Tirpitz was the second Bismarck class battleship of the German Kriegsmarine, sistership of Bismarck. She was named after Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. She never fired a single shot against an enemy ship, but spent almost the entire war in various bases in Norway, where her mere presence was a great threat to the Allies, tying up huge naval and air forces to make sure she could be dealt with if she ever made an offensive sortie.
She was the biggest warship ever built in Europe.
The first attempt to destroy Tirpitz was a very risky operation. As part of Operation Source, British Xclass midget submarines planted explosive charges beneath Tirpitz in September 1943. Lieutenant Basil Place commanding HMS X7, and Lieutenant Donald Cameron commanding HMS X6, both received the Victoria Cross for their part in the action, whilst three others received the Distinguished Service Order and one the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. The submarines had to travel at least 1,000 miles from base, negotiate a minefield, dodge nets, gun defences and enemy listening posts. Having eluded all these hazards they finally placed their 4-ton Amatol side-charges underneath the ship where they detonated an hour later, doing so much damage that Tirpitz was put out of action for several months.
The story of this attack is told in the 1955 film Above Us The Waves.
This is my 200th post, so I though I'd post something big. I thank you for you input about my articles, it tell me you have enjoyed them. I've enjoyed the forum so far, I look forward to posting more stuff in the future.:D
This was another article I wrote for 'THE NAVY' this is the unedited version.
THE X FACTOR - Operation Source
By Ian Johnson
Like a predator ready to strike, the 42 000 ton battleship TIRPITZ waited for nearly two years in the Altanfiörd. Her mere presence was enough to disrupt vital supply convoys bound for Russia. The threat of the Kriegsmarine’s last battleship forced the Royal Navy to conduct one of the most daring missions in naval history. An attack was to be mounted using midget submarines, the X-craft.
TIRPITZ was the sister ship of the BISMARCK and was commissioned 25 February 1941. With a speed of 29 knots and armed with eight 15-inch guns, she was the last battleship completed by the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) and carried a crew of nearly 3000 sailors. In 1941, it was planned that she would sail with BISMARCK and with several heavy cruisers as a surface raiding group in the North Atlantic. Such a force would pose a grave threat to convoys bound for Britain.
Delays in the battleship’s workup and crew training, equipment breakdowns, as well as RAF bombing raids ensured TIRPITZ was finally operational some months behind schedule. She was forced to remain behind when BISMARCK and PRINZ EUGEN sailed on Operation Rheinübung; the raiding of UK bound convoys, on 18 May 1941. After the sinking of BISMARCK, plans for TIRPITZ changed. She remained in the Baltic Sea until January 1942, after which she sailed for Trondheim in Norway, with orders to disrupt convoys bound for Russia.
On 5 March, TIRPITZ left Trondheim with a destroyer escort after U-boats located Convoy PQ-12 heading for Russia. Escorting the convoy were units of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet including the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS. Aircraft from the carrier were launched after TIRPITZ was spotted. These Albacore biplanes found the battleship at 0842hrs on the morning of 9 March. TIRPITZ fired more than 4200 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition as well as two broadsides from her 15-inch guns against the attackers, and although two torpedos hit home, neither detonated. Two aircraft were lost, but TIRPITZ returned to Norway without sighting the convoy.
Even the rumour of TIRPITZ sailing had an adverse effect on the convoys. Indeed, Convoy PQ-17, made up of 33 merchant vessels, was ordered to scatter on 4 July 1942. TIRPITZ and the heavy cruiser HIPPER had just moved from Trondheim to Altanfiörd and were known to be out. With a belief that the German ships were heading towards the convoy, the Royal Navy withdrew the convoy’s cruiser escort, leaving PQ-17 helpless. Although TIRPITZ and HIPPER had left Altanfiörd, they did not approach the convoy and were shortly recalled to port. Amazingly, this brief appearance almost resulted in the destruction of TIRPITZ. The Russian submarine K.21 was in the area and his commander claimed a torpedo hit on the battleship.
Meanwhile, PQ-17 was left to fend for itself and was mauled by U-Boats and the Luftwaffe. Twenty-three ships and well over 100 000 tons of cargo, desperately needed for the Russian front were lost. Without firing a shot TIRPITZ was responsible for a successful operation against a convoy. Indeed, Churchill temporarily suspended the convoys to Russia, much to the irritation of Stalin.
