KM_Tirpitz_1943

German Battleship Tirpitz at sea, 1943

Sixty-five years ago, RAF Lancasters of Number 617 Squadron, the famous Ruhr “Dambusters”, and Number 9 Squadron, took off on a 2,300 mile mission to sink the German Battleship Tirpitz. For some weeks, Tirpitz sat by herself in the bitterly cold waters of Tromso Fjord along the Norwegian coast, seldom moving. In the latter months of her life, she would earn the nickname of Die einsame Konigin des Nordes. The Lonely Queen of the North.

When built, Tirpitz was one of the most powerful units afloat. Slightly larger than her legendary sister ship Bismarck, KMS Tirpitz displaced more than 43,000 tons. She was 824 feet long, armed with eight 38-cm (15”) guns, and had exceeded 31 knots on trials. The British had tried desperately to destroy her before she was even completed, and between the RAF and Royal Navy, many air, surface, and subsurface attacks had been only moderately successful, and had often paid a heavy cost for their efforts.

Tirpitz in Kofjord, 1943

Tirpitz in Kofjord, 1943

The operational history of Tirpitz is stunningly brief. In fact, there had been but three sorties for the magnificent ship. She had only fired her main battery once in anger, at targets ashore during a raid on Spitzbergen in September, 1943. Yet, she presented a threat to the Russian convoys and to British command of the seas from the time of her launching until her sinking. Tirpitz, with a varied array of Kriegsmarine capital units (battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, “pocket battleships” Scheer and Lutzow, and the superb heavy cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen), had been assigned the mission of commerce raiding, a role originally tasked to her more famous sister, Bismarck. She never filled that role, nor did she ever engage an enemy surface combatant during her short life. Hitler, unwilling to risk his heavy warships after the loss of Bismarck, severely restricted the conditions under which German capital units could put to see to seek battle.

The role in which Tirpitz, and most of the capital ships of the Kriegsmarine, would have the most success was that of a “fleet in being”. Despite a relatively few heavy units being assembled at any one time, and despite a lack of significant aerial umbrella (aside from some Luftwaffe coastal units) to protect them at sea, the German warships were perceived as a major threat to the convoys from the United States to Britain, and later to the Soviet Union via Murmansk and Archangel.

It has been estimated that the “fleet in being”, of which Tirpitz was the centerpiece and eventually the only significant unit, tied down ten times its own combat power in Royal Navy battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. Many of these powerful warships were desperately needed in other theaters of war, most notably in November/December of 1941 in the Pacific.

HMS Repulse hit by Japanese bombs

HMS Repulse hit by Japanese bombs

HMS Prince of Wales heeling to port and sinking

HMS Prince of Wales heeling to port and sinking

How might Britain’s (and America’s) fortunes have been different in December of 1941 had a substantial task force (including additional aircraft carriers) been sent to Hong Kong/Singapore, instead of a single aircraft carrier, one modern battleship, and an elderly battle cruiser? The largest and most powerful navy in the world was spread too thin to do so. Instead, when Illustrious was damaged running aground, Prince of Wales and Repulse were helpless against far superior Japanese strength, and were sunk by aircraft from the 11th Air Fleet. (Had Illustrious been present, it is unlikely that she would have deterred the attacks, and most probably would have been lost along with Repulse and Prince of Wales.)

The threat the Royal Navy believed Tirpitz and her consorts posed can be illustrated by the fate of Convoy PQ-17. Putting out of the assembly point in Iceland, PQ-17 was bound for Murmansk with about fifty ships and escorts in early July, 1942. Upon a mere report that Tirpitz (along with cruiser Hipper) had put to sea from Trondheim (Operation Rosselsprung), the order was given for PQ-17 to scatter. In reality, Grand Admiral Raeder ordered Tirpitz to return to Trondheim over concerns that Home Fleet ships and aircraft would attack and sink her. The merchant vessels of PQ-17, scattered beyond the protection of the escorting warships, were hunted relentlessly by Luftwaffe aircraft and Donitz’s Wolf Packs, with U-boats and aerial attacks accounting for twenty-four merchantmen, nearly half of the convoy’s strength.

