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The sinking of Hitler’s battleship Tirpitz

‘Last night’s raid successful. Tirpitz sunk.’ On 13 November 1944, this announcement at No 5 Bomber Group’s staff conference signalled the end of four and a half years of air effort by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm.

The 52,000 tons armoured German battleship with 15 guns capable of 22.4 miles range and capable of 34 knots had been under attack since 10 July 1940. Almost 400 bombers, torpedo-bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft had been involved, independent of two audacious raids by Royal Navy charioteers and midget submariners. 

Dubbed ‘the beast’ by Winston Churchill, Tirpitz posed a major threat to allied shipping in the Atlantic and Artic convoys to the northern Soviet Union. He declared her destruction ‘of utmost importance’.

A Fairey Barracuda of 827 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm returns to HMS FURIOUS watched by other pilots who had returned after taking part in the operations.

In 1940-1, Hampden, Whitley and Wellington twin-engine bombers repeatedly attacked her in Wilhelsshafen dockyard and when she moved to Kiel for sea trials in the Baltic without inflicting serious damage. Fully operational, the warship sailed for Norway in January 1942.

Located near Trondheim, a raid by four-engine Stirlings and Halifaxes on 30 January proved ‘a fiasco due to the terrible weather’. In March, Tirpitz ventured north to threaten the Soviet-bound PQ 12 convoy, failed to locate it and, returning south, narrowly avoided being sunk by FAA Albacore torpedo-bombers off Narvik. Back at Trondheim, three more times Halifaxes and Lancasters tried with 4,000lb bombs and modified mines. Yet again, ‘thick cloud over the target and mist in the valleys’ frustrated accuracy.

In July 1942, the warship sailed north again and caused havoc. Warned that Tirpitz was at sea, naval escorts with Archangel-bound PQ17 convoy were withdrawn to intercept her, leaving enemy submarines and aircraft to feast on the unprotected merchantmen: only 11 of 35 survived.

With her anti-aircraft defences being strengthened at Narvik, proposals for a daylight raid from either Hofn in Iceland or Sumburgh in the Shetlands, for either Flying Fortresses or Lancasters to attack on the way to, or on the way back from, a Soviet base, were considered but shelved.

Churchill fretted in February 1943: ‘It is a terrible thing that this prize should be waiting and no one be able to think of a way of winning it’. During that year, Tirptiz anchored in Kaa Fjord in northern Norway, ideally poised to attack the Artic convoys or break into the Atlantic. A renewed plan for Flying Fortresses to bomb the battleship both to and from a Soviet base and use by Mosquitoes of a smaller version of Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb’, which shattered west German dams in May, failed to materialize. Midget submarines undoubtedly did the damage, but not disable, Tirpitz in September.

Photographic reconnaissance by Spitfires, decoding of German radio messages and reports from observers on the ground built up a picture of repair progress. In March 1944, Naval Intelligence believed the warship capable of at least 18 knots with ‘an operational sortie’ possible.

The FAA now planned a major arrack and exhaustive practices were carried out on the simulated target area in Scotland. On 3 April 1944, six carriers launched 41 Barracuda bombers, accompanied by Corsair, Hellcat, and Wildcat fighters to deal with flak positions on shore and hostile aircraft.

A British Lancaster bomber over Kaafjord, Norway during the Operation Paravane raid on the German Battleship Tirpitz. The smoke was intended to hide the battleship.

Tirpitz was caught manoeuvring out of her ‘protective cage’ for trials. The Admiralty claimed 8 certain hits (including three by 1,600 lb bombs), 5 ’probable’, and one damaging near miss. Undoubtedly, there were several hits, but no bomb penetrated the armoured deck. Three further attacks were baulked by poor weather and, in July, the enemy vessel was observed making 15-20 knots.

On 17 July another attack was launched from carriers by 44 Barracudas protected by Hellcats and Corsairs as Seafires patrolled the fleet and Swordfish guarded against submarine interference. This time a thick smokescreen prevented accurate bombing and ‘strike considered unsuccessful’. Another operation was, therefore, planned and practised. This time, Barracudas would be accompanied by Corsairs, Fireflies, Wildcats and Hellcats, Avengers drop mines close to the ship and across the entrance to the fjord. The fleet would be protected by 32 Seafires. Twice on 22 August 1944, the main attack was either aborted or canceled due to poor visibility. On each occasion, a small number of Hellcats and Fireflies hit flak positions and ineffectively dropped 500lb bombs on Tirpitz.

the wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered tirpitz can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the german battleship x

The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered Tirpitz can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.

