The 'TIRPITZ' Factor

It is now 64 years since Charles Newman and Bob Ryder sailed their rag-tag fleet through the estuary of the River Loire, prepared to risk everything in order to prevent the German battleship 'TIRPITZ' from breaking into - and creating havoc within - the Atlantic convoy routes linking Britain to the Americas. Little did they know, however, that  plans for the future operational deployment of that great ship had already been decided upon at the highest level within Germany, and that those plans explicitely ruled out the kind of Atlantic adventure the British feared most. There simply was never any intention of sailing 'TIRPITZ' on the kind of voyage which had seen her sister-ship 'BISMARCK' sunk - a fact which, unfortunately, still seems to have escaped the attention of some commentators. The arguments detailed below were prepared for my first book on 'CHARIOT', but in the main did not survive the editing of others. I present them to you, under the title I had planned for them, not as 'a' story, or 'my' story, but simply in an attempt to reach a fuller understanding of 'THE' story behind the hazarding and sacrifice of so many highly motivated, irreplaceable young men.

The mighty 'TIRPITZ' demonstrating her lethal potential.
(photo courtesy of M.S.Laarman -

In the Shadow of the 'Wolf'

As far as the German Navy was concerned, World War 11 began several years too soon. Having just proposed in its 'Z'-Plan a major program of construction which, by 1944, would have given it the power to dispute Great Britain's domination of the high seas, the Kriegsmarine instead found itself embroiled in an unwanted war, with only a handful of its most modern units available, and with no clear policy as to how even these precious few should best be used.

Except in respect of the new Germany's want of a battle-fleet, the early stages of this war quickly took on the character of the previous conflict. The Royal Navy would use its superior strength to blockade Germany and confine her surface units to the Baltic and the North Sea; while German ships would seek to interrupt  the convoy lifelines which supplied her foe with the means to continue fighting - this by sailing small groups or even individual units through the encircling 'cordon  sanitaire', to areas where their destructive potential might not be hostage to their numerical inferiority. Free to roam the high seas, such raiders could both strike at will and make it far more difficult for the British to contain their siblings, by requiring blockading warships to be diverted into costly hunting groups.

Echoing down the years the names of some of these ships - the ADMIRALS GRAF SPEE and SCHEER,  the HIPPER, PRINZ EUGEN, SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU, still retain a mystique born of the very real threat they posed at a time when Britain's ability to long sustain her war effort was far from assured. In the case of the BISMARCK class of super-battleships that threat was especially lethal in that circumstances would soon prove even the most modern British warships incapable of engaging and defeating them, one on one. In the case of the GRAF SPEE, her depradations prompted the reassignment of no fewer than 22 British warships into hunting groups - a dispersal of effort which had the desired effect of weakening the Royal Navy's presence elsewhere, creating a diversion which allowed the battle-cruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU to break out. To counter these new transgressors the then C-in-C Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, was obliged to disperse his resources right across the North Sea in a vain attempt to prevent their ultimate return to Germany. Given such a huge imbalance in relative effort, this was proof that the theory worked. Ignoring the fact that, ton for ton, the tiny, noisome U-Boats were far more effective in destroying enemy merchant tonnage, these few, more glamorous, warships did succeed in carrying the German flag far across the world's oceans, gaining - at least for a time - enviable kudos for the Kriegsmarine while leading much of the world's most powerful Navy a merry and often fruitless dance. This was a most promising start; however its gloss was dimmed both by Hitler's adjuration that such units must 'withdraw' in the face of enemy ships of equal or greater power, and by the continuing need to risk a passage of the North Sea in order to access home ports. This latter restriction was galling in the extreme - which is why the French Atlantic ports were considered such a prize when they fell to German arms in the summer of 1940.

During the early months of 1941, the principle of surface raiding reached its zenith, as warships combined with disguised merchant raiders to carry the German threat into every corner of the world's oceans. To build on their success plans were laid to tip the balance - perhaps irretrievably - in favor of the Reich, by unleashing the hugely powerful BISMARCK upon an enemy now thought to be vulnerable.

