Friesland wartime history     by Willem de Jong    <   page 28  > 

Texel & Den Helder




Leeuwarden Airfield


Harlingen & Harderwijk

Occupied Harlingen

German Radar




St. Jacobparochie

Rottum Island

12 Squadron Losses
Runnymede Memorial

Deanweb - the Forest of Dean Directory


Find and Destroy the Scharnhorst!



Operation Donnerkeil - The Luftwaffe's Support


In December 1941 the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (High Command of the Air Force) was ordered to formulate an air superiority plan for the protection of three German capital ships to escape from France to Germany through the English Channel. General der Jagdflieger (General of the Fighter Force) Adolf Galland prepared the aerial assets for the operation. Both Cerberus and its supporting operation, Donnerkeil, were launched on 11 February 1942. During the first phase of the operation the Germans achieved surprise. The German ships reached Germany on 13 February 1942, just two days after the start of Cerberus and Donnerkeil.



The OKL was not happy about supporting Cerberus. Jeschonnek remarked to Galland that if Cerberus failed then the Luftwaffe would be made a scapegoat. Jeschnonnek was to be proved right. During the 12 January 1942 meeting, the Navy demanded maximum fighter cover be given and won Hitler's support. Should anything go wrong, the Navy would most likely blame the Luftwaffe for damage sustained by enemy air forces. During the meeting Jeschonnek stood his ground and refused to give any guarantees or to reinforce the Western Fighter Forces from other theatres. Galland was given executive power for the air operation which was given the code name Unternehmen Donnerkeil (Operation Thunderbolt). The existence of the operation was so secret that both Jeschonnek and Galland had to sign secrecy pledges as they left Hitler's Headquarters in East Prussia.

The details of the plan were worked out with Oberst (Colonel) Karl Koller, Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle's chief of staff, Luftflotte 3 (Air Fleet 3). To assemble sufficient strength some training units had to be mobilised (the bulk of the Jagdwaffe was in the Soviet Union owing to Operation Barbarossa).

The route was subdivided into three sectors based upon the existing Jafü (Fighter Sector) boundaries, but to ensure local control Max Ibel, former Geschwaderkommodore (Wing Commander) of Jagdgeschwader 27 (Fighter Wing 27) was appointed Jagdfliegerführer Schiff, shortened to Jafü Schiff (meaning Fighter Controller Ship) and embarked onto Scharnhorst as a signals officer in order to communicate with Luftwaffe units during the operation.

Eight dummy operations, involving around 450 sorties, were made from 22 January to 10 February to train for the mission. It is unclear whether the British were aware of these training missions.



To disrupt British radio transmissions, Wolfgang Martini's unit, the Funkhorchdienst (Radio Enlightening Service, or Signals intelligence) attempted to jam radio-telephone frequencies. They created a subtle jamming technique which increased atmospheric interference which degraded the performance of British coastal radars.

The performance of the radar was also down to the jamming of the sets (Ballstöranlage) by two Heinkel He 111s which had been flying off the south coast from their airfield near Paris. The flights ceased at 09:00 when installations along the French coast had taken over.  Ten Dornier Do 217s from III./KG 2 flew missions against Plymouth harbour and airfield, while 15 flew diversion missions to keep RAF fighters clear of the He 111s.

Joachim Coeler's Fliegerkorps IX prepared to strike at RAF bases in south-west England and to engage and slow down British naval forces that might attempt an interception. Fernaufklärungsgruppe 123 (strategic or long-range reconnaissance) was responsible for maintaining reconnaissance in the channel's east and west entrance and was to support Fliegerkorps IX.

To ensure constant air support, Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wings) and Nachtjagdgeschwader (Night Fighter Wings) in the shape of Nachtjagdgeschwader 1, were ordered to achieve a frantic pace in servicing and preparing aircraft for their next mission.

To keep a constant aerial vigil over the task force, the 'black men' (mechanics) had to complete rearming and refuelling in 30 minutes or less.

Galland insisted that the air units aircraft should be split between high and low altitude to provide sound cover. The low altitude groups would be able to evade detection by British coastal radar. Galland demanded an umbrella of at least 16 fighters over the ships at any one time along the whole length of the channel.

