The German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck, continued to hide in the Norwegian fjords, a constant threat to Allied convoys to Russia. In her mere existence the Tirpitz was keeping Royal Navy warships committed to the protection of these convoys. The British had made successive attempts to neutralise her, with both aircraft attacks and miniature submarines. Intelligence now suggested that she would soon be operational again, after repairs to the damage caused by Operation Source.
Hopes were now pinned on the recently developed 1,600-pound (730 kg) armour-piercing bomb, which it was expected could penetrate the heavy deck armament of the Tirpitz if dropped from sufficient height. These would be dropped by Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm dive-bombers. As a preliminary the battleship would be attacked by the escorting fighter aircraft strafing the ship to suppress anti aircraft fire.
In the early hours of the 3rd April 1944 the first of two waves of attacking aircraft took off from carriers in the North Sea, 120 miles from the target. Unusually good weather conditions for the time of year helped the operation which was subsequently judged to be “beautifully co-ordinated and fearlessly executed”. Everything went to plan, significant casualties were caused by the strafing aircraft and were followed by 10 direct hits on the Tirpitz by the bombers. Unfortunately none of them were from sufficient height to penetrate the decks. Nevertheless substantial damage was caused and 123 Tirpitz crew were killed and over 300 wounded. The ship was once again out of action.
This was the account that Commander Anthony Kimmins gave to the BBC after the raid:
There was little sleep in those carriers the night before the attack, for we were now in the danger period as we steamed close into enemy waters. Look-outs and guns’ crews, only their eyes visible through their scarves and balaclava helmets, were constantly on the job. Supply and Damage Control parties never left their posts.
Down in the huge hangars there was feverish activity. On one side were the long lines of Merlin-engined Fairey Barracudas – the new Fleet Air Arm torpedo-bombers which were being tried out in action for the first time. With their wings folded back over their bodies they looked rather like enormous beetles. And on the other side were the American Corsairs with their wings folded vertically and almost touching overhead at the tips. While mechanics swarmed over their aircraft making final adjustments, great yellow bombs were being wheeled down the narrow gangways, loaded up and fused.
At first light, at exactly the prearranged minute, Commander Flying shouted the welcome order “Start up!” The words were hardly out of his mouth before there was a roar of engines. By now the carriers and the escorting ships were all heeling over and swinging into wind. A final nod from the Captain, a signal from Commander Flying, the Flight Deck officer raised his green flag, the engines started to rev up, the flag dropped and the first aircraft was roaring away over the bow.
One after the other they followed in rapid succession, and near by you could see the same thing going on. More Barracudas, Seafires, Corsairs, Wildcats and Hellcats. In a few minutes the sky was full of them, and as the sun started to rise and the clouds turned pink at the edges, they formed up in their squadrons.
It wasn’t long before the mountains in the coastline showed up ahead. As they gained height and crossed the coast the sun was rising to their left, shining across the snow-covered mountains, throwing shadows in the gorges and against the snow-covered trees in the valleys, and lighting up the deep blue of the clam fjord. Down to the left were two or three enemy ships, but these took no visible interest in the proceedings. Everything seemed calm and peaceful, but I’ll bet that down below the wires were humming and that up at the far end of the fjord alarm bells were ringing, fat-headed Huns were falling out of bed, rubbing their eyes and cursing the British as they threw on some clothes and stumbled out to their cold action stations.
By now the strike was passing its next landmark, a huge glacier on the top of a mountain. Soon they were crossing the final ridge and sighted a flak ship on the far side of the fjord. She immediately opened up, but raggedly, and without great effect. And then, as they crossed over the final ridge, they had a thrill which none of those aircrews will ever forget. There, nestling under the sheer mountains in a fjord not much wider than the Thames at London, lay one of the largest battleships in the world – the Tirpitz. A motor-boat alongside raced off at full speed, and I don’t blame him. Up till then the strike had kept dead radio silence, but now as they arrived in position everyone gave an instinctive start as a sudden rasping noise hit them in the ears. The leader had switched on. And then a shout – “All fighters anti-flak – leader over”. And with that shout things really happened. Hellcats and Wildcats literally fell out of the sky. As the Barracudas hurtled down they could see the fighters strafing the surrounding gun positions and whistling across the Tirpitz, with the tracers from their bullets bouncing off her deck. Green and red tracer came shooting up, but the fighters had entirely disorganized her A.A. fire and the Barracudas were able to take perfect aim. Down they went with their eyes glued to her funnel – 6,000 – 5,000 – 4,000 feet. They went down so fast that anything loose shot up to the roof of the cockpits.
Now the leader was at the right height, and he let go. The first three bombs went whistling down, exploding bang on the bridge, the nerve-centre of the ship. The other pilots – diving from either side – were close on his tail. One extra large bomb, bursting through the armour-plate amidships, went off with a terrific explosion between decks. The huge ship shuddered, her stern whipping up and down and sending waves across the fjord. It was only 60 seconds – one minute – from the first bomb to the last. There was no sigh of life from the hutments close to her berth. No doubt these housed many of the repair workers. Six months’ work was going west in sixty seconds.
And now, as the first strike weaved away and made off down the valleys with fires raging in the Tirpitz, and the artificial smoke cover belching out from all around her, they saw above them the second strike – which had been ranged in the carriers the moment the first had taken off – now coming in from the sea.
This second strike had, if anything, a more difficult task than the first. Admittedly the artificial smoke and the smoke from the first strike’s explosions helped to guide them to the target, but by the time they got over the whole fjord was almost completely obscured with a strong box barrage above the smoke. But luckily – at the critical moment – the smoke cleared over the Tirpitz, and with a shout of joy they roared down, carrying out similar tactics. Again there were many hits; one heavy bomb in particular was seen to crash from the upper deck and explode with a sheet of flame that reached above the topmast. By the time the last pilot dived the A.A. fire had ceased. And so a few hectic minutes over the target, and the brilliant dash of those Fleet Air Arm crews had been the highlight in a naval operation which had left the Tirpitz crippled.