Bismarck, A Mighty Ship With A Short Life
|The Bismarck underway.|
|The Bismarck in Kiel Harbor.|
BackgroundWith Hitler's bold announcement of German rearmament on 16 March 1935 in violation of its treaty obligations, the United Kingdom quickly agreed via treaty to a Germany navy equivalent to 85% of its own tonnage. Admiral Erich Raeder, the Commander in Chief of the Weimar Reichsmarine since 1928, previously had been working on an expansion of the German Navy beyond treaty limits with Chancellor Franz von Papen. Hitler's accession to power in January 1933, however, put a temporary crimp in those plans. Hitler wanted to focus solely on the army, not the Navy because he foresaw the British as a potential ally. Raeder did not give up.
|German Navy Grand Admiral Raeder holding his baton at a rally.|
|The Bismarck showing its dazzle camouflage paint scheme at Bergen.|
|The Arado Ar 196 floatplane. The Bismarck had four but never used them.|
Facts about the BismarckThe Bismarck was a massive ship, though not the mightiest in the world (two Japanese battleships, the Yamato and the Mushashi, were bigger). It displaced 50,000 tons fully loaded and was 251 meters long, with a 36-meter beam and a fully loaded draft also of 36 meters. In sheer size, it was the largest warship in Europe, though some others had bigger guns. Three geared steam turbines were fired by twelve oil-fired boilers, giving the ship an impressive maximum speed of 30 knots and a cruising range of 8870 nautical miles at 19 knots. As always, the ship's range was dramatically reduced the faster it went. Everything about the ship was cutting edge, with three radar sets and stereoscopic rangefinders. The main guns were eight 38 cm (15-inch) SK C/35 cannons arranged in pairs in four turrets, two fore and two aft of the bridge superstructure. Again, not the biggest guns, but big enough. The ship also had four Arado Ar 196 floatplanes for scouting purposes. The 2200-man crew was trained to perfection and partly composed of men who recently had seen action in Norway.
|The Bismarck in the Baltic Sea The Bismarck in the Baltic Sea in October 1940. At this time the battleship was still missing all three rangefinders as well as half of the anti-aircraft battery.|
|Bismarck in Kiel Bismarck in Kiel. It is made fast to Buoy A 12 in Kiel in late September 1940. This is one of the few original color photos of the Bismarck.|
Operation RheinübungClearly, the Bismarck was being readied for something major, but nobody knew what. The British were aware of the ship via agents and their code-breaking operation "Ultra" at Bletchley Park. They tried to bomb it in Kiel but missed. Raeder vaguely planned to use the Bismarck and its sister ship the Tirpitz together to make a raid into the Atlantic, something the Kriegsmarine had been doing with some success using pocket battleships such as the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. However, the construction of the Tirpitz was taking too long to wait if they wanted to take advantage of the prime summer hunting season. Plans to sortie the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to accompany the Bismarck also had to be scuttled due to major repairs to those vessels, and the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper also were unavailable. Operation Rheinübung, the planned sortie of the Bismarck that was planned as practically a fleet action, now dwindled down to a mere two-ship raid, composed of the Bismarck and the only other large ship available, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. As a sign of the importance Raeder attached to Operation Rheinübung, he appointed Admiral Günther Lütjens, Flottenchef (Fleet Chief) of the Kriegsmarine, to lead the raid personally on board the Bismarck.
|Hitler inspecting the Bismarck 5 May 1941. Virtually everyone in this picture except Hitler would be dead within weeks.|
|The Bismarck. The crane was part of the ship for loading stores and retrieving the floatplanes.|
|Painting the Bismarck was a big job.|
|Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann.|
"I will not let my ship be shot out from under my ass."Bismarck and Prinz Eugen returned fire at 5:55 - battleships generally fire salvoes at 1 minute 30-second intervals or so, therefore the German ships likely began returning fire roughly around the time of the British ships' third salvos. The British came on aggressively, straight away, firing with only their forward batteries while the Germans "crossed the T," turning to fire their full broadsides and thus doubling the number of their guns that could return fire. The Germans were practicing standard battleship theory, and thus Lindemann showed that he knew what he was about - this is a key reason why ships with bigger guns and thus generally longer range are at an advantage in such encounters. Eventually, when they got close enough, the British turned to fire broadsides as well. Both German fired on the Hood, the pride of the British navy. The Hood had been the Royal Navy's showboat since the 1920s, and everybody on both sides knew about its glitzy reputation. Prinz Eugen scored a hit first and started a minor fire on Hood that was quickly put out. It was an ill omen for what was about to occur.