The fighter group would be split into two groups of eight aircraft for their respective patrol altitudes. Each formation was split into two Schwärme of four aircraft. The Schwärme tactics involved one formation flying to sea and one to land in a zigzag pattern. All Schwärme were ordered to fly back and fourth along the line of ships in wide figures of eight while maintaining radio silence.

Every sortie was meticulously timed to allow the fighters exactly 30 minutes over the ships, enough to maintain cover and allow the relieved units to refuel and rearm and return to start the cycle again. However, during Donnerkeil, the relieving sortie would arrive after only 20 minutes which meant the actual fighter cover for half the dash would be 32 fighters.


During the fast identification of aircraft needed in this battle, the silhouettes of the RAF Hampdens were very similar to their own Messerschmitt Bf-110 fighters. So it happened that they were shooting sometimes at their own protectors above the fleet. Even other types of planes of the Luftwaffe received from time to time 'friendly fire', such as Junkers Ju-88D-5, Werknr.1691 (coded F6 + IL), of unit 3.(F) / 122 Aufklärungsgruppe ( reconnaissance-group) - from Flgh. Amsterdam - Schiphol, which crash-landed on Schouwen island (Zeeland), near Kerkwerve village (NE off Zierikzee) about 18.00 hrs on February 12th after it was badly hit by German FLAK. The pilot, Uffz. H. Clausz, and his 3 crewmates were seriously injured (burns and fractures etc.) and taken to hospital.


The Luftwaffe contributed five wings to the operation.

Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Wing 1 or JG 1), Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG 2), Jagdgeschwader 26 (JG 26) were equipped with day fighter aircraft, mostly the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190. JG 2 and JG 26 operated the Fw 190, while JG 1 operated the Bf 109.

Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 was also pressed into the air superiority role. Its Messerschmitt Bf 110s operated in much smaller numbers. Kampfgeschwader 2 operated in a support role, mainly maritime interdiction and air raids on enemy airfields in southern England to distract the RAF from the Channel’s airspace.

The Germans, in total, had a combined strength of 252 fighters, 30 heavy fighters and 32 bombers.

JG 1 and JG 2 operated the Bf 109, while JG 26 maintained a "monopoly" on the Fw 190.

At around 12:16 GMT, the first naval actions began between escorting Schnellboots and British Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) and the British were now alerted. Galland ordered all low flying to cease and allowed Max Ibel and his team aboard Scharnhorst to break radio silence. Ibel then began directing Fw 190 and Bf 109s toward RAF units heading to the area. As luck would have it, as the first outnumbered British units entered the airspace over the ships, the German vessels were now at their closest point to German airfields. It allowed the Luftwaffe to offer maximum protection.


Adolf Galland, the son of an estate manager, was born in Westerholt, Germany, on 19th March, 1911. As a young man he learnt to fly gliders and as soon as he was old enough he joined the Luftwaffe.

In October 1934 he was commissioned as a lieutenant and led a squadron during the Spanish Civil War. In the Asturias campaign in September 1937, he experimented with new bombing tactics. This became known as carpet bombing (dropping all bombs on the enemy from every aircraft at one time for maximum damage). He also took part in the bombing of Guernica on 26th April, 1937. Between May 1937 and July 1938 he carried out 280 combat missions in Spain.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he was placed in charge of a ground support unit and during the blitzkrieg in Poland he won the Iron Cross and was promoted to captain.

Flying a Messerschmitt Bf109 he obtained his first three kills on 12th May, 1940. This was followed by ten more during the Western Offensive. During the Battle of Britain he was Germany's highest scoring pilots with 57 victories. On the death of Oberst Moelders on 22nd November 1941, Galland succeeded him as General of the Fighter Arm.

On 19th November 1942 Galland became Germany's youngest general. He also commanded the German fighters that opposed the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943.

In 1943 Galland began to argue that the Luftwaffe needed to change to a more defensive strategy. Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering disagreed and after a series of arguments Galland was sacked as General of the Fighter Arm in December 1944.

Galland returned to front-line duty and now flying the Messerschmitt Me 262 shot down two more Allied aircraft on 26th April 1945 bringing his score to 103.

