Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Petr Štěpánek st.
In the clouds over the Channel
The German Navy found itself in a very disadvantageous situation in the second half
of the 1941. The battleships Scharnhost and
Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen
were anchored in Brest thus becoming the
target of repeated RAF raids. The Germans
did not want to risk the ships sailing around
the west coast of Great Britain and Ireland on
way to their home ports in Northern Europe,
because there they could not provide air cover. There was the option of sailing through
the Channel, but to some of the German Navy
leadership such an idea seemed too risky.
The last time a group of large warships had
operated so close to British shores was in
1588, it was the Spanish Armada.
The Channel option prevailed under code
name Cerberus. The action was to be carried
out in poor weather to make it more difficult
for the British to threaten the ships. The Germans began to clear mines in the route and
started jamming of radio communication and
The British knew of the impending evacuation thanks to the ULTRA intercepts. They also
had information about the mine clearance. In
early February 1942, they expected German
ships to sail north any day. And so, they tried
to place new naval mines along the anticipated route.
On the Luftwaffe side, the then General der
Jagdlflieger, the legendary Oberst Adolf
Galland, was given the task to organize air
cover for the ships. He was also the author
of its cover name for this air operation – Do-
nnerkeil (Thunderbolt). He had 252 fighter
aircraft at his disposal. The bulk of these
were Bf 109s and Fw 190s from JG 1, JG 2 and
JG 26. He was also given the operational part
of the training unit Jagdfliegerschule 5 as
well as Bf 110 night fighters from NJG 1 and
NJG 3. Bombers from KG 2 also took part.
The commanders of these units learned of
the plan the day before, on 11 February 1942.
In the evening, Brest was bombed by RAF
planes and the task force did not set sail until 22:45. Coincidentally, neither British submarines nor patrolling radar aircraft picked
it up. Scharnhost, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen
set off accompanied by six destroyers, which
were joined by other vessels, mostly torpedo
boats, during the following day.
Galland led fighter operations from the
headquarters of his former unit JG 26 in
Audembert. Directly on board Scharnhorst was fighter pilot Oberst Max Ibel, former
Kommodore of JG 27. He commanded fighter
units within Luftflotte 3 (Jafü 3). But within
this operation he served as Jafü Schiff and
was tasked with coordinating with the fighter
units. He took direct command at the end of
the air battle.
During the night of 11-12 February, night fighter aircraft carried out routine activities
which were not intended to draw attention to
the ships. The first fighter escorts appeared
over the task force at 08:50 (German time)
near Cherbourg. Coincidentally, these were
Bf 110 night fighters. They were involved
mainly because of their experience of flying
in poor weather conditions. Formations of fighters, numbering between ten and sixteen
machines, were gradually launched over the
task force during the day. Worse weather prevailed on the British side of the Channel, but
some German fighters took off with visibility
of 100 meters.
The British became suspicious at 11:00 (German time), and on radar they spotted a group
of circling aircraft moving at about 20 to 25
knots. Two pairs of Spitfires independently
detected the ships around 11:30. One of them
broke radio silence and reported the vessels,
which at the same time prepared the Germans for an air attack.
At a 13:15, the Germans came under inaccurate fire from the Dover batteries, which were
firing in bad weather according to information
from radar operators. Fifteen minutes later,
six valiant Swordfish crews tried to release
torpedoes, but all were shot down. The British
lost a total of 42 aircraft out of 450 deployed in
the afternoon attacks, and one destroyer and
several escort vessels were also damaged.
By nightfall the Germans had made 396 fighter sorties and 50 bomber sorties. They lost
22 machines. The only damage suffered by
the escorted vessels was to Scharnhorst and
Gneisenau, which ran into mines. On the RAF
side, there were a number of shortcomings
in communications and armament. The Germans managed to achieve a tactical victory,
but it was de facto a strategic retreat in the
Battle of the Atlantic.