Tirpitz leads cruisers Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer to sea in Operation Rosselsprung

Tirpitz leads cruisers Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer to sea in Operation Rosselsprung

Even as late as November of 1944, Tirpitz, by then truly a lonely queen, continued to draw British attention as a lingering threat to Britain and her lifelines from America. What the British did not know is that a raid on 11 September, 1944 had badly damaged Tirpitz forward, and the decision had been made not to repair her to seaworthiness. So the raid of 12 November was launched from bases in Britain.

617 Sqn Lancaster fueling for the 2300 mile flight to Tromso and back

617 Sqn Lancaster fueling for the 2300 mile flight to Tromso and back

Tirpitz camouflaged at anchor

Tirpitz camouflaged at anchor

British Lancasters from 9 and 617 Squadrons arrived to no Luftwaffe fighter opposition, and despite heavy antiaircraft fire struck Tirpitz with at least two of the 6-ton “tallboy” bombs carried. The massive battleship suffered a magazine explosion, and rolled to port on her beam ends. She capsized in shallow water, taking more than one thousand of her crew into the icy waters of Tromso Fjord. The “Lonely Queen” was gone, and the “fleet in being” was no more. The effort since 1941 to contain and then destroy Tirpitz had been enormous, and had global implications for British and Allied naval strategy throughout the first five years of war. Her existence as a “fleet in being” had far wider impact strategically than the heroic but ultimately fatal battles fought by her sister Bismarck in 1941 and her sometimes-consort Scharnhorst in 1943.

Tirpitz, capsized and sunk in Tromso

Tirpitz, capsized and sunk in Tromso

The concept of the “fleet in being” was not a new one, even in 1939. In fact, the concept went back three centuries, when in 1690 the British had turned the trick on the French. In the First World War, the High Seas Fleet had pinned down a much greater number of British warships at Scapa Flow than its own strength ever approached. During World War II, not only were German capital units in northern waters such a “fleet in being”, but the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean served strikingly similar purposes, and necessitated the daring British raid on Taranto in 1940. Indeed, the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was in many ways a “fleet in being” to the Japanese, posing a far more serious threat than what existed the previous year when the Pacific Fleet was based in California. The Pearl Harbor attack was, like Britain’s against Taranto, to eliminate a “fleet in being” which could challenge and disrupt control of seas vital to the Japanese.

The topic of Tirpitz and the “fleet in being” concept is not merely of academic and historical interest. In the first decade of the 21st Century, there has been much discussion by The People’s Republic of China regarding their desires for a blue-water fleet to protect global interests and establish regional hegemony in the waters of the Western Pacific. We have seen a growing amphibious and power projection capability, and the maturing of a maritime denial strategy with an eye toward the United States Navy. There is again discussion, this time more serious, of the development of naval aviation by the PLAN.

Could a burgeoning Chinese Navy become a “fleet in being”? What implications does that hold for the United States? In each historical example, a “fleet in being” that threatened vital interests was countered by one of two approaches. The first was the dedication of naval combat power in excess of that which such a “fleet in being” could bring to bear, ensuring a reasonable chance of victory. The second was an attack (pre-emptive in some notable cases) on that fleet from the air while the critical elements of that fleet were in harbor.

Ships of the PLAN execute underway replenishment at sea

Ships of the PLAN execute underway replenishment at sea

PLAN Attack SS runs on the surface

PLAN Attack SS runs on the surface

Is the PLAN wagering we haven’t the national will for the first approach, and that they can effectively defend against the second? We would be well-served to look at how the various “fleets in being” affected strategic and operational decisions on the part of maritime powers and wrap such considerations into future Maritime Strategies, and shipbuilding plans. To do otherwise will be to stumble blindly into a future that our adversaries have prepared carefully for. Such a course would be foolhardy and costly.




Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Aviation, Foreign Policy, History, Maritime Security, Navy


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  • Chuck Hill

    Would have to disagree regarding the fate of the British task force if Illustrious had been present. The British fighters were abominable, but I don’t believe there would have been no opposing fighters at all. As it was, the battle was not decided until the third of three wave of attack. The combined effect of defending fighters and splitting the attentions of the attackers among three targets instead of two likely would have made a huge difference.

    But even if the British had survived the air attack. I doubt they would have survived the torpedoes of the Japanese surface ships that they would have faced.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Chuck,

    Your point is a good one, there would have been much more of a fight. But the fate of the ships was sealed by sending such a comparatively weak force into the lion’s den. The Japanese had no intention of letting the Royal Navy reinforce Singapore. And very little else to distract them from that task.

  • Chuck Hill

    Prince of Wales and Repulse were on the way to attack the Japanese invasion fleet. The British commander was an idiot who was convinced after many years of commanding a desk that warships had nothing to fear from aircraft, that all that was required was a little more resolution. He even refused the offer of land based fighter cover.

  • B. Walthrop

    This is an excellent post with insight into the “fleet in being” that I had only considered from a US centric perspective. Transparency is a key component to this concept, so the WWII analogy is imperfect. I sense that the US and the Chinese are talking past each other WRT transparency, but I freely admit that this is just a gut feel and not backed up by any substantial data that I have found in the public discussion. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    V/R,

  • http://newwars.wordpress.com Mike Burleson

    The fleet in being concept for China is a good one, and actually goes to show that even a handful of capital ships built for a Navy is very useful. But historically, the real fighting of a war at sea is usually done by many smaller ships, and we see no reason for this to change anytime soon.We needed more boots on the ground, likwise we will require more hulls in the water, lots of them.

    All eyes are currently focused on the mythical Chinese aircraft carriers. Whether they are built or not, they’ve served their purpose in assuring the US it should only build large carriers, large missiles ships, and nuclear subs in an ever shrinking fleet. Meanwhile the real threat lies with attack on her commerce by rogue auxiliary cruisers now, and in a shooting war, with many conventional submarines fitted with modern weapons.

    Add to this anti-access missiles fired from land and you have the tiny US Fleet overwhelmed, forced into a war of attrition it isn’t prepared for, but should have seen coming.

  • Tarl

    Chinese CVs do not now, and have never, provided the rationale for the US building CVs. We will keep building CVs for good reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not China has CVs.

    So the real Chinese threat is to US commerce? You mean the commerce that is primarily between the US and China? Remind me why we’re fighting this war, again?

  • http://chockblock.wordpress.com Chockblock

    Not exactly mythical. China wants carriers. Unlike the Soviets/Russians, they may get them.

    Carriers have many uses today. They are 4 acres of sovereign US territory to launch air strikes, aid missions, transport personnel or any mission you can think of.

    Tuning the USN into a frigate navy plays into the hands of smaller navies that would be shut out by our carriers.

    The smaller conventional subs? Take away the carriers and our fleet has no ASW resource to project power, we go back to WWII.

    As to the threat posed “rogue auxiliary cruisers” et al. Bomb them in port. Ships need harbors and a land based supply chain. The crew has to come to port sometime. WWII in the pacific was a carrier war, we defeated the IJN with our carriers. Fighting other navies and pirates with ships alone is just silly. Bomb them.

    Anti-ship missiles have been on the navy’s agenda ever since the Falklands war, but real tech breakthroughs (like THEL) keep getting cut by penny pinchers in the DOD. The Phalanx CIWS works wonders, but better tech is out there, just waiting for the DoD to turn on the money.

  • Chuck Hill

    Not mentioned was the fact that the Tirpitz had already been effectively disabled by an attack by midget submarines (X-craft), a capability we don’t seem to be able to duplicate and against which we seem to have little defense.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Remind me why we’re fighting this war, again?”

    Nobody said we were fighting a war. But Germany and Britain were not at war in 1910, either. Besides, historical examples tell us not to be lulled by economic ties.

    Germany’s second largest trading partner in 1914? France. France’s largest in 1914? Germany.

    Japan’s largest trading partner in 1940? The United States.

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