At the end of the war Galland was captured and spent two years as a prisoner of war. After his release he became a military adviser in Argentina (1947-55) and published his autobiography, The First and Last (1954).

Galland returned to Germany in 1955 and was employed as a aerospace consultant, airline president and business executive. Adolf Galland died on 9th March, 1996.            John Simkin


see YouTube film


Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, acting as Squadron Leader, No. 825 Squadron Fleet Air Arm took off with his Fairey Swordfish formation at 12:25 to attack the ships. No. 411 and 64 Squadron were to escort the FAA but arrived over Manston 15 minutes late and missed the rendezvous. The only unit to keep to mission orders was Squadron Leader Brian Kingcome's No. 72 Squadron. Unaware of the Swordfish squadron's location, they ran into each other by fortunate accident. Owing to low cloud cover, they dropped to between 50 and 100 feet.

The heavy German fighter cover put an end to the protection the Spitfire's could provide as the RAF fighters now had to look after themselves. The Spitfires and Swordfish were engaged by Fw 190s of 8 staffel and 9 staffel./JG 26 led by Gruppenkommandeur (Group Commander) Gerhard Schöpfel of III./JG 26. The Fw 190s were just relieving fighters of JG 2.


'The Channel Dash' -Painting by Charles David Cobb in the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth


Frail and slow, the Swordfish forced German pilots to lower their undercarriages to prevent overshooting the biplanes. In the event all six Swordfish were shot down.

The Spitfires destroyed three Fw 190s in return. Several Swordfish managed to fire off their torpedoes but none found their mark. Lieutenant Commander Esmonde was shot down and killed by an Fw 190. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. Only five of the original eighteen Swordfish crew survived.


A Swordfish drops a torpedo


No. 41 Squadron RAF claimed three Bf 109s (most likely from JG 1) destroyed and one damaged off the Belgian coast. No. 72 Squadron claimed three Fw 190s destroyed and four damaged in the battles around 13:00.  410 Squadron claimed two Bf 109s destroyed and two damaged in the same dogfights.

Fighter Command lost 20 fighters, 14 pilots killed and three captured. Only eight of the RAF fighters were shot down by the Luftwaffe. A further eight were shot down by AAA fire, two collided and two were lost to unknown causes. Ten of the fighters were Spitfires, six were Hawker Hurricanes and four were Westland Whirlwinds.

During the air battles, mutual overclaiming took place, though the Luftwaffe was significantly worse. RAF Fighters claimed 16 Bf 109s destroyed and 13 damaged. Four Fw 190s were also claimed destroyed and six damaged.

Actual German losses amounted to 17 fighters, along with five Do 217s. Human casualties amounted to 23 killed. German fighter units claimed 60 RAF aircraft shot down, with JG 26 awarded seven kills and six probable victories. Actual British losses were 41, a number of which were lost to AAA fire. III./KG 2 had participated in raids against RAF airfields. The Luftwaffe had flown 300 fighter and 40 bomber missions during the 11—12 February.  

The German ships consumed very little ammunition, as the action had been carried out largely by the Luftwaffe. The stand down order had meant RAF Bomber Command's contribution to the proceedings came relatively late in the day. It dispatched a total of 73 bombers at between 13:55 and 14:50 (GMT). None of the attackers succeeded in hitting their targets.

At 14:35 nine Bristol Beauforts from No. 42 Squadron led by W.H Cliff took off. Arriving over Manston at 14:50 they found other aircraft from No. 407 RCAF orbiting. It took nearly 30 minutes to form a proper formation.

With several other squadrons they attacked the Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen at heights of between 60 and 100 feet but their torpedoes missed. No losses were suffered by No. 42 Squadron.

The Hudsons struck at between 400 and 900 feet. Two RCAF bombers were lost without success. No. 217 Squadron nearly achieved a hit on Gneisenau, but the ship turned away, just missing the salvo. Later, another wave of 134—137 bombers intercepted the ships between 16:00 and 17:05.

Only 20 crews managed to make attacks owing to poor training (Bomber Command crews were not trained to hit naval targets), a low cloud base (700 metres) and poor visibility (sea level visibility was between 1,000 and 2,000 yards). Nine bombers were lost.

