It was a sunny November morning, 69 years ago, a few dozen meters off the shore of Håkøy Island, near Tromsø, in Norway. The Battleship Tirpitz, the largest German warship ever built, sister ship to the Bismarck, had come to her last harbor. Heavily damaged the year before, she had limped into the fjord at Tromsø, where her massive guns were to protect the northern port from Allied bombing. The Germans had already started the process of putting the ship to rest on the bottom of a shallow bay. Once solidly lodged, she would truly be unsinkable. It was in this context that the Allies made a last ditch effort to put her out of action definitively. Thirty-two Lancaster bombers set out to sink the mighty Tirpitz.
It is hard today to imagine how powerful and impressive this ship was. With 138,000 horsepower, achieving speeds of over 30 knots, armed to the teeth with heavy and light guns, manned by over 2500 mariners, she even carried four reconnaissance aircraft. Churchill writes of her: “The whole strategy of the war turns at this period to this ship, which is holding four times the number of British capital ships paralyzed, to say nothing of the two new American battleships in the Atlantic.”
On and below the solid teak decks of the Tirpitz, the morning of 12 November, 1944, some 1600 sailors toiled at repairs and prepared the final resting place of the Battleship, unaware that for most of them, it would be their grave. At 9:41, the first wave of British bombers came across the fjord from the south. Minutes later, the Tirpitz would list heavily to port, to almost 70 degrees, with two direct hits from the Tall Boy bombs and four more in the water off the port side. Each Tall Boy weighed over 12,000 pounds. A short time later, after internal explosions, she turned turtle and capsized, taking with her some 1000 sailors.
It was a sunny late October morning, four years ago, almost exactly 65 years after the raid. I stood on the beach with Leif Arneberg, director of the Tromsø WWII museum and himself a retired Norwegian naval officer. We walked along the rocky shore, and he pointed out the craters left by the Tall Boys, little ponds in a grassy field.
The hull itself is gone, cut up for scrap metal by an entrepreneurial Norwegian after the war. The partial salvage took nine years and made him a millionaire. A farmer’s fence leading away from the waterside seems strangely over-engineered, with rectangular planks 3 inches thick every few feet. I smile. “Yes,” says Leif. “Teak. Deck planks.” Almost three generations later, they stand, erect and unrotten, a final memorial to testify to the momentous events of November 1944.
For an accurate, fictionalized account of the sinking of the Tirpitz, read my recently released novel Revontuli.