|The Bismarck under way|
One of the great epics of World War II over which Fuhrer Adolf Hitler presided was the voyage and sinking of the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismarck. While the Bismarck was doomed from the moment it left its dock in Gotenhafen, it served a hidden strategic purpose that far outweighed the cost of its laborious construction and terrible destruction.
|The Bismarck in Kiel Harbor|
With Hitler's bold announcement of German rearmament on 16 March 1935 in violation of treaty, 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|
Raeder had no problem violating the Treaty of Versailles, and this new treaty with Great Britain would pose no hindrance to his plans, either. Raeder worked hard to convince Hitler of the necessity for an imposing surface fleet, arguing that a fleet would both deter Britain from interfering with Germany's land conquests and in addition ally with the British fleet against the United States. These completely specious arguments won Hitler over, so Hitler, on his own birthday of 20 April 1936, promoted Raeder to the top position Generaladmiral and tasked him with hurrying along a major naval building programme.
Raeder was crafty. He had played to one of Hitler's core beliefs, that somehow Germany never would have to fight the British. The way Raeder phrased it, construction of a surface fleet would have political implications that outweighed the military ones, and Hitler always thought first in political terms. The ambivalence shown by Hitler in opening fighting the British was on display at numerous times: the 1936 "appeal to reason" interview with a British newspaper, the 1938 Munich Agreement, the appointment of the former Ambassador to the Court of St. James Joachim von Ribbentrop as his Foreign Minister, various low-level officer visits between the two countries, the wait (unlike with the United States) for Britain to take the fateful step of declaring war in September 1939 (Hitler was furious with Ribbentrop when that happened), the renewed "appeal to reason" in July 1940, the rather perfunctory Battle of Britain that was quickly terminated, the May 1941 flight of Rudolf Hess to attempt peace talks before the invasion of the Soviet Union. While there was absolutely no chance that the British would side with the Germans against the United States, it made some kind of sense to a certain mindset trapped in the 19th Centurey, when German strength was unassailable, the U.S. was simply a struggling breakaway colony, and Britain was tied to Germany through its (German) royal family. Hitler's mindset lived in the 19th Century, and he never took the United States seriously, which was one of his (many) fatal errors. Rebuilding the German fleet thus made perfect political sense to him.
|The Bismarck showing its dazzle paintjob at Bergen|
The Bismarck construction project became the centerpiece of this planned German naval rejuvenation, the "Z" plan. All of Germany's current battleships were obsolete (all leftovers from World War I or earlier), so the first order of business was to replace them. The Bismarck's keel was laid at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg on 1 July 1936, barely two months after Raeder's promotion. It was given the temporary designation "Ersatz Hannover" because it was slotted to replace an ancient pre-dreadnought battleship named SMS Hannover. Ultimately, to honor the key architect of the Second Reich with the greatest battleship of the Third Reich, the name "Bismarck" was chosen for the new project. Work proceeded with alacrity, and the ship was launched on 14 February 1939.
|The Arado Ar 196 floatplane. The Bismarck had four, but never used them.|
Facts about the Bismarck
The 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, range was dramatically reduced the faster the ship 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.|
The Navy commissioned the Bismarck into the fleet on 24 August 1940 for sea trials, commanded by Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann. On 15 September, the ship left for trials, arriving in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on 28 September. At this time the crew learned by trial and error that the Bismarck could not maneuver solely using its propellers, the rudder being absolutely essential for turns. The ship returned to Hamburg on 9 December, where it remained until March, delayed by problems in the Kiel Canal. Finally, on 6 March 1941, it steamed to Kiel, reaching there on 9 March 1941 after briefly grounding in the canal. After stocking up and painting dazzle camouflage, the Bismarck headed back to Gotenhafen on 17 March for final work-up.
Bismarck in Kiel Bismarck in Kiel.The battleship Bismarck made fast to Buoy A 12 in Kiel in late September 1940. This is one of the few color photos of the Bismarck.l|
Clearly, 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, construction of the Tirpitz was taking too long to wait if they wanted to take advantage of 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.|
Hitler, apprised that the Bismarck was worked up and ready to sail, made a quick visit to Gotenhafen on 5 May 1941 to inspect it and the almost-complete Tirpitz. No doubt during this visit Hitler impressed upon Lütjens and Lindemann his own enthusiasm for making the British "see reason," but Hitler did not have specific plans for or knowledge of any particular employment of the ship. He left the specifics up to Raeder. It was sort of like a half-time pep talk from a team owner who doesn't even know the score. After reporting on 16 May 1941 that the ship was ready to sail, Lütjens received orders from Raeder to proceed on 19 May on a North Atlantic raid. Otherwise the orders were vague: the two ships were told where supply ships and U-boats would be located, but otherwise given leeway to hunt down whatever they could. The orders were specific on one point - no enemy naval vessels were to be pursued unless as part of an attack on merchant ships.
|The Bismarck. The Crane was for loading stores and retrieving the float planes.|
The Bismarck sailed at 0200 on 19 May, meeting the Prinz Eugen later in the morning. The two ships, accompanied by destroyers and minesweepers, headed west for the North Sea. Along the way, the neutral Swedish air force and navy spotted the small armada in the channel between Denmark and Sweden, the Kattegat, and eventually that information found its way to the British. In addition, the British had learned of the operation from Ultra. By the evening of 20 May, the two ships were through the channel and stood off the occupied Norwegian coast. At noon on 21 May, the ships anchored near Bergen, and the crew repainted the Bismarck's hull with standard "outboard grey" paint. While the two ships made final preparations, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) photographed them. Alarmed, the British Navy promptly ordered the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and six destroyers to the Denmark Strait, the breakout point for German raiders.
|Painting the Bismarck|
The Prinz Eugen wisely took on more fuel at Bergen, but the Bismarck somewhat inexplicably did not. Perhaps it would have cost them time, and time was extremely valuable given the likelihood that the British were scrambling forces to intercept them. The ships, with three escorting destroyers along for the sail north up the Norwegian coast, left Bergen at 19:30 on 21 May. At this point Raeder finally screwed up the nerve to inform Hitler about the raid. Hitler, who generally did not like being kept in the dark, was not particularly enthusiastic, but gave permission for the operation to proceed. At noon on 22 May, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen headed west alone for the Denmark Strait, where they would break out into the Atlantic after circling north around Iceland to evade British detection.
|Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann|
The ships sailed in line through the Denmark Strait at a high rate of speed. There was ice everywhere, which slowed them down - they had no desire to end up like the Titanic, whose sinking was as famous in Germany as anywhere else (Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels even made a film about the Titanic the following year). North of Iceland, the ships were spotted by the British cruiser HMS Suffolk, and Lütjens' radio men decoded that ship's message of alert to the British Admiralty (two could play at the decryption game). It was too dark and misty for any action, so the two German ships proceeded with the Suffolk tailing them at a respectful distance, keeping them in radar range but outside the reach of their guns. Another nearby heavy cruiser on patrol, the HMS Norfolk, soon joined the Suffolk. At this point, Lütjens started firing at the British cruisers, but there were no hits. However, the firing revealed a design defect that knocked out one of the Bismarck's radars, blinding her ability to see ahead. It was a crippling injury, but not worth cancelling the mission over. Lütjens tried another maneuver during the night to engage the British cruisers, but the Suffolk's radar was working fine and it retreated in good order. The German warships proceeded south, passing an American coast guard ship at one point (the States being technically neutral). Finally, at 5:07, the Prinz Eugen, which thankfully still had a functioning radar set, reported two surface contacts ahead: the Hood and the Prince of Wales. It was still dark, so a night action might be in the offing.
