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Operation Sportpalast

On 1st March 1942 convoy PQ-12 sailed from Reykjavik, Iceland escorted by the battlecruiser Renown, the battleship Duke of York, the cruiser Kenya and six destroyers under command of Vice-Admiral Curteis.

The battleship King George V, the aircraft carrier Victorious, the cruiser Berwick and six destroyers, sailed from Scapa Flow to join forces with Vice-Admiral Curteis on 6 March about 320 kilometer (200 miles) east of the island Jan Mayen.

At the same time as PQ-12 left Iceland a homeward-bound convoy, QP-8, left Murmansk. It was planned that they should pass each other south-west of Bear Island and indeed did so in visibility of 1.5 kilometer at noon on 7 March 1942.

On 5 March 1942 a German reconnaissance aircraft sighted PQ-12 in the vicinity of the island Jan Mayen and that evening Tirpitz was ordered to put to sea to intercept. Tirpitz had been lying idle in Fættenfjord since her arrival in January, awaiting the build-up of German naval forces.

Admiral Ciliax joined Tirpitz just before she sailed on 6 March 1942, with the destroyers Hermann Schoemann, Friedrich Ihn and Z25 in company.

This was the first German combat action against allied convoys and was codenamed Operation "Sportpalast".

The British submarine Seawolf, too far away to attack, sighted the battleship shortly after she left Fættenfjord, and at 1940 on 6 March 1942 passed a sighting report giving Tirpitz's course as 045° up the coast.

About the same time, PQ-12 met loose pack ice at 72° N and was forced to turn south-east on a direct course for North Cape until the morning of 7 March 1942.

By noon on 7 March 1942 the two convoys PQ-12 and QP-8 were passing each other on courses north-east and south-west. At 0800, Tirpitz, steering north in a position some 160 kilometer (100 miles) south of the convoys, detached her three destroyers to sweep on a parallel course to the east of her while the British C-in-C, who was only 240 kilometer (150 miles) to the west, ordered an air reconnaissance from Victorious which would almost certainly have located Tirpitz had not icing conditions prohibited any flying.

Photo: The Russian steamer Izhora is struck by a torpedo from the destroyer Friedrich Ihn on the afternoon of 7 March 1942. She was the only Allied ship to be seen by Tirpitz's crew.

For both admirals the situation was extremely complex since neither had any information about the other. Admiral Ciliax did not even know that the Home Fleet was at sea in the immediate vicinity although he was well aware that a British covering force could be expected and that he must be most wary of being forced to action by a superior force. Admiral Tovey had a contrary problem; that of being left unguarded in enemy submarine waters while his destroyers were sent away to refuel. At 1300 the Home Fleet turned away to the south-west whilst the Tirpitz with her sweeping destroyers, steering north by west, crossed ahead of QP-8 without detecting it. At 1545 the Friedrich Ihn sighted the Russian straggler Izhora to the north and sank it an hour and a half later in 72° 4o' N. 10° 30' E. Admiral Tovey received a distress signal from the Ijora with a garbled position and shortly afterwards a DIF bearing of a possible enemy surface vessel which suggested to him that Tirpitz was astern of convoy PQ-12, her expected objective. Admiral Tovey turned east-south-east for an hour and a half but then receiving information that Tirpitz might be expected to remain at sea and operate east of Bear Island he altered course at 1923 to 040° to follow PQ-12. An hour later he detached six destroyers to steam south-east and then to search northwards, which they did without success until 0600 on 8 March 1942.

Meanwhile Admiral Ciliax had collected his three destroyers at 1728 after the sinking of the Ijora and finding himself on the edge of the pack ice turned south and then east in search of the convoy. Before midnight the Friedrich Ihn was detached to Tromsø to refuel, and at 0400 on the 8 March 1942 the other two destroyers followed her, the weather being so bad as to make refuelling from Tirpitz impossible.

Thus dawn on 8 March 1942 found Tirpitz alone some 240 kilometer (150 miles) south of Bear Island and steering north in search of PQ-12, which was itself some 128 kilometer (80 miles) to the south-west of Bear Island and also steaming north, which it continued to do until mid-day when the pack ice forced it once again to turn south-east. The Home Fleet was 288 kilometer (180 miles) west of the Lofoten Islands, steaming south-west parallel to and 160 kilometer (100 miles) south of QP-8. Admiral Tovey's intention was to return to Iceland since he was without any destroyer escort and he believed the Tirpitz to have abandoned her operation.

At 1045 Tirpitz turned on to a mean course of 255° and zig-zagged down the anticipated grain of PQ-12. The convoy was lucky: had it not been directed to go north of Bear island, from which it was prevented by pack ice, an encounter at some time on 8 March would have been almost inevitable. As it was the merchantmen passed clear to the north undetected even by a searching Focke-Wulf 200 and by nightfall was south of Bear Island and some 240 kilometer (150 miles) past Tirpitz. Admiral Tovey with the capital ships of the Home Fleet was some 640 kilometer (400 miles) to the west of Norway and reasonably clear of the risk of air attack.