Another formation of 35 Vickers Wellington aircraft attempted a strike between 17:50 and 18:15, losing two of their number.

The most notable raid in this action was by six Beauforts from No. 86, three from No. 217 and three from No. 22 Squadron. Wing Commander C. Flood, No. 86 Squadron led the attack in the only ASV-loaded aircraft. Locating the German ships in the darkness they attacked, but heavy AAA fire scattered the bombers and no successes were achieved.

Of the 242 RAF bombers that took part in the missions, it is likely only 39 conducted attacks, though it is possible that a further 16 carried out attacks, suggesting a total of 54 aircraft actually released their bombs against the ships. Of this total 15 of those were shot down.

RAF Fighter Command also threw in fighter-bombers to try and inflict damage, operating Hawker Hurricanes over the Dover area.

The only success the British managed to achieve was to damage both the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst (the later seriously).

Scharnhorst hit two mines, one at 14:31 GMT, and a further one at 21:34 GMT. Gneisenau also struck a mine at 18:55 GMT. Both ships recovered and steamed on. Scharnhost had been stopped dead in the water with engine damage after the first hit.

The failure to alert Bomber Command earlier meant a chance was missed to deliver an attack on Scharnhorst when it was most vulnerable. The second and third mine hits came after nightfall, which enabled both vessels to avoid further attacks. The last RAF sighting of the ships had occurred at 18:00 GMT. It is unclear exactly who was responsible for the damage on the German ships. It is possible that the mines were air-dropped by RAF Handley Page Hampden bombers. Should this be the case, the bombers achieved far more damage than the Royal Navy and the rest of the RAF combined.

Operation Donnerkeil had been an outstanding success for the Luftwaffe. The measure of success lay not in the ratio of losses, which amounted to 2:1 in the German favour, but the failure of the RAF, FAA and Royal Navy to intercept or at least inflict severe damage to the German warships. The meagre forces committed by the Navy had been repulsed easily by the German warships and their escorts. Heavy AAA fire had offered a helpful defence against air attack, but the German air defence had succeeded, along with poor weather, in breaking up RAF assaults on the ships. Galland, responsible for the plan, called it the high point of his career.

However, for the Kriegsmarine, Operation Cerberus had been operational success, but a strategic reverse. The present situation had forced them into an operation which was in effect, a strategic withdrawal from the Atlantic. From that point onwards, the German campaign in the Atlantic was to be carried by the U-Boats, unsupported by a surface fleet.

With the German ships removed from the French Atlantic ports, the British fleets could contain them much more effectively in Norway and the North Sea. Moreover, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been damaged by mines and required extensive repairs. Prinz Eugen was torpedoed and her stern collapsed just weeks after Cerberus. All three ships were out of action for extended periods. More bad luck followed, with Gneisenau being knocked out for good in February 1942 and the sinking of the Scharnhorst in December 1943. None of the ships sailed in the Atlantic again in the intervening period, leaving the Battle of the Atlantic to be carried on by U-Boat forces.


Sourced from WIKIPEDIA


See Willem's Notes of Luftwaffe Claims





Willem's Introduction


Ameland in war-time


Texel  & Den Helder 


Friesland War-time Crashes


Ameland,166 & 75 Sqdn.




Friesland Cemeteries


Ameland Graves


Destroy the Scharnhorst!


Leeuwarden area




Destroy the Scharnhorst! 2


Wirdum Remembers


Terschelling 2


Destroy the Scharnhorst! 3




Sage War Cemetery


12 Squadron in World War 2


Schiermonnikoog  part 2


RAF Topcliffe & 424 Sqdn.


The Runnymede Memorial




Vlieland Cemetery


Vuren at war


Kallenkote Cemetery




Makkum Cemetery


Wartime Harlingen


Hampden AE 428, & Koudum


A fatal collision?


RCAF 428 Ghost Squadron


Willem's War-time photos


Hudson & Ventura losses


Zwolle's ' De Groene ' group


Shipdham Airfield & the 44th


Hudson & Ventura losses


408 Squadron's Leipzig raid


68th Squadron's Casualties


101 Squadron


Friesland radar


Rottum Island


Lancasters DS776  & JA921


Bergen General Cemetery







back to 626 Squadron