Lütjens showed extreme patience, perhaps a little too much. He waited until the lookouts got a little light and spotted smoke on the horizon at 5:45 before ordering battle stations. Hood opened fire at 5:52 at Prinz Eugen, and Prince of Wales fired on the Bismarck at 5:53. Lütjens still wanted to wait, no doubt figuring that any hit at such an extreme range would be pure luck. Lindemann, however, had the fighting spirit and pleaded for permission to fire. He uttered the immortal line:
"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 rougnly 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.
|Admiral Lancelot Holland|
Adalbert Schneider, the first gunnery officer aboard Bismarck, meanwhile was working on getting the range on the British. The stereoscopic rangefinder that he used gave him a good view, but the viewfinder took a lot of effort to focus. It involved matching two separate views, one in each ocular, to make a single clear image, sort of like an eye test - a very effective tool, better than anything the British had, but also very tiring on the eyes. Thus, performance with that rangefinder usually began well and tailed off with time. After only three four-gun salvoes for aiming purposes, Schneider had the range and ordered the eight big guns to begin continuous fire on Hood while the smaller 15 cm guns kept Prince of Wales busy. Lütjens also ordered Prinz Eugen's batteries to switch to Prince of Wales, wanting to concentrate his own ship on the Hood (the Germans may have had the two ships confused, it was hard enough spotting them at all at such distances in the dark). With Admiral Lancelot Holland, in command on Hood because of its prominence in the fleet - despite the fact that Prince of Wales technically was the superior ship - the British at this point finally turned their ships to fire broadsides as well. This gave Schneider a break, as he had to make fewer adjustments and could really zero in on the British ships that now were steaming on a parallel course.
Prinz Eugen scored a couple of minor hits on Prince of Wales that started a small fire on the brand-new battleship. Wrongly figuring that Prince of Wales was in trouble already, Lütjens then had the Prinz Eugen drop behind to serve as a watchdog on the lurking British cruisers, which were still out of range but closing. The Germans' inability to secure more screening ships for the raid was starting to tell. However, Bismarck then scored a hit with a main battery on Hood with its fifth salvo, which would have been roughly six minutes into the battle, or shortly after 0600. One of Bismarck's 38 cm armor-piercing shells plunged through the Hood's deck - one of Hood's major deficiencies which made her a battlecruiser rather than a battleship was thin deck armor - and exploded in its rear magazine. Needless to say, that set off the entire magazine and cut the ship in half, the two halves sinking separately. Three men out of a crew of 1419 survived, rescued later by the HMS Electra - everyone had to wait for the battle to end before effecting rescue.
|HMS Hood, on the right, blows up. HMS Prince of Wales is on the left. Both ships appear to be in trouble. Picture taken from Prinz Eugen in the early light.|
That this was a stunning event is difficult adequately to convey. Long-range gunnery duels at sea always involve luck and chance, but they involve an awful lot of skill as well. Even the largest ships are mere ants in a desert compared to the vastness of the sea. Surviving a quick, massive unexpected explosion like that was almost impossible for the men on the Hood, especially with no rescue ships nearby and in the middle of a battle. The men were almost all below decks and with no way out. Battleships don't have lifeboats, and Arctic water in May is frigid. It's a wonder anyone survived.
Prince of Wales then scored a hit on Bismarck, but it was extremely minor. Then Schneider scored a lucky hit on Prince of Wales, one that should have gone long but instead sailed clean through the bridge without exploding - an incredible stroke of luck for the British. Everyone on the bridge was killed except for the Prince of Wales' captain, John Leach, and one other man. The Prince of Wales was temporarily out of control, though still under full steam, and Bismarck and Prinz Eugen started hammering it.
Prince of Wales technically should not have even been in the Arctic Strait. It was brand new and its guns had not been fully worked up, and there were even civilian contractors aboard working furiously to get them right. The Admiralty took a huge chance sending it out to confront the German sortie, one that ultimately paid off but could have turned into a catastrophe. As it was, some of the Prince of Wales' guns jammed as the two German ships switched their attention to it. The Prince of Wales kept firing, though, and the working guns scored three hits total on Bismarck: one slightly above the waterline in the forecastle, one on the Bismarck's heavily armored torpedo bulkhead that did little damage, and the last which caused minor damage to the floatplane catapault.
