Bomber Command

Tirpitz, November 12 1944

Tirpitz, November 12 1944

On November 12, 1944, the Royal Air Force carried out one of the most successful precision bombing attacks of the Second World War, resulting in the sinking of the German battleship 'Admiral von Tirpitz'. The attack was made by 29 Lancasters of Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons. No fewer than 10 attacks, by RAF and Royal Navy aircraft and by British and Russian submarines, had been made on the Tirpitz since she had been completed in 1941. It was therefore not surprising that the German Navy regarded the ship as unsinkable. When the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, visited the Squadrons at their base the day after the Tirpitz had been sunk, he congratulated them on sinking 'one of the toughest ships in the world'.

On 15 September 1944 9 and 617 Squadrons attacked the Tirpitz (circled) in Kaa Fjord, and despite the smoke screen seen here, managed to hit the ship with a single Tallboy. The two attacks which preceded the successful one of November 12th were both made by RAF Bomber Command. On September 15th, 1944, Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons, operating from Yagodnik near Archangel in Russia, attacked the Tirpitz, but were prevented from making accurate bombing runs by a smoke screen which surrounded the vessel. The screen did not prevent the Tirpitz from being hit by one of the thirteen Tallboy bombs dropped, however. The damage caused by this attack made the Tirpitz unable to put to sea, a fact not know to the Allies at the time. The ship was towed to an anchorage 4 miles from Tromso and on October 29th, the two squadrons made another attack. This time, flying direct from Lossiemouth, the Lancasters were fitted with more powerful Merlin 24 engines, were lightened by the removal of the mid-upper gun turret, some of the armour plating and other equipment, were fitted with overload fuel tanks. Each Lancaster carried a 12,000lb 'Tallboy' bomb, but again the attack was a disappointment as low cloud interfered with bombing runs. The ship did, however, sustain some damage on this occasion. For the successful attack of November 12th, Lancasters of Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons, led respectively by Squadron Leader AG Williams DFC and Wing Commander JB Tait DSO DFC, took off from Lossiemouth at about 3 a.m. They flew to a rendezvous point, a lake 100 miles south-east of Tromso, at 1,000 feet to avoid early detection by enemy radar.

Salvage ships circle the once mighty Tirpitz although there was no evidence of a large scale salvage operation

The attacking force then climbed to bombing height - between 12,000 and 16,000 feet - and the warship was sighted from about 20 miles away. This time the smoke screen was out of action and their were no defending fighters. When the bombers were about 13 miles away, the main guns of the Tirpitz opened fire and were shortly by shore batteries and two flak ships. One Lancaster was shot down. The first bombs narrowly missed the target, but then, in rapid succession, came three direct hits. A column of steam and smoke shot up to about 300 feet and within a few minutes the ship had started to list badly. About 10 minutes after the first bomb struck, the Tirpitz had completely turned turtle with only the hull visible from the air.

The Tirpitz bulkhead salvaged from the ship and presented to 9 and 617 Squadrons One aspect of the operation, which has remained something of a mystery is the total lack of interference from enemy fighters. The first reports of the Lancasters meeting at the rendezvous point were received on the Tirpitz at about 9 a.m., an hour and a half before the aircraft attacked, and fighter protection was requested immediately. It appears that one reason why this request was not granted may have been that the Germans believed that the fighter base at Bardufoss was the intended target for the British bombers. Five years later, the Norwegian salvage company raising the Tirpitz found an engine room bulkhead door on which one of the crew had painted the ship breaking through a rough sea underneath the words: 'Gegen England' (Against England). This bulkhead was mounted and an inscription, "Part of bulkhead of Tirpitz, sunk by Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons - 12th November, 1944, at Tromso. Presented to Bomber Command by brothers-in-arms, Royal Norwegian Air Force, in commemoration of friendship and co-operation during World War II" was added before it was placed on display at RAF Binbrook, the then home to both squadrons. Both Squadrons lay claim to the fact that it was their bombs that actually sunk the Tirpitz, and the bulkhead has been 'owned' by both squadrons over the years and continued to be the centre of inter-squadron rivalry until 2002. The bulkhead was the presented to the Bomber Command Museum, where it remains as a memorial to the crews of two of Bomber Command's most famous Squadrons.

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