At 1816 on the evening of 8 March 1942 , German Group Command North advised Admiral Ciliax that it was quite possible that the convoy had turned back three days earlier after the sighting off Jan Mayen Island. There seem to have been no grounds for this report for neither PQ-12 nor QP-8 appear to have been subsequently reported, but it placed the responsibility for continuing the search on Admiral Ciliax and at 2025 that evening he altered course to 191° to rendezvous with his destroyers off Vestfjord before returning to base. 4 minutes after Admiral Ciliax had received his unhelpful signal Admiral Tovey, acting on a suggestion from Admiralty that Tirpitz was still at sea far to the north, turned his fleet back towards Bear Island. The German battleship steamed steadily south throughout the night.

At 0240 on 9 March 1942 further information from Admiralty indicated to Admiral Tovey that Tirpitz was steaming south and not searching the waters off Bear Island and he altered course from north-east to 120° towards the Lofoten Islands and increased speed to 26 knots. Had the Home Fleet steamed directly cast all night, daybreak might well have found them within gunshot of Tirpitz.

At 0640 on 9 March 1942 the Commander-in-Chief ordered Victorious to fly off a reconnaissance force of 6 Albacores on a diverging search between 105°: and 155° to a depth of 240 kilometer (150 miles) and 50 minutes later a strike force of 12 torpedo-carrying Albacores under the command of Lieutenant-Commander W. J. Lucas, was flown off behind them. The orders to the strike force were to make a course of 135° and to act on any intercepted enemy reports.

Photo: 9 March 1942 at 0917: 4 Fairey Albacores of 832 Squadron, from the British aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, emerges from the cloud abeam of Tirpitz (in foreground) and the destroyer Friedrich Ihn (in the background) and begins to dive to an immediate attack.

At 0802 on 9 March 1942 Albacore Duty F sighted Tirpitz with the destroyer Friedrich Ihn in company and made a report. At about 0810 Tirpitz sighted the reconnaissance aircraft and at 0830 catapulted off two Arado aircraft as a defence measure against submarine and aerial attack. Tirpitz then turned on to a course of 082° and increased speed to 29 knots for Vestfjord/Bogen, an alteration which was duly reported by the shadowing Albacore. Two shadowing aircraft were engaged in an indeterminate scrap with the Arados but a third Albacore was attacked and the navigator wounded by cannon fire although the Albacore made a successful return to Victorious.

Photo: 9 March 1942: Tirpitz under attack by the Albacores, with splashes from 105mm, 37mm and 20mm projectiles hitting the water well short of the target.

At 0917 on 9 March 1942 Tirpitz was attacked by the strike force of 12 torpedo-carrying Albacores under the command of Lieutenant-Commander W. J. Lucas from the aircraft carrier Victorious. The attack failed and 2 Albacores was shot down. . Much chastened but undamaged, Tirpitz continued at full speed for the shelter of Vestfjord/Bogen, where she arrived later the same day, while the remaining Albacores returned to Victorious.

Photo: 9 March 1942: Tirpitz on her way to Bogen after the abandonment of Operation "Sportpalast" and after an air attack by Albacore torpedo aircraft from the aircraft carrier Victorious.

Admiral Ciliax waited in Bogen until 13 March 1942 , then slipped down to Trondheirn. in thick weather, eluding the Allied submarines lying in wait for his passage. Convoys PQ-12 and QP-8 reached harbour safely, but the threat to the southern flank of the convoy route remained.

The failure of the covering force for PQ-12 to damage Tirpitz and the threat which she continued to pose meant that further efforts had to be made to sink her. Bomber Command therefore flew 3 sorties against the battleship in her berth at Fættenfjord near Trondheim.

The first attack was carried out early on 31 March 1942 by 34 Halifax bombers. The battleship was extremely difficult to attack. She was secured close alongside the shore in a narrow fiord with high mountains on either side and covered with camouflage nets. On receipt of any air-raid warning an elaborate system of smoke pots was set alight and the area rapidly obscured by a smoke screen. These defensive measures combined with bad weather made the attack abortive. Only one aircraft succeeded in locating the target and dropped one 1,814 kg (4,000 lb) and four 227 kg (500 lb) bombs without causing any damage. 5 aircraft were lost.

On 28 April 1942 Bomber Command struck again. Of the 43 aircraft which took off, 32 attacked the Tirpitz in 2 waves, a first attack of high-flying Lancasters followed by an attack by lowlevel Halifaxes. Twenty 1,814 kg (4,000 lb) bombs were dropped and thirty smaller ones, none of which hit, and fortyfour 454 kg (1,000 lb) Mark XIX mines with hydrostatic fuses set to 9.1 meter (30 feet). The intention was that these should be dropped as near-misses either in the fiord or on the mountainside to roll down to Tirpitz's berth and explode underneath her. It was a clever idea which unhappily did not work and it is doubtful if the 45 kg (100 lb) of explosive in the mines would have caused much damage, but it worried the Germans and forced them to take even more defensive measures. 5 bombers were shot down.

On the following night there was a repeat attack by 30 bombers which was again foiled by the German smoke screen. Bombs and mines were dropped around the obscured battleship, but again without any success, for the loss of 2 bombers. In a month Bomber Command had managed to make 3 attacks, a not inconsiderable achievement in view of the weather conditions, and had lost 12 aircraft out of the 107 which had set out; they had failed to inflict any damage whatsoever. Something else was required but before it could be planned Tirpitz was to achieve her greatest indirect success.

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