|Part of World War II|
A Fleet Air Arm crewman chalks a message on the 1,600 pound bomb carried by a Fairey Barracuda of HMS Furious
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
|9 killed, 3 aircraft lost||122 killed, 316 wounded
1 battleship damaged
Operation Tungsten was an air raid conducted by the Royal Navy on the German battleship Tirpitz during World War II. The raid took place on 3 April 1944, and sought to damage or destroy the battleship at her base in Altenfjord in northern Norway before she could become operational again following a period of repairs. The British aircraft failed to sink Tirpitz, but killed 122 members of her crew and inflicted considerable damage which took months to repair. Three British aircraft and nine aircrew were lost during the operation.
The 3 April 1944 raid on Tirpitz was one of a series of operations conducted by the British military against the battleship during the war. From her base in Norway, the ship posed a serious threat to the Arctic convoys which sailed between the United Kingdom and Soviet Union.
During the arctic campaign Tirpitz exerted an influence out of all proportion to her actual achievements, a striking example of the Fleet in Being principle. While Tirpitz was operational, Allied naval strategy had to take account of her, the allies had to guard against the possibility of a sortie against the arctic convoys, which tied down much of the strength of the British Home fleet.
A series of attacks were made against Tirpitz while she was in harbour, in order to sink, or at least put her out of action. On 23 September 1943 two British X-class submarines succeeded in penetrating the defences around the battleship during Operation Source, and placed explosive charges in the water beneath Tirpitz. This attack caused extensive damage to the battleship, and put out her out of action for a period of six months.
Repairs to Tirpitz were carried out using improvised facilities at Kaafjord as it was considered too risky to attempt to move the damaged warship to Germany. Instead, equipment and work crews were shipped to the fjord from German ports. On the night of 10/11 February 15 Soviet aircraft attacked the battleship, but did not cause any damage. By 17 March 1944 the repairs to Tirpitz's armament, machinery and hull were complete, but several minor repair tasks were outstanding. During the period the ship was under repair, Scharnhorst, the only remaining operational German battleship, was sunk on 26 December during the Battle of the North Cape. Following this sinking the Royal Navy ceased its practice of deploying battleships to protect convoys travelling to and from the Soviet Union. Allied intelligence tracked the progress of the work on Tirpitz. Information on the battleship was sourced from decrypting German radio signals, photo reconnaissance flights and eye witness reports from agents in Norway.
The British Government and Royal Navy were concerned about the threat Tirpitz posed once she reentered service. It was feared that the battleship could potentially sortie from Norway and attack convoys in the Norwegian Sea or Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, the need to guard against this threat would occupy warships which were needed to support the planned invasion of France. As a result, it was decided in late 1943 that further attempts to sink the battleship would be made.
The options for attacking Tirpitz at Kaafjord were limited. Another submarine-borne raid was considered impractical as intelligence gathered from intercepted radio transmissions and field agents indicated that the Germans had improved the battleship's underwater defences and were flying more aerial reconnaissance patrols of the region. The commander of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, also refused to attempt a heavy bomber raid on Tirpitz on the grounds that the Kaafjord area was beyond the effective range of these aircraft and the battleship's guns would cause heavy casualties. With these two options unavailable, the task was assigned to the Home Fleet's aircraft carriers. At this time the large fleet carriers HMS Furious and Victorious and four smaller escort carriers were available.
Planning for the raid on Kaafjord began in December 1943. Vice Admiral Bruce Fraser, the commander of the Home Fleet, was not optimistic about the prospects for success, and had to be persuaded to undertake the operation by First Sea Lord Andrew Cunningham. Fraser assigned his second in command, Vice Admiral Sir Henry Moore, responsibility for planning and leading the raid. The operation was initially designated "Operational Thrustful", but was later renamed "Operation Tungsten". The attack was originally planned to be conducted in mid-March 1944, shortly before the time Allied intelligence believed that Tirpitz would become operational. However, the operation was delayed by two weeks while Victorious was fitted with new radars.
