Friday, February 12, 2010

Operation Cerebus --Feb. 12, 1942

The Bismarck is probably the best-known German warship of World War II, but I think a case can be made that the most storied career was experienced by the Battlecruiser Scharnhorst, usually in company with its sister ship, Gneisenau.
The Scharnhorst has an amazing run as an Atlantic raider, carrier killer and dueler with battleships. One of its most dramatic escapades was the "Channel Dash" or Operation Cerebus. Starting late on Feb. 11 and completed by Feb. 13, the key day for the operation was Feb. 12, 1942. The length of the voyage meant that the German ships would have to endure at least one day's daylight hours within close range of British airpower. The audacity of the German move served them well, however, and the British were unable to effectively mobilize against the German task force, which comprised the two battlecruisers, the heavy cruiser Pinz Eugen, a half dozen destroyers, 14 torpedo boats (small destroyers) and 26 S-boats (PT boats).
The Scharnhorst miniature from Axis & Allies War at Sea.
Despite its fame, Operation Cerebus isn't featured in many wargames, but it is a scenario in the new Atlantic Navies game from Clash of Arms, vol. VII in its Command at Sea series. The tactical scenario depicts the torpedo attack by five British destroyers from the Harwich force. The historical result was a defeat for the British, as they achieved no hits and ad one destroyer very badly damaged. Given the disparity in force, the British seem to have done well.
Good fortune smiled on the Germans for the most part, although the Scharnhorst was damaged by a mine. Overall the episode was a humiliating defeat for the British and a propaganda coup for the Germans, but in the grand scheme of things it didn't have a big impact. It may have even simplified the strategic situation for the British by removing the threat of a sortie from Brest into the shipping lanes.

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