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The Men Who Sank The Tirpitz: Air Force, Part 54

The wreck of Tirpitz being scrapped after the war. [PHOTO: BOMBER COMMAND MUSEUM OF CANADA]

The wreck of Tirpitz being scrapped after the war.

Thousands of Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew served in Bomber Command throughout the Second World War. Although 15 Canadian squadrons existed within that formation, many RCAF personnel flew in non-RCAF units, including in squadrons that fought the mighty German battleship Tirpitz.

Launched in April 1939 but not battle-ready until 1941, the Tirpitz was a sister ship to the famous Bismarck. Her tonnage (52,000), main armament of eight, 15-inch guns, speed of 31 knots and enormous armour made her a formidable threat. The Royal Navy was acutely aware of how difficult it had been to sink Bismarck in May 1941 (accomplished with as much luck as strategy).

Four British battleships were deployed to meet Tirpitz should she ever sail against the North Atlantic convoys. Hitler was aware of how the ship tied down RN resources, but was also fearful of what her loss would mean for German morale. He ordered that Tirpitz should never sail except in conditions of guaranteed safety. The British had to destroy her, but they would have to seek the beast in her lair. In planning the warship’s destruction, RAF and Admiralty staff considered options that bordered on suicidal.

Part of the German strategy was to base Tirpitz in Norwegian ports, threatening convoys to Russia while protected by fjords and distance from the RAF. Between January 1942 and November 1944 there were seven bombing attacks directed at the ship; six by the RAF, one by Soviet aircraft. There were also five attacks by Fleet Air Arm aircraft (one at sea, four in harbour) and one attack by midget submarines.

The German battleship Tirpitz in Norwegian waters. [PHOTO: NAVAL HISTORY & HERITAGE COMMAND PHOTOGRAPHIC DEPARTMENT—NH71318]

The German battleship Tirpitz in Norwegian waters.

The first bombing raid occurred on the night of Jan. 29-30, 1942, 12 days after Tirpitz arrived at Faettenfjord, near Trondheim. Nine Halifax and seven Stirling aircraft were dispatched, but only two reached the Norwegian coast and neither was able to find Tirpitz. A Fleet Air Arm attack at sea on March 9, 1942, failed. This was followed on March 30-31, 1942, by 34 Halifax bombers dispatched to Trondheim. Bad weather prevailed; they did not find their target, and six aircraft did not return. Eight members of the RCAF were killed in this failed mission.

Bomber Command returned to Trondheim on two successive nights starting on April 27, 1942. These involved 77 Halifax and Lancaster sorties by Nos. 10, 35 and 97 squadrons, which lost seven aircraft. Flying at 8,000 feet, bombers dropped standard high-explosives; others attacked at low level (600 feet), hoping to place mines around the ship. Although several crews claimed hits, Tirpitz emerged unscathed. On these two raids, 19 aircrew were killed, 19 taken prisoner (three of them RCAF), and eight evaded capture, making their way with civilian assistance to neutral Sweden.

Among the dead was a Canadian who had enrolled directly in the RAF, Flight Lieutenant John McKid of Calgary, a member of the RAF since 1939. McKid had been decorated earlier for attacks on German warships at Brest, France. His number came up in a Lancaster of No. 97 Squadron, shot down on April 27-28. The RCAF evaders included Flying Officer Donald F. MacIntyre of Saint John, N.B. After his No. 35 Sqdn. Halifax was set on fire by flak, he force-landed on a frozen lake. One of the crew was captured; MacIntyre and four others managed to reach Sweden. All survived the war, MacIntyre completing two memorable tours. The Halifax itself settled into the lake, but in 1973 the hulk was raised. Ten years of restoration followed, after which the aircraft’s remains went on display at the RAF museum in Hendon. At the time of its public unveiling, the entire crew were reunited and presented to the Queen Mother.

An aerial photo of the famous attack. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

An aerial photo of the famous attack.

The raid of April 28-29 cost No. 35 Sqdn. another Halifax with a Canadian at either end: Flying Officer John Roe, the pilot, and Flight Sergeant William Parr, the tail gunner. It was their second go at Tirpitz. While making a low-level attack in the fjord, some flak guns fired down onto the bomber which was set ablaze. Roe followed almost the same route as MacIntyre had the previous night, crashing in woods. One crewman was killed and another so badly injured he was left in the care of civilians until captured. The four remaining men split into pairs and tried to evade capture, heading south rather than east. Roe and Parr were taken prisoner on May 2, 1942. The British pair was intercepted the day before.

The RCAF personnel taking part in the two April 1942 raids included Flt. Lt. Jack Watts of Hamilton, a navigator in No. 10 Sqdn. and later the author of a memoir, Nickels and Nightingales. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for outstanding work in guiding his pilot at low level through flak-infested fjords, once with a night fighter in hot pursuit.

Concerned Tirpitz was vulnerable in Trondheim, the Germans moved her to more northerly posts, placing her at the extreme range limits of Bomber Command aircraft. The next assault was Sept. 22, 1943, in the form of X-Craft (midget subs) which infiltrated Kaa Fjord and planted mines under the hull. Two heavy underwater explosions crippled the ship for six months, and there is some question as to whether she could ever have fought a future blue-water action, given the damage to her turbines and frame.

