it was not until 16 minutes after this that Bomber Command was alerted. As for Vice-Admiral Ramsay he was unaware of it until 11:30 when a telephone call from the Admiralty informed him that the German vessels had been sighted.
When he heard about the sighting, Primeminister Winston Churchill's comment was: "At all costs the ships must be intercepted and made to pay dearly for their audacity." It was all very well to demand such things but delay, added to the lack of available forces, had made such retribution virtually impossible.
From 11:55 radar plots giving the German positions were broadcast at ten-minute intervals. They were also passed on by telephone to the Admiralty, Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands, and to 16 and 11 Groups of the RAF. The trouble was that, with the ships steaming at about 27 knots and occasionally working up to 30 knots, there was too little time. For example, the squadron of Beauforts based at Leuchars in Scotland had been ordered south some days earlier. By now, the aircraft should have been at Coltishall in Norfolk. But the weather had intervened. For three days the torpedo-bombers had been grounded by snow. They were still many kilometers from the scene of action.
The first forces to go into action were motor torpedo boats led by Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Pumphrey. Originally there had been 32 of them. In the stubborn belief that the enemy would come by night the plan was for them to launch an attack in company with the squadron of Swordfish aircraft from Manston. On the morning of 12 February 1942 there was an atmosphere of relaxation. 27 of the boats had been sent off for other duties
At 07.00 hours that morning the motor torpedo boats had ventured out into the Channel to make a few practice runs off Dover. As was the custom on such occasions their torpedoes were armed with dummy warheads. It took about 20 minutes to change them over to what were known as "action fish". The work was undertaken as soon as they returned to port one hour later.
5 small fighting craft, lightly armed, with wooden hulls, powered by not wholly reliable petrol engines, against three large ships, destroyers, torpedo boats, and a screen of Schnellboats (Fast boats) were no match. Unfortunately, at this stage in the proceedings, there was nothing else available. So far as submarines were concerned, Sealion was still somewhere several kilometers offshore from Brest, and there were no such vessels in the vicinity. Nor, in any case, could they have been used effectively in the comparatively shallow waters of the Channel and operating at targets moving at 27-30 knots.
The German fleet was now steaming at 27 knots on a northerly course off Boulogne. At 12:10 the British MTB skippers sighted a smoke screen to the south-east. Soon afterwards they spotted a dozen Schnellboats travelling in line ahead. They were deployed in two divisions about a kilometer apart.
The German aircraft that flew air cover seemed to take little interest in this pitiful force of British motor torpedo boats. Nor was there any need to as the Schnellboats were doing excellent execution. Soon after the initial sighting Pumphrey's boat, MTB 221, succumbed to engine failure. It had already been severely shot up by 20 mm shells of the Schnellboats. Pumphrey ordered the other MTBs to carry on.
But then MTB 44's engines failed too. MTB 219 succeeded in firing a torpedo but it went wide of the mark. Another boat in the flotilla tried too but it misfired. Eventually they all went back to Dover.
Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde (known from a torpedo attack against the Bismarck in May 1941) and his squadron had been transferred to Manston from Lee-on-Solent earlier in the month. Eugene Esmonde knew his pilots was inexperienced and most likely knew that a mission against the German ships in the Channel was verging on the suicidal. The only thing that might save them was adequate fighter protection. Three squadrons of aircraft had been assigned to protect the Swordfish.
At Manston, Esmonde was becoming impatient. At 10:55, 12 February 1942 Esmonde was told to expect a target. At 11:30 he was informed that it was definitely Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. At 12:15, he was sitting in the cockpit of his Swordfish waiting to take off. An orderly had been detailed to ply between his aircraft and the station's office, supplying him with information. The one thing he needed to know was whether the three fighter squadrons were approaching. But the only item of any relevance to his present predicament was the news that the German ships had increased their speed to 27 knots. Unless he and the rest of his squadron took off within the next fifteen minutes the mission would be impossible. But there was still no sign of the fighters. At 12:25, Esmonde decided that the waiting had gone on for long enough. If there was no cover it was unfortunate. It was, however no reason why the attack should be cancelled. He sent the runner back to the office, gave his pilots the "thumbs up" signal, and the six Swordfish took off.
In fact, the three promised fighter squadrons had already left their bases. The Canadian 411 Squadron and 64 Squadron had both been dispatched with orders to meet Esmonde's formation in the sky at 12:30 hours. The former encountered the German fleet but missed the Swordfish. The latter arrived over Manston at 12:45, fifteen minutes too late. The only unit to keep its appointment was ten Spitfires of 72 Squadron commanded by Battle of Britain ace, Brian Kingcombe.
The departure of Kingcombe's squadron from Gravesend (a satellite of Biggin Hill airfield) had been postponed three times until, at last, he received the order: "Get to Manston to escort six Swordfish and intervene in a battle between German E-boats (Schnellboats) and British Motor Torpedo Boat's." There was no mention of battlecruisers, nor, of Galland's (German) fighter cover.
