Fleet Air Arm operations in support of Arctic Convoys
The Arctic Convoys were fought in the toughest conditions and were of vital importance to the Allies’ success in the Second World War. The defeat of German forces by the Soviet Union was dependent on supplies from Britain and America reaching the country by the dangerous route around the North Cape. German control of Norway meant that the convoys were within range of aircraft and warships for much of their time at sea. In addition, the crews of the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy ships that braved this gauntlet had to face some of the worst conditions imaginable, with freezing cold, snow, ice and high winds. The cold was such a problem that machinery frequently malfunctioned or refused to work – the gyro of a torpedo launched by HMS Trinidad was so affected by the sub-zero temperatures that it steered the projectile in a circular path and struck the ship that had launched it, killing 32 men.
According to naval author and historian Richard Woodman, ‘Without the logistical support of tanks, aircraft, transport vehicles, guns, ammunition, chemicals, rubber, aluminium and much else besides, Stalin’s forces could not have rolled up the Nazi armies on the Eastern Front and pursued them deep into the heart of the Fatherland.’[i]
And like a knife at the throat of this lifeline, stood poised the capital ships of the German navy, the most powerful and dangerous of which was the Tirpitz. The Norwegian coastline proved a perfect hiding place for these ships, with its deep, steep-sided fjords, and was well-placed to intercept the convoys.
The battleship Tirpitz had commissioned in February 1941 and although destined never to fire on an Allied ship, was the cause of immense concern in the Admiralty and, indirectly, the destruction of much Allied shipping. In July 1942, the very likelihood of her being at sea caused the First Sea Lord to order convoy PQ17 to scatter, whereupon the ships were savaged by U-boats and aircraft. Consequently, the Admiralty was desperate to put Tirpitz ‘hors de combat’.
In late 1943 she was moored at Kåfjord in northern Norway, protected by torpedo nets, anti-aircraft batteries, flak ships and smoke generators while four Narvik-class destroyers were stationed at nearby Altenfjord.
The timing had become ever more pressing. With the war ramping up in the Far East, naval assets which were badly needed in the Pacific were effectively pinned down protecting the Arctic convoys. According to Lieutenant-Commander V. Rance, Commanding Officer of 831 Squadron who led one of the successful strikes on the ship, Tirpitz required “a sizeable fleet in constant readiness at Scapa Flow”. This translated roughly as four RN battleships with the associated escorts and air cover, while a further two American battleships remained in the Atlantic in case Tirpitz broke out of the North Sea. Winston Churchill regarded the risk posed by the ship as of “the highest urgency and importance.”[ii]
Furthermore, the Admiralty was keen that the Navy take the job on. Earlier in the war, the RAF had frequently been called upon to attack German capital ships when the RN lacked the means. The Tirpitz was seen as the Navy’s problem, and therefore it was the Navy’s responsibility to liquidate the threat it posed.
An audacious and highly risky raid, Operation Source, was carried out with midget submarines in September 1943. All of the submarines were lost, and the crews killed or captured but the daring raid succeeded in heavily damaging Tirpitz. The mighty ship suffered extensive flooding when the large explosive charges placed beneath her detonated, and many of the battleship’s systems were damaged. The damage took 5-6 months to repair, but the Tirpitz remained a threat so further ways of keeping the powerful ship out of action were planned.
Excepting highly specialised missions such as the midget submarine strike, there were two ways in which a ship of the power of the Tirpitz could be attacked with a sufficiently high chance of crippling or even sinking it. These were by torpedo or by dive-bombing. A torpedo attack was out of the question, because of the battleship’s location in the steep-sided fjords and its defences.
However, dive-bombing was more promising. With the new Fairey Barracuda, the FAA had a dive-bomber capable of carrying a capital-ship killing bomb. The aircraft was modified to be able carry an American 1,600 lb Armour Piercing bomb, which could do serious damage even to a ship as heavily armoured as the Tirpitz.
Operation Tungsten involved one of the biggest concentrations of RN ships of the war with a battleship, two fleet aircraft carriers, four escort carriers, four heavy cruisers, two tankers and fourteen destroyers. Two TBR wings, No.8 (Furious) and No.52 (Victorious) made up of 827 and 830 squadrons, and 829 and 831 squadrons, were to provide the striking force. Meanwhile, Corsairs, Hellcats, Wildcats and Seafires would provide close escort, top cover and fleet air cover.
Training was carried out professionally, thoroughly and, according to the Battle Summary, ‘energetically’. A full-scale bombing and air-firing range was created at Loch Eriboll (nicknamed ‘Loch ‘orrible’) to resemble as closely as possible the Tirpitz in her mountainous fastness, complete with smoke generators and dummy AA batteries.
Until February 1944, the commanders of the squadrons undertaking the training had not been told what the target was, though doubtless some guessed. The fleet sailed from Scapa Flow on the 29 March, at which point the crews were finally informed what their target would be.
The timing of the raid was set to coincide with a Russia-bound convoy, JW58, to ensure U-boats were fully occupied elsewhere, and initially part of the naval force, including Anson and Victorious, provided distant cover to the outward bound merchant ships.
The raid was to take place in two waves, with a Barracuda wing in each. Just after 4am on the 3rd, the Barracudas’ engines were started, as were those of the fighter cover, Corsairs on Victorious and the rest on the escort carriers. The subsequent report from HMS Victorious noted that the crews were ‘brimfull of determination’ and that the complicated forming up manoeuvre was executed ‘as if a parade ground movement’. The force led by Lieutenant-Commander R. Baker Faulkner of HMS Furious – 45 fighters in addition to the Barracudas – set off for the Tirpitz.
