The Buzz

How Two of Nazi Germany's Most Powerful Battleships Took on Great Britain (and Won)

In the winter of 1942, two of Hitler’s battleships were sitting out the war.

The battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, were based at the French port of Brest. From there, they posed a permanent menace to the transatlantic convoys that were Britain’s lifeline.

On the other hand, the three ships were also permanent targets. British aircraft flew thousands of sorties, including diverting Royal Air Force strategic bombers from bombing German cities to bombing German ships. Finally, in late 1941, Hitler had one of his famously wrong intuitions: the Allies were going to invade Norway. Thus the big ships in Brest needed to come back to Germany now to intercept the invasion.

Yet Hitler’s fantasies had to confront geographic reality. There were two ways to get from the western coast of France to Germany, and both were near-suicidal. One was to sail the long way northward on a circle around Britain. The other route was more direct: sail east through the narrow English Channel between Britain and France, and then straight on to a German port. But this meant passing through one of the most heavily defended waterways on earth, lined with coastal defense guns, torpedo boats, mines and radar.

With typical German thoroughness, the German navy devised “Operation Cerberus.” The Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen would leave Brest during the night; though it meant passing through the channel, it would give the ships a greater element of surprise. Preparations began with German minesweepers clearing safe lanes through the minefields in the area. In addition, according to the official British naval history:

To gain as long a period of darkness as possible the enemy timed his movement to take place four days before the new moon, and the squadron was ordered to start from Brest at 7:30 p.m. A spring tide would then be flooding up-Channel to speed the ships’ progress and, as it rose, it would reduce the danger from our mines. Fighter protection was very carefully worked out. There were to be sixteen aircraft constantly over the ships during daylight, and cover was to be at its strongest during the mid-day passage of the Dover Straits. Six destroyers were to escort the big ships for the first part of the eastward dash, ten torpedo-boats would join next morning and more torpedo-boats, E-boats, R-boats and small escort craft would meet the squadron off Cape Gris Nez.

Even with the strictest secrecy, the German preparations didn’t escape unnoticed. The British Admiralty warned the various Royal Navy and Air Force commands that the Germans were likely to make a daylight escape through the channel. On alert were six destroyers, two minelayers, three submarines and six obsolete Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers.

As even the British admit, this was a pathetically small force to stop a German battleship squadron. But in early 1942, with France out of the war and America barely in, there was little to spare. British resources were stretched to the breaking point between fighting the Axis in the Mediterranean, the Japanese in the Pacific and the U-boats in the Atlantic, as well as escorting convoys to Russia, watching the ships in Brest and making sure that the Bismarck’s sister battleship Tirpitz didn’t sortie from its Norwegian lair.

At 10:45 p.m. on February 11, 1942, the German ships left port under the cloak of night and of electronic jamming that disrupted British coastal radar. Were it not for the death and destruction, what ensued would have been a comedy of errors. Radar-equipped British patrol aircraft that should have spotted the fleeing ships in the darkness experienced radar failures. Two Spitfires intercepting the cloud of German aircraft over the channel spotted the battleships—but didn’t radio it in. Accustomed to German jamming, the heightened electronic interference with British radar didn’t set off alarm bells.

It wasn’t until 11:30 a.m. that the British realized a breakout was in progress. The Swordfish went into the attack through heavy clouds, heavy flak and a cloud of German fighters. They were escorted by just one squadron of Spitfires because the other four squadrons missed the rendezvous. None of the Swordfish survived—and none of their torpedoes hit. Then it was the turn of five—and only five—serviceable torpedo boats to go in: driven off by German gunfire, they futilely launched their torpedoes from long range.

Beaufort twin-engined torpedo bombers were mobilized from around Britain. No. 42 Squadron only had torpedoes for nine of its fourteen aircraft, which made piecemeal and ineffective attacks. The other five No. 42 squadron Beauforts were supposed to pick up torpedoes at another airfield. “Unfortunately the thick snow on the Coastal Command stations in East Anglia forced them to land at a fighter station, where there were no torpedoes,” reads the British official history. “Efforts were made to bring the weapons by road to the waiting aircraft, but they arrived too late.”

Five old First World War destroyers (the sixth broke down) attempted a torpedo attack off the Belgian coast, closing to within two miles in daylight against the massed heavy guns of battleships. Their torpedoes missed, but they were lucky to survive. Finally, the RAF committed 242 heavy bombers to stop the escaping Germans: as the Americans learned in the Pacific, high-altitude bombing against fast warships was futile.