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Google Earth Plug-in: Operation Tungsten, April 1944

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The Admiralty and Commander-in-Chief had decided that the Fleet Air Arm should attack Tirpitz early in April, as soon as the aircraft carrier Victorious had completed her post-refit trials and the date of 4th April was chosen. The attacking force was to be under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Moore and the aircraft carried out practice attacks against targets in Loch Eriboll. The attack was code-named Operation "Tungsten".

The capital ships of the Home Fleet sailed on 30 March 1944 as Force I, ostensibly to cover convoy JW-58 which had left for Russia but also to link up with Force II, a group of escort carriers, which was already on its way. Force I consisted of Duke of York (C-in-C), Anson (V-A Moore), Victorious, and Belfast, with the destroyers Onslaught, Javelin, Piorun, Sioux and Algonquin, these going off to the Faeroes to refuel and being relieved by Milne, Meteor, Matchless, Marne, Ursa and Undaunted. Force II, consisting of Royalist, Searcher, Emperor, Pursuer, Fencer, Furious, Sheffield and Jamaica with the destroyers Virago, Verulam, Vigilant, Swift and Wakeful and the oilers Blue Ranger and Brown Ranger, sailed a few hours later from Scapa Flow on a direct route for the rendezvous, en route being joined by the refuelled destroyers from the Faeroes.

On the morning of 1 April 1944 Admiral Fraser decided that there was little likelihood of a serious attack being made on the convoy by surface forces and as the weather was ideal for flying the date of the attack on Tirpitz should be advanced by 24 hours and he accordingly made a signal at 1121 altering the rendezvous from 72░ 30' N. 13░ 00' E to a point 120 kilometer (75 miles) south by west. This was received by Rear-Admiral Bissett at 1435 and he immediately increased to the maximum speed of Force II, 17 knots, and detached the oilers with an escort of Piorun and Javelin to a point some 480 kilometer (300 miles) north-west of Altenfjord where they were to be ready to refuel destroyers as needed. On the following morning Pursuer had a breakdown of her steering gear at 0650 which nearly caused a collision as the force manoeuvred and was suddenly blinded by a snowstorm, but by 0725 Pursuer was back on course again. Forces I and II met during the afternoon of 2 April and at 1620 Admiral Fraser with Duke of York, Matchless and Marne proceeded north-west while Vice-Admiral Moore led the remainder eastward to the flying-off position, some 192 kilometer (120 miles) to the west of Altafjord. The "Tungsten" force was now regrouped into Force 7, Anson, Victorious, Furious, Jamaica and 6 destroyers, and Force 8, Royalist, Sheffield, and the 4 escort carriers, Emperor, Searcher, Fencer and Pursuer also with 6 destroyers.

By dawn on 3 April 1944 the combined force was at position PP, 71░ 30' N. 19░ 00' E, for flying off in perfect weather and still undetected. An elaborate wireless organisation had been set up in Scapa Flow to simulate the continued presence of the fleet by using the correct types of transmitters to send dummy radio messages while radio silence was maintained at sea, and 2 days earlier Victorious had carefully refrained from sending a patrol to attack the routine German reconnaissance aircraft which had been on patrol out of sight to the eastward.

The air plan for the attack was complex. 2 strikes were to be made by 2 wings of 21 Barracuda torpedo dive-bombers, No. 8 wing normally in Furious and No. 52 wing in Victorious, but to meet the requirements of the flying programme it was necessary to use both carriers simultaneously. In order that the wings should fly together 1 squadron from each wing had to be exchanged between the carriers, so for this operation 827 squadron was housed in Victorious in place of 831 squadron who went to Furious. To obtain the maximum effect on Tirpitz it was decided to use 4 types of bomb. 11 aircraft were each to carry three 227 kg (500 lb) SAP, 5 aircraft one 726 kg (1,600 lb) AP, and 5 aircraft either three 227 kg (500 lb) MC or 272 kg (600 lb) A/S bombs. Released from above 1,067 meter (3,500 feet) the 726 kg (1,600 lb) AP bombs were calculated to pierce the battleship's armoured deck, from 610 meter (2,000 feet) the 227 kg (500 lb) bombs should pierce the upper deck and do serious damage above the armoured deck, the 227 kg (500 lb) MC bombs were primarily for effect against personnel manning the AA guns and were therefore carded in the first aircraft to attack in each strike, and the 272 kg (600 lb) A/S bombs would have the same effect if they hit or if near misses should do underwater damage. In the actual attack 9 aircraft of the first strike carried 227 kg (500 lb) SAP and seven 726 kg (1,600 lb) AP and in the second strike 13 aircraft carried 227 kg (500 lb) SAP and only 3 carried 726 kg (1,600 lb) AP. Because of the light wind at take-off only two, not three, 272 kg (600 lb) A/S bombs could be carried per Barracuda.

