Sink the Tirpitz!

John Sweetman analyses the relative failure of repeated Fleet Air Arm attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz.


‘Our Tirpitz sunk.’ This intercepted German signal acknowledged the success of RAF Lancasters on 12 November 1944.

The 52,000-ton armoured German warship, which was capable of 34 knots and whose 15-inch guns could reach 22.4 miles, had been under attack since 10 July 1940.

Almost 400 bombers, torpedo-bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft had been involved, and there had also been two audacious raids by Royal Navy charioteers (commando frogmen) and submariners.

Dubbed ‘the beast’ by Winston Churchill, her destruction ‘of utmost importance’, Tirpitz posed a potential threat to Allied shipping on the Atlantic and Arctic convoys to the northern Soviet Union. Her menace had been underlined by the passage of her sister-ship Bismarck through the Denmark Strait in 1941, and the subsequent destruction of HMS Hood.

The following year, when warned that Tirpitz was at sea, naval escorts of the Archangel-bound PQ17 convoy had been withdrawn to intercept her, leaving enemy submarines and aircraft to feast on the unprotected merchantmen.

The first Fleet Air Arm attack

The coup de grâce was eventually delivered by RAF Bomber Command. That the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had previously mounted several major operations against the German battleship is often overlooked.

Though midget submarines indisputably had caused serious damage in September 1943, by March 1944 the Naval Intelligence Division judged that the battleship could again carry out ‘an operational sortie’. This was the cue for the FAA to take centre stage.

LEFT A Fleet Air Arm squadron of Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers flies into action. BELOW Tirpitz at anchor in a Norwegian fjord.
A Fleet Air Arm squadron of Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers flies into action.

Two years earlier, FAA Albacores had very nearly accounted for the battle- ship off the Norwegian coast. Alerted by the Admiralty that Tirpitz was closing on an Arctic convoy, Admiral Sir John Tovey, at sea to cover PQ12 with a powerful escort, including the aircraft carrier Victorious, searched in vain for her in a blanket of hail and snow.

Then, at 0230 on 9 March 1942, Tovey received firm information that the enemy vessel had left the Arctic and was steaming south. He set off in pursuit, aiming to launch an air attack from Victorious at dawn. With Tirpitz located by reconnaissance aircraft, at 0735 12 Albacores, each carrying a Mark XII torpedo, with a depth setting of 25ft and an impact fuse, took off.

At 0842, Lieutenant-Commander W J Lucas, leading No.832 Squadron, sighted the target and noted that she had altered course eastwards, steaming towards the Lofoten Islands, behind which lay the port of Narvik.

Tirpitz at anchor in a Norwegian fjord.

Flying into a strong headwind, the bombers only slowly overhauled the battle- ship. Emerging from cloud at 0917 and unable to gain position to execute a planned head-on attack, the Albacores dropped their torpedoes from port and starboard, but all passed harmlessly behind the target.

The warship’s manoeuvring to frustrate this attack before resuming course allowed No.817 Squadron ‘to synchronise an attack from ahead’, but Tirpitz foiled that, too. Lieutenant-Commander J H Stenning reported:

As we dived from our low height into a 30-knot wind, she [Tirpitz] altered course to starboard, so we had to chase her and with shots from her coming all round us I dropped my torpedo almost at extreme range.

The Germans described the attack as ‘most courageous’ and revealed that one torpedo in the second phase had missed Tirpitz by a mere 30 feet. On board, Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax credited ‘the good God’s intervention between the Tirpitz and the deadly British weapons’.

Operation Tungsten

In 1944, the FAA was prompted to plan another onslaught by the alarming conclusion of Naval Intelligence in March. So ‘a full-scale bombing and air-firing range’, using a buoyed area to represent Tirpitz at anchor in Kåfjord off Altenfjord, ‘was constructed at Loch Eriboll near Caithness, and included smoke defences and dummy AA batteries and effects’.

ABOVE Bombs are fused and loaded in preparation for Operation Tungsten.
Bombs are fused and loaded in preparation for Operation Tungsten.

