At left: Pilot-Lieutenant Philip “Bud” Abbott at age 22.This photograph was taken on April 3

Operation Tungsten and the attack on the Tirpitz

70 years ago Bud Abbott flew into aerial combat for the first time, aiming to bring destruction to a powerful German battleship

Ferdy Belland

One morning in April, 1944, Philip “Bud” Abbott climbed into the cockpit of a Fairey Barracuda bomber, took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Furious, joined a squadron of fighters circling overhead, and set off into aerial combat for the first time.

The target of the attack by two Royal Navy squadrons was what British officers bitterly referred to as “the Iron Whore.”

“We finally rounded the last turn at the far end of Kaafjord and actually saw the Tirpitz anchored in harbour,” Abbott told the Townsman last week. “There she was!”

And then, all hell broke loose.

The Tirpitz was the sister ship of the dreaded Bismarck, and was the largest battleship ever built by a European navy. Since the destruction of the Bismarck in 1941, the Tirpitz had been holed up in a Norwegian fjord, seldom venturing forth to attack Allied shipping, but still a great menace which kept allied warships tied up when they were needed elsewhere.

“It really didn’t do any damage,” Abbott said. “But the whole time it was anchored in Norway it presented an enormous threat, to the point where it basically tied up the British Home Fleet in Scapa Flow, watching for this damned thing to come out.

“And if it did come out and got into the shipping lanes, it would create enormous havoc. Quite a monster.”

The Royal Naval Air Service

Bud Abbott, well-known around Cranbrook, joined the Royal Navy in 1941.

“I was contemplating volunteering, and my first choice was the Navy,” he said. “I thought if I wasn’t accepted into the Navy that I’d try the Royal Air Force (RAF). I managed to end up in what you would call the Naval Air Force. So it was an ideal combination of the two — the Fleet Air Arm. I was chosen as a pilot, so I went into training for some time and starting flying later in 1941.”

Abbott was assigned to convoy work in the North Sea and the Atlantic, doing anti-submarine patrol work.

“We’d go halfway across the Atlantic and then back again, since we’d be met halfway by American or Canadian naval crews.”

Over the next two years, Abbott flew many types of aircraft.

“I mostly flew the Swordfish — an old-school biplane, fixed undercart, no hood, no canopy, open air, no radio. Quite a neat, light little plane. We called them “Stringbags” since it seemed they were tied up mostly with haywire. It tottled along, not very fast.

“From there we went on to a more advanced biplane, the Fairey Albacore. It had a sliding canopy, so we’re inside — out of the weather!

“Our planes were called TBR: Torpedo-Bomber-Reconnaissance. But reconnaissance was our principal duty. Later on we developed sonar to locate enemy submarines, but to begin with, we just kept our eyes open.”

Abbott said he never got to drop depth charges on any U-Boats. “The U-Boats were generally very wary and stayed down and deep, out of sight. They were wise enough not to show themselves. We would fly patrols over the sea for three or four hours and then head back to the carrier and be replaced by another flight shift. Not very exciting, that.”

Abbott also did a few test runs with the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the Firefly and the Gladiator.

“Those were all flown in fun — not in operation. I found the Spitfire to be very touchy. With every little move on the joystick, the thing was jerking all over the place. Extremely sensitive! And landing was quite tricky. It was anxious to take off again all the time!

“Flying those sort of dogfighters was quite different from the aircraft we flew. Our machines were usually quite slow and heavy.”

Abbott spent the next two years flying routine, uneventful patrols. But in 1944, all that would change dramatically.

Up until this point, Abbott had never experienced aerial combat.

“We never went across the Channel, never flew over France,” he said. “We were concerned with the North.”

The main British base in Scotland was Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. “The entire Home Fleet could gather in there in comparative safety,” Abbott said. “I flew off several aircraft carriers: the Illustrious, the Indomitable, the Victorious, the Furious, and others.”

Abbott paused in his recollection. “And one day the orders came to kill the battleship Tirpitz.”

The Tirpitz

The Tirpitz was officially launched in 1939 by Hitler himself. The statistics are still impressive 70 years later: 823 feet long and 116 feet wide amidships, the ship displaced 58,000 tons fully loaded and sat 30 feet in the water. Tirpitz was protected by two separate armoured decks of 15 inches of hardened steel.