Victorious was also to fly off 10 Corsairs with each strike to act as fighter escort for the Barracudas and because she was operating more aircraft than she was designed to do the first strike had to be parked on deck for some time prior to take off, an undesirable necessity as the deck was very wet and spray and sleet were freezing on it. Detailed briefing of all the air-crews had been carried out while at sea on 1 April.

At 0416 the first of the Corsairs of 1834 squadron took off from Victorious, followed 8 minutes later by the Barracudas of 827 and 830 squadrons (No. 8 Wing) from the 2 fleet carriers. At the same time 20 Wildcats took off from Searcher and Pursuer and 10 Hellcats from Emperor (800, 881 and 882 squadrons) while Seafires from Furious and Wildcats from Fencer formed a protective umbrella over the force. By 0437 the aircraft had formed up and headed 120░ for their target.

As the strike was approaching her, Tirpitz was weighing anchor before going to sea on more post-repair trials. The second anchor was coming in when it was seen that the smoke screen ashore was beginning and 32 aircraft were reported as heading south at a distance of 69 kilometer (43 miles). The alarm was sounded, guns manned and at 0528 the first aircraft were in sight while only a very thin smoke screen covered the fjord. No fire had been observed as the aircraft had flown over a destroyer and merchantman in Lange Fjord but flak began to interfere with the attackers some 5 kilometer (3 miles) from their target. As Tirpitz first sighted the aircraft they were beginning their attack. The Corsairs remained at 3,048 meter (10,000 feet) to cover the Barracudas against counter-attack but the Wildcats and Hellcats came in low over the hills, straffing the battleship with 0.5 machine-gun fire as the Barracudas began their bombing dives at 0529. The attack was made in 2 columns along the fore-and-aft line of the target as practice had shown that errors of range exceeded errors of line. The bombs were meant to be dropped from a height above 914 (3,000 feet) meter to ensure the penetration of the armoured deck but in their enthusiasm and determination to achieve accuracy most of the pilots dived much lower than this. The attack lasted exactly 1 minute. 6 direct hits were claimed and 3 probable hits and the battleship's upper deck was left bloody with wounded men.

As the first strike were attacking the second strike were taking off. 19 Barracudas from 829 and 831 squadrons (No. 52 Wing), 10 Corsairs from 1826 squadron, 19 Wildcats from 896 and 898 squadrons and 10 Hellcats from 804 squadron. At 0537 they formed up and made for Tirpitz whose smoke screen was visible when they were still 64 kilometer from the target. This proved to be no deterrent. At 0635 the Hellcats again attacked the battleship's AA positions while the Wildcats sprayed the unprotected bridge and upper deck with bullets for a minute before the Barracudas came in to the attack. By 0637 it was again all over, 8 definite and 5 probable hits being claimed, but the 726 kg (1,600 lb) bomb which hit the bows failed to explode. The fighters followed the example of their predecessors by again gunning the German ships and shore installations as they presented themselves on the return flight. There was no interference from the German Air Force. By 0758 all the aircraft had landed back on their carriers except for 2 Barracudas shot down, 1 in each strike, and 1 damaged Hellcat deliberately ditched. British casualties were 9 killed.

Vice-Admiral Moore had planned to repeat the attack on the next day but in view of the damage caused to Tirpitz and the fatigue and reaction of his air-crews after so successful an attack he revised his original intention and ordered a return to base. By 1630 6 April 1944 most of the force was back in Scapa Flow, with only Searcher, who had an engine defect, and the fleet oilers and their escorts remaining to come safely home some 10 hours later.

The German administration had failed to heed the staff recommendation about improved AA defence. In just 2 minutes the Fleet Air Arm had ruined much of the 6 months of repair work and had done incalculable harm to the morale of the ship's company as it was about to recover after the X-Craft attack. Although no damage was done to the main or auxiliary machinery the near misses had caused flooding, the W/T aerials were again wrecked, the upper deck was a shambles with damage to the AA armament, and the casualty list was formidable. 122 men had been killed and 316 wounded including the captain, many of them by the machine gun fire from the fighters. It was not until 22 June 1944 that Tirpitz could recommence trials in Altenfjord.

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