Sunday, February 13, 2011

Operation Cerberus (the Channel Dash), 11-13 February 1942

Battle of the Week 2011-06

Occasionally, victory in battle is the result of a commander's talent at reading the tactical situation, devising and communicating a plan to his subordinates, then directing its execution so flawlessly the enemy is left wondering what happened. Often it's the product of a sound but unimaginative plan executed against an incompetent or unsuspecting enemy. Sometimes it's the product of boldness and luck.

But most often, it's a combination of these factors: a sound plan, executed boldly against an enemy expecting something else, can prove as decisive as the presence of a Napoleon or a Lee or a Rommel.

Operation Cerberus--or as the British call it, the Channel Dash--was such an operation. Poor reading of the tactical situation, poor communication and coordination, bad weather, and bad luck made what should have been an impossible task for the German navy into a major naval embarrassment for Britain.

The German battle cruisers Gniesenau and Scharnhorst were key players in the early months of the Battle of the Atlantic. Fast and well-armored, they were ideally suited to hit-and-run raids against the merchant and supply ships that became critical to Britain's survival after the Blitzkrieg cut it off from the continent. Between them, they sank more than 115,000 tons of British merchant shipping in early 1941, making them extremely valuable to the German war effort--and extremely valuable targets for the Royal Navy.

The two warships returned to port in Brest for repairs in March 1941, but remained vulnerable; Brest, on the peninsula of Brittany, was easily within the range of British bombers. The sinking of the Bismarck in May threw their vulnerable position into new light, and the German navy, on orders from Hitler, began making plans to return them to less exposed ports in Germany. The order came in January 1942: the Gniesenau, the Scharnhorst, and the Prinz Eugen, which had joined them in June, would sail for the German ports on the North Sea to defend the Fatherland against a potential invasion from Norway.

The Royal Navy knew at once the ships were preparing to sail; French partisans reported they were being loaded, and Royal Air Force reconnaissance flights showed increased activity all along the Channel coast. Reconnaissance flights were increased accordingly, a submarine positioned to watch the Brest harbor, and swift, light torpedo craft called motor torpedo boats (MTBs) stationed where they could easily intercept any traffic trying to run up the Channel to Germany. All this, and the navy scrambled to add to the more than a thousand mines already scattered through the Channel passages.

But by the thirteenth of February, the three ships and their escorts lay berthed in German ports on the North Sea, having accomplished the impossible--without the loss of a single ship.

How had they done it? First, with a sound plan and excellent coordination between the component forces of the operation; the German Navy and the Luftwaffe had coordinated fighter cover for every segment of the operation well before it kicked off, and every ship in the convoy (the three cruisers were escorted by six destroyers, plus assorted support vessels) understood its mission and what it was to do at every point of the run. Every detail, from radar jamming to meteorology to minesweeping to spreading false rumors throughout Brest to deceive the partisans, was considered and dealt with.

The British, for their part, misread the German plans spectacularly. To their credit, they did not fall for the Germans' deceptive indications the ships would sail south, but their read of the German intentions seems to have broken down from there. The British believed the Germans would leave Brest in daylight, so as to run the Straits of Dover, the narrowest point of the crossing, in darkness; in fact the German fleet left Brest at 10:45 on the evening of the 11th of February, and was crossing below the Isle of Wight by daybreak.

British coordination seems to have suffered a catastrophic breakdown, as well. The submarine watching Brest harbor had ended its day's watch an hour before the German ships left port; an RAF reconnaissance flight failed to see the ships in the darkness because of unreliable radar; radar failures at Coastal Command and Fighter Command went unreported; the MTBs stationed to intercept the Gniesenau and her fleet were being refitted and rearmed from an action on the previous day; and, to top it all off, an RAF patrol passed directly over the fleet, identified the German vessels--and maintained radio silence, not reporting the sighting until it returned to its airfield.

The weather, too, worked solidly in the Germans' favor. Low clouds concealed the ships from British bombers; most did not even release their bombs, and those that did missed their targets. Heavy fog for most of the run kept shore-based spotters from seeing the fleet, and kept the shore batteries at Dover from hitting the ships as they pushed through the narrow strait. And the airfield Bomber Command's planes had planned to fly from to intercept the fleet, North Coates, was snow-bound and useless to them.

The result was embarrassment for the Royal Navy--but little gain for the Germans. The three cruisers spent the rest of the war in the North Sea, making Allied supply runs to the Soviet Union difficult but accomplishing little else. And bottled up in the North Sea, they could do nothing to influence the strategically more critical Battle of the Atlantic, which from that point the Germans left largely to their U-boats, or to hamper the even more critical Allied invasion of Europe.

So once again, a massive and expensive undertaking went off with hardly a hitch--and accomplished almost nothing. Such are the fortunes of war: the side that can see where their limited resources can be put to most effective use is the side most likely to push on to victory. The side that overextends itself, wastes its effort on operations that are unlikely to decide anything, soon finds itself asking for the terms of surrender.

Now go get your nerd on!

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