Tirpitz is Launched
Tirpitz was launched on April 1st, 1939 with the intention that she would be deployed as a commerce raider against Allied merchant shipping in the North Atlantic. Hitler had been an infantryman during World War 1 and thusly had no prior direct naval experience on which to go by. Hitler did listen to his Admirals and Generals but made most of the war planning decisions under his own instincts - a fatal flaw to be sure.
Capital ships such as the Tirpitz represented the naval power of the day and German battleships were necessary to counter the British Royal Navy. With the fabled KMS Bismarck being sunk in May of 1941, Hitler lost complete confidence in the commerce raider mission plan. Tirpitz was ready to be deployed and concern about the mission was evident with her sea trials being held in the protected waters of the Baltic Sea. German spies learned that the British Admiralty had sent orders that an attack on Tirpitz would need at least two King George V-type battleships and an aircraft carrier. It was obvious that the British were concerned about the threat that Tirpitz represented and were willing to commit several major naval assets to counter her and her escorts.
In September of 1941, Tirpitz was serving as the flagship of the Baltic Fleet supported by the heavy cruiser KMS Admiral Scheer and the light cruisers KMS Koln, KMS Nuremberg, KMS Emden and KMS Leipzig. The fleet was stationed off Aaland Island to counter sorties from the Soviet fleet based at Leningrad. Hitler felt that when the invasion of Europe happened it would come through Norway instead of the costal fortifications of France. The decision was made to use Tirpitz as a threat to Atlantic and Arctic convoys and to provide protection against the expected invasion. On the night of January 14th, 1942, Tirpitz left Wilhelmshaven for Trondheim escorted by destroyers KMS Richard Beitzen, KMS Paul Jacobi, KMS Bruno Heinemann and KMS Z-29. The sortie was via the Kiel Canal so the Swedish Coast Guard would not spot the flotilla slipping out.
The British Royal Navy was soon alerted and understood the danger of the Tirpitz breakout and, without the capital ships in the area, launched air sorties on January 30th, 194,1from northern Scotland with nine Handley Page Halifax bombers from 76th Squadron and seven Short Stirlings of the 15th Squadron. The sorties failed to locate the target. Hitler sent Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax to take command of the German naval force as Commander-in-Chief of battleships. German submarines spotted the British convoy PQ-12 sailing to Russia with convoy PQ-8 sailing back from Murmansk. PQ-12 held a total of 31 ships massing near Iceland - sailing to Russia in the Arctic to deliver critical Lend-Lease supplies. Admiral Ciliax receiving the convoy report and subsequently prepared "Operation Sportpalast". Tirpitz and the destroyers Z-25, Hermann Schoemann and Paul Jacobi left Faettenfjord, Trondeim under the command of Ciliax on March 3rd, 1942.
A British submarine spotted the enemy formation and informed the Home Fleet who, in turn, sent the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Duke of York along with the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, a heavy cruiser and twelve destroyers to counter Tirpitz. Bad weather saved the convoys from being spotted by the Germans and saved the German force from the superior British fleet en route. Finding themselves only miles apart on March 9th the weather had cleared just enough to allow the Victorious to launch twelve torpedo-laden Albacore aircraft against the German ships. The aircraft made torpedo attacks but luck - and Tirpitz's inherent speed - allowed her to dodge all the torpedoes while shooting down two of the attacking aircraft on her return to Trondeim.
New Strategy for the Tirpitz
Upon receiving the after-action report, Raeder reported to Hitler with the results of Operation Sportpalast with only one conclusion being clear - Tirpitz was vulnerable to attack. Hitler was gun shy after having lost the Bismarck and ordered Admiral Raeder to issue orders to Ciliax that Tirpitz would only attack convoys if the battleship had Luftwaffe air support and knowledge of the opposing naval forces. Hitler's confining order effectively removed Tirpitz as a major threat to allied shipping in the Atlantic and elsewhere though the order was unknown to the British Home Fleet. Keeping Tirpitz out of the Atlantic meant she did not need as much fuel so on March 10th Tirpitz transferred 1,722 tons of fuel oil to destroyers KMS Schoemann, KMS Friedrich Ihn and KMS Z-25 along with torpedo boats T-5 and T-12.
