In September 1944 it befell the RAF to utilise its strength against Tirpitz. A force of 38 Lancaster's of 9 and 617 Squadrons were deployed to Yagodnik, near Archangel in Russia from which an attack was to be launched. The aircraft were equipped with with two types of weapons the 12000 tallboy and 5000 Johnny Walker underwater "walking" mines. 617 Squadron based at Woodhall Spa were equipped with S.A.B.S. and 9 squadron based at Bardney utilised the Mk 14 bombsight.
The Tallboy had been used in action 4 months earlier, was 20 feet long and 3 feet in diameter took up the whole of the Lancasters bomb bay. It contained 5100 LB of torpex explosive and was designed to penetrate deep into the ground before exploding; causing an earthquake effect that would shake the target to pieces. The 4 fins at the rear of the weapon were angled at 5 degrees to the airflow to cause it to spin about its longitudinal axis during its fall. This rotation provided spin stabilisation to hold the weapon as it approached the speed of sound towards the end of its trajectory. Although not designed as an anti shipping weapon, nobody doubted a direct hit or near miss would inflict serious Damage on Tirpitz.
The Johnny Walker or JW Mine was designed to attack from the vulnerable undersides where the Armour plating was only 2/3 of an inch thick.
The squadrons departed from their bases flying to Lossiemouth, refuelling and in bright sunshine on 10/9/44 took off for the long haul to Russia. At dusk they crossed the Norwegian Coast, and as they steadily droned north, nearer the pole the magnetic Compasses started to play tricks, but fortunately the night stayed clear and the use of the sextant they managed to pinpoint their positions over the fjords. Crossing the Gulf of Finland they flew on through the night until in the half-light of the Arctic dawn they turned east for Yagodnik. Long separated from each other in the night, each aircraft found itself drifting alone through pale grey cloud. At this stage Tait found himself at 1000 ft and could see nothing. He eased his aircraft gently to 500ft, then 400 they saw trees through the drifts, and at this point they were slightly relieved having been flying for 10 hours often silent in the glow of instruments. Later drizzle blurred the windscreen and whilst flitting in and out of cloud even at 300 ft the W/Op Arthur Ward tried in vain to raise the Radio Beacon. With less than an hours petrol Tait turned south whereupon Daniels the Bomb Aimer alerted him to the sight of a river. Tait slanted the nose down and braking into clear air found an airfield with a Lancaster landing and two more circling. Five minutes later they had successfully landed and found only a handful of aircraft had arrived. There were over 20 aircraft unaccounted for. In the next half hour 7 more Lancasters arrived the crews dog tired after being in the air almost 12 hours. The worst moment came when 13 Lancasters were unaccounted for as fuel limit times were exceeded. Yet within 3 hours the Russians had located all missing Aircraft and had parachuted medical teams and guides to isolated crews. It was astonishing that there were no casualties, although two 617 aircraft and four IX Squadron aircraft were written off.
F/L Ray Harris of IX in (WS-E) squadron rapidly running out of fuel, in heavy driving rain rendering visibility as minimal following S/L Drew Wyness of 617 who coming into land (KC-Y) saw a horse career across the airfield. This airfield was not Yagodnik but Kegostrov, an island close to Archangel some 12 miles upstream. Taking evasive action Wyness effetively wrote of his aircraft when the undercarriage collapsed in the general confusion, Harris put his aircraft down in a potato field, which tipped up onto its nose. What Ray told me in March 2000 was that the potato field was at the end of the runway and he simply ran out of prepared runway. This caused sufficient damage to the aircraft to be unusable for the forthcoming mission. Ray Harris's Bomb Aimer Plt. Officer H.F.C. Parsons explained "We were circling Archangel with cloud base of 7000 ft when I saw an airfield with another Lancaster about to land". As Harris followed it in a Rainbow of Very lights shot up. Parsons saw figures scatter as the aircraft scraped a perimeter parapet. Coming to rest on its nose Parsons found himself trapped in virtual darkness as earth enclosed his compartment and unable to use his escape hatch, Parsons was forced to crawl into the Main Cockpit to discover that the remainder of the crew had gone out via the pilot's overhead exit. Anxiously he scrambled after them on to the Wing to conclude "a terrifying experience". The Russians used a novel method to overcome this problem by building a haystack beneath the tail, whereupon an army of men and women climbed it before clambering along the fuselage sat on the tail until their combined weight tipped the Lancaster back down on the hay. Later the haystack was disassembled until the tail lowered itself back onto the ground.
F/O Keeley of IX Squadron wrote his aircraft off, after jettisoning her Johnny Walker Mines he came down in open marshland. The aircraft was not salvageable and Keeley and three of his crew were taken back to Bardney with Ray Harris.
Nick Knilans of 617 also put his aircraft down in a muddy field whilst rapidly running out of fuel, followed by S/L Iverson. Later a Russian DC-3 arrived with sufficient fuel for both aircraft to take off. Iveson having a lighter Bomb load took off first heading for the White Sea, whilst Knilans required full emergency power and lifted off at the waters edge. Calling for " wheels up" the engineer pulled up the flaps instead causing the aircraft to lose height. For some while it ploughed it way through the treetops before a lone pine tree loomed ahead higher than the others forcing him to make a flat skid sideways in order for the nose to take the impact instead of the propeller. The nose crashed into the tree and smashed the Perspex of the cockpit windscreen; ripped off the bomb doors and later a 3 foot piece of tree was found in the main door. The starboard engine radiator quickly filled with pine needles and overheated forcing a shut down. Knilans was forced to fly the 60 miles to Yagodnik with one hand while the other was over his eyes whilst peering through slightly separated fingers.
