The Tirpitz and the War in the Arctic

The bombers from the 9th and 617th Squadrons landed in Scotland during the afternoon of 13 November, their mission having been accomplished. One aircraft was missing, as it had been forced to land in Sweden. Another had flown to the Shetlands, after an engine had been hit by German Flak and fuel consumption had risen alarmingly. Eight bombers had to land on other fields than those they had taken off from. Among the latter was Tait’s Lancaster. When he and his crew climbed down from the bomber, they were asked if they had been on a cross-country training flight.

Next day, at the 5 Group morning conference, the officers present waited to see whether the outcome of Catechism might cause a temporary change in Cochrane’s stern exterior. He sat down behind his desk, glanced at the report, and then said in a matter-of-fact voice: “Last night’s raid … successful. Tirpitz sunk! Now, about tonight’s operations … the Dortmund-Ems canal …”

But if Cochrane appeared to regard Operation Catechism as little more than a navigation exercise, the 9th and 617th had finally put an end to British fears that the Tirpitz would threaten Allied shipping. They had done their utmost to prevent the German battleship from breaking out onto the Atlantic—air attacks by heavy bombers, torpedo bombers, human torpedoes, midget submarines, carrier aircraft, and further operations by heavy bombers. They had initiated deception operations like Tarantula and the pre-emptive attack on St. Nazaire. After all these efforts, success was finally achieved. In the shallow water where the Tirpitz had capsized, her hull, which had become a grave for almost 1,000 German seamen, would remain visible for many years. A Norwegian company later began to dismantle the wreck and sell it as scrap metal. The work continued well into the 1950s, when the war was already fading into the past.

In fact, when the Tallboys hit their target near Tromsø, the outcome of the Second World War had already been decided for some time. Most likely, the German defeat was already inevitable when the midget submarines penetrated into the net cage on 22 September 1943. The battleship would not participate in any operation after Sizilien. Her remaining career was characterised by German attempts to keep her battleworthy, while the British strenuously strove to damage and destroy her before she became fully operational again.

Perhaps Hitler’s negative attitude toward the heavy warships made the efforts to repair the Tirpitz less energetic than they might otherwise have been. On the other hand, it was difficult to repair such a large warship in northern Norway, as suitable facilities were mainly absent. As is known from many other warships—not least German—long periods of maintenance and repairs were often needed even if no battle damage had been sustained. Almost always, such work was conducted at well-equipped shipyards.

Against this background, it appears unlikely that the Tirpitz could have significantly influenced the course of events after the summer of 1943. The outcome of the war had been effectively decided and, at most, the German battleship could hardly even have delayed it. Largely, the war was decided on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army firmly dictated the main events from 1943 onwards. Valuable goods were unloaded from the convoys that arrived in Murmansk and Archangelsk after the summer of 1943. Above all, these products enabled Stalin to speed up his advance west, as the equipment provided by the Western powers improved Soviet mobility.

At most, an active use of the Tirpitz would have prevented some merchant ships from reaching their destination, but when the battleship was finally destroyed, even this rather remote possibility vanished. At this stage of the war, the Tirpitz was no longer an important component in the German war effort. The British were not fully aware that the Germans had written off the Tirpitz as an offensive weapon in autumn 1944, but even so, their final efforts appear almost overzealous. Perhaps this is an example of how wars develop their own logic. When a process has begun, it tends to carry on by its own inertia.

With the destruction of the Tirpitz, the last German battleship was neutralized. Admittedly, the Gneisenau remained in Gdynia, but she lacked her heavy guns. They had been removed for use in Norway as coastal artillery. The work to fit her with new 38cm guns had been discontinued after the Scharnhorst was sunk. She was not a battleworthy warship, and as she lacked her heavy guns, was hardly even useful as a floating battery. In March 1945, the Germans sunk the Gneisenau to block the port of Gdynia as the Red Army was about to capture it. The autumn of 1944 did not only see the end of the German battle fleet. In the Pacific, the Battle of the Surigao Strait was fought on the night of 24–25 October, about three weeks before the destruction of the Tirpitz. This night action between American and Japanese battleships would turn out to be the last occasion when battleships fought each other. The battleship era had come to its end, although the ships were still used for coastal bombardment.

During her career, the Tirpitz did not receive significant modifications. Her radar equipment as well as her anti-aircraft defenses were improved, but otherwise she underwent no major changes. She remained very similar to her sister ship Bismarck. However, few modern battleships were significantly altered during World War II. The most important shortcomings the Tirpitz suffered from could not be attributed to her construction, but to the concept she was supposed to fit into.

Raeder had worked to create a powerful German Navy, and the heavy warships had consumed most of its resources. He had hoped to use them against British transoceanic shipping. The Tirpitz had been designed for this concept, but she was never permitted to fulfill the role Raeder had conceived for her. Except when she narrowly missed PQ12 and QP8, she never even came close to an enemy convoy. All other Allied ships retained a healthy distance from the Tirpitz’s heavy guns. Why did events unfold in such a way?

The Tirpitz was the last German battleship; in fact she was the last heavy German warship completed during the war. When she was commissioned, Hitler had adopted a strong aversion to using the heavy warships on any mission that entailed risk. The constraints resulting from Hitler’s attitude did not make the German Navy officers inclined to use the warships with daring and innovation.

