Historian Patrick Bishop on the story behind the sinking of the Tirpitz battleship in the Second World War
I became friends with Tony Iveson, a veteran pilot with 617 squadron – The Dambusters – while researching Bomber Boys, my book on Bomber Command. Tony took part in the raid that finally sank the Tirpitz. That aroused my interest and led me to look at the story of the campaign to destroy the battleship.
I soon came to realise that this is a story about an obsession. There were 25 major attempts to deal with Tirpitz, using every means available and some of them highly unconventional and risky. First they tried heavy bombing raids and to lure her out so she could be dealt with in a sea battle. When that didn’t work they moved on to ‘human torpedoes’ and X-Craft which were midget submarines. None of these gallant efforts succeeded. Tirpitz was just too tough or too well hidden.
Finally it was the stupendous power of the Barnes Wallis Tallboy bomb that did for her. One of the fascinating aspects of the story is that by the middle of the war Tirpitz ceased to be a major threat. However by then she had become embedded in the demonology of Churchill and the Allies and some atavistic instinct drove them to seek her destruction – almost irregardless of the cost.
In some ways this is a series of adventure stories – myths even - as bands of warriors struggle against the odds to deliver a death blow against the monster lurking menacingly in a succession of Norwegian fjords. Their exploits resulted in the awards of seven VCs. A different sort of courage was also evident in the work of the Norwegian agents, some of them no more than schoolboys who risked torture and death to send back reports on the ship’s whereabouts and condition.
The book also highlights a man who although he was one of the greatest airmen of the war is virtually unknown outside the ranks of the RF. James‘Willie’ Tait followed in the footshops of Guy Gibson and Leonard Cheshire to command the Dambusters. He was every bit as extraordinary as them, flying more than a hundred missions and winning numeous awards. He was also extraordinarily modest with a pathological aversion to the limelight and so never achieved their fame. I hope the book establishes the outstanding man in his proper place in wartime history.
I devote quite a lot of time to the German side of the story. For all its power and for all the fear it instilled in its enemies, Tirpitz never took part in a major action. Its crew spent most of the war sitting comfortably on board a ship that might double as a luxury cruise liner. Many of them nonetheless met a horrible end with nearly a thousand dying in the final raid. Ultimately, this is an epic parable of the folly and waste of war.
Target Tirpitz by Patrick Bishop is out now, published by HarperPress.