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The Scharnhorst at Brest, France (22 March 1941 - 11 February 1942)

On 22 March the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the French harbour at Brest after Operation "Berlin".

Photo: The naval harbour of Brest.

Scharnhorst was berthed alongside the Quai de la Ninon. Gneisenau was installed in Number 8 dry dock for a few minor repairs.

The heat had been too much for the steel in Scharnhorst's super-heaters. Although her engineers had kept her going throughout the two months in the Atlantic, a great deal of work needed to be done on them. The most optimistic estimates suggested that ten weeks would have to go by before she was ready for sea once more. Since the Bismarck were due to break out into the Atlantic in mid-April the Scharnhorst would not be ready in time to join her. For the first time in their lives, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would be separated. Gneisenau would join the Bismarck in Operation "Rheinübung" and Scharnhorst would be left behind in Brest.

A Spitfire routine reconnaissance mission over Brest on 28 March revealed to the British that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were in the French port. Brest was favourably located for air attack from Britain and the battleships were now exposed to a continual onslaught from bombers and torpedo aircraft.

The first two British air raids took place on the nights of 30 March and 3 April.

On the night of 30 March, 100 RAF aircraft flew over the port and dropped their bombs. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped unharmed. The aircraft had discharged 227 kg (500 lb) armour-piercing missiles-bombs designed to penetrate the armoured decks of warships. The Germans now knew that the two battleships had been detected. Instead of being a refuge, Brest had become a target.

For the next few nights and days, bad weather kept the aircraft on the ground. On the night of 3 April, the clouds parted sufficiently for them to return. The Continental Hotel, where the German naval staff and many of the ships' officers were quartered, was hit just as the evening meal was being served. There is no record of the casualties, though they are believed to have been considerable. Again, most of the missiles fell on the town of Brest. There was, however, one exception and this was to be of paramount importance for Gneisenau.

The air raids continued. Between April and September, there were 100 sorties a month; between October and the end of the year, the number was reduced to 75. It amounted to 10 percent of Bomber Command's capacity - tying up three squadrons plus half a squadron for minelaying duties. Daylight raids, it was estimated, resulted in 20 per cent losses; those incurred during darkness were negligible. The trouble was that the damage done at night was also small. However, the journey was relatively short. It gave the air crews experience of flak and searchlights, and with only small casualties, these operations provided useful training. The greatest argument against them was that, in return for not very much, they diverted bombers from the more important mission of attacking Germany. But this, perhaps, was specious. The damage inflicted by Bomber Command on Germany at this stage of the war was small. On the other hand, Britain's most vulnerable point was her reliance on maritime lines of communication. In view of the potential importance of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the effort made against them seems pathetically small. Given overwhelming naval superiority, Germany could have achieved victory over the UK at sea. It was the one advantage that a continental power has over an island. To overlook it was dangerous.

The German naval authorities at Brest went to a great deal of trouble to deceive. The battleships themselves were draped with camouflage nets, which was, perhaps, an obvious measure. More ingenious was the notion of building a dummy village on the roofs of large buildings. A French training cruiser named Jeanne d'Arc was artfully embellished with wood and canvas until, from the air, she assumed a very passable likeness to Scharnhorst. The town was ringed by devices that produced artificial fog. The result was that a great many of the bombs fell on Brest itself - to the distress of the inhabitants.

On 1 June, Prinz Eugen, commanded by Captain Helmuth Brinkmann, limped into Brest with sick engines. She was berthed in the eastern basin of the commercial port. A month later the Prinz Eugen was considerable damaged by a bomb and it ensured that the ship would be out of commission until the end of the year.

Because of the continual air raids, it was found prudent to quarter ashore as many crewmembers as could be spared, initially by division in a hotel at Roscoff and later in barracks at Landerneau, La Roche, about 25 kilometers away. There, at last, they were safe; and, for good measure, the main railway line to Paris passed nearby. It was useful for the men going on leave, and it also provided a quick journey to the headquarters of Navy Group West, which had now moved to the French capital.

Scharnhorst, miraculously it seemed, had escaped unscathed through all the air raids so far. The repairs of the Scharnhorst's machinery was completed in July and there seemed no point in keeping her at Brest. Eventually she would be hit. Consequently, it was decided to remove her to La Pallice. The move was scheduled for 21 July.

