The “Channel Dash”


Those of you who have read From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps know that on page 433 is an illustration drawn by Odd Nansen, a birthday card for his close friend, Erik Magelssen.

As Nansen explained in the diary, in order to stay in the same work squad (kommando) with Odd Nansen and their mutual friend, Frode Rinnan, Magelssen passed himself off as having expertise as a “wood-gas generator” although he had absolutely no experience in the field.

Magelssen, one of Nansen’s five friends who helped him to smuggle his diary out of Sachsenhausen in their breadboards, is depicted in the sketch with over-sized gloves.  Nansen’s caption reads in part: “Director Erik Magelssen in full canonicals—wood-gas generator expert and ‘director’ of fuel production…. Those gloves of his we called the pocket-battleships ‘Gneisenau’ and ‘Scharnhorst.’”

Both Nansen and Magelssen, indeed all the of the Norwegians, were well aware of both German battleships, as both the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst participated in Operation Weserůbung, the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.  Thereafter, they engaged in successful commerce raiding, destroying or capturing 22 ships (January—March 1941), before returning to port in Brest, France.

Seventy-six years ago today (February 11, 1942), both ships, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, participated in the “Channel Dash.” More formally known as Operation Cerberus (after the three-headed dog of ancient mythology), the two battleships and the cruiser boldly sortied from Brest and sailed up through the English Channel to German ports—all under the noses of the British Navy, which was tasked with keeping a close eye on their activity.

The Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst had been ordered back to German waters by Adolf Hitler, to counter a possible British invasion of Norway, which, as I explain in From Day to Day, haunted Hitler’s fevered dreams for the entirety of the war.  Arriving in Kiel on February 13, to the intense embarrassment of the British Navy, both ships had nevertheless suffered serious damage along the way from British mines (the Scharnhorst was put out of action for a year)

As there was no invasion of Norway in 1942, or for the duration of the war, the move was later described as a “tactical success and a strategic failure,” inasmuch as the ships exchanged a successful role threatening trans-Atlantic Allied shipping in return for an invasion that never materialized.

The British soon exacted a measure of revenge for the embarrassment of the Channel Dash.  The Gneisenau was attacked in drydock during a bombing raid on the night of February 26-27, 1942, and so badly damaged when a bomb penetrated its forward ammunition magazine that it never sailed again for the remainder of the war.  The Scharnhorst returned to action in 1943, but was sunk by the British Navy in the Battle of the North Cape (December 26, 1943).

A photo of Magelssen’s bread board, still in the possession of the Nansen family, can be found in the photo gallery on page 559 of From Day to Day.

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