Esmonde's Swordfish's and Kingcombe's much faster Spitfires met briefly at 12:32 hours. It happened more or less by accident as the fighters dived out of the clouds and spotted the Swordfish beneath them. The latter were now divided into two sub-flights travelling in line astern. Esmonde was leading the first, Sub-Lieutenant Thompson the second. The target was estimated as 37 kilometers (23 miles) away on a bearing of 140° from Ramsgate. At this point, they were travelling at 457 meter (1.500 feet). Later, they came down to between 15 and 30 meter (50-100 feet).
It was no more than a passing encounter. The air space was overpopulated by enemy (German) fighters. The ships down below were saturating the sky with AA fire regardless, it seemed, of who was friend and who was foe. The attacks began when a formation of Focke-Wulf 190s swooped down on 72 Squadron 16 kilometers (10 miles) off the coast. This effectively put an end to the fighter cover. Kingcombe and his pilots became too heavily involved in a general dogfight to be of any assistance to Esmonde and his Swordfish.
Esmonde caught his first glimpse of the ships when he saw the German Schnellboats (E-boats) and destroyers about 34 kilometers (21 miles) away on his port bow. Two of the larger units could just be seen through the smoke screen, but their outlines were blurred and it was impossible to identify them.
By this time, Esmonde's Swordfish had already been hit. The port main wing had been shot to ribbons, and it seemed about to crash. But the aircraft recovered. It was now over the destroyer screen and Esmonde made a slight change of course in the direction of the big ships. Shortly afterwards he appears to have released the torpedo. The final reckoning came when he was 2.743 meters (3.000 yards) from the main target. The aircraft was hit again and it crashed into the sea. All three men in it were killed.
Unfortunately all the squadron's torpedoes went wide of their marks.
Sub-Lieutenant Brian Rose was flying the second Swordfish in the first subflight. Soon after the initial encounter with the enemy he was hit in the back. He was still able to fly the aircraft, though he was now in considerable pain. Moments later, another shell fractured the petrol tank. The engine faltered and Rose decided that he had to get rid of his torpedo. He aimed it at the second big ship, Gneisenau. As he turned away it "seemed to be running well". He estimated the range as about 1.829 meter (2.000 yards).
In the cockpit behind him the gunner, Leading Airman A. L. Johnson, had been killed. The observer, Sub-Lieutenant Edgar Lee, had escaped injury. He had even tried to take over the gun but Johnson's body was in the way. It was now quite clear that the aircraft would never get back to Manston. Rose brought it down into the sea about 457 meter (500 yards) from the enemy destroyer screen. His back was now in very bad shape but Lee managed to help him out and into the rubber dinghy. Johnson's body was too firmly wedged in place to be shifted before the Swordfish sank. The two men waited until the German ships were well out of the way. Then they fired two distress signals with a Verey light pistol. They were seen by an MTB, which picked them up after 1½ hour.
Sub-Lieutenant C.M. (Pat) Kingsmill, who piloted the third Swordfish in the subflight, fared scarcely better. Early on in the action a cannon shell removed the top two cylinders of his engine and set the upper port wing on fire. Despite this his gunner, Leading Airman Donald Bunce, kept on firing and Kingsmill was able to maintain control of the aircraft for long enough to aim his torpedo at Gneisenau at a range of about 2.743 meters (3.000 yards). Then the Swordfish fell into the sea. Fortunately it came down within 91 meters (100 yards) of a British MTB. Kingsmill, Bunce, and Sub-Lieutenant Samples (the observer) were picked up after 10 minutes.
The second sub-flight was last seen taking evasive action as it flew into the inferno of anti-aircraft fire. There were no survivors.
The British Admiral Ramsay later wrote: "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed."
The German Vice-Admiral Ciliax said afterwards: "The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day". Helmuth Giessler said: "Such bravery was devoted and incredible. One was privileged to witness it." Captain Hoffmann said during the attack: "Poor fellows. They are so very slow. It is nothing but suicide for them to fly against these big ships."
To the men on board Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the engagement had been no more than a small inconvenience. It had not even consumed very much antiaircraft ammunition as the action had largely been in the hands of Galland's fighter pilots. The sailors had watched with fascination and awe as the fragile biplanes flew towards them.
At no time did the lookouts on the German vessels glimpse the shores of Britain and at no time did the shores of Britain glimpse the vessels. The coastal defence artillery fired 33 rounds from its 234 mm (9,2 inch) battery on the South Foreland for purposes of control and spotting. All the rounds fell short.
