In February 1942 British, and Royal Navy, pride suffered an embarrassing blow when Vice Adm. Otto Ciliax of the Kriegsmarine successfully completed the Channel Dash.
Officially known as Operation Cerberus, it was the plan to bring the Kriegsmarine squadron consisting of battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from their exposed location in the west Brittany port of Brest to more protected harbors in Germany. The safer, and longer, route called for the squadron to transit the Denmark Strait and sail around Great Britain. Instead the decision was made to take a riskier high speed run through the English Channel, thus giving the effort its more popular name.
Even with Luftwaffe support in the form of Operation Donnerkeil (Thunderbolt), to successfully pull off an operation of this scope right under the noses of the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy, the Kriegsmarine would also need an enormous amount of luck. Through a series of delays, blunders, mistakes, and missed opportunities spanning 36 hours that would have rendered a work of fiction unbelievable, the Kriegsmarine got it.
The litany of mistakes started with the unanimous belief held by the Admiralty, Air Ministry, chiefs of Coastal, Fighter, and Bomber Commands, and Vice Adm. Bertram Ramsay stationed in Dover that the squadron would time its departure during the day so that it would reach the most perilous part, the narrow Straits of Dover, at night. Instead, on Feb. 11, 1942, Ciliax’s squadron steamed out of Brest at 9:15 p.m., right after an RAF air raid had ended. From that point on, British miscues started falling like dominoes.
Three Coastal Command night reconnaissance airplanes assigned to patrol the French coast from Brest to Boulogne failed to detect the squadron, the first two because of radar failure and the third because its patrol had to be aborted early as a result of incoming fog at its West Sussex base.
Visual sighting did not occur until 10:42 a.m. Feb.12 when two Spitfires, after flying through thick cloud cover, spotted the squadron. But, obeying the strict orders of Fighter Command, which required its pilots to maintain radio silence regardless of circumstances, they did not report their spectacular finding until after they had landed at 11:09 a.m. Additional delays dogged the news as it went up the chain of command. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill was informed of the squadron’s presence shortly after 11:30 a.m., he ordered, “At all costs the ships must be intercepted and made to pay dearly for their audacity.”
But, instead of a powerful and coordinated attack using ships, aircraft, and coastal artillery, British response was slow and disjointed. The first to attack were six obsolete Fairey Swordfish led by Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Esmonde, a veteran of the Bismarck battle. The Swordfish biplanes, affectionately called “Stringbags” by their crews, were hardly able to make 90 knots, and had been training for a night attack should the German squadron break out. Instead they were going in during broad daylight. They had no illusions about what lay ahead. Certainly Esmonde knew from experience how poor their chances were. In John Deane Potter’s Fiasco: The Break-out of the German Battleships Wing Commander Tom Gleave recalled his last sight of Esmonde at RAF Manston, where the Swordfish were temporarily based:
“Although his mouth twitched automatically into the semblance of a grin and his arm lifted in a vague salute, he barely recognized me. He knew what he was going into. But it was his duty. His face was tense and white. It was the face of a man already dead. It shocked me as nothing has ever done since.”
“The British are now throwing their mothball Navy at us.”
—Vice Adm. Otto Ciliax, commenting about the attack on his ships by obsolete Swordfish torpedo bombers
Despite not having the fighter support they were told to expect, with only 10 Spitfires instead of five squadrons to protect them, they valiantly pressed their torpedo attack into the teeth of the German fleet’s flak and fighter escort. All were shot down. Esmonde was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Capt. Kurt Hoffmann on the Scharnhorstsaid in admiration, “Poor fellows. They are so very slow. It is nothing but suicide for them to fly against these big ships.”
Other air attacks were attempted, but of 242 bombers dispatched, only 39 were reported to have attacked the ships, scoring no hits. Coastal Command artillery fired just 33 shells, all falling short. Six Royal Navy destroyers assigned intercept duty were off station, conducting gunnery practice in the North Sea. When they finally arrived, they had time to only fire one salvo of torpedoes, to no effect, and HMS Worcester, which moved in even closer than the other destroyers to launch, was smothered beneath a rain of heavy German shells that left her a drifting wreck and very nearly sank her. It was the last gasp of the British. Thirteen of the 18 Swordfish crew sent against the German battle fleet were dead, along with 27 sailors aboard the Worcester, with another 18 seriously wounded. The British lost 42 aircraft and a total of 40 crew dead and missing, which included RAF casualties.
The only damage suffered by the German ships was made by mines, two of which seriously damaged the Scharnhorst, leaving her dead in the water for a time, and a third that damaged Gneisenau. Nevertheless, shortly before noon on Feb. 13, Vice Adm. Ciliax was able to send the message to his superior, Adm. Alfred Saalwächter: “It is my duty to inform you that Operation Cerberus has been successfully completed.”
On the other side of the channel, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound had his own telephone call to make. At 1:00 AM he picked up the private telephone that connected him to Prime Minister Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street, according to Potter’s Fiasco:
Pound said, “I’m afraid, sir, I must report that the enemy battlecruisers should by now have reached the safety of their home waters.” Churchill growled, “Why?” and slammed the phone down.
An editorial in The Times of London ruefully noted, “Vice Adm. Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia [of the Spanish Armada] failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our seapower has happened since the seventeenth century. … It spelled the end of the Royal Navy legend that in wartime no enemy battle fleet could pass through what we proudly call the English Channel.”