This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
The end, when it finally came, was swift, spectacular and devastating. At 8.30am on a clear morning the alarm sounded on board Tirpitz as she lay in shallow waters near the remote north Norwegian town of Tromsø. Minutes later, black specks appeared in the sky to the south – Lancasters of 617 (Dambusters) Squadron and their comrades in 9 Squadron.
The storm of flak and the giant shells of the ship’s 15-inch guns that flew to meet the Lancasters were useless. Within minutes, a shower of Tallboy ‘earthquake’ bombs had flipped Hitler’s last battleship on its side, dooming most of its crew to death by fire, drowning or suffocation.
This spectacular act of destruction brought to a close one of the most singular campaigns of the war. For five years, the RAF and the Royal Navy had poured great resources and enormous effort into sending Tirpitz to the bottom.
She was the target of 25 major operations. They included the famous attack on Saint Nazaire in 1942, designed to deny her an Atlantic haven, and the attack by X-craft midget submarines which resulted in the award of two VCs.
Despite all the ingenuity and courage, until the morning of 12 November 1944 all attempts to sink her had ended in complete or partial failure. When the news of the success broke, it was met with wide rejoicing. “It is a great relief to us to get this brute where we have long wanted her,” wrote Winston Churchill to Franklin D Roosevelt in reply to a message of congratulations from the American president.
With hindsight, the celebrations seem somewhat excessive. By the time of her death, Tirpitz was a shadow of her former self, reduced by the repeated batterings to the status of a floating gun platform, and presenting no real threat to the Allied advance on Germany. Why had Bomber Command’s crack squadron been diverted onto what was a very risky extreme-range mission to dispose of a weapon that was effectively hors de combat?
Tirpitz exercised a strong influence on Churchill’s thinking, and the prime minister issued a stream of directives to navy and airforce chiefs calling for her destruction. The navy, by and large, shared his concern. Germany had cheated on her 1935 naval agreement with Britain to produce a ship that (alongside her sister, Bismarck) combined speed, endurance and great destructive power with a thick armoured hide that for most of the war could defeat the most powerful bombs and torpedoes that the Allies could throw at her. She outclassed anything in the British fleet, creating in the minds of her enemies a profound respect for her destructive potential.
The initial fear was that she might break out into the Atlantic sea lanes and – at least temporarily – cut the supply line that sustained Britain’s existence. After her move to Norway in early 1942, it was the Arctic convoys feeding war materiel to the Soviets that were menaced.
The dark power that Tirpitz radiated was demonstrated by the story of Convoy PQ 17. In July 1942, the biggest assembly of merchantmen yet to sail to Russia set off from Iceland with a strong escort of warships.
On learning that Tirpitz might be heading to intercept them, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound ordered the escorts to abandon their charges and the convoy to scatter. Of the 35 ships in the convoy, 24 were sunk – not by Tirpitz but by U-boats and bombers.
Indeed Tirpitz was never to sink a ship and rarely fired her guns in anger. Her importance always stemmed from what she might do. The prospect of a breakout kept a large force of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet on sentry duty when they could have been much more valuably employed in the vital theatres of the Mediterranean or the far east. It was this consideration that drove the Admiralty and the RAF to spend so much time and effort trying to destroy her.
From the first days of the war the RAF attempted to cripple her as she lay at anchor first in Germany then in a succession of Norwegian fjords. The pilots showed almost suicidal bravery but the ship’s defences included very effective smoke-screen generators, and if bombs hit at all they were too weak to do much damage.
Then it was the turn of the navy. To reach the safe anchorages where Tirpitz spent almost all her time, unorthodox methods were needed. A first attempt was made using ‘human torpedoes’ ridden by frogman crews. After a hair-raising series of adventures the team got within a few miles of the target before a storm dashed their chances. In another extraordinary feat of skill and bravery two midget submarines managed to reach Tirpitz as she lay deep within Kaafjord inside the Arctic Circle and lay charges which put her out of action for six months.
When it looked as if she might be seaworthy again, the Fleet Air Arm spent much of the summer of 1944 launching a long series of gallant attacks from carriers which failed to finish her off. It was only when the devastating power of the Barnes Wallis-invented Tallboy was applied to the problem that the menace was finally removed.
Adolf Hitler attends the launch of ‘Tirpitz’ at Wilhelmshaven on 1 April 1939. (Getty Images)
How real was the threat that Tirpitz posed? Even before the war began all the signs were that the era of the battleship had passed. That big ships were acutely vulnerable to air attack if the right methods were used had been demonstrated painfully to the British early on with the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to Japanese torpedo-bombers in December 1941.
The future of war at sea seemed to belong to the submarine and the aeroplane, as events soon proved. German capital ships accounted for only a fraction of the tonnage of Allied ships sunk by German U-boats.
The high priority that Churchill continued to give to dealing with Tirpitz when the threat it posed was limited is perhaps an echo of his Edwardian upbringing. Like Pound, he grew up in an age when the Dreadnought was king and big guns and thick armour were the supreme manifestation of naval might.
But there was another element at play in the relentless pursuit of the battleship. War creates its own dynamic. Once the campaign was launched, it acquired its own momentum. Sinking Tirpitz became a matter of pride. The ship had grown into a symbol of the hubris of a terrible regime. Her fate came to be seen as somehow linked with Hitler’s.
One newspaper found a parable for “the misguided German people” in her destruction. “They have been told that the Tirpitz was unsinkable – the RAF have proved that to be a fallacy; they have been told that Hitler was invincible, the reincarnation of the greatest virtues of the German spirit – and [the Allies] have proved that to be a fallacy also.”
The campaign to sink Tirpitz produced one of the great sagas of the war, full of daring, courage, skill and ingenuity. It demonstrated a resolve that Hitler never believed his enemies possessed.
It was thrilling and it was dramatic. Whether all the effort and resources were worth the result is another question.
Patrick Bishop’s latest book, Target Tirpitz, is published by HarperPress this month