Group Captain Willie “Tirpitz” Tait has died.

Discussion in 'Aviation' started by v2, Sep 14, 2007.

  1. v2

    v2 Well-Known Member

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    Group Captain Willie “Tirpitz” Tait, who died on Friday (03.09.07) aged 90, had a brilliant wartime career as a bomber commander; he attacked some of the most demanding and difficult targets, the majority as the leader or master bomber, and will long be remembered for his three attacks against the German battleship Tirpitz.

    By the end of the war he had flown more than 100 operations, in respect of which he had been awarded, uniquely, four DSOs and two DFCs.

    The spectre of the Tirpitz emerging into the Atlantic to cause havoc amongst convoys carrying vital supplies and troops, particularly the crucial convoys to Russia, dominated naval strategy in the European theatre.

    During 1942 RAF and Fleet Air Arm bombers had made several attempts to destroy the battleship in German ports and Norwegian fjords, but they had managed to immobilise her only temporarily.

    Although the battleship made few forays to sea, her latent menace frequently caused major political difficulties with the Russians, while the prime minister, Winston Churchill, pressed incessantly for her destruction.

    By 1944 the Tirpitz had been moved to northern Norway, and out of range of RAF bombers operating from British airfields. Carrier-borne Fleet Air Arm aircraft made a number of daring attacks as the battleship was moored in Kaa Fjord, but no decisive damage was inflicted.

    In September 1944 an ambitious plan for a force of Bomber Command Lancasters, striking from Russian airfields on the Kola Peninsula, was devised. Tait, who had recently taken over No 617 Squadron from Leonard Cheshire VC, was appointed to lead the force.

    By mid-June 1944 No 617 had demonstrated the devastating effect of the new weapon designed by Barnes Wallis, the 12,000lb Tallboy bomb, and it was decided that it was the most likely weapon to put Tirpitz out of action.

    On the night of September 11 Tait led a force of 37 Lancasters to the Russian airfield at Yagodnik, near Murmansk. During the first night, asleep in rudimentary bedding, all his crews were bitten by a plague of red fleas, but Tait escaped. One of his crew commented: “Even communist bugs have respect for rank.”

    On September 15, 27 of the Lancasters took off for Kaa Fjord. As they approached, the ship’s smoke screen hindered the attack, but Tait’s bomb aimer sighted the ship before she was fully obscured and released the Tallboy, claiming to have seen a hit.

    One Tallboy did indeed hit the battleship’s bow and the Germans were forced to move Tirpitz further south to Tromsø for repairs. Bomber Command staffs were not aware of the extent of the damage and a further attack was planned.

    With the move south the battleship came within range of RAF Lossiemouth, in the north of Scotland, and on October 29 Tait led 37 Lancasters of Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons on a second attack. Cloud appeared at the last minute and, although all the Tallboys were dropped, no hits were recorded.

    Under intense political pressure to dispose of Tirpitz, and allow much-needed naval forces to reinforce the Pacific Fleet, Tait and his crews were ordered to make a final effort. On November 12, 28 Lancasters of the two squadrons took off for Tromsø.

    The weather was clear and the German fighters tasked to protect the battleship failed to appear. Tait attacked first and his Tallboy hit the ship; in the first four minutes, 18 more were released, achieving another direct hit and several near misses. There was a violent internal explosion and the huge battleship capsized and rested bottom up with great loss of life.

    Tait earned the nickname “Tirpitz” and there was great relief in political and naval circles that “The Beast”, as Churchill had dubbed Tirpitz, had finally ceased to be a threat after more than two years effort to neutralise her.

    James Brian Tait, known to bomber crews as Willie, was born on December 9 1916 in Manchester and attended Wellingborough School. In 1928 his father took him to see the Schneider Trophy events, which made him determined to fly. He was awarded a cadetship at the RAF College Cranwell, graduating in 1936 as a pilot.

    He joined a bomber squadron but, due to an injury, did not fly his first operation with No 51 Squadron until April 1940 when he bombed Oslo Aerodrome in a Whitley. He attacked targets in Germany and flew on the first raid on Italy when a force of Whitleys crossed the Alps in a thunderstorm to bomb Turin.

    On August 25 he flew on the first raid on Berlin, mounted as a reprisal for the German bombing of London. Before the end of the year, he had attacked Berlin on three more occasions, at a time when navigation and bombing aids were rudimentary. He was awarded a DFC.