Bomber Command's contribution to the proceedings came relatively late in the day as, on this very morning, the striking force had been told to stand down. It was typical of the lack of communications that the Royal Navy, Coastal Command and even the Air Ministry had not been told about this decision. The result was that it took 3 hours to get the first wave into the air. The aircraft took off at 14:20. 35 minutes later, they were over the target. The cloud base was now down to 213 meters (700 feet), and there were intermittent showers of heavy rain. Visibility at sea level was between 305 and 610 meters (1.000 and 2.000 yards). At 14:37 the second wave became airborne.
Of the 242 aircraft that took part in the bombing missions, only 39 attacked the ships and no hits were scored.
If the patrols in the area of Brest had been able to report the departure of Ciliax's fleet, the story of the Beauforts in 86 Squadron might have been one of success. Stationed at St Eval in Cornwall they were well situated to attack the ships at the entrance to the Channel. But, like everybody else that day, they were frantically trying to catch up. Once the news came through that the German fleet had been sighted they were ordered to Thorney Island in Hampshire. They arrived at 14:30. After refuelling they were told to proceed to Coltishall in Norfolk where they would pick up a fighter escort. The Beauforts were over Coltishall at 17:00 hours but there were no fighters to be seen. Instead they were told to make their way independently to the target. Dusk was now falling, visibility was down to 305 meters (1.000 yards), and the cloud base was at 600 feet. Predictably they never saw the opposition which was now 64 kilometers (40 miles) from the last reported position except they sighted 4 minesweepers, which put up a formidable barrage of anti-aircraft fire. 2 of the Beauforts were shot down. The remainder returned dejectedly to Coltishall.
Earlier in the day aircraft from 217 Squadron, stationed at Thorney Island, had spent a profitless hour circling the airfield at Manston waiting for fighters to come up and lead them to the target. The pilots should have been told that the Spitfires had already departed, and that they would find them over the German fleet. Unfortunately, Manston was trying to communicate by W/T in morse code, whilst the Beauforts were using radio telephones. Consequently, no conversation between them took place. Eventually the aircraft from 217 Squadron reached their destination where they found the sky crowded by a confusion of aircraft, Messerschmitts, Focke-Wulf 190s, Spitfires, Hurricanes. They came down to wave height to discharge their torpedoes all of which missed. At 15:45, they set course back to Thorney Island.
Later, three more aircraft from 217 Squadron went into the attack. In one of them the wireless operator was wounded and a cannon shell put the torpedo release gear out of action. The gunner of the second shot down an Me 109 after a shell had smashed through the Beaufort's tailplane. The third was in much greater trouble. The pilot, Sergeant Rout, was on his first operational flight. He came down through the flak and released his torpedo. But then an Focke-Wulf 190 came up behind him. Sergeant Rout was hit in the hand, his wireless operator was wounded in an arm and a leg, and the rear gunner was injured when a fragment of broken perspex cut into his right eye. By this time the aircraft had caught fire. Somehow, despite their injuries, the crew put out the flames, and they reached home, safely.
The squadron from Leuchars had suffered as much frustration as anyone that day. At last, after many delays, they had arrived at Coltishall, where they were due to be equipped with torpedoes. These had to be brought from Grimsby and had not yet arrived. They wasted 21 hours waiting for them. When they took off again they found themselves surrounded by a formation of Hudsons, none of which seemed to know which way to go. At last they were pointed in the general direction of the targets where they brought a lot of trouble to 3 destroyers from Harwich by mistaking one of the British ships for Scharnhorst.
Captain Mark Pizey was in charge of the 21st Destroyer Flotilla from Sheerness. For the purposes of this operation he had under his command Campbell and Vivacious plus Mackay, Worcester, Whitshed, and Walpole from Captain J. P. Wright's 16th Flotilla based at Harwich. Four Hunt class ships were also available but they were not armed with torpedoes. Nor were they fast enough. Their top speed was 26 knots compared with about 30 knots for the others. In the coming action they had to be left behind. All the destroyers committed to action were at least 20 years old and the sum of 6 did not add up to a complete flotilla.
Early that morning, the 6 old destroyers and the 4 more recently built Hunts were exercising in the North Sea between Aldeburgh and Orfordness. At 11:45, Pizey received a signal that the German battleships were off Boulogne. During the next hour or so he too underwent the ordeal by confusion. The original point of interception had been estimated as in the vicinity of a sandbank named the Hinder at the southern end of the North Sea. At 13:18, however, another signal arrived. It seemed that the speed of the enemy vessels had increased and that he would now have to meet them off the mouth of the Maas. To reach the new location meant travelling over a minefield.
The weather had deteriorated. Seas were breaking over the fore and aft parts of the ships. An almost continuous barrage of spray lashed the bridges. Walpole was seen to be dropping astern. Her bearings were running hot and she had to return to Harwich. There were now only 5 destroyers. Admittedly there were several supposedly well-intentioned aircraft scattered about the sky. But, at 14:45, when bombs from a Hampden straddled Mackay, it seemed doubtful whether they could be trusted. Mackay's gunners were told: "Check, check, check. Do not open fire. That aircraft is friendly, although it has a funny way of showing it." Meanwhile the misguided Hampden had turned round and was dropping the rest of its load in the direction of Worcester. Fortunately they, too, fell wide of the mark.
