The subject of the curtain raiser at the 14 February society lecture meeting was the career of the WW2 German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which many believe played a minor role in the war at sea, but which was active to the end and beyond. The speaker was committee member Heinrich Janzen. Shortly after coming to power in January 1933, Hitler began planning with the Kriegsmarine, the German Navy, to build an ocean-going fleet able to disrupt Britain's sea communications in time of war. The size of the German Navy had been heavily restricted under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WW1. But Hitler had no intentions of respecting the treaty, and his plans were assisted by an agreement with Britain in 1935 that the German fleet could be expanded to 35 per cent of the Royal Navy. The subsequent building programme produced, among other vessels, the two 32 000 ton fast battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and three 14 000 ton, eight 8-inch gun, heavy cruisers, of which the Prinz Eugen was one. Later Hitler and his naval C-in-C, Grand Admiral Eric Raeder, went on to conceive a truly massive building programme termed the Z Plan. But this was never completed, its main results being the super battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz.
The Prinz Eugen was launched in 1940, and promptly attracted the attention of the RAF, which seriously delayed her readiness for sea. Her debut came when she accompanied the 42 000-ton Bismarck on a raiding expedition into the north Atlantic. The pair were intercepted by the Royal Navy in an engagement during which the British battle cruiser Hood was sunk, and the brand-new battleship Prince of Wales seriously damaged. The Bismarck was also damaged, and proceeded to part company with the Prinz Eugen and steam for the French port of Brest, and her own destruction.
The Prinz Eugen reached Brest later after refuelling in mid-Atlantic. She lay there until February 1942 when she joined with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau in the famous Channel Dash, featured in the main talk of the evening. She reached Germany, to the embarrassment of the British, and was for a time based on Norway. In the winter of 1944, she was active in the Baltic covering the evacuation of German army and civilian personnel from the path of the advancing Red Army.
The end of the war brought what was probably the most remarkable phase of the Prinz Eugen's career when she was taken over by the US Navy and for some months flew the Stars and Stripes. Her end came in 1946 when she was used as a target ship in the US nuclear-bomb test programme at Bikini Atoll in the Marshal Islands. It's reported she survived it in remarkably good condition.
The Channel Dash was the subject of the evening's main lecture. Speaker John Murray described how the Germans, by a combination of competence and daring, succeeded in inflicting on the British perhaps the most embarrassing naval defeat of the entire war. RAF bombing had seriously protracted the stay of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen at Brest in 1941. Only in early 1942 were they finally ready for sea. Meanwhile Hitler had ruled against further surface raiding in the north Atlantic, and the question was how to get the ships home to Germany. The decision was made to run them through the English Channel. This did not take the British completely by surprise. Serious preparations had been made, although these proved woefully inadequate in the event.
The key to the German success was the decision to leave Brest in the dark and transit the narrowest and most dangerous part of the Channel, the Straits of Dover, in daylight. The British had not anticipated this. The result was that the German squadron, augmented by numerous smaller warships, and supported by hundreds of fighter aircraft, was not sighted by the British until passing the Isle of Wight at a speed of 30 knots. As a result, offensive action could not be taken until the German ships were passing through the Straits in poor visibility and, incidentally, were closer to the English coast than any enemy fleet had approached in 300 years.
At this point farce gave way to tragedy. The main effort against the German ships was to be mounted by Beaufort torpedo bombers of RAF Coastal Command. But these were either too dispersed or already out of range. The only forces able to strike quickly turned out to be naval motor torpedo boats (MTBs) and six obsolescent RN Swordfish torpedo bombers. These were led by Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde, RN, who already had experience of attacking German ships. Esmonde, who came from an Irish Catholic family with an impressively long history of military service to the British crown, had led his Swordfish squadron from HM aircraft carrier Victorious against the Bismarck the previous May. For that exploit he had been awarded the DSO. None of the MTBs could get within range of the German ships, and all six Swordfish, escorted by only one Spitfire squadron instead of the five that had been promised, were shot down. Esmonde died, along with 12 of the 16 crewmen of the Swordfish. A posthumous Victoria Cross was later presented to his wheelchair-bound mother flanked by his two surviving brothers, both in British uniforms.
Subsequent attacks by Beaufort torpedo aircraft and Harwich-based RN destroyers both failed to prevent the Germans ships from reaching Kiel, although the Scharnhorst was damaged by a mine. But this damage was nothing compared to that done to the prestige of both the RN and the RAF. The British public was incensed, and the political popularity of Premier Churchill did not fully recover until the victory at El Alamein the following October.
Will members please remember that their votes for the winners of the Felix Machanik Prize for the 2001 best lecture, and the George Barrell Prize for the best curtain raiser, must be in by the society lecture meeting on 7 March.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167
Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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