The trip to La Pallice was not a success. The port had been chosen for the shoals offshore, which provided a measure of protection and reduced the number of escorts needed. On the other hand, it was disastrously lacking in antiaircraft defences. Scharnhorst behaved perfectly. She worked up to 30 knots with no difficulties and she carried out gunnery trials satisfactorily.

Photo: The Scharnhorst can here be seen at her berth in La Pallice south of Brest.

The trouble came on 24 July, when she was lying at anchor. It had taken the RAF a commendably short time to locate her. At noon that day several squadrons of Handley Page Halifaxes bombed from altitudes of 3.000 to 3.700 meters (10-12,000 feet). Five bombs hit the starboard side simultaneously in a nearly straight line parallel to the centerline. Two bombs were of the 227 kg (500 lb) high-explosive type, the others were 454 kg (1000 lb) semi-armor-piercing type bombs.

Bomb damage. One of the 227 kg (500 lb) bombs hit abeam of the conning tower, just forward of the starboard 150 mm twin turret. It passed through the upper and middle decks before exploding on the armor deck, which remained intact. The first platform deck was torn, with significant bulging in the explosion area. The side-armor plating was deflected outboard about 200 mm, and a small hole was torn in it. Rivets that joined the armored torpedo bulkhead to the main deck were loosened enough to cause leakage.

Ammunition for the 150 mm guns, stowed about 3 meters from the center of the explosion, was not affected. Splinter damage was insignificant.

A 454 kg bomb hit the port side between the 100 mm and the 150 mm guns, 3,5 meters from the deck edge, and penetrated the upper deck, lower armor deck, and first platform before being deflected downward along the torpedo bulkhead and out through the double bottom without exploding. The bottom plating was holed and local flooding occurred. The wing tanks had their restraining walls holed by splinters. Number 4 generator room was flooded, several electrical installations were put out of action, and cables, damaged by splinters or flooding, disrupted operations in the battle, command, and fire-control stations, including those for the forward antiaircraft battery and turret Anton.

A second 454 kg (1000 lb) bomb hit midway between the 150 mm and 105 mm guns, 2,6 meters from the deck edge; it, too, penetrated all decks and platforms before passing through the side shell below the armor belt without exploding. Five spaces on the starboard side over a length of 10 meters were flooded. Some lights were extinguished, water leaked into the magazines for the 150 mm single mounts, and the living spaces were damaged by splinters.

The third 454 kg (1000 lb) bomb hit slightly abaft the after turret, 3 meters from the deck edge, tore through the upper deck, passed through the side plating, and buried itself in the sea bed, unexploded; it was later recovered. The shell plating was severely damaged, and 10 watertight spaces, including the starboard shaft alley, were flooded. Flooding also occurred in the magazines for turret Caesar, and the ammunition hoist was put out of service.

The other 227 kg (500 lb) bomb fell forward of the after turret, to starboard, 3 meters from the deck edge; it penetrated two decks and exploded on the main armor deck, where it made a small hole. Several frames were holed by splinters, and the connection at the top of the torpedo bulkhead was damaged. The penetrated decks bulged from the explosion and were holed by splinters. Some flooding occurred in the outboard spaces. Heating, potable, and plumbing piping under the battery and middle decks was damaged. The ammunition hoists for the 37 mm guns were put out of action, although the ammunition was not affected.

The ship took an 8 degree list to starboard, as most of the void tanks used for counterflooding were flooded. Damage would have been more extensive if all three 454 kg (1000 lb) bombs had not been duds. Trim by the stern increased 3 meters due to 1.520 to 3.050 metric tons of water taken on board. The forward and after turrets were temporarily out of action, and half the antiaircraft battery was out. Several small fires broke out but were extinguished. Two men were killed and 15 others were injured.

Photo: Here the Scharnhorst can be seen in drydock at Brest.

Four months were spent in repairing the damage. Changes were also made to the ship:

A new radar aft.

Increased output for the forward radar to 100 kw.

To increase the ships efficiency in the role of commerce raider, the Scharnhorst was now fitted with two triple 533 mm torpedo tubes on rotatable mountings on her upper deck between the after 105 mm (4,1 inch) mounts and 150 mm (5,9 inch) turrets. No attempt was made to link them with the fire-control system. A leading torpedo-man used the aiming apparatus on the battery itself. After all, refinements were unnecessary. The only purpose was to perform a hitherto time-wasting task in a matter of seconds and by remote control.