After the last of the surviving ships of PQ-17 arrived at Archangel on 10 July, the Admiralty began planning to sink the TIRPITZ at her anchorage in Altanfiörd. Other attempts to sink the battleship by the Russian Air Force, the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm had been unsuccessful. Poor weather or the inability to find the target due to smokescreens over the battleship at the time of attack had hampered their efforts.
In mid July 1942 an ‘A’ series signal was sent to all Royal Navy ships and shore establishments requesting volunteers for ‘Special and Hazardous duties’. Many applied, including several sailors from the RAN on loan to the Royal Navy, only to discover once they were accepted that they had signed up as submariners. After a week of submarine escape training, those volunteers that were left were told of the mission. To their shock and surprise, they were told that their target was the mighty German battleship TIRPITZ.
Operation Source, as it became known, would involve the RN’s newest submarines, the X-craft. These 40-ton mini submarines were built at Vickers Shipbuilding at Barrow-in-Furness. They were 15 metres long, had a top speed of over 6 knots and were designed to carry 2 two-ton limpet mines on either side of the hull. Each mini submarine carried 4 men. It was hoped that their size would allow the X-craft to manoeuvre through both navigational and military hazards such as minefields, torpedo nets and patrol craft to arrive at the target area undetected.
Training for the operation took place in Scotland at HMS VARBEL on the Island of Bute. The attack was planned for April 1943 when weather conditions were good and the length of night provided cover for the X-craft on the surface. Over the next six months the crews trained in two of the prototype midget submarines, HMS X3 and HMS X4. They learned skills such as penetrating hostile harbours and cutting torpedo nets. But as the time of the attack grew near, it became apparent that the crews, as well as the X-craft themselves, would not be ready. More X-craft arrived from the builders and all the boats were assigned to the 12th Submarine Flotilla. Important lessons on handling the midget submarines forced modifications to the boats, while the crews pressed on with training for the mission, learning new techniques for the along the way.
While training continued, another mission to strike TIRPITZ was underway. This involved manned torpedos or ‘Chariots’. Operation Title, as it was known was a disaster. The Norwegian fishing boat towing the two-man Chariots first developed engine trouble, before running into a German patrol boat. After leaving the patrol boat, and in increasing bad weather, both Chariots were lost when their towing lines snapped. Three of the four members of the Chariot crews made it to safety, while one was wounded and captured. Able Seaman Robert Evans was handed to the Gestapo, nursed back to health and then shot on the orders of the German leader, Adolf Hitler.
Meanwhile Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine, had his own troubles. With the failure of TIRPITZ to intercept the convoy, Hitler told Admiral Raeder that TIRPITZ was not to sail unless the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers were dealt with. Hitler had begun to lose faith in the Kriegsmarine’s battleships, and threatened to disband them, with their guns to be used in coastal defences and their crews employed elsewhere. Another problem was the lack of fuel available to the fleet in Norway, which in April led to the order that all units were to stop operations due to low fuel stores.
In Scotland, the training and planning for Operation Source was coming to an end. The period of September 20-25 was set as the time to launch the attack, with that period expecting acceptable weather conditions. After conducting workups in the Lochs of northern Scotland, the X-craft of 12th Submarine Flotilla were based alongside mother ship HMS BONAVENTURE. Exercises with the larger submarines which would be towing the X-craft to the Norwegian coast, and the vital torpedo net penetration techniques were practiced. The plan was for the midget submarines to enter the guarded anchorage at Altanfiörd and slowly make their way through the heavy defences. If all went well, they would place their two-ton limpet mines underneath TIRPITZ, after which they were to escape as best they could. Six Royal Navy midget submarines, HMS X-5 to HMS X-10 were finally ready and crewed for the mission.