On 24 August another major attack took place. 33 Barracudas, each carrying a 1,600 lb bomb, 24 Corsairs and 10 Hellcats with smaller bombs, plus 10 Fireflies took off for Kaa Fjord. Eight Seafires simultaneously attacked Banak airfield, as others patrolled over the fleet. One Barracuda observer wrote: ‘The pull out of the dive in the smoke with the mountains above … stuck in my memory. But thick smoke made accuracy difficult, two Hellcats and four Corsairs were lost, with many of the surviving aircraft extensively damaged. The Germans conceded that this was ‘undoubtedly the heaviest and most determined (attack) so far’: one 1,600 lb bomb did pierce the main deck without exploding.

The final, inconclusive FAA attack occurred on 29 August: twenty-six Barracudas (each with an AP 1,600 lb bomb), two Corsairs (1,000lb AP bomb each), and three Hellcats (a 500lb bomb) with 15 Corsairs and 10 Fireflies as escort. Post-operational analysis pointed to ‘quite unreliable’ weather forecasts, different conditions over the fleet and ashore, the slowness of Barracuda bombers and the advisability of using Mosquitoes, Hellcats, and Corsairs in future.

There was no naval encore, however. RAF Bomber Command now tried its luck. Lancaster bombers could carry the 12,000lb deep-penetration Tallboy bomb, effective either with a direct hit or landing beside a warship able to burrow beneath it before exploding. There was, too, the experimental JW mine, whose explosive charge would detonate on contact with a ship’s hull. If dropped a distance away, it would ‘hop’ or ‘walk’ across the sea bed until the target was detected. Two squadrons, nos. 9 and 617 (Dambuster), had precision-bombing experience.

The idea of using a Soviet base was revived. On the evening of 11 September, 18 9 Squadron (one forced to abort the operation) and 20 617 Squadron aircraft set off for Yagodnik airfield near Archangel in the northern USSR. A reconnaissance Mosquito would follow next day. Flying through the night across Norway, neutral Sweden and occupied Finland, the Lancasters encountered ‘isolated instances of ineffective flak’. After running into ‘considerable low cloud and rain … about 150 miles from Archangel’, map reading became ‘impossible’, and below was ‘the most desolate country imaginable – lakes, forests and swamps’. Most failed to pick up Soviet signals because they had the wrong frequency or call sign. At 0800 GMT (1100 LT) on 12 September, only 13 operational Lancasters were at Yagodnik. Others had put down in scattered locations, seven of which would be written off. Thirty-one bombers eventually reached Yagodnik, though on the morning of 14 September five were still unserviceable. So twenty Tallboy Lancasters and six each carrying 12 JW mines were set to attack Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord from an easterly direction. The Mosquito reported unfavourable weather in the target area, which allowed the Lancaster piloted by American Lt H C Knilans USAAF to be repaired and join the force when it eventually set out the following morning, 15 September. As he prepared to board, Fg Off J A Sanders was ‘somewhat alarmed’ to be advised by a sergeant armourer not to bring back his JW mines, ‘they are set to self-destruct after fifteen hours’.

At 1255 DBST, the leading Lancaster saw Tirpitz nestling under a cliff precisely as shown on the briefing model. The initial view was rapidly obscured by a thick smoke-screen and later crews ‘saw only about 1/3rd of the ship or the superstructure only’. Several made multiple runs from different directions to seek accuracy: ‘We hadn’t put (in) all this effort … just to kill a few Norwegian fish’, one navigator remarked. No aircraft was lost, but the wrecked Lancasters were left behind, their crews being distributed between returning aircraft. One, with 11 men on board, crashed with total loss in Norway.

Back in England, it became clear that one Tallboy had severely damaged the bows and the Germans decided to move Tirpitz south to Tromso as a floating battery to deter invasion. The RAF was unaware of her parlous state and Naval Intelligence still rated her a convoy threat. Crucially, at Tromso, Tirpitz was in direct return range from bases in Scotland.

From there, shortly after midnight on 29 October, 19 617 Squadron and 20 9 Squadron Lancasters, all carrying one Tallboy, took off. A 9 Squadron aircraft returned early and two more failed to reach the target, so 36 Lancasters gathered at the rendezvous lake after crossing the Norwegian coast to attack Tirpitz. Although visibility was fine on the approach, ‘considerable low cloud (appeared) in the target area with tops at about 6,000ft totally obscuring the target’ and no hit was achieved. As one flight engineer wrote, not having sunk the warship ‘after 13 hours boring flight did not make for happy thoughts’. On their return to base, crews were informed that they would be sent back ‘again and again’ until Tirpitz was sunk.

