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Author Topic: OPERATION 'CEREBUS': WHO'S YOUR DADDY - 1942  (Read 17 times)
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« on: February 11, 2018, 12:53:11 pm »

Although in the grander scheme of things, it actually eased the royal Navy's strategic situation, in the short haul, and in matters unrelated to British military matters, it was one of Britain's greatest naval humiliations of all time. and with many such incidents, it started in France.

In March, 1941, the German battleships/ battlecruisers [take your pick], SCHARNHORST and GNIESENAU appeared off the French port of Brest, after a three month commerce raid in the Atlantic. The pair had sunk some 115,000 tons of shipping on that cruise, and with the royal Navy closing on them, chose Brest for a rest and refit. Little did they realize that they would still be in Brest in February, 1942.

In May the pair were joined by the heavy cruiser PRINZ EUGEN, which was somewhat ironic, since it had been intended for SCHARNHORST and GNIESENAU to break out of Brest and join PRINZ EUGEN  and the battleship BISMARCK in the RHINE EXERCISE earlier that month.

But damage from British bombing raids, and overhauls required by their own operation scotched them being ready by BISMARCK's sailing date, and the commander of the German Navy refused to delay the sailing of BISMARCK [over the objections of the Fleet Admiral commanding the RHINE EXERCISE, Gunther Lutjens, who had commanded SCHARNHORST's and GNIESENAU's raid], even though his then two warships in Brest would be ready for sea in June, and even though BISMARCK's sister ship, TIRPITZ, would be ready for sea in July.

The result was that BISMARCK was sunk, and PRINZ EUGEN, having previously detached from BISMARCK, was now in Brest.And there things might have remained, but for the one German with no concept of naval warfare, but had the power to interfere, Adolf hitler.

Hitler had many fanciful ideas and strategies. One of them was his consideration of Norway, taken in 1940, as a "Zone of Destiny" [which helps explain why, in 1945, almost half a million German troops were stationed in Norway]. Added to that concept was the reality that the Western allies were sending supplies to the U.S.S.R. via the sea route through the Barents Sea to Murmansk, a route that could be interdicted by U-boats, aircraft, and surface ships - based in Norway.

And out of all that OPERATION CEREBUS was born. The concept was simple. Hitler directed that the Brest flotilla be redeployed, first to Germany, then to Norway. For the Kriegsmarine that meant either breaking out into the Atlantic, and sailing back through the Faeroes Passage or the Denmark Strait; or sailing through the English Channel.

The Channel route had several significant advantages for the Germans. First, the route was direct, and much shorter. Second, it played to one of the Germans' trump cards, Luftwaffe air cover. Third, if something went wrong, the warships would be near German occupied territory, not in the middle of the ocean. It also offered one major disadvantage. The Germans would be sailing int the teeth of British channel defenses. there were ports, with British warships, within, literally, hours of any German route. RAF, and Coastal command aircraft were with minutes. And the Germans would be, potentially, with shelling range of land based naval artillery at the Straits of Dover. Nonetheless, the Germans chose to sail through the Channel.

A passage of the Brest squadron through the Channel was contemplated and planned for by the British. But that planning contained one fatal mistake. The British assumed the Germans would break out of Brest during the daytime, so that they could traverse the channel, and the Straits of Dover, at night. The Germans planned to do just the opposite.

German preparation for the breakout started way before the actual sailing.  German signals units began jamming British radar; at first weakly, and for short periods of time, and then more strongly, and for greater periods of time. Result? the British thought their radar problems were atmospheric, not man made. and when the Brest Flotilla, under the command of Vice Admiral Caliax, sailed, the British radars were blind toit.

SCHARNHORST, GNIESENAU, and PRINZ EUGEN raised steam on the night of February 11, 1942, and left Brest under cover of darkness. the British submarine covering the mouth of the harbor missed them, having gone off station temporarily. when she renewed her patrol, the boat thought the German warships were still in harbor.

The Germans were not sighted until after daylight, after they had  entered the channel. they were sighted by an RAF piklot, who because of regulations, maintained radio silence, and didn't report the sighting unitl he returned to base, gaining the Germans an hour.

The Royal Navy, and RAF, now fully alerted, swung into action. Warships were sent to engage the Germans, but Caliax was escorted by some 17 destroyers and, E- boats, S-boats, mine sweepers and other craft. Plus, no British capital ship, nor even a heavy cruiser was available to attack the Germans as part of the plan, due to fear of the Luftwaffe [Adolf Galland and relays totalling 250 fighters covered the channel Dash]. That meant, that as far as surface ships' throw weights, the British in the channel were outgunned by the eighteen 11" guns of the battleships, and the eight 8" guns of the cruiser. As the Germans approached the Straits of Dover, Swordfish Torpedo bombers, including some of pilots who had fatally damaged BISMARCK launched an assault, that failoed. among those lost was the pilot who had torpedoed BISMARCK's rudder.

By the time the Dover guns opened on the Germans, the race through the Channel was, for all extents and purposes, over; the Germans now being able to dog up the coast of the Netherlands further from the British.

But the Germans did not escape unscathed. SCHARNHORST hit mines dropped by the RAF twice, stopping dead in the water after the second strike, but effecting sufficient repairs to reach Germany. GNIESENAU also hit a mine, near the end of her voyage home. She would be undergoing repairs in Germany when Hitler ordered her decommissioned. The Channel Dash was her last operation. Somewhat ironically, one of her turrets wound up as a gun emplacement in Norway.

SCHARNHORST remained in Norwegian waters, after her repairs. She accompanied TIRPITZ on the Spitzenberg weather station raid, and was in the same fijord when TIRPITZ was damaged by British X craft mini-submarines. On Boxing Day, 1943, SCHARNHORST was sunk off the North Cape by H.M.S. DUKE OF YORK, while trying to attack one of the Murmansk convoys.

PRINZ EUGEN served the rest of the war in the Baltic.. After the surrender she was turned over to the U.S. Navy as a war prize. She was sunk at the atomic bomb tested at the Bikini Atol.

And the Channel Dash? Although it led to an inquiry and a vote of 'No Confidence' in the House of Commons for Churchill, it actually improved Britain's naval situation. ALL of Germany's heavy ships were now in Norway, or German and Baltic waters. The Royal Navy was now spared from splitting assets to watch France and Norway.

Still, it was a major humiliation. Three German Capital ships had sailed through the English channel in broad daylight, swatted aside whatever the British threw at them, and sailed home.

You can get more with a smile, a handshake and a gun than you can with a smile and a handshake - Al Capone
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