Aerial reconnaissance confirmed the monster was still afloat and on the night of Feb. 10-11, 1944, the Soviet Air Force mounted an attack, using 2,000-pound bombs. However, they scored no hits.

Following repairs, sea trials were set for Tirpitz at the end of April, at which time the RN launched Operation Tungston. This Fleet Air Arm attack was followed by Operation Mascot on July 17 and Operation Goodwood, a series of strikes between Aug. 22 and 29. Successive bomb strikes destroyed dock facilities and damaged the warship’s upper works. However, the sheer mass of deck and hull armour made Tirpitz invulnerable to all but the heaviest ordnance.

From the narrow viewpoint of Canadian participation, the most significant aspect of these strikes was the presence of a Corsair fighter pilot aboard the carrier HMS Formidable. His name was Lieut. Robert Hampton Gray and he would die off Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, in the last Canadian Victoria Cross action. He was not the only Canadian present. At least six other flying members of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve took part in some or all of these strikes, including Lieutenant-Commander Digby Cosh of Ottawa, Lieut. Donald Sheppard, who would become an ace in the Pacific theatre and Lieut. Graham Darling of Vancouver.

Lieutenant-Commander Digby Cosh (left) and lieutenants A.N. Pym and H.P. Wilson share a moment after the 1944 raid on Tirpitz. [PHOTO: COURTESY YOLANDE MCLEAN]

Lieutenant-Commander Digby Cosh (left) and lieutenants A.N. Pym and H.P. Wilson share a moment after the 1944 raid on Tirpitz.

On the night of June 8-9, 1944, the RAF attacked and destroyed a major railway tunnel using the new Tallboy bomb—a 12,000-pound weapon of impressive power. Against land targets it could penetrate concrete structures or drill into soft ground before exploding with earth-shaking results. Throughout the summer they were used against submarine bases, V-weapon sites, dams and canals. Bomber Command and Tallboy bombs were soon turned loose on Tirpitz, and that meant that a considerable number of RCAF aircrew serving in Nos. 9 and 617 squadrons—Tallboy specialists with modified Lancasters—were to have a crack at Tirpitz, together with Australian, British and New Zealand comrades.

On Sept. 11, 1944, both squadrons deployed to Yagodnik, near Archangel, Russia, and on the 15th they attacked the ship in Kaa Fjord. No. 617 dropped Tallboys while No. 9 used “Johnny Walker” mines, designed to explode under a vessel. The force achieved surprise because enemy smokescreens had only begun to spread across the target when the bombing commenced. Enough smoke obscured the vessel that returning aircrews were uncertain as to what they had achieved. In fact, one Tallboy struck near the bow while other near-misses damaged the engines. From then on, the Germans considered Tirpitz beyond seaworthy repair. She was moved to Tromso where she became a floating gun battery—more scarecrow than warship. The move also placed her 200 miles closer to Britain and RAF bases.

Unaware the beast was permanently crippled, Bomber Command launched another attack, this time from Lossiemouth, Scotland, on Oct. 29. Both squadrons dropped Tallboys, but cloud and smokescreens shielded the target and no hits were scored. On Nov. 12, Nos. 9 and 617 squadrons returned to Tromso. German fighters failed to intercept, the smokescreens did not work, and Tirpitz was hit by two or three Tallboys. There was a violent explosion and she capsized.

During these three attacks the two squadrons lost eight aircraft, most of which crashed or were abandoned in Russia during the September operation. The only loss involving fatalities during these same attacks was a Lancaster of No. 617 Sqdn. It crashed in Norway on Sept. 16 while en route from Russia to Britain. Nine men died, among them Pilot Officer Allan F. McNally of Minaki, Ont.

Eight per cent of all aircrew involved in the three missions were members of the RCAF (29 in all). Some men flew only once against the monster while others flew twice. Four Canadians participated in all three attacks. One of them was Flt.-Lt. John Loftus of Toronto who had a most unusual job. He enlisted in the RCAF in 1937 as a photographer. By early 1944 he was an officer with the RAF Operational Film Unit. For combat cine photography he was attached to No. 463 Sqdn., an Australian outfit. Although he flew on 22 operational sorties, including Tallboy attacks on Tirpitz, he was never allowed to wear an aircrew badge, a short course in aerial gunnery being deemed insufficient to quality for a “wing.” He was shot down and taken prisoner in February 1945 and awarded the DFC in December. In the postwar RCAF he attracted some attention for wearing the ribbon of an operational decoration with no wing to indicate how he had received it.

John Sweetman’s 2000 book Tirpitz: Hunting the Beast is a thorough study of the aerial campaign against the big ship. It is very much a tale of co-operative efforts. Those who took part were justly proud. When Toronto musician Glen Gardiner died on Dec. 18, 2011, at the age of 92, his obituary noted he had been a veteran of two attacks on Tirpitz with No. 35 Sqdn. Inevitably, the contributions of RCAF personnel have been submerged in the larger narratives of RAF operations. But our countrymen were there.

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