The anti-aircraft armament was considerably increased as eighteen 20 mm (0,79 inch) AA guns were added to the Scharnhorst.

Photo: During her stay in Brest the Scharnhorst was equipped with torpedo tubes which originated from the light cruiser Nürnberg.

When, on 23 December 1941, the chiefs-of-staff in London sat down to their 430th meeting of the war, they were asked to consider whether "the destruction of major naval units at Brest" could really be considered `as primary targets'. "We cannot", wrote Air Commodore A. Durston who was in charge of Bomber Command's co-operation with the Navy, "continue ad infinitum to waste our bomber effort on these ships, nor yet to allow a large part of our bomber force to be held idle at the mere whisper of the departure of one of them." On the other hand, Japan had entered the war on 7 December, and the resources of the Royal Navy were being stretched to their limits. To allow the escape of the battleships would be a disaster.

What, then, was the answer? "It is imperative", wrote Durston, "that these ships be reduced to twisted masses of metal, or very severely damaged, in the shortest possible time." To achieve this, he proposed an intensive effort in which the entire resources of Bomber Command would be used. Beginning at 1900 hours the port of Brest would be attacked continuously throughout the night. Waves of thirty aircraft each would follow one another at half-hourly intervals until one hour before dawn. All told, 300 aeroplanes would be used as a crescendo to a series of operations that had already expended 3,413 tons of bombs (compared with the 20,202 that had been dropped on the whole of Germany) and which had cost Bomber Command 127 aircraft.

There is no knowing whether the plan would have succeeded as it was never executed. While the RAF was working out how to destroy the two battleships at Brest, Hitler was wondering how to bring them home to Germany. The Führer had experienced one of his flashes of intuition. The gist of it was that the war would be won or lost in Norway. Indeed, to be more precise, he was convinced that Britain was preparing to invade that country. Tirpitz was now ready for service and short of further bomb damage the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would both be in fighting trim by February 1942. To send the Tirpitz into the Atlantic would be to invite another catastrophe on the Bismarck scale. She should, on the other hand, be able to make the journey from Gdynia (Gotenhafen) to Trondheim. Joined by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, she could not only reinforce the defences of the Norwegian waters, she would also act as a substantial hazard to convoys carrying war materials to Russia.

Tirpitz was the least of the problem. The big question was how to bring home Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The genesis of the operation that was to become known as "Cerberus" occurred almost by accident during a conversation between Hitler and Raeder. They were, in fact, discussing the problem of returning Prinz Eugen to Germany. In an unguarded moment, Raeder wondered whether it might be possible to route the cruiser via the English Channel. Hitler seized on the idea. "Why not", he asked, "bring them all home that way?" Raeder was dumbfounded. The very notion sounded preposterous.

Grand-Admiral Erich Raeder had considered for some time what to do with two battleships that are virtually trapped in a port many kilometers from the Germany. Provided they could break out into the Atlantic, there were a number of alternatives. They might, for example, be able to carry out shortdistance raids on Gibraltar-bound convoys. They could, perhaps, be dispatched south-wards to the Mediterranean, where, conceivably, they might link up with the Italian fleet. If, for one reason or another, they had to make their ways back to Germany, the passage would need to be by way of the Denmark Strait.

A smaller ship, such as the Prinz Eugen, might manage to negotiate the English Channel. For two large battleships it would be impossible. The pundits at the Seekriegsleitung (Naval Command) in Berlin had already studied the question and Raeder had always opposed it. There was the danger of minefields in such narrow waters and the likelihood of attacks from torpedo-carrying aircraft. As Raeder realistically assumed, the British Admiralty must be receiving reports from agents in France. He realized that there had to be flaws in the security system. British naval intelligence would almost certainly be informed of the ships' impending departure - and in enough time to make adequate preparations.

Grand-Admiral Raeder concluded that the trip to Germany would have to be via the Denmark Strait. But, before such a voyage could be contemplated, the battleships would have to make trips to sea. Their crews had been confined to port for the better part of nine months. They needed to be re-trained.

When Hitler suddenly became enthusiastic about the idea of a dash up the Channel, Raeder did his best to dissuade him. If the British were watchful and properly prepared Raeder could not see the action succeeding. But Raeder should have known Hitler better. He should have realized that, once a notion was wedged in the Hitler's mind it was almost impossible to shake it loose.

