KMS Prinz Eugen
Although Scharnhorst and Gneisenau posed a considerable threat to the British while lying at Brest in 1941 and the repeated raids by the Royal Air Force were far too inaccurate to do any serious damage, Hitler felt the two units were too exposed, and ordered them to return. Operation ‘Cerberus’, the daylight dash through the English Channel in February 1942, was probably the Kriegsmarine’s greatest success, for it took the British completely by surprise, the two battle-cruisers and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen slipping past ineffectual air and sea attacks. Apart from slight damage to Scharnhorst from a magnetic mine during the final phase it had been a humiliation for the British and proof that audacity pays.
The two great grey ships appeared off the entrance to the French Atlantic port of Brest just after dawn. They were Germany’s 32,000-ton battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returning from marauding raids against Allied shipping in the Atlantic.
They had sailed from Kiel at the beginning of 1941. Evading the British Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow, they had broken through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic. For the next two months like gigantic pirates they roamed the Atlantic shipping lanes sinking more than twenty ships totalling over 100,000 tons. It was the first—and last—successful foray by German battleships against Allied merchant shipping in the Second World War. Then in early March they seemed to disappear into Atlantic mists.
At 7 a.m. on 22 March 1941, as sullen French dock workers watched, they tied up at the quai Lannion in Brest. It was nearly a year since France had fallen and the French Naval base had been taken over by German dockyard workers from Wilhelmshaven. They had returned to Brest because they were badly in need of repairs. The two-months’ cruise had revealed serious defects in Scharnhorst’s boilers. The tubes of the super-heaters, especially, had given constant trouble threatening a major breakdown. German dockyard engineers who examined her estimated ten weeks would be needed for repairs. When her Kapitän, Kurt Hoffmann, reported this news to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German Navy in Berlin, the German Admiralty staff were shocked at the extent of the repairs necessary.
Her sister ship Gneisenau was also in need of minor repairs. The refit of both battleships went ahead quickly but no Frenchman was allowed to work on them, for French workmen in the repair depots ashore went as slow as they dared to hold up the work of the German conquerors. Throughout the dockyard and in the town, the inhabitants were not only surly and hostile, but some of them were in touch with French underground agents, who would pass the information about the repairs to Britain.
After the ships’ arrival eight depressing days passed with unceasing rain and frequent false air-raid alarms. Then on the evening of 30 March came the real thing. The wail of sirens was followed by the crash of bombs. The flak gun crews poured up a curtain of fire but their shells could not reach high-flying planes.
Ashore, many officers of the German Naval Staff were killed when the hotel where they were accommodated was hit and caught fire. The ships were undamaged but when the fragments of bombs were examined by German experts next day they made an important discovery. The RAF had dropped 500-lb armour-piercing bombs specially made to crash through the armoured decks of the warships. The Germans then knew that this was no routine dock raid. These bombs were direct evidence that the RAF knew they were there. Now the raids would never cease. They were right. The RAF started to come day and night when weather permitted.
At dawn on 6 April a RAF torpedo-bomber suddenly dived out of the clouds. It was a Coastal Command Beaufort from St. Eval in Cornwall, piloted by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, who made a most courageous and determined attack upon Gneisenau. She was tied up to the buoy against a wall at the north end of the harbour, protected by the curving mole. The little hills all around the harbour bristled with clusters of guns and moored near the mole as extra protection were three flak ships.
The battleship’s position appeared to be impregnable. Even if an aircraft managed to deliver a low level attack it would not be able to pull out in time and must crash into the high ground surrounding the harbour.
But Kenneth Campbell dived down to deck level and flew steadily past the blazing muzzles of the flak ships’ guns. He skimmed over the mole and dropped his torpedo at point-blank range towards Gneisenau’s stern. As he did so, the German flak gunners hit him and he crashed in flames into the water.
But he had done his job. Seconds later his torpedo exploded against Gneisenau on the starboard side aft. Water rushed in and she began to list heavily. A salvage vessel which came alongside to pump tons of water from her scuppers had difficulty keeping her from sinking.
The bodies of Campbell and his gallant aircrew, Sgts. Scott, Mullis and Hillman, were fished out of the harbour and brought on board the battleship. Their bodies were draped in flags and placed on the quarterdeck, where a guard of honour was mounted as a mark of respect.
