South African Military History Society

News-sheet No. 76. DURBAN BRANCH August 1979


Having considered, over many months, the glint of assegais and the acrid smoke of the Martini-Henris of the Zulu War, our own Darrell Hall brought to the August meeting of this branch a breath of the sea. This time the "Donner und Blitz" did not come from Zulu muzzle loaders or British Gatiing guns but from the German pocket battleships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The saga of the escape of these battleships from Brest in February 1942 was presented by Darrell and two assistant commentators. Projected slides and suitable music provided the background to the commentary presented by Darrell from the British and by Ken Johnson from the German point of view, linked by the "neutral" narration of Ken Gillings.

The strongest German surface ships in service in 1939 were the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and her sister-ship the Gneisenau. Their 11-inch gun main armament was lighter than that of their British counterparts, which all had 15-inch guns, but their armour protection was much greater. They were, in effect, small battleships, and were thus popularly referred to as "pocket battleships".

They first appeared on the scene, when, on November 23, 1939, they surprised and sank a small armed merchantman Rawalpindi west of the Faeroes. On June 8, when in Norwegian waters off Narvik they surprised the ancient British aircraft-carrier Glorious and with their first salvoes set the Glorious ablaze and sent her to her doom. Her two escorting destroyers made a heroic attempt to hold off the German battle-cruisers but were overwhelmed and sunk in turn; but before she sank the Acasta launched a torpedo against the Scharnhorst which damaged her severely. Some weeks later, on June 23, the Gneisenau was badly damaged by a torpedo from the British submarine Clyde. Both battle-cruisers were put out of commission for many months while undergoing repairs.

The German squadron re-appeared in the Atlantic where it took part in the blockade of Britain. On March 23, 1941 at the end of a lightning raid the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau put in at Brest, being joined there on June 1 by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. In the course of time these ships were successively attacked and damaged, the Gneisenau by a torpedo and later by four bombs, the Prinz Eugen by a bomb, and the Scharnhorst by five bombs. The ensuing repairs took many months and reduced the efficacy of the squadron. Its harbourage at Brest became increasingly vulnerable and ultimately led to the decision to risk a return to German waters.

This return was to be undertaken by the shortest route - through the channel. "To come through the channel is risky but to stay at Brest is even more so", was the German High Command's assessment. Just after midnight on February 11, 1942 the German squadron left Brest on a dash which for two nights and one day would expose them to fearful odds and risks. But aided by an almost incredible series of misfortunes, failures and breakdowns in the British aerial surveillance, radar coverage and naval readiness, the German squadron raced against time up the channel and eventually gained the safety of its home waters. In the process the squadron came under attack frdm the guns of Dover, Swordfish aircraft, and British destroyers. All these had little or no effect. However, the real damage was caused by the mines which had been laid in the channel and which were cleared only partially by the Germans.

Scharnhorst struck a mine and Admiral Ciliax was forced to transfer from his flagship to an escorting destroyer. After a short delay Scharnhorst got under way again, hit a second mine, but carried on; then Gneisenau hit a mine, but limped on. At dawn on February 13 Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, which had remained unscathed, reached BrunsbDttel. Ciliax returned to the Scharnhorst and arrived a few hours later at Wilhelmshaven.

British public opinion was furious at the success of the German operation but overlooked the fact that the German navy's brilliant exploit masked a strategic retreat, the abandonment of any further attempt to throw its capital stiips into the tonnage war.

Midge Carter expressed the appreciation of the meeting to the trio in appropriate terms.

Before presenting the main feature of the meeting Darrell presented an amusing and enlightening series of slides on the Zulu War Centenary tour by the Johannesburg branch. This lighthearted yet instructive item was appeciated by all.


September 20th (Please note that this is the third Thursday in the month). A T.V. documentary film on the Zulu War of 1879 entitled "BLACK AS HELL, THICK AS CRASS", produced by Messrs. Casdagrove Ltd (Zulu War Centenary Merchandising) will be shown by Mr Peter Walton of that firm. The film was made by Mr. Kenneth Griffith, author of the book on the siege of Ladysmith, "Thank God we Kept the Flag Flying". The members of the S.A. National (Historical) Society have been invited to attend as our guests.
October 18th (Please note that this is the third Thursday in the month) Major D. Mack of Natal Command will give a talk on the Angolan War (in which he was personally involved) entitled "OPERATION SAVANNAH".
November 8thLt Col N.S.E. Martin will give a talk on "THE HISTORY OF NATO".
December 13thFellow-member Dr. Ian Copley will show some films on the war in Rhodesia on hehalf of SARA (South Africa/Rhodesia Association) including one entitled "Operation Green Leader' which is about the Rhodesian army's first raid into Zambia.

The venue for all meetings will be the Lecture Room of the Port Natal Administration Board, 'SB' BOUROUIN BUILDING, on the corner of Jan Smuts Highway and Buro Crescent, Mayville, on the second Thursday of each month, UNLESS OTHERWISE ANNOUNCED, commencing at 8 p.m. Glasses and ice will be supplied so please bring your own canned or bottled refreshments. Friends and interested persons are welcome to come along.

(Mrs) Tania van der Watt

Secretary: Durban Branch,
S.A. Military History Society,
Private Bag X5431O, Durban, 4000.
Tel. 291131

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