Kriegsmarine Operation Donnerkeil photo gallery

Stamp Adolf Hitler

'The Channel Dash'

Operation Donnerkeil Protecting the Channel Dash

'..the weather actually occurred as forecast, even if it was about from six to eight hours late. But it saved us.'

Adolf Galland commenting post-war on the outcome of the Channel Dash.

For most of 1941, the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were all but stranded in Brest, where they were in constant danger from the RAF. To safeguard the ships and to protect Norway from any possible British invasion, Hitler ordered that the ships were to be brought back to Germany in a quick dash up the Channel.

German preparations for the operation were excellent; passages were swept through minefields and marked so that the ships and their escort could sail at top speed, and permanent air protection was arranged with the Luftwaffe. The organisation and supervision of this fighter protection was one of the earliest responsibilities for Adolf Galland in his new position as General der fagdfliegel: The ships were due to sail under cover of darkness on the night of 11 February and the fighter protection, arranged under the code-name Operation Donnerkeil, was planned with such secrecy that even the leaders of the Gruppen involved were only made aware of the true purpose of the operation on the evening of the 10th.

For the operation, Galland had at his disposal the full operational strength of the three western-based Jagdgeschwader - a total of some 250 single-engined fighters - plus a small number of Bf-110 night-fighters. As a reserve, 12 aircraft from the fighter school near Paris were mobilised and moved to the Pas de Calais where they were to be held ready should losses to the fighter force be greater than anticipated. Although the adverse weather forecast for the period would aid the escape, timing was crucial and the success of the fighter escort depended on three command centers established within separate Jafü boundaries parallel to the ships course. Each centre controlled a succession of overlapping sectors in the English Channel and North Sea from Brest to the final posts of destination. To provide an element of local control, Oberst Max-Josef Ibel, the former Geschwaderkommodore of JG27, embarked on Scharnhorst with a signals detachment as Jafü Schiff. 1

The British response began some two hours later in the form of an ineffective salvo from the Dover gun batteries and was shortly followed by the first aerial attack when six Swordfish torpedo aircraft with an escort of 11 Spitfires was intercepted by the German fighters which also shot down all six of the Swordfish. Although this interception had taken place within the area assigned to JG26, parts of JG2 continued to assist JG26 as, for more than three hours, successive formations of British aircraft braved the worsening weather in a series of abortive attacks against the ships.

As a result of the actions involving JG2 and JG26, claims were submitted for 35 British aircraft shot down in return for the reported loss of four aircraft and their pilots. JG26 had scored well with Oblt. Johannes Naumann of the 9.Staffel claiming two of the six Swordfish shot down while Lt. Paul Galland gained his fourth victory by accounting for another, Fw. Adolf Glunz of the 4.Staffel raised his victory total to ten, claiming a Spitfire near Eu and Fw. Hans-Jiirgen Frohlich of the 2.Staffel claimed a Hampden off Ostend for his fifth victory.

Pilots of JG2 were also successful, Oblt. Karl-Heinz Greisert, Kommandeur of II. Gruppe, Oblt. Rudolf Pflanz of I./JG2 and Lt. Horst-Benno Kruger of 5./JG2 all claiming two victories each. Other victories were claimed by Oblt. Egon Mayer of 7.Staffel who shot down a Whirlwind, Hptm. Hans Hahn, Kommandeur of III. Gruppe, and Oblt. Siegfried Schnell of the 9.Staffel who claimed a Hampden off the Dutch coast.

The final clash of the day took place off the Dutch coast at about 16.30 hrs when, guided by coloured flares in the steadily worsening weather, elements of the recently formed II./JG1 intercepted a force of bombers making for the ships. Oblt. Max Bucholz of the 5.Staffel claimed one as his 28th victory, Oblt. Eberhard Bock of 6./JG1 claimed his 22nd and 23rd, Fw. Kupper, of the 5. Staffel his 13th, while Oblt. Diesselhorst and Uffz. Gunter Kirchner, also of 5./JG1 claimed one each. A claim for a seventh aircraft, a Blenheim, was shared between four pilots of 5./JG1.

While the unfavorab1e weather along the ships course had indeed greatly aided their escape, over Holland, it deteriorated to such an extent that fighter cover was almost suspended. In the event, the fighters took off and succeeded in completing their mission but, unable in many cases to return to their airfields because of the poor weather, landed with surprisingly few accidents on beaches, streets and fields.

Supported by the co-ordinated efforts of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, the air defense operation planned by Galland had worked almost flawlessly. Although Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sustained damage from earlier laid mines, attacks from the air and by motor torpedo boats and destroyers all proved futile and the three ships reached port at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven on the morning of 13 February. In speaking post-war about the aerial protection provided for the Channel Dash, Galland referred to the operation as being the 'greatest hour' of his wartime career.

The three warships would be provided with a surface escort of five destroyers plus a flotilla of smaller vessels, and as the ships moved northwards, they would also be covered consecutively from the air by elements of JG2, JG26 and JG1. Each Geschwader would provide successive groups of 16 fighters in four Schwärme operating under strict radio silence, which would remain with the ships for 30 minutes. Ten minutes before the end of their patrol time they were to be joined by the next group, so that for almost half of the daylight part of the operation, the ships would be protected by 32 fighters. JG2 and JG26 were responsible for protecting the ships through the narrow Straits of Dover, considered the most hazardous part of their voyage, with JG1 taking over the aerial escort duties as the ships passed the Scheidt estuary.

