Operation Cerberus
The Channel Dash, was a major naval engagement during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 in which a German Kriegsmarine
The Kriegsmarine was the name of the German Navy during the Nazi regime . It superseded the Kaiserliche Marine of World War I and the post-war Reichsmarine. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches of the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany.The Kriegsmarine grew rapidly...

squadron consisting of both Scharnhorst class battleship
Scharnhorst class battleship
The Scharnhorst class were the first capital ships, alternatively referred to as battlecruisers or battleships, built for the German Navy after World War I. The class comprised two vessels: the lead ship Scharnhorst and Gneisenau...

s, and heavy cruiser along with escorts, ran a British blockade
A blockade is an effort to cut off food, supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force, either in part or totally. A blockade should not be confused with an embargo or sanctions, which are legal barriers to trade, and is distinct from a siege in that a blockade is usually...

 and successfully sailed from Brest
Brest, France
Brest is a city in the Finistère department in Brittany in northwestern France. Located in a sheltered position not far from the western tip of the Breton peninsula, and the western extremity of metropolitan France, Brest is an important harbour and the second French military port after Toulon...

 in Brittany
Brittany is a cultural and administrative region in the north-west of France. Previously a kingdom and then a duchy, Brittany was united to the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province. Brittany has also been referred to as Less, Lesser or Little Britain...

 to their home bases in Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 via the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...


On 11 February 1942, the Kriegsmarines ships left Brest at 21:15 and escaped detection for more than 12 hours, approaching the Straits of Dover without discovery. As the German ships passed through the straits and on into the North Sea, British armed forces intercepted them, and attacks were made by the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

, the Fleet Air Arm
Fleet Air Arm
The Fleet Air Arm is the branch of the British Royal Navy responsible for the operation of naval aircraft. The Fleet Air Arm currently operates the AgustaWestland Merlin, Westland Sea King and Westland Lynx helicopters...

 and Coastal Artillery. The attacks and bombardment were unsuccessful, and by 13 February all the Kriegsmarines ships had completed their transit. In support of the German naval operation, the Luftwaffe
Luftwaffe is a generic German term for an air force. It is also the official name for two of the four historic German air forces, the Wehrmacht air arm founded in 1935 and disbanded in 1946; and the current Bundeswehr air arm founded in 1956....

launched Operation Donnerkeil
Operation Donnerkeil
Unternehmen Donnerkeil was the codename for a German military operation of the Second World War. Donnerkeil was designed as an air superiority operation to support the Kriegsmarine Operation Cerberus, also known as the "Channel Dash".In 1941 Kriegsmarine surface vessels had carried out commerce...

 (Thunderbolt) to provide air superiority for the passage of the ships.

German plan

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived at Brest on 22 March 1941 after operations against Allied shipping in the Atlantic Ocean
Atlantic Ocean
The Atlantic Ocean is the second-largest of the world's oceanic divisions. With a total area of about , it covers approximately 20% of the Earth's surface and about 26% of its water surface area...

. Prinz Eugen appeared at dawn on 1 June at Brest Harbour after participating in Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine). Here the ships were able to repair and refuel but were also subject to frequent air attacks. In light of this, Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 ordered the Kriegsmarine to move the ships to their home bases. The Berlin Admiralty preferred the Denmark Strait
Denmark Strait
The Denmark Strait or Greenland Strait |Sound]]) is an oceanic strait between Greenland and Iceland...

 passage but also considered the shorter but more dangerous route through the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...


The matter was quickly resolved by Hitler in favour of the Channel, and all planning for the fleet transfer was passed on to the German Naval Command West in Paris. Although the operation would be under Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax
Otto Ciliax
Otto Ciliax was an admiral in the German Navy. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross...

, who commanded the Brest Group (flying his flag on Scharnhorst), Naval Command West under Admiral Alfred Saalwächter
Alfred Saalwächter
Alfred Saalwächter was a German U-boat commander during World War I and General Admiral during World War II.-Early life:...

 was responsible for all planning and operational directions.

As the operation had been ordered personally by Hitler, mine sweepers were deployed, additional radar jamming stations were set up, U-boats were sent for meteorological observations and several destroyers steamed westward down the Channel to Brest to strengthen the escort screen. Fighter ace Adolf Galland
Adolf Galland
Adolf "Dolfo" Joseph Ferdinand Galland was a German Luftwaffe General and flying ace who served throughout World War II in Europe. He flew 705 combat missions, and fought on the Western and the Defence of the Reich fronts...

 attended planning sessions on Scharnhorst and promised day and night fighter cover along the route.

