Review: Genombrottet – Operation Cerberus, 1942

The twin battlecruisers (or battleships) of the Scharnhorst-class are amongst the most fascinating warships built during the 20th century. The graceful lines hide the fact that the vessels were built with full battleship armour, and I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the vessels displacing over 30,000 tons were capable of reaching speeds above 30 knots. From an engineering viewpoint, they were simply astonishing, the very more so considering the limited experience of designing and building modern capital ships the German yards had when they were launched.

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Still, their operational service wasn’t quite as spectacular, most of the time being spent in port. It is telling that one of the more important episodes was the channel dash, in which the two vessels together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (famous for making the battleship Bismarck company on its sole major operation) sprinted from Brest through the English channel and back to Germany. The strategic retreat was a stunning success in the short term, but also effectively removed the threat from surface units to the allied transatlantic convoys.

When I first opened Genombrottet (Swedish for “Breakthrough”) the channel dash was not new to me. However, my understanding of Unternehmen Zerberus as it was known to the Germans, was limited to the handful of sentences usually dedicated to the operation in books covering the broader naval war or air operations over the channel. In short, I believed that the operation simply constituted of the German flotilla setting sail in broad daylight and sprinted through the channel without any major obstacle other than Royal Navy and the RAF, and as these failed to put up any serious resistance it wasn’t really all that complicated in the end.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had not realised that the navigation in itself was a major obstacle due to the strong tides and shifting sand banks. I also hadn’t quite grasped how substantial the mining of the area by both sides was. And lastly, I had no idea how well-informed the British forces were with regards to the German intentions.

Combined these factors means that the operation was a complex undertaking, with both sides sporting several moving pieces which the commanders tried to manage, more or less successfully. This provides for a fascinating story, where seemingly small issues have major effects on the outcome of the operation. If ever there was a textbook case regarding how frictions work in a military settings and why joint operations are hard to manage, it is Cerberus.

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Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF bombing the dry-docks at Brest, France, mere months before the breakthrough. Source: IWM via Wikimedia Commons

The account is gripping, and is being retold from numerous different angles. Some of these are based upon interviews made by the authors of surviving veterans, others are pieced together from numerous first- and second-hand sources. The book reads like a novel, with the real persons involved having dialogues and thinking the occasional non-plot related thought. Being able to follow the daring operation as its plays out, blow by blow, it is hard not to be caught up in the excitement, even as the general outcome is known to the reader. The fact that the moves and countermoves are described from their initiation also means that the reader gets an understanding of the significant work going into what eventually becomes a couple of minutes worth of actual combat in any of the skirmishes taking place along the route. This makes it possible to understand not only the ‘how’ of the operation, but also the ‘why’ behind the events that shaped it.

I am a bit torn about the narrative perspective. It certainly makes the book easy to read and enjoyable, even for those not familiar with naval warfare in the Second World War. However, I am a history nerd, and I do prefer a somewhat ‘drier’ style of storytelling, where solely the known record is laid out. Objectively, there is nothing wrong with the writing of Genombrottet, it is usually possible to tell simply from the scenes where the line between fact and storytelling goes, and in the few unclear cases it is explained in the footnotes. Genombrottet is certainly non-fiction (as opposed to historical fiction), and I want to be clear that my main issue with it comes down to preferences of style rather than any fault of the book.

Schlachtschiff "Gneisenau"
Gneisenau showing the sleek lines of the class. Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, the book is highly recommended. Both writers have good knowledge of the subject, with Tamelander having written numerous books about WWII, including Bismarck about the battleship’s fateful journey, and Hård af Segerstad is an active duty naval officer. The duo has earlier produced a book about the german submarine force in WWII, Havets vargar.

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