The Largest World War II German Battleship: The Tirpitz
Bismarck's Blaze of Glory
Most people are probably familiar with Germany's World War Two super-battleship the Bismarck. During its brief life it terrorized the British when it broke out into the open seas in May 1941 and threatened to wreak havoc on North Atlantic shipping. When it was finally sunk by a British task force, the British breathed a sigh of relief, but knew they would then have to reckon with her sister ship, the battleship Tirpitz.
The Tirpitz Alone
The Tirpitz was ready for sea trials only a few months before the Bismarck was sunk. Weighing in at 58,000 tons, the Tirpitz was actually nearly 3,000 tons heavier, mostly due to her heavier armor, which was welded instead of riveted to lessen the increase in weight. Like the Bismarck , the Tirpitz sported eight state-of-the-art Krupp-made 15-inch guns in four main turrets and had a top speed of about 35 mph. Though the Tirpitz didn't have a glorious history like her sister ship, she nonetheless managed to inspire terror in the British. They initially estimated that sinking the Tirpitz would require at least two of their heaviest and newest battleships and an aircraft carrier.
Flagship of the Baltic Fleet
In September 1941, the Tirpitz became the flagship of the Baltic Fleet in the protected waters of the Baltic Sea, preventing a breakout of the Soviet Navy, now that Germany and Russia were at war. In January 1942, she was sent to the Norwegian port of Trondheim to act as a threat to North Atlantic shipping and a deterrent to an Allied invasion, which, at the time, Hitler thought more likely to occur in Norway than the coast of France.
In March 1942, the Germans located a convoy massing near Iceland. The Tirpitz and three destroyers were sent out to intercept them. The British caught wind of this and sent two battleships, an aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers and twelve destroyers to catch her. Bad weather interfered and the Tirpitz, discovering the forces arrayed against her headed home.
In July 1942, the Tirpitz and her escorts slipped out of the cover of the fjords toward another convoy. Guarding the convoy was a British battleship, an American battleship and a British aircraft carrier. The Allies, hearing that the Tirpitz was on its way, ordered the convoy to scatter. Aware she had been discovered, the Tirpitz was ordered to make way to Altafjord in the northern-most part of Norway. U-boats sank 24 of the unprotected merchant ships.
Attack On Spitzbergen
In September 1943, the Tirpitz participated in an attack on Spitzbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway, which served as a British weather station and refueling base. In support of the landing forces, she fired shells from her main guns and secondary batteries. The installations were destroyed and 74 prisoners taken. Aside from anti-aircraft activities, this would be the only time the Tirpitz fired her guns in anger.
Fleet In Being
Ever since the sinking of the Bismarck, Hitler feared the Tirpitz would share her fate, going out in a short burst of glory. In any case, after losing the Admiral Graf Spee and the Bismarck , Hitler had soured on the whole concept of surface raiders. The U-boats were more effective anyway. Another factor was the shortage of fuel-- the Tirpitz needed massive quantities of fuel, sometimes taking months to gather. As a result, the Tirpitz was relegated to playing the inglorious role of a fleet in being , meaning a naval force that extends a controlling influence without leaving port, protected in the fjords of Norway. In this regard, the Tirpitz certainly fulfilled her mission, tying up significant British naval and US naval resources for years.
X-Class Mini Submarines
By now, the British were tired of the threat. The difficulty of attacking her in the protection of the steep cliffs of the fjords, coupled with foul weather had resulted in several failed bombing attacks and prompted a new approach called “Operation Source” in September 1943. Towed 1,000 miles by larger submarines, three X-class 4-man mini submarines made their way up the fjord to Altafjord where the Tirpitz lay protected by submarine nets and minefields. One of the midget subs was detected and sunk. The other two managed to get inside the nets and plant their four 4,000 lb charges. When the explosives were detonated, the battleship was lifted six feet. Damage was severe and she wouldn't be seaworthy until repairs were completed in April 1944.
Huge Task Force Attacks The Beast
In March 1944, the British guessed that the Tirpitz was nearly seaworthy again and decided to launch a major airstrike against her. A task force of six aircraft carriers with carrier-borne dive-bombers was put together. The British were so fearful of the Tirpitz (Churchill often referred to her as “The Beast”) that two battleships, two cruisers and 16 destroyers were added to the task force in case she broke out. In April, 40 carrier-borne dive-bombers from the task force attacked the Tirpitz with 1,600 lb armor-piercing bombs scoring 15 direct hits. She was out of commission for two more months. Over the next few months, additional attacks were canceled or thwarted by bad weather or were ineffective.
In September 1944, Lancaster heavy bombers were used to drop 12,000 lb “Tallboy” bombs. One struck her bow resulting in major damage. In a few weeks, the Tirpitz was repaired sufficiently to make her last cruise, 230 miles southwest to Tromso, Norway. This time the Germans decided it wasn't worth making her seaworthy anymore and secretly converted her to a floating gun platform. The British, unaware of this, considered her as much a threat as ever and so she continued to perform her role as a fleet in being. Another attack in October by Lancasters dropping Tallboys resulted in little damage.
On November 12, 1944, the Lancasters returned again. This time three of the 12,000 lb bombs hit the Tirpitz tearing a 200-foot hole in her armor, igniting a magazine and blowing one of her main turrets completely off. She capsized ten minutes later, taking 971 of her crew with her.
Lonely Queen of the North
With the threat of the Tirpitz removed, Allied battleships and aircraft carriers were freed up for duty in the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Although her bow still remains, most of the Tirpitz was cut up for scrap after the war and some of her armor plating is still in use for temporary road work in Norway. The Norwegians dubbed her the “Lonely Queen of the North”.