|HMS Prince of Wales|
Despite these successes, Captain Leach - still stunned from his own narrow escape - had had enough and, regaining control, wisely ordered an immediate withdrawal at 06:13. If he hadn't had the cruisers lurking as support, the German ships undoubtedly would have closed in for the kill, and he only had two out of his ten 360 mm (14 inch) guns still functioning (thought the Germans couldn't know that). His ship was as close to total destruction as you could get in a major engagement and still survive. The German ships, however, obligingly let him speed off toward the protective cruisers, ceasing their fire. Lindemann, still full of fighting spirit, wanted to give chase, but Lütjens did not know the extent of Prince of Wales' damage. He also knew that the two British cruisers were approaching, and he had suffered unknown damage to his own ship. In the back of his mind were the orders only to attack unprotected convoys and not British capital ships operating independently. It is quite easy to fault Lütjens here, but that is with the benefit of hindsight. Under the facts at his disposal, he just as easily could have found himself sailing headlong into a doomed battle against three major British ships, two completely fresh. That said, letting the Prince of Wales go was prudent, but also timid. Hiding behind his orders to attack only merchant ships again showed a distinct lack of fighting spirit - an intellectually understandable choice, given the oppressive overall odds against him, but also an attitude that usually loses individual battles.
|Bismarck's bow and forecastle|
Lütjens, however, did not stop there: he made yet another mistake based on his risk-averse attitude which also had negative consequences. The one hit on the Bismarck that had repercussions was the one in the forecastle, which was letting in water as the ship plunged through the waves. The damage was not irreparable, but working on it required a reduction in speed or full stop to keep more water from entering so the men could properly affix damage mats. Instead, wishing to run away and hide in the vastness of the Atlantic, Lütjens sent his ships at full speed to the south, increasing the water pressure on the damaged bow area and increasing the damage. Some of his fuel was stored in the bow, and sea water got into it, making that fuel unusable and also leaving an oil slick. The water onboard also gave the ship a small 9-degree list to port and made the Bismarck slightly down at the head, reducing speed and maneuverability. If Lütjens had turned and fought, he might have been able to destroy the Prince of Wales while it was crippled, and then the cruisers would have had to run for their lives. Since he himself was damaged and had a huge victory under his belt to report, he could with justification then have headed back to Norway for repairs with absolutely nothing to stop him.
|A Short Sunderland Flying Boat|
All that, though, is hindsight. Lütjens, while making one poor choice after another, was jubilant. He could (and did) claim to have won the battle, known now as the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Germany hadn't had a surface naval victory since the 19th Century, and this one justified the fleet-building programme. To secure that victory, though, he had cut the engagement off early and hurt his own ship in the process. This all would come back to haunt him. Lütjens immediately sent Raeder a full report, a debatable choice but again one that could be rationalized. The Bismarck, meanwhile, was trailing oil in "broad streams" according to the Prinz Eugen, a fact also noted by a British Short Sunderland flying boat that spotted the German ships a short time later.
|Nice shot of the Bismarck showing her lines|
Why Lütjens didn't turn back at this point is the major mystery of the Bismarck. He was in the position of a bank robber who knows he has been spotted walking into the bank, but continues on in anyway. There wasn't a Luftwaffe plane for protection within 500 miles, and the ocean was crawling with British ships and recon planes. The best he could hope for was to slip unnoticed into a French port for repairs, where he would become Target No. 1 for the Royal Air Force and be bombed day and night until hits were scored. All he had to do was turn back and he could repair his ship at leisure in Norway or Germany and then come out for battle whole again, this time perhaps without being seen. Instead, he headed out toward the Atlantic, listing, leaking oil, likely with ships following him, and with all sorts of possible unknown damage to his own ship (he probably didn't know about the wrecked catapault at this point). It was the crucial decision of his life and of the Kriegsmarine, and he blew it.
