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Saber and Scroll

Abstract

The history of the German battle fleet in World War II is largely one of struggle against hopeless odds, punctuated by brief but dramatic clashes as far afield as the South Atlantic and high Arctic. Yet despite its modest size in relation to its main adversary, the Royal Navy, the German battle fleet occupied a central, almost mythical place in the minds of British planners, who for much of the war saw the individual capital ships of the Kriegsmarine as potent threats to their maritime dominance. The most important role Adolf Hitler’s capital ships performed was as a “fleet-in-being,” where by their presence astride the Allies’ vital seaborne trade routes they represented a significant threat. Of all the Kriegsmarine’s capital ships, none had a more palpable effect on British maritime strategy than the battleship Tirpitz. As the second and last unit of the Bismarck class, she was arguably the most powerful warship built in Europe before or since. However, her wartime career as her own fleet-in-being was neither very eventful nor very glamorous—especially when compared to the epic drama of the Bismarck, her famous sister, which has been immortalized in numerous books and a feature-length film. However, Tirpitz was—if more subtly so—by far the more effective ship, although she never fired her guns in anger at an Allied counterpart.

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