Tromsø Fjord, Occupied Norway November 12, 1944

On this date in Norway’s Tromsø Fjord the British Royal Air Force dropped three 13,000-pound “Tallboy” bombs to cap­size the German battle­ship Tirpitz, the Kriegs­marine’s ill-starred wan­nabe sur­face raider. Ever since Septem­ber 22, 1943, when a pair of Royal Navy mid­get sub­marines engineered a hair-raising day­light attack on this Bismarck-class battle­ship, the largest, once most power­ful war­ship in the world lay impotent at anchor awaiting her end on this November day.

Tirpitz had been in British cross­hairs long before she was com­mis­sioned into the German fleet in Febru­ary 1941. Since 1942 the 42,000-ton battle­ship rarely ven­tured from lairs deep inside Norwe­gian fjords where she took station. When she did slip out of her ice-clad for­tresses, her only success­ful ven­ture came in Septem­ber 1943 when, in con­cert with the German battle­ship Scharn­horst, Tirpitz used her eight 15‑in and twelve 5.9‑in gun bat­teries to bom­bard a British weather station on Norway’s Arctic island of Spits­bergen. Sadly for Tirpitz, the war­ship was score­less on the two occa­sions she assumed the mantle of sur­face com­merce raider inter­cepting Allied mer­chant con­voys to and from the Soviet Union. Count­less shore bat­teries and anti­aircraft guns and anti­tor­pedo nets at various anchor­ages in Norwe­gian fjords tended to pro­tect Tirpitz from the wrath of British air and naval forces. That said British midget sub­marine and air forays in 1943 and 1944 breached German defenses on five occa­sions with the intent to damage the “Lonely Queen of the North” until the RAF’s tri­umphal Novem­ber 1944 Oper­a­tion Catechism dispatched her to a watery grave.

With the demise of Tirpitz, the Kriegsmarine’s next-to-last remaining capital ship, Grand Adm. Erich Raeder’s grand folly, Plan Z, came to an expen­sive and inglo­ri­ous end. That plan envi­sioned sets of fast German sur­face com­merce raiders running amuck among the Allies’ Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific merchant­men. At the start of the Euro­pean con­flict in Septem­ber 1939, Germany’s enemy, Great Britain, needed about 55 mil­lion tons of over­seas imports per year—food, oil, cotton, wool, and other vital con­sumer and indus­trial pro­ducts—to sus­tain the fight. Raeder’s goal was to sink more ton­nage than Britain could endure or replace, thus forcing her surrender before the war poten­tially drew in new belligerents on Britain’s side.

Raeder focused primarily on his power­ful raider fleet of 10 expen­sive, “late-model” capital ships to cut Allied sea lanes—this to the detri­ment of his large under­water fleet of U-boats. In mate­rial and man­power costs alone, a Bismarck-class war­ship cost 10 times the cost of one U-boat. Leading Raeder’s armada were the new battle­ships, the heavily armed and armored Bismarck and Tirpitz, followed by battle­cruisers (actually battle­ships) Scharn­horst and Gneise­nau, “pocket battle­ships” Deutsch­land (renamed Luetzow in 1940), Admiral Graf Spee, and Admiral Scheer, and the Admiral Hipper-class cruisers, Hipper, Blucher, and Prinz Eugen.

As the war expanded in 1942 with America’s entrance, the Allies employed crypt­anal­y­sis and intro­duced avi­a­tion and marit­ime tech­no­logical advances to com­bat sur­face and under­water enemy fleets; e.g., long-range patrol air­craft and radar and sonar. Raeder’s suc­ces­sor, Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz, was grad­ually con­fronted with mounting fleet losses even as the Royal Navy’s capital ship assets were stretched to the breaking point pro­tecting Allied shipping from the poten­tial menace of German surface raiders. Total ton­nage sunk by the Adm. Raeder’s sur­face raiders was just short of 800,000, a pit­tance com­pared to the 14.1 mil­lion tons (2,779 ships) Doenitz’s U-boats sent to the ocean bottom in all theaters of the war.