Admiral Ciliax, who was personally pessimistic about the success of Operation Cerberus, had his own problems. His great ships were no longer the fine fighting machines they had been, nor did they look like it. While at Brest, many technicians and experts were detailed away for urgent requirements elsewhere. But morale on the ships was good; there had been no sabotage at Brest and the crews went ashore freely. Among the sullen locals there was no doubt that the ships were preparing to depart. To make the French believe (and pass on to the British) that they were heading for the South Atlantic, rumours were spread in town, tropical helmets were brought on board and French dock workers loaded oil barrels marked “For Use in the Tropics.”

British response

The British commanding officer was Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay
Bertram Ramsay
Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay KCB, KBE, MVO was a British admiral during World War II. He was an important contributor in the field of amphibious warfare.-Early life:...

 of the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

. Available for him were six destroyers, which should have been on four-hour standby in the Thames Estuary
Thames Estuary
The Thames Mouth is the estuary in which the River Thames meets the waters of the North Sea.It is not easy to define the limits of the estuary, although physically the head of Sea Reach, near Canvey Island on the Essex shore is probably the western boundary...

 but were not. There were also three Hunt-class
Hunt class destroyer
The Hunt class was a class of Destroyer escort of the Royal Navy. The first vessels were ordered early in 1939, and the class saw extensive service in World War II, particularly on the British East Coast and Mediterranean convoys. They were named after British fox hunts...

 destroyer escort
Destroyer escort
A destroyer escort is the classification for a smaller, lightly armed warship designed to be used to escort convoys of merchant marine ships, primarily of the United States Merchant Marine in World War II. It is employed primarily for anti-submarine warfare, but also provides some protection...

s, but they had no torpedo tube
Torpedo tube
A torpedo tube is a device for launching torpedoes. There are two main types of torpedo tube: underwater tubes fitted to submarines and some surface ships, and deck-mounted units installed aboard surface vessels...

s and so posed little threat to the well-armoured German ships, while the 32 Motor Torpedo Boat
Motor Torpedo Boat
Motor Torpedo Boat was the name given to fast torpedo boats by the Royal Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy.The capitalised term is generally used for the Royal Navy boats and abbreviated to "MTB"...

s of the Dover
Dover is a town and major ferry port in the home county of Kent, in South East England. It faces France across the narrowest part of the English Channel, and lies south-east of Canterbury; east of Kent's administrative capital Maidstone; and north-east along the coastline from Dungeness and Hastings...

 and Ramsgate
Ramsgate is a seaside town in the district of Thanet in east Kent, England. It was one of the great English seaside towns of the 19th century and is a member of the ancient confederation of Cinque Ports. It has a population of around 40,000. Ramsgate's main attraction is its coastline and its main...

 flotillas under Ramsay's command were counterbalanced by the German flotilla of E-boat
E-boats was the designation for Motor Torpedo Boats of the German Navy during World War II. It is commonly held that the E stood for Enemy....

s. For various reasons, aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm
Fleet Air Arm
The Fleet Air Arm is the branch of the British Royal Navy responsible for the operation of naval aircraft. The Fleet Air Arm currently operates the AgustaWestland Merlin, Westland Sea King and Westland Lynx helicopters...

, RAF Coastal Command
RAF Coastal Command
RAF Coastal Command was a formation within the Royal Air Force . Founded in 1936, it was the RAF's premier maritime arm, after the Royal Navy's secondment of the Fleet Air Arm in 1937. Naval aviation was neglected in the inter-war period, 1919–1939, and as a consequence the service did not receive...

 and RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. During World War II the command destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities, and in the 1960s stood at the peak of its postwar military power with the V bombers and a supplemental...

 were unable to provide an effective level of support.

This was partly because all services expected the Germans to time their dash through the Channel so that the most dangerous point at Dover-Calais (where the ships would need to move within range of British coastal batteries) would be passed by night. However the Germans considered it far more important to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible by slipping out of Brest unnoticed at night, thus avoiding the 12-hour warning that an early daytime departure would have given the British. The British were wrong-footed by the audacious German move. Night reconnaissance patrols of the Fleet Air Arm did not detect the departure of the ships from Brest because their radars failed. The first indication that something was happening came from RAF radar operators under Squadron Leader Bill Igoe
Bill Igoe
Squadron Leader William Anthony Kevin Igoe, F.R.Ae. S., C.E., , was an Irish born Royal Air Force officer who was Senior Controller for No. 11 Group RAF at RAF Biggin Hill. He was also a noted sportsman and businessman....

