Sinking of the Bismarck (May 27, 1941)

The Schlachtschiff (Battleship) Bismarck was launched at the Hamburg shipyard in February 1939, and commisioned into the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) in August 1940. Her sister ship, the Tirpitz, joined the fleet in March 1941. At almost 800 feet long, and a displacement of nearly 50,000 tons, they were the largest battleships Germany ever built, with double armour-plated hulls and main armaments of eight 15-inch guns in four twin turrets.

Battleship Bismarck

Deutscheschlachtschiff Bismarck

In early 1942, Tirpitz was sent to Norway to act as a deterrent against an Allied invasion. For more than a year she did nothing of consequence, then, in September 1943, Tirpitz bombarded Allied positions on the island of Spitzbergen, the only time the ship used her main battery against an enemy. Shortly afterward, she was damaged in an attack by British mini-submarines and still later by a series of large-scale air raids. Eventually, on Nov 12, 1944, British Lancaster bombers finished her off. She capsized and burned where she was moored, at a small island on the Norwegian Sea.

In May 1941, Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen attempted to break out past the British blockade and attack Atlantic merchant shipping. Standing in their way was the battlecruiser (similar to a battleship, but faster and less heavily armored) RMS Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales. In what became known as the Battle of the Danish Strait, the Hood was sunk in less than 10 minutes with nearly all hands, and the Prince of Wales damaged to the point where she had to break off the engagement. Bismarck also suffered damage to her forward fuel tanks which forced a slight reduction in speed.

Prinz Eugen was detached from Bismarck during the operation to raid Allied merchant shipping, but engine trouble forced her to return to occupied France for repairs. In February 1942, she was redeployed to Norway, and a few days afterward was torpedoed by the British submarine Trident. The damage was extensive enough that Prinz Eigen had to return to Germany for major repairs. She ended up providing artillery support for the retreating German Army on the Eastern Front.

The loss of the Hood, and all but three of its crew galvanized the British. It was considered one of the prizes of the British fleet, and the order went out by no less a personage than Winston Churchill, “Sink the Bismarck.” Every warship in the area was ordered to join the pursuit, in all, six battleships and battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers. Shortly afterward, a British flying boat spotted Bismarck’s oil slicks and radioed the location to heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, by then joined by the Prince of Wales.

Even slowed by the damage to her forward fuel tanks, Bismarck could still make 28 knots (about 31mph), fast enough to outrun her pursuers and make port in occupied France. The British ships were forced to zigzag to avoid possibly patrolling U-boats, and during those maneuvers, Bismarck disappeared, although Admiral Lütjens, commanding officer of the Bismarck, didn’t realize that he had successfully outrun the British fleet. In one of those blunders so common in war, Lütjens sent a long radio message to German Naval Group HQ in Paris, long enough to be intercepted by British intelligence, which radioed Bismarck’s position back to the fleet.

Proving that blunders are not confined to the enemy, Bismarck‘s bearing was plotted incorrectly, and by the time the British figured things out, she had disappeared again. However, code-breakers intercepted a transmission from the Germans telling her to make for the French port of Brest. This presented a problem, since many of the British ships were running out of fuel, and, in any case, none was close enough to Brest to make a difference, with the exception of the carrier Ark Royal.

A squadron of Coastal Command PBY Catalinas based in Northern Ireland had joined the search, covering areas where Bismarck might be headed in her attempt to reach occupied France, and eventually, of them spotted the big ship some 800 miles NW of Brest. Ark Royal’s Swordfish torpedo bombers launched an attack on Bismarck, with no hits, returned to the Ark Royal, reloaded, and attacked a second time. This time Bismarck was hit twice. The first torpedo caused minor damage, the second struck the stern on the port side, near the port rudder shaft. The coupling on the port rudder assembly was badly damaged and the rudder became locked in a 12° turn to port.

Swordfish Torpedo Bomber

Swordfish Torpedo Bomber

The crew repeatedly tried to repair things, but it was no-go. Bismarck was now steaming in a large circle. Lütjens radioed headquarters, “Ship is unmaneuverable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

While fuel shortages had reduced the number of ships available to the British, the battleships King George V and Rodney were still nearby, along with the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Norfolk, and several destroyers. By 10AM, May 27, 1941, the two battleships had fired some 700 main battery rounds, with Bismarck still afloat, although badly damaged. Her first officer gave the order to scuttle and abandon ship, and at 10:35, Bismarck slid slowly under the waves.

But was it British fire power or the scuttling that finally did the big ship in? In 1989, oceanographer Bob Ballard found the Bismarck, resting upright at a depth of more than 15,000 feet some 650 miles west of Brest. What he didn’t find was significant damage to the hull. He found a large number of dents, which implies that many of the British rounds simply bounced off. Further, Ballard noted that he found no evidence of the internal implosions that occur when a ship that is not fully flooded sinks.

When a ship goes down and there is still air in the hull, the greater pressure of the surrounding water is enough to crush the ship. Instead, Ballard pointed out that the hull is in relatively good condition, which means the ship was flooded before it went down. As far as Ballard is concerned, it was the scuttling which sank the Bismarck.

Other naval experts have stated that without the scuttling, Bismarck could have remained afloat for as much as a day, long enough for the British to capture her as a prize. It is evident that Lütjens didn’t want that to happen.

Lütjens, of course, in the best naval tradition went down with the ship. And he wasn’t the only one. Out of a crew of over 2,200 men, only 114 survived, a fitting revenge for the Hood.

For further reading

Battle of the Danish Strait
Prinz Eugen

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