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The Largest World War II German Battleship: The Tirpitz

Updated on September 18, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Bismarck Sent to the Bottom

WWII: Survivors from the Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire on 27 May 1941.
WWII: Survivors from the Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire on 27 May 1941. | Source

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.

Bismarck's Big Sister "Tirpitz"

WW2: Battleship Tirpitz
WW2: Battleship Tirpitz | Source

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.

Tirpitz in Norway's Fjords

WW2: The German battleship Tirpitz in Bogen Bay in Ofotfjord, near Narvik, Norway, during World War II. Circa 1943-1944.
WW2: The German battleship Tirpitz in Bogen Bay in Ofotfjord, near Narvik, Norway, during World War II. Circa 1943-1944. | Source

Surface Raider

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.

British Mini Sub

A photo of the only preserved X-Class x craft X24.
A photo of the only preserved X-Class x craft X24. | Source

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.

Tirpitz Under Attack

WWII: Fleet Air Arm attack the German battleship Tirpitz with heavy and medium sized bombs as she was about to move off from her anchorage at Alten Fjord, Norway, on the morning of 3 April 1944.
WWII: Fleet Air Arm attack the German battleship Tirpitz with heavy and medium sized bombs as she was about to move off from her anchorage at Alten Fjord, Norway, on the morning of 3 April 1944. | Source

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.

The British Dropped 12,000 Pound Bombs on Tirpitz

Tall Boy Bomb (12,000 lbs, 21 feet long).
Tall Boy Bomb (12,000 lbs, 21 feet long). | Source

Tallboys

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.

The End

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.

Tirpitz Capsized

Tromso fiord, Norway. A reconnaissance photograph showing the capsized hull of the German battleship Tirpitz after attack on 1944-11-12 by Lancaster aircraft of no. 9 And no. 617 Squadron RAF, with 12,000 pound bombs.
Tromso fiord, Norway. A reconnaissance photograph showing the capsized hull of the German battleship Tirpitz after attack on 1944-11-12 by Lancaster aircraft of no. 9 And no. 617 Squadron RAF, with 12,000 pound bombs. | Source

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”.

Tirpitz' Activities

show route and directions
A markerTrondheim, Norway -
Trondheim, Norway
get directions

B markerSpitzbergen -
Spitsbergen
get directions

C markerAltafjorden, Alta, Norway -
Altafjorden, Alta, Norway
get directions

D markerTromso, Norway -
Tromso, Norway
get directions

British Newsreel About The Sinking of the Tirpitz

© 2012 David Hunt

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    • profile image

      Toby 6 weeks ago

      Hi Theresa Ast ,

      Probably and bit late now.

      But specially trained Norwegian Commando's (drawn from Norwegians who managed to escape to the UK) did do a successful raid on a rail ferryboat that was carrying wagons of heavy water for the first German tests. It was a lake boat and they succeeded in sinking her, but not without loss of civilian lives as she was also a passenger ferry.

      There is a British film about it which shows the hardships the men faced getting from the Drop Zone in harsh winter to the target. These were very brave hardy men indeed.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 20 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      It was named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who, starting from scratch in the 1890s, created the world-class German Imperial Navy that challenged the British Royal Navy during World War One. Thanks for commenting-- I wish I had watched that show.

    • profile image

      Richard Prochniak 20 months ago

      anyone know the meaning of TIRPITZ ?

      last night, 1/18/2016, on PBS the sinking of this ship/ battleship was featured and bombed by the RAF and Lancaster bombers

      only another well done by PBS

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, LadyFiddler, for reading and commenting. It's always gratifying to hear people say they enjoyed reading historical articles.

    • LadyFiddler profile image

      Joanna Chandler 5 years ago from On planet Earth

      Hi this Hub was very interesting as i am obsessed about World War II especially the holocaust i always search, read and dig for answers to satisfy me of why Hitler was so mean and evil to the jews and others.

      It was a pleasure reading.........

      Thanks for sharing

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      aethelthryth-- "a sense of humor that physicists have" sounds like "The Big Bang Theory". I'll have to look into it (for the info as well!), but, like you, it may be a while. So much to do, so little time! Thanks for the heads up.

      ThoughtSandwiches-- I forgot to click the button to show your comment until I just noticed it. Hope you didn't think I was hiding your "mucking"!