Launched on St Valentine's Day, 1939, and completed in 1940, BISMARCK was to be the first of the class upon which so many of Raeder's hopes had rested - a class of ship capable of engaging and defeating any surface foe. Armed with eight 15" guns, she was listed at 35,000 tons to satisfy treaty limitations, although she was in fact much heavier, displacing 42,000 tons unloaded. Entering a league where even a single knot could mean the difference between defeat and victory, she was, crucially, faster than almost any British ship she might be called upon to fight.

Originally intended to join with SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU in establishing an immensely powerful Atlantic presence, her foray was, however, delayed by problems with, or damage to, the other vessels of the putative fleet. The heavy cruiser PRINZ EUGEN , in whose company she would attempt a breakout, was slightly damaged by a mine: and while waiting in Brest the battle-cruisers too were laid low - SCHARNHORST by engine troubles, and GNEISENAU by a torpedo strike. Rather than wait till all were prepared, the impatient Raeder decided to press on when just the PRINZ EUGEN was ready, initiating Operation RHEINUBUNG when she and BISMARCK sailed from Gotenhafen on May 18th, carrying with them a dream of conquest whose scale was matched only by the emormity of the risk they knew they were taking.

Sailing for the very first time with permission actually to engage their enemy's heaviest units, the two ships made for the northern exits via the coast of Norway. Forewarned of their intent, the British moved to stop them, sailing the Home Fleet - now under Admiral Tovey - north from Scapa Flow, while a powerful squadron comprising the battle-cruiser HOOD, the new battleship PRINCE OF WALES and six destroyers, sailed west from Iceland to intercept their prey in the Denmark Strait.

It was this latter formation which finally brought the German ships to action, on the morning of May 24th. The sighting was made at 0535; fire was opened at 0553; HOOD blew up at 0600; and shortly thereafter the damaged PRINCE OF WALES was forced to turn away. It was a shocking demonstration of just how vulnerable were Britain's older ships to the guns of the very best ships a modern navy could produce, and it spurred the British to draw on every conceivable resource in order to avenge the loss of her best-loved ship. With the Home Fleet maintaining its dogged pursuit, additional heavy units - including the carrier VICTORIOUS - were rushed in from as far away as Halifax NS and Gibraltar. Here was the Admiralty's 'nightmare' situation - a German 'tail' wagging a large, angry and, at least for the time being, apparently impotent  British 'dog'. The fact that the bulk of the Royal Navy's might was being hurriedly diverted to the destruction of just two ships, was a lesson that would be well remembered in the months to come.

Trailing a slick of oil from a minor hit, BISMARCK made for the shelter of Saint-Nazaire, the captured French Atlantic base deep within the estuary of the River Loire, whose huge graving dock was capable of housing monsters such as she. After a running fight which lasted for several more days, and when almost within range of Luftwaffe air cover, she was finally disabled - not by Britain's battle-fleet - by an air-dropped  torpedo. Pounded mercilessly by the Royal Navy's heaviest guns, she proved almost impossible to sink, in the end  succumbing to multiple torpedo strikes. HOOD was avenged, and the mighty BISMARCK was no more: but her spectre would remain to haunt the Admiralty for so long as any of her kind remained afloat.

Although Raeder's grandiose plans had once foreseen monster warships of a scale even greater than the BISMARCK class, these dreams were relics of an age of unbridled optimism which existed before the U-BOAT's emergence  as the nautical weapon of greatest potential, and before Germany's ever-expanding commitments forced her to ration her scarce material resources. By mid-1941 not only had almost all new building stopped, but also the very future of Germany's surface fleet was being called into question at a time when every man and every pound of armor were needed to support the Wehrmacht's new adventures in the East. Vastly expensive to build and man, the Kriegsmarine's capital ships were being robbed of their role by Donitz' infinitely cheaper and more productive submersibles. Thus it was that when BISMARCK was finally destroyed, only the mighty TIRPITZ remained: last of the breed, her sister-ship and twin in every respect - not least because of the awe in which she would continue to be held by the British. 

