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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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