The force approached the coast at low level for twenty minutes, before climbing to 10,000 ft. Baker Faulkner used a snow covered valley to cover the approach of the strike force from the South West before plunging on a completely unsuspecting enemy. The Hellcats and Wildcats were directed to strafe the Tirpitz and surrounding flak positions, while the Corsairs gave top cover. The Barracudas dived from 8,000 ft, entering their approach at 0529. The TBRs’ fearsomely destructive attack lasted around a minute, during which time the ship had been hit by a suspected three 1,600 lb bombs, four 500 lb SAP bombs and three 500 lb MC bombs. The output of the smoke generators was insufficient to put the bombers off their aim. Flak did not start until the attack was underway, and was largely inaccurate.
Only one Barracuda was damaged, and was seen to be making a controlled ditching. The remainder of the force withdrew while the fighter escort attacked targets of opportunity – the flak ship Harald Hafagre, a destroyer and two armed trawlers.
The second strike was taking off as the first was attacking. One Barracuda crashed immediately after take-off, and another failed to start, but the rest took off without incident and formed up at low level as the first strike had done. The attack was made from around 7,500 ft, and as they went into the dive, the crews noticed that Tirpitz had shifted position and may have been drifting.
Just before the dive bombers began their attack, Wildcats from Searcher and Pursuer strafed the ship to hamper AA fire. The Barracudas of 829 and 831 squadrons barrelled into the dive, two columns in quick succession. One Barracuda was hit by AA fire and crashed into a mountain but all others escaped. By the time the aircraft had turned for the fleet, the Tirpitz had stopped firing altogether. It was judged that six 500 lb bombs and one 600 lb bomb had struck the target. Overall the Admiralty claimed seventeen hits, three by 1,600 lb AP bombs. In fact there had been four 1,600 lb hits and eleven with smaller bombs.
Unfortunately none of the 1,600 lb AP bombs had penetrated the ship’s main armour. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of damage had been done. There were hits all over the upper deck and superstructure. Damage had been caused by fires, explosions and bomb splinters. The Tirpitz had in fact been ready to put to sea again before the attack, and had just started sea trials again for the first time since the midget submarine attack.
Operation Tungsten, was called ‘a red letter day for the Naval Air Arm’ in the Admiralty’s Battle Summary of the mission,[iii] while the Daily Express referred to it as ‘the singeing of Hitler’s moustache’. Because of Operation Tungsten, the Tirpitz would not be ready for sea again for nearly three months.
The newly formed 9th TBR Wing, formed of 820 and 826 Squadrons, joined HMS Indefatigable in June 1944 for the next raid, codenamed Operation Mascot. HMS Victorious was replaced by HMS Formidable, carrying 827 and 830 Squadrons. HMS Furious took part once again, but this time providing the fighter escort. The raid was launched on July 17th.
In the time since April, the defences around the battleship had been strengthened. Even more extensive smoke cover had been provided and rehearsals had carried out to ensure that complete smoke cover could be achieved as quickly as possible. Warning procedures had also been improved. As a result, the defending forces were well aware when the 44 dive-bombers and 48 fighters were approaching, and the Tirpitz was all but invisible below a thick layer of smoke. Bombing blind, none of the Barracudas were able to hit the target. One Barracuda, LS653 of 826 Squadron, was damaged by flak but the pilot ditched near the assembled fleet and the crew were rescued.
The Admiralty recognised that to exceed the earlier successes, the strikes must be even more powerful and better coordinated. The series of four Operation Goodwood raids resulted, but due to the improved defences and bad luck, the hoped-for success was not achieved. In fact, Operation Goodwood III could have been the most successful raid of all. A single hit was scored by a 1,600 lb bomb but unlike the earlier hits, this one penetrated the ship’s vertical armour on the foredeck, and buried itself deep in the lower platform deck. Unfortunately for the Allies, it failed to explode. The official Kriegsmarine report noted that: “The attack on 24 August 1944 was undoubtedly the heaviest and most determined so far. The English showed great skill and dexterity in flying… During the dive bombing, fighter planes attacked the land batteries which, in comparison with earlier attacks, suffered heavy losses. The fact that an armour-piercing bomb of more than 699 kg (1,540 lb) did not explode must be considered an exceptional stroke of luck, as the effects of that explosion would have been immeasurable”.[iv] As it was, a 500 lb bomb strike on ‘B’ turret, from a bomb dropped by a Hellcat destroyed the top-mounted anti-aircraft gun and bowed the armoured roof of the turret. And though the German report refers to ‘The English’, it is crucial to note that a high proportion of the aircrews and supporting naval forces were Canadians and New Zealanders. The raids were a truly international affair and could not have been staged without volunteers from the Empire.
What was to become the final strike on the Tirpitz by Barracudas was quickly scheduled for the 29th August.
A pilot with 820 Squadron described this last operation as “a bit of a busted flush,” adding “by that time, Tirpitz had got her smoke screen out, and all you could see was a bloody great sea of smoke down there! With of course a number of flashes coming up from the guns.” The Barracuda pilots aimed at the gun flashes in the dive, and Hellcats tried to assist by ‘target marking’ with flares, but the attack was unsuccessful. The need for the Home Fleet to cover Arctic convoy RA59 brought an end to the Tirpitz raids.
In the end, from 40 outbound convoys between 1941 and 1945, 753 ships got through safely while 58 were sunk, 29 of which were lost during a single convoy, PQ17. Most of the losses from this disastrous convoy can be attributed to the Admiralty’s fear of the Tirpitz – while if it had not been for the RN’s tireless efforts to destroy or disable the battleship, the overall losses between 1941 and 1945 might have been very much higher and the outcome of the entire Eastern Front thrown into doubt.
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