The plans for the raid were centered two dive bombing attacks by Fleet Air Arm Fairey Barracuda aircraft. Each of the attacks would involve 21 Barracudas escorted by 40 fighters; Vought F4U Corsairs flying from Victorious would provide protection against German aircraft and Grumman F4F Wildcats operating from Furious and the escort carriers HMS Emperor, Pursuer and Searcher were to strafe German anti-aircraft batteries near Tirpitz, as well as the battleship itself. Further aircraft flying from Furious and the escort carrier HMS Fencer would protect the fleet against attack by German aircraft or submarines. While aircraft flying from carriers had previously lacked a bomb capable of penetrating the battleships' thick deck armour, it was hoped that the recently-developed 1,600 pound armour piercing bomb would be able to penetrate at least the first of Tirpitz's layers of armour if they were dropped from an altitude of at least 3,500 feet (1,100 m), thereby putting the ship out of service. Nine of the Barracudas were to be armed with these bombs and a further 22 would each carry three 500 pound semi-armour piercing bombs which were capable of penetrating the lightly-protected upper decks of the ship if dropped from an altitude of above 2,000 feet (610 m). The remaining ten aircraft would be armed with 500 and 600 pound general purpose and ant-submarine bombs which were intended to inflict casualties on the battleship's crew and cause underwater damage if they exploded in the water near her hull. The aircraft carrying high explosive bombs would initiate the dive bombing of Tirpitz; it was hoped that these weapons would knock out at least some of the battleship's anti-aircraft guns before the main attack took place.
The Fleet Air Arm units selected for the operation conducted intensive training exercises from February 1944. A high proportion of the airmen were inexperienced, and the captain of Victorious estimated that 85 percent of the aircrew embarked on his ship had never operated at sea. The training program was centred around Loch Eriboll in northern Scotland which, like Kaafjord, was surrounded by steep hills. The aircrew practiced maneouvering around these hills in order to familiarise themselves with the tactics needed to avoid German anti-aircraft guns and successfully attack Tirpitz. The Royal Navy drew on intelligence on the defences of Kaafjord to make the exercise range as similar to the conditions around Tirpitz as was possible, and the aircrew were extensively briefed on the locations of German positions. An area the size of the battleship was also marked out on an island in the centre of the loch and repeatedly bombed.
While these preparations were underway, the Allies continued to monitor Tirpitz. In late February the escort carrier HMS Chaser transported the ground crews for a Royal Air Force photo reconnaissance detachment as well as photo analysts to Vaenga in northern Russia. They were joined by three Supermarine Spitfires fitted for photo reconnaissance work and a single Consolidated PBY Catalina in March. The Spitfires flew regular sorties over Kaafjord and took very detailed photographs of Tirpitz and the nearby anti-aircraft batteries on 12 and 13 March; after being developed these images were flown to the UK by the Catalina. While the German forces in north Norway detected the Spitfire flights, the Kaafjord area's defences were not increased or placed on alert. The final decision to undertake Operation Tungsten was made in mid-March on the basis of a decrypted radio message which indicated that Tirpitz was almost ready for combat and would conduct high speed trials on 1 April. As a result of the delays to launching the operation, the sailing of the attack force coincided with the departure of Convoy JW 58 for the Soviet Union. It was hoped that if any German forces spotted the British attack forces they would conclude that they were supporting the convoy.
Opposing forces 
The Royal Navy assembled a powerful force for Operation Tungsten. The main striking force was made up of two wings of Barracudas; 8 Wing comprising 827 and 830 Naval Air Squadrons, and 52 Wing with 829 and 831 Naval Air Squadrons. While No. 8 Wing was normally based onboard Furious and 52 Wing on Victorious, Moore chose to station one squadron from each wing on the carriers so that the wings could be launched simultaneously and go into battle together. The large group of warships assigned to the operation were initially split into two groups; Force One was personally commanded by Fraser onboard the battleship HMS Duke of York, and also included Victorious, the battleship HMS Anson (79) (with Moore and his staff onboard), a light cruiser and five destroyers. Force Two was commanded by Rear Admiral Arthur La Touche Bisset and comprised Furious, the four escort carriers five destroyers and two tankers. It was planned that Force One would initially provide support for an Allied convoy and Force Two would sail separately and proceed directly to a point off Norway where it would be joined by Anson and Victorious on 3 April and conduct the raid the next day. The 163 Fleet Air Arm airmen who would conduct the attack included 28 New Zealanders, three Canadians and a South African; the remainder were British.
Force One departed from Scapa Flow on 30 March, three days after Convoy JW 58 had sailed from Loch Ewe. The convoy comprised 49 merchant ships escorted by a powerful force of 33 warships, including two escort carriers. The German Navy directed all of the U-boats in the Norwegian Sea to intercept the convoy, and a force of 17 submarines attacked it between 1 and 3 April. None of the Allied ships suffered any damage, and the convoy's escorts sank four U-boats and shot down six aircraft during the voyage from Scotland to the Soviet Union. Convoy JW 58 reached its destination at the Kola Bay on 6 April. While several aircraft were lost during the voyage, mostly to flying accidents, all of the ships arrived unscathed.