Completed in February 1942, TIRPITZ had been working up in the Baltic at the time of BISMARCK's strike deep into the Atlantic. It is argued that Raeder would have been better to wait until she became operational so as to add her to the fleet - but it would have been a very long wait indeed, for it was January 1942 before her trials were completed and she was declared in all respects ready for operations. One important consequence of this long delay was the time it afforded both Hitler and Raeder to consider what role so powerful a ship might profitably play within an increasingly land-bound war machine, their cogitations tending to diminish her threat at the very time the British were becoming ever more agitated by the possibility of having to deal with yet another major threat to the Atlantic convoys.

Seen from the perspective of a Britain wholly dependent on open sea-lanes, an obsession with the disasters which might yet be a consequence of TIRPITZ breaking out into the Atlantic is at least understandable. Yet the world had moved on; and while BISMARCK had sailed with her freedom of operations restricted only by the guns of the enemy, TIRPITZ was to enter the conflict  essentially emasculated by an ever-growing catalogue of restrictions - not all of which can have been missed or misinterpreted by British strategists of the period.

Chief amongst Raeder's concerns was the fact that his ambitions in respect of a strong German Atlantic presence were slowly being turned to dust. The French Atlantic bases which were proving such a boon to Donitz and his U-Flotillas, had not lived up to their promise as bolt-holes from which warships might sally forth at will. Ever more threatened by a resurgent Bomber Command, they were becoming little more than traps from which a withdrawal might have to be contemplated, their weary saga of bombing-repair-and yet more bombing making it abundantly clear that to add TIRPITZ to the list of ships already under threat would be to throw away whatever advantage might yet be salvaged by Germany's huge investment in her.

Oil too was becoming a determining factor, at least as likely to humble TIRPITZ as any British guns or bombs. While the U-Boats and 'pocket-battleships' burned diesel - of which supplies were plentiful - the great battlewagons were voracious consumers of fuel oil, the demands for which already often exceeded supply. Bound by treaty to meet the needs of their Italian allies, while supplies were at the same time being strangled by the British blockade, the situation steadily worsened through 1941 to the point where, when TIRPITZ finally completed her working-up, there was simply not enough fuel available to make full use of her.

As with so many other areas of the German war machine, there was also the need to cope with the direct interference of Hitler himself. As Germany's last remaining true battleship, he was fully aware of the extent to which the loss of TIRPITZ would damage the Reich's prestige. In this, as in so many other areas pertaining to the Navy,  his views were diametrically opposed to Raeder's, leading to a conflict over how best she might serve her country. As a man who understood ships, it was Raeder's wish that she be used aggressively while, as a man who had no feel at all for naval tradition, it was Hitler's wish that she remain in home waters - employing her huge power, at minumum risk, to deter what he percieved to be Churchill's ambition in the north. Certain the British would eventually try to capture Norway - a personal conviction reinforced by Commando attacks and by the confident predictions of the Abwehr - he saw his capital ships as the key to that country's defence. His stance is  recorded by F H Hinsley who, in his book 'Hitler's Strategy', states that by late December 1941, following the successful attack on Vaagso, Hitler was quite certain the British would attack Norway, from which they might "..exert pressure on Sweden and Finland..." "..the German fleet must therefore use all of its forces for the defence of Norway. It would be expedient to transfer all battleships and pocket-battleships there for this purpose." Station TIRPITZ in the relative security of the Fjords and the British would not dare risk the men and ships of any invasion force. Move her to Norway, and she could put the Allied convoys to Russia directly under threat. Keep her where she could not be harmed, and by the very fact of her acting as a 'fleet-in-being', she would oblige the British to keep their best capital ships tied to Scapa Flow, and thus far away from active participation in the broader war at sea.

