Operation Cerberus was the code-name for the movement of German ships from Brest back to Germany in February 1942. (The name ‘Cerberus’ refers to the three-headed dog from Greek mythology, who guarded the gates to Hades, the underworld.) From the 11th to the 13th, a small fleet made their way through the perilous waters of the English Channel, in what was nicknamed the ‘Channel Dash’. They reached the German ports with relatively little damage sustained. It was viewed initially as an unequivocal German victory, but ultimately, with the subsequent loss of the three major warships involved in the operation, it made little impact on the overall outcome of World War Two.
A small collection of German ships were positioned in the ports at Brest in the West of France. They had been sent there for repairs after combat in March 1941, but while they were in a French port, they were vulnerable to air attack by the British. Hitler did not want his ships trapped, and so he demanded that they return to Germany via the English Channel. Two of the three largest warships in the Kreigsmarine, (the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, and the Prinz Eugen), had been slightly damaged during air attacks at Brest, but were completely fit for transportation across the Channel. This particular route to Germany was very dangerous, so the German ships required support by the Luftwaffe over the French coast (Smith, 2008: 269). Prior to the start of Operation Cerberus, there were attempts made by the Germans to convince France and Britain that the ships were headed for South Atlantic: tropical helmets were seen being taken on board, as well as oil barrels marked ‘for use in tropics’. The Royal Navy were smarter than the Germans realised, predicting a dash across the Channel on a cloudy night, which would make air attacks more difficult. The Royal Navy placed over 1,000 mines in the English Channel to prepare for such an eventuality.
Once the Germans departed from Brest at 22:45 on February 11th February 1942, there were very few effective British ships available for warfare. Since the German ships left Brest by night, they were harder to pick up by radar, and so moved undetected for 300 miles. The British did not think that the ships would begin their move at night, making it an unexpected move. The ships were spotted by RAF Spitfires, but they were unable to report this due to an enforced radio silence. Torpedo bombers were sent out early in the morning of February 12th, most of whom died. Of the 242 aircraft that set out to find the German ships, only 39 succeeded, and very few of their bombs hit anything. Ships from the North Sea were late to arrive and made little impact. At mid-day the guns at Dover came out in force, but this was not enough to cause much damage to the German ships. Many British ships were damaged, and 40 men were killed. Hitler had correctly predicted that “the British would not react fast enough to stop the ships once underway” (Smith, 2008: 268).
The German ships arrived safely back in German territory, sustaining small damage. Throughout Europe, “the dash through the English Channel was seen as a great German victory” (Ford, 2012: 76). However, later in the month, the Prinz Eugen and the Gneisenau were destroyed by British forces. The Scharnhorst was sunk in December 1943 (Ford, 2012: 77). The operation was an initial victory for Germany but ultimately made little difference to the outcome of World War Two.
- Smith, P., (2008), The Great Ships: British Battleships of WW2. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books.
- Ford, K., (2012), Run the Gauntlet – the Channel Dash 1942. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.
- Tucker, S., (2011), World War II at Sea: An Encyclopedia. (Volume 1). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Publishing.
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