Many believe that Bismarck was the biggest ship of the German Navy but in reality it was her sister ship, the Tirpitz. She was two meters longer and 1200 tons heavier. While Bismarck had an illustrious life, Tirpitz spent most of her time caged in the Norwegian Fjords.
Almost from the day in January 1942 when Tirpitz had completed her trials and slipped into Norwegian waters, the British had been trying in vain to cripple or destroy her. During the first four months of that year, while she was anchored within land-based bombers in Britain, the RAF had made five separate raids resulting in 14 planes lost and not a single hit.
And now, she had been moved into the safety clutches of the fjords and out of reach of Britain’s land based bombers.
“The Lonely Queen of the North”, as her 2500 man crew called her, moored in her favourite anchorage, 1000 miles from the nearest base in Britain but only 50 miles from Allied convoys bound for Russia. Snow-streaked cliffs rose all around her to heights that would have made a carrier-based plane attack a very risky operation. Dive bombers would almost surely have crashed into the walls of the fjord on their upward turn, torpedo bombers, even if they were not destroyed by the flak batteries on either side of their only approach, would have had their torpedoes intercepted by the nets around Tirpitz.
But the Germans, leaving nothing to chance, had added one more defence. In the surrounding mountains, they had placed enough smoke screen equipment to shroud the fjord from any attacking planes.
It is no exaggerations when Winston Churchill wrote, “the whole strategy of the war turned at this period on this ship, which is holding four times the number of British capital ships paralyzed, to say nothing of the two new American battleships in the Atlantic. I regard the matter as of highest urgency and importance.”
So, in deep secrecy, the British devised a plan to place time bombs under the Tirpitz and escape before the bombs exploded.
In 1969, Thomas Gallagher, in his book ‘The X Craft Raid’, recreated the exploits of 24 British sailors in 6 ugly ducklings called midget submarines or X-craft.
The Royal Navy placed an order for six midget submarines, with diameter considerably less than six feet, so that she could maneuvre and cross the first obstacle – an extensive minefield at the entrance of the fjords. Yet she would have to be strong enough to dive to 300 feet and versatile enough to avoid detection, cut through anti submarine nets and travel submerged, if necessary, for as long as 36 hours.
In January 1943, six 51foot X-craft (X-5 through X-10) were delivered. They were masterpieces of improvisation, deprived of human comfort. Since limited by size, the midgets carried only two 2-ton detachable charges, fired by clockwork time fuses, outside the hull.
Despite their size and appearance, the midgets could do just about everything a submarine 20 times their size could, except for range. The midget had a range of only 1200 miles, which meant she would have to depend on power not her own to negotiate the 2000 mile round trip in open sea between Scotland and the target area. Therefore, she had to be towed by a full sized submarine.
On September 11, 1943, six ocean going submarines, each with a midget at the end of a 300 foot nylon towline, left from the harbour at two hour intervals.
On September 20, X5, X6 and X7 with a crew of four each, (X8, X9 and X10, for one reason or another, could not make it) were separated from their parent submarines and soon, they have to be on their own to negotiate the various obstacles before they could reach the target area.
Thirty five hours later, X-6 and X-7 were able to unload their deadly time bombs beneath the Tirpitz, but on their way out, tragedy struck.
First it was X-6 that broke surface and the four crews were soon captured by the Germans. X-5 and X-7 were forced to surface when the bombs exploded with such intensity that the battleship was lifted some seven feet clear of the water. Since X-5 surfaced within the depression of the ships gun, she was immediately blown to pieces in full view of the captured X-6 crew.
Of the twelve men, six lost their lives. Four survivors from X-6 and two from X-7 spent the entire war as prisoners in Germany.
Two days after the X-craft attack, Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander in chief of the German navy flew to inspect the Tirpitz. He read the damaged reports, made a thorough check of the ship and issued a prophetic statement.
“One thing is certain,” he said, “If Tirpitz puts to sea after this, she can only be on her death ride.”
There was a hole, the size of a barn door in Tirpitz hull, and all of the great ship’s lower decks were flooded. Pipes were smashed, and machineries were torn loose. Only one of the eight diesel generators was still operable.
With Hitler’s approval, Doenitz decided that no attempt should be made to move the ship to Germany for repairs. Instead, repair ships, equipment and 1000 workers were rushed from Germany to Norway in an attempt to make the ship operational again.
Not until April 1944 was Tirpitz able to move from her anchorage.
In August and September she was damaged again, this time by air attack. In October, the badly crippled ship steamed slowly and shakily south to Tromso, Norway. On November 12, 1944, the RAF dealt her the coup de grace. Plane after plane rained armour-piercing bombs upon her until she rolled over and revealed the fatal wound the X-craft midgets had inflicted on her.
In retrospect, had the German high command utilised the full potential of Tirpitz, she would have taken many allied ships with her to the bottom. Her epitaph would have been as glorious as her sister ship, Bismarck which went down fighting to the last gunfire.
What an abysmal end to a ship reputed to be the mightiest in Europe!