This was an argument Hitler was determined to win, which meant that, when TIRPITZ finally sailed from Wilhelmshaven on the night of 14/15 January, 1942, she was bound not for glory on the high seas, but for the fjords of Trondheim and life at the end of a leash within the self-imposed prison of the North Sea.

Seen through jaundiced British eyes, however, and with the humiliation of the BISMARCK episode still fresh in many minds, it was the 'glory' option which seemed to make the most sense. Only too aware of the havoc such a ship might cause, and unaware of the extent to which Hitler's obsession with Norway was constricting her movements, an alarming sense of deja-vu accompanied her arrival in Foettenfjord. Would she really come out? And if so, was the whole sorry saga of the previous May to be lived through yet again?

The subject of a long dispute with Churchill, the Admiralty's concern with TIRPITZ was demonstrated by their containment policy of holding their three most modern battleships ready in home waters just to guard against a possible run for the northern exits. At a time when the growing threat from Japan made reinforcement of the Far East Fleet imperative, they stubbornly refused to release any but their oldest ships - standing firm in the face of Churchill's insistence that the immediate threat in the Far East was of potentially greater consequence to the Empire than what  might possibly happen were TIRPITZ to come out. The Premier understood full well that  the threat posed by TIRPITZ was so effective in itself, Germany would hardly be so foolish to waste the advantage inherent in her reputation alone, by risking their last great ship at sea. In fact her deterrent effect so impressed him that it formed the basis of his own argument that powerful British units be despatched as soon as possible to do the very same to Japan.

Adding to Churchill's conviction that Germany must be fully aware of the advantages of keeping TIRPITZ safe in Norway, was the speed of British development in the field of cryptanalysis. Having developed equipment which allowed them to break, with increasing frequency and speed, the most complex German machine codes, the Navy had been able to trace, and sink, those of BISMARCK's fleet of supply ships for whose loss a plausible excuse might be presented to the world. Now, with the code-breakers at Bletchley Park able to read - virtually concurrently - all German naval signals transmitted in the 'Home Waters' (Heimisch) Enigma key, Naval Intelligence was able to follow in great detail most of TIRPITZ's preparations for sea. The cloak of secrecy surrounding the movement of German surface ships was gone - never to return.

Disparaging, though he might have been, of the TIRPITZ threat whenever it suited his purpose, Churchill was also fully aware that the only permanent solution to the problem was to remove the ship herself. By the end of 1941, with his own 'deterrent' force - PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE - lying at the bottom of the South China Sea, and British prestige in the Far East dwindling fast, he knew that the destruction or neutralisation of the one ship that was holding his own best units in check, must be achieved and achieved quickly. Should she be sunk or disabled, then the Atlantic convoys would be secure AND perhaps even more importantly for Churchill, the slippage of Britain's influence in the Far East might still be reversed. Goaded therefore by the move of TIRPITZ to the area of Trondheim, he minuted the Chiefs of Staff Committee on January 25th 1942, to the effect that "The destruction or even crippling of this ship is the greatest event at sea in the present time. No other target is comparable to it." The text of this minute makes no attempt to conceal his personal fixation with distant seas, as it confirms that should TIRPITZ be knocked out, then "The entire naval strategy throughout the world would be altered, and the naval command in the Pacific would be regained."

When TIRPITZ first moved into Norwegian waters, it really did appear to the Admiralty that another exhausting, and perhaps humiliating, chase was on the cards. On the face of it no immediate course of action seemed to be open to them beyond closing - insofar as they ever could be closed - the northern exits and hoping to engineer a situation in which she could be bested in a straight fight. Snug in the fjords she could not be touched by either surface ships or conventional submersibles; and nor did the RAF seem capable of dealing her a decisive blow. In effect TIRPITZ now appeared to hold all the cards - which left the British searching desperately for a means by which the range of options seen to be open to her could at least be limited. In essence nothing could be done in the short term to prevent her dominating the North Sea and posing an ever-present threat to the Arctic convoys; however, strenuous efforts could at least be made to limit her to that. Such a solution would do nothing at all for Churchill's ambitions in the Far East, since the blocking force of battleships would be obliged to remain on standby in Scapa Flow (not necessarily a bad thing for those who foresaw Britain's need of the influence such a modern battlefleet might wield in the world post-war ),  but it might at least draw much of her sting in respect of the damage and dislocation TIRPITZ would certainly cause were she ever to succeed in breaking out into the Atlantic.