, who noticed an unusually high level of German air-activity over the Channel. The ships were then spotted in the Channel by the pilots of two Spitfire
Supermarine Spitfire
The Supermarine Spitfire is a British single-seat fighter aircraft that was used by the Royal Air Force and many other Allied countries throughout the Second World War. The Spitfire continued to be used as a front line fighter and in secondary roles into the 1950s...

s of RAF Fighter Command
RAF Fighter Command
RAF Fighter Command was one of three functional commands of the Royal Air Force. It was formed in 1936 to allow more specialised control of fighter aircraft. It served throughout the Second World War, gaining recognition in the Battle of Britain. The Command continued until 17 November 1943, when...

, but as they were under strict orders not to break radio silence
Radio silence
In telecommunications, radio silence is a status in which all fixed or mobile radio stations in an area are asked to stop transmitting for safety or security reasons.The term "radio station" may include anything capable of transmitting a radio signal....

 and had not been briefed to look for the German fleet, they did not inform their superiors until they landed.

Fighter Command was not expected to be the first to spot the German fleet in the Channel, and valuable time was lost reporting the sighting up the chain of command and on to the Royal Navy and Bomber Command. Uncoordinated attacks by motor boats and six Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish
Fairey Swordfish
The Fairey Swordfish was a torpedo bomber built by the Fairey Aviation Company and used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War...

 torpedo biplanes launched from Manston (in an operation formally referred to as "Operation Fuller") failed to inflict any damage. However, the courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by friend and foe. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde
Eugene Esmonde
Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde VC DSO, F/Lt, RAF, Lt-Cdr RN was a distinguished pilot who was a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy awarded to members of Commonwealth forces...

 — a veteran of the chase of the battleship Bismarck — was lost along with his entire detachment of torpedo bombers, and was awarded the Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories....

 posthumously. Only five crew survived out of eighteen. Ramsay later wrote: "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed", while Ciliax remarked on: "...the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".

RAF Bomber Command's response was tardy; only 39 of the 242 bombers which took part found and attacked the ships and no hits were scored. In addition to the bombers, 398 Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command flew several sorties on 12 February 1942. Altogether, 675 RAF aircraft (398 fighters, 242 bombers and 35 Coastal Command Hudsons
Lockheed Hudson
The Lockheed Hudson was an American-built light bomber and coastal reconnaissance aircraft built initially for the Royal Air Force shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War and primarily operated by the RAF thereafter...

 and Beauforts
Bristol Beaufort
The Bristol Beaufort was a British twin-engined torpedo bomber designed by the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and developed from experience gained designing and building the earlier Blenheim light bomber....

) took off to search for and attack the German ships.

At noon on 12 February, the Channel guns of the Coastal Artillery went into action. The South Foreland
South Foreland
South Foreland is a chalk headland on the Kent coast of southeast England. It presents a bold cliff to the sea, and commands views over the Strait of Dover. It is northeast of Dover and 15 miles south of North Foreland...

 battery with their newly installed K-type radar set started to track the ships of the Brest Group coming up the Channel towards Cap Gris Nez
Cap Gris Nez
Cap Gris Nez is a cape on the Côte d'Opale in the Pas-de-Calais département in northern France....

. At 12:19, the first salvo was fired; since maximum visibility was five miles, there was no observation
Artillery observer
A military artillery observer or spotter is responsible for directing artillery fire and close air support onto enemy positions. Because artillery is an indirect fire weapon system, the guns are rarely in line-of-sight of their target, often located tens of miles away...

 of fall of shot by either sight or radar. The "blips" of the K-set clearly showed the zig-zagging of the ships and full battery salvo firing began without verifying fall-of-shot. 33 rounds were fired at the German ships, which were moving out of range at 30 kn (36.5 mph; 58.8 km/h), but all missed.

The six destroyers assigned to Ramsay were taken by surprise. Instead of being on station, they were practising gunnery in the North Sea
North Sea
In the southwest, beyond the Straits of Dover, the North Sea becomes the English Channel connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. In the east, it connects to the Baltic Sea via the Skagerrak and Kattegat, narrow straits that separate Denmark from Norway and Sweden respectively...