While this chivalrous ceremony was taking place, the salvage crews managed to pump enough water out to right her, since she could not remain in danger at the buoy. RAF spotter planes were now informing the British about every move of the battleships. Another attack like Campbell’s on Gneisenau would probably sink her.
The following morning Gneisenau again entered dry dock where inspection confirmed that Campbell’s torpedo had wrecked the starboard propeller and shaft tunnel. This would need six months to repair. She would be out of action twice as long as Scharnhorst.
When the British heard about Campbell’s heroic act he was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. The citation said: “Despising heavy odds Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell went cheerfully and resolutely to his task. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, he displayed valour of the highest order.”
As a result of Campbell’s torpedo both battleships were now due for a long stay so the German Navy decided to put their static fleet to some use. A detachment of a hundred midshipmen were sent from Germany to the Brest battleships to complete their training. They were posted equally to both ships and, as anti-aircraft defence was most vital, this was their main task. It became a brutal battle training for these budding officers. For some it was very short.
On the night of 10 April, the sirens again wailed and the first bomb explosions could be heard above the roar of the flak guns. Suddenly there came a series of tremendous flashes and explosions and a red glow lit up Gneisenau‘s superstructure. She had been hit by three bombs and was on fire. The bombs killed fifty and wounded ninety of her crew, the heaviest casualties being among the flak crews and the young midshipmen. At the time of the raid many of the off-duty midshipmen were in their quarters between decks. Most of them were killed by fragments of other big bombs exploding on the quayside.
As ambulances drew up at the ship’s gangway and long rows of stretcher cases were taken to hospital, Captain Hoffmann went across from Scharnhorst to offer help. He ordered a working-party to fight the fires on the mess decks, but they had to flood one magazine before the fires were controlled and Gneisenau out of danger.
The Germans’ main concern was to conceal the extent of the damage from the French, but each battleship could only make ten coffins, and this meant tiiey would have to call in French carpenters to make many more. When the order was given the news of the German dead spread rapidly among the inhabitants of Brest.
After this they arranged for most of the crews to sleep ashore in barracks, leaving only flak gunners and a duty watch in the ship. This raid also decided the authorities in Berlin to step up the A.A. defences of Brest. They increased the number of 4-inch guns to 150 and smaller flak guns to 1,200, to make a murderous concentration of fire. Also the two battleships were moved closer together. The lock gates were closed and protected by nets against torpedoes fired by either intruding submarines or wave-skimming planes.
In Scharnhorst’s old berth, Hoffmann built a wooden and sheet-iron replica of her on the hull of an old French cruiser, Jeanne d’Arc. Nets hung from the battleships’ masts to the dockside with paint sprayed over them to make them resemble clumps of trees. On the roofs of the Naval College the surviving midshipmen erected wooden huts to make it look like a village.
A network of artificial smoke-generators which could shroud the port under a thick fog within a few minutes was installed around the harbour. This last precaution aroused protests from the Luftwaffe who maintained that the dense smoke would endanger their fighter operations. This artificial fog also nearly caused a collision between the two battleships when they came to leave harbour.
The flak and the fighters gave them protection during the day but in darkness it was a different story. As the RAF’s heavy bombing continued nearly every night it looked as though not only would the ships be damaged but most of their crews endangered. Although many of them were taken at night in lorries to barracks in Brest, many were still being killed ashore so it was decided to move them farther out to avoid the raids.
They were moved at night to La Roche fifteen miles from Brest near the sleepy little Breton town of Landerneau. Both places were on the main line to Paris and the railway was used a lot to move crews about.
Hidden in a small forest of birch trees near Landerneau, barracks were built for the crews of each ship. It was also planned to build extra ones for the crew of another German battleship, Bismarck, due in for a refit after her own Atlantic merchant shipping forays. Outside the dockyard at Brest the large buoys swung at their moorings awaiting her arrival.
While the other two German battleships were being repaired in Brest, Bismarck was sheltering in the German-occupied Norwegian port of Bergen. But on a moonless night—20 May 1941—she slipped out, escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. At noon next day, when the news reached the Admiralty in Whitehall, the Home Fleet was ordered to sail from Scapa Flow to intercept the German ships south of the Denmark Straits.