On the other hand, Hitler’s caution may have been fostered by the events of 1939–41, when many German warships had been lost without having achieved any major triumph. Perhaps he valued a fairly intact fleet more than insignificant successes on the sea, in particular if the latter were won at high cost.

If Hitler argued along these lines he was not detached from the reality, because the mere existence of the Tirpitz in Norwegian fjords tied up significant Allied resources. For over three years the British made considerable efforts with all arms to destroy the German battleship. In a sense, the Tirpitz can serve as an example of a fleet in being. It is, however, difficult to judge if these effects on the British justified the resources spent by the Germans in building the battleship and maintaining it. Once the ship was completed, it was perhaps wise to make the most of her, but nevertheless the German program on heavy warships, at least later in the war, appears wasted.

Lack of fuel seems to have been a major constraint on German naval warfare. An ocean warfare concept of the kind envisaged by Raeder would have required substantial quantities of oil, or else the impact on the enemy would have remained slight. It is doubtful that Germany could have acquired the necessary quantities. Thus a common notion—that Germany began the war before her naval build-up was completed—can be called into question. The so-called Z-Plan, which Raeder put forward during the second half of the 1930s, envisaged a much larger fleet, but not until a decade later; that is, not reaching fruition until after 1945. The sources do not agree entirely on the composition of the German fleet according to the plan, but it was projected to encompass about 10 battleships, 12 unspecified armored ships, 4 carriers, and at least 20 cruisers. As it proved difficult to supply the small German fleet in World War II with sufficient fuel, a much larger fleet along the lines outlined in the Z-Plan would have been almost impossible to use effectively.

The fact is that the German strategic position before World War II placed her between two land powers: France and Poland. They were the most likely enemies, and against them the Germans above all needed a strong Army supported by air power. The Navy could not be expected to contribute significantly in a war against France and Poland and was consequently allotted only a minor portion of the defense budget. But it must also be remembered that the other major powers were accelerating their naval programs during this period. Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Italy, and even the Soviet Union had initiated large naval production programs. Clearly, it cannot be taken for granted that the German Navy would have been in a better position if the war had begun later. Other countries, particularly those with overseas possessions, would have progressed further. Most importantly, many of the other powers controlled much larger sources of fuel.

The German effort to produce heavy warships could hardly have contributed significantly to defeating any of its major enemies. Probably the conquest of Norway was the most important German success to which the Navy contributed significantly. By controlling Norway, the Germans had removed the threat against the Swedish iron ore deposits, which were very valuable to the German war economy. However, the occupation of Norway took place before the Bismarck and Tirpitz were completed.

If the expansion of the German Navy before World War II was a blunder, it was not without precursors. In the decade before World War I, the Imperial German Navy expanded considerably, even more than before World War II. In the end, the German surface fleet in World War I obtained very meager results, and it seems that Germany’s expansion of its Navy before the war significantly contributed to the British decision to declare war.

The men who were caught inside the Tirpitz’s hull had more mundane problems to consider than naval strategy in distant waters. Bernstein’s group had survived inside the sickening oil tank for more than eight hours when Sommer’s men cut a hole in the hull. Fearing the oil might catch fire, Bernstein ordered some of the men to go for a few fire extinguishers he had seen in an adjacent compartment. They sprinkled the area where the welding flames cut through the plates. Soon a hole had been created, and the rescue party poured water on the edges to chill them. When Bernstein had got up through the hole and stood trembling while breathing the fresh air, Sommer approached him and asked, “Are there more men down there?”

“Yes, next to us,” Bernstein replied. “They were banging and we could hear a piece of metal falling.”

“They have already been saved,” Sommer said. “They were inside the workshop above one of the tanks. We got them out before you.”

Bernstein looked at the devastation surrounding the ship. Below him, remains of the torpedo nets floated in the oily water and small boats were picking up the bodies of dead seamen. On the beach, he could see small groups of survivors who had not yet found shelter from the cold. The German repair ship Neumark had been positioned alongside the battleship, as had the Norwegian pilot boat Arngast, on which more sophisticated welding equipment was carried. Everywhere on the keel, both rescuers and rescued congratulated each other. Bernstein recognized Sub-Lieutenant Wache, one of the engineers who had participated in the rescue work. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He did not weep over the lost comrades, but shed tears of joy over the saved.

“I am sure there is another group rather close to us,” Bernstein said. “I heard them knocking on the bulkheads.”

“You have done enough now,” Sommer said. “Take one of the boats and row ashore with your men. Get some rest. We are still working at the bow and I have to go there.”

The rescue work continued during the night and well into the morning, when the last survivors were brought out from the interior of the battleship. Altogether, Sommer and his men had saved 87 men from the wreck. At last he would find some rest.

When Sommer sat in the boat which brought him to Tromsø and looked at the huge keel, which resembled an enormous dead whale, he watched the sad remnants of the German efforts to create a powerful battle fleet. The efforts had been initiated at the end of the 19th century, and the results had been tested in two world wars. The man who set the program in motion was Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of the Navy in the Imperial German Cabinet, 1897–1916. It is ironic that the last German battleship carried his name.

The Bismarck had been the last German battleship endeavoring to cut off the British transatlantic trade routes and thus cripple the British economy. The Tirpitz had been given the less ambitious task to halt Allied Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union.

Neither of these aims had been achieved.

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