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-

January 2023

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.

INFO Eduard