77 years ago this week, the bulk of the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet embarked on one of the most risky missions in naval history when it dared to challenge the undisputed might of the Royal Navy in their own front yard by attempting to traverse the entire English Channel, in the middle of World War II, and in broad daylight – an idea so crazy, that it might just work.
Battleship Scharnhorst, Battleship Gneisenau, Cruiser Prinz Eugen
Battleships VII Scharnhorstand VII Gneisenau, as well as heavy cruiser VIII Prinz Eugenhad spent much of the beginning of the war raiding convoys in the Atlantic, but in February 1942 they found themselves outnumbered and surrounded in the French port of Brest. Allied naval control of the Atlantic was making it more and more difficult to raid commerce with surface ships, especially with the Americans joining the war just 2 months prior. The sinking of the pride of the Kriegsmarine – Bismarck– exemplified this. Losing faith in the ability of battleships to attack merchant convoys, Germany wanted them back in the North Sea, as they were sure Norway would be the target for an Allied invasion.
With the German fleet getting bombed by the Royal Air Force almost daily in the port of Brest, they needed to devise a plan, and fast. Operation Cerberus was the result. Instead of going Northwest, around Iceland and back into the North Sea by rounding the North coast of Scotland – as far away as possible from British patrols – the fleet was to hook a right and take the shortcut through the heavily fortified English Channel. The Bismarck had shown that the Northwest route wasn’t all that safe, and the length of the journey meant that they could be harassed and whittled down by the Royal Navy. The only advantage of taking the Channel route was the element of surprise – they would be hiding in plain sight.
Nobody, not even most Kriegsmarine officers, would have expected such a reckless strategy to work. Nevertheless, on the night of February 11, the fleet weighed anchor and set out to do the impossible, with most of the crews still oblivious as to where they were heading. Joining Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen was an escort of six destroyers, dozens of small torpedo boats, and an air cover of over 250 land-based fighters that would constantly replace each other as they ran out of fuel.
By the morning of the 12th, the German formation had passed through more than half of the channel virtually undetected. Granted, Operation Cerberus had been very carefully planned to the last detail to have optimal weather and tide conditions to guarantee maximum speed and minimal visibility. But due to a series of human errors, mechanical malfunctions, and German wireless frequency jammers, the two battleships and a heavy cruiser had slipped right under the Royal Navy’s nose and was just a few kilometers from reaching the North Sea.
Before they were back in open water, they needed to pass through the narrowest part of the Channel – the strait of Dover.
The ships were finally spotted at around noon. The British defenders jumped to their feet in disbelief and launched everything they had – scores of torpedo boats, destroyers and bombers swarmed towards the formation, and coastal artillery opened up. Poor visibility and effective anti-aircraft fire kept the British bombers at bay, and the size of the German fleet kept the available surface ships from getting too close.
Before they knew it, the victorious German force broke out into the North Sea and into the safety of the German minefields. In the course of the mad Dash, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau hit mines and some of the smaller escorts were damaged, but all were able to make it back to port in one piece. All in all, what should have been a catastrophic defeat turned out to be one of the greatest triumphs for the Kriegsmarine, and one of the biggest humiliations in British naval history.
If you don’t have them already in your port, check out Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen in the World of Warships Premium Shop! If you enjoy the fast, well armoured, and versatile ships of the Kriegsmarine, these two will not disappoint.
- VII Scharnhorst
- Port slot
VIII Prinz Eugen
- VIII Prinz Eugen
- Port slot
Visit the World of Warships Wiki for more details including their strengths, weaknesses and general gameplay tips.