Hitler’s Battleship Tirpitz Never Fought Another Battleship (But Nearly Sank Thanks to a Submarine)

A mini-sub, that is.

by Sebastien Roblin | The National Interest

The Tirpitz was the follow-on sistership of the notorious Bismarck, a monster battleship designed from the get-go to vastly exceed the tonnage-limitations stipulated by the Washington Naval treaty Nazi Germany was still supposedly adhering to in the early 1930s. 

However, once World War II broke out, the comparatively small German Navy struggled to make use of its battleships, as each was vulnerable to air attack and too valuable to risk. Bismarck’s only operation deployment in May 1941 ended in a blaze of glory as she sank the British battlecruiser Hood, before being crippled by antiquated Swordfish torpedo bombers and subsequently sunk while attempting to escape to France.

The Tirpitz displaced slightly more than Bismarck at 58,000 tons when fully loaded with fuel and ammunition, and had four huge turrets named Anton, Bruno, Caser and Dora that each mounted twin 380mm C/34 guns, which could be directed at targets over 22 miles away using fire control radars. Twelve faster-firing 150-millimeter guns and sixteen 105-millimeter flaks gun comprised her secondary armament, and numerous smaller, rapid-firing 20- and 37-millimeter cannons provide close air defense.

Tirpitz’s turrets and main armor belt were 360 and 320 millimeters thick, respectively. Despite the massive armor and armament, she could still accelerate up to 35 miles per hour at flank speed.

Hitler personally attended the vessel’s launch at Wilhelmshaven on April 1, 1939, but it took almost two more years before the behemoth was finally commissioned on February 25, 1941. By then, the Royal Air Force had already launched four separate air strikes using Hampden, Wellington and Whitley bombers—none of which came close to hitting the battleship.

After trials, training, a brief stint in the Baltic—and dodging two more British bombing raids at Kiel—on January 14 the Tirpitz set off for Norway, where she evaded six British air raids on January 29. The new plan by German high command was to use the mega-battleship to ravage British Arctic convoys delivering desperately needed military aid to the Soviet Union.

This plan utterly failed for several reasons. First, the huge battleship’s sporadic operations rapidly guzzled through available limited fuel oil supplies. Furthermore, the Kriegsmarine was also desperately short on smaller destroyers needed to escort its capital ship. Above all, the Allies had cracked the Enigma code the German Navy was using to transmit orders to the Tirpitz.

In March 1942, Tirpitz was finally assigned to raid Arctic convoy PQ-12 based on intelligence which failed to note the presence of two escorting capital ships and a nearby aircraft carrier. 

The forewarned Royal Navy rerouted the convoy and got the jump on the Tirpitz on March 9 with an attack executed by the twelve Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers from the carrier HMS Victorious. The battleship managed to dodge the torpedoes, shot down two Albacores, and hi-tailed back to Trondheim, having guzzled 9,000 tons of fuel with little to show from it.

RAF bombers then bombed Tirpitz three more times in March and April 142, losing twelve bombers without inflicting any damage.

Ironically, the Tirpitz’s deadliest engagement was one she never fired a shot in. Late in June 1942 she sortied from Trondheim on a mission to attack the 35-ship convoy PQ-17. However, she was promptly attacked by Soviet submarine K-21, which missed with a spread of four torpedoes (they may have prematurely detonated).

Tirpitz fled back to port again. But the Royal Navy, convinced she was still inbound, foolishly ordered PQ-17 to scatter. In a prolonged ordeal, twenty-four of the isolated ships were then picked off one by bomber and U-Boat attacks.

In fact, the Tirpitz only once fired her massive guns at a surface target on September 8, 1943, raid (Operation Zitronella) on a Norwegian weather station on Spitsbergen island. She discharged fifty-two 380-millimeter shells at the lightly armed garrison, which mustered only two small 3” guns and two Bofors anti-aircraft cannons. 

The Norwegians lost nine killed and thirty-one captured. For this truly momentous engagement, Tirpitz’s crew received 400 Iron Crosses, deepening a rivalry with the battlecruiser Scarnhorst’s crew, which received less than half as many.

However, Scharnhorst herself was sunk in a surface engagement on December 26, 1943, bringing an end to German capital ship sorties for the remainder of the war.

Attack of the Mini-Subs

Amidst the Tirpitz’s non-engagements, the battleship received a major overhaul in Trondheim. While there, on October 31, 1942, a fishing boat named the Archer approached her, crossing the Trondheim Fjord. 

Tied underneath her hull were two Chariot Mark 1 human torpedoes. These were two-seat underwater craft controlled via a pretzel-shaped maneuvering surface and propelled by an electric motor. Each carried a 600-pound detachable torpex warhead. Unfortunately, rough weather pried the Chariots loose before Archer was in range, foiling the raid.

Eleven months later in September 1943, the Royal Navy submariners were back—this time in a half-dozen X-class mini-submarines. These 30-ton vessels had crews of three and could manage roughly six knots.

Inauspiciously, submarines X-8 and X-9 were lost in transit, the latter with all her crew. Then X-10 had to abort mission due to mechanical difficulties. But all three of the submarines assigned to target Tirpitz made into the harbor, slipping through the anti-submarine nets while they were parted to admit a German boat.

X-5 was spotted 200 meters away and destroyed by 105-millimeter gunfire. But X-6 and X-7 both managed to lay their 4,400-pound Amatol timed explosive charges underneath the Tirpitz. Both crews subsequently were forced to abandon ship.

The two explosions jammed the Dora turret off its runners, ruptured steam lines, power cables and fuel tanks, buckled bulkheads, tossed both Ar-196 scout floatplanes into the water and let in 1,500 tons of water.

For the next six months, the Tirpitz was out of action undergoing repairs. The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm had a warm reception in store for the Tirpitz—as detailed in a companion article. 

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Creative Commons.

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