Swordfish of 825 Sqn led by Lt-Cdr Esmonde begin their heroic attack on the battlescruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as they make their way up the English Channel from Brest during Operation Cerberus on 12th February 1942. Although all the aircraft were lost and no significant damage was done to the German fleet, all the pilots were decorated for their bravery and Lt-Cdr Esmonde received the first Fleet Air Arm VC to be awarded, albeit posthumously.
By the end of 1941 three of Germany's powerful capital ships - Prnz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau - were virtually trapped in the harbour of Brest. Subject to almost continuous bombardment, they were suffering minor damage and casualties on a regular basis - not enough to permanently disable the ships but enough to render them impotent for months at a time. The position of these large German ships was no longer tolerable and the decision was made by Hitler to withdraw them to Germany.
Grossadmiral Raeder, as head of the Kriegsmarine, argued strongly that they should instead head into the Atlantic on new raiding missions to keep the pressure on Britain’s struggling supply artery, but the dictator’s decision was final. His increasing paranoia over the possible loss of these vessels, and his lack of understanding of naval warfare were combining to end the operational lives of his large warships. Also Hitler nursed the strong belief that British and American troops were planning to invade Norway, turning his northern flank and upsetting the flow of raw materials from Scandinavia to Germany. In Hitler’s words, the situation that the mighty German warships were in was that of “a patient with cancer who is doomed unless he submits to an operation”. The culmination of Hitler’s mood of despair was a daring, almost suicidal, plan to send the three German ships dashing up the English Channel to Germany with strong Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine escorts, right under the noses of the British ¾ and in broad daylight.
Although British prestige had suffered another humiliating blow at a time when the war was swinging against them in north Africa, the removal of the potential threat to Allied shipping in the Atlantic posed by the battleships and heavy cruiser was actually a strategic victory for the Allies. Despite the British press not fully realising it at the time, and lambasting England’s military command, the balance of power in the Atlantic Ocean had tipped irrevocably in their favour, although the war was not won yet. Another by-product of the successful German mission was the disastrous deepening of Hitler’s confidence and belief in himself as the “Greatest Military Genius Of All Time”. The German armed forces would never be the same again, forced to operate in the future according to Hitler’s bizarre whims and self-destructive intuition.
Gneisenau (Kpt.z.S. Otto Fein) w/ V.Adm. Otto Ciliax aboard (Befelshaber der Sclachtschiffe)
Scharnhorst (Kpt.z.S. Kurt Caesar Hoffmann)
Prinz Eugen (Kpt.z.S. Helmuth Brinkman
Z5 Paul Jacobi (KK Hermann Schliper)
Z7 Hermann Schoemann (KK Heinrich Wittig)
Z14 Friedrich Ihn (KK Günther Wachsmuth)
Z25 (KK Heinz Peters)
Z29 (KK Kurt Rechel) w/ Kpt.z.S. Erich Bey aboard (Führer der Zerstörer)
2 Torpedobooteflotille (KK Heinrich Erdmann) Le Havre
T2 (KL Goedecke)
T4 (KL Axel Bieling)
T5 (KL Rudolf Koppenhagen)
T11 (KL Georg Grund)
T12 (KL Thilo-Leberecht von Trotha)
3 Torpedobooteflotille (KK Hans Wilcke) Dunkerque
T13 (KL Werner Götzmann)
T15 (KL Joachim Quedenfeldt)
T16 (KL Helmuth Düvelius)
T17 (KL Hans Blöse)
5 Torpedobooteflotille (FK Moritz Schmidt) Flessingue
Falke (KL Heinrich Hoffmann)
Iltis (KL Walther Jacobsen)
Jaguar (KL Friedrich-Karl-Paul)
Kondor (KL Franz Burkart)
Seeadler (Oblt.z.S. Hermann Holzapfel)
2 Schnellbootsflotille (KL Klaus Feldt) Ijmuiden
S29, S39, S53, S62, S70, S103, S104, S105, S108, S111
4 Schnellbootsflotille (KL Niels Bätge) Boulogne.
S48, S49, S50, S51, S52, S64, S107, S109, S110
6 Schnellbootsflotille (KL Albrecht Obermaier)
S18, S19, S20, S22, S24, S69, S71, S101
V.Adm. Friedrich Ruge (Befelshaber der Sicherung West) Paris
1 Minensuchbootsflotille (FK Karl Bergelt)
2 Minensuchbootsflotille (FK Hans Rehm)
4 Minensuchbootsflotille (KK Walter Berger)
5 Minensuchbootsflotille (FK Rudolf Lell)
12 Minensuchbootsflotille (KK Fritz Breithaupt)
2 Räumbootsflotille (KK Jost Brökelmann)
3 Räumbootsflotille (KK Arnuf Hölzerkopf)
4 Räumbootsflotille (KK Waldemar Holst)
13 Vorpostenflotille (KK Walter Fischer)
15 Vorpostenflotille (KK Curt Berndt)
18 Vorpostenflotille (KK Karl Wolters)
The German aerial forces were coordinated under the title "Operation Donnerkeil". Under the overall command of G.F.M. Hugo Speerle (Luftflotte 3), Paris, operational control was handled by Oberst Adolf Galland (Inspekteur der Jagdfleiger), in conjunction with Oberst Max Ibel (Jagdflieger Führer 3) aboard the Scharnhorst.
The Luftwaffe forces involved were:
JG2 (Oberst Walter Oesau, covering between Brest and Gris-Nez) 90 x Bf 109F-4
JG 26 (Major Gerhard Schöpfel, between Gris-Nez and Holland)30 x Bf109F-4, 60 x Fw190A-2
JG1 (Major Erich Mix , Between Holland and Kiel)60 x Bf109F-4
Reinforcements for JG2 and JG26 were provided by Einsatzstaffel/JFS 5 (12 Bf109E-7), while night cover was the domain of II/NJG 2 and II/NJG 3 (30 x Bf110F-4).