Pizey had deployed his force in two divisions. Campbell, Vivacious, and Worcester were in the first, Mackay and Whitshed in the second. They were steaming at 28 knots. At 15:42, the leader sighted the German fleet at a range of 6 kilometers (4 miles). Pizey thought he saw Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in line about 183 meters (200 yards) apart. There was no sign of Prinz Eugen, which he assumed to be about 1,6 kilometer (1 mile) astern. The destroyer screen was 914 meters (1.000 yards) away on Campbell's port bow.
In fact Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had been seen. Unknown to everybody on the British side, Scharnhorst had dropped out of the procession.
Within seconds of the sighting the German ships opened up with their main armament. Simultaneously, Me 109s and Fw 190s went into the attack at intervals of every twenty seconds or so. Miraculously no hits were received though the crew of Vivacious had an uncomfortable moment when a torpedo broke surface 15 yards on her beam. It had passed right under the destroyer's stern.
The attacks from the British destroyers were concentrated on Gneisenau. Two hits were claimed. The crew of Worcester said they heard big underwater explosions. There must have been some other reason for the sounds. None of the torpedoes found their targets.
Worcester was the last to deliver her attack. By this time the gunners in Gneisenau had got the range right and the little ship received a fearful battering. The first salvo to hit her removed the starboard side of the bridge. The next two exploded in number 1 and 2 boiler rooms. As she was swung helplessly round by the tide she presented herself broadside on to Prinz Eugen. Four more shells crashed into her. Nearly all her guns were put out of action. She was now on fire and listing dangerously. When it seemed impossible that she could remain afloat for much longer her commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Colin Coats, gave the order: "Prepare to abandon ship". In transmission, the words "Prepare to" were overlooked. A number of the wounded were placed on rafts and pushed over the side. The blast from one shell blew others into the water. But Worcester was still answering back. The only weapons now capable of being fired were the two pompoms amidships. They were under the command of Sub-Lieutenant J. F. N. Wedge who had been badly shell-shocked. Nevertheless he continued to give orders.
On board Gneisenau, Captain Fein decided that Worcester was done for. In his report, he wrote: "I watched our heavy guns score direct hits on the English destroyer and it seemed to me that she heeled so far over under the impact that she nearly capsized. I ordered our guns to cease fire, as there seemed no point in wasting shells on a ship already sinking. No destroyer, or any ship of that size, could be hit that heavily and survive."
But Worcester did survive. Out of her complement of 130, 100 were either killed or wounded. Nevertheless, she eventually returned to Harwich-and, what is more, she made the journey under her own steam. Campbell and Vivacious went to her aid, and a Hunt class destroyer was alerted to take the stricken ship in tow. But number 3 boiler was still intact and there was enough steam to produce 8 knots. She limped back across the minefield, and reached Harwich early next morning. The worst moment was created by the Beauforts from Leuchars when she was in company with Vivacious and Campbell. The second aircraft in the flight dropped a torpedo, which caused Campbell to go hurriedly astern. It could hardly have happened at a worse moment, for her crew were busy picking survivors out of the sea. But, as Captain Wright of Mackay admitted in his report, "the aircraft on both sides must have found the situation rather confusing." Nor was this all. The minefield, which the destroyers crossed and recrossed apparently at their peril did not exist. It had been cleared some days earlier. By some oversight, a signal to this effect had never been dispatched.
The last report of the German fleet's progress came from the pilot of a Beaufighter who, at 18:00, sighted the ships 24 kilometers (15 miles) south-west of Den Helder on the passage that cuts off Texel from the mainland of Holland. After that, they vanished into the darkness. The long day was over at any rate for the British. The price had been 37 aircraft and one badly damaged destroyer in return for-what? It seemed as if Ciliax's ships had made the journey at very small cost indeed.
But neither Scharnhorst nor Gneisenau had come through the experience unscathed. The trouble had begun at 14:31, shortly before the destroyer attack. Scharnhorst rocked to a violent explosion and all the lights went out. As she was passing the approaches to the Scheldt, Scharnhorst was mined in compartment XVI. The mine was laid by the RAF 36 hours earlier. The engines stopped at once and she swung out of line.
The noise was so great that Captain Fein in Gneisenau thought that his own ship was the victim. But then he looked around and saw clouds of black smoke pouring from Scharnhorst's stern. There could be no question of pausing to see what had happened. A destroyer and four torpedo boats stood by the stricken and heavily rolling battleship. The rest of the fleet steamed on.
