‘Where is TIRPITZ?” wrote a jittery Winston Churchill to his First Sea Lord in December 1942. It was not his last inquiry, and the exact whereabouts of Hitler’s mightiest warship occupied the prime minister for much of the war. So dangerous did he consider it that in January 1942 he told his naval chief that “the crippling of this ship would alter the entire face of the naval war and that the loss of 100 machines and 500 airmen would be well compensated for”.
Launched in 1939, a sister ship to the better known Bismarck, the Tirpitz was more than a match for any Royal Navy battleship: it was more heavily armed, better protected, faster and could travel greater distances without refuelling. Little wonder that Churchill was so determined to hunt her down.
There were no fewer than 24 major air and sea attempts to sink Tirpitz between October 1940 and her eventual demise in November 1944. They ranged from conventional attacks by heavy bombers, torpedo attacks both from the air and sea, and even midget submarines. And through it all the Tirpitz never once engaged in a major fleet action.
Given Tirpitz’s relative inactivity, Patrick Bishop wisely concentrates his splendid narrative on the many ingenious and extremely hazardous British attempts to destroy her. The most courageous was an operation by six midget submarines – or X-Craft as they were known – to drop mines beneath her hull in Ka?fjord in Norway in September 1943. Two X-Craft managed the feat, while a third was sunk in the vicinity, and the subsequent explosions ripped a 20ft-long gash in Tirpitz’s side. She would be out of action for almost six months, and the captains of the two successful X-Craft were rewarded with Victoria Crosses.
Even more VCs – five – were given for an earlier subsidiary operation to knock out the Normandie dock at St Nazaire, the largest in Europe and the only one on France’s Atlantic coast that was big enough to accommodate the Tirpitz. The fear was, writes Bishop, “that a raiding force with Tirpitz at its heart would steam into the North Atlantic, laying waste to the convoys and diverting most of the Home Fleet into the effort to hunt it down”.
So it was decided to destroy the dock with a mixed force of Royal Navy and Commandos in March 1942. They succeeded in one of the most audacious operations of the war, though at a cost of 105 sailors and 64 commandos killed.
So wary was the Royal Navy of the Tirpitz’s destructive power that in July 1942 it removed the escort from an Arctic convoy of 32 merchant ships because it feared the German battleship was near. It was not, and 23 unprotected ships – carrying more than 430 tanks, 87 aircraft, 3,350 vehicles and 99,000 tons of food – were sunk. Bishop blames Sir Dudley Pound, the ailing First Sea Lord, for “neglecting to share what information he did have with his admirals at sea”.
The end finally came on November 12 1944 when the RAF’s 617 squadron, the unit that had carried out the Dambusters raid a year earlier, used 12,000lb Tallboy bombs (another Barnes Wallis inventions) to pierce Tirpitz’s armour-plated decks at anchor in Tromsø. She sank with the loss of 971 hands.
Bishop does this extraordinary tale justice, as appreciative of the feats of the British servicemen and Norwegian agents involved as he is sensitive to the suffering of the doomed German sailors. He doles out credit and criticism where it is due, and has a gimlet eye for the telling human detail.
Elegantly written and exhaustively researched, Target Tirpitz is a fitting memorial to all those who perished in this relatively unknown chapter of naval warfare.
From The telegraph