Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Operation Cerberus

German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau with battlecruiser Prinz Eugen, head north through the English Channel.
Navies exist because most of the world's commerce travels by sea.

In simple terms:
A navy or maritime force is the branch of a nation's armed forces principally designated for naval and amphibious warfare; namely, lake-borne, riverine, littoral, or ocean-borne combat operations and related functions. It includes anything conducted by surface ships, amphibious ships, submarines, and seaborne aviation, as well as ancillary support, communications, training, and other fields. The strategic offensive role of a navy is projection of force into areas beyond a country's shores (for example, to protect sea-lanes, deter or confront pirates, ferry troops, or attack other navies, ports, or shore installations). The strategic defensive purpose of a navy is to frustrate seaborne projection-of-force by enemies. (Source)
In 1939 the German Kriegsmarine was dwarfed by the mighty Royal Navy, as can be seen below -

Battleships 15
Aircraft Carriers 7
Heavy Cruisers 15
Light Cruisers 41
Anti-Aircraft Cruisers 8
Minelayer Cruiser 1
Modern Destroyers 113
Old Destroyers 68
Modern Submarines 53
Old Submarines 12
Escorts 54
Fleet Minesweepers 44
Monitors 2
Fleet Air Arm 190 aircraft (Not counting float planes on capital ships and cruisers) 190

Battleships 2
Old Battleships 2
Pocket Battleships 3
Aircraft Carriers 0
Heavy Cruisers 2
Light Cruisers 6
Destroyers  22
Submarines, includes coastal patrol and training types 57
Torpedo Boats 20

The only ship type where the Germans were even close in numbers was in submarines, but that number includes small, coastal patrol submarines not fit for use in the Atlantic nor in the Channel itself!

With no real hope of standing toe-to-toe with the Royal Navy and slugging it out as they did in World War One at Jutland, the Germans operated their capital ships as commerce raiders and as a "fleet in being."

A fleet in being are ships dangerous enough to pose a threat to shipping and to small detachments of an enemy fleet. One cannot leave them unattended so a certain number of one's own capital ships have to be detailed off to either keep an eye on the enemy, or intercept them should they sally forth from whatever ports they are holed up in.

After the fall of France in 1940, the entire Atlantic coastline of metropolitan France was there for the Germans to use, and they did, building many U-Boot bases. As can be seen below, the long French coastline offers much more open access to the Atlantic than from the German base at Wilhelmshaven.

North Atlantic
Google Maps
In early 1941, Scharnhorst, her sister ship Gneisenau, and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, based in Norway, raided into the North Atlantic.
Following the completion of repairs, Scharnhorst underwent trials in the Baltic before returning to Kiel in December 1940. There she joined Gneisenau, in preparation for Operation Berlin, a planned raid into the Atlantic Ocean designed to wreak havoc on the Allied shipping lanes. Severe storms caused damage to Gneisenau but Scharnhorst was undamaged. The two ships were forced to put into port during the storm: Scharnhorst went to Gotenhafen while Gneisenau went to Kiel for repairs. Repairs were quickly completed, and on 22 January 1941, the two ships, under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, left port for the North Atlantic. They were detected in the Skagerrak and the heavy units of the British Home Fleet deployed to cover the passage between Iceland and the Faroes. The Germans' radar detected the British at long range, which allowed Lütjens to avoid the British patrols, with the aid of a squall. By 3 February, the two battleships had evaded the last British cruiser patrol, and had broken into the open Atlantic.

On 6 February, the two ships refueled from the tanker Schlettstadt south of Cape Farewell. Shortly after 08:30 on 8 February, lookouts spotted convoy HX 106, escorted by the battleship Ramillies. Lütjens' orders prohibited him from engaging Allied capital ships, and so the attack was called off. Scharnhorst's commander, KzS Hoffmann, however, closed to 25,000 yd in an attempt to lure Ramillies away from the convoy so that Gneisenau could attack the convoy. Lütjens ordered Hoffmann to rejoin the flagship immediately. The two battleships steamed off to the northwest to search for more shipping. On 22 February, the pair spotted an empty convoy sailing west, which dispersed at the appearance of the battleships. Scharnhorst managed to sink only one ship during the encounter, the 6000 ton tanker Lustrous.

Lütjens then decided to move to a new area, as the surviving members of the dispersed convoy had sent distress signals. He chose the Cape Town-Gibraltar convoy route, and positioned himself to the northwest of Cape Verde. The two ships encountered another convoy, escorted by the battleship Malaya, on 8 March. Lütjens again forbade an attack, but he shadowed the convoy and directed U-boats to attack. A pair of U-boats sank a total of 28,488 tons of shipping on the night of 8–9 March. Malaya turned on the two battleships and closed to 26,000 yd, well within the range of the Germans' guns, but Lütjens refused to be drawn into an engagement. He instead turned toward the mid-Atlantic, where Scharnhorst sank the Greek cargo ship Marathon. The two ships then refueled from the tankers Uckermark and Ermland on 12 March.