Lieutenant Timmer, a young engineer officer, gave Captain Hoffmann the first details of the damage on Scharnhorst. It seemed that two double bottom compartments had been flooded and there was a large hole in the starboard side of the hull. Vice-Admiral Ciliax was impatient. There was no point in remaining on board. The destroyer Z29 was signalled to come alongside. He proposed to transfer his flag to the smaller vessel and to hurry off in pursuit of Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. It was, or seemed to be, the only way in which he could maintain control of the fleet.
With the heavy swell and the two ships rolling alarmingly the task of transferring Ciliax and his staff was extremely difficult. Z29 left behind part of her superstructure as she crashed into Scharnhorst's side and her captain counted himself lucky that the damage was not worse. Somehow, the admiral, his chief-of-staff and three colonels on loan from the Luftwaffe managed to jump from the battleship's quarterdeck on to what remained of Z29's bridge. Then, burying her nose in the sea, the destroyer hurried off at over 30 knots to catch up with Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. Four torpedo boats remained behind. Armed with a 104 mm (4.1 inch) gun apiece and an assortment of smaller calibre weapons they were better than nothing. But the rain and the mist were probably more useful allies to the helpless Scharnhorst.
Chief Engineer Walther Kretzschmar on Scharnhorst was a man who worked miracles. Eight minutes after the explosion he reported that the boilers were back in action. At 15:05 he telephoned the bridge and informed Captain Hoffmann that the port engine was in order. Within half an hour of hitting the mine the lights were on again and the ship was able to resume her course. There was a good deal of water in the refrigerating room, the echo-sounder and the direction finder were out of action, but there was no reason why she should not proceed at full speed.
During the 30 minutes of crisis Captain Hoffmann betrayed no sign of what must have been considerable strain. With two navigational aids damaged, with sandbanks to one side and a minefield on the other, one of the torpedo boats, T13, would have to act as pilot. Nevertheless, Hoffmann intended to steam at 27 knots in an attempt to rejoin the rest of the fleet.
There seemed to be no end to the anxiety. In the chart room, navigating officer Helmuth Giessler was uncomfortably aware that they were now moving up a channel 43 kilometers (27 miles) wide, flanked by minefields on one side and the Dutch coast on the other. Yet Scharnhorst continued to surge forward at 27 knots. This, surely, was too much. He mentioned his fears to Captain Hoffmann who conceded the danger but said it was out of the question to reduce speed. Giving Giessler a wry smile, he remarked that "Only God and courage can help us now."
Scharnhorst hurried on towards home. At 18:16 hours, the men on deck had their last look at a British aircraft as a Beaufighter was lost in the darkness astern. But the dark night that was just beginning concealed perils enough in the way of navigational hazards and mines. Afterwards, Giessler was to refer to it as "the longest night of my life."
Shortly before dusk, when they were off the Hook of Holland, and the wind had risen to force 7, they had suddenly sighted two of the fleet's destroyers dead ahead. The vessels seemed to be hove-to and a cutter was passing from one to the other. On board the small boat was Vice-Admiral Ciliax, who now appeared to be in a perpetual state of transferring himself from ship to ship. It transpired that one of Z29's anti-aircraft shells had exploded prematurely, and that a fragment had fractured a pipe in the lubrication system. The repairs would take 20 minutes, which, for the restless vice-admiral, was too long. Consequently, he had decided to move across to Hermann Schoemann.
At 19:15 Hermann Schoemann suddenly appeared again and signalled Scharnhorst to follow. Somewhere ahead there was a mark buoy that heralded the entrance to the channel lying between the Frisian Islands and the offshore banks. It seemed that the destroyer were going to lead them to it but then a sudden squall rubbed out the picture. Hermann Schoemann vanished, Helmuth Giessler, with the echo-sounder still out of action, had to depend on dead reckoning. More slowly now, cautiously groping, the big ship ploughed on. Captain Hoffmann had just ordered a change of course, when one of the lookouts reported what seemed to be a small boat on the starboard quarter. It was the buoy and there would be others. At last they could relax. At 19:30, Hoffmann ordered a partial stand-down. Hot meals could be served on the mess decks, the hours of crisis were over, or so it seemed. Four minutes later Scharnhorst passed Texel. In spite of everything she had almost made good the loss of time caused by the explosion.
During the squall that had wiped out Scharnhorst's view of Hermann Schoemann, Gneisenau, still forging ahead at 27 knots, had lost contact with Prinz Eugen. At 19:55 another explosion shattered the silent night. As if to even the score of calamity, Gneisenau had touched off a mine. The central turbine went out of action immediately and Captain Fein ordered the others to be stopped. The great ship was now drifting helplessly 10 kilometers (6 miles) off the coast of Terschelling. The first officer reported a hole in the starboard side. But he said the damage was not serious. The magnetic mine, it seemed, had gone off some meters away from the ship.