    Tait was made the CO of No 51 and at the end of January 1941 led a small force of Whitleys to Malta, where he was given command of Operation Colossus - the first British Army parachute operation.

    On February 10 his eight aircraft took off to drop paratroops on the Tragino aqueduct in southern Italy. Tait dropped the first stick and then orbited the area until all the troops were on the ground. It was his last operation with No 51 and he was awarded a DSO.

    Tait joined the RAF’s first Halifax bomber squadron, No 35, and on June 30 led a daring daylight raid on Kiel by three aircraft. Despite intense anti-aircraft fire, bombs were dropped on the target. He was awarded a Bar to his DSO for his “magnificent courage and leadership”.

    During a “rest” in command of a bomber training unit he flew on all three of the Thousand Bomber Raids in the spring of 1942. On the first, one of the four engines of his Halifax failed on the outbound route, but he pressed on and bombed the target.

    In July he returned to operations in command of another Halifax squadron, No 78, and though squadron commanders were limited to one operation a month because of the casualties and shortage of competent commanders, Tait managed many more. He was mentioned in dispatches.

    In March 1944 he was appointed to RAF Waddington as the base operations officer. Although the post did not require him to fly on operations, in the first six weeks he flew nine with the junior crews of two Australian Lancaster squadrons.

    In May he returned to operations and was appointed a master bomber in No 5 Group. On the night before D-Day he circled Cherbourg and controlled a force of 200 Lancasters attacking the coastal gun battery at St Pierre du Mont, which posed a serious threat to the American landings on Utah Beach.

    The emplacement was eliminated. He was awarded a second Bar to his DSO.

    Tait assumed command of No 617 in July. The squadron specialised in low-level target marking and precision attacks. Shortly before the final raid on the Tirpitz, he led six Lancasters on a daylight attack on the Kembs Dam on the Rhine, just north of Switzerland.

    As he approached the target his aircraft was hit and damaged but he pressed on. Attacking at 600 feet against fierce opposition, the bombers dropped their Tallboys with delay fuses against the lock gates of the dam, which were destroyed for the loss of two Lancasters. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

    After the successful Tirpitz attack, Tait flew two more operations. On December 15 he was grounded, having flown 101 bombing operations.

    His Air Officer Commanding recommended him for the Victoria Cross for his “sustained gallantry” over almost five years of constant operations; instead he was awarded a third Bar to his DSO for his “conspicuous bravery and extreme devotion to duty in the face of the enemy”, making him the only airman during the Second World War to be awarded the DSO four times.

    Tait remained in the RAF after the war and served in South East Asia, India, the Middle East and Singapore before taking command of the bomber base at Coningsby, in Lincolnshire. After serving at the Headquarters Air Cadets, he retired as a group captain in 1964.

    A very determined man and an inspiring leader and pilot, Tait was described by Leonard Cheshire’s biographer, Andrew Boyle, as: “a tall thoughtful man with light brown eyes that look through and beyond one. A man of few words, but words that count.”

    A squadron member recalled him looking like a hawk that had landed for a drink as he stood in the bar, slightly aside from a group, with a tankard in hand, listening, without speaking. If he did open his mouth it was to puff on his pipe, or occasionally to make a dry, but perceptive and meaningful comment.

    A strict disciplinarian and consummate professional, he was a very reserved, almost shy man who shunned publicity and was reticent to speak of his achievements. His family knew little of his wartime exploits.

    After leaving the RAF he returned to college and was trained as a computer programmer before working for ICL and Scottish Widows.

    Throughout his service and domestic life, Tait was a meticulous planner and organiser, once taking over a run-down haulage firm and putting it back on its feet within two years before he moved on to other projects.

    In final retirement he greatly enjoyed his allotment and the company of his dog. When the local council told him that dogs were forbidden, he took it to court but lost. He immediately abandoned his allotment.

    Tait was the president of No 617 (Dam Buster) Squadron. In later years, he read widely and was passionate about the music of Schubert, especially his Lieder, researching in great detail the background to more than 400 of them.

    Willie Tait married, in 1945, a Waaf officer, Betty Plummer, who died in 1990; he is survived by a son and two daughters.
     

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    :salute: RIP Willie Tait
     
  11. glennasher

    glennasher Member

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    A most remarkable man, they don't make 'em like that any more.
     
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