Tirpitz

The History

Operation "Paravane"

Since the early raids by Stirlings and Halifaxes in 1942, and the even earlier raids by the Hampdens in the first year of the war, both the technique and technology of the Royal Air Force had increased enormously. The combination of the genius of Dr Barnes Wallis and the inspiring leadership of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, had created 617 squadron, the Dambusters. When first ordered to form this squadron for special duty Gibson had thought the target was to be Tirpitz and was much relieved to learn otherwise.

Now, 18 months later, the most determined and skilled squadron in Bomber Command, equipped with the most devastating bomb devised, was to attack Tirpitz. Not content with designing the skipping bombs for the Ruhr dams, Barnes Wallis had devised the "Tallboy" bomb, 5,443 kg (12,000 lb) in weight with 2,358 kg (5,200 lb) of high explosive, beautifully designed for accurate flight and great penetration. It was this combination which was to be sent against Tirpitz.

However in her fastness at Kåfjord Tirpitz was out of range for a round flight by a Lancaster loaded with a "Tallboy" bomb and it was therefore necessary for the bombers to land and refuel in Russia. Permission was readily obtained for them to use the facilities at Yagodnik, in marked contrast to the delayed agreement for the reconnaissance aircraft required for Operation "Source" a year previously. On 10 September 1944, 33 Lancasters of 617 and 9 squadrons, accompanied by 2 Liberators with spare parts and ground crew, took off from Lossiemouth under the command of Wing-Commander J.B. Tait, bound for Russia. Somehow or other they all arrived although the Yagodnik radio-navigation beacon was of the wrong type, the cloud level down below 305 meter (1,000 feet) and the landscape monotonously and unidentiflably uniform, but 2 aircraft from 617 and 4 from 9 squadron made emergency landings in marshland and had to be abandoned.

Photo: One of the attacking four-engine Lancaster bombers is at the centre of the photograph during the attack on Tirpitz 15 September 1944. The effort to cover the area in smoke is self-evident.

For 3 days it poured with rain. Then, on 15 September 1944, 27 bombers took off for Tirpitz, codenamed Operation "Paravane". Of these 21 carried the 5,443 kg (12,000 lb) "Tallboys", the other 6 each carried twelve 182 kg (400 lb) JW Mk II Mines. The bombers crossed the high peaks 144 kilometer (90 miles) distant from the battleship's berth at about 1100, but they were still 5 minutes short of the target when die smoke floats began operating. At about 3,658 meter (12,000 feet) they levelled out for the attack, coming in in flights of 6 from the south-east. The shore batteries, flak ship and Tirpitz all opened fire, the battleship using her 15 in guns for barrage fire as well as all her smaller weapons. The target was rapidly disappearing beneath a smokescreen wich resulted in that the bombers were virtually bombing blind. 5 bombers decided not to waste any bombs on a completely obscured target. Only 16 out of the 21 Tallboys were dropped and the squadron flew back to Yagodnik before returning to England.

Berth of Tirpitz in Kåfjord

The bombers had taken photographs during the attack and further reconnaissances were made shortly afterwards but it was not easy to assess the results and a hit on or near the stern seemed probable with some near misses. Later reports from the Norwegian Resistance stated that Tirpitz had been hit at the bows and this in fact was the truth although the British Cabinet were uncertain how serious was the extent of damage and had no guarantee that Tirpitz was seriously stricken. Actually the 5,443 kg (12,000 lb) bomb hit Tirpitz's bows about 15 meter (50 feet) back from the stem and went through the upper deck to emerge well below the waterline on the starboard side before exploding. The resultant damage was the flooding of the forward part of the ship and the shaking of much of the machinery, main and auxiliary. A German document found after the war could have set the minds of the British at rest:

"It was estimated that repairs, if they could be carried out without interruption, would take at least 9 months. It was eventually decided at a conference on 23 September 1944 at which the C-in-C and Naval Staff were present, that it was no longer possible to make the Tirpitz ready for sea and action again . . ."

Photo: Tirpitz photographed on 18 October 1944 off Håkøya near Tromsø. This was her final anchorage.

The Germans decided to move Tirpitz to a shallow berth where she could not be sunk. And after some careful hydrographic work she was transferred under her own power on the night of 15 October 1944 and moored in the Sørbotn, off Håkøya near Tromsø, Norway. With Tirpitz went her AA batteries and anti-torpedo nets. Dredgers shifted spoil to fill in a hole under her berth so that, come what might, she could only sink a little way. Here in Tromsø, no longer a major war vessel, she was to be a floating battery helping to protect Germany's Norwegian flank.

But by moving from Kåfjord to Tromsø Tirpitz had come 320 kilometer (200 miles) nearer Britain and it was now possible, just possible, for the bombers to reach her directly and return. The Lancasters of both 617 and 9 squadrons had their rear turrets removed, overload tanks from Wellington bombers slid inside the fuselage and the rear turrets then replaced, to give them a further 1,364 liter (300 gallons) fuel capacity. To reduce weight the mid-upper turrets and the armour plating round the pilot's seat were removed.

Berth of Tirpitz off Håkøya

On 28 October 1944 the bombers flew up to Lossiemouth to prepare for another attack codenamed Operation "Obviate". At midnight a weather-reporting Mosquito over Tromsø reported conditions favourable with the wind veering cast and an hour later the Lancasters took off. 32 bombers each carrying a "Tallboy" bomb. They flew low over the water, crossed the Norwegian coast well to the south and turned left up the line of the Swedish frontier to attack from inland. They were just half a minute too late. As they were approaching the forewarned Tirpitz at 0850 the wind shifted back to the west and cloud rolled in from the sea. Harrassed by heavy flak they tried to bomb through the breaks in the cloud. Not only would it have been dangerous to try and fly below the cloud which was wreathing the mountains but it would have been pointless since the bombs had to be dropped from a great height to penetrate the battleship's armoured deck. There were no hits but a near miss off the port quarter bent Tirpitz's propeller shaft. 1 Lancaster, already flying with only 3 engines, was hit by a single gun sited on a small island. Carey, the pilot, kept it flying on 2 engines and made a forced landing in Sweden. The aircraft was a write-off but there were no casualties and all the others returned safely.