If there were any particular heroes of the dash from Brest to Germany they must surely have been the engineers on board the battleships. Just as Scharnhorst was under way within 35 minutes of her ordeal by high explosives, so was Gneisenau ready to proceed once more after half an hour of intense activity. A steel collision mat blocked the cavity and stopped the inrush of water. The central engine was nursed back to life. Unfortunately, as in Scharnhorst's case, the navigational equipment had been damaged by the shock, and there was no way of mending it. Much as he would have liked to order full speed ahead, Captain Fein had to be cautious. Feeling his way through waters that were littered with sandbanks, Gneisenau crept forward with a leadsman taking soundings at regular intervals. Even Prinz Eugen had been compelled to reduce speed to 8 knots as she followed the tortuous channel between the Terschelling banks.
The best part of 1½ hour went by without further incident. Scharnhorst was now 16 kilometers (10 miles) off the Dutch coast. Terschelling was well astern, somewhere in the murk off the starboard bow lay the island of Schiermonnikoog. The time was 21:35.
Then suddenly the Scharnhorst hit a mine for the second time. Captain Hoffmann was flung across the bridge. All the lights went out, the helm jammed, the gyro compass ceased functioning and the engines stopped. Several compartments on the starboard side were flooded. Two hundred tons of water came rushing in. Presently the ship began to lean over sideways until she was listing at an angle of 7°. The only good thing to be said for an apparently desperate situation was that it was dark and she was now in the comparative security of the Heligoland Bight. But she was drifting towards those everpresent sandbanks.
The sound had been heard on board the destroyer Hermann Schoemann which immediately put back to offer assistance. When her signal lamp flashed an anxious signal, there was no reply. Vice-Admiral Ciliax's anxiety increased as 5 minutes went by without any contact with the stricken battleship. Then, at 21:42, Scharnhorst managed to utter the terse message, "Have hit mine." She had been unable to reply earlier because her signal lamp had been damaged. Before Captain Hoffmann could inform the admiral of his plight, another had to be brought up from the store.
Chief Engineer Walter Kretzschmar's supply of miracles had not yet run out. 37 minutes after the explosion, during which time the battleship had drifted 3 kilometers (2 miles) to starboard, he telephoned the bridge to say that the starboard propeller shaft was sound enough to produce 14 knots, and the centre shaft was good for 16. The port shaft was still out of action, but at least it was possible to make some sort of headway.
On board the destroyer, Vice-Admiral Ciliax was being tormented by worry and confusion. The two ships were once again out of touch with each other. Hermann Schoemann's searchlight brushed its beam across the water, looking, first of all, for the ship herself. Then, when Ciliax became convinced that she had sunk, the hunt was on for survivors. There was plenty of oil to be seen, but no wreckage. That, perhaps, was encouraging. Eventually, the vice-admiral came to the conclusion that the battleship might have survived though, at 22:46, he was still under the impression that she was unable to proceed under her own power. He signalled a shore wireless station in code saying that Scharnhorst was in urgent need of assistance and, above all, of tugs.
The longest night trudged on, hour after anxious hour. Suddenly, at 23:00, Hermann Schoemann's searchlight picked up the grey bulk of Scharnhorst steaming towards the destroyer at 10 knots. She was, it seemed, back in business once more, and at small cost to her crew. One man had been severely wounded by the explosion, amazingly, there were no other casualties.
Was the worst over at last? The fleet, which had become scattered, was now drawing together once more. At 03:50, a radio message reached Scharnhorst reporting that Gneisenau had rejoined Prinz Eugen in the vicinity of Heligoland, and the two ships were now making for Brunsbüttelkoog on the northern bank of the Elbe. From there they would be able to steam up the canal to Kiel. Scharnhorst was to proceed to her home port of Wilhelmshaven.
Vice-Admiral Ciliax had asked, urgently, for tugs, but none came. Nor did there seem to be any pilots to guide the wounded ships past the hazards offshore. At first light they could expect a renewed onslaught by the RAF which might have learned something from its mistakes of the previous day. Navy Group North should have been ready to supply the help they so badly needed but it appeared to be unaware of them. Among the contents of the well-stocked chartrooms in the ships there was nothing to meet the needs of their present predicament. As Captain Fein of Gneisenau noted, "It would have been very useful in this situation to have had a chart prepared on a large scale for the navigational approaches of the Elbe, like the one given by Group West for the navigational approaches of harbours of refuge." To make matters even worse, northern Germany was in the grip of an unusually harsh winter. Much of the sea inshore was covered by ice. To attempt to enter the river in darkness was asking for trouble. The only possible course of action was to remain off shore until dawn.
When, at last, Captain Fein was able to bring his ship up the Elbe with Prinz Eugen following, a strong south-westerly was blowing, an air raid alarm had sounded, and the flooding tide had only two more hours to run. It was now or, quite possibly, never. Short of a thick fog the conditions could not have been very much worse but Captain Fein had no option. Encouraged by the sight of a tug some distance ahead he headed for the mouth of the Elbe.
