Planning the “Dash” II

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941. (C 4109) Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight attack on German warships docked at Brest, France. Two Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF fly towards the dry docks in which the battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU are berthed (right), and over which a smoke screen is rapidly spreading. 18 December 1941 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205023266

Raeder, one of the ablest and most professional naval officers Germany has ever produced, nursed his ships like a duck with ducklings. During the fourteen years in which he was its Commander-in-Chief no one had guarded the honour of the German Navy more jealously than he.

When Raeder rejected the Channel plan it was generally felt among the admirals in Berlin that this was the end of the matter. For Hitler trusted Raeder’s judgement and had promoted him to Grand Admiral, second only to Goring as Hitler’s adviser for the prosecution of the war.

It came as a surprise when Admiral Krancke, Raeder’s personal representative on Hitler’s Supreme Staff, was summoned to the Führer’s headquarters and, standing stiffly to attention, listened pale-faced to the tirade of abuse concerning the German capital ships and their officers which Hitler hurled at him.

Hitler, at war with Russia since June, was becoming alarmed at the numerous small British commando raids on the coast of Norway, starting with the Lofotens in March 1941. He considered the Norwegian coastline to be the most vulnerable section of his Western Wall. The news had also reached Hitler that British convoys were bringing tanks, aircraft and guns to the Eastern Front. He decided that Norway, where in any case he had always thought the British intended to open a second front, had now become even more strategically important.

Meanwhile the RAF continued to keep up their non-stop bombing attacks on Brest. A month after Raeder had rejected the Channel plan—on the morning of 1 July—it was Prinz Eugens turn. While she lay alongside the eastern basin of the commercial dock, a RAF bomb smashed the ship’s armour-plating and exploded in the most vulnerable compartments— the plotting room and transmitting station. It killed forty-seven men, including her first officer, Cdr. Otto Stoos, and wounded thirty-two. It also put Prinz Eugen out of action for three months.

On the other hand, Scharnhorst was refitted and on the morning of 23 July left for La Pallice, 250 miles to the south, for trials to test her super-heaters and practise firing her guns. Captain Hoffmann chose the shoal-dotted waters around La Pallice because they afforded the best protection against submarines and he needed only a few patrol boats to keep watch.

A tanker took her place in the dock as a decoy and was covered with netting. To disguise the direction of her departure, the Germans put out false oil trails leading north from Brest. In spite of this careful camouflage, the ever-watchful RAF spotted the move and reported that Scharnhorst was moving south from her berth. Was she about to break out into the Atlantic? As spotter planes watched her, the opinion grew that this might be the long-awaited escape.

Unaware of the British suspicions, the battleship performed perfectly, reaching a speed of thirty knots without difficulty. She returned to La Pallice that evening, expecting to remain there for several days while minor adjustments were made.

Before dark a group of Stirling heavy bombers attacked her and made one direct hit with a heavy armour-piercing bomb. More heavy bomber attacks during the night damaged La Pallice docks. At dawn a RAF photographic reconnaissance plane was over La Pallice. As it revealed little serious damage it was decided to mount the most massive daylight raid on both battleships.

Ninety-nine RAF bombers took off, arriving over the battleships at 2 p.m. Three Flying Fortresses, sixty-three Wellingtons and eighteen Hampdens attacked the Gneisenau in Brest while eight Halifaxes bombed the Scharnhorst in La Pallice.

This was the first time Fortresses, fitted with the new Sperry bombsight for high altitude bombing, had taken part in a raid on the Brest battleships. They had arrived in England just three months before and the attack that hot July afternoon on the German battleships was only their third operation.

Because of the height at which they operated they carried special aircrews—none of them over 24 years old. The pilots of the three Fortresses, Wing-Cdr. Macdougall, Sq. Ldr. MacLaren and Flt.-Lt. Mathieson, were told to concentrate on the Gneisenau. At eight minutes past two they started bombing from a height of 30,000 feet, each aircraft dropping four 1100-lb. bombs which burst on the quays and docks. Although accurate flak was seen following them a thousand feet below they were too high for the German defences. After they had released their bombs three Messerschmitts climbed steeply towards them but the Fortresses turned away and lost them.

At the same time Wing-Cdr. Maw led the low-level British-built bombers down to 6,000 feet, their bombs bursting among the dockyard buildings. Pilot Officer Payne went down to 3,500 feet and as his bombs straddled the Gneisenau both he and his front gunner, Sgt. Wilkinson, were wounded by flak.

