Yet, as if to confirm Hitler's attitude, at 8:30 p.m. on 6 January 1942, a RAF bomb burst against the hull of the Gneisenau as she was lying in Number Eight Dock. Several yards of her armour were ripped and two compartments were flooded.
On 12 January, Admirals Raeder, Saalwächter and Ciliax were summoned to Wolfs Lair for the final full-scale conference. Raeder brought his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, while Ciliax was accompanied by Captain Reinicke, his own Chief of Staff, and Saalwächter by his mine expert, Commodore Friedrich Rüge. The. Luftwaffe was represented by Göring's Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, accompanied by one of Germany's famous fighter aces, Col. Adolf Galland, who had fought in the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War and was a veteran of the Battles of France and Britain.
They arrived in a snowstorm at Wolfs Lair. Lt.-General Jodl, Hitler's personal military adviser, who lived and worked there, described the Führer's headquarters as "a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp."
Hitler spent his days in a concrete bunker with a 20-foot thick roof. It was a sealed box with no window and no outlet to the open air. Next door was another similar concrete bunker used by Hitler as his map room, where he stood waiting for them. After giving them the Nazi salute he asked them to be seated round the big conference table.
At Hitler's request, Raeder opened the session, saying, "The question of the passage of the Brest Group through the Channel has been examined by all agencies concerned. In the light of the Führer's opinion, the German Fleet's primary task is to defend the Norwegian coast and ports and, in so doing, it should use its might unsparingly. Since you, mein Führer, informed me that you insist upon the return of the heavy units to their home bases, I suggest that Vice-Admiral Ciliax report on the details of how this operation is to be prepared and carried out, and that Commodore Ruge subsequently report on the necessary mine-sweeping measures, to enable you, mein Führer, to make the final decision afterwards."
Hitler replied: "The Naval Force at Brest has, above all, the welcome effect of tying up enemy air forces and diverting them from making attacks upon the German homeland. But with our ships at Brest, enemy sea forces are tied up to no greater extent than would be the case if the ships were stationed in Norway. If I could see any chance that the ships might remain undamaged for four to five months and, thereafter, be employed in operations in the Atlantic, I might be more inclined to consider leaving them in Brest.
"Since in my opinion such a development is not to be expected, I am determined to withdraw the ships from Brest to avoid exposing them to chance hits day after day. I fear that there will be a large-scale British-Russian offensive in Norway. I think that if a strong task force of battleships and cruisers, practically the entire German Fleet, were stationed along the Norwegian coast, it could, in conjunction with the German Air Force, make a decisive contribution towards the defence of the area."
Then it was Ciliax's turn. "I recommend the necessity of leaving Brest under cover of darkness, taking maximum advantage of the element of surprise, and of passing through the Straits of Dover in the daytime. This will make the most effective use of the means of defence at our disposal."
Hitler agreed, saying, "I emphasize particularly the surprise to be achieved by having the ships leave after dark."
Ciliax said, "I must stress emphatically that a very strong destroyer and fighter protection must be provided on the day of the break-through itself from dawn to dusk."
"I am aware of the decisive role to be played by the Air Force in this enterprise," replied Hitler and turned to Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, who said, "I do not believe I will be able to provide constant unfailing protection for the ships with the available 250 fighters which cannot possibly be reinforced."
Even in the presence of the Führer he was exhibiting the Luftwaffe's traditional reluctance to co-operate with the Navy. But with Hitler's cold eyes upon him, Jeschonnek hastily promised to draw on the existing night-fighter formation to provide dawn fighter protection.
Hitler then asked for opinions as to the possibility of using the northern route saying, "I do not care which route is selected by the Navy, if only it is successful in getting those ships transferred to Norwegian waters."
The four Admirals explained that the northern route was not suitable for several reasons. Baeder commented, "The present disposition of enemy forces is against such a move; there are two or three battleships and two aircraft-carriers in the Home Fleet. Moreover, the German air forces would not be able to provide the necessary air cover."
Commodore Buge, commanding the seaward defences of the occupied French coast, including the mine-sweeping and mine-laying forces, was asked to report. Buge was able to assure Hitler that the menace from mines, always regarded as the main danger to forcing a passage through the Channel, was not as bad as imagined.
Baeder, still unsure of the Luftwaffe's full support, repeated his demands to the Air Force for a very strong fighter cover. He also asked for attacks on enemy torpedo plane bases in the early morning of the day of the break-through, and possibly a few days earlier.
Lt.-General Jeschonnek replied stiffly, "The constant air cover demanded will leave insufficient aircraft for the heavy air battles that are sure to develop on the day of the breakthrough. We may expect our fighter force to become very inferior in strength—at least during the afternoon. Also our own anti-aircraft personnel are susceptible to fatigue in the afternoon as experience has shown."
Col. Galland, who was to command the Luftwaffe fighter cover, also offered his opinion, "The strong Spitfire forces at the disposal of the British will render things difficult for the long-range fighters which we are going to employ."
Raeder remarked that tide and daylight would determine the timing of the operation. That was the reason the date could not be changed. When he asked what should be done in case one or several ships were unable to move on the date set, Hitler decided, "If two battleships are in a position to move, they are to undertake the operation, if necessary without the cruiser. If only one battleship and the cruiser can move, they must do likewise. But in no case should the Prinz Eugen do so alone."
Then Hitler, cutting through both air and naval objections, said briskly, "The ships must not leave port in the daytime as we are dependent on the element of surprise. This means that they will have to pass through the Dover Straits in the daytime. In view of past experience I do not believe the British capable of making and carrying out lightning decisions.
"This is why I do not think they will be as swift as is assumed by the Naval Staff and the Admiral Commanding Battleships in shifting their bomber and pursuit forces to the south-eastern part of England for an attack on our ships in the Dover Straits.
"Picture what would happen if the situation were reversed!—if a surprise report came in that British battleships have appeared in the Thames estuary and are heading for the Straits of Dover. In my opinion, even we would hardly be able to bring up air pursuit forces and bomber forces swiftly and mediodically."
He added dramatically, "The situation of the Brest Group is comparable with that of a cancer patient, who is doomed unless he submits to an operation. An operation, even though it might be a drastic one, will offer at least some hope that the patient's life may yet be saved. The passage of our ships through the Channel would be such an operation. It must therefore be attempted."
Finally Hitler said, "Nothing can be gained by leaving the ships at Brest. Should the Brest Group manage to escape through the Channel, however, there is a chance that it might be employed to good advantage at a later date. If the ships remain at Brest their ability to tie up enemy air forces may not continue for long. As long as they are in battle-worthy condition they will constitute worthwhile targets, which the enemy will feel obliged to attack. But the moment they are seriously damaged—and this may happen any day—the enemy will discontinue his attacks. In view of all this and in accordance with the suggestion of the C-in-C Navy I decide that the operation is to be prepared as proposed."
That was it. After the conference Hitler entertained his admirals and generals at dinner in the concrete shelter where he lived. He ate frugally as usual but was more genial than anyone had seen him for a long time. He said, almost jovially, "You will find that this operation will turn out to be our most spectacular naval success of the war."
He revealed his only doubt—would the Luftwaffe manage it? He realized that Galland with his fighters was the key figure in the operation. Saying good-bye to him he asked quietly, "Do you think they will bring it off?" When Galland assured him he thought they would he dismissed him with a rare smile.
The decision was made. Far from dismantling the great ships the Germans were to fight them through the English Channel in daylight. An attempt like this had not been made by an enemy of England for over three centuries—since the Spanish Armada of 1588.