The 163,000-horsepower engine gave her a top speed of 30 knots (56 kmh) — the fastest battleship afloat. Her crew complement was more than 2,000 officers and men and she was armed with over 118 guns, ranging from eight 380 mm main-turret cannons down to 88 mm anti-aircraft guns. When World War II broke out, both the Tirpitz and the Bismarck were considered a major threat.

The pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck in 1941 was a major propaganda boost to the Allies, who at that point in the war were struggling to stem Axis advances. Hitler forbade the deployment of Tirpitz as a result, for fear of its loss. Tirpitz languished at the Wilhelmshaven naval base until mid-1942, when she made her way to Nazi-occupied Norway. Tirpitz’s new assignment was to guard the Norwegian coastline against potential Allied invasion, as well as lay in wait to attack  Allied supply convoys crossing the North Sea to the Soviet Union.

And with that threat lurking on the edge of Allied operations at the Arctic Circle, there lay the groundwork for Operation Tungsten — as the attack on (and destruction of) the Tirpitz was to be named.

“Many of the ships were desperately required in other theatres of war. But they were just sitting there, watching this damned Tirpitz, terrified. But really, the Tirpitz was doing almost nothing. Occasionally being bombed, or being shelled, but with very little damage, because it was so well-armoured, and so difficult to get at. Most of the attacks by air were aborted because it was so hard to get at in this hole it was sitting in. An enormous distraction, all around.

“And I understand that the officers and crew of the Tirpitz were all just moping there in this idiot fjord, doing nothing, and thoroughly bored. They would be anxious to get some action.”

And action they received: the British Admirality initiated Operation Tungsten — a powerful task force was assembled in Scapa Flow consisting of 21 ships, including two battleships, six aircraft carriers, and 10 destroyers. And, among his fellow squadron pilots on board the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious: Pilot-Lieutenant Philip Abbott.

“I’d been stationed on the Victorious at that time,” Abbott said, “but we were temporarily switched over to the Furious. The squadrons were split between the two ships so we could all take off simultaneously. I went over with the rest of my squadron to the Furious. The Furious was a weird ship, the oldest aircraft carrier afloat at that time. She was laid out in 1915, but she wasn’t originally designed as an aircraft carrier —she was refit in the 1920s! And her deck always rolled to and fro, like a bloody logging truck!”

The fleet set out on March 30, 1944, under the ruse of protecting an arctic convoy.

“We sailed back south, and on the 3rd of April we launched our attack,” Abbott said. “We would not fly Stringbags this time — for this mission, we were to fly Fairey Barracudas.”

The attack

Forty bombers flew in two waves, 10 from each ship, along with squadrons of escort fighters — Hellcats, Wildcats, Corsairs, and  Seafires.

“I was in the second wave. The first wave flew off at the break of dawn and got through to the target without any problems. They weren’t expected. They dropped their bombs and flew back to the carriers. Got through unscathed, with no casualties.”

But there was an hour’s lapse between waves. It took time to raise the next round of Barracudas up to the deck, fuelled and armed.

“There were 80 fighters flying escort for us 40 bombers,” Abbott said. “Some of those fighters, especially those beautiful gull-winged Corsairs, flew off the carriers like a damned rocket. Quite impressive. While us, the underpowered heavily-laden bombers, were crowded to the far aft of the flight deck. We hoped to hell we could gun the engine hard enough to make enough speed to actually catch the air and take flight when we roared off the edge of the ship’s bow!”

Abbott was frustrated with his reassigned aircraft. The Barracuda was a dive bomber, as well as a torpedo bomber and a reconnaissance plane.

“The Barracuda was an interesting, but frustrating plane. It was a flying three-seater abortion, really. Way underpowered, with that Merlin 32 engine. On paper, the damned thing was supposed to make 386 kmh, but in practice you could only cruise at 160, 170 knots…maybe 200 mph — downhill, with a following wind, yes?”

“During our run on the Tirpitz, we fortunately didn’t have to dive bomb. We came in at a reasonable angle — not like a bloody Stuka! As a plane, the Barracuda was okay, but it was only okay. Nothing you would brag about in the officer’s canteen.”

Once in the sky with his dubious aircraft, Abbott and his squadron were now all business.

