Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseA small German fleet was stationed at Brest, France, which had increasingly come under Allied aerial attacks by early 1942. Meanwhile, Norway, rich with iron ore and strategically placed to provide Germany with a northern flank, lacked adequate naval resources. For those reasons, the German Navy decided to relocate the Brest force to Norway to join battleship Tirpitz. Because the Allies were active in the North Atlantic, it was decided that the ships from Brest would make the trip through the English Channel. The German code name for the move was Unternehmen Zerberus (Operation Cerberus), while the British nickname for it was "Channel Dash". The operation, personally demanded by Adolf Hitler, was deemed so risky an operation that Grand Admiral Erich Raeder refused to take responsibility for the operation.
ww2dbaseOn the other side of the English Channel, British intelligence detected a heightened state of activity on the French coast, and correctly suspected that the German fleet might be planning to move. As a response, the British Navy laid more mines in the English Channel. By now, there were more than 1,000 mines in the narrow body of water.
ww2dbaseOn 11 Feb 1942, battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau along with heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen left the port of Brest escorted by six destroyers. The detection of the German fleet finally reached British high command after 13 hours. The shore batteries near Dover fired on the approximate location of the German fleet, but all shells missed their targets. After a few motor torpedo boats failed to hit the German ships with their torpedoes, six Swordfish aircraft were launched immediately to intercept the German fleet, though the Swordfish were all lost without inflicting any significant damage. Because of the bad weather, Bomber Command was not able to dispatch any heavy aircraft to engage the German ships; when they finally decided to launch bombers, only a small number were able to drop their payloads because they were not able to reach the ideal altitude due to the thick clouds. The final act of the series of British failures involved in some British aircraft mistakenly attacking British destroyers that were sent out to make contact with the German fleet.
ww2dbaseThe German fleet sailed through the English Channel, to the embarrassment of the British, without being challenged again. The ships reached their destination at dawn 13 Feb. Scharnhorst did receive damage from a mine, however. 17 German land-based aircraft had also been lost while covering the operation.
ww2dbaseBy moving the ships away from the French coast, the Germans actually gave the Allies a small breathing space in terms of naval operations off the coast of Western Europe. As Raeder, who disagreed with this operation, said, Germany had won "a tactical victory (but) had suffered a strategic defeat."
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Last Major Update: Feb 2006
Operation Cerberus Timeline
|11 Feb 1942||German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen, accompanied by 6 destroyers, departed Brest, France at 2330 hours and began their dash through the English Channel.|
|12 Feb 1942||2 RAF Spitfire fighters on patrol unexpectedly spotted a large German fleet sailing through the English Channel at 1042 hours. British coastal guns at South Foreland, England, United Kingdom fired 33 rounds at the fleet, all of which missed. A number of aircraft were launched to attack, which failed to destroy the fleet, while 37 aircraft were shot down in the process, killing 23 airmen. The only damage sustained by the Germans were by mines; Scharnhorst hit two and Gneisenau hit one.|
|12 Feb 1942||Seeadler made rendezvous with battleship Scharnhorst, battleship Gneisenau, and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen off Cap Gris-Nez, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France.|
|13 Feb 1942||German Navy Admiral Ciliax sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter in Paris, France in mid-morning: "It is my duty to inform you that Operation Cerberus has been successfully completed."|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945