Taking Out the Tirpitz

"Tirpitz" anchored near Narvik, Northern Norway, 1943–1944"Tirpitz" under attack on April 1, 1944, during Operation Tungsten

Left: Tirpitz anchored in Bogen Bay near Narvik, Northern Norway, 1943–1944. The battle­ship is protected by anti­torpedo nets, a defense against British torpedo bombers and miniature submarines. Artil­lery bat­teries and anti­air­craft guns dotted harbors and mountain­sides at multi­ple Norwe­gian anchor­ages to provide addi­tional defenses against British two-and four-engine bombers and carrier aircraft.

Right: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was obsessed with taking out Tirpitz (“the Beast” as he called the battle­ship) owing to the costs of keeping Britain’s guard up in the seas west and north of German-occupied Norway. “The greatest single act to restore the balance of naval power would be the destruc­tion or even crippling of the Tirpitz,” Churchill wrote. “No other target is com­par­able to it.” On April 3, 1944, the Royal Navy put a second down pay­ment on Tirpitz’s fatal demise later in the year when carrier air­craft dropped heavy and medium-sized bombs on the battle­ship at her anchor­age in Alten Fjord (Oper­a­tion Tung­sten) in Northern Norway (shown here), the first of five bombing raids that ended with RAF Bomber Command sinking the Tirpitz on Novem­ber 12, 1944. The April 3 Navy raid killed over 100 crew­members and wounded 300 or more but only damaged the battle­ship’s super­structure. No bombs pierced her armored deck. An attack on Tirpitz the pre­vious Septem­ber by two, possi­bly three British mid­get sub­marines (X‑craft) had rendered the battleship unfit for combat—forever it turned out.

X-craft Operation Source, September 22, 1943"Tirpitz" capsized Operation Catechism

Left: A prototype X-craft churns along during sea trials prior to Oper­a­tion Source, the Royal Navy’s Septem­ber 22, 1943, attempt to cripple or sink the Tirpitz in its berth in Kaa­fjord, Northern Norway. Six of these 51‑ft, 30‑ton, four-man midget sub­marines were spe­cif­i­cally designed to attack naval targets in strongly defended anchor­ages. In lieu of torpe­does each midget sub was fitted with two crescent-shaped detach­able explo­sive charges attached to either side of its pres­sure hull. These mines, each con­taining two tons of Ama­tex explo­sive, were to be planted in the sea­bed directly under the Tirpitz, then deto­nated with a vari­able time fuse. Three out of six X‑craft reached their target. Explo­sions under­neath the Tirpitz tossed the war­ship’s four main turrets from their roller-bearing mountings, gashed and distorted her hull, rendered all three engines inoper­able, and put the port rudder and all three pro­pel­ler shafts out of order. Out of action for at least six months Tirpitz was sunk in Tromsø Fjord on Novem­ber 12, 1944, by a British force of 32 Lan­caster bombers. Approx­i­mately 200 sea­men sur­vived, while between 950 and 1,204 perished.

Right: Tirpitz lying capsized in Tromsø Fjord attended by a sal­vage vessel. The towering battle­ship, already damaged in five raids, was finally sunk in Oper­a­tion Cate­chism, a day­light raid by two RAF squa­drons of four-engine Lan­caster bombers on Novem­ber 12, 1944. Flying through the battle­ship’s 15-inch can­non and anti-aircraft fire, the Lancs managed to drop their Tall­boy bombs, some scoring hits, others near misses. A deck fire caused the maga­zine for the “Caesar” (stern) turret to explode, and the great ship, already destab­i­lized by direct hits and close calls, slowly heeled over on her port side and capsized. Of Adm. Raeder’s 10 capital war­ships in early World War II, only the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sur­vived the con­flict. Trans­ferred to the U.S. Navy as a war prize, the war­ship ended up in the Pacific, serving as fodder for two atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. On Decem­ber 22, 1946, Prinz Eugen capsized and sank in the Kwajalein Atoll.

Well-Done Documentary on the Career of Tirpitz, 1936–1944

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