The departure of the German ships, although delayed by more than three hours, took place as planned on the night of 11 February. The clearing of the channels in the minefields had been observed by the British who were therefore aware that preparations for some undertaking had begun, but three air patrols by Hudsons fitted with air-to-surface radar which had been organised to observe the waters off Brest failed to detect the ships and by first light on the morning of the 12th they were off Cherbourg where they were joined by their fighter escort. The first Geschwader on station was JG2, soon joined by Bf-110 night fighters, the Bf-109s of I./JG26 and Fw-190s of II./JG26, which provided a relay of fighters throughout the morning. Still the ships remained undetected, but at 11.00 hrs British radar located a part of the escort circling above the ships and two Spitfires were ordered to investigate. Soon afterwards, the ships were seen and correctly identified by two other Spitfire pilots on a Rhubarb mission, but they did not break radio silence and only reported them after landing. At about the same time however, the two Spitfires sent to investigate the British radar plot identified and reported the passage of the ships.

#1Fighter Commander, Ship.

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'.
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 Scharnhorsts 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 Commands 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, Britains 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 dArc 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 Scharnhorsts 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.

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.

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.

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 Commands 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.

Stamp Adolf Hitler

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 Hitlers 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, Scharnhorsts first captain and now a Vice-Admiral. Gneisenau had always worn the admirals 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 Hitlers instructions, Ciliax was making plans for such a voyage. On 12 January 1943, he presented himself at Hitlers 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 (Raeders 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 Britains 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 fleets 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, Z25 and Z29. Nine torpedo-boats of the 2nd and 3rd Flotillas (T2, T4, T5, T11, T12, T13, T15, T16 and T17) would be joined later by Seeadler, Iltis and Jaguar of the 5th Flotilla plus ten Schnellboats of the 2nd, 4th and 6th Flotillas.

Scharnhorsts 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.

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, Sealions 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.

Ciliaxs 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 Commands 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.

Kriegsmarine or German Navy during WWII photo gallery

'The Channel Dash' or Operation Donnerkeil photo collection


The Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen was a magnificent ship by any measure. Its elegant purposeful design embodied both the cutting edge of German naval engineering, and the esprit de corps of the all-volunteer Kriegsmarine.

The Prinz Eugen was launched in 1938 as part of an ambitious peacetime building program intended to bring the Kriegsmarine to equal terms with the Royal Navy. But in 1941 she commissioned into a fleet unprepared for war, facing a vastly superior enemy. Her career epitomized the difficulties faced by the German surface fleet in WW2. Victories in the spirit of her namesake, Prinz Eugen of Savoy, would elude her. Her North Atlantic sortee with Bismarck and the sinking of the Hood in April 1941 earned her a place in history, but the destruction of the Bismark left no real cause for celebration. The daring dash through the English Channel may have been a moral victory but it was no great contribution to the war effort. Prinz Eugens finest hour came when her shells held back advancing Red Armies, allowing a mass German exodus from the Baltic. But it came only during the Reichs final hours. She never sunk a single enemy vessel, but her crew fondly remember her as 'the lucky ship.' Although heavily damaged on several occasions, Prinz Eugen was the only heavy surface unit of the Kriegsmarine to survive WW2 intact. Under the circumstances, it was more than could be expected.

Kriegsmarine Battleship - Prinz Eugen and Scharnhorst Operation Donnerkeil Feb 1942 01-02

Photo 01-02: Viewed from aboard the Prinz Eugen, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau steam in line astern through the English Channel.

Kriegsmarine Battleship - Prinz Eugen in Brest, France 1941 01

Photo 01: Between 22 January and 22 March 1941, the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau operated in the Atlantic, sinking several ships and severely threatening British supply lines. Following this operation, the ships berthed at Brest where they immediately became the targets of repeated air attacks and on 1 April 1941, JG26 was transferred to airfields in Brittany in order to provide protection. Nevertheless, the ships suffered damage which kept them non-operational until late 1941.

Kriegsmarine Battleship - Prinz Eugen 01

Photo 01: Bismarck from the Prinz Eugen.

Kriegsmarine Battleship - Prinz Eugen 02

Photo 02: Feb-Mar 1942 Part of the ships after section had to be cut away. Emergency rudder repairs begin immediately. The ship had to be drydocked at Kiel.

Kriegsmarine Battleship - Prinz Eugen 03-23

Photo 03-23: Various photos of Prinz Eugen

Kriegsmarine Battleship – Prinz Eugen Moored alongside repair vessel Huscaran 01

Focke Wulf Fw-190A 2./JG26 during Operation Donnerkeil Feb 1942 01

Photo 01: A Rotte of Fw-190s from II./JG26 flying over the warships.

Ubisoft checkmysix COD C6 Bf 110C 4./NJG3 (3C+DM) Operation Donnerkeil 1942 V0A


This webpage was updated 3rd October 2022