The Royal Navy had dealt with the Bismarck in 1941 but since 1942 her sister ship, the Tirpitz, had continued to threaten the sea lanes. The experience of dealing with the Bismarck had demonstrated that a combination of capital ships and aircraft would be needed to deal with her if she put to sea. The mere existence of the Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjords where she was hidden meant that substantial forces were tied up, ready to respond should she be sent out to attack the convoys.
Operation Source was an audacious attempt to attack her, and the two other German battleships, Scharnhorst and Lutzow, by unconventional means. The midget submarine X craft were developed to evade the anti submarine nets and drop huge explosive charges underneath the hull of ships they were attacking. This would give their crews the slim prospect of being able to get away from the scene.
Of the six X craft that departed from Scotland on 11th September, two had already been lost as they were towed across the North Sea. On 22nd September the remaining craft were ready to attempt the run into the closely guarded fjords.
This is the account of Lieutenant B.C.G. Place who commanded X7. He began his run in at 0100 but got caught up in anti submarine nets and was delayed as he spent over an hour extricating himself, by driving the craft backwards and forwards and up and down. Finally he was in sight of the target:
At 0640, when X7 was close to the northward of a tanker of the Altmark-class, the Tirpitz was sighted for the first time at a range of about a mile.
My intention for the attack was to go deep at a range of 500 yards, pass under the anti-torpedo nets at seventy feet and run down the length ofthe target from bow to stem, letting go one charge under the bridge, the other well aft and altering to port to escape under the nets on the Tifpitz’s starboard side.
At 0705 X7 was taken to seventy feet for the attack but stuck in the net instead of passing underneath. This time I had no intention of staying there. By similar tactics to those that extricated us before, but without breaking surface, we came out and tried again at ninety feet, this time getting more firmly stuck. On occasions when the craft is being navigated blind, it is extremely difficult to know one’s position to within a hundred yards-in this case the Tirpitz, the nets and the shore were all within a circle of that diameter, and the gyro had again gone off the board with the excessive angles the boat had taken. Thus when X7 next came clear and started rising, the motor was stopped lest she run up the beach or on to the top ofthe nets and fall into enemy hands. When she broke surface I saw we were inside the close-net defences (how we got undemeath I have no idea) about yards from the Tirpitz’s port beam-‘group up, full ahead, forty feet’.
We actually hit the target’s side obliquely at twenty feet and slid underneath, swinging our fore-and-aft line to the line of her keel. The first charge was let go – as I estimated, under the Tirpitz’s bridge – and X7 was taken about 200 feet astern to drop the other charge under the after turrets. The time was 0720. It was just as we were letting go the second charge that we heard the first signs of enemy counter-attack – but, oddly enough, we were wrong in assuming they were meant for us.
In X7 we had to guess a course that we hoped would take us back to that lucky spot where we had got under the nets on our way in; but we were not lucky. We tried in many places within a few feet ofthe bottom, but in vain, and rapidly lost all sense of our exact position. The gyro was still chasing its tail and the magnetic compass could not be raised for fear it foul some wire or a portion of a net; we did use the course indicator (a form of compass that remains steady during alterations of course but does indicate true position) but the noise it made was most tiresome so we switched it off again.
The next three-quarters ofan hour were very trying; exactly what track X7 made I have no idea, but we tried most places along the bottom of those nets, passing under the Tirpitz again more than once, and even breaking surface at times, but nowhere could we find a way out.
We had to blow each time we got into the nets and the HP air was getting down to a dangerously low level-—but bull-in-a-china-shop tactics were essential as our charges had been set with only an hour’s delay-—and those of others might go up at any time after eight o’clock.
The small charges that were periodically dropped by the Germans were not likely to do us any harm and, when we were on the surface, no guns larger than light automatic weapons which caused no damage could be brought to bear — but we were sceptical about our chances against at least four tons of torpex exploding within a hundred yards. But the luck that had recently deserted us came back for a few minutes shortly after eight. We came to the surface — an original method, but we were halfway across before I realised what was happening.
On the other side we dived to the bottom and at once started to get under way again to put as much distance as possible between us and the coming explosion. Sticking again in a net at sixty feet was the limit, as this confounded my estimate of our position relative to the nets.
But we were not here long before the explosion came—a continuous roar that seemed to last whole minutes. The damage it caused X7 was really surprisingly small…
This account originally appeared in W.R. Fell : Sea Our Shield.
In fact X7 was too badly damaged for the run home and Place was forced to try to surface and surrender. In doing so, however, X7 was accidentally sunk and two of the four man crew died.
X6 and X7 had successfully dropped their charges, disabling the the Tirpitz until April 1944. The two commanders were awarded the Victoria Cross:
Whitehall. 22nd February, 1944.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS for valour to:
Lieutenant Basil Charles Godfrey Place, D.S.C., Royal Navy.
Lieutenant Donald Cameron, R.N.R.
Lieutenants Place and Cameron were the Commanding Officers of two of His Majesty’s Midget Submarines X 7 and X 6 which on 22nd September 1943 carried out a most daring and successful attack on the German Battleship Tirpitz, moored in the protected anchorage of Kaafiord, North Norway.
To reach the anchorage necessitated the penetration of an enemy minefield and a passage of fifty miles up the fiord, known to be vigilantly patrolled by the enemy and to be guarded by nets, gun defences and listening posts, this after a passage of at least a thousand miles from base.
Having successfully eluded all these hazards and entered the fleet anchorage, Lieutenants Place and Cameron, with a complete disregard for danger, worked their small craft past the close anti-submarine and torpedo nets surrounding the Tirpitz, and from a position inside these nets, carried out a cool and determined attack.
Whilst they were still inside the nets a fierce enemy counter attack by guns and depth charges developed which made their withdrawal impossible. Lieutenants Place and Cameron therefore scuttled their craft to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. Before doing so they took every measure to ensure the safety of their crews, the majority of whom, together with themselves, were subsequently taken prisoner.
In the course of the operation these very small craft pressed home their attack to the full, in doing so accepting all the dangers inherent in such vessels and facing every possible hazard which ingenuity could devise for the protection in harbour of vitally important Capital Ships.
The courage, endurance and utter contempt for danger in the immediate face of the enemy shown by Lieutenants Place and Cameron during this determined and successful attack were supreme.