battleship Tirpitz

The battleship Tirpitz conducting trials in the Baltic Sea in the spring of 1941.

(Feb. 19, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Tirpitz, the second and last battleship of the Bismarck class, was commissioned. It was launched on April 1, 1939, and christened by Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Alfred von Tirpitz’ daughter, Ilse von Hassel. Both the Tirpitz and the Bismarck were considered, at that time, the most modern and powerful battleships afloat.

Armed with eight 15-inch guns, which were considered to be the best German naval guns at the time, in four twin turrets, the Tirpitz was truly a state-of-the-art battleship in every respect. She also had secondary armament of 12 5.9-inch guns in six twin turrets, 16 4.1-inch anti-aircraft guns in eight twin turrets, 16 1.5-inch anti-aircraft guns in eight twin turrets, and 12 .8-inch anti-aircraft machine cannons.

Fully loaded, the Tirpitz had a displacement of almost 51,000 tons and could make a maximum speed of 30 knots. No battleship at the time, in any navy, except her sister ship the Bismarck, had such powerful armament, displacement, and speed.

From the time the Tirpitz was being fitted out, until her commissioning, on Feb. 25, 1941, she was attacked by the RAF 16 times without suffering any significant damage, and at great cost to the RAF.

When the invasion of the U.S.S.R. commenced, on June 22, 1941, the Tirpitz and other warships were sent to the Åland Islands, in the Baltic Sea (between Finland and Sweden) to prevent the Soviet Baltic Fleet from interfering with the German forces that were rapidly closing on Leningrad.

On Dec. 29, 1941, the Kreigsmarine sent the Tirpitz to Norway to occupy Allied naval resources in the North Atlantic. She arrived at Trondheim, Norway, on Jan. 18, 1942 and anchored in Fættenfjord in order to repel a possible Allied invasion, and to attack the Soviet-bound Arctic convoys. As part of the “Fleet in Being,” her mere presence forced the Allies, particularly the Royal Navy, to maintain a considerable force at Scapa Flow, that could have been employed in other theaters.

Her first operation occurred when she and four destroyers departed Trondheim to intercept Allied convoys PQ-12 and QP-8. The Royal Navy learned of this departure via “Ultra” decryption, and dispatched a fleet centered on the battleships Duke of York, King George V, and the battle cruiser Renown, to intercept the German battleship and her escorts.

On March 9, 1942, a British aircraft spotted the German fleet, and the carrier Victorious launched 12 Albacore aircraft against the Tirpitz and the destroyer Friedrich Ihn, without causing damage to either, but costing the British two planes. The Tirpitz and her escorts returned to Norway later that day.

During the months of March and April, the Tirpitz was attacked by Lancaster and Halifax bombers. Seven of these bombers were shot down by the Tirpitz and coastal anti-aircraft air defenses.

On July 2, 1942, a German seaplane shadowed the 35-ship convoy, PQ-17, carrying Lend-Lease war materiel to the U.S.S.R., in the Barents Sea from a distance, and reported the convoy’s position throughout the day. The naval units escorting the convoy included a distant force of two battleships, the HMS Duke of York, and the USS Washington, six cruisers, including the USS Tuscaloosa, 13 destroyers, and close escort units composed of six destroyers, two anti-aircraft warships, two submarines, 11 smaller escorts, and six auxiliary escorts, making it the most heavily guarded convoy up till that time.

The Kreigsmarine launched Operation Rösselsprung, which included the Tirpitz, cruiser Admiral Scheer, and 12 destroyers and torpedo boats, to attack PQ-17 and sink as many merchant ships as possible. In the meantime, the Soviets, anticipating a potential sortie by the Tirpitz, sent an ocean-cruising submarine, K-21, under the command of Nicolai Lunin to intercept and attack the German battleship.

On July 5 , 1942, K-21 was in the vicinity of the Island of Ingay when she spotted the Tirpitz, and fired four torpedoes against the battleship. Captain and crew of K-21 heard two detonations and assumed that two torpedoes found their mark.

The Germans, however, never recognized that such an attack ever occurred, but close investigations after the war showed that the two torpedoes missed the battleship, and the detonations were premature ones.

On July 5, Operation Rösselsprung was canceled, and the Tirpitz and her escorts returned to Trondheim, where she underwent repair and refitting.

As for PQ-17, because of the threat from the Tirpitz, the convoy had scattered, leaving its ships vulnerable to German aircraft and U-boats, which inflicted a terrible toll. They sank 24 merchant ships that were carrying 3,350 military vehicles, 430 tanks, 210 aircraft, and 99,316 tons of other supplies. Only 70,000, of the original 200,000 tons, of war supplies reached its destination in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk.

In 1943, after the Kreigsmarine’s failure to sink any of the Allied merchant ships in convoy JW51B, during the Battle of the Barents Sea, Hitler went into a rage and fired Großadmiral Erich Ræder and replaced him with Großadmiral Karl Dönitz, the head of the U-boat Fleet.

Hitler saw his capital ships as useless and ordered them to be disarmed and their main guns used as coastal defense artillery. Großadmiral Dönitz, however, convinced him that by doing so he would give the Royal Navy its greatest victory! So, Großadmiral Dönitz saved the German capital ships from utter destruction, albeit at the hands of Germans.

By keeping the remaining German capital ships — Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow, and Admiral Hipper — in Norway, they threatened the Arctic convoys. The Royal Navy could not ignore such a threat, and kept its best battleships, cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers occupied for the rest of the war, for the fear that one day the German fleet might sortie and attack these Arctic convoys.

On Sep. 8, 1943, the Tirpitz, the Scharnhorst, and nine destroyers sailed, in Operation Sizilien, to raid the Island of Spitzbergen, where an Allied weather station was located. The Tirpitz, for the first, and last, time, fired her 15-inch main guns against a surface target. The raid was successful. All the buildings on the island were demolished and prisoners were taken. The German force then returned to Norway.

The Royal Navy sent three midget submarines to attack the Tirpitz. Although all three were destroyed, two were able to place mines below the Tirpitz, which detonated on Sep. 22, 1943, causing damage to the hull and disabling the turbines, propeller shafts, and the rudder, rendering the ship inoperable. One sailor was killed and 40 were wounded.

On Feb. 10, 1944 the U.S.S.R. sent 15 bombers to attack the ship, to little effect. From April 3 to Aug. 29,1944, the Royal Navy launched hundreds of carrier sorties against the Tirpitz, but, again, no major damage was inflicted.

The RAF then joined the fight and dispatched its heavy bombers, which could carry a much heavier and bigger bomb load than any plane in Europe. On Sept. 15, 1944, 21 British Lancaster bombers, based in Yagodnik, U.S.S.R., attacked the Tirpitz, scoring two hits on the forecastle and putting her out of action. This was followed, on Oct. 29, 1944, when 39 Lancasters attacked the Tirpitz, scoring a near miss.

The death of Tirpitz came on Nov. 12, 1944, when 31 Lancasters attacked her at her mooring in Tromsø, with 12,000-pound “Tallboy” bombs. These were the biggest bombs ever dropped by an aircraft in World War II. Three hits and several near misses capsized Tirpitz, killing 971 out of about 1,700 on board.

So ended the career of one of the best built and equipped battleships in World War II. Her mere existence in Norway worked as intended, as she occupied the best British warships for three years. Hundreds of sorties were launched, 38 aircraft, and three midget submarines were lost, a frigate was sunk, and the escort aircraft carrier Nabob was a total loss. Many brave men lost their lives in this massive effort to sink the last German Battleship.

Next week: Siege of Kufra.

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