Admiral Saalwachter, head of Navy Group West at Paris, agreed with Raeder and strongly warned against this operation being carried out.

Predictably, Hitler was unimpressed by these arguments. He was determined to go ahead with the plan, and he told Raeder bluntly that if he rejected the proposal for a dash through the Channel Hitler would order the two ships to be put out of commission and their guns dismantled.

That was enough. Raeder gave in.

On 1 July 1941, Lutjens had been succeeded as Fleet Commander by Otto Ciliax, Scharnhorst's first captain and now a Vice-Admiral. Gneisenau had always worn the admiral's flag. Doubtless for sentimental reasons, Ciliax decided to move into Scharnhorst. Ciliax was one of the few senior officers who not only believed the Channel dash possible, he was actually enthusiastic about it.

By the New Year, on Hitler's instructions, Ciliax was making plans for such a voyage. On 12 January 1943, he presented himself at Hitler's headquarter, Rastenburg, in East Prussia. It was an illustrious gathering. Among those present were Hitler himself, Keitel (C-in-C Armed Forces), Jodl, Hans Jeschonnek (Chief of General Staff, Luftwaffe), and Adolf Galland (the crack fighter pilot who would have the immediate task of providing air cover). On the naval side, there were Raeder, Fricke (Raeder's chief-of-staff), Ruge (who was in charge of minesweeping operations), and, of course, Ciliax. The meeting took place in a concrete bunker 6 meter (20 ft) beneath the ground.

Ciliax presented his plan. There were, he said, to be no preliminaries such as shake-down cruises which would alert the enemy. The ships should leave Brest at night - again for reasons of secrecy. It would, admittedly, mean passing through the Straits of Dover in daylight, but he could not see that this would matter. Indeed, it might be an advantage, for forces at Britain's disposal favoured night attacks. The Luftwaffe would have to provide diversionary bombing-plus, of course, fighter cover. Jeschonnek said that he could put 250 aircraft at the fleet's disposal. It was a well-thought-out presentation and Hitler gave the green light for Operation "Cerberus", the break-out of the three heavy units from Brest.

The senior officers returned to their headquarters. Operation "Cerberus" was scheduled to begin on the night of 11 February. There was a great deal to do. Among the priorities was that of making sure Gneisenau would be ready to sail on time. On the night of 6 January, there had been a heavy air raid over Brest. At 20:30 one of the bombs exploded against her hull as she lay in Number 8 dock. It tore a gash several yards long and two compartments were flooded. The engineers promised that it could be mended in two weeks. It seemed that only a miracle could achieve such a feat, but they presumably knew what they were talking about. As events were to show, they did. Gneisenau was seaworthy by 11 February.

The first stretch to be covered was the 770 km (415 nm) from Brest to the Scheldt, the operational area of the BSW (Commander Minesweeping West, Kapitan zur See Kommodore Friedrich Ruge). His command consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 12th Minesweeping Flotillas and had the responsibility of keeping the intended route swept. The initial work was taken in hand at once. During this continuous activity - the British were always laying fresh mine barriers - the destroyer Bruno Heinemann was mined and sunk off Calais on 25 January. In the weeks before "X"-day, fourteen newly laid barrages were found and swept west of Calais.

The remaining 445 km (240 nm) from the Scheldt to the Elbe came under the BSN (Commander Minesweeping North, Konteradmiral Wolfram) who had at his disposal the 1st and 5th Minesweeping Flotillas (which alternated between BSW and BSN), and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th R-Boat Flotillas.

Two Luftflotten were involved and were responsible for providing air cover - Luftflotte 3 (Generalfeldmarschall Sperrle) and Luftflotte Reich (General der Flieger Weise). Fighter groups came under the command of Oberst Galland. The heavy units would be directly escorted by six destroyers (originally seven including Bruno Heinemann), namely Richard Beitzen, Paul Jacobi, Hermann Schoemann, Friedrich Ihn, Z 25 and Z 29. Nine torpedo-boats of the 2nd and 3rd Flotillas (T 2, T 4, T 5, T 11, T 12, T 13, T 15, T 16 and T 17) would be joined later by Seeadler, Iltis and Jaguar of the 5th Flotilla plus ten Schnellboats of the 2nd, 4th and 6th Flotillas.