Many things went wrong but yet it was surprising that Gneisenau did not fare worse. The tug, which had encouraged Captain Fein to enter the river, now seemed to avoid the battleship. As the giant ship approached the mole at Brunsbüttelkoog the current caught hold of her stern swinging it round and seeming to make a collision inevitable. Captain Fein ordered the engines into reverse. The ship drew back from one hazard and promptly ran into another. Some meters from the harbour entrance the fairway was obstructed by a wreck. The movement astern that had carried her clear of the breakwater smashed her into this semi-submerged corpse of a vessel. Water immediately surged into the starboard shaft tunnel. And the tugs, for which Captain Fein so earnestly pleaded, still kept their distance.
Eventually, using only his centre and port engines Captain Fein brought Gneisenau home.
Captain Hoffmann on Scharnhorst was in scarcely better circumstances. The Jade was covered with ice. The tug masters and the pilots stayed at home. At 07:00 Vice-Admiral Ciliax, who had hurried on ahead in the destroyer, came out to greet the returning battleship with a contented smile on his face. He had a suitably effusive speech prepared for the crew but Captain Hoffmann had other things to think about. It would be impossible to dock the ship until high water at noon. For the next five hours his ship would be exposed to the danger of enemy bombers at the approaches to the river. Presently his patience ran out. He turned to Giessler and snapped, "We'll move on slowly without the help of tugs."
Slowly, meter by meter, Scharnhorst crept towards her home port. There was no sign of the RAF and the tension lessened. At last, when they were in sight of the docks, a tug steamed towards them. It was nearly noon, the tide was right and the journey was over.
Vice-Admiral Ciliax handed a message into the wireless room for transmission to Navy Group West where he had written: "It is my duty to inform you that Operation "Cerberus" has been successfully completed. List of damage and casualties follows."
During the action the British carried out 110 attacks using 675 aircraft of which 42 were shot down. 500 tonnes of bombs were aimed at the squadron. Scharnhorst expended 400 x 10.5 cm, 900 x 3.7 cm and 6.000 x 2 cm shells.
Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax and Captain Kurt Hoffmann of Scharnhorst were both awarded one of Germany's highest awards, the Knight's Cross. Navigating officer on Scharnhorst, Helmuth Giessler, received the German Cross in gold, and Iron Crosses were handed out lavishly. But Captain Otto Fein of Gneisenau received nothing. The omission is as mysterious as it is disgraceful.
The Channel dash had been a turning-point for the battleships. A climax which was not a triumphant conclusion but a final achievement. Afterwards, there was disappointment, frustration, and tragedy.
The Gneisenau was taken to Kiel for repairs. On 15 February the Scharnhorst was moved to Kiel for repairs too.
Already on 26 February 1942, at her birthplace, the Gneisenau received a devastating hit during a RAF bomber attack. The hit would later be proved to be mortal as she was never put in service again. During the attack the Scharnhorst came through unscathed.
The partnership between Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was now over. Scharnhorst, for the first time in her life, was alone.
After the repairs of the Scharnhorst was completed steaming trials were run in July 1942 and Scharnhorst then moved eastwards to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) for working up. In November she drydocked once more, this being followed by more trials combined with intensive crew training. At the same time an emergency rudder system was experimented with in light of the experience of Prinz Eugen, which had been torpedoed by HMS Trident on 23 February 1942 with the loss of her stern. She had managed to make Trondheim, unaided where the emergency rudder had been fitted for the return to Kiel.
In January 1943 the Scharnhorst had completed her sea trials and was ready again.