Due to a combination of favourable factors, Fraser decided on 1 April to bring the raid forward by 24 hours. Decrypted German signals indicated that Tirpitz's trials had been delayed until 3 April, and Fraser hoped that an attack on this date would catch the battleship away from her usual well-protected mooring. Moreover, as Convoy JW 58's escorts were performing well and there were no indications that Tirpitz would sortie into the open sea, Fraser concluded that Force One no longer needed to provide support for the merchant vessels. Finally, weather conditions were unusually good for the Norwegian Sea in early Spring, and were well suited to air operations. Once the decision to attack was made, Anson and Victorious were detached from Force One to join Force Two, and Fraser withdrew to the west. The battleship and carrier joined Force Two at a position 250 miles (400 km) north-west of Kaafjord on the afternoon of 2 April, and the combined force proceeded to the launching point for the strike.
The attack was launched during the early hours of 3 April. All the airmen were woken shortly after midnight, and attended a final briefing from 1.15 am. The aircraft which were to be used in the strike were armed, with all of the bombs being marked with messages for Tirpitz in chalk. The aircrew began boarding their aircraft at 4.00 am, and flying off operations started 15 minutes later, with 10 Cosairs from Victorious being the first to be launched; at this time the warships were 120 miles (190 km) from Kaafjord. These fighters were followed by the Barracudas of 8 Wing; 827 Squadron was launched from Victorious and 830 Squadron departed from Furious. Once the Barracudas were airborne the remaining escort fighters - Wildcats and Hellcats - were launched. All the aircraft of the first wave were dispatched successfully, and the force completed forming up at 4.37 am. Flying conditions remained perfect.
The first wave headed for Norway at low altitude, flying just 50 feet (15 m) above the sea in an attempt to evade detection by German radar. The aircraft began to climb to a higher altitude when they reached a point 20 miles (32 km) from the coast, and had reached 7,000 feet (2,100 m) by the time they made landfall at 5.08 am. The force approached Altenfjord from the west, passing over the western end of Langfjord before turning south, then looping to the north and attacking the battleship over the hills on the southern coast of the Kaafjord shortly before 5.30 am.
The arrival of the British force caught Tirpitz by surprise. While the aircraft had first been picked up by a German radar station shortly after they crossed the Norwegian coastline, the battleship was not immediately warned. At the time of the attack Tirpitz was preparing to sail for her high speed trials, and her crew were busy unmooring the vessel. Her five protective destroyers had already departed for the trials area in Stjern sound. The warning from the radar station arrived shortly before the British aircraft appeared over Kaafjord, and the battleship's crew were still in the process of moving to their battle stations when the attack commenced; at this time not all of the watertight doors were closed and some damage control stations were not fully manned.
As planned, the British raid began with Hellcat and Wildcat fighters strafing Tirpitz's anti-aircraft guns; this attack inflicted heavy casualties on the gunners, disabled the battleship's main anti-aircraft control centre and damaged several guns. The 20 Barracudas began their attack shortly afterwords, and hit Tirpitz with a general purpose bomb, three 500 pound semi-armour piercing bombs and a further three 1,600 pound bombs within 60 seconds. Most of these bombs did not penetrate the ship's armoured deck as they had been dropped from too low an altitude. Nevertheless, they caused extensive damage and further casualties. One of 830 Squadron's Barracudas crashed following the attack with the loss of all three members of its crew. The surviving aircraft of the first wave began landing on the carriers at 6:19 am.
The second wave began to be launched from the British aircraft carriers at 5:25 am. One of the Baracudas crashed shortly after take off, killing its crew of three, and another was unable to be launched due to engine problems. The remaining 19 bombers and their escorting fighters had an uneventful flight to the Kaafjord area. While the German defences were now alert, the artificial smoke screen was not yet sufficient to hide Tirpitz from view.
The second attack on Tirpitz was similar to the first. It began with Hellcat fighters strafing the anti-aircraft batteries while Wildcats attacked the battleship. The Barracudas executed their dive bombing attack at 6:36 am and achieved several hits within a minute. One of the bombers was shot down by anti-aircraft fire after completing its attack; all three airmen were killed. The second wave began to land on the carriers at about 7:20 am; one of its Corsair fighters crashed while landing on Victorious and a damaged Hellcat ditched near HMCS Algonquin, but both pilots survived.