The Tirpitz was sent to northern Norwegian waters using the fjords, mostly at Kåfjord, a branch of the Altafjord, as a base. She acted mainly a threat that tied up Royal Navy and US Navy resources. On June 27, 1942, word of convoy PQ-17 was received by German intelligence and an attack plan was formulated to counter the flotilla Tirpitz and nine destroyers. KMS Admiral Hipper, KMS Admiral Scheer and KMS Lützow assembled at Altenfjord when the convoy was detected. On July 1st, Tirpitz and the escorts left Trondheim and, soon after, a British submarine observed the sortie and notified the British Admiralty. So concerned about Tirpitz upon receiving the information that a decision was made to scatter the convoy, leaving the merchant ships without protection. When PQ-17 scattered, German submarines were able to sink 24 ships over the next 10 days. On July 5th Tirpitz made a brief sortie and, after being sighted, was ordered back to port without firing a shot. However, the fear of Tirpitz lead to the convoy being destroyed by other elements. From July 8th to September 1943 Tirpitz was dry-docked for repairs at Trondheim Narvik, Norway. After repairs, German troops landed on the Spitsbergen islands in September 1943. Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and nine destroyers were assigned to support the landing as offshore bombardment. This became the first and only operation in which Tirpitz fired her guns on enemy targets.
Later that month, British X-class midget submarines attacked Tirpitz as part of "Operation Source". The British started the attack with six X-craft but, during the 1,000 mile tow from England, three craft were lost due to mechanical reasons - these being X-8, X-9, and X-10. The remaining three craft - X-5, X-6 and X-7 - went through minefields and, under darkness, through enemy lines. Their mission resulted in the placing of 4 x 2 ton amatol charges under the hull of Tirpitz. The X-craft then quietly moved away and detonated the charges. The force of the blast lifted Tirpitz some six feet. The attack resulted in some damage to the Tirpitz but, as a ruse, the ship was quietly maintained as had nothing happened for six months while she was being repaired. The British were fooled by the non-action on the part of the Germans and felt Tirpitz was still seaworthy and a threat to Atlantic operations. Thusly, they continued to commit massive resources to her containment.
The Royal Navy then launched another attack on Tirpitz in April 1944, this with a large fleet of surface ships accompanied by aircraft. Seven aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers, and sixteen destroyers took part. This was to be an air attack unless Tirpitz decided to break out - only then would the British battleships and cruisers be called into play. Tirpitz was attack by the British fleet's air arm using armor-piercing bombs and anti-submarine bombs that could detonate underwater, causing shock damage to the hull. Royal Navy aircraft strafed her decks and lost three planes while the Tirpitz lost 122 of her crew with another 300 wounded. The damage was such that she was out of commission for two months. From April through July, additional air attacks were planned but ultimately cancelled due to adverse weather. "Operation Mascot" then failed as Tirpitz had warning and produced a smoke screen, obscuring her from the attacking British warplanes.
In August 1944, Tirpitz left the protection of the fiord for sea trials which resulted in additional enemy air attacks but these having no success. Tirpitz underwent sea trials in early August 1944. Three weeks later, the Fleet Air Arm launched operations Goodwill I, II, and III with little success, having just one 500lb bomb land on the Tirpitz. However, during the attack, the escort carrier HMS Nabob was torpedoed adding to the Royal Navy's fear of the Tirpitz. Attacks by the British 617th and 9th Squadrons on September 15, 1944 dropped five-ton "Tallboy" bombs and underwater mine bombs on Tirpitz, these hitting her bow and making the battleship unseaworthy. The German High Command knew they could not get her back to drydock for repair. If the Royal Navy had known the extent of the damage, they could have left her to sit out the rest of the war but continued assets were used to counter the German "tiger" in the fiord. She was towed to Tromso to be used as a floating gun platform to counter Hitler's expected Invasion of Norway by the Allies. However, Allied air forces stationed in Scotland could now reach her.
End of the KMS Tirpitz
"Operation Catechism" was enacted on November 12th, 1944, by 9th Squadron and 617th Squadron flying Avro Lancaster heavy bombers loaded with "Tallboy" bombs. Coming in from the east, the ship was struck by three Tallboys - two of which pierced the ship's armor and blew a 200-foot (61 m) hole in her port side. Fires set off a magazine used for C turret, blowing it completely off the ship. Within eleven minutes after the first hit, Tirpitz capsized with over 1,000 men below her decks. After the attack, access holes were cut in the exposed hull allowing 82 men from below decks to be saved. Tirpitz sank with 971 of her crew aboard.
The destruction of Tirpitz removed a major surface threat for the Allies, freeing many of their all-important capital ships used to counter her, relocating them to other fleet operations in the Indian Ocean and the Far East. After the war, the ship was cut up and sold as scrap except for a sizeable portion of her bow which remains today. The Norwegians saved her electrical generators and used them to produce power for a local fishing company. The Tallboy bombs that landed onshore produced artificial lakes that were subsequently used by fisherman. Armor plating from Tirpitz is still being utilized by the Norwegian Road Authority for temporary road work.
The Norwegians named her the "Lonely Queen of the North" ("Den ensomme Nordens Dronning") and Winston Churchill often referred to the Tirpitz as "The Beast".