Thursday, September 10, 2015

Planning the “Dash” II

The German Navy in Brest took the news of Bismarck's sinking gloomily. Equally depressing was the lack of news of her escorting cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Had she too been sunk? Or had she escaped and was preserving radio silence in case her calls were intercepted by the pursuing Royal Navy? For five days there was silence. Then at dawn on 1 June a buzz of excitement went round the battleship crews. Prinz Eugen had appeared at the entrance to Brest Harbour.

She brought grim news. When her captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, made a report to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin about the fate of the Bismarck, he stated that the British battleships now had such good radar equipment that it could not be evaded.

The rest of the situation was also depressing. Despite German precautions, day and night raids on Brest docks became a familiar part of their daily life. Almost every day, the B.B.C.'s nine o'clock news reported that bombers had visited Brest to attack the German warships.

The British realized that this constant bombing might eventually cause the Germans to make a desperate dash home. A series of conferences was held between Admiralty and Air Ministry planners. 

As a result Coastal Command was ordered to establish three separate dusk-to-dawn radar reconnaissance patrols off Brest and along the Channel. They became known as "Stopper," which covered from Brest to Ushant, "Line SE" from Ushant to Brittany and "Habo" from Le Havre to Boulogne. Fighter Command also organized daylight Channel sweeps known as "Jim Crow."

On 29 April 1941 an Air Ministry letter to the three RAF Commands—Fighter, Bomber and Coastal—said: "Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may attempt to reach a German port up the Channel route during the period April 30th to May 4th inclusive. It is considered probable that the Straits of Dover will be navigated in darkness. It is considered unlikely that the enemy would attempt the passage of the Straits in daylight. But if this should be attempted, a unique opportunity will be offered to both our surface craft and air striking force to engage the enemy ships in force whilst in the Straits of Dover." Bomber Command was instructed to have strike forces in readiness for the Germans leaving Brest.

At this stage, the RAF were well ahead of the Germans in their tactical appreciation. It was not until 30 May—a month after the Air Ministry had considered the possibility of a Channel break-out—that the German Naval Command West in Paris sent a memorandum to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin suggesting a contingency plan: "The possibility of bringing heavy ships through the English Channel should be carefully examined. The route is shorter than the Iceland passage. There are good escort possibilities, both air and sea. Enemy radar could be jammed. Superior enemy units would not be present and the passage would be in the close proximity of our own harbours to which ships could be taken in the event of breakdowns."

Raeder reacted strongly against this suggestion. He drew up a formidable list of hazards: "1. The difficulty of navigation in narrow waters. 2. The battleships must be seen by the British. 3. The danger from mines, torpedo boats, torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive-bombers."

But Raeder's principal objection was that mine-sweepers could not clear a wide enough path for the ships to take avoiding action in the event of torpedo attack. He concluded, "The naval war staff therefore consider an unobserved and safe escape through the Channel to be impossible." This view entirely coincided with that of his opposite number in London, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.

Raeder had good reasons for being cautious. For he had only five battleships—including the "pocket" battleships—to the Royal Navy's fifteen. He had no aircraft-carriers, although the Graf Zeppelin was under construction—but never completed—whilst the British had six operational carriers.

Raeder, one of the ablest and most professional naval officers Germany has ever produced, nursed his ships like a duck with ducklings. During the fourteen years in which he was its Commander-in-Chief no one had guarded the honour of the German Navy more jealously than he.

When Raeder rejected the Channel plan it was generally felt among the admirals in Berlin that this was the end of the matter. For Hitler trusted Raeder's judgement and had promoted him to Grand Admiral, second only to Goring as Hitler's adviser for the prosecution of the war.

It came as a surprise when Admiral Krancke, Raeder's personal representative on Hitler's Supreme Staff, was summoned to the Führer's headquarters and, standing stiffly to attention, listened pale-faced to the tirade of abuse concerning the German capital ships and their officers which Hitler hurled at him.

Hitler, at war with Russia since June, was becoming alarmed at the numerous small British commando raids on the coast of Norway, starting with the Lofotens in March 1941. He considered the Norwegian coastline to be the most vulnerable section of his Western Wall. The news had also reached Hitler that British convoys were bringing tanks, aircraft and guns to the Eastern Front. He decided that Norway, where in any case he had always thought the British intended to open a second front, had now become even more strategically important.

Meanwhile the RAF continued to keep up their non-stop bombing attacks on Brest. A month after Raeder had rejected the Channel plan—on the morning of 1 July—it was Prinz Eugens turn. While she lay alongside the eastern basin of the commercial dock, a RAF bomb smashed the ship's armour-plating and exploded in the most vulnerable compartments— the plotting room and transmitting station. It killed forty-seven men, including her first officer, Cdr. Otto Stoos, and wounded thirty-two. It also put Prinz Eugen out of action for three months.

On the other hand, Scharnhorst was refitted and on the morning of 23 July left for La Pallice, 250 miles to the south, for trials to test her super-heaters and practise firing her guns. Captain Hoffmann chose the shoal-dotted waters around La Pallice because they afforded the best protection against submarines and he needed only a few patrol boats to keep watch.

A tanker took her place in the dock as a decoy and was covered with netting. To disguise the direction of her departure, the Germans put out false oil trails leading north from Brest. In spite of this careful camouflage, the ever-watchful RAF spotted the move and reported that Scharnhorst was moving south from her berth. Was she about to break out into the Atlantic? As spotter planes watched her, the opinion grew that this might be the long-awaited escape.

Unaware of the British suspicions, the battleship performed perfectly, reaching a speed of thirty knots without difficulty. She returned to La Pallice that evening, expecting to remain there for several days while minor adjustments were made.

Before dark a group of Stirling heavy bombers attacked her and made one direct hit with a heavy armour-piercing bomb. More heavy bomber attacks during the night damaged La Pallice docks. At dawn a RAF photographic reconnaissance plane was over La Pallice. As it revealed little serious damage it was decided to mount the most massive daylight raid on both battleships.

Ninety-nine RAF bombers took off, arriving over the battleships at 2 p.m. Three Flying Fortresses, sixty-three Wellingtons and eighteen Hampdens attacked the Gneisenau in Brest while eight Halifaxes bombed the Scharnhorst in La Pallice.

This was the first time Fortresses, fitted with the new Sperry bombsight for high altitude bombing, had taken part in a raid on the Brest battleships. They had arrived in England just three months before and the attack that hot July afternoon on the German battleships was only their third operation.

Because of the height at which they operated they carried special aircrews—none of them over 24 years old. The pilots of the three Fortresses, Wing-Cdr. Macdougall, Sq. Ldr. MacLaren and Flt.-Lt. Mathieson, were told to concentrate on the Gneisenau. At eight minutes past two they started bombing from a height of 30,000 feet, each aircraft dropping four 1100-lb. bombs which burst on the quays and docks. Although accurate flak was seen following them a thousand feet below they were too high for the German defences. After they had released their bombs three Messerschmitts climbed steeply towards them but the Fortresses turned away and lost them.

At the same time Wing-Cdr. Maw led the low-level British-built bombers down to 6,000 feet, their bombs bursting among the dockyard buildings. Pilot Officer Payne went down to 3,500 feet and as his bombs straddled the Gneisenau both he and his front gunner, Sgt. Wilkinson, were wounded by flak.

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