The German battleship Tirpitz’s deployment to Norway and target locations for surveys of modern forests near the Kåfjord in this study. a) Map of northern Germany and Scandinavia showing Wilhelmshaven (Germany), where the Tirpitz was commissioned on February 25, 1941, and the Norwegian fjords used by the Tirpitz as moorings from January 15, 1942 onwards. From September 9, 1943 to October 15, 1944 the battleship was moored in the Kåfjord close to Alta (as shown in Fig. 1b). b) Map of the Kåfjord close to Alta in northern Norway and the tree-ring sampling sites in this study. One of the Tirpitz’s moorings at the Kåfjord (as shown in Figs. 1d and 2 b) is marked with a cross. c) Photograph of the Tirpitz (with dazzle camouflage employed) moored in the Kåfjord (© John Asmussen). The sampled birch stand is visible in the background. d) Photograph of the Kåfjord, June 1944 (© Tirpitz Museum). The red script in the upper right is a note indicating the placement of German smoke batteries. During the 2016 and 2017 study field campaigns, we observed remnants of smoke-generating equipment at this location (Fig. 2c and d), which corresponds to our Pine1 sampling site.

So at midnight on 12 November, the Lancasters again prepared to leave the Moray Firth. Icy conditions prevented eight getting airborne, so 29 were to reprise the October attack. Approaching the Norwegian coast individually in darkness, ‘wonderful navigation’ allowed ‘a swarm of four-engine gnats’ to congregate at the rendezvous lake and in a ‘gin-clear sky’ make for Tirpitz. Anxious eyes scanned the horizon for fighters known to be 10 minutes flying time from the target, but none appeared. It later emerged that a communications hiatus had saved the RAF crews. A navigator reflected, ‘we were lucky to catch the enemy on a bad day’.

The terrain around the anchorage near Tromso was too flat for an effective smoke-screen and the attackers evaded flak from the warship and shore batteries: only one damaged aircraft sought refuge in Sweden, Two direct hits and one near miss accounted for Tirpitz. Churchill’s beast had at last been slain.

Looking down on the upturned hull, one aircrew member breathed: ‘Thank God for that. It’s the last time we’re going to come here. Looking at later reconnaissance photos, a staff officer remarked: ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ (so passes away earthly glory).

Resume

The Tirpitz was a German battleship used during World War II. The British made several efforts to sink Tirpitz and finally succeeded in late 1944.

  • Shipyard: Kriegsmarinewerft, Wilhelmshaven
  • Laid Down: November 2, 1936
  • Launched: April 1, 1939
  • Commissioned: February 25, 1941
  • Fate: Sunk on November 12, 1944

Specifications

  • Displacement: 42,900 tons
  • Length: 823 ft., 6 in.
  • Beam: 118 ft. 1 in.
  • Draft: 30 ft. 6 in.
  • Speed: 29 knots
  • Complement: 2,065 men

Guns

  • 8 × 15 in. SK C/34 (4 × 2)
  • 12 × 5.9 in. (6 × 2)
  • 16 × 4.1 in. SK C/33 (8 × 2)
  • 16 × 1.5 in. SK C/30 (8 × 2)
  • 12 × 0.79 in. FlaK 30 (12 × 1)

Construction

Laid down at Kriegsmarinewerft, Wilhelmshaven on November 2, 1936, Tirpitz was the second and final ship of the Bismarck-class of battleship. Initially given the contract name “G,” the ship was later named for famed German naval leader Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Christened by the late admiral’s daughter, Tirpitz was launched April 1, 1939. Work continued on the battleship through 1940. As World War II had begun, the ship’s completion was delayed by British air strikes on the Wilhelmshaven shipyards. Commissioned on February 25, 1941, Tirpitz departed for its sea trials in the Baltic.

Capable of 29 knots, Tirpitz‘s primary armament consisted of eight 15″ guns mounted in four dual turrets. These were supplemented by a secondary battery of twelve 5.9″ guns. In addition, it mounted a variety of light anti-aircraft guns, which were increased throughout the war. Protected by a main-belt of armor that was 13″ thick, Tirpitz‘s power was provided by three Brown, Boveri & Cie geared steam turbines capable of producing over 163,000 horsepower. Entering active service with the Kriegsmarine, Tirpitz conducted extensive training exercises in the Baltic.

In the Baltic

Assigned to Kiel, Tirpitz was in port when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Putting to sea, it became the flagship of Admiral Otto Ciliax’s Baltic Fleet. Cruising off the Aland Islands with the heavy cruiser, four light cruisers, and several destroyers, Ciliax endeavored to prevent a breakout of the Soviet fleet from Leningrad. When the fleet disbanded in late September, Tirpitz resumed training activities. In November, Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, ordered the battleship to Norway so that it could strike at Allied convoys.

