Most of the naval action of WWII took place in the vast spaces of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but there were also confrontations in smaller seas. One such encounter took place in February 1942 in the English Channel.
Shelter in Brest
In early 1941, the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were active in the Atlantic. There they attacked the convoys that were so vital to keeping Britain supplied during the war. The German’s activities were cut short when their supply ships were hit by Swordfish torpedo bombers flying from the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal.
In April, the two German vessels took shelter in the occupied French port of Brest. The following month, the German heavy cruiser Prince Eugen also took refuge there when it became separated from the Bismarck.
In the following months, there were repeated attacks by Allied bombers against the ships. Sitting in a port with access to the Atlantic, they were too much of a threat to convoys to be left alone. Despite determined efforts, they remained afloat.
A Dash Toward Safety
The three ships were effectively under siege which rendered them next to useless. It was a situation the Germans were about to remedy.
One of the reasons for moving the ships from Brest was the desire to free them from the unrelenting bombardment. They had undergone repairs and were ready for action which was undoubtedly a factor. So too was Hitler’s perception of the war. He suspected the Allies were about to invade Norway, to reverse their defeat there earlier in the war. He wanted his battlecruisers on hand to stop that invasion.
By the beginning of February 1942, the ships were ready to leave. Thirteen motor torpedo boats and five destroyers were assembled to accompany them. Air cover was arranged to fend off Allied bombers during the journey.
They were about to make a dash for Kiel in Germany further north; up the English Channel.
Intelligence Behind the Scenes
Meanwhile, in Britain, evidence was piling up of the Germans’ plans.
From the start of the war, the Royal Navy had had the most effective intelligence gathering and analysis of any British forces, perhaps of any nation in the war. This apparatus collated a range of information on the ships at Brest. Intercepted signals, photo reconnaissance, and information from agents in occupied Europe all pointed to the fact that the ships were ready to leave. Bombing raids had failed to put them permanently out of action.