There, aircrew rehearsed before setting off at the end of the month on Operation Tungsten. While at sea, they further studied models showing Tirpitz’s anchorage under a steep cliff on the western side of the fjord and the surrounding terrain, including Altenfjord and Langfjord, in the course of ten hours of concentrated briefings.

Two fleet carriers, Victorious and Furious, together with four escort carriers, rendezvoused 120 miles off Norway and, on 3 April 1944, launched the operation.

While Seafires and Swordfish guarded the fleet, the first wave of 21 Barracuda dive-bombers armed with 500-1,600lb armour-piercing (AP) bombs were protected by a close escort of Hellcats and Wildcats. The latter were scheduled also to attack Tirpitz’s defences, shore batteries, and adjacent flak ships. Corsairs flew top cover. ‘It was a grand sight, with the sun just risen, to see this well-balanced striking force departing,’ recorded Rear-Admiral A W Bisset.

Tirpitz was caught moving out of her secure anchorage for trials. As the fighters crested the ridge shielding the warship at 0528, the smokescreen cloak had not become fully effective. Although ‘various missiles appeared to be whizzing in all directions,’ one pilot wrote, ‘really the attack was a piece of cake.’

The second wave of 19 Barracudas set course from the carriers at 0538 to encounter the smokescreen ‘halfway up the mountains on each side’ without fully masking the target’s superstructure.

Although there was ‘a substantial umbrella of bursting shells’, bomber crews observed that ‘fighters had shot up the target very well and undoubtedly spoilt Tirpitz’s gunnery’, before they dived steeply to attack ‘from stern to stem’. Lieutenant-Commander V Rance concluded:

Unquestionably, strafing attacks by fighters and the use of powerful blast bombs by the first few aircraft are of the utmost importance in ensuring the arrival of the armour-piercing bombs carried by the latter half of the attacking force.

To the attackers’ relief, no enemy fighters appeared. Nevertheless, three Barracudas and one fighter were lost. The Admiralty claimed eight certain (including three 1,600lb AP bombs) and five probable hits. Victorious declared Tirpitz ‘now to be useless as a warship’, and The Times assured its readers ‘Tirpitz Crippled by Dawn Raiders’.

Wishful thinking. In reality, the enemy vessel had been damaged, but not severely, and no bomb had penetrated the armoured deck. The Germans acknowledged 12 hits and four near misses, but insisted ‘no appreciable effect on the main armament and no fires were caused’. Operation Tungsten had been well planned and executed, but Tirpitz remained a priority target.

Operation Mascot

Three follow-up operations – Planet (24 April), Brawn (15 May), and Tiger Claw (28 May) – were frustrated at the last moment by adverse weather conditions in the target area. Urgency, though, was heightened at the beginning of July by reports of Tirpitz achieving 15-20 knots in renewed trials. Plans for another attack were complicated by evidence that the battleship was now anchored on the eastern side of the fjord.

A reconnaissance flight on 12 July confirmed ‘no visible signs of damage except that one aircraft crane and a boat to starboard are missing’, the flak mountings were ‘intact’, and the upper deck ‘mottled’ in an attempt at camouflage. Two days later, ‘in fog and drizzle’, ships involved in Operation Mascot, including the fleet carriers Indefatigable, Formidable, and Furious, left port.

For the ten previous days, bomber and fighter squadrons had practised together ‘both from shore bases and from their ships’, again making use of the dummy set-up on Loch Eriboll. Further detailed briefings occurred at sea, and on 16 July the undetected force was in position to launch the attack in a ‘light easterly wind and clear conditions’.

A Corsair pilot recalled of Monday 17 July: ‘At midnight, with the sun still shining, we all boarded our cabs and started up for the “big do”.’

ABOVE Fleet Air Arm Corsairs and Barracudas on deck during Operation Mascot.
Fleet Air Arm Corsairs and Barracudas on deck during Operation Mascot.

After ‘an excellent form up’, 18 Hellcats and 12 Fireflies to deal with flak, 18 Corsairs flying top cover, and 44 Barracudas (each, except for two carrying three 500lb medium-capacity (MC) bombs, with a single 1,600lb AP bomb) set course at 0135.