On the other side of the North Sea, the TIRPITZ, under the command of Captain Hans Meyer, along with the heavy cruiser SCHARNHORST and a ten destroyer escort departed Altanfiörd on 6 September. Their mission was to destroy the Allied weather observation station at Spitzbergen. On the morning of 8 September 600 troops were landed from the destroyers to raid the weather observation station while TIRPITZ’s 15-inch guns bombarded the towns of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. This was the first and last time the battleship’s main armament was used in the shore bombardment role. The immense firepower flattened nearly every building on Spitzbergen. The raid also saw the island’s storehouses looted. TIRPITZ and her escorts returned to Altanfiörd before the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet could intercept them.
In Scotland, all was ready for Operation Source. On 11 September 1943 the six X-craft began their mission, with each midget submarine towed out to sea by a conventional submarine. HMS X8 was the first to experience problems when her tow line was severed from the submarine HMS SEANYMPH. X8 managed to return to SEANYMPH, only to discover that her mines were leaking. The order came to dump them, but as this was done one of the mines exploded, and X8 was abandoned and scuttled. X9 was towed by HMS SYRTIS, but at 0900hrs on 16 September at a scheduled surfacing for ventilation, the SYRTIS crew discovered to their horror that X9 was not on the end of the tow line. Several fruitless hours were spent searching for the boat, which was eventually declared lost with all hands.
On the evening of 20 September, the signal ‘All X-craft attack TIRPITZ’ saw the four remaining X-craft, HMS X5, HMS X6, HMS X7 and HMS X10 disengage their tow ropes and proceed towards Altanfiörd. X10, commanded by Lt Kenneth Hudspeth RANVR, managed to get as far as the island of Brattholm before persistent electrical problems forced him to abort the mission. But this was only after spending fourteen hours at the bottom of Altanfiörd trying to find and fix the problem.
X5, X6, and X7 continued deeper into Altanfiörd, not knowing of the loss of their sister submarines. Lieutenant Donald Cameron RNR, commanded X6 and like X10 was having equipment problems, which included a partially effective periscope. Despite these problems, X6 became the first of the X-craft to breach the anti-torpedo net that protected TIRPITZ, on the morning of 21 September. Lieutenant Cameron followed a supply boat through the only gap in the net. At 0707hrs, X6 raised her periscope while manoeuvring into position to deploy her mines. This was seen by a member of the battleship’s crew, who dismissed it as a diving seal. Minutes later X6 ran into a submerged rock, which drove her almost clear of the water.
On TIRPITZ, the ship’s watch sighted the X-craft breaking the surface of their sanctuary in the early dawn light and sounded the alarm. Captain Meyer, knowing there was a threat, ordered the crew to prepare the battleship for sea and sent divers over the side to check for limpet mines.
Lieutenant Cameron and his crew regained control of X6 and, knowing the TIRPITZ had discovered them, continued towards the battleship, only to run into more problems. This time the boat became entangled in wires hanging from TIRPITZ, trapping her for a short time before she broke free. Shortly after, Lt Cameron took X6 into a deep dive under the hull of TIRPITZ, where he placed his charges at 0740hrs.
Realising that TIRPITZ was alerted to his presence, and knowing that his boat was damaged, Cameron made the decision to surface and abandon X6, before scuttling her. The X6 reached the surface long enough to be seen by the battleship’s crew, before the midget submarine sank. The four crewmen were pulled from the water and brought onboard TIRPITZ, while time ticked down on the mines Lt. Cameron and his crew had laid on the hull below them.
X7 was commanded by Lieutenant Godfrey Place, RN, and was the second X-craft to close on the TIRPITZ. Place tried to take X7 under the anti-submarine nets, but at a depth of 75 feet she became trapped for a short period of time. She managed to break free and proceed quietly onward. As they approached TIRPITZ, X7 went deep under the battleship and, like X6, the charges were placed on [on, or under?] the hull.
X7 was spotted by TIRPITZ crewmembers as she was making off. Once again the boat got caught up in torpedo nets, and Lt. Place and his crew struggled to free her before the mines detonated. Captain Meyer, believing he was safer behind the anti-submarine nets, cancelled an order to get underway. He believed his ship was under another attack by Chariots and ordered TIRPITZ to be veered to starboard in an attempt to reduce her target area.
