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.
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.