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      If you do an article on the Germans' atomic effort, look up the book "Alsos" by Samuel Goudsmit. It is actually quite funny, in the sense of humor that physicists have. I would write an article on it myself, but at the rate I'm going it would be years from now.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      ThoughtSandwiches, I agree-- the technical problems would certainly have exceeded any political maneuvering. No problem with the "mucking". Thanks for all the comments.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Unnamed,

      It would appear the problem was more technical than political. You are correct though...it was run out of Abwehr's II branch (the same guys who trained /controlled the Brandenburg Commandos), under the command of Erwin von Lahousen.

      Lahousen was sent to the eastern front towards the end of the war and somehow survived that experience and Himmler's purge of the Abwehr.

      An excellent treatment of the Abwehr is Ladislas Farago's "The Game of Foxes." It deals with the Amerikan bomber question tangentially.

      Thanks,

      Thomas

      (sorry to be mucking up your feed with random thoughts).

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Interesting, ThoughtSandwiches. I wonder if the fact that Admiral Canaris, who was a fierce anti-Nazi and head of the Abwehr, contributed in any way to the Amerika Bomber not coming to fruition?

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      hi again,

      To weigh in on the 'blowing up New York" scenarios, the German's best option on the table was the Junkers JU 390 (known as the Amerikan Bomber). The unit was operated through the Abwehr but (happily) nothing came of it. As the Luftwaffe was a tactical force designed to support the blitzkrieg...they were ill-equipped and got into the super-bomber game too late.

      Thomas

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      phdast7, I know the Germans had plans for a rocket that theoretically could reach New York but I think it was all on paper. You've got me thinking, though!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Yes, I meant the V2. I first though V2 and then I though maybe I was confusing it with the U2 spy-plane, so I changed it to 5, but you knew exactly what I meant. :)

      PETER - Thank you for your kind offer, I will check out your hubs shortly and be in touch. Thank you very much.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      ThoughtSandwiches: yes, a slippery leg indeed. Everyone has a job to do and, given the circumstances (especially being a battleship in the new age of aircraft), Tirpitz performed admirably. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Excellent ideas, phdast7. I was actually thinking about the German A-bomb effort the other day-- maybe I'll look into that and/or the V2 (I assume that's the rocket version you meant). Thanks much for the comment and great ideas.

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 5 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear phdast7

      I did write a hub entitled New York target of nazi atom bomb which described briefly both the German and Japanese nuclear programme. If you need more info I can dig out my files

      Kind regards Peter

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Unnamed,

      Excellent article! The "fleet in being" concept reminds me of something Lincoln said just prior to the Second Battle of Bull Run, when he was trying to coordinate four separate groups of forces..."those not skinning can hold a leg."

      The Tirpitz was a pretty slippery leg for quite some time.

      Thomas

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What a great Hub. Very interesting and almost all of this was new to me. Have you ever done a hub on Nazi production of V5 (I think that is right) rockets, or e their effort to produce an atomic bomb? (didn't we shell and sink a boat carrying a supply of heavy water or something?) Either of those would be fascinating topics. Voting all kinds of Up and Sharing. :)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, Gypsy. I'm glad you liked it and I appreciate you sharing it.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Had never heard of the Tripitz. Thanks for sharing this informative hub. Great video and passing this on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      That is a very high complement, aethelthryth. I thank you.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Much appreciated. And this article just became part of a school reading assignment, for a boy who just learned about the Bismarck.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, aethelthryth. From what I understand, the crew spent most of their time doing routine chores, day in day out, between brief periods of extreme terror, so I believe you are right about morale being a problem. I assume it is all right that I linked to your piece on rivets? Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Must have been tough keeping up the morale of anybody assigned to a ship which everyone knew was staying in port. Interesting to hear what happened to the armor plating.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting and sharing, xstatic. I wonder how the crew felt wearing targets on their backs all those years.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      This was a great article about a fascinating chapter of WW II. This ship captured so much of the Allies attention and resources, yet saw so little action offensively. Really interesting historical note. Shared.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thnaks for reading and commenting, Old Albion. It's interesting how much you learn when writing.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi UH. Up to your usual standard. Again a great insight.

      Graham.