“So there we were, Petty Officer Gallimore and Sub-Lieutenant Peck and myself, crammed into this Barracuda. We flew in for the coast, barely 50 feet above the waters to avoid German radar. The Tirpitz was 120 miles from our fleet, and when we reached the Norwegian coastline, we all climbed steeply to about 9,000 feet altitude and flew inland between the mountains. It was a bright, clear day at the end of winter. The mountains were gleaming white with snow, and the delightful scenery was very impressive.”

The breathtaking beauty of the Norwegian wilderness was forgotten, though, as Pilot-Lieutenant Abbott neared his target.

“The first wave had inflicted significant damage on the Tirpitz. They landed several bombs on the ship’s main deck, and caused all sorts of ruckus — but none of the big 1600lb armor-piercing bombs managed to pierce the lower armour in the hull! The first bomber pilots had dropped their ordnance at too low an altitude for the penetration to be effective. And the Germans were spitting mad, and had had a good hour to prepare themselves for any follow-up attacks. So we finally rounded the last turn at the far end of Kaafjord, and actually saw the Tirpitz anchored in harbour. There she was!”

And then, all hell broke loose.

“We were immediately met with a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire, and dozens of Luftwaffe interceptors raced at us out of the sun! Our particular squadron, I think there were nine of us, peeled off from the main flight and began our attack run. We could see the ship, but much of it was clouded in by an artificial fog, created by the shore-mounted German smokescreen generators. Down in this fjord, this deep hole, if you will, and difficult to see! But each Barracuda had three 500-lb bombs, and we had to deliver them. So down we dove, our Barracuda shuddering through the explosions of the incoming anti-aircraft shells. Difficult to keep aiming straight. Our escort fighters were dogfighting like mad with the Messerschmitts in the skies above us, and other fighters were below us, strafing the Tirpitz’s deck and attacking the anti-aircraft batteries on shore. We dropped our bombs, made our strike, and then banked off hard. We flew away as fast and low as we could get, racing back to the carriers. It all happened so very fast. Our squadrons got out of the skirmish quite lucky, actually. We only lost 9 airmen and 4 aircraft, all told. It could have been a heck of a lot worse, but the Tirpitz’s smokescreen actually worked double-duty in our favour. The German anti-aircraft gunners couldn’t see us and were all firing blind into the sky.”

Even with the attack run successfully completed, Abbott’s squadron wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“At that time after the attack, the weather suddenly became quite cloudy. It was now difficult to find our ship, and we were still over enemy territory. No one knew if the Luftwaffe would chase us down. And we were flying under complete radio silence. Radio communication was absolutely forbidden on this operation. We’re up there in the clouds, and the carrier was somewhere down underneath the clouds. Some of the pilots couldn’t find our ships, and had to ditch in the North Sea and make their way back to the Norwegian shore, where they had to surrender to the rather unsympathetic German troops. But we managed to locate the Furious.”

And even still, the gut-wrenching drama was not finished.

“Our approach to landing back on the carrier deck was to come in high, just above the stall, as opposed to the American method where they bore in just above the waves. The stern of the carrier would be heaving up and down in the choppy seas, as much as 30 feet of movement high and low. You ran the risk of simply crashing hard and flat into the ass-end of the carrier if you didn’t have your wits about you. We came in high at full throttle, just above the stall, and came down almost in the centre of the deck, where there was a minimum of movement, and you hope to hell your braking hooks would catch the deck cables. You were a nervous wreck!”

The aftermath

The British High Command agreed that Operation Tungsten was a success, even though the  Tirpitz wasn’t destroyed. She was severely crippled.

The Tirpitz never took to open sea again, and was ultimately destroyed on 17 November, 1944, by RAF bombers.

Abbott reflects on the loss of life among the Tirpitz’s crew. “We killed 123 and wounded another 329 of them, including her commander Hans Meyer. But that was part of it. It was war.”

Abbott continued. “It was a shame, really, to have such a magnificent ship destroyed. It was a shame to have this sort of idiocy prevailing. The idiocy of war. It would be wonderful to see such a fine piece of naval history sitting pretty in some maritime museum.”

After that unforgettable day of fire and steel, Abbott’s next missions fell back into less hazardous duties.

“It was a good, clean life,” he said of his time in the Navy. “Much better than standing in mud up to your knees in the trenches.”

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