Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Channel Dash (11–13 February 1942)

Passage of the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen through the English Channel from Brest, France, to Wilhelmshaven, Germany, in February 1942. In March 1941, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived at Brest, on the French Atlantic coast, after a commerce-raiding voyage, and they were joined by the Prinz Eugen in June 1941. Though vulnerable to British bombing, the ships constituted a standing threat to Allied convoys in the Atlantic. However, by late 1941, Adolf Hitler was convinced that the British were planning to invade Norway, and against the advice of his naval commanders, he demanded that the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen return to Germany for deployment in Norwegian waters.

In early 1942, when British intelligence strongly suggested a possible German breakout and passage through the Straits of Dover, preparations for aerial and naval attacks, already under way for nearly a year, were accelerated. The British assumed that the German ships would transit the narrowest part of the Channel at night, but the Germans planned Operation cerberus to conceal the ships' departure from Brest and to run the straits in daylight, counting on surprise to prevent a timely British concentration of adequate resistance.

Exceptional cooperation between German naval and air commands combined with failures in British technology and communications to bring the Germans almost complete success. At 10:45 p.m. on 11 February, the three big ships and an escort of six destroyers, with Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax commanding, cleared Brest harbor. Not until 11:09 a.m. on 12 February, when the Germans were less than an hour from the straits and had been reinforced by torpedo boat squadrons from French ports, did the British identify the ships. By noon, the German vessels were in the Dover narrows, and although attacked by British coastal artillery, torpedo boats, and the Fleet Air Arm, they passed through unscathed. Later attacks along the Belgian and Dutch coasts by destroyers and by Royal Air Force fighters and bombers were no more successful. Although the Gneisenau struck one mine and the Scharnhorst hit two (the second one seriously slowing her and separating her from the rest of the flotilla), all the German ships were safely in the Elbe estuary by 10:30 a.m. on 13 February.

Amid German euphoria and British humiliation, thoughtful minds on both sides realized that this German tactical success in the Channel represented a self-inflicted strategic defeat in the Atlantic. Even the sense of victory was short-lived, for the mine damage to the Scharnhorst took six months to repair, the Prinz Eugen was torpedoed on 23 February by a British submarine in the North Sea, and the Gneisenau was irreparably damaged during air raids on Kiel on 26 and 27 February.

John A. Hutcheson Jr.


Further Reading
Barnett, Correlli. Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.; Kemp, Peter. The Escape of the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau." Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975.; Robertson, Terence. Channel Dash. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958.; Truscott, Lucian K., Jr. The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry: Life in the Old Army, 1917–1942. Edited and with Preface by Lucian K. Truscott III and Foreword by Edward M. Coffman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.; Van der Vat, Dan. The Atlantic Campaign: World War II's Great Struggle at Sea. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
 

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