Admiral Günther Lütjens|
|Rear Admiral (at the time) Frederic Wake-Walker|
Command of the three remaining British ships now had passed from the deceased Holland to Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker. Wake-Walker had not been involved in the earlier battle, probably to his intense chagrin. He no doubt was heartily disgusted with Holland's (and Leach's) performances against the Bismarck (a far better tactic for Holland would have been to follow standard doctrine and assemble all four ships for the attack, or even wait for the entire fleet to come to their assistance). The Rear Admiral peremptorily ordered the damaged Prince of Wales behind his two cruisers and set sail in chase of the departed German ships. The civilian contractors on board the Prince of Wales, the unsung heroes of the engagement, ultimately restored functionality to nine of the ten main guns, and she returned to the fore late in the day.
|HMS Aurora, trailing HMS Victorious, in the search for the Bismarck|
At this point, the British Admiralty descended into a massive panic. Admiral of the Fleet John Tovey conveyed the grim news of the Hood's demise to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was in the middle of perhaps the worst month of the war for England. Churchill responded with one of the most famous quotes of the war:
"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|
Lütjens, of course, was in a much dicier position than the British. He signalled Berlin that his damage was such that he had to put into the French port of Saint-Nazaire for repairs, meanwhile detaching the unscathed Prinz Eugen. This latter task, though, could only be done after losing the shadowing British ships somehow, else they would just shadow the Prinz Eugen and eventually get her, too. To cover Prinz Eugen's withdrawal, Lütjens suddenly turned about on the British ships and began blasting away, a heady move with a damaged ship. It should have been done earlier, while the Prince of Wales was damaged and unable to return fire, and perhaps Lütjens realized his earlier error and was trying to correct it. In any event, no hits were scored by either side after about ten salvoes, but Prinz Eugen got away unnoticed. This is another major German success that goes unnoticed in most histories of the battle. Bismarck in essence sacrificed itself to free the Prinz Eugen: it now no longer had a clear lead on the British ships, which began shadowing her on her port beam rather than following directly behind. This decision, too, shortly would have major ramifications.
|The first torpedo hits the Bismarck. The torpedo did little damage, but the maneuvering to avoid the torpedo attack did|
Bismarck plowed to the south, still able to maintain high speed, which prevented the Prince of Wales from closing for battle. The Bismarck still had a free hand: some other British forces had to intervene to prevent it from reaching German air cover in France. They soon did. British aircraft carrier Victorious approached that evening, May 25, at around 16:00. It knew from the Admiralty that the Bismarck was somewhere in the vicinity and launched a strike of six Fairey Fulmar fighters and nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. The biplanes were hardly state of the art, but they were certainly adequate weapons-delivery platforms under the circumstances. The planes mistakenly attacked the British ships in the evening confusion. When they realized their error and turned on the Bismarck, it was waiting for them. In an epic air/sea battle, the Bismarck made no hits on the planes, while one of their torpedoes hit the ship's armored belt and caused little damage, killing one man by concussion. The high-speed maneuvering to avoid the other torpedoes, though, undid the slight repairs that had been achieved at great effort to the Bismarck's forecastle, and renewed inrushing water now destroyed two of the ship's boilers and put the ship down further at the bow. The Bismarck had to reduce speed from 27 to 20 knots for a time to fix things again. Prince of Wales, sensing vulnerability after the torpedo hit, closed for a short artillery duel, but withdrew again after the Bismarck responded and neither side had scored any hits.
|Swordfish on the HMS Victorious|
The damage to Bismarck was serious and had the potential to get even worse. Seawater could have gotten into the engines through the fuel tank pipes, and that basically would have left the ship dead in the water. The pipes quickly were disconnected, and men were sent into the water to attach hoses to transfer fuel from the front of the ship to the back. This was successfully done after heroic efforts by the divers - working underwater in the Arctic at night, on a ship travelling at speed, could not have been easy. Despite all of these efforts, though, the ship still was beginning to run short of fuel oil.
|HMS Victorious chasing the Bismarck|
The Bismarck was slowed and damaged, but at least the worst disasters had been avoided. In addition, the men on the Bismarck had the satisfaction of knowing that the Prinz Eugen was on the loose and ready to cause havoc in the shipping lanes. If the Bismarck could only get within a hundred miles or so of the French coast, the British ships would have to turn back due to Luftwaffe intervention. Then, Operation Rheinübung could be called a major strategic success that might swing the entire Battle of the Atlantic in the Germans' favor.
