The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship – Book Review
The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship is not just a book about the Nazi battleship Tirpitz. As the title says, this is the story of Allied efforts to end Tirpitz’s threat to Arctic convoys carrying desperately needed aid to the Soviet Union. Author Patrick Bishop, a leading British historian, provides a critical lesson in his book—namely the requirement to avoid what military vernacular calls “target fixation.” The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship is less about the battleship and more about the incredible amount of military resources the Allies devoted to sinking and the Germans devoted to defending one rather insignificant vessel. At its heart, the book is a cautionary reminder to political and military leaders to remain focused at the strategic level of war and not lose sight of the big picture.
Bishop opens The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship with a lengthy retelling of the breakout, pursuit and eventual sinking of Tirpitz‘s sister ship, the much more famous Bismarck. If anything, this portion of the book demonstrates the futility of employing large surface ships as commerce raiders. Devoid of air cover and operating alone, Bismarck stood no chance of succeeding in her mission or of returning safely home. The demonstrated ability of aircraft to severely damage or sink large surface vessels—Bismarck, Graf Spee, HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Repulse , the Italian fleet at Taranto and the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor—conclusively proved the era of battleship supremacy was extinct. Despite these examples, Allied political and military leaders agonized over Tirpitz’s perceived threat to Arctic shipping, despite all evidence to the contrary. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, normally a voice of common sense in the Allied camp, continually urged the Royal Navy to act saying, “her elimination would profoundly affect the course of the war.” Rarely was such a threat so overstated.
To be certain, Arctic convoys faced constant danger throughout the long voyage to Soviet ports. Bishop provides a harrowing description of the icebergs, extreme cold, fog, rough seas and turbulent weather that made the journey perilous for even the most experienced sailors. German naval and air assets proved even more deadly, working in tandem to keep US military aid from Russian hands and possibly tip the balance on the Eastern Front. Their efforts were highly effective. By March of 1942, U-boats and aircraft accounted for over seven million tons of Allied shipping losses. Nazi surface forces sunk a mere 363,000 tons—a 19:1 ratio. As the war progressed, German battleships and cruisers spent an increasing amount of time in port, rarely venturing into the open sea lest they suffer the Bismarck’s fate.
For her part, Tirpitz remained locked in a heavily defended Norwegian fjord acting as a “fleet in being” where she could exert influence on the conflict without ever leaving port. She was successful in this role, albeit at a significant expenditure of men, fuel and defensive equipment better employed elsewhere. Allied leaders devoted scarce air, naval and intelligence assets to disable or destroy the battleship—despite the impact the absence of those resources had on other major operations. Unable to bring Tirpitz to battle at sea, the British military pursued alternate means to prevent her use. Bishop describes indirect methods, such as the daring commando raid at the French port of St. Nazaire, as well as direct attacks by bomber and midget submarines all with one goal: to knock Tirpitz out of the war. He also provides a thorough explanation of the intelligence apparatus, including air reconnaissance and spies, Britain employed in neutral Sweden and occupied Norway to monitor the battleship’s movements and status.
The tendency of Allied and Nazi leaders to fixate on tactical level issues is a consistent theme of The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Royal Air Force Air marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris stands virtually alone as one who clearly understood the Tirpitz problem. He believed the entire venture a diversion from more important Allied operations to defeat Nazi Germany. Ironically, Harris’ heavy bomber squadrons ultimately ended the debate, sinking Tirpitz with a devastating volley of Tallboy bombs. Other Allied leaders, lacking strategic vision, threw away lives and resources chasing a non-existent threat. Tirpitz fired her guns in anger during just one operation and never sank an enemy vessel. By comparison, a single day of Luftwaffe air attacks against Arctic convoy PQ-16, “disposed of material that it might take an armored brigade a month to destroy, and they had done so at relatively little cost.” Tirpitz may not enjoy the same celebrity as Bismarck, but her short life provides an important lesson. Political and military leaders must develop a holistic view whilst developing national strategies to confront global problems. To quote a commonly used phrase, they cannot lose sight of the forest for the trees. Wars are lost in such ways.
Major Chris Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.