South African Military History Society

Durban Branch April 1998 News Sheet No 278


Our March meeting saw fellow-member; Bill Brady at his brilliant best. The subject of his talk was "The channel Dash - 1942" and using colour slides, overhead projeccions and videos he managed to achieve that atmosphere of fury and betrayal that marked one of the worst British fiascoes of WW2. One could not help feeling Churchill's utter flustration as one snafu followed another allowing the German battle-cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen to steam up the English Channel in broad daylight and escape to the relative safety of German home waters. This "Channel Dash" as it was to become known, dealt a severe blow to British pride, nearly bringing down the War Cabinet and at the same time providing Nazi propaganda with a massive morale booster for the German population.
Our speaker started off by outlining Hitler's reasons for ordering these German capital ships which at that stage were based in Brest, to embark on such a foolhardy mission. Apart from America's entry into the War in late '41 and the difficulty of protecting these capital ships from the RAF either in the Atlantic or in port, Hitler was more concerned about the Arctic convoys delivering vital war supplies to the Russians at a time when the major thrust of the German offensive was his Eastern Front. He was obsessed with the strategic value of Norway and wanted to concentrate all the capital ships he could muster in that sector. Also he felt sure that the British would never anticipate such a daring plan....
To the German Naval Command the concept of going through the Straits of Dover in daylight seemed suicidal until it was realized that to go through that section in darkness would mean that the ships would have to leave Brest in daylight, thereby alerting the RN and/or RAF who were maintaining a dawn to dusk watch on the port. This would allow the British sufficient time to mount a combined operation capable of defeating the three German warships. Hitler had promised full air support and, although it was to be a risky operation, to stay in Brest was even more so. Hitler's final arm-twister was the threat of dismantling these capital ships and mounting their guns as shore batteries! The German Naval Command had no option but to agree.
Our speaker then went on to assess the British preparations. Through their intelligence network, they knew that a break-out was imminent, but as Hitler had surmised they never thought the Germans would ever attempt an escape through the English Channel let alone in broad daylight. All they had to counter this seemingly remote threat were six antiquated Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers stationed at Manston in Kent, nine MTB's at Ramsgate and six 20 year old destroyers at Harwich. After the disasters in the Far East the British Admiralty was not prepared to commit any capital ships to the English Channel where they could be sunk by the Luftwaffe. If it came to the push, they were going to rely on Bomber Command even though the latter were only trained in high level fixed target bombing techniques. Incidentally, the only aircraft capable of sinking these German warships at that time were the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers which were stationed in Scotland and their squadron was not even placed on alert!
"Operation Cerebus" as it was code-named by the Germans began at 22h15 on the 11th February 1942 when the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Pnnz Eugen quietly slipped out of Brest harbour and raced up the English Channel escorted by six destroyers, ten torpedo boats, numerous E-boatss and an air umbrella comprising 300 day and night fighters. Due to a combination of bad luck and rank inefficiency on the part of the crews of the aircraft and submarine on watch outside Brest, the German flotilla was able to win a 300 mile start and were nearly into the Straits of Dover, before they were "stumbled on" by a pair of Spitfires on patrol shortly after l0h00 the following morning.
Even then when one of the Spitfire pilots broke radio silence, his report was disbelieved by the RAF High Command. Fortunately the ATC concerned insisted on speaking to the AOC, Air Vice- Marshall Leigh-Mallory, who at that time was reviewing a Belgian Air Force unit and who was eventually brought to the 'phone. He was very irate at the interruption, but when he realized that it must be the German warships he ordered "Operation Fuller" to be executed. Unfortunately the Intelligence Officer in charge of the plan had locked it in a safe and had gone off on leave!
At 12h15 right on schedule the German flotilla reached the narrowest part of the Channel at Dover, but were able to steam through safely because all the British had at that point were some antiquated 13.5" heavy guns with a fire rate of one shell per 5 minutes. The Germans were out of range before these guns could be brought to bear. From this stage onwards the British "battle plan" degenerated into a series of unco-ordinated attacks and improvisations. First, there was the Swordfish torpedo attack - due to lack of adequate fighter support only three aircraft rnanaged to penetrate the German fighter and flak barrage and launch their torpedoes. All missed and all the aircraft were shot down. Then came the MTB's, but they were too slow to catch the fast moving German warships and they had to launch their torpedoes at maximum range giving the Germans more than enough time to take evasive action. After a long delay during which time all sorts of administrative bungles occurred, the Beauforts were finally deployed, but once again due to lack of fighter cover, they were obliged to drop their torpedoes at maximum range with similar results. Then Bomber Command sent in 647 aircraft, but they did not even know what their target was supposed to be! Finally the six 20-year old destroyers which had been delayed while negotiating a minefield arrived on the scene, but could not penetrate the defence cordon. In addition they were severely attacked from both sides and, after launching their torpedoes at maximum range had to limp back to port. Once again the German warships had more than enough time to take evasive action. However, in the late afternoon two of the Germans warships were finally damaged by mines. The Scharnhorst hit two mines and the Gneisenau one, but both ships were able to make port safely.
In Germany "Operation Cerebus" was hailed as a great naval victory, but in Britain, coming so soon after the losses of the Prince of Wales, Repulse, Barham and Ark Royal and shortly before the Fall of Singapore, it made "Black Febraary 1942" the lowest point in the entire War. But it did have a positive effect in the long run - it established the appropriate "Combined Operations" procedures which would have a devastating effect on Germany in the remaining years of WW2.

After our usual well-informed question time, all that remained was for Major Keith Archibald to thank our speaker for a well-researched and well-presented talk.

BATTLEFIELDS' TOUR: "Ladysmith Siege Sites" September 12/131998- DIARISE!

AGM: Our AGM will be held on 9th April 1998 in line with the other Branches. Please get your nominations in for a new Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary, Scribe and 4 Committee Members. Please complete the attached nomination sheet and eturn it to Ken Gillings as soon as possible.

The venue for all meetings will be the 1st Floor lecture theatre, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Natal, Durban, which is housed in the building on the right of the Memorial Tower Building (opposite the entrance to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre), commencing at 19h30 on the second Thursday in the month. Please bring your own refreshments and glass. VISITORS AND INTERESTED PERSONS ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND.

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