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Maritime Tales – the Tirpitz threat

9 July 2007 by stepheng

man standing next to case with large ship model

Stephen Guy with the Tirpitz model. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

The very name Tirpitz spits out menace and death for me, Stephen Guy. Here was a beautiful ship which never, thankfully, achieved her full potential.

The Tirpitz and her sister, the Bismarck were the largest and most powerful German battleships to serve in the Second World War. While the Bismarck was sunk in a sea battle with four British warships, the Tirpitz blew up and capsized during an air attack in a Norwegian fjord.

In Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a superb eight-foot long model of the Tirpitz made by David Wooley of Wallasey (shown).

The 42,900-ton Tirpitz was not completed in time to join the Bismarck on her ill-fated Atlantic voyage in May 1941. Instead in January 1942 she sailed for German-occupied Norway where she hardly ever left the shelter of the fjords. There she posed a threat to allied convoys carrying war supplies to northern Russia.

Many attempts were made to sink her before two huge bombs finally did the job. The best-known attempt was in September 1943 when British midget submarines travelled 1,000 miles during which they negotiated a minefield and dodged nets, gun defences and enemy listening posts. The submarines then planted explosive charges beneath the Tirpitz, doing so much damage that the battleship was out of action for several months. Lieutenants Basil Place and Donald Cameron each received the Victoria Cross for gallantry for their parts in the action.

By April 1944 Tirpitz was repaired and presented a renewed threat to the Allies. Waves of air attacks on her through the summer of 1944 did some damage. In August she was able to undergo sea trials, making it imperative that she be destroyed. More air attacks followed.

In October Tirpitz was moved south to act as a floating gun battery against the expected Allied invasion of Norway. Crucially, she was now within range of air operations from Scotland. By this time legendary British weapons inventor Barnes Wallis had perfected his five-ton Tallboy bomb. British Lancaster bombers from Lossiemouth in Scotland finally destroyed Tirpitz on 12 November 1944. She was struck by three Tallboys – one glanced off turret armour but the other two blew a 200 ft hole in her side. A magazine blew up and the Tirpitz capsized within minutes. Nearly 1,000 German sailors, out of a crew of 1,700, died.

The Tirpitz was broken up after the war although part of the bow remains where she sank. It is said that sections of the Tirpitz’s armour plates are still used in Norway as temporary road surfaces during roadworks.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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