Operation Goodwood (ii)

This was a British series of four carrierborne air attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz in the Altafjord of northern Norway (17 August/2 September 1944).

In July 1944 the time seemed ready for the resumption of Allied convoys through the Arctic to the USSR after a temporary interruption resulting from increased German strength in the north of Norway, and the first in the new series was JW.59, which sailed from Loch Ewe on 15 August with 33 laden merchantmen, a rescue ship and 11 Lend-Lease submarine chasers, which were being transferred to the Soviet navy for an enhanced capability against the U-boats which lay in wait for the Arctic convoys off the Kola inlet. To support the convoy, the 'FZ' operation was centred on Vice Admiral F. H. G. Dalrymple-Hamilton’s naval force, which comprised the cruiser Jamaica, escort carriers Vindex and Striker, and 18 smaller warships. The former British battleship Royal Sovereign, being transferred to the USSR as Arkhangyel’sk, sailed from Scapa Flow on 17 August with a British escort and was met at sea by eight Soviet-manned ex-US Navy destroyers. This heavy force overtook the convoy west of Bjørnøya, and then went straight through to Kola inlet.

Admiral Sir Henry Moore took the main strength of his Home Fleet to sea on 18 August to carry out another attack on Tirpitz during the convoy’s passage. In this undertaking the Home Fleet operated in two groups. Moore’s Force 1 comprised the battleship Duke of York, fleet carriers Indefatigable (Rear Admiral R. R. McGrigor’s flagship), Formidable and elderly Furious, heavy cruisers Berwick and Devonshire of the 1st Cruiser Squadron, and destroyers Cambrian, Myngs, Scorpion, Scourge, Serapis, Verulam, Vigilant, Virago, Volage, Whirlwind, Wrangler, Canadian Algonquin and Sioux, and Free Norwegian Stord of the 26th Destroyer Division.

Force 2 comprised the escort carriers Trumpeter and Canadian Nabob, heavy cruiser Kent, and frigates Aylmer, Bickerton, Bligh, Kempthorne and Keats of the 5th Escort Group.

The fleet oilers Black Ranger and Blue Ranger sailed separately with the protection of Force 9, comprising the destroyer Nubian and corvettes Dianella, Poppy and Starwort.

By 20 August all these elements had reached their positions off the Norwegian coast, but the weather prospects were so bad that Moore decided to postpone the attack on Tirpitz, and to use the interval to refuel his destroyers.

On 22 August the weather was still indifferent, but the attacking aircraft were launched at 11.00. The ‘Goodwood I’ force comprised 31 Fairey Barracuda attack aircraft and 53 fighters and fighter-bombers (24 Vought Corsair, 10 Grumman Hellcat, 11 Fairey Firefly and eight Supermarine Seafire machines, the last for diversionary attacks) from all five carriers. However, the planned minelaying effort by Grumman Avenger aircraft from the escort carriers was cancelled.

When the attack aircraft reached the coast they found the hills surrounding the fjord covered with cloud, and the torpedo-bombers were forced to return. The Hellcat and Firefly warplanes managed to find the target, however, and achieved some measure of surprise: as a result Tirpitz was not concealed by smoke until after the attack had started. One hit with a 500-lb (227-kg) bomb was claimed, but this is not confirmed by German records, and three aircraft were lost.

During the evening a small force of six Hellcat and eight Firefly aircraft from Indefatigable made another attack, but this ‘Goodwood II’ scored no hits. While part of the British force was withdrawing to the west in order to refuel during the evening of 22 August the escort carriers encountered Oberleutnant Hans-Jürgen Sthamer’s U-354, starting a patrol from Narvik. The U-boat failed to return from this patrol, but a message before its loss shows that the U-boat fired two torpedoes, of which one struck and badly damaged Nabob, and the other sank the frigate Bickerton.

On 23 August the weather was so bad that flying was impossible, but by noon on 24 August the conditions had improved and another combined attack from all three fleet carriers was launched, this ‘Goodwood III’ attack being based on 33 Barracuda, 24 Corsair (some armed with 1,000-lb/454-kg bombs), 10 Hellcat and 10 Firefly aircraft. Only the Hellcat fighters arrived over Tirpitz before the smoke screen had completely enveloped her. The Barracuda and Corsair aircraft attacked ‘blind’, but a 1,600-lb (726-kg) armour-piercing bomb from one of the former struck the battleship at a vulnerable point, amidships just forward of the bridge, and penetrated eight decks, including the main horizontal armour, and came to rest right in the ship’s vitals, but then failed to detonate. The only other hit was a 500-lb (227-kg) bomb which landed on the heavily protected crown armour of one of the battleship’s main armament turrets. The raid cost the British five aircraft, most of them falling victim to AA fire.

Furious now returned to Scapa Flow, having reinforced Indefatigable’s attack force before leaving the force.

After several days of alternating fog and gales, on 29 August the other two carriers made another attempt on Tirpitz. This ‘Goodwood IV’ undertaking involved 26 Barracuda, 17 Corsair, seven Hellcat, 10 Firefly and seven Seafire aircraft, the last once again employed for diversionary attacks. The conditions were favourable for an attack, but the Germans again received adequate warning of the attack force’s approach: thus the smoke screen was denser than ever and the AA gunfire was notable heavy, and no hits were obtained. Various secondary targets on shore and afloat were also attacked, but German records reveal that no appreciable damage was done.

The fleet returned to Scapa Flow on 1/2 September, and so ended a series of operations whose results can only be classed as intensely disappointing. McGrigor made several suggestions for improving the capability of future attacks on Tirpitz. The inescapable fact remained, however, that until the British had aircraft that were notably faster and also capable of carrying the type of bomb which could achieve significant results against so well protected a target, the real possibility of sinking the German battleship in a protected anchorage, using only carrierborne air attack, remained remote.

A reassessment of the operational conditions in northern Norway now dictated that the primacy in attacks on Tirpitz should be assumed by the heavy bombers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command.