As the aerial armada crossed the coast, the Firefly leader, Major V G B Cheesman RM, viewed the ‘cruel-looking territory’ below over which engine failure would mean ‘out harp and halo and hello St Peter’.

Early warning via enhanced defences following Tungsten, allowed the Germans to jam radio communications and gave time to generate smoke up to 1,000ft above Tirpitz and the surrounding hills before the attackers arrived.

Fighters briefed to hit shore batteries could locate them only ‘by the streams of tracer issuing through the smokescreen’. Similarly, the Barracudas gained no clear sight of Tirpitz and bombed on the flashes of her flak guns. Such were the unpromising conditions that a second planned strike was cancelled and the force returned to Scapa Flow. One Corsair was lost in the target area, no damage was even claimed, and officially ‘strike considered unsuccessful… a disappointing show’.

German reports showed no hits and only one to seven near misses. The gunners claimed to have shot down 12 attackers.

Operation Goodwood I

The Admiralty remained committed to sinking Tirpitz. Analysis of Mascot photos, reports, and other data confirmed the greater strength of the defences on and around the warship, and a proposal was advanced for continuous operations over 48 hours to wear the defenders down and, in particular, exhaust the smoke generators.

Anxiety was increased by reports that Tirpitz was now regularly achieving 20 knots during daily excursions to Altenfjord and her guns were ‘in full working order’. On 1 August, she exercised at sea with the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, raising acute fears of an impending, aggressive sortie.

Operation Goodwood, comprising a series of strikes in pursuit of the plan to erode the defences, was scheduled for mid-August. Once more rehearsals were carried out at Loch Eriboll and ‘splendid models of the fjord [Kåfjord] and its surrounding terrain and excellent photographic cover of the area’ used in detailed pre-operational briefings.

On 18 August, the fleet carriers Indefatigable, Formidable, and Furious, with escort carriers Trumpeter and Nabob, protected by an impressive array of cruisers and destroyers led by the battleship Duke of York, left Scottish waters.

Two days later, the ships rendezvoused off the Norwegian coast, where poor flying conditions disrupted the planned programme.

However, ‘the fuel situation would not allow of indefinite delay’, so despite ‘dreadful weather’ and two postponements during the morning of 22 August, Goodwood I was launched. While Seafires defended the fleet, Barracudas, protected by Corsairs, Fireflies, and Hellcats, would carry out a similar attack to that executed by the Tungsten force. This time, Avengers were to drop mines beside the enemy warship and across the entrance to the fjord in case Tirpitz raised steam. But ‘on account of the low cloud conditions’ that phase of the operation was cancelled. More frustration followed. Thick cloud at 1,500ft caused the 31 Barracudas and 24 Corsair escorts to turn back short of the coast. Eleven Fireflies pressed on to attack flak positions in Kåfjord at 1249. Two minutes later, nine Hellcats each released a 500lb semi-armour-piercing (SAP) bomb on Tirpitz, as eight Seafires hit Luftwaffe bases elsewhere at Banak and Kolvik.

One Hellcat and one Corsair were lost, and a Barracuda ditched close to the fleet. More significantly, the escort carrier Nabob was torpedoed at 1725. She survived, to be escorted back to harbour by a protective flotilla including Trumpeter. The two escort carriers had the Avengers on board, thus narrowing the scope of a repeat operation.

Operation Goodwood II and III

These photos show [TOP] Tirpitz visible from the air despite a smokescreen, [MIDDLE] Tirpitz  under attack on 3 April 1944, and [BOTTOM] Tirpitz capsized in her fjord berth. 

Meanwhile, in pursuit of the ‘teasing tactics’ of a succession of strikes, at 1830 on 22 August ‘in very good conditions’ Goodwood II took place. Seven Fireflies attacked the flak positions, as seven Hellcats dived from 8,000ft to release their 500lb SAP bombs.

Surprise caused by the speed of approach of this small force meant that the smokescreen proved ineffective, so no aircraft was lost. Tirpitz recorded no hits, but did acknowledge that a vast amount of 380mm, 150mm, 105mm, 37mm, and 20mm ammunition had been expended during the two attacks.

