Operation Tungsten

This was a British carrierborne air attack on the German battleship Tirpitz (3 April 1944).

By the first week in April 1944 the British appreciated that the Germans had almost completed the repair of the damage inflicted on the battleship by the ‘Source’ X-craft midget submarine attack of September 1943, and thus that the German capital ship must once again be disabled without delay. The Admiralty schemed to achieve this with an operation by carrierborne attack aircraft during the passage of the JW.58 Arctic convoy to the northern USSR. The commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, entrusted the preparations to his second-in-command, Vice Admiral Sir Henry Moore, flying his flag in the battleship Anson and having under command the fleet carriers Victorious and Furious.

Under the immediate command of Rear Admiral A. W. La T. Bisset, the carriers of Force 2 were to embark the two attack forces, each comprising 21 Fairey Barracuda aircraft. The 80 fighters which were to escort the attack aircraft (40 with each package) were to be provided in part by the fleet carriers and in part by the accompanying escort carriers Emperor, Searcher and Pursuer. Enough aircraft were to be reserved on Furious and the escort carrier Fencer to provide fighter cover and anti-submarine protection for the surface ships. Four cruisers and 14 destroyers provided the close screen for the heavier warships, and also surface protection against the five German fleet destroyers known to be in the Altafjord with Tirpitz.

As these preparations were being made in the UK, other efforts were materialising in the northern USSR under the direction of Rear Admiral E. R. Archer. RAF ground crews and photographic experts had been transported there in the escort carrier Chaser at the end of February, and early in March one Consolidated Catalina flying boat and three Supermarine Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft reached Vaenga. On 12/13 March the reconnaissance aircraft photographed Tirpitz’s anchorage and defences for delivery by Catalina to the UK. A watch was maintained over Tirpitz during the following fortnight, but nothing which might adversely affect the proposed attack was spotted. The reconnaissance flights were noted by the Germans, however, and though they appreciated that this might indicate an imminent attack, they remained confident in the capability of their defence measures as currently constituted.

In order to provide strong cover for the JW.58 outbound convoy Fraser, flying his flag in the battleship Duke of York, took part of Moore’s force under his command during the first stage of the voyage to Norwegian waters. This Force 1 comprised the battleships Duke of York and Anson, fleet carrier Victorious, light cruiser Belfast, and destroyers Onslaught, Javelin, Canadian Algonquin and Sioux, and Free Polish Piorun, and from the Færoe islands group the 2nd Escort Group comprising the destroyers Milne, Meteor, Matchless, Marne, Ursa and Undaunted. Force 2 was to rendezvous with Force 1 some 290 miles (465 km) to the north-west of the Altafjord on the evening of 3 April and comprised, under Bisset’s command, the fleet carrier Furious, escort carriers Searcher, Emperor, Pursuer and Fencer, light cruiser Jamaica and Sheffield, light anti-aircraft cruisers Bellona and Royalist, and destroyers Virago, Verulam, Vigilant, Swift and Wakeful.

It was Fraser’s plan then to return home, leaving Moore to carry out the attack. Fraser’s Force 1 departed Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group early on 30 March, and Bisset, in the cruiser Royalist, departed with Force 2 during the evening of the same day. After passing through a position off the Færoe islands group, the two forces steered to the north-east. It soon became apparent to Fraser that the JW.55 convoy’s close escort was giving a very good account of itself against the efforts of German aircraft and U-boats, and that a sortie by Tirpitz was improbable. In view of this, and of the unusually favourable weather, early on 1 April he decided that Force 1 was no longer needed to cover the convoy, and that he could advance the attack on the battleship by 24 hours. The necessary adjustments were made to the rendezvous, but required the escort carriers to steam at their maximum speed of 17 kt.

The forces met during the afternoon of 2 April, whereupon Moore took command of the attacking force, while Fraser cruised about 230 miles (370 km) to the north. Despite the severity of the Arctic conditions there were very few matériel problems in the carriers, and exactly on time at 04.15 the first of the escorting Vought Corsair fighters took off from Victorious. The first attack wing of 21 Barracuda warplanes soon followed, and then the rest of the fighter escort (Grumman Hellcat and Grumman Wildcat aircraft) took off. By 04.37 the aircraft had formed, and set course for the target about 140 miles (225 km) distant. At 05.25 the second attack force, also of 21 Barracuda and 40 fighter aircraft, followed. One of the former failed to start, and one crashed into the sea just after take-off.

Of the 42 Barracuda aircraft constituting the original attack force, 10 each carried one 1,600-lb (726-kg) armour-piercing bomb, 22 each carried three 500-lb (227-kg) semi-armour-piercing bombs, and 10 were armed with high-explosive or anti-submarine bombs. The heavy bombs could penetrate Tirpitz’s main armour belt except in its thickest area over the magazines, provided that they were released from an altitude of more than 3,500 ft (1065 m), while the semi-armour-piercing bombs could, if released from a height of more than 2,000 ft (620 m), penetrate the ship’s 2-in (50-mm) weather deck. The high-explosive and anti-submarine bombs were included to cause damage to superstructures and exposed positions, and underwater damage from near-misses.

The aircraft of the first wave carried out their attack even as the second attack force was approaching the target area, as planned. No fighter opposition was encountered and, until the attack aircraft had started their dives, there was no anti-aircraft gunfire and the fighters strafed the German anti-aircraft gun positions to good effect. The Germans started their smoke generators too late to obscure the pilots’ fields of vision, and at 05.29 the bombs started to rain down on the battleship. Hits were at once seen, smoke and flames rose up from her decks, and in one minute the attack had been completed. All except one attack aeroplane and one fighter returned safely to the carriers.

About one hour later the second attack force arrived. The Flak fire was now heavier, but the smoke screen, though denser, did not handicap the attack aircraft unduly. The attack again lasted only one minute: more hits were recorded, and by 08.00 all of the attack force except one Barracuda, lost to Flak fire, had left the scene.

The nine bomb hits (plus one very near miss) caused such damage and casualties that the ship’s fighting capability, but not her ability to steam, was considerably impaired. It is likely that in the first attack she was hit by five armour-piercing and four HE bombs. In addition one very near miss, probably with an anti-submarine bomb, caused some hull damage. Of the armour-piercing hits two, and possibly three, were obtained with 1,600-lb (726-kg) bombs, but none of these penetrated the ship’s main armour protection.

As soon as the first attack was over Tirpitz had started to shift back inside her net defences, but before she had been able to resume her former berth warning was received of the approach of the second wave of attackers. The smoke screen was by this time more effective, and all the battleship’s anti-aircraft guns were firing ‘blind’ through the smoke, but Tirpitz probably received five more bomb hits in this second attack. The only heavy armour-piercing bomb to find its target did not explode, however.

While the Barracuda warplanes were diving on the principal target the escorting fighters attacked the smaller vessels and auxiliaries lying in the fjord, and also set on fire a large tanker. The Germans managed to save this last and her cargo, however. The German destroyers did not return to the anchorage in the Kåfjord until after the attacks were over, and thus played no part in the defence of the battleship. None of the bombs penetrated the battleship’s main armour belt, and her vital compartments were therefore unaffected. Above the main deck, however, damage was widespread and the ship suffered 438 casualties, of whom 122 was killed. Although a high percentage of hits was obtained, Tirpitz was put out of action for only about three months. Moore had planned to deliver another attack, but in light of the air crews’ reports of the operation and their exhaustion, he called this off and headed for Scapa Flow, which the force reached on 6 April.