|British Admiral Lancelot Holland.|
|HMS Hood, on the right, blows up. HMS Prince of Wales is on the left. Both ships appear to be in trouble. This picture was taken from Prinz Eugen in the early light.|
|HMS Prince of Wales.|
|Bismarck's bow and forecastle.|
|A Short Sunderland Flying Boat.|
|Nice shot of the Bismarck showing her lines.|
|Admiral Günther Lütjens.|
|Rear Admiral (at the time) Frederic Wake-Walker.|
|HMS Aurora, trailing HMS Victorious, in the search for the Bismarck.|
"I don't care how you do it," said Winston Churchill. "You must sink the Bismarck."While the Admiralty could assume that one of the German ships was damaged, for all it knew the damage to it was minor, and it might have been to the smaller of the two warships. The Germans had broken out of the Denmark Strait and now were at large in the Atlantic, which was full of vulnerable convoys. Tovey, sitting in Whitehall and with Churchill's command ringing in his ears, started firing off orders. He already had the British Home Fleet steaming from Scapa Flow in the north of Scotland, but it was still hundreds of miles away. He sent three light cruisers north to close off the Germans' escape route back through the Denmark Strait and then removed battleship Rodney from escort duty. He also pulled battleships Revenge and Ramillies into the hunt, the Ramillies having to leave its own convoy. A total of six battleships, two aircraft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers were diverted to the north Atlantic because the Hood had failed to stop the Bismarck. The full power of the British Navy was asserted, but this emergency galvanization of everything available left huge defensive gaps which later would come back to hurt the British.
|Aircraft from HMS Victorious sight the Bismarck.|
|The first torpedo hits the Bismarck. The torpedo did little damage, but the sharp maneuvering to avoid the torpedo attack did.|
|Swordfish on the HMS Victorious.|
|HMS Victorious chasing the Bismarck.|
|Captain Robert Meyric Ellis of Suffolk remains on the bridge for lunch whilst shadowing the Bismarck.|
Lütjens, due to his brilliant maneuver, now had one last chance to save his ship. It required lateral thinking and a true appreciation of British naval resources, which were based primarily in the south along the convoy routes and at Gibraltar. The correct decision at this key juncture was not to resume heading south - Lütjens knew that the British knew that his destination, whatever it was, was to the south. They would be lying in wait. Anyone who has enjoyed games in the playground (or video games) knows that if someone is following you and you break free, resuming your original path is not the best choice if you want to escape. Lütjens' chance to break free to the north and return to Norway was not as good as previously, because the British were on to him, but it was still his best hope. However, Lütjens most likely felt bound by orders to continue heading south, a tragic error for him. The lure was that France was closer... but it also was bound to be heavily guarded by every ship the British could muster.
