With America’s entry into the war, Hitler correctly surmised that Roosevelt and especially US Army Chief of Staff George C Marshall would advocate an invasion of Western Europe at the earliest possible time in order to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union, who was fighting the bulk of the Wehrmacht. German planners calculated that the Allies would need the shipping capacity and capability to support 100 divisions in France, in order to successfully invade, defeat a German counterattack, and liberate the country (They were spot on, that’s exactly what the Allies had in 1944). In early 1942, they estimated the Allied shipping support at 40 divisions (it was actually ten), so they weren’t too concerned about an invasion of France that year. However, their erroneous belief that the Allies had 40 divisions’ worth of shipping support was more than enough to liberate Norway. Norway hosted several greatly successful commando raids in 1941. Moreover, Hitler believed that Churchill would want to avenge his 1940 Norwegian fiasco, and would gladly acquiesce to the Americans’ demands of an invasion somewhere in Western Europe in 1942, provided the target was Norway.
To successfully defend Norway against an Allied invasion, the entire German surface navy would be required, otherwise much needed troops from the Eastern Front or U boats from the Med and the Atlantic would have to be transferred to Scandinavia. The major capital ships of the German Navy were currently a fleet-in-being, the majority in Brest, France. This was an excellent location for threatening the vital shipping lanes from America to Britain, but not for patrolling the North and Norwegian Seas. Hitler ordered these ships, the big modern battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the modern heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, to sail home.
There were two ways to get back to Germany from their French Atlantic base: they could either sail around the British Isles, and do a “reverse breakout” through one of the Greenland-Iceland-Faeroe-Scotland gaps, or sail right up the English Channel. The first would put them close to the Royal Navy’s main anchorage at Scapa Flow Scotland, and well outside the range of any Luftwaffe support. Admiral Raeder, the Kriegsmarine’s top surface commander, chose the direct and bold option.
The British expected this. They had Ultra intelligence confirming it, just not the time and date. Furthermore, as the Germans knew, the Channel option just made more sense. The Home Fleet at Scapa Flow would welcome a showdown in the North Atlantic, and they had to stay there anyway to defend against a possible breakout by the Tirpitz (another Bismarck-esque breakout was still Britain’s top concern). What small ships could be spared, the Royal Air Force, and especially the RAF Coastal Command would have to stop any German dash up the English Channel.
Raeder was keenly aware of the Japanese destruction from the air of the Prince of Wales and Repulse two months earlier, and demanded and received priority Luftwaffe support for the entire trip to mitigate any RAF interference. Furthermore, the German squadron would be escorted by six big Z class destroyers, which were meant for fighting, not escorting convoys, so consequently were twice the size as any comparable British destroyer in home waters. They were also escorted by a dozen E-boats, which had the same advantages over British motor torpedo boats as the German destroyers did over their counterparts. The only advantage the British did have was reconnaissance, in particular radar.
But the British Coastal Command, responsible for reconnaissance and surveillance of the British home waters, was the red headed step child of the Royal Air Force. The RAF believed that to win the war against Germany they had to be bombed into submission with heavy bombers. The next priority was fighter defense. Far and away in priority was Coastal Command reconnaissance aircraft. And even further was Coastal Command and Fleet Air Arm maritime strike aircraft. Despite the German squadron never being more than 200 miles from Piccadilly Circus in London, and never traveling higher than their top speed of 30 knots, the British had precious little to stop the two day operation from succeeding. And what they did have was misused.
The British couldn’t keep their squadrons on full alert all the time, so they concentrated the alert times based on the reasonable assumption that the Germans would try to force the most dangerous part of the trip, the 20 mile narrows between Dover-Calais, during a period of darkness and at high tide. They adjusted their limited patrol schedules based on where they expected the Germans to be based on that information. For example, this meant that the Germans should depart Brest at noon for a 0200 push through the narrows. They were could not have been more wrong.
The Germans thought it more important to depart under the cover of darkness lest the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow sail and engage them in the North Sea. The Germans believed that the Home Fleet had more than enough time to intercept them and be back in position to intercept the Tirpitz (They greatly overestimated the Royal Navy’s agility). The Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Prinz Eugen and escorts departed Brest at 2245 on 11 February 1942. They passed out of the estuary to the sounds of ineffectual RAF bombing of the very docks they had recently occupied. If all went to plan, the German warships would sail past the White Cliffs of Dover at noon in broad daylight.
Coastal Command still had a chance to pick them up in the Atlantic and Western English Channel by long range Hudson recon aircraft with airborne radar. But British engineering is just good enough in the best of times (as any Land Rover owner will tell you), and the past 20 years were not the best of times for Coastal Command. Of the two Hudsons that could have spotted the squadron that night, both had malfunctioning radar. Fighter Command spotted them twice during early morning fighter sweeps off the Normandy Coast, but the pilots had misidentified the ships and reported them as destroyers escorting local cargo ships. The British only positively identified the frankly unbelieving and astonished Germans when a veteran British fighter pilot recognized the big 11 inch guns on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at 1042 in the morning about 15 miles southwest of Calais, nearly 13 hours into their audacious journey.
The report then had to move through the stovepiped reporting mechanisms of the RAF and the Admiralty: all the way up through Fighter Command then down through the Admiralty and Coastal Command before anything could be done about the German ships seemingly strolling by as they were watched by observers on the beaches. The Germans passed through the straits at precisely noon, easily dodging artillery fire by British shore batteries along the way. British motor torpedo boats attacked at 1219, an hour and 23 minutes after they were first spotted, and were easily brushed away by the E-Boats. The initial airstrike on the ships was executed by just 12 antiquated Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers at 1239, from an airfield just minutes away. They were almost all shot down by the Luftwaffe covering force. By the time the Coastal Command’s six old and slow destroyers got into the fight, the RAF was throwing everything they had at the German squadron. But the former Lend Lease “four stacker” First World War vintage destroyers were easy targets for the Germans ships, – those that survived the battlecrusiers’ big guns met the Prinz Eugen’s batteries, and then the Z Class destroyers’, all of whom out ranged them. Those that survived courageously charged in to launch their torpedoes while dealing with the E boats’ own spreads. The German squadron didn’t even slow down.
Nearly 800 RAF aircraft attacked the Germans as they traversed the North Sea for the rest of the day, and most couldn’t find the fast moving ships. Those that did, did no damage: the heavy bombers had a bad track record of actually hitting inside city limits on the continent, much less a ship at sea. The fighters didn’t have the ordinance to do more than irritate the ships’ crews, and the Luftwaffe fought off the rest. The only bright spots for the British happened when both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau struck mines, which slowed but did not stop them. That night, all of the dashing ships were safely inside German harbors.
It was the most embarrassing action for Great Britain in its own home waters since the Dutch Admiral DeRuyter sailed up the Medway in 1667 and burned the British fleet at anchor. This was doubly so fresh on the heels of the disaster off of Malaya when the Japanese had no trouble sinking two British battleships with less aircraft, less reconnaissance, and on the open sea. The Germans sailed under the nose of the British for nearly two straight days and got away clean. As one author put it,