Tirpitz was the final result of forty (interrupted) years of German battleship design. In construction she was very similar to her sister Bismarck, although slightly larger and with a few minor modifications. When commissioned in February 1941, she became the largest battleship in the world, a title she would retain until the commissioning of the Japanese Yamato in December of that year.
Tirpitz was, fittingly, named after Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Admiral Tirpitz was critical in driving the coalition that made Imperial Germany a major naval power. He presided over the construction of the High Seas Fleet, and helped to force his country into a naval race with Great Britain. In an important sense Bismarck and Tirpitz represented the beginning and end of the German Empire. Bismarck created the Empire in 1871. Tirpitz helped lead it into war with Great Britain, and eventual destruction, between 1900 and 1918.
The battleship Tirpitz displaced 52000 tons, making her larger in size than any battleships other than the Japanese Yamatos and the US Iowas. She carried 8 15″ guns in four twin superfiring turrets, and could make 31 knots. Tirpitz was heavily armored, although the armor was not as well arranged as it could have been. Like all German battleships, Tirpitz had a very wide beam, which made the ship very difficult to sink.
Neither Tirpitz nor her sister compared favorably with foreign battleship designs. The German designers are not really at fault for this, as the Treaty of Versailles not only prohibited German battleship construction, but confiscated Germany’s existing battleships. Whereas every other navy had older ships that could be refit, rebuilt, and experimented upon, the Kriegsmarine was forced to start from scratch. Tirpitz had a lot of problems. While extremely difficult to sink, she was not terribly hard to disable. Electrical systems necessary to full function were left unarmored. The excellent fire control points were easily knocked out even by small calibre shells. Tirpitz had a very poor anti-aircraft armament, at a time when aircraft were becoming especially lethal to battleships. Finally, Tirpitz was dreadfully underarmed for a ship of her size. The German 15″ gun had excellent range, muzzle velocity, and accuracy, but lacked the weight of other weapons. While Tirpitz and her sister were the third largest class of battleships constructed, the weight of their broadside was somewhat less than that of USS New York, a ship constructed in 1914. In this Tirpitz was no different than any other German battleship; with the exceptions of Baden and Bayern, every German battleship from 1908 until 1944 was underarmed relative to foreign contemporaries.
Thus, while Tirpitz and her sister Bismarck had a formidable reputation, they were not competitive with the modern ships constructed in other navies. Prince of Wales, had she not suffered teething difficulties in the Battle of Denmark Straits, could probably have defeated Bismarck. Tirpitz had the good fortune to avoid enemy capital ships. A meeting with any of the modern US battleships, all of which carried more powerful main batteries and radar controlled firing systems, would likely have been disastrous for the Germans. The French Richielieu was also an all-around superior unit. This did not mean, however, that Tirpitz posed no threat. As the Battle of Denmark Straits demonstrated, a single lucky hit could result in the destruction of any capital ship. The marginal superiority of the Allied battleships could not be relied upon as a guarantee of victory. As it turned out, despite her problems Tirpitz managed to tie down serious Allied naval assets for most of World War II.
Tirpitz was still conducting trials when Bismarck undertook her disastrous cruise of May 1941. Following the destruction of Bismarck, Tirpitz was deployed, along with the other major surviving German surface units, to Norway. From Norway, Tirpitz could threaten to attack Allied convoys to the Soviet Union or to make a break for the Atlantic. Tirpitz engaged in three major actions, including two convoy raids and an attack on Allied installations on Spitsbergen. Although Tirpitz did not actually engage any foes, one of the raids disrupted a convoy, leading to the destruction of most of its ships. Tirpitz spent most of her time docked in various Norwegian fjords, and acquired the nickname “Lonely Queen of the North” from locals.
In mid 1943, the Allies decided to seek a permanent solution to the Tirpitz problem. If Tirpitz would not emerge to be destroyed, then the Allies would take the war to Norway. The first attack on Tirpitz involved miniature submarines, and successfully disabled Tirpitz for a few months. Six major air attacks later, the British started using 5 ton “Tallboy” bombs to attack Tirpitz. The first such attack crippled Tirpitz and ended her career as a useful major unit. Subsequent attacks did further damage, and on November 12 Tirpitz was hit by three “tallboys” during Operation Catechism. She capsized and sank with a thousand men. After the war, Tirpitz was scrapped over the course of nine years. Her bow remains in place.
Although Gneisenau and some other major German units survived, Tirpitz represented the last real Atlantic threat faced by the Allies.
Trivia Question: What was the first dreadnought battleship to carry 14″ guns?