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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.

When they refused to answer, Cameron was convinced they were about to be shot. It was not until Admiral Oskar Kummetz, the senior naval officer in the region, came aboard to find out what had happened that the situation was defused. He stopped on his way to the bridge, looked over the four bedraggled Englishmen, then curtly told his subordinate to put the pistol away.

Trapped in the X-7

Below the water’s surface, meanwhile, X-7, instead of being destroyed by the explosion, had been wrenched clear of the netting. Place took her to the bottom to assess the damage but quickly realized that although the pressure hull was intact much of X-7’s mechanical controls and internal systems were beyond repair.

Place tried to bring her up again but found X-7 was almost uncontrollable as she repeatedly broke the surface and was hit by gunfire from the Tirpitz. With little prospect of escape, Place decided to abandon ship, but he did not expect a warm reception.

Surfacing near a moored gunnery target, the small submarine was immediately raked by intense small-arms fire. Place gingerly opened the fore hatch and began waving a white sweater, signaling his intention to surrender, and the firing stopped. As he leaped into the water and swam to the gunnery target, X-7 dipped her bow, allowing water to pour through the open hatch. The vessel quickly sank beneath the surface with three crew members trapped inside. One managed to escape later, but tragically, the other two drowned. Their bodies were later recovered by the Germans and reportedly buried with full military honors.

The two survivors of X-7 joined their comrades aboard the Tirpitz but were bitterly disappointed see her still afloat. Following their transfer to the naval prisoner of war camp at Marlag-O, near Bremen, Germany, Cameron and Place, unaware of the damage they had caused, would spend a great deal of time discussing what they could have done to improve the outcome. On the other side of the Atlantic in London, Norwegian agents and Énigma decrypts provided detailed reports on the status of the wounded battleship, and Churchill was delighted.

Tirpitz Out of Operation

Although Tirpitz had not been eliminated, it was clear that she would be out of action for at least six months. Her four main turrets had been thrown from their roller-bearing mountings, her hull gashed and distorted, all three engines were inoperable, and the port rudder and all three propeller shafts were out of action. Five hundred tons of water had poured into her hull and, although her water integrity held, a number of hull frames were damaged beyond repair. She would in fact remain laid up in Kaafjord until April 1944 and was never to regain complete operational efficiency.

So ended the first attack by British midget submarines and the first successful blow against the mighty Tirpitz, but it had come at a cost. All six craft were lost along with nine men killed and six taken prisoner. For their roles in this remarkable operation, described by Rear Admiral C. B. Barry, DSO, as “one of the most courageous acts of all time,” both Lieutenant Cameron and Lieutenant Place were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military decoration.

 

Both men remained in the Royal Navy after the war, and Duncan Cameron attained the rank of commander before suddenly dying on active duty in April 1961. He was 44 years old. Godfrey Place retired a rear admiral in 1971 and died peacefully in 1994 at the age of 73.

Mystery still surrounds the fate of X-5, commanded by Lieutenant H. Henty-Creer. His vessel was sighted near Kaafjord after the explosion, at 0843, but was raked with heavy fire from Tirpitz and claimed as sunk with all hands. Authorities believed that she had perhaps missed the first specified attack period and laid up in the fjord to plant her charges to follow the initial attack, then make her escape.

 

There are many, however, including the young officer’s family, who believe that Henty-Creer and his crew had in fact planted their charges before being sunk. They speculate that the sheer force of the detonation beneath the stern of the Tirpitz indicated the presence of considerably more explosive than was deposited by X-6 and X-7 and that the 21-year-old Henty-Creer should have been awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his role. The controversy, which has continued since 1945, was reignited in 2003 when local Norwegian divers discovered what appears to be the wreck of X-5 in Kaafjord—minus her charges. Were they planted beneath the ship in 1943? Investigators are continuing the search for answers.

The fate of the Tirpitz, however, is not in dispute. Her ill-starred career came to an abrupt end in Tromso Fjord on November 12, 1944, when she was attacked by stripped-down British Avro Lancaster bombers using the new 13,000-pound “Tallboy” bombs. A direct hit triggered a massive explosion in one of her magazines, capsizing the ship and killing over 900 officers and men.

After the war, the wreck of what had once been the most powerful battleship in the world was declared the property of the Norwegian government and ingloriously cut up for scrap between 1948 and 1957.

Originally Published in 2016.

This article by Richard Rule originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons