Tirpitz, escorted by several destroyers, steaming in the Bogenfjord in October 1942

Operation Zitronella: Tirpitz role at Spitzbergen

Since her commissioning in February 1941 the Tirpitz operated in the Baltic conducting trials and training her crew as well as participating in some minor operations in connection with the invasion of the Soviet Union of January ’42. She then steamed to Norwegian waters with the intent of being teamed with other German warships for commerce (convoy) offensive. However a raid at St. Nazarene by English commandos and a (lend lease) American WWI destroyer packed with explosives in her bow destroyed the only berthing facility large enough for that size of battleship. Now she was essentially stranded & hiding in Norwegian waters for the remainder of her life from the British and their attempts to sink her. But this immobilization in Norwegian waters caused major concerns, sleepless nights and modifications to the allied convoy routes going north to Russian ports. In addition to allied convoys all over the Atlantic, problems in the Mediterranean and now the threat of his huge beast in waters close to the arctic convoy routes had the Royal Navy sleepless and stretched to the breaking point.

While hiding from the RAF, Tirpitz and her crew was given a job to do she was to take part in a not so daring and not so important operation code named Operation Zitronella. This raid was to take place at Spitzbergen, Svalbard Norway. The Island of Spitzbergen was well known to Europeans since the Dutch discovered it in 1596. The Island has never been permanently inhabited because of it being so far north and frozen-in and dark during the long winter. When accessible, nations contracted for coal mining and whaling ships made use the island as well. By June 1941 when Germany invaded Russia the population of Spitzbergen was approximately 2,000 people being of Russian blood and some Norwegians working and living along the banks of the Isfjord. Briton in agreement with the Soviet Union put into action operation Gauntlet. For this ambitious operation the British together with the Canadians and Poles planned and did in fact land with the help of the Royal navy a brigade of soldiers. This invasions primary goal was to evacuate the Soviet and Norwegian citizens, destroy the coaling facility as well as to establish a weather station, a naval anchorage refueling base and then to retire four or five months later before the winter freeze. This operation was completed successfully. A small force of Norwegians was then left to man the island during the accessible times of the year and. This operation was well planned, carried out and completed by the allies involved.

Tirpitz Norwegian waters in 1942-44. (Credits: U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Tirpitz Norwegian waters in 1942-44. (Credits: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Two years following, Germany’s answer was “Operation Zitronella” (Unternehmen Zitronella) an invasion of their own to do deal with the presence of Allies on Spitzbergen which consisted of 172 soldiers a mixed bag of 3” costal artillery and AA emplacements. Led by KSM Tirpitz the Kriegsmarine order of battle was as follows. Warships involved were the KSM battleship Tirpitz and battle cruiser Scharnhorst. Providing covering protection for the heavy ships as well as transporting & landing the troops were destroyers Z6, Z10, Z15, Z20, Z27, Z29, Z30, Z31 and Z33 and 600 soldiers. Tirpitz along with her little sister Scharnhorst was the overall protectorate of the German flotilla as well as to provide heavy HE shell fire to nullify enemy shore defenses, destroy any facilities within range as well as support if needed for the ground troops. The German raid on Spitzbergen, Svalbard Norway began as this strong flotilla approached the main settlement at dawn on September 7, 1943. The Tirpitz with her 8 15” guns along with her little sister with her own powerful  battery of 9 11” guns pulled ahead and took their place abreast of the settlement and unleashed their destructive fire power. The two men of war made short work silencing of the free Norwegian 3” shore batteries and AA emplacements although three destroyers receive shell and splinter damage from the batteries. The two war ships then began to rake the area of the landing site with their powerful weapons preparing for the landing of the troops. The destroyers approached the area where the main settlement was before the shelling and disembarked their load of soldiers. The Operation from start to completion lasted a little more than four hours and was in one word a success in accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. However during debriefing there were major issues that need to be corrected should other landings be needed.

All told, The Norway force of one hundred and seventy two soldiers suffered 6 killed and 41 captured. The German landing contingent of six hundred soldiers suffered 45 killed and between 74 and 90 wounded (records vary) and 3 slight to moderately damaged destroyers. The Americans and British know by experience, shore bombardment and the landing of troops is a very complicated and difficult task to plan and carry out to say the very least and the Germans certainly did not have much experience to learn from. Errors and mistakes were made, not only in the planning but the execution of the operation.

On the positive side for the Norwegian contingent, they did well for what weaponry they had at their disposal and being out numbered four to one as well as not having a naval force at hand to assist them. As for the Germans, on the positive side they did in fact accomplish what they set out to do in the time allocated. They did manage to capture the Garrison commander along with most of his records, reports and papers. But on the negative side there were serious, mistakes that cost German lives and allowed a great many Norwegian soldiers to escape imprisonment. The mistakes centered on the fire control of German heavy ships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst during ground support. These fine and powerful ships did make quick work of the Norwegian gun emplacements but the problem was with the ground troops calling in fire support for the ships. This HE artillery was lethal due to the errors committed when calling in the coordinates for where the troops needed the shells to land and the personal on board the ships fire control centers interpreting these coordinates to have their shells end up where they was needed. The battleships HE 15inch and 11inch shells were at one point were landing amongst their own (German) infantry killing and wounding a good many soldiers. (In some reports more Germans were killed by this friendly fire then by the Norwegian defenders). Also, during this confusion many of the free Norwegian defenders managed to escape capture.

Tirpitz, escorted by several destroyers, steaming in the Bogenfjord in October 1942
Tirpitz, escorted by several destroyers, steaming in the Bogenfjord in October 1942. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

And so was the story of Operation Zitronella; a military success but certainly not a great strategic military success, no rich oil fields or natural resources or great land mass or capital city was captured. Operation Zitronella was in fact simply an important moral victory, a badly needed shot in the arm if you will of confidence for the military its self and a positive public perception for a German army and navy that that had been knocked about of late on several fronts. Zitronella showed that the German military can still work together to bring victories back to the Führer. Two final but important facts of Operation Zitronella? It was all done in complete secrecy from planning to completion. The allies only found out after the fact catching them completely by surprise. And lastly an important final fact of the operation is that the soldiers on Spitzbergen were (one of) the last German military units to surrender at war’s end.


  • www.germanwarmachine.com, www.greypointfortmagix.net, www.avalanchepress.com,
  • www.medlibrary.org, www.warcovers.dk and www.arrse.co.uk
  • Darman, Peter: World War II Stats and facts. Pages 150-154
  • Humble, Richard: Battleships & Battlecruisers. Pages 99, 100, 101, 107, 137, 140-144, 147, 150, 151, 154, 156 and 160.

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