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Run The Gauntlet: The Channel Dash 1942 Paperback – Feb 21 2012
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“This vivid account of a running battle that ultimately brought humiliation to the British provides a fine moment-by-moment survey and is a pick for any World War II holding.” ―James A. Cox, The Midwest Book Review (August 2012)
About the Author
Ken Ford was born in Hampshire in 1943. He trained as an engineer and spent almost 30 years in the telecommunications industry before a change in career led him to become a full time military historian. He is the author of over 20 books on various aspects of World War II. Ken now lives in Southampton.
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The author begins his narrative by discussing how the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, plus the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen came to be at the French port of Brest in late 1941 and British efforts to eliminate them with nightly raids by Bomber Command. Although the author mentions damage inflicted on the German ships, he does not mention that Bomber Command lost 127 bombers in these raids - equivalent to about 8 percent of all Bomber Command losses in 1941. However, the Germans realized that the warships would never be fully operational if they were always repairing bomb damage, so Hitler ordered them brought home, which led to the genesis of Operation Cerebus. The author does a good job highlighting Hitler's role in the planning, which goes against the usual grain that he was not interested in naval affairs.
However, the author's exposition of the planning prior to the Channel Dash is marred by excessive vagueness, particularly in regard to the Luftwaffe contribution to the operation. He mentions Oberst Adolf Galland, but Galland had actually just been appointed General der Jagdflieger. He mentions three German fighter "groups" (he confuses the British and German use of this term; there were actually three German jagdgeschwader, with a total of nine gruppen) but since he provides no order of battle for the operation, JG 1, 2 and 26 are only listed on one map. The map legend claims that all three JG were equipped with Fw-190A fighters, but only JG 26 had them in February 1942 - this is basic research! The author totally misses the fact that Galland's air superiority mission had a separate operational name - Donnerkeil - which he easily could have discovered by consulting the Wikipedia page on this subject. Indeed, the author's ignorance of easily available references on the Internet is astounding and seriously degrades his ability to offer fresh insight. Similarly, no real order of battle is provided for the Kriegsmarine forces involved in Cerebus, beyond the three main players and their six escort destroyers. The involvement of 14 torpedo boats, three flotillas of R-Boats and six minesweeping flotillas is not even mentioned. On page 24, the author erroneously describes a photo of two Type 1935 torpedo boats as "destroyers."
The Channel Dash itself is covered in 42 pages and the author's narrative is similar to the one that Potter presented in Fiasco. The British reconnaissance effort is depicted as half-hearted and incompetent, which allows the German battlefleet to sortie from Brest and nearly reach the Dover Straits before being detected. Although this author joins in with the commission held after the war in condemning the various `frictions' that contributed to this failure, I think the real failure was one of British imagination. The Royal Navy simply didn't think the Germans would try something as bold as simply steaming at high speed through the channel. I think the British also bought into their own mythology about no foreign navy transgressing the channel in centuries and therefore assigned totally inadequate forces to Operation Fuller, their response plan. The idea that a few motor torpedo boats, elderly destroyers and biplane torpedo bombers could stop a fleet this size was nonsensical from the start. During the narrative, the author tells us that the German ships were moving at high speed, but really doesn't get into details about how all the various escorts - numbering over 50 light craft - were deployed around the heavy ships. I did think it interesting that the German fleet sailed within 15 miles of Vice-Admiral Ramsay's headquarters in Dover Castle - it would have been funny if Admiral Ciliax had decided to fire a broadside at his opponent on the way by!
The author provides one 3-D map of the battle in the Straits of Dover and the detail - at least from the British side - is quite good. The destruction of 825 Squadron's torpedo bombers is particularly well-told. It is apparent that both Coastal Command and Fighter Command were caught with their pants down and their contribution to stopping the German heavy ships was minimal. Bomber Command did show up, but lost a total of 17 bombers for no hits. Ouch! Throughout the day, the Germans shrugged off each feeble British attack in turn and escaped unscathed. Indeed, it is amazing that the British succeeded in shadowing the Bismarck in the North Atlantic but failed to shadow the Brest squadron while off the coast of England. In the end, it was only the appearance of three British mines that damaged the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau that took some of the gloss off the successful German feat. The author fails to mention the results of the air battles over the channel, with 20 RAF fighters lost against 17 Luftwaffe fighters.
The author, Ken Ford, begins by setting up the strategic naval situation, basically that the German capital ships were trapped and they needed to escape as quickly as possible. This was for two reasons. One was that time was not on the German’s side as the longer they stayed trap in port the greater would be the odds of them being damaged by British bombers. In addition, were they to move back to German waters they could team up with other German capital vessels and pose a significant threat to both North Atlantic and Arctic Allied convoys.
Mr. Ford then goes on and describes the possible strategies the Germans could use to accomplish such a move, either breaking out into the Atlantic and going Eastward around the British Islands or taking the much shorter route through the English Channel. Each route posed its own challenges. Hitler chose the Channel route. The Kriegsmarine was much more cynical regarding success than Hitler but history was to prove Hitler correct, for many of the reasons he believed this was possible. The primary reason was that he thought the British would be to slow to react (which they were). Other reasons included the ability of the German air force to provide much needed air protection.
Mr. Ford also examines the British strategy which, unfortunately, was quite inflexible. The English assumed that the Germans would attempt to go through the Channel in the evening and made all their plans accordingly. The Germans did the opposite however, thus negating British tactical plans. In addition, the Germans were very lucky initially in that their submarine and air reconnaissance net did not catch the German fleet departure early on but only when the German fleet was well underway. As a result the British were not able to react in time. However, the predisposition of their forces and speed of reaction was quite slow and probably would not have worked even if the reconnaissance net had captured the movement early on. Hitler was right in this regard. Additionally, the forces that were available were below what was needed. There were only a handful of obsolete Swordfish torpedo aircraft and too few motor torpedo boats available for the task. Last but not least the British did not want to put their main capital ships at risk by sending them out to intercept the force. This was not a last moment decision but one made as part of the so-called “strategy” to stop the German fleet. This was despite the fact that there was a very good chance the German fleet would have been damaged before the British Capital vessels would have come into play. The British were too afraid of the danger of German aerial attack. Hence the British lost this battle, through poor planning and strategy, before it even began. Not that this decided the battle. German planning in terms of air cover, mine clearing and the provision of a screening force were also very important and should not be ignored in the success of this operation.
Nevertheless, the two German Battlecruisers did hit mines and were crippled for many months after the operation. Plus they were trapped in German ports instead of French, which Mr. Ford counts as a great victory. The successful German passage could not be counted as a loss for this reason, however. It was a considerable feat, not only in terms of a propaganda blow, but also in terms of the allied vessels and aircraft that these vessels tied down. Unfortunately Mr. Ford does not discuss this enough. However, the book is still a very good succinct introduction to the operation for those interested in getting quickly up to speed on it. The book is also well illustrated in terms of both maps and contemporary photographs of the vessels and aircraft taking part and their passage. Four stars.
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