At dawn on 24 May the two German ships were in action with the British fleet, which included the veteran battle-cruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales on her maiden voyage. The Royal Navy had the worst of the battle. Hood, hit by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, blew up. Prince of Wales was so badly damaged that she took no further part in the action. But smaller Royal Naval ships still shadowed the fast-steaming Bismarck.
In the afternoon the new aircraft-carrier Victorious was detached from the main force to attack her. When 825 Squadron of Swordfish rose from her flight deck to make a night attack on the German battleship, the leading plane was piloted by Lt.-Cdr. Eugene Esmonde.
At 11:30 p.m., when they were 120 miles from the carrier, Esmonde’s Swordfish squadron sighted Bismarck. Flying 100 feet above the waves in the darkness, they let go their torpedoes from less than 1,000 yards. As they banked away there was a roar followed by a flash and a curling plume of flame.
The Bismarck had been hit amidships.
The torpedo slowed her down, and after a three-day chase the Home Fleet again brought the Bismarck into action. This time she was alone. Four hours before the battle the Prinz Eugen had slipped away. The Bismarck sank under the guns and torpedoes of the Royal Navy.
It was on the night of 7 May that German naval officers at Brest, surreptitiously listening to the B.B.C. news, heard: “At 10:37 G.M.T. the German battleship Bismarck was sunk.”
The German Navy in Brest took the news of Bismarck’s sinking gloomily. Equally depressing was the lack of news of her escorting cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Had she too been sunk? Or had she escaped and was preserving radio silence in case her calls were intercepted by the pursuing Royal Navy? For five days there was silence. Then at dawn on 1 June a buzz of excitement went round the battleship crews. Prinz Eugen had appeared at the entrance to Brest Harbour.
She brought grim news. When her captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, made a report to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin about the fate of the Bismarck, he stated that the British battleships now had such good radar equipment that it could not be evaded.
The rest of the situation was also depressing. Despite German precautions, day and night raids on Brest docks became a familiar part of their daily life. Almost every day, the B.B.C.’s nine o’clock news reported that bombers had visited Brest to attack the German warships.
The British realized that this constant bombing might eventually cause the Germans to make a desperate dash home. A series of conferences was held between Admiralty and Air Ministry planners. As a result Coastal Command was ordered to establish three separate dusk-to-dawn radar reconnaissance patrols off Brest and along the Channel. They became known as “Stopper,” which covered from Brest to Ushant, “Line SE” from Ushant to Brittany and “Habo” from Le Havre to Boulogne. Fighter Command also organized daylight Channel sweeps known as “Jim Crow.”
On 29 April 1941 an Air Ministry letter to the three RAF Commands—Fighter, Bomber and Coastal—said: “Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may attempt to reach a German port up the Channel route during the period April 30th to May 4th inclusive. It is considered probable that the Straits of Dover will be navigated in darkness. It is considered unlikely that the enemy would attempt the passage of the Straits in daylight. But if this should be attempted, a unique opportunity will be offered to both our surface craft and air striking force to engage the enemy ships in force whilst in the Straits of Dover.” Bomber Command was instructed to have strike forces in readiness for the Germans leaving Brest.
At this stage, the RAF were well ahead of the Germans in their tactical appreciation. It was not until 30 May—a month after the Air Ministry had considered the possibility of a Channel break-out—that the German Naval Command West in Paris sent a memorandum to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin suggesting a contingency plan: “The possibility of bringing heavy ships through the English Channel should be carefully examined. The route is shorter than the Iceland passage. There are good escort possibilities, both air and sea. Enemy radar could be jammed. Superior enemy units would not be present and the passage would be in the close proximity of our own harbours to which ships could be taken in the event of breakdowns.”
Raeder reacted strongly against this suggestion. He drew up a formidable list of hazards: “1. The difficulty of navigation in narrow waters. 2. The battleships must be seen by the British. 3. The danger from mines, torpedo boats, torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive-bombers.”
But Raeder’s principal objection was that mine-sweepers could not clear a wide enough path for the ships to take avoiding action in the event of torpedo attack. He concluded, “The naval war staff therefore consider an unobserved and safe escape through the Channel to be impossible.” This view entirely coincided with that of his opposite number in London, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.
Raeder had good reasons for being cautious. For he had only five battleships—including the “pocket” battleships—to the Royal Navy’s fifteen. He had no aircraft-carriers, although the Graf Zeppelin was under construction—but never completed—whilst the British had six operational carriers.