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German Fighters Escorted Ships Past Britain’s Coast 75 Years Ago Today

The Channel Dash was a big boost to Nazi morale and a scandal back in Britain for Churchill.

Between the 11th and the 13th of February 1942, 250 Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters, 30 Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighters, and assorted support aircraft participated in Operation Thunderbolt, the German Luftwaffe’s aerial coverage of the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as they made the Channel Dash (Operation Cerberus) from Brest, France, to Wilhelmshaven, Germany via the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and the Straits of Dover. Although the British attacked the German ships multiple times during the operation, they failed to stop the Germans from transiting the English Channel in large part due to the experienced and aggressive German pilots defending the ships.

The Channel Dash or Operation Cerberus was a German naval operation designed to move German capital ships from Brest in Brittany, France back to German ports. The ships had been under consistent attack by Royal Air Force Bomber Command and Coastal Command during their time in the French port which inflicted periodic damage to the ships, reducing their seaworthiness. Gneisenau was damaged on the evening of January 6th 1943. Between December 10th 1941 and January 20th 1942, 37 percent of all Royal Air Force Bomber Command sorties were flown against the German ships at Brest. Although they were a tacit threat to Atlantic convoys, the German ships were essentially bottled up in port. The ships were not available for Operation Rhine Exercise, during which the German battleship Bismarck was sunk in the North Atlantic. The presence of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might have meant an entirely different outcome for the Bismarck in that historic engagement. The Hipper-class cruiser Prinz Eugen survived the battle and arrived at Brest on June 1st 1941.

In late 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered German Navy High Command to plan an operation to return the ships to German bases in order to counter what was perceived as a possible British invasion of Norway. The short route up the English Channel was preferred to a detour around the British Isles. The Germans were counting on surprise, favorable (which is to say overcast and stormy) weather, a high tide that was running in the same direction as their planned movement which would increase their speed and help float their ships over known mines in the Channel, and their ability to cover the ships using the Luftwaffe.

Luftwaffe General Adolf Galland was given command of Operation Thunderbolt. The Germans actually mobilized some training units to make up for many of their fighters being diverted from the Soviet Union for the operation. The Germans planned to jam British radio-telephone frequencies and coastal radar. Dornier Do 217s were to be used to fly electronic deception missions to divert British aircraft. This is one of the earliest examples of aerial electronic deception operations. The Germans were also prepared to use Ju 88 and He 111 bombers against RAF bases in southwestern England, to drop radar-confusing chaff, and to attack any British naval forces attempting to intercept the Brest Group.

The Luftwaffe placed a fighter controller aboard the Scharnhorst to coordinate fighter cover. General Galland decided that the covering aircraft should fly both high and low cover and that the low groups would fly at altitudes below the detection threshold of British coastal radar. The Germans planned to have a minimum of 16 fighters over the ships at all times and 32 present for the majority of the operation. The Luftwaffe aircraft were to maintain radio silence. The German plan also included rehearsals of the quick-turn servicing of the covering aircraft. The ground crews shaved their turn-around times down to 30 minutes.

On February 11th, the German capital ships and their escorting destroyers and E-Boats left Brest at 2114 local time and escaped detection for more than twelve hours, approaching the Strait of Dover without discovery. The British, made aware of the German operation by ULTRA intercepts and spies in the area of the port of Brest but inexplicably unprepared for the event, finally began operations against the German ships when they were steaming in English Channel, well after they had sortied from Brest. The Royal Air Force flew 398 Fighter Command sorties, 242 Bomber Command sorties, and 35 Coastal Command sorties against the Germans. Even so, the British attacks amounted to little more than harassment of the Germans as they steamed through the English Channel within sight of England.

Even so, the British attacks amounted to little more than harassment of the Germans as they steamed through the English Channel within sight of England. One example of the futility of the attacks is the six Fleet Air Arm 825 Squadron Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers that attacked the ships. All six were shot down by gunners aboard the ships. Their commander, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, received a posthumous Victoria Cross for the courageous attack, but the Germans were unaffected by it. In fact none of the British torpedo attacks manage to score a single hit on a German ship.

Overall the British aircraft losses to the Luftwaffe were two Bristol Blenheims, four Westland Whirlwinds, four Vickers Wellingtons, six Hawker Hurricanes, nine Handley-Page Hampdens and ten Supermarine Spitfires. German gunners on the ships shot down the six Swordfish and a Hampden bomber. The British destroyer HMS Worcester was damaged by naval gunfire from Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. 23 of her crews were killed, four died of wounds and 45 were wounded out of the complement of 130. The ship was out of action for 14 weeks.

The Germans lost the torpedo boats Jaguar and T. 13 damaged by bombing, two sailors killed and some badly wounded, and 17 Luftwaffe aircraft and eleven of their pilots.

The German ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau hit mines in the North Sea and were damaged. In fact the Scharnhorst was so heavily damaged she was out of action for more than a year. By February 13th the German ships had all reached German ports.

In the end the German Navy considered the operation to have been a tactical success but a strategic failure. None of the three capital ships ever threatened an Atlantic convoy again. The ships might have been more heavily damaged or sunk in port had they remained in Brest, but in reality their eventual fates were determined by their having made the Channel Dash to ports in Germany. Luftwaffe aircraft were also no longer able to protect them.

On February 23rd Prinz Eugen was torpedoed off Norway by a British submarine. She was eventually repaired and spent the remainder of the war in the Baltic Sea, where she would not threaten Atlantic Convoys. Gneisenau entered dry dock for repairs to the mine damage sustained during the Channel Dash. On the night of February 26th the RAF finished Gneisenau off by bombing the dry dock and the ship inside it. She never sailed again. The Scharnhorst was eventually sunk at the Battle of the North Cape on December 26th 1943.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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