The Story of How Tiny Submarines Crippled Hitler's Deadliest Battleship

September 16, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: HistoryBattleshipWorld War IIHitlerSubmarine

The Story of How Tiny Submarines Crippled Hitler's Deadliest Battleship

The British midget submarine attack on the mighty German battleship Tirpitz left the giant warship crippled at her anchorage.

With a reckless disregard for the danger, Cameron surfaced into the wash of the small boat. The ploy had succeeded at the entrance to Kaafjord, and maybe it would work again. Quickly juggling the pump controls, the crewmen motored through the gate in broad daylight right behind the picket boat, bumping and scraping the bottom as they did. Surely, this time their boldness would be their undoing, but, remarkably, they made it through unnoticed. As the boom gate closed behind them, Cameron took X-6 down into deeper water and set a course that would take them under the stern of the Tirpitz.

Like silent assassins sliding through the shadows, they inched their way through the frigid waters to within striking distance of their target. Suddenly the X-6 ran aground and momentarily broke the surface less than 200 yards from the battleship. The disturbance was seen by a lookout, but British luck continued to hold when the sighting was dismissed as being merely a porpoise and no alert was raised. The German sailors on Tirpitz had endured many false alarms over the years and now avoided instigating them for fear of ridicule.

Inevitably, though, Cameron’s run of luck finally ended a few minutes later when X-6 careered into a submerged rock that wrecked the gyrocompass and thrust the vessel to the surface 80 yards abeam of the ship. There was no mistaking what she was this time, but the sighting of X-6 caused considerable confusion aboard the Tirpitz. An incorrect alarm sent men scurrying to secure watertight doors instead of their action stations, and vital minutes were lost before the correct submarine alert was sounded. Even then, few senior officers believed a submarine could have gotten through. The X-craft was too close for the ship’s big guns to depress sufficiently to engage her, so crewmembers opened fire with small arms and threw grenades.

Now the crew of X-6 knew that the Germans were aware of their presence. They no longer had to worry about what might happen; it was now a matter of completing their mission before it did happen. Being in the line of fire threw off the fatigue that had enveloped Cameron’s men and rekindled their determination to hit back. They too had powerful weapons, and they were now intent on using them.

Placing the Charges

As bullets churned up the water around the vessel, Cameron quickly dived, but with the periscope now almost completely inoperable and the gyrocompass out of action, he had no idea which way he was heading. Oblivious to the chaos unfolding above him, he blindly groped his way toward what looked like the shadow of the ship but fouled a wire hanging over the side and was stuck fast. After desperate maneuvering, the submarine broke free of the snag only to shoot to the surface again close to the port bow. Undaunted by the hail of bullets once again striking the hull, Cameron took the submarine down and backed her under the Tirpitz where he quickly released the charges beside B Turret.

With no hope of escape, the exhausted crew destroyed its secret documents and equipment. As the sailors brought X-6 to the surface to surrender, Cameron ordered her sea cocks opened and her motor left running full astern with the hydroplanes to dive. As they opened the hatch, the firing immediately stopped and the men scrambled onto the deck. A launch from the ship was soon alongside to pick them up, and a German officer tried to secure a tow to the X-craft but the line was hastily cut as the submarine began to sink, almost taking the launch down with her.

The four prisoners were taken to the ship, and to the surprise of the Germans, smartly saluted the colors as they stepped onto the deck. Under guard, they stood huddled together looking bedraggled and physically spent, wondering what the future held for them as the minutes ticked by. On the express orders of the Tirpitz’s commander, Captain Hans Meyer, the men were immediately given coffee and schnapps.

Meanwhile, at almost the same instant Cameron and his crew were scuttling their vessel, Lieutenant Place in X-7 was sitting astern of the Tirpitz, preparing to offload his deadly cargo. Earlier in the morning, he had literally climbed over the nets at Kaafjord but had soon become entangled in the netting around Lutzow’s empty birth. After struggling desperately for an hour, Place finally broke free only to become entangled in Tirpitz’s netting. The violent effort undertaken to break loose had damaged his gyrocompass, and the craft broke the surface at 0710.


With the Germans at that moment occupied with X-6, Place was not seen. Diving once again, Place, like Cameron before him, found that the nets went all the way to the bottom, but without realizing it he had fortuitously slipped through an opening on the seabed. By this time he had completely lost his bearings and had come up to periscope depth to discover the Tirpitz only 98 feet away. He immediately submerged and made his run to the target at a depth of 40 feet.

Hitting the ship on the port side, the X-7 slipped under her keel. At this point, Place could hear the detonation of grenades around Cameron’s X-6 but assumed they were meant for him. Sidling along the hull, he placed one charge beneath the bridge and the other near the stern under the aft turrets. Each was set to explode in approximately one hour’s time.


It was now 0720, and Place attempted to escape, but without a compass he would have to guess his way back to the opening on the seabed. Sliding over the top of the first net, he was spotted by the Germans but disappeared from view. After an hour trying to find the opening, he only succeeded in getting himself entangled again. This time he was stuck fast, fully realizing he was about to be destroyed by his own charges.

Explosions Under the Tirpitz

Aboard the Tirpitz, the Germans had at first refused to accept that Cameron and his crew were British. They suspected them of being Russians and were unwilling to believe they could possibly have come all the way from England to Kaafjord in such a small submarine. Passing crewmembers mocked the prisoners for not having used their torpedoes when they had the chance, but Captain Meyer, who had been studying his captives from the bridge, had grown suspicious. Privately, he greatly admired their courage and daring, but in his mind, they lacked the demeanor of men who had failed.

Meyer was soon convinced that they had not been armed with torpedoes but had instead used mines either on the ship or on the seabed. Divers were immediately ordered over the side to check the hull, and attempts were made to move the ship by heaving on the starboard cable and veering on her port to swing the bows away from the likely position of the charges. Meyer had earlier considered taking the ship into the deeper water beyond its enclosure, but the sighting of X-7 outside the nets changed his mind. In any case, it would have taken over an hour to get the ship underway.

The prospect of another submarine loose in Kaafjord had caused absolute pandemonium. Cameron and his men had also seen X-7 slide over the top of the nets earlier and had noticed that her mine clamps were empty. As guards herded them below, they could not let on that with eight tons of explosives beneath the ship, this was the last place they wanted to be!

A short time later, at 0812, a series of colossal explosions violently heaved Tirpitz’s stern six feet out of the water. A German sailor who had also served on the Scharnhorst recalled the moment. “We’ve had torpedo hits, we’ve had bomb hits. We hit two mines in the channel, but there’s never been an explosion like that.” Lights failed, equipment was strewn in every direction, and men were hurled through the air like rag dolls. The four prisoners were dragged back onto the deck to be confronted with utter chaos and panic.

“The German gun-crew(s),” one British sailor later recalled, “shot up a number of their own tankers and small boats and also wiped out a gun position inboard with uncontrolled fire.” Orders were issued, then countermanded, as officers tried to regain control of the men who were running in all directions. With tensions running high, the mood of the Germans had turned very ugly, and the British seamen were lined up against a bulkhead where an outraged officer, brandishing his pistol, demanded to know how many more submarines there were.