|Admiral James Somerville, the one man in a position to deliver the death blow.|
|A Swordfish taking off from HMS Victorious.|
|This picture, taken from a Swordfish off the HMS Ark Royal, left, shows the Ark Royal with HMS Victorious to the right.|
|Captain Philip Vian, second from left, with Admiral Halsey of the USN. Vian wrote a memoir full of derring-do, such as the release of the prisoners from the Altmark (captured by the Graf Spee and on their way back to Germany for imprisonment).|
"Ship unmanoeuvrable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer."Well, it's not exactly inspiring if you are a member of the crew and heard about that sort of message. After everything they had gone through and all their success, the crew of the Bismarck was now under notice that they were all dead men. Everyone could figure out that at first daylight, the attacks would begin, and they would not end until the ship was sunk and they were all dead or swimming for their lives. While everyone thought about it, Bismarck lobbed a few shells at Sheffield, but the British ship now had no reason to risk damage and rapidly gave ground. The British Admiralty needed to keep the Bismarck under observation throughout the night but not risk damage to any important ships, so it ordered in Captain Philip Vian and his group of five destroyers to harass the Bismarck. The destroyers engaged the Bismarck throughout the night, and the big ship had to fire at them repeatedly with her main guns, though scoring no hits. The Bismarck's crew attempted to launch one of the four floatplanes with last messages for home, but the catapult had been put out of action by the Prince of Wales' hit. There was nothing to be done but wait out the night and wait for death in the morning. It is unlikely that any Bismarck crewmen slept that night.
Right on schedule the following morning, the British closed for the kill. The battleships King George V and Rodney headed in and opened fire at 08:43 in full daylight, King George V firing 356 cm (14-inch) guns and the Rodney firing 406 cm (16-inch) guns. The Bismarck returned fire at 08:50 and straddled the Rodney. Other British ships then closed in, the Norfolk and Dorsetshire firing 203 mm (8-inch) guns. Rodney scored the first hit at 09:02, hitting the Bismarck's forward superstructure, killing everyone on the bridge (almost certainly including Lütjens and Lindemann) and basically putting the forward two batteries out of action. Bismarck then scored a near miss on Rodney, putting one of its torpedo tubes out of action, but that was it for the German battleship. The British began scoring repeated hits and soon killed Schneider in his exposed main gunnery control station. The rear turrets, controlled by a survivor, Lieutenant von Müllenheim (who later wrote a key history of the events), continued firing for a short while, but a British shell disabled his equipment after a few more salvoes. By 09:31, the Bismarck's main guns were out of action, and the smaller guns were firing only sporadically.
|The Bismarck being hammered, afire and no longer returning fire, but still steaming in circles.|
|Bismarck sits on the seafloor right-side-up. The smaller batteries are intact.|
|Bismarck survivors being pulled up by HMS Dorsetshire, some resting on flotsam and jetsam. The water was intensely cold, and the rescue ship could (and did) start moving again at any second without warning, so these guys are far from safe yet.|
|The huge Swastika on the Bismarck remains the largest still on open public display - if you can get 15,000 feet below the surface to see it.|
Results of Operation Rheinübung
|King George VI boards HMS Victorious after the battle to inspect it and congratulate the crew on their brilliant success.|
Related U-boat Successes
|A torpedoed tanker.|
Survival of Prinz Eugen
German Re-Allocation of Resources
|The Tirpitz spent its career in isolated Norwegian fjords.|
|The Sinking of the Bismarck. This photo, taken from the cruiser Dorsetshire between 1036-1038 hours on 27 May 1941, shows the Bismarck about to capsize and sinking by the stern - which had likely already broken off by this time.|
|Last photo of the Bismarck taken from the Prinz Eugen, in the lead because its radar still worked. Notice the spray in front of the Bismarck, that was how water was flooding the forecastle through the damage caused by the HMS Prince of Wales.|
Effect on the Battle of Crete
|German paratroopers landing on Crete from Ju 52s.|
|Bismarck as it looks now on the seafloor.|
SummaryThe bottom line is that the Bismarck was sunk due to overwhelming British sea power and, as usual, became just another German tactical defeat, with the happy outcome of an Allied strategic triumph. However, sinking the Bismarck was a bittersweet victory for the Allies because it enhanced German glory, gave the Germans a propaganda victory of sorts ("These brave men fought to the death, so should you!"), and degraded British capabilities. Several unrelated German successes can be said to have benefited tangentially from the Bismarck's demise. The loss of the Bismarck led to German strategic decisions that caused the Allies lingering headaches that only fully went away with the German surrender. All in all, the necessary pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck was an epic confrontation that hurt both sides.
The next video is of Johnny Horton's "Sink the Bismarck." No, it's not a serious historical item... but it's a fun song.