The Tirpitz was a sister-ship to the Bismarck and was seen as one of the most modern battleships in World War Two. Ironically, the Tirpitz had an inglorious career as she never saw any action against either a convoy or a naval battle group. The Tirpitz spent her war time effort moving from one Norwegian fjord to another and was to end her days in one such fjord in the north of the country. Launched on April 1st, 1939, by the daughter of Admiral Tirpitz, the Tirpitz was nicknamed the ‘Lone Queen of the North’, but like the Bismarck, she ended her days in ignominy.
The launch of the Tirpitz
The Tirpitz had, on paper, awesome fighting statistics. She displaced 42,900 tons and had an overall length of 792 feet. Her maximum speed was 30 knots and she had a range of 9,000 miles at 19 knots. At its maximum, the ship’s armour was 12.5 inches and she was armed with 8 x 15 inch guns, 12 x 5.9 inch guns, 16 x 4 inch AA guns, 16 x 37mm AA guns, 58 x 20mm AA guns, 8 x 21 torpedo tubes and six aircraft. Her crew numbered 2,400. By any standards, the Tirpitz would have been a major threat to either the Russian convoys or the Atlantic convoys.
As a result of the experience the Royal Navy had with the Bismarck in May 1941, it was ordered by the Admiralty that any attack against a similar ship such as the Tirpitz, would include at least two King George V type battleships and an aircraft carrier. The Tirpitz had been completed by March 1941 and started trials in the Baltic Sea. The Admiralty were very concerned at the prospect of two ships such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz being at large in the Atlantic. The sinking of the Bismarck took away one ship from the equation andHitler effectively took away the Tirpitz as he believed that the Tirpitz should be used the guard the coast ofNorway as he believed that any invasion of Europe would come via Norway. Therefore on the night of January 14th/15th, 1942, the Tirpitz left for Trondheim – going via the Kiel Canal so that the Swedish Coast Guard would not spot her. The move of the Tirpitz provoked The RAF into a whole series of attacks against her – all failures. Churchill himself realised the danger the Tirpitz created for the Atlantic and Artic convoys.
|The destruction, or even the crippling, of this ship is the greatest event at sea at the present time. No other target is comparable to it. The entire naval situation throughout the world would be altered.”Winston Churchill|
In fact, the Tirpitz was scheduled to attack the Artic convoys as the Germans had, by the Spring of 1942, realised their importance to the Russian war effort.
On March 5th, the Tirpitz left Trondheim with an escort of three destroyers. They were quickly spotted by a British submarine and the information was relayed back to Admiral Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow. Tovey had already pre-empted the Tirpitz leaving port and had sent to sea a formidable force – the battleships King George V and Duke of York, the heavy battle-cruiser Renown, the aircraft-carrier Victorious, one heavy cruiser and twelve destroyers.
On March 7th, the weather was so bad that both sides found it impossible to make any form of reconnaissance and both fleets sailed a mere 90 miles from one another – near enough for the Albacores carried on the Victorious to have made an attack – the same type of attack that had happened to theBismarck. Vice-Admiral Ciliax, in charge of the Tirpitz, also passed within a few miles of the convoys PQ-12 and QP-8 – but again the weather saved them.
On March 9th, the weather was good enough for the Albacores on Victorious to be used. However, their attacks were a failure because the speed that the Tirpitz could muster meant that the torpedoes fired were easily dodged. However, in one sense, the attacks by the Albacores had one major impact. By the time the Tirpitz had returned to Trondheim, both Hitler and Raeder had convinced themselves that the ship was vulnerable to attack. Hitler therefore ordered that the Tirpitz would not be used against convoys unless it had Luftwaffe support and a full knowledge as to what strength it was going to face at sea. Such provisos seriously cramped what the Tirpitz could do. However, its first venture had also failed to achieve a huge amount in material terms – and it had used up 8000 tons of fuel for no returns. Fuel was the last thing the Germans could waste.