Arriving in Norway

After a brief overhaul, Tirpitz sailed north on January 14, 1942, under the command of Captain Karl Topp. Arriving at Trondheim, the battleship soon moved to a safe anchorage at nearby Fættenfjord. Here Tirpitz was anchored next to a cliff to aid in protecting it from air strikes. In addition, extensive anti-aircraft defenses were constructed, as well as torpedo nets and protective booms. Though efforts were made to camouflage the ship, the British were aware of its presence through decrypted Enigma radio intercepts. Having established a base in Norway, Tirpitz‘s operations were limited due to fuel shortages.

Though Bismarck had some success in the Atlantic against HMS Hood prior to its loss in 1941, Adolf Hitler refused to allow Tirpitz to conduct a similar sortie as he did not wish to lose the battleship. By remaining operational, it served as a “fleet in being” and tied down British naval resources. As a result, ​Tirpitz‘s missions were largely limited to the North Sea and Norwegian waters. Initial operations against Allied convoys were canceled when Tirpitz‘s supporting destroyers were withdrawn. Putting to sea on March 5, Tirpitz sought to attack Convoys QP-8 and PQ-12.

Convoy Actions

Missing the former, Tirpitz‘s spotter aircraft located the latter. Moving to intercept, Ciliax was initially unaware that the convoy was supported by elements of Admiral John Tovey’s Home Fleet. Turning for home, Tirpitz was unsuccessfully attacked by British carrier planes on March 9. In late June, Tirpitz and several German warships sortied as part of Operation Rösselsprung. Intended as an attack on Convoy PQ-17, the fleet turned back after receiving reports that they had been spotted. Returning to Norway, Tirpitz anchored in Altafjord.

After being shifted to Bogenfjord near Narvik, the battleship sailed for Fættenfjord where it began an extensive overhaul in October. Concerned over the threat posed by Tirpitz, the Royal Navy attempted to attack the ship with two Chariot human torpedoes in October 1942. This effort was disrupted by heavy seas. Completing its post-overhaul trials, Tirpitz returned to active duty with Captain Hans Meyer taking command on February 21, 1943. That September, Admiral Karl Doenitz, now leading the Kriegsmarine, ordered Tirpitz and other German ships to attack the small Allied base at Spitsbergen.

Relentless British Attacks

Attacking on September 8, Tirpitz, in its only offensive action, provided naval gunfire support to German forces going ashore. Destroying the base, the Germans withdrew and returned to Norway. Eager to eliminate Tirpitz, the Royal Navy initiated Operation Source later that month. This involved sending ten X-Craft midget submarines to Norway. The plan called for the X-Craft to penetrate the fjord and attach mines to the battleship’s hull. Moving forward on September 22, two X-Craft successfully completed their mission. The mines detonated and caused extensive damage to the ship and its machinery.

Though badly wounded, Tirpitz remained afloat and repairs commenced. These were completed on April 2, 1944, and sea trials were planned for the following day in Altafjord. Learning that Tirpitz was nearly operational, the Royal Navy launched Operation Tungsten on April 3. This saw eighty British carrier planes attack the battleship in two waves. Scoring fifteen bomb hits, the aircraft inflicted serious damage and widespread fires but failed to sink Tirpitz. Assessing the damage, Doenitz ordered the ship repaired though understood that, due to a lack of air cover, its usefulness would be limited. In an effort to finish the job, the Royal Navy planned several additional strikes through April and May but were prevented from flying due to poor weather.

Final Demise

By June 2, German repair parties had restored engine power and gunnery trials were possible at the end of the month. Returning on August 22, aircraft from British carriers launched two raids against Tirpitz but failed to score any hits. Two days later, a third strike managed two hits but inflicted little damage. As the Fleet Air Arm had been unsuccessful in eliminating Tirpitz, the mission was given to the Royal Air Force. Using Avro Lancaster heavy bombers carrying massive “Tallboy” bombs, No. 5 Group conducted Operation Paravane on September 15. Flying from forward bases in Russia, they succeeded in getting one hit on the battleship which severely damaged its bow as well as injured other equipment on board.

British bombers returned on October 29 but managed only near misses which damaged the ship’s port rudder. To protect Tirpitz, a sandbank was built around the ship to prevent capsizing, and torpedo nets were put in place. On November 12, Lancasters dropped 29 Tallboys on the anchorage, scoring two hits and several near misses. Those that missed destroyed the sandbank. While one Tallboy penetrated forward, it failed to explode. The other struck amidships and blew out part of the ship’s bottom and side. Listing severely, Tirpitz was soon rocked by a massive explosion as one of its magazines detonated. Rolling, the stricken ship capsized. In the attack, the crew suffered around 1,000 casualties. The wreck of Tirpitz remained in place for the remainder of the war and was later salvaged between 1948 and 1957.

Source: The History Press, Tirpitz History, BBC: Tirpitz

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