Salmon and Gluckstein Revisited
Part Four

By Kristin Ann High
September 2019

Click here for Part Three.

The Channel Dash

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau spent a long year in Brest, constantly attacked by the RAF and indifferently protected by the Luftwaffe. Daylight attacks badly damaged both ships. Gneisenau was both torpedoed and bombed in Brest, and the dock where she was refitting was also damaged by both torpedoes and bombs. Scharnhorst was bombed at La Pallice while working up, and again at Brest while under repair.

Indeed, it became much more dangerous to work the ships up than it had been to sortie on operations. Prinz Eugen joined the ships on 1st June 1941, after the failure of Operation Rheinübung. Like the two battlecruisers, Prinz Eugen was treated to bombing and torpedo raids through the summer and winter, being hit at least once. At some point in the late summer or early fall of 1941, the OKW resolved an interservice wrangle between the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe by passing the buck to der Führer, who sided with Göring, more or less; certainly any hope for moving day fighter squadrons to Brest was quashed.

Despite the lack of fighter cover, the big ships had powerful secondary defences in Brest, including naval FlaK units in addition to the Luftwaffe FlaK (which had not been withdrawn), and an excellent smoke screen which made bombing rather a miss-and-hit affair—which did not improve Anglo-French relations when bombs fell on French citizens. Eventually, however, the Führer decided the heavy ships must be withdrawn from France and placed where they could aid the struggle in the East—in Norway. After a bitter series of meetings with Hitler, Raeder finally gave up and agreed to a breakout from Brest for Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen. The route chosen was a direct sortie at high speed through the English channel and into Germany. Hitler liked the idea [35], and Unternehmen Zerberus was born.

An Allied "recognition drawing" of Scharnhorst.

The British had several means of discerning German intentions. Although Naval Enigma remained the most difficult to crack, Luftwaffe Enigma was read on a daily basis—in large part because of the appalling signals security practiced by Luftwaffe units, including both OKL and the ObdL. As the Luftwaffe was committed in almost its full strength in the West, the British knew that "something big" was brewing, and probably that some sort of sortie by the heavy ships was planned. The Allies also had an agent in Brest, a French naval officer code-named “Hilarion,” who was able to keep them up to date on the state of German ships maintenance and preparations for sailing.

Between the Admiralty and Coastal Command, a solid appreciation of the German operation was drawn up, giving the British the general route of the sortie, and the dates most favourable for executing it. The fatal mistake in the British plan to counter the sortie—Operation “Fuller”—was the appreciation of how the heavy ships would force the English Channel. The German ships could not make the full voyage under the cover of a single night period, even in winter. This being so, the Admiralty and Coastal Command reasoned, quite sensibly, that the Germans would make a staged sortie, sailing at night and seeking refuge in French ports during daylight. With the obvious Luftwaffe activity, this plan had much to recommend it; in French ports, the heavy ships would be very difficult to get at with MTBs or destroyers, while air attacks would face serious fighter defences.

Unfortunately, this assessment became the sole basis for planning “Fuller.” Something about the malign winter of 1941 to 1942 left the Allies flat-footed and agape at Axis operations they ought, at least on paper, to have been prepared for. As with Pearl Harbor and Singapore, the only possibilities planned for in “Fuller” were those that were most suited to Allied capabilities.

The initial response was to be RAF attacks by day and night on the refuge ports, while MTBs and Coastal Command attacked during daylight. When the Germans forced the Narrows at Dover, the Navy would attack with destroyers and still more MTBs. Throughout the period, the RAF and Navy would sew mines along the likely route, hoping one or more fields would not be detected or completely swept when the German ships reached it. If necessary, submarines and additional destroyers could be brought down to sustain attacks on the German ships if they reached the North Sea.

Unfortunately for the British, the German plan was an aggressive one typical of Raeder and his OKM staff. Although the battle fleet commander, Vizeadmiral Otto Ciliax, felt the sortie was nothing short of suicidal — and he was far from alone in that view — the plan had one factor decidedly in its favour: speed. The British reaction was meant to develop as the Germans sortied, growing through each day; but if the Germans sailed the whole route to Germany in a single sortie, there would be no time to move forces into place. If they did not seek refuge, but steamed through the Narrows in daylight and pushed on to Germany at flank speed, the day and night raids by coastal and bomber commands on stationary ships in French ports would be nullified, and there would be no transiting of shoal waters and harbour mouths at which they could be harassed by MTBs. Even the plans to sew additional mines by sea and air fell apart if the Germans simply ran for Germany.

