Tirpitz: The Life and Death of Germany’s Last Super Battleship

Niklas Zetterling & Michael Tamelander
Casemate, 2013


Like a latter day Grendel, the WWII German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck, hid in the Scandinavian mist waiting to pounce on unsuspecting allied shipping. To the British, running vital convoys through the Arctic to aid the Soviet war effort, the Tirpitz had to be destroyed, but to do that they would have to trap the mighty warship in her lair. In Tirpitz: The Life and Death of Germany’s Last Super Battleship, Swedish historians Niklas Zetterling and Michael Tamelander track the career of the warship and describe in detail the British efforts to sink her.

After a brief prologue, describing the final attack on the Tirpitz, Zetterling and Tamelander begin their narrative properly in March 1942 when the Tirpitz, accompanied by a destroyer escort, emerged from its fjord to tackle a British convoy. She was spotted by a British submarine, which led to an aerial attack, but Tirpitz escaped back to her fjord. The incident demonstrated how serious a threat the Tirpitz posed to Allied shipping, and how difficult it would be for the Allies to remove her. The authors return to the start of the war to provide an overview of naval operations. In their tactical discussion, they highlight how limited flight ranges, bad weather, and low visibility hampered air attacks in the North Atlantic. That led to the development of miniature submarines, and an oblique effort to curtail the Tirpitz’s operations by attacking the only dry-dock that could service her at St. Nazaire.

It would not be the St. Nazaire raid, however, that ended the Tirpitz’s career but the determined efforts of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Perhaps ironically, it was the devastation of Arctic Convoy PQ17 by aircraft and submarines that proved the last straw for Allied patience. In September 1943, the British launched a partially successful X-Boat attack and followed that up by sinking Germany’s other major naval threat, the Scharnhorst, in December 1943. A torpedo-bomber raid in April 1944 badly damaged the Tirpitz before a final devastating Lancaster bomber raid in November capsized here.

Tirpitz could have been a very useful addition to WWII naval historiography. The narrative is readable and the authors do a reasonable job of integrating the multi-faceted operations in this fascinating theatre of the war. Moreover, the authors’ use of the ship’s war diaries promised an interesting new angle on an often discussed subject. Unfortunately, they too often wander off topic, providing unnecessary background details in some parts while not fully fleshing out other more relevant aspects. Thus they recount the story of the Operation Chariot raid on St. Nazaire, which has been done before and better, but tell the reader very little about life on the Tirpitz for her nearly 2,000 sailors. It is also revealing that their only obvious primary source is the War Diary while they settle for secondary sources for everything not directly affecting the Tirpitz. Add to that some unsourced attempts at recreating dialogue and some failures in editing and translation, and the result is a very uneven book. Nevertheless, naval wargamers not familiar with this theatre and the attempts to sink the Tirpitz will find some inspiration in this book from the operational narrative as well as the useful maps and photographs.