At the end of 1941 Admiral Otto Ciliax, commander of the Brest squadron, was away on Christmas leave in Germany. He was not due back until the New Year. Ciliax—a product of the German: Naval Academy at Flensburg—was a tall, brusque black-haired man. He was a former captain of the Scharnhorst and was not very popular. He was a notorious martinet and nick-named "The Black Czar." When a staff officer saluted him and his hand did not travel to his brow with regulation agility, a frown would come on Ciliax's face as he returned his salute. A little bit later he would send a petty officer over to him with a message, "The Admiral's compliments, mein kapitän, but he would like to speak with you." Ciliax would say angrily, "I just wanted to tell you I did not like your salute!" As the Germans put it, he was a "starker Mann!"
Another reason he was not popular was that he could not delegate authority. In Scharnhorst, he and his staff had an admiral's bridge immediately above Captain Hoffmann's navigational bridge, and he was several times snubbed for giving orders on the running of the ship literally over the captain's head.
If Ciliax met an officer whom he did not like the Admiral made him miserable. He suffered from stomach trouble and was frequently in some pain, which may have played a part in his irascibility. But with all his rough mannerisms he had dignity.
His Chief of Staff, the calm 41-year-old, pipe-smoking Captain Hans Jürgen Reinicke, had heard about his reputation before he joined him—so he was prepared. He swallowed what Ciliax said to him in public but later sought him out privately and told him if things continued in this manner he would put in for a. transfer. He had no more trouble and Reinicke became one of the few officers who could handle him.
On 30 December just after dinner an urgent signal was brought to Reinicke aboard Scharnhorst. It was from Naval Group West in Paris ordering him to report there at 10 a.m. on New Year's Day. As the message said Admiral Ciliax was also being ordered to report in Paris, he realized it was more than a routine matter.
It was too late to catch the evening train to Paris so he took one the next morning. It was evening when he arrived at the Gare Montparnasse and crossed Paris to the Gare de l'Est to meet Admiral Ciliax recalled from home leave in Germany by the same cryptic message from Group West. It was not surprising that Ciliax, never noted for his good temper, came off the train in one of his blacker moods.
"What's this all about, Reinicke?" he growled more than once. But his Chief of Staff could not enlighten him. They would both have to wait for their appointment next morning.
It was New Year's Eve. They had a meal, split a bottle of champagne, and went to bed early.
The next morning they went to Group West headquarters and waited in a conference room for Alfred Saalwächter. He soon appeared with Admiral Schniewind, the new operational commander of the German Navy. Saalwächter briskly told Ciliax and Reinicke the news—the Führer wanted the three ships to leave Brest, proceed to their German home ports and then to Norway for operations there.
But Admiral Saalwächter revealed he was worried about the fate of his great ships. After he told them of the Führer's demands he asked for their frank opinions. He was trying to organize expert opposition to dissuade the Führer. When Ciliax raised many objections against Hitler's scheme, he told him to go away and put them in writing. After Ciliax had written his detailed objections, Saalwächter forwarded them with his own report to Raeder.
He wrote: "I submit herewith conclusions for the comprehensive scrutiny that has been ordered into the question of the withdrawal of the Brest Group eastwards through the Channel.
"The hazards applicable to a voyage of battleships through the Channel eastwards are summed up at the end of the outline.
"I view these hazards as being very great. I must for this reason alone give an urgent warning against it being carried out.
"On the 12 November I commented that one single surprise move to the west by one or by several battleships was feasible. But conversely, a move eastwards of the battleships is one combined with too great a peril. Subsequent navigation through the Channel would be rendered impossible because the element of surprise would have departed.
"It can be executed only during the period of the longest nights. It must be accompanied by control of the mine situation and air preponderance in the Channel.
"I do not take the view that the new experiences in the East Asian theatre of war can be taken as proof of the uselessness of battleships to abandon our warfare in the Atlantic.
[The sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft.]
Our opponent does not think so, as the unchanged characteristics of his heavy forces show.
"I advocate, as I have always done, the conception that the essential tasks of our battleships lie in the Atlantic.
"Our numerical inferiority affords us opportunities for success only by surprise offensive sorties directed at the enemy's weak points which are to be found in his long Atlantic supply routes, and not by continually facing with defensive action a greatly superior enemy.
"At this time the best possibilities of success for the Brest Group lie in surprise action against north to south convoys. The Brest Group's achievements already go to show that the enemy feels and fears this threat and straightaway tries by air attacks to rid himself of it.
"This pressure can only be made permanent if our battleship strength actually goes to sea. Yet even during the long period of repairs the enemy can hardly foretell with exactitude when one or several of the ships are able to pounce. Withdrawal of the Brest Group from the Atlantic means releasing the enemy from this strategic pressure.
"The plan for tying down his heavy naval forces in the Atlantic falls apart. Maintenance of pressure on other theatres of war such as East Asia and the Mediterranean must also stop. A perceptible strengthening of English sea power in East Asia will follow, thereby impeding Japan.