The Halifaxes attacked the Scharnhorst at La Pallice from 12,000 feet. She was easily identified by the high-flying bomber pilots from a cloudless sky, and a row of five bombs hit her. Thick smoke began to pour from her as terrific explosions shook the ship. Two bombs exploded on deck, causing a great rent. Yet she was lucky. The three heavy bombs that penetrated the armoured upper deck and smashed through the hull failed to explode, although they caused her to take in 6,000 tons of water.

The ship began to settle with a heavy list. But the efficient repair-parties quickly righted her and the damage was promptly repaired. A signal went to the port authorities for divers, who found the impact with Scharnhorst’s deck had torn the steel off one of the bombs and had helped to prevent it exploding. The holes in Scharnhorst’s hull were soon patched up.

Good luck was still with her for, miraculously, there were no casualties. She returned to Brest at twenty-seven knots.

The autumn of 1941 was the beginning of bad times for the German war machine. Hitler’s blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union was slowing up at die onset of the savage Russian winter. Hitler was personally conducting the campaign from his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, known as Wolf’s Lair.

Since the start of the Russian campaign Admiral Raeder had heard nothing from his preoccupied Führer. But on 17 September, as the Admiral was preparing plans for using his battleships in the Atlantic shipping lanes again, he was summoned to a conference with Hitler at Wolf’s Lair.

Hitler did not want to hear about the Atlantic plan. He was convinced the British were going to invade Norway and interrupted to say, “The Atlantic can be left to the U-boats. Your battleships, all your major units, must be stationed along the Norwegian coast. They can be of some use in guarding Norway against invasion. They will be safer there from air attack than in Brest.”

He called Norway the “zone of destiny.” Hitler, who had referred to himself to Raeder as “a land animal,” said to him, “Battleships are not good for anything. The big guns would be more useful and less vulnerable in emplacements ashore. I have plans for disarming these steel monsters and using them for the defence of the Norwegian coast.”

There was a second conference in November when Hitler produced a marked map of the Norwegian coast with areas shown from which the two battleships and Prinz Eugen could operate against the British. He was impatient with Raeder. What was the major part of German sea power doing bottled up and being bombed in Brest? He ended by inquiring harshly, “What solution does the Navy have?”

To placate him, Raeder brought out a contingency plan by Naval Group West in Paris which had been pigeon-holed. It suggested that, while awaiting completion of repairs to the battleships, an attempt might be made to send Prinz Eugen on a lone dash through the English Channel to a German port. Hitler, who had appeared uninterested, even bored, suddenly looked up and commented, “Why only the Prinz Eugen? Why not all the ships?”

Raeder, who was not expecting even the Prinz Eugen plan to be taken seriously, was astonished. He replied, “A dash through the Channel by a solitary cruiser is a very different matter, mein Führer, from a movement by a whole fleet.”

Hitler was the last person on earth to be put off by such a statement. “The issue of war will be decided in Norway,” he said. “Unless the British are fools they will attack us there.”

As he said this, he looked directly at Raeder and gave the Nazi salute in dismissal. Raeder flew back to Berlin and sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter, Chief of Naval Group West in Paris, asking how soon the battleships could put to sea. He was not displeased when he received a reply that the two battleships would not be ready until December. It was just as well. By then Hitler, obsessed with the Russian front, might have forgotten this hare-brained idea.

At first Raeder tried to gain time saying he must have discussions with his staff. He explained the position to his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, in Berlin and also to Admiral Wagner, head of the Operations Section directing the war at sea, saying, “Hitler wants the ships back in home waters, for he believes there might be an attempt at a British invasion in the Norwegian area.”

As the Berlin naval chiefs studied the basic aspects of the plan their first objection was the state of crew training. The better trained the crews were, the more chance they had of pulling off a daring operation like this. Yet through no fault of Captain Hoffmann and his fellow commanders, the crews’ training and morale was very much below standard. Brest-bound as they were, always under the threatening shadow of the RAF, they were only able to carry out restricted exercises and drills. But the greatest obstacle to the plan would be the need for the strictest secrecy. Except for the most senior officers at Brest, no one could be allowed to know what was to happen. This would mean the crews could not be inspired by their training instructors with a promise of glory.

Yet the more Admiral Wagner studied the Führer’s plan the more he found he was not against the operation. This was because the entire world naval situation had changed suddenly on 6 December 1941, when America had come into the war. He considered the days were now over when the Germans could keep the ships in Brest as a constant Atlantic threat.

In his view, to do this indefinitely would be to invite disaster. The situation seemed quite plain; on one side there were the British with the increasingly destructive power of their bombing raids; but on the other side there was the menacing voice of the Führer. “You will remove the ships where I can employ them in the Norwegian theatre. Otherwise you will give me their guns and I will mount them in shore batteries. Make your choice, meine Herren.”

