Operation Catechism – the Tirpitz is finally sunk

Just then Flying Officer Eric Giersch the rear gunner called out, ‘I think she is turning over.’ I turned back to port to have a look and sure enough she was, so back we went again. This time we flew in at 50 feet and watched with baited breath as Tirpitz heeled over to port, ever so slowly and gracefully.

The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered TIRPITZ can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered TIRPITZ can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
A Royal Navy photograph taken during an earlier attack.

On 12th November thirty two RAF and RAAF Lancaster bombers left England in the early hours of the morning, arriving over Norway at low level. All the aircraft had been modified to accommodate the the Tallboy bombs that they carried, and all had the specialist Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight that enabled them to aim the bombs with pinpoint accuracy from the altitude that the bombs needed.

It was the ninth attempt by the RAF to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, the twenty-fifth by British forces – including actions by Royal Navy aircraft and midget submarines. The ship had been hit by bombs before – but they had not been able to penetrate the four inch thick deck armour.

At 0930 the Lancasters began to rise to bombing height, 14,000 feet, and in doing so revealed themselves to German radar. German fighters at Bardufoss should have been in a good position to intervene but for some reason they did not appear. One factor was that the Luftwaffe had not been informed that the Tirpitz had recently been moved to a new location.

Wing Commander Willy Tait led the attack:

She was a black shape clearly seen against the clear waters of the fjord, surrounded by the snow-covered hills, which were glowing pink in the low Arctic sun. A plume of smoke rose slowly from the big ship’s funnel.

When the force was about ten miles away the peaceful scene changed suddenly; the ship opened fire with her main armament and billows of orange-brown smoke, shot through by the flashes of the guns, hid her for a moment and then drifted away.

At 0941 the first of 29 Tallboy bombs was released, from 14,000 feet they accelerated to 750 mph (1,210 km/h), approaching the speed of sound, for maximum damage on impact. Eight minutes later it was all over.

One 12,000 pounder apparently hit the Tirpitz amidships, another in the bows and a third towards the stern and there were also two very near misses which must themselves have done serious underwater damage. These displaced sandbanks that had been dredged to prevent the ship keeling over.

The last significant German naval threat to arctic convoys had at last been conclusively neutralised. Around a thousand German sailors were trapped below decks, doomed to a watery grave.

A special 463 Squadron RAAF movie-Lancaster captained by Flight Lieutenant Bruce Buckham DFC RAAF was the last aircraft on the scene, they went in low, despite the shore batteries which remained in action after the Tirpitz herself had ceased firing:

We flew over it, around it, all about it and still it sat there with dignity under a huge mushroom of smoke which plumed up a few thousand feet in the air.

There were fires and more explosions on board; a huge gaping hole existed on the port side where a section had been blown out. We had now been flying close around Tirpitz for 30 minutes or so and decided to call it a day, so we headed out towards the mouth of the fjord.

Just then Flying Officer Eric Giersch the rear gunner called out, ‘I think she is turning over.’ I turned back to port to have a look and sure enough she was, so back we went again. This time we flew in at 50 feet and watched with baited breath as Tirpitz heeled over to port, ever so slowly and gracefully.

We could see German sailors swimming, diving, jumping and by the time she was over to 85° and subsiding slowly into the water of Tromso Fjord, there must have been the best part of 60 men on her side as we skimmed over for the last pass.

That was the final glimpse we had as we flew out of the fjord and over the North Sea. After a 14-hour flight we landed back at Waddington where the interrogation was conducted by Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane. When asked how it went, my one remark was, ‘Well we won’t have to go back after this one; Tirpitz is finished’

These account appears in Martin Bowman: Bomber Command: Armageddon (27 September 1944 – May 1945) v. 5: Reflections of War .

Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken from De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI, NS637, of No. 544 Squadron RAF, showing the capsized German battleship TIRPITZ, lying in in Tromso fjord, attended by salvage vessels. Dodd F L (Sqn Ldr), and Hill A (Plt Off): No. 544 Squadron RAF
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken from De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI, NS637, of No. 544 Squadron RAF, showing the capsized German battleship TIRPITZ, lying in in Tromso fjord, attended by salvage vessels.
Dodd F L (Sqn Ldr), and Hill A (Plt Off): No. 544 Squadron RAF

Contemporary newsreel:

Wing Commander J B Tait, Commanding Officer of No. 617 Squadron RAF (fifth from left), standing with his crew by the tail of their Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special), EE146 'KC-D', at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, on returning from Lossiemouth, the day after the successful raid on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Tromso Fjord, Norway,
Wing Commander J B Tait, Commanding Officer of No. 617 Squadron RAF (fifth from left), standing with his crew by the tail of their Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special), EE146 ‘KC-D’, at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, on returning from Lossiemouth, the day after the successful raid on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Tromso Fjord, Norway,
The German battleship TIRPITZ, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation CATECHISM). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews.
The German battleship TIRPITZ, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation CATECHISM). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews.

One thought on “Operation Catechism – the Tirpitz is finally sunk”

  1. Hi I cannot find any good pics of any of the damage the Tirpitz suffered. I also cannot find
    any good pics of the salvage operation. Any thoughts? thanks sam

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