August Book Choice: Target Tirpitz
The History Today Book Choice recommendation for August is Target Tirpitz: X-Craft, Agents and Dambusters: The Epic Quest to Destroy Hitler's Mightiest Warship (HarperPress) by Patrick Bishop. Here the author discusses his work with Paul Lay.
The idea of the German warship Tirpitz seems to have been much more frightening than the reality. Why were the Allies so obsessed with Nazi Germany’s capital ships?
Viewed rationally, the threat posed by Tirpitz was limited. Even if she had succeeded in breaking out into the Atlantic, she was not capable of cutting Britain’s lifeline to the Americas. The example of her sister ship, Bismarck, sunk in May 1941, suggested that the likelihood was that she would be intercepted, then hunted down and overwhelmed by the Royal Navy’s superior numbers. There was, however, much that was irrational about the Allies’ attitude to the German navy’s big ships. They seemed – initially at least – almost to have come to believe that the apparent invincibility of Hitler’s armies must extend to his forces at sea.
Can you describe Tirpitz for us. What was life like on board?
Essentially she was a conventional battleship, but sufficiently faster, stronger and better-armed to give her the edge over her British opponents. Most of the time the 2,000-plus ship’s company lived the life of Reilly. Until the grisly end, hardly any German in uniform can have had a cushier war. While, not far away on the Eastern Front, their comrades starved and froze, the sailors went skiing and hiking and were entertained with films and concerts by visiting performers. The letters and diaries reflect the guilt that many felt about this. It was particularly hard to live with the knowledge that while they were tucked safely in a succession of Norwegian fjords, back home their families were being bombed by the RAF.
The Germans seem to have been similarly obsessed with the Royal Navy. Why was that? Can you place their concerns in a historical context?
The Germans had a conflicted attitude towards the Royal Navy, at once fearing, admiring and envying it. Possession of a powerful navy seemed an essential part of nationhood – especially if the nation aspired to global power status. The Royal Navy provided the obvious model and the Imperial Navy borrowed some of its traditions and structures. The great architect of German sea power was of course Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930). His attitude can be summed up by the fact that, while he spent his life trying to create a navy capable of destroying the British fleet, he sent his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
How had the needs of navies changed by the Second World War?
It was clear by the end of the First World War that the day of the battleship was over. Von Tirpitz himself had forseen that the future lay with submarines and you did not need to be a seer to predict that aircraft were bound to play an increasingly powerful role in future wars at sea. These truths were demonstrated in the opening clashes of the new conflict, with the British fleet suffering badly at the hands of the Luftwaffe in Norway, while the Italian navy proved vulnerable to the aircraft carrier-borne Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm at the Battle of Taranto in November 1940. The second war came too hard on the heels of the first for building programmes to take account of the new realities, so all navies were well stocked with giant but obsolescent craft. In the conflict submarines and aircraft accounted for far greater tonnages than big did surface vessels.
It is said that Tirpitz’s greatest achievement was as a ‘fleet in being.’ What does that mean?
This describes the strategy of keeping a naval force ‘in being’ rather than risking it in a battle it might well lose. By simply staying afloat and in harbour you are posing a potential threat to your enemy, who then has to keep an equal force at least at readiness to guard against a foray. The Germans used Tirpitz in precisely this way to great effect in Norway from 1942 to 1944, tying up a large portion of the British Home Fleet, which might have been put to much better use in the Mediterranean or the Far East.
How did Tirpitz meet her end? What lessons were learned on both sides by its destruction?
Tirpitz was finally sent to the bottom as it lay in shallow waters off Tromsø in northern Norway by the giant Tallboy bombs of Bomber Command’s 617 and 9 Squadrons on November 12th, 1944. It was the last in a series of 24 major operations mounted against it during the course of the war. It was a grim finish to the story with nearly 1,000 seamen dying horrible deaths. I’m not sure there were any lessons to be learned by this late stage in the war. For me, though, the story of the ship and the efforts to destroy it stand as a monument to the courage that war brings forth, but above all to the tragic wastefulness of it all.
Target: Tirpitz is out now.
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