"In addition to actual strategic prizes, there is great prestige for our enemy. On the other hand there would be a great loss of prestige for us which would be made far worse if the ships were lost by the voyage through the Channel. Political consequences very damaging to us and our allies are inevitable.
"If our ships disappear from the Atlantic or from the Atlantic position people would rightly talk about a 'lost battle'. Naval actions from Norway would not make up for such a move.
"We do not stand there on the Atlantic just for raiding possibilities against the enemy supply routes.
We threaten Scotland, Iceland, the North Arctic and Russia.
"In the Norwegian harbours the aerial danger and with it the stresses for the Luftwaffe would hardly be less. The enemy at all times could by choice of place and time have greater superiority. Liaison with any battleships in the Atlantic would be impossible.
"I am convinced that the problem of the Atlantic position as it is at present cannot be gone back upon later. In any case, it is clear that a "bringing back again" of the ships would be enormously difficult.
"Finally, there are indications that if our ships withdrew from the Atlantic after a lost battle, to appear again in home waters and remain there it would be injurious to the psychology of our own ships' companies, of the entire Navy and of the German people.
"I am therefore convinced that it would now be a very serious mistake by us at this time to withdraw the ships from Brest in their Atlantic position.
"I consider their remaining there, even though with heavy damage and lengthy repair times, is the correct course.
"There remains for consideration only the slight relief of the Luftwaffe which would come about in Brest.
"If the withdrawal plan of the Brest Group to the East is adhered to, then examination might be made as to whether Prinz Eugen should take part. By the cruiser remaining at Brest, at least a portion of the present strategic operations of the Brest Group would remain in being to confront our enemy.
"I submit with this report extracts from three letters of C-in-C of the ships (Ciliax), corresponding to my point of view, which he sent me after the first conference on the matter in Group West.
"Should the question be put through the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht to the Navy: 'Break-out or Disarm?' then I would say with a heavy heart that against the 'Break-out' with its enormous risks, I would prefer temporary disarmament. For when the fortunes of the day change the ordnance could be restored, whilst a loss of these valuable ships and their crews could only bring damage without benefit."
It was a gloomy and defeatist document and Hitler was to have none of it. He was concerned that the constant BAF bombing was slowly fraying the fabric of crew morale.
Although unaware of Hitler's plan and Saalwächter's strong objections, the BAF bombing of Brest increased in December. And for the first time photographic planes revealed that all three ships seemed to be preparing for sea.
On Christmas Eve the Admiralty ordered seven submarines to form an "iron ring" around the approaches to Brest.
The navigator of Scharnhorst, 42-year-old Helmuth Giessler, was on Christmas leave. When he went off, neither he nor any other naval officers at Brest had any inkling that Hitler was holding a pistol at Baeder's head demanding the ships leave Brest. At that time not even Admiral Ciliax had the faintest suspicion of their fate.
Giessler came back from his leave on the same day as Vice-Admiral Ciliax returned from the New Year's Day conference with Admiral Saalwächter at Naval Group West in Paris. That evening Ciliax summoned him to his cabin. As navigating officer of the flagship he was responsible for the whole squadron so he had to be one of the first to be told about the plan. Ciliax informed him in his usual brusque way about the proposed operation. He added crisply, "Consider your needs and requirements, Giessler, and what preparations you consider necessary. You have until morning!"
With these words the Admiral dismissed him. That night Giessler climbed into his bunk but did not get a wink of sleep. He tossed about all night with the information racing through his brain.
A voyage of these great battleships through the narrow English Channel had been so improbable that he had hardly looked at the Channel charts—he had never considered them as waters where the Scharnhorst might sail. Now the problem was how to obtain these charts without arousing gossip and suspicion.
Next morning he called Chief Petty Officer Wehrlich to his cabin and handed him a list. "I require these charts, of the Mediterranean and these charts of Icelandic waters," he said. "Also these of the West African coast." He also demanded pilot books of the Mediterranean and everywhere else he could think of. Wehrlich kept bringing so much navigational material that towards the end of the day he could hardly enter his cabin for papers and books. Among this pile of material were his charts of the English Channel. In the middle of all his other requests, Giessler had slipped in a casual order for them.
Giessler had an extra problem. He knew Wehrlich was not experienced enough for the magnitude of his task—but Wehrlich's predecessor, Lt. Johann Hinrichs was. He was the man he wanted at his side to help plan this vital operation.
He was now the skipper of a fleet of mine-sweeping trawlers, but when Giessler explained the situation to Ciliax, a puzzled Hinrichs received a secret signal posting him back to Scharnhorst. When he arrived Giessler let him into the secret. During those January days they sat together in the navigator's cabin. Giessler kept muttering to himself "Ach so," and humming tunelessly as they pored over his charts. They worked out the tides, times of darkness, depth of water, and the complete timetable the ships must try and adhere to hour by hour on the voyage from Brest to Wilhelmshaven.
While Giessler was working out his plan, unknown to him something happened which was to help him. On 2 January, the Royal Navy's submarine "iron ring" faded away. High submarine losses in the Mediterranean and a bottle-neck in the training programme caused the "subs" to be withdrawn—and surveillance left to the RAE