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Tirpitz Bulkhead

During the Second World War, the Tirpitz and Bismarck was a pair of German capital ships capable of dominating the seas with their high speed, long range and huge guns. The Bismarck was found and sunk by the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic. The Tirpitz was hidden in the fjords of Norway, and was seen as a significant threat to RN operations, particularly to the arctic convoy routes that were vital to the supply of materiel to Soviet Russia. The Tirpitz was attacked many times, by air surface and sub-surface, including one by X Craft midget submarines. In 1944 it was decided to attempt to sink the ship by air bombing as it was immobile in Tromso Fjord due to damage sustained during previous attacks. Two squadrons of Lancasters, IX Squadron (the senior bombing Squadron in the RAF) and one of the junior Squadrons (617), were tasked to destroy the ship using the largest bomb in the RAF inventory, the 12,000 lb ‘Tallboy’. There were a number of raids during October and November of 1944 but the raid that finally sank the battleship was mounted on 12 November 1944 from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. The ship was hit by a number of Tallboys, delivered by both Squadrons, causing it to capsize and come to rest in the shallows. The final and decisive bomb was delivered by Dougie Tweddle of IX Squadron.

In 1947, former IX Squadron rear gunner ‘Jeep’ Jepson, now a fisherman, was working in the Tromso area and became friendly with the Tromso people, including the town watchmaker and his daughter. Jeep told them of the IX Squadron raids against the famous ship and the watchmaker’s daughter mentioned that she would contact the Mayor of Tromso. At that time, a Norwegian company was salvaging the Tirpitz for scrap and the salvage workers discovered that the German crew had painted a representation of the ship on one of the propeller shaft bulkheads. The bulkhead, weighing over 100 kgs and measuring 1200 mm by 1000 mm was already removed from the ship. Jeep mentioned that if the bulkhead ever became available it would be much appreciated by IX Squadron at RAF Binbrook. The Mayor of Tromso passed the story to the Norwegian Government. In November 1949 the Bulkhead was presented to the RAF, in Norway, by the Norwegian Government and was accepted by the RAF Air Historical Branch. It was despatched from Tromso and arrived in the UK on 1 December 1949. The bulkhead was presented formally to the CinC, Royal Air Force Bomber Command on 16 February 1950 by the CinC Royal Norwegian Air Force in commemoration of the friendship and co-operation during World War II.

The Tirpitz Bulkhead

It was planned to display proudly, the new ‘trophy’ at RAF Binbrook, which was the airfield where IX and 617 Squadrons were then based. Soon after the trophy arrived at Binbrook, IX Squadron removed it from its official home in Station Headquarters and placed it in their Squadron building. In due course, 617 Squadron responded by raiding IX Squadron and moving the bulkhead to a wall in their building. This started an intense rivalry between the two squadrons, which still exists today. Indeed it is a (unofficial) crime to mention the junior Squadron’s numbers (6 & 1 & 7 together) if a member of IX Squadron.

The raids carried on for many years with each Squadron trying to retain ownership of the great trophy. The most famous raid was launched by the ever alert IX Squadron, when stationed at Cyprus in 1971 and the junior squadron was stationed at Scampton. IX Squadron sent a Vulcan bomber on a UK ranger to RAF Waddington. The bulkhead was stolen and loaded in the back of a large van then driven to RAF Wittering down the A1. The IX Squadron Vulcan was searched by the other lot before take-off from Waddington but nothing was found. However, just after take off the Captain declared an in flight emergency and diverted (without permission) to Wittering. Bemused air traffic controllers watched as the van containing the bulkhead was positioned next to the Vulcan bomb bay and the bulkhead was quickly transferred. The Vulcan returned to Cyprus and the crew were the toast of IX Squadron.

In 1981 it was announced that both Squadrons would re-equip with the Tornado, therefore a truce was called by both squadrons and the bulkhead was moved to the RAF Musuem Hendon. The following year, just as IX Squadron became the world’s first operational Tornado Squadron, Historian Mr Alan Cooper found the bulkhead on the floor in the Bomber Command Room at the RAF Museum. He phoned IX Squadron who immediately sent a team to recover the bulkhead, which was put on display in the crewroom at RAF Honington. In 1986, IX Squadron moved to RAF Bruggen in Germany and the bulkhead was re-mounted in the crewroom wall there. IX Squadron had owned the trophy for 9 years and a few postings of aircrew from the senior to the junior Squadron reignited interest in the bulkhead.

In June 1991, 617 Squadron were on exercise nearby in Holland and a team of aircrew, disguised as workmen, broke into the IX Squadron crewroom and removed the bulkhead, loaded it in the back of a van and used the Channel Ferry to get it back to RAF Marham. It was set deep in the crewroom floor, with extra cross beams at the back and permanently fixed with 35 kn HAS concrete. A year later, a few crews from IX Squadron were told to do some Tornado trials work with 617 Squadron. The IX Squadron crews were followed everywhere. However, one of the IX Squadron crews memorized the key no to the 617 Squadron Headquarters and managed to take some pictures of the bulkhead mounting. Back at Bruggen, a plan was hatched to return the bulkhead to the rightful owners. Everything was considered including the use of dynamite to blow the bulkhead out the floor. In the end power tools were hired but to no avail, after 8 hrs overnight work the bulkhead was still secure in the special concrete.
A few years later 617 Squadron were moved to RAF Lossiemouth and it reputedly took 4 expert workmen several days to extricate the bulkhead from the floor. Aware of the likely attempts to remove it form the Lossiemouth crewroom, an elaborate security system was purchased and installed by the aircrew and the bulkhead was fixed into place using huge bolts with nuts welded on.

The picture shows the two Squadron Commanders at the presentation. Wing Commander Derek Watson, OC IX Squadron on the right, proudly wearing a IX Squadron tie and Wing Commander Dave Robertson OC 617 Squadron on the left wearing a yellow tie.

In 2001 it was decided to return the bulkhead to the RAF Museum at RAF Hendon so it could be seen by the general public. On 8 November 2002 the bulkhead was formally handed back to the RAF Museum for safekeeping. The presentation was watched by 20 IX Squadron aircrew and over 100 members of the IX Squadron Association, and a handful of 617 Squadron aircrew and Association members.

This picture shows the bulkhead sitting in a special monolith display case in the Bomber Hall of the RAF Museum Hendon.