Fog prevented Goodwood III on 23 August, but the weather improved sufficiently for the operation to be mounted during the afternoon of 24 August. Thirty-three Barracudas (each with a 1,600lb AP bomb), 24 Corsairs (five with a 1,000lb AP bomb) and ten Hellcats (each carrying a 500lb MC bomb), together with ten Fireflies set off for Kåfjord, as eight Seafires attacked Banak airfield.

The incoming aircraft were detected at 1535, so when the fighters hit flak positions at 1600, they encountered a thick smoke-screen with little wind to disperse it.

LEFT The Wreck of the 'Tirpitz', detail from a painting by Stephen Bone (June 1945). ABOVE RAF Wing Commander Willie Tait (on the left) standing with an unknown Australian officer on the wreck of Tirpitz in late 1945.
The Wreck of the ‘Tirpitz’, detail from a painting by Stephen Bone (June 1945).

The Barracudas arrived to find the flak had ‘lightened considerably’ due to the ‘sheer cold-blooded gallantry’ of the fighter crews. After ‘a steep dive’ from 10,000ft to 4,000ft, the bombers released their load on the anticipated location of Tirpitz, which was ‘completely obscured by an effective smokescreen’. One observer reflected: ‘To pull out of the dive in the smoke with the mountains around us and many other aircraft above was a feature of the occasion which has stuck in my memory.’

Two Hellcats and three Corsairs were lost. Not in vain. One Hellcat bomb had demolished a 20mm flak position on Tirpitz, and a 1,600lb bomb had penetrated the armoured deck but failed to explode due to a faulty fuse.

The Germans acknowledged that ‘the effect of this explosion would have been immeasurable’. They paid tribute to ‘the great skill and dexterity in flying’ during ‘undoubtedly the heaviest and most determined [attack] so far’. Heavy losses were suffered by batteries on shore, where an ammunition dump was also blown up.

Operation Goodwood IV

‘In spite of universal pessimism regarding the weather’, in the early hours of 29 August, the force committed to Goodwood IV moved into position. Conditions improved during the morning and at 1430 ‘the last combined strike’ was flown off Indefatigable and Formidable.

Twenty-six Barracudas (each with one 1,600lb AP bomb), two Corsairs (one 1,000lb AP bomb) and three Hellcats (one 500lb MC bomb) were protected by 15 Corsairs and ten Fireflies tasked as before to deal with flak positions. An innovation was four Hellcats in the van to drop target indicators on Tirpitz.

An inaccurate wind forecast meant that the attackers flew a ‘roundabout approach to the Kå’ from south-west, not north-west. The added delay allowed the smokescreen to thicken, so 52 tons of explosive were dropped blindly.

One Firefly and one Corsair were lost, but, although some were severely damaged, all the Barracudas survived. Once more, the absence of enemy fighters proved welcome, if surprising. The national press enthused: ‘They Struck from the Sea’, ‘Six Times Attacked’, ‘How We Hit Tirpitz’…

RAF Wing Commander Willie Tait (on the left) standing with an unknown Australian officer on the wreck of Tirpitz in late 1945.

The operation on the 29 August would be the last flown by the FAA against Tirpitz.

The conclusion of Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Moore on the August operations discouraged thoughts of further attacks. The slowness of the Barracudas allowed the Germans ample time to form an effective smokescreen. Fighters, unencumbered with escort duties, might ‘just beat the smoke but are not normally trained or fitted to carry bombs’. Of ‘a teasing policy’, Moore was dismissive: ‘The weather only gives periodical and fleeting chances; [and] periods of darkness give respite to the defenders’.

If the series of FAA operations during August 1944 had not finished off Tirpitz, they had certainly caused damage to the ship and degraded her flak capacity both on board and ashore. They constituted a fitting overture to the RAF Bomber Command operations that culminated in the demise of ‘the beast’.

John Sweetman read Modern History at Oxford and took his PhD (on military aviation) at King’s College, London. He is the author of many books, including Tirpitz: Hunting the Beast, Cavalry of the Clouds, The Dambusters Raid, Bomber Crew, and Sydney Camm.
All images: WIPL