|British Destroyers Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|H.M.S. Campbell||Captain C. T. M. Pizey||Captain D.21|
|H.M.S. Vivacious||Lt-Cdr R. Alexander|
|H.M.S. Worcester||Lt-Cdr E. C. Coates||Ship damaged.|
|H.M.S. Mackay||Captain J. P. Wright||Captain D.16|
|H.M.S. Walpole||Lt-Cdr J. H. Eadon|
|H.M.S. Whitshed||Lt-Cdr W. A. Juniper|
|British Motor Torpedo Boats Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|44||Sub-Lt R. F. Saunders||Based on Dover|
|45||Lieutenant L. J. H. Gamble||Based on Dover|
|48||Lieutenant C. A. Law||Based on Dover|
|219||Temp. Sub-Lt M. Arnold-Foster||Based on Dover|
|221||Lt-Cdr E. N. Pumphrey||Based on Dover|
|18||Sub-Lt I. C. Trelawney||Based on Ramsgate|
|32||Lieutenant D. J. Long||Based on Ramsgate|
|71||Sub-Lt O. B. Mabee||Based on Ramsgate|
|British Motor Gun Boats Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|41||Lieutenant P. F. S. Gould||Based on Dover|
|43||Lieutenant R. King||Based on Dover|
|British FAA Aircraft Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|Swordfish W. 4523||Lt J. C. Thompson||825 Squadron|
|Swordfish W. 5907||Sub-Lt C. M. Kingsmill||825 Squadron|
|Swordfish W. 5978||Sub-Lt P. Bligh||825 Squadron|
|Swordfish W. 5983||Sub-Lt B. W. Rose||825 Squadron|
|Swordfish W. 5984||Lt-Cdr E. Esmonde||825 Squadron|
|Swordfish W. 5985||Sub-Lt C. R. Wood||825 Squadron|
|British RAF Aircraft Engaged|
|Coastal Command||28 Beaufort torpedo bombers, 7 Hudson bombers|
|Fighter Command||398 Spitfire, Hurricane and Whirlwind fighters|
|Bomber Command||242 Blenheim, Halifax, Hampden, Manchester, Stirling and Wellington bombers|
|Fleet Air Arm||13 killed and missing, 3 wounded|
|H.M.S. Worcester||23 killed and missing, 4 died of wounds, 18 wounded|
|German Battleships Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|Gneisenau||Kapitän-zur-See O. Fein||Ship damaged.|
|Scharnhorst||Kapitän-zur-See K. Hoffmann||Flagship, Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax on board. Ship damaged.|
|German Heavy Cruiser Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|Prinz Eugen||Kapitän-zur-See H. Brinkmann|
|German Destroyers Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|Z 4 Richard Beitzen||Kapitän-zur-See F. Berger
Korvettenkapitän von Davidson
|5. Destroyer Flotilla|
|Z 5 Paul Jacobi||Korvettenkapitän Schlieper||5. Destroyer Flotilla|
|Z 7 Hermann Schoemann||Korvettenkapitän Wittig||5. Destroyer Flotilla|
|Z 14 Friedrich Ihn||Korvettenkapitän G. Wachsmuth||5. Destroyer Flotilla|
|Z 25||Korvettenkapitän H. Peters||5. Destroyer Flotilla|
|Z 29||Korvettenkapitän Rechel||5. Destroyer Flotilla. Ship damaged.|
|Commander-in-Chief Rear-Admiral Erich Bey|
|German Torpedo Boats Engaged|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|T 2||Kapitänleutnant Gödecke||2. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 4||Kapitänleutnant Sommerlatt||2. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 5||Kapitänleutnant Koppenhagen||2. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 11||Kapitänleutnant Grund||2. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 12||Kapitänleutnant Mellin||2. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Commander-in-Chief Heinrich Erdmann|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|T 13||Kapitänleutnant Gotzmann||3. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 15||Kapitänleutnant J. Quedenfeldt||3. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 16||Kapitänleutnant Düvelius||3. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|T 17||Kapitänleutnant Blöse||3. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Commander-in-Chief Hans Wilcke|
|Name of Vessel||Commander||Notes|
|Falke||Kapitänleutnant Hoffmann||5. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Iltis||Kapitänleutnant Jacobsen||5. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Jaguar||Kapitänleutnant F. K. Paul||5. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Kondor||Kapitänleutnant Burkart||5. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Seeadler||Kapitänleutnant Kohlauf||5. Torpedo Boat Flotilla|
|Commander-in-Chief Moritz Schmidt|
|German Schnellboot Engaged|
|S 29, S 39, S 53, S 70, S 103, S 104, S 105, S 108, S 111||2. Schnellboot Flotilla stationed at Ijmuiden. C-in-C Feldt|
|S 48, S 49, S 50, S 51, S 52, S 64, S 107, S 109, S 110||4. Schnellboot Flotilla stationed at Boulogne. C-in-C Bätge|
|S 18, S 19, S 20, S 22, S 24, S 69, S 71, S 101||6. Schnellboot Flotilla. C-in-C Obermaier|
|Schnellboot was the German name for the type of vessels that was called Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) in Britain and USA.|
|German Luftwaffe Aircraft Engaged|
|Two Luftflotten were involved and were responsible for air cover. It was Luftflotte 3 under command of Generalfeldmarschall Sperrle and Luftflotte Reich under command of General der Flieger Weise. Fighter groups came under the command of Oberst Galland.|
|Night Fighters||30 Junkers 88 "night destroyers"|
|Day Fighters||250 Messerschmitt 109, Messerschmitt 110, Junkers 88 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters|
|Bombers||Unknown number Heinkel 110, Dornier, Junker 87 bombers|
|Note: As many of the German Air Force records covering this operation were detroyed at the end of the war, the above numbers are unreliable and details of losses are not known.|
|Prinz Eugen||1 killed|
|Jaguar||1 killed, 2 wounded|
© John Asmussen, 2001 - 2010. All rights reserved.