Ironically, it was TIRPITZ herself who held the key to this, at least partial, solution, in that only a handful of dry docks worldwide could house a vessel of her bulk, and, more importantly, only one could be accessed directly from the Atlantic battleground. Trailing her slick of oil the wounded BISMARCK had been making for it when finally caught and sunk. Destroy this one great dock and TIRPITZ, should she ever be damaged in battle on the high seas, would instead be forced to run for a German port, right into the arms of the waiting Royal Navy. Destroy the Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert, built to house the giant liner NORMANDIE in the French Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire, and maybe - just maybe - those who the British believed were planning to send her out might be persuaded to think again.

So, in those dark first days of 1942, when Britain's hopes were taking one pounding after another, wheels were set in motion for an amphibious assault  which would see Army Commandos combine with the Navy in comprehensively neutralising both the NORMANDIE dock AND all its ancilliary services. As the abnormally high water associated with the approaching Spring tides was critical to the operation's success, it would not take place until the end of March - which would still seem to afford TIRPITZ a significant window of opportunity. However, without even realising it, those same Commandos had already played a significant role in deciding this great ship's future, by virtue of their Christmas 1941 raids on Vaagso and Maaloy - assaults against the Norwegian coast which only served to emphasize in German minds the need to assemble a powerful defensive fleet in home waters, precipitating actions increasingly at odds with British fears. Thus it was that, a mere eighteen days after Churchill had first voiced the suggestion that the NORMANDIE dock be destroyed, Germany finally abandoned the Atlantic presence which SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU had long maintained for her in Brest, pulling these ships back through the Channel to buttress the defensive presence at home. Seen at the time as a major defeat for the British, whose forces had proved incapable of defending their own back yard, this 'Channel Dash' in fact heralded the end of any German dream of ever basing a powerful Atlantic squadron on the hard-won Biscay ports.

As the planning for CHARIOT wore on, and having been conditioned by the encounter with BISMARCK to expect the worst of rough treatment from such ships, what was still missing from the equation was an actual demonstration of how Germany's last great naval asset would be handled in battle. Cue the Russia-bound convoy PQ12, whose presence near Jan Mayen Island early in March prompted a raiding sortie, by TIRPITZ and three destroyers, which could at best be termed irresolute. Short of fuel, plagued by bad weather, and shadowed by a Home Fleet whose movements owed much to 'ULTRA' intercepts, the German ships finally ran for home, having to cope with a poorly co-ordinated attack by British carrier-borne aircraft en-route. It was a narrow escape whose consequence was to wring tighter still the bonds which tied TIRPITZ to the fjords, resulting in the adjuration that no such foray be contemplated in the future if there was the slightest risk that British carriers might be present. Thus was she exposed as rather more sheep than wolf - this a full two weeks before 611 men were due to sail for Saint-Nazaire on a venture whose cost would be some 400 souls, killed, wounded, missing or captured.

Copyright James Dorrian, 1998/2006

SOURCES (primary)

'SINK THE TIRPITZ': Leonce Peillard, 1968 Jonathan Cape
'CHURCHILL AND THE ADMIRALS': Stephen Roskill, 1977 Collins
'ULTRA AT SEA': John Winton, 1988 Leo Cooper
'THE WAR AT SEA, 1939-1945': Vols 1 and 11, Stephen Roskill, 1954 HMSO
'MENACE': Ludovic Kennedy, 1979 Sidgwick & Jackson
'HITLER'S NAVAL WAR': Cajus Bekker, 1974 Doubleday
'HITLER'S STRATEGY': F.H. Hinsley, 1951 Cambridge University Press