The attack was launched on15/9/44 from Yagodnik when 27 aircraft with 20 carrying the Tallboy, 6 carrying JW mines and the remaining 463 Sqdn Lancaster to film the operation for later analysis.
The CO of 617 Squadron had drawn up the attack plan whereby Tallboy aircraft were to bomb first, attacking in V- shaped waves of each of five aircraft. As the time of flight of the tallboy from its release height of 11, 000 ft to impact was 26 seconds. Waves of bombers were to follow each other at intervals of 800 yards; thus the entire formation was 1 1/2 miles long and at attack speed of 230 mph would take 22 seconds to pass over the target. This meant that the last Lancaster would release its load several seconds before that from the leader detonated. To keep the aircraft out of each others way during bombing runs there was a 50 ft altitude separation between adjacent bombers in each wave. Furthermore, succeeding waves were stepped up by 1000 ft to keep out of the slipstream of the one ahead of it. Ten minutes from the target the pilots put on emergency boost power for their Merlin 24's. Eight minutes from the target the flak situated on the hills and high ground opened up forcing the Lancaster’s to run through a gauntlet of exploding AA shells. During the attack the lowest aircraft in the first wave released its bomb from 11,350 ft and the highest in the final wave from 17,500.
The six JW aircraft attacked a few minutes later, running across the fjord in two waves from south east to north west releasing their loads from 10,000 to 12,000 ft, the mines entering the water after the last Tallboy detonated.
However by the time the Lancaster’s had reached the Kaa Fjord the ship had managed to put up a smokescreen forcing the bomb aimers to aim their Tallboys at where they thought Tirpitz may lay, or at the muzzle flashes visible through the smoke. Certain bombers failed to release on the first run and were forced to make a second run; the smokescreens that hid the battleship also hid the attacking force from the AA guns.
Undoubtedly the smokescreens saved Tirpitz that day as only one Tallboy struck the Battleship that day. However its effect was devastating; hitting the starboard side of the foredeck, passing through the Bow and the forward Gun Turret and detonated in the water a few feet below and to one side of the ship. The explosion blew out a large area of bow plating below the Waterline, to a distance of about 55 ft. There was extensive flooding throughout the entire bow area and the admission of about 1,500 tons of water during a counter flooding operation to restore the ship to an even keel the draught of the ship was increased by 8 feet.
The shock of other near misses affected equipment throughout the vessel causing damage to the main engines and optical range finding equipment. Although the battleship was still afloat she was barely seaworthy and in no condition to fight, the Tallboys had been a success whereas the JW mines had failed to detonate within the proximity of Tirpitz and drifted around the fjord before exploding well away from their intended target. Seventeen Tallboys had been dropped 617 dropped 11, IX dropped 6, and 2 aircraft failed to locate the ship in the smoke and returned with their bombs. F/L "Mac" Hamilton had a hang up and dropped his bomb 4 miles south of the target.
Flak had scored hits on several aircraft. Knilans lost an engine during the run in but waited until the end of the attack before shutting it down forcing him to make the seventh three engine landing of his operational career.
It was during this attack that IX Squadrons W4964 "Johnny Walker " in the Hands of F/l Doug Melrose notched up its 100th sortie and it was this aircraft that claimed the first hit at 10.55am. Melrose was later awarded a DFC for this action.
On 17/9/44, sixteen aircraft took off to return to the U.K. but sadly one aircraft that of F/O Levy a Rhodesian pilot from 617 crashed into the mountains at Rukkedalen possibly suffering from engine trouble. In addition to the normal crew Levys aircraft was also taking back 2 members of Drew Wyness's crew, who had days before survived a landing that written off their aircraft. It was ironic that this was the only casualty of the attack.
This raid was the last trip of Lieutenant Nicky Knilans, having flown 20 trips with 619 and 30 with 617 Squadron all from Woodhall Spa from May '43 to September '44. Awarded a DSO and DFC, in addition to the American DFC and Air Medal by his own country. On return to Woodhall Spa his Lancaster was scrapped, he recalled stripping off his clothes in the courtyard of the Petwood Hotel and burning them before asking Reception for the keys to room 32, whereupon he indulged in a bath and clean clothes.
On 25/9/44 Admiral Donitz reported, "After successfully defending herself against many heavy air attacks, Battleship Tirpitz has now sustained bomb hits but by holding out, her presence confounds the enemy 's intelligence".
After the attack German Navy Engineers estimated that to restore Tirpitz to her full operational capability would take a minimum of nine months-uninterrupted work in a fully equipped Dock which meant returning her to Germany. Clearly this was not feasible at this stage of the war and it was decided to carry out makeshift repairs and move her 200 miles south to Tromso Fjord, where she would be used as a floating Gun Battery to supplement the land defences of the area. The German Navy went to great lengths to conceal this fact, recognising that as a perceived threat she was capable of tying down substantial naval forces. Royal Navy intelligence did not learn of the true extent of the damage for several weeks leaving her as a high priority target.
The move in mid October to Tromso effectively sealed her fate as she was within the radius of action of Lancasters operating from Scotland. A number of these aircraft were fitted with Wellington long-range fuel tanks and more powerful Merlin 24 engines. To compensate for the weight increase the mid upper turret and guns from the front turret were removed. Despite this at take off their all up weight exceeded Maximum take-off weight by 1 Ton.
The Sinking Of The Battleship "Tirpitz"
First Attempt - Yagodnik
copyright: Kevin Walford, 2002
Updated: January 2008
12,000 lbs "Talloy" Bombs being readied for operations