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.

By now the mechanical attrition was sapping the crew’s confidence, but the young officer was determined to press on. With little discussion, he gave his orders, and at 0145 they set a course for the Tirpitz. The final stage of the attack was underway.

The nets covering the mouth of Kaafjord were 158 feet deep and included a 437-yard-wide boom gate fitted near the shallow southern shore. By 0400, X-6 had maneuvered to within half a mile of these formidable defenses, and her diver was suiting up in readiness to cut a hole through the antisubmarine netting. As they closed to within 30 feet of the mesh, the sound of propellers became audible overhead as a Norwegian trawler headed for the boom gate.

Cameron realized it must have been open and without hesitation brought X-6 to the surface. The crew could scarcely believe what he was going to do as he maneuvered into the wake of the coaster and with incredible audacity proceeded through the gate in broad daylight. It was a torturous passage as they waited for an alarm to be sounded, but, incredibly, they made it through without detection and immediately dived.

They could hardly fathom their luck. Perhaps in the choppy water the Germans mistook the low silhouette of the X-craft for a towed barge or raft. In any case, Cameron’s bold maneuver had paid off and by guess and by God the small submarine began groping its way up the fjord toward the Tirpitz,which was now only three miles away.

Fire on the X-6


Through the faulty periscope, Cameron spied a waterway crammed with German warships of every size, and it was chilling to realize that to reach the Tirpitz he would have to slip right through the middle of them. A tanker sitting at anchor refueling two destroyers lay directly between X-6 and the Tirpitz, and by dead reckoning he set a course that would, in approximately two hours, take them past the tanker’s stern. It was always going to be a harrowing journey, but the source of most anxiety for the crew arose from the noise generated by the submarine’s trim pumps. They would have to remain in constant use to maintain the craft’s buoyancy in the differing water density, but the sound they emitted was precisely what a hydrophone operator would be listening for.

Progress up the fjord was agonizingly slow, but after two hours Cameron expected to be somewhere near the tanker’s stern and returned to periscope depth to steal a quick look. The hazy image in the lens was enough to send him reeling back in horror; X-6 had surfaced midway between the bow of a destroyer and her mooring buoy. He immediately crash dived to 60 feet, the crew shut down the craft, and they waited. How could they not have been seen or detected by a listening post? These lengthy spells of inactivity punctuated by moments of sheer terror were as taxing on a man’s strength as a grueling marathon, but as the minutes ticked by with no German response, Cameron cautiously pressed on again.

By 0700, X-6 had come within reach of the battleship’s antitorpedo netting, but since passing into Kaafjord the submarine had begun to labor severely. She was in fact barely seaworthy. Cameron once again had to come up to periscope depth to gain his bearings. It was an incredible risk in such a small waterway, but at this vital stage it would have been impossible to navigate their way to the Tirpitz by guesswork alone. Through the faulty lens, he could make out the ship, but as he began scanning the water around her, the periscope motor burned out, filling the submarine with choking smoke

As X-6 submerged to contain the fire, Cameron sensed the despondencyof the men. They had given their all in unimaginable discomfort for 35 hours straight, but faulty workmanship and defective equipment were undermining their every move. However, the predetermined attack period was fast approaching. Time was now critical.

Inside the stifling hot control compartment, heavy with fumes and condensation, stony faces with bloodshot eyes stared at one another in the gloom. They were clearly showing the strain, but nobody could bring themselves to say what they all were thinking. They had no idea how the other X-craft had fared, but if the mechanical defects of X-6 were any indication, they had to assume they were the only ones who had made it this far.

Spotted by the Tirpitz

Little was said, but clearly no one wanted to admit defeat 46 yards from the ship they had come to destroy; an opportunity like this might never come again. The decision was made to press on, but the crew had no illusions about its chances. Even if they remained undetected, X-6 was in no condition to make good an escape. None of them expected to be leaving Kaafjord.