Was there an alternative to a break-out through the Channel? They could bring the ships north of Britain round by the Iceland route. But in their path in Scapa Flow lurked the might of the British battle fleet which was bound to intercept—and send them to join Bismarck at the bottom.

However, his intelligence reports revealed that the English appeared to have very little in the Channel.

His chief, Admiral Raeder, still did not like the plan. Like First Sea Lord Dudley Pound in the Admiralty in London he feared for his capital ships. If the ships were put out of action by the RAF or Royal Navy, it would be the virtual end of the German Navy as a force. Feeling that the ships would be too like sitting ducks on the narrow waters of the Channel, he told Wagner, “I cannot make this proposal to Hitler that we break through the Channel.”

Wagner argued the risk might have to be taken. He said, “If the ships are dismantled we will present the British with a bloodless victory. The German Navy will never hold up its head again. To concede victory to the enemy without a fight is to sentence the German Navy to death.”

Faced with these views, and the Führer’s fanatic insistence, Raeder began to give way a little—but he was still not convinced.

On 29 December, he had a stormy meeting with Hitler when the Führer persisted in his plan. When Raeder said that, after being in port for so long, his ships could hardly be expected to face the powerful British Home Fleet without some preparation, Hitler once again raved about “the uselessness of the battleships.” He refused even to allow the time for lengthy “shake-down” sea-going exercises and firing practice which Raeder wanted. For as he pointed out quite reasonably, they might easily be bombed and sunk while on these practices.

Raeder flew back to Berlin and passed the whole matter over to Naval Group West in Paris. Although the operation would be under the immediate command of Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax who commanded the Brest ships flying his flag in Scharnhorst, Naval Group West in Paris was responsible for all operational directions.

The Commander-in-Chief of Naval Group West was 59-year-old General-Admiral Alfred Saalwächter. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had an exceptional mind. Although smallish in height, he was regarded in the German Navy as riesengross— “gigantic in stature.”

A Prussian, born at Neusalz on the River Oder, he had been a submarine commander in the First World war, but although he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross in 1940, he was no friend of the Führer, with whom, like so many German admirals, he had had differences.

Between wars, Saalwächter had gone round naval ports inspecting establishments and training personnel. He wrote a standard book on naval warfare for the German Navy, Seekriegsanleitung, which became the textbook for all officers.

His headquarters—Naval Group West—were in the Avenue Maréchal Faijolle, near the Bois de Boulogne. It was a large, four-storied mansion of Napoleon III period. The only indications of its naval importance were two striped sentry boxes at the entrance, each with a German sailor in blouse and gaiters carrying a rifle.

Saalwächter had a staff consisting of about fifteen high-ranking naval officers, with several hundred petty officers and technicians. On the upper floors of the mansion were the “cabins” where the staff officers lived and took their meals. In the basement was a big garage with a fleet of staff cars. The drivers were civilians, mostly white Russians. Their leader, ironically enough, had been a Russian admiral in the First World war.

As there were few German troops in metropolitan Paris at that time Saalwächter’s staff led a strange isolated life. They worked so hard they often did not go out for days at a time but they always had seats at the Paris Opera House because their chief liked opera. The only time Saalwächter appeared relaxed was when he was stealing an evening from his headquarters at the Opera.

At the end of 1941 Admiral Otto Ciliax, commander of the Brest squadron, was away on Christmas leave in Germany. He was not due back until the New Year. Ciliax—a product of the German: Naval Academy at Flensburg—was a tall, brusque black-haired man. He was a former captain of the Scharnhorst and was not very popular. He was a notorious martinet and nick-named “The Black Czar.” When a staff officer saluted him and his hand did not travel to his brow with regulation agility, a frown would come on Ciliax’s face as he returned his salute. A little bit later he would send a petty officer over to him with a message, “The Admiral’s compliments, mein kapitän, but he would like to speak with you.” Ciliax would say angrily, “I just wanted to tell you I did not like your salute!” As the Germans put it, he was a “starker Mann!”

Another reason he was not popular was that he could not delegate authority. In Scharnhorst, he and his staff had an admiral’s bridge immediately above Captain Hoffmann’s navigational bridge, and he was several times snubbed for giving orders on the running of the ship literally over the captain’s head.

If Ciliax met an officer whom he did not like the Admiral made him miserable. He suffered from stomach trouble and was frequently in some pain, which may have played a part in his irascibility. But with all his rough mannerisms he had dignity.

His Chief of Staff, the calm 41-year-old, pipe-smoking Captain Hans Jürgen Reinicke, had heard about his reputation before he joined him—so he was prepared. He swallowed what Ciliax said to him in public but later sought him out privately and told him if things continued in this manner he would put in for a. transfer. He had no more trouble and Reinicke became one of the few officers who could handle him.

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