The British remained very concerned about what the Tirpitz was planning to do. They had no idea of Hitler’s orders and they still feared that the ship might slip into the Atlantic. Therefore, the only port on the west coast of France that could take in the Tirpitz (the ‘Normandie’ dry dock at St Nazaire) was taken out of action in a daring raid. Now, if the Tirpitz got into the Atlantic, she would have to return to a German port for repairs.
The RAF played its part in trying to destroy the Tirpitz. In April 1942 three attacks by RAF bombers took place but each was ineffective as bad weather and a successful smoke screen clouded the target.
In the summer of 1942, the Admiralty had got enough fuel for the Tirpitz to go to sea again – targeting Artic convoys. This was to have a tragic impact on Convoy PQ-17. As this convoy headed for Russia, the Admiralty received intelligence that the Tirpitz, along with the Hipper and Admiral Scheer were no longer at their bases. The Home Fleet was many miles from the convoy which was protected by cruisers and destroyers. These ships would have been no match for the German ships and First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound ordered that the warships should turn west away from Russia and that the merchant ships should scatter. They became easy targets for the U-boats that were in the area and 23 merchant ships out of 33 never made it to Russia. Ironically, the three German naval ships – Tirpitz, Hipper and Admiral Scheer – had been ordered back to port and played no part in the attack on the merchant ships.
As bombing attacks had failed, the Royal Navy decided on new tactics. First, they tried to use ‘chariots’ – “human torpedoes”. This raid failed when the chariots being towed by a fishing boat hit a violent storm and were ripped free. They then used what were known as X-craft – mini-submarines that carried four men and which could place charges alongside its intended target. Of the six X-craft that started the journey to the Tirpitz (towed by a normal submarine) only one (X7) managed to lay its charges on the Tirpitz, though X6 had placed hers near the battleship. When the charges from X7 exploded, it is said that the Tirpitz was lifted six feet out of the water. The explosions did do a considerable amount of damage that was to keep the ship out of action for six months – turbines were damaged, the port rudder was twisted, two turrets were immobilised and radio and electrical equipment had been smashed. Later examination also showed that the hull frames had also been badly damaged. Both commanders of the X-craft (Cameron in X6 and Place in X7) were awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Tirpitz was ready for action again in the Spring of 1944 and once again she represented a real danger to Allied shipping. On April 2nd, a carrier-based plane attack was launched on the Tirpitz that was anchored in Altenfjord. The first strike had complete surprise and the ship was badly damaged. 122 crew were killed and 316 were injured. Major damage was only averted by the fact that a 1,600 lb bomb was dropped from a low altitude and failed to penetrate the armoured deck of the Tirpitz The attack disabled the Tirpitz for three months.
The Fleet Air Arm continued its attacks but the Tirpitz was invariably saved by bad weather. On August 22nd, 1944, in yet another raid, a 1,600 lb bomb did penetrate 8 decks but failed to explode. The Germans later found that it had only been half-filled with explosives rendering it redundant.
On September 15th, the Tirpitz was attacked by Lancaster bombers. One bomb hit her and peeled back her deck. She was now no longer seaworthy and it was decided to send the ship to be anchored off of Haakoy Island, three miles from Tromsö where she would operate as a floating fortress. On November 12th, 1944, the Tirpitz was attacked by 29 Lancaster’s – including some from 617 Dambuster Squadron. Flying at 14,000 feet, their new Mark XIV bombsight gave them an excellent target to aim at. ‘Blockbuster’ bombs ripped into the ship and a 100 feet hole was ripped open. Her magazines exploded and the Tirpitz rolled over trapping over 1000 men in her as she turned turtle. A few – 80 men – managed to get to the bottom of the hull where a hole was cut through it and the men escaped. Many others were not so lucky.
Though the career of the Tirpitz may have seemed a failure, she did succeed in tying up a great number of Home Fleet ships which had to be on a constant alert that she would not sail out into the Atlantic or harass the Artic convoys.