Scharnhorst's navigator, Helmuth Giessler, had received an inkling of the forthcoming move after he returned from leave early in the New Year. Admiral Ciliax had instructed him to obtain the necessary charts for a voyage up the Channel. But it was not quite so simple as that. If Giessler asked for these alone, it would give an immediate clue to the route. Consequently, he also demanded charts covering the Mediterranean, the sea around Iceland, and the West African coast.

It was the beginning of an impressive exercise in deception. During the weeks that followed, drums of lubricating oil marked "For Use in the Tropics" were seen to be unloaded at Brest railway station. Supplies of white uniforms and sun helmets were taken to the ships. Admiral Saalwachter invited the officers to a shooting party in the woods outside Paris and to dinner afterwards. The date of the invitation was for 12 February. In Brest itself, preparations were put in hand for a masked ball to be attended by the crews of the ships. The date, again, was 12 February. By dropping the apparently incautious word here and there in the cafes, officers were encouraged to spread false rumours about the ships' future. Many people were deceived.

The plan, as Ciliax told his captains and heads of departments on his return from East Prussia, was that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen should leave Brest on the night of 11 February with an escort of six destroyers. They were to be off Cherbourg by daylight where the fighter cover would begin. From then onwards sixteen aircraft, relieved at half-hourly intervals, would be continuously over the fleet. Their course would take them 3 kilometers (2 miles) off Fecamp. When they were opposite Berck-sur-Mer they would be met by a flotilla of torpedo boats to reinforce the escort. As they approached the Straits of Dover Schnellboats would join them as well. After passing through the Straits, they would follow the Dutch coast outside the twenty-fathom line. Minefields and sandbanks would be indicated by mark boats (small minesweepers).

To lessen the risk of fires caused by their petrol igniting, all the Arado Ar 196 seaplanes on the battleships would be left behind.

Photo: The Scharnhorst within her torpedo protected anchorage at Brest shortly before the start of Operation "Cerberus".

The peril would mainly come from the sky as there was little alternative. When Tirpitz moved to Trondheim in early January, the British Admiralty feared another break-out into the Atlantic. The Home Fleet hauled up its anchors in Scapa Flow on 17 January, and set course for Hvalfjord in Iceland. King George V, Rodney, Victorious, four cruisers, and thirteen destroyers were now many, many kilometers away to the north. The only surface vessels available to harass the fleet were a few Hunt class destroyers, which were not armed with torpedoes, a flotilla of much older ships based at Harwich and a scattering of motor torpedo boats. Nor could submarines be brought into the battle - they were simply not available. Between 24 December and 2 January seven antiquated boats had been watching the approaches to Brest. But then they were withdrawn for training purposes. HMS Sealion, a more modern "S" class vessel, took over in early February. Despite a signal on 7 February from Sir Max Horton, Flag Officer Submarines, that the German ships were known to be exercising in a bay to the south-west of Brest, Sealion's captain, Lieutenant-Commander Colvin, could see nothing. Indeed, not the least of his problems was that of keeping on station. Navigation was made difficult by the strong tides surging along the coast.

At 21.00 hours on 9 February Sealion was on the surface recharging her batteries. Suddenly a Dornier Do 217 bomber swept out of the clouds. Colvin dived immediately. Seconds, or so it seemed, later the submarine was rocked by the explosions of depth charges. They were not near enough to do any damage, but the message was all too obvious. The watch-dog had been spotted. Colvin took Sealion farther out to sea.

Ciliax's fleet was now freed from the danger of an early torpedo attack. The only chance of the ships being detected as they left Brest would be a sighting by one of Coastal Command's patrolling aircraft. As it had been throughout the interlude at Brest, the British initiative was once again in the hands of the RAF.

There was to be no shake-down cruise, no working-up for what, on the face of it, seemed to be a very dangerous voyage. There was, however, a certain amount of training that could be carried out when the ships were in port. The men were exercised in damage control. They were put through their paces in situations that simulated a complete failure of the lighting systems, the knocking out of one or another turret, the breakdown of the fire-control equipment and so on. Somehow, the effects of a prolonged stay in port had to be dispelled and the men had to be brought up to a peak of efficiency. The time was short, but the officers and ratings responded well. The period of waiting, when the ships had been no more than targets for RAF bombers, had gone on for too long. They were thankful for the prospect of action.

© John Asmussen, 2001 - 2010. All rights reserved.