Lieutenant Cameron and the X6 crew were still onboard TIRPITZ when, at 0812hrs, two massive explosions ripped through the battleship. Water and steam flew high in the air as the sound of two simultaneous explosions thundered down Altanfiörd. TIRPITZ suffered major damage, with a hole below the waterline, causing her to list. The force of the explosions was such that her forward 15-inch turret was lifted off its turntable mountings, buckling her armoured deck. All three propellers were jammed, the rudder wrecked and the range finders and fire control were put out of action. Many other systems throughout the ship were damaged. The TIRPITZ crew were stunned, and after several moments of chaos they began damage control, while many of the crew opened fire on anything that resembled a submarine.
The force of the limpet mines exploding freed X7 from the entangling nets and forced her to the surface, only to have the enraged crew of TIRPITZ open fire on her with small arms and grenades. The damage to her was bad enough without the Germans help and Lt. Place ordered the submarine be scuttled. Only Place escaped from the boat before it sank. Another of his crew managed to escape by using his Davis escape apparatus. Both were quickly caught by the TIRPITZ crew and brought aboard the damaged battleship.
The third X-craft to enter Altanfiörd was the X5, commanded by Lieutenant Henty Henty-Creer RNVR. She entered the fray just after the explosions. This time the Germans were ready and X5 was quickly spotted near the damaged ship. The gunners on TIRPITZ opened up, scoring hits on the submarine. X5 and her crew were sent to the bottom of Altanfiörd before they had the chance to attack.
After the experience of the captured Chariot crewman at the hands of the Gestapo, Captain Meyer ordered the six captured crewmen from X6 and X7 to be transferred to the naval hospital at Tromsö. From there they were sent to POW Camps in Germany, where they remained until the end of the war.
The SEANYMPH and SYRTIS, along with the other towing submarines, waited at the rendezvous for the X-craft, but only X10 returned, and she had not been able to make it to the target. After waiting for several hours, the rendezvous group and X10 (under tow) started for home. Problems with this tow, and deteriorating weather meant that X10 had to be scuttled.
With the return of the towing submarines to Scotland and HMS BONAVENTURE, the cost of Operation Source became apparent. Six X-craft and ten crewmen were lost, with another six becoming prisoners of war. RAF reconnaissance photographs showed TIRPITZ, still at Altanfiörd, and from the air the battleship looked largely intact. Time would show that TIRPITZ was not only badly damaged, but after Operation Source, she was not the battleship she once was, and would never again be a threat to the Russian convoys.
For the Kriegsmarine, the pressure was on to repair TIRPITZ. But in most cases the damage could not be repaired to a high standard without time in a drydock. Yet the German repair crews did the best job they could. TIRPITZ’s speed was cut to 27 knots, which was less that the Royal Navy’s KING GEORGE V class battleships. Ultimately though, TIRPITZ would fall victim to airpower in November 1944 when RAF bombers finally sank the battleship at Tromsö.
For the X-craft and their crews, they would continue the war with new midget submarines. One, HMS X24, commanded by Lieutenant Max Sheean RANVR, sank the German merchant ship BARENFELS near Bergen, Norway in April 1944. X-craft were also used along the Normandy beaches prior to D-Day. After the war in Europe ended, the X-craft deployed to the Pacific where they took part in several operations.
Two years after the end of the Second World War, the world learned of the X-craft and the missions they conducted. Most attention was focused on the men involved in Operation Source, and in 1947 King George VI at Buckingham Palace decorated the surviving crews for their actions on that September morning. In the words of an Admiralty report on the operation, ‘this daring attack will surely go down in history as one of the most courageous acts of all time’.
Fantastic story, and, as usual, excellently told.
What a sophisticated weapon the X-craft was, especially when you think the early attempts at Tirpitz involved exciting and highly probable efforts at sinking her by rolling naval mines down the hills next to her dropped from aircraft!
Seems a long way to go for nothing, but the good old Dambusters (617 sqd) got her in the end.
There is a great 1950's movie on Operation Source, I can't remember its name!
I had the honour of meeting Lieutenant Max Sheean DSO and Bar, RANVR, at the unveiling of his portrait at the Wardroom of HMAS Stirling a few years ago. A quiet man, he wrote a great book on his wartime experiences called 'Corvettes and Submarines'.
Glad people are enjoying the article!
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