On 15 March, the two battleships, with the two tankers in company, encountered a dispersed convoy in the mid-Atlantic. Scharnhorst sank two ships. Several days later, the main body of the convoy was located, and Scharnhorst sank another seven ships totaling 27,277 tons. One of the surviving ships radioed the location of the German battleships, which summoned the powerful British battleships Rodney and King George V. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau used their high speed to escape in a squall, and the intervention by the British battleships convinced Lütjens that the chances of further success were small. He therefore decided to head for Brest in occupied France, which the ships reached on 22 March. Throughout the operation, Scharnhorst had difficulties with the superheater tubes in her boilers. Repair work lasted until July, which caused the ship to be unavailable during Operation Rheinübung, the sortie by the new battleship Bismarck in May 1941. (Source)
Although the area of Brest in France offered excellent facilities for the German ships, Hitler was concerned about Norway (as he was throughout the entire war, he kept 300,000 troops there who could have been far more useful elsewhere) so the decision was made to have Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen return to Germany to cover an anticipated Allied invasion of Norway.

So the three capital ships, escorted by 6 destroyers, 14 torpedo boats, and 26 E-boats, with 32 Luftwaffe bombers and 252 fighters available to establish air superiority over the channel, set out for Germany on the 11th of February 1942 under overcast skies and scudding clouds over the Channel. Fortunately for the Germans, a British submarine, HMS Sealion, which had been patrolling off the port to watch for the Germans, had withdrawn to recharge her batteries. Into the Channel the Germans slipped.

The following video (though somewhat cheesy, overly dramatic, and a bit long) provides a good synopsis (and some great pictures and actual war footage) of the German dash up the Channel -

The damage to British prestige was enormous, I mean, the Germans had steamed through the English Channel, right under the noses of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. On balance though, even the German Navy conceded that the operation, while a tactical success, was a strategic blunder. However, a leading article in The Times read,
Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our sea-power 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. 
— The Times (14 February 1942)
British aircraft losses to the Luftwaffe were two Blenheims, four Whirlwinds, four Wellingtons, six Hurricanes, nine Hampdens and ten Spitfires. Kriegsmarine gunners shot down all six Swordfish and a Hampden bomber. HMS Worcester lost 23 men killed, four died of wounds and 45 wounded of the complement of 130; the ship was out of action for 14 weeks. In 2014, Steve Brew recorded 230–250 killed and wounded. The Kriegsmarine torpedo boats Jaguar and T. 13 were damaged by bombing, two sailors were killed and several men were badly wounded by bomb splinters and small-arms fire; the Luftwaffe lost 17 aircraft and eleven pilots. In 1996, Donald Caldwell gave 23 aircrew killed, four being fighter pilots from JG 26 and that 22 Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down, of which seven were fighters. (Source)
Among the aircrew lost from the downed Swordfish was Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, who had participated in the attack on Bismarck which led to that ship being sent to the bottom of the Atlantic. He was awarded the Victoria Cross (equivalent to the Medal of Honor) for his actions during Operation Cerberus.

Officers and ratings who were decorated for the part they played in the sinking of the BISMARCK, in front of a Fairey Swordfish aircraft. Left to right: Lieutenant P D Gick, RN, awarded DSC; Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, RN, awarded DSO; Sub Lieutenant V K Norfolk, RN, awarded DSC; A/PO Air L D Sayer awarded DSM; A/Ldg Air A L Johnson, awarded DSM.
Citation for LCDR Esmonde's posthumous VC:
ADMIRALTY. Whitehall. 3rd March, 1942.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the VICTORIA CROSS, for valour and resolution in action against the Enemy, to:

The late Lieutenant-Commander (A) Eugene Esmonde, D.S.O., Royal Navy.

On the morning of Thursday, 12th February, 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, in command of a Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, was told that the German Battle-Cruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU and the Cruiser PRINZ EUGEN, strongly escorted by some thirty surface craft, were entering the Straits of Dover, and that his Squadron must attack before they reached the sand-banks North East of Calais.

Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde knew well that his enterprise was desperate. Soon after noon he and his squadron of six Swordfish set course for the Enemy, and after ten minutes flight were attacked by a strong force of Enemy fighters. Touch was lost with his fighter escort; and in the action which followed all his aircraft were damaged. He flew on, cool and resolute, serenely challenging hopeless odds, to encounter the deadly fire of the Battle-Cruisers and their Escort, which shattered the port wing of his aircraft. Undismayed, he led his Squadron on, straight through this inferno of fire, in steady flight towards their target. Almost at once he was shot down; but his Squadron went on to launch a gallant attack, in which at least one torpedo is believed to have struck the German Battle-Cruisers, and from which not one of the six aircraft returned.

His high courage and splendid resolution will live in the traditions of the Royal Navy, and remain for many generations a fine and stirring memory.
Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, in overall command of the British forces during Operation Cerberus, 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 commander, Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax remarked on "...the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".

Courage knows no nationality...

More reading

Post inspired by this comment:

Anonymous August 4, 2019 at 1:10 PM

Apparently the fire control systems on the German ships couldn't deal with a plane flying as slow as the Swordfish could. In addition the 3.7cm flak guns on the Bismarck were single shot as compared to the 40mm Bofors and 'Pom Pom' Guns fitted to USN and RN ships. By the latter stages of the war the RN and the USN could put up impressive curtains of fire against aerial attacks. Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde met his fate his fate attacking the Scharnhorst/Gneisenau/Prinz Eugen during the 'Channel Dash' or 'Operation Cerberus' as the Germans called it. Perhaps that might be a subject you might write about?



  1. The language used in LCDR Esmonde's VC was ah...polite and strikes me as written by an author, not making fun of it yet....serenely... and resolute. Not the kind of wording that is prevalent in the few American decorations I've read. Looking at the last painting the word maelstrom comes to mind. Fine post Sarge.

    1. Quite honestly, our cousins across the Pond use the language much more eloquently than we here in North America, excepting our Canadian cousins in the Great White Up.

    2. Reading US medal citations, I think they could make David's fight against Goliath seem underwhelming. Don't know why, but that seems to be the American way.

    3. Depends a lot on the era, but yes.

  2. My understanding is that the primary reason for the channel dash's success was the complete lack of a unified C2 structure on the British side. The services literally could not talk to each other, failed to share intelligence, and there was no central unifying authority to conduct operations. Hindsight being 100%, we (NATO) got to live with CINCCHAN for decades afterwards.

    1. Pretty much sums up the British failure to intercept and destroy those ships.

    2. Yet they had a supposed 'General Headquarters' structure. Hmmm. Kinda like all services being headquartered in the Pentagon but not talking to each other...

    3. CINCIBERLANT based in a 16th century fortress on Portugal's best coast in Cascais. Still, like CINCFLT HQ in Chinhae, an ancient underground fortress where everything clearly predates the telegraph much less the phone and ethernet cable. Great post on the history and the meaning. When it comes down to the test, it is the men you have that matter. The material is largely secondary.

    4. It is the people manning the platforms, not the platforms.

      A good reminder Cap'n.

  3. Thank you for taking up my suggestion, I feel all humble. As usual Murphy was active in thwarting the breakout plan and sometimes all the little holes line up and chaos ensues. We are used to near real time communication and imagery and not having to wait for a phone call or even a dispatch rider to get through. I can't find a citation but I remember reading that RN planning proceeded on the basis that the Germans would come through the Channel in daylight and in poor weather. I believe an RN officer said 'It's what we would do'. I wonder if a breakout into the Atlantic via the Denmark Strait was every seriously considered as an option by the RN? It would certainly have tied up a lot of scarce resources.
    Of note is that on the 28th of March 1942 Op Chariot, the raid on St Nazaire, took place to destroy the only dry dock on the west coast of France capable of taking a capital ship. St Nazaire is where the Bismarck was headed. Geography thereafter constrained the German surface fleet, outside of Brest and St Nazaire there are no harbours capable of taking large ships and south of the Gironde there are no facilities for large ships.

    1. Logistics, logistics, logistics. The unglamorous things like dry docks and the like which win or lose wars.

      "For want of a nail..."

      That was an excellent suggestion for a post by the way.

  4. Highly recommend "To war in a Stringbag" by Charles Lamb. Nothing to do with sinking the Bismarck, but these aged but extremely versatile aircraft and their bold pilots performed a lot of interesting missions. Lots of copies on for under $5 including shipping.
    John Blackshoe

    1. Sounds like a good one! Battle of Taranto was another where the Stringbag was used rather effectively.

  5. One more thing, Germans wanted their battleships in Norway to intercept Murmansk convoys. Every ton of material counted on a front where they lost most lives. Give us story of PQ-17?

    1. Very true. The tale of PQ-17 is a great idea for a post. After all, our Lex's dad was a merchant seaman in that war, I believe he made that run himself.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)