. They steamed south to intercept the German fleet, but arrived in time to fire only one salvo of torpedoes, all of which missed. Counter fire from Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen severely damaged the destroyer HMS Worcester
V and W class destroyer
The V and W class was an amalgam of six similar classes of destroyer built for the Royal Navy under the War Emergency Programme of the First World War and generally treated as one class...

, which suffered 24 dead and 45 wounded. Several salvoes from Gneisenau destroyed the starboard side of the bridge, and the No.1 and No.2 boiler rooms. Prinz Eugen hit the destroyer a further four times, setting it on fire. Captain Fein, aboard Gneisenau, ordered firing to cease, believing the destroyer to be sinking.


By mid-morning on 13 February, Admiral Ciliax sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter in Paris: "It is my duty to inform you that Operation Cerberus has been successfully completed."

The British services (RN, RAF and Army) had failed to stop the ships of the Brest Group before they reached the safety of German home waters and had suffered severe damage to a destroyer and lost 42 aircraft. The Germans had suffered unexpectedly small damage and losses: Scharnhorst hit two mines, off Flushing
Flushing, Netherlands
Vlissingen is a municipality and a city in the southwestern Netherlands on the former island of Walcheren. With its strategic location between the Scheldt river and the North Sea, Vlissingen has been an important harbour for centuries. It was granted city rights in 1315. In the 17th century...

 and Ameland
Ameland is a municipality and one of the West Frisian Islands off the north coast of the Netherlands. It consists mostly of sand dunes. It is the third major island of the West Frisians. It neighbours islands Terschelling to the West and Schiermonnikoog to the East...

, but arrived safely at 10:00 on 13 February at Wilhelmshaven (the damage took three months to repair). Gneisenau hit one mine off Terschelling
Terschelling is a municipality and an island in the northern Netherlands, one of the West Frisian Islands.Waddenislanders are known for their resourcefulness in using anything and everything that washes ashore. With few trees to use for timber, most of the farms and barns are built with masts...

, but suffered little damage; the magnetic mine exploded some metres off the ship, making a small hole on the starboard side and temporarily knocking one of her turbines out of action. The ship was brought back to action after thirty minutes and she continued with the "lucky ship", the undamaged Prinz Eugen, which had suffered one dead from attacking British aircraft. Both ships then tied up at Brunsbüttel North Locks at 09:30. The torpedo boats T13 and Jaguar were slightly damaged by bomb splinters and machine gun fire, the latter suffering one killed and two wounded; of the Luftwaffe air umbrella over the ships, 17 fighters were lost with eleven pilots.

In Britain, the mood was sombre. An editorial in The Times of London read: "Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia
Alonso de Guzmán El Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia
Alonso Pérez de Guzmán y de Zúñiga-Sotomayor, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, , Grandee of Spain, a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece since 1581, was the commander-in-chief of the Spanish Armada....

 failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our seapower has happened since the seventeenth century. [...] It spelled the end of the Royal Navy legend that in wartime no enemy battle fleet could pass through what we proudly call the English Channel."

However, after the war, author Stephen Roskill
Stephen Roskill
Captain Stephen Wentworth Roskill, CBE, DSC, FBA, DLitt was a career officer in the Royal Navy, serving during the Second World War and, after his enforced medical retirement, served as the official historian of the Royal Navy from 1949 to 1960...

 noted: "The German Naval Staff, however, summarised the outcome as a 'tactical victory, but a strategic defeat'". These three powerful warships were no longer a menace to the Atlantic convoys but were instead re-assigned to the defence of Norway against an imagined invasion. The St Nazaire Raid a few weeks later eliminated the threat to the North Atlantic convoys by capital ships of the Kriegsmarine. This elimination of the threat was made even more so when only ten days after the operation, on 23 February, Prinz Eugen was torpedoed by the British submarine , destroying her stern and being knocked out for nearly a year. Gneisenaus luck ended a few days later on 26–27 February at Kiel
Kiel is the capital and most populous city in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, with a population of 238,049 .Kiel is approximately north of Hamburg. Due to its geographic location in the north of Germany, the southeast of the Jutland peninsula, and the southwestern shore of the...

 when she was heavily damaged during British air attacks and effectively put out of the war.

Further reading

  • Staff. Sixty years ago: The "Channel Dash", website of the Ministry of Defence
    Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom)
    The Ministry of Defence is the United Kingdom government department responsible for implementation of government defence policy and is the headquarters of the British Armed Forces....

    , February 2002

External links

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