During the early afternoon of 3 April Moore considered conducting a further raid on Kaafjord the next day. He decided against this option as the preliminary intelligence assessments had concluded that Tirpitz was badly damaged. Moore was also aware that the aircrew were fatigued, and was reluctant to expose them to what would now be alert German defences.Accordingly, he ordered that the fleet return to base, and it arrived at Scarpa Flow in the afternoon of 6 April.
British losses were two Barracudas shot down, one Barracuda crashed into the sea, and the Corsair and Hellcat which were lost on landing. Nine airmen were killed. The Fleet Air Airm aircrew found the defences and geography at Kaafjord to be very similar to the training ranges at Loch Eriboll, and one of the post-attack reports stated that the operation had been "almost an exercise which they [the aircrew] had frequently carried out before".
The Tirpitz had suffered flooding caused by near misses but the machinery was untouched – none of the bombs had penetrated the deck armour. The radio aerials had been reduced, the anti-aircraft armament had been damaged, 122 men had been killed and a further 316 wounded. Tirpitz would be out of action for at least another month. The armour-piercing bombs may have been less effective because they were dropped at lower heights than intended.
- Bishop (2012), p. 307
- Woodman (2004), p. 340
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 251
- Bishop (2012), p. 295
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 265
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 264
- Hinsley et al. (1988), p. 269
- Bishop (2012), pp. 291–293
- Bishop (2012), p. 294
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), pp. 266–267
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 267
- Bishop (2012), pp. 296–297
- Bishop (2012), p. 297
- Bishop (2012), p. 299
- Bishop (2012), pp. 295–296, 298
- Bishop (2012), p. 300
- Hinsley et al. (1988), pp. 273–274
- Bishop (2012), p. 298
- Roskill (1960), p. 274
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 268
- Bishop (2012), pp. 299–300
- Blair (2000), p. 516
- Blair (2000), pp. 516–517
- Woodman (2004), pp. 390–394
- Bishop (2012), pp. 300–301
- Roskill (1960), p. 275
- Bishop (2012), p. 301
- Bishop (2012), pp. 301–302
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), pp. 268–269
- Bishop (2012), p. 302
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 270
- Bishop (2012), p. 303
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), pp. 271–272
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 272
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 275
- Bishop (2012), p. 305
- Bishop (2012), p. 306
- Zetterling and Tamelander (2009), p. 279
- Bishop (2012), p. 308
- The following British Fleet Air Arm casualties from operation Tungsten are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Tromsø Sub-Lieutenant (A) THOMAS CHARLES BELL (F.A.A. 830 Sqdn. H.M.S. Furious., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) age 21; Leading Airman GEORGE JOSEPH BURNS (F.A.A. 830 Sqdn. H.M.S. Furious., Royal Navy) age 20; Sub-Lieutenant (A) ANDREW GEORGE CANNON (F.A.A. 829 Sqdn. H.M.S. Victorious, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) age 21; Sub-Lieutenant (A) ROBERT NORMAN DRENNAN (F.A.A. 830 Sqdn. H.M.S. Furious, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) age 23; Sub-Lieutenant (A) HUBERT HORACE RICHARDSON (F.A.A. 829 Sqdn. H.M.S. Victorious., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) age 22. Leading Aircraftsman E.CARROLL flying in a Baracuda II with RICHARDSON and CANNON managed to bail out. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. The crew of the 827 Squadron Barracuda flying from HMS Victorious which crashed into the sea were COLWILL, Colin Leading Airman; WHITTAKER, John P, Ty/Lieutenant (A), RNVR; BOWLES, Francis Ty/Sub Lieutenant (A), RNVR. They were all killed in the accident.
- Works consulted
- Bishop, Patrick (2007). Target Tirpitz. London: Harper Press. ISBN 9780007431199.
- Blair, Clay (2000). Hitler's U-boat war : The Hunted, 1942-1945. New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0679640339.
- Hinsley, F.H.; et al. (1984). British Intelligence in the Second World War : Its Influence on Strategy and Operations. Volume Three, Part I. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office. ISBN 0116309350.
- Roskill, S.W. (1960). The War at Sea 1939–1945. Volume III: The Offensive Part I. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. OCLC 58588186.
- Woodman, Richard (2004). The Arctic Convoys : 1941 – 1945 (Paperback ed.). London: John Murray. ISBN 0719566177.
- Zetterling, Niklas; Tamelander, Michael (2009). Tirpitz : The life and Death of Germany's Last Super Battleship. Philadelphia: Casemate. ISBN 9781935149187.
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