Many things went wrong for the British on 11th-13th February 1942. Equipment failed, Coastal Command patrol aircrew and their station commanders failed, but especially the upper command echelons of the RAF and Admiralty failed. As a result, “Fuller” itself went badly awry.

For the Germans, the reverse was true — everything went as right as one could imagine in wartime. A bombing raid caught the ships trying to depart Brest, delaying the sortie; Ciliax stood out from Brest nearly 90 minutes behind schedule, a little over 30 minutes under the deadline for the sortie. Even a minefield sewn the night “Zerberus” began was detected before the big ships reached it, and though it slowed the advance, it did not stop it, and a cleared channel was soon swept.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in port.

For “Zerberus” to succeed, however, required more than for “Fuller” to fail; the operational goal of “Zerberus” was the transfer of the German battle squadron in Brest to Norway, to fight Allied convoys and forestall any attempt by the British and Americans to invade in order to link up with the Soviets. To do this, the ships needed to reach Germany without sustaining serious damage.

One aspect of “Fuller” went right, however, and that alone was to sufficient to defeat the German plan despite the failure of all the others. Mines sewn along the Belgian and Dutch coasts, both by Royal Navy surface craft and Coastal Command aircraft, crippled Scharnhorst, which struck two mines, and Gneisenau, which struck one. Both German ships, along with lucky Prinz Eugen, made Germany, but only Prinz Eugen was in condition to go on to Norway.

Prinz Eugen sailed for Norway with the armoured cruiser Admiral Scheer, screened by the destroyers Richard Beitzen, Paul Jacobi, Z.25, Hermann Schoemann, and Friedrich Ihn, in Unternehmen Sportpalast, on 21st February 1942. She was promptly torpedoed by the British submarine Trident off Trondheim [36] on 23rd February, and forced to return to Germany; she spent the remainder of the war in the Baltic, essentially useless until the last battles in East Prussia brought the Red Army within reach of her guns.

On the night of 26th to 27th February, less than a fortnight after she was mined in the Channel, Bomber Command caught Gneisenau in dock at Kiel and finished her war, also. She was hit several times by heavy bombs, which demolished her bows. She was moved to Götenhafen for repairs, which were to include the long-delayed fitting of the 15-inch C.34 rifles, but work was never completed, and she wound up being sunk as a block ship, her useless turrets employed as shore batteries.

Scharnhorst was the only one of the three to reach Norway for operations, but by the time her repairs and working up exercises were complete, and she succeeded in breaking out of the Kattegat and Skagerrak unnoticed by British reconnaissance — lest she suffer the fate of Prinz Eugen — it was a year later, in February 1943.

As no heavy ships were encountered during “Zerberus,” the only effect a heavier main battery in the two battlecruisers might have had would be in potentialities — the Admiralty might have viewed the ships as more dangerous, and this might have sufficed to force the worrisome Tovey to send in some of the forces he had uncommitted in Home Waters. This is a highly speculative proposition, one better examined in detail than in brief.

“Zerberus” took place at the end of what was arguably the worst year of the war for the Allied navies. To the Admiralty and War Cabinet, attacking two German battlecruisers and a heavy cruiser in the congested waters of the English Channel, within range of the Luftwaffe, threatened by submarines and “S”-boats, was a risk simply not worth the candle.

Scharnhorst in a Norwegian fjord.

End Notes

[35] The argument between the Navy and the Air Force, and then between Raeder and Göring, and finally between Hitler and Raeder, comes from German records of the various Führer conferences. These are cited in many works on WWII, but for the Führer's pronouncements in respect of the Channel Dash, Barents Sea, and North Cape, I rely primarily on "Sea Battles In Close-Up, WW2," © 1988 Martin Stephen and edited by Eric Grove, Naval Institute Press Edition.

[36] Some sources — notably the Royal Navy's Naval Staff History — place the attack more precisely as being off Kristiansand, one of several possible approaches the fjords leading to Trondheim. Prinz Eugen limped into the maze of fjords in front of Trondheim proper to make temporary repairs. The strike on Prinz Eugen affected work on Scharnhorst and, possibly, Gneisenau as well; considerable effeort was put into perfecting and training with an "emergency rudder," though with only mixed results; the slight inward bias of German capital ship designs gave them a speed and acceleration advantage, but it meant the ships were all but unsteerable without positive rudder control, and the weak rudder design made that a particular vulnerability of the ships.

Continued in Part Five.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.

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