|Captain Robert Meyric Ellis of Suffolk remains on the bridge for lunch whilst shadowing the Bismarck|
At this point, Lütjens showed that his crafty intellectual deliberation had advantages as well as drawbacks. Whilst the British cruisers shadowing him were zig-zagging along to avoid U-boats, Lütjens timed the British movements and, when they were at maximum distance apart, broke loose. He ordered full speed to 28 knots and headed away from them to the west. The British lost contact, and frantic efforts ensued to resume it. The shadowing ship, Suffolk, guessed that the Bismarck had simply gone straight west, so it headed that way, too, though it no longer had any radar or visual contact. It was a sheer guess, and it was wrong. Lütjens completely outfoxed the Suffolk's Captain. Robert Ellis: the Bismarck successfully circled completely around the Suffolk to the west and north, precisely the directions the British would least expect it to take those directions led the Bismarck away from France.
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.
In the event, Lütjens chose wrongly and completely squandered the opportunity he had just afforded himself. Rather than return home to the north, where there were sure to be fewer British patrols, Lütjens calmly resumed his heading south, now unobserved and unmolested. Escaping from his shadowers was a brilliant maneuver, and gave the Bismarck its last chance of getting home, but in the process Lütjens' follow-up decision to resume heading south sealed his ship's fate. He may not have made it back to Norway due to what he knew would be an enhanced British presence through the Straits - but it sure beat sailing into the jaws of danger to the south. And he could have perhaps made it through the straits at night and devastated any British cruisers he encountered. We'll never know.
Now the British were in trouble. Their ships were spread out, heading in all sorts of directions without a target, and getting low on fuel. The Bismarck could be anywhere in the vastness of the Atlantic, perhaps heading west, maybe south, even maybe heading east toward the Continent. In the event, the British fleet headed west in case the Bismarck was headed for the vulnerable convoys. Despite all of his earlier mistakes, Lütjens was safe and now had a free hand. He simply had to keep a low profile and head to port at full speed. It was a no-brainer situation that he had pulled off with his brilliant escape from the Suffolk.
It was now that Lütjens made his last and biggest mistake, and once again it is difficult to understand. He sent a long message to Hitler crowing about his force's achievements, a pointless communication that enabled the British, heading in all the wrong directions and unlikely to find the Bismarck before dark, to triangulate its location. Sending such messages actually was sort of Lütjens' trademark - he had done the same thing after some victories during Operation Berlin a few months earlier. Despite some British errors of their own, this enabled the British to locate the Bismarck. They even decoded enough of the message to deduce that the ship was headed to Brest. It was a complete disaster for Lütjens (who, in his defense, couldn't know that the Royal Navy had broken his codes) and the 2200 men on the Bismarck. The game was up, with the British finally realizing that all they had to do was place ships between the Bismarck and the French coast. A fleet of British Coastal Command long-range PBY Catalinas was sent out, and one of them (piloted by a US Navy Ensign, the US not even being at war yet) spotted the Bismarck at 10:30 on 26 May, early enough to divert ships to it before darkness. The Bismarck was still 690 nautical miles northwest of Brest. At cruising speed, the Bismarck could have been within Luftwaffe protection by the next morning. All it had to do was survive the day and keep steaming, and there still were no British ships in sight.
|Admiral James Somerville, the one man in position to deliver the death blow|
But not for long. Force H under Admiral James Somerville, based in Gibraltar, was in perfect position to intercept and was coming up fast from the south. It likely would have found the Bismarck eventually anyway, but if an attack had to be launched that day, the earlier the spot, the better. Somerville's aircraft carrier Ark Royal dispatched a strike of Swordfish as soon as it could recall its torpedo bombers, which were all out searching for the Bismarck. Somerville also sent his cruiser Sheffield to shadow the Bismarck. That was a mistake, or at least it turned into one. Just as had happened previously with the HMS Victorious Swordfish, the naval aviators became confused and attacked the Sheffield by mistake. No hits ("own goals") were scored, but valuable time was wasted. This also illustrates that both sides were making the usual types of mistakes that occur during confused battle conditions; being unduly harsh on Lütjens for his errors is unfair. Errors are part of war, and the winner is the one who overcomes his mistakes.
|A Swordfish taking off from HMS Victorious|
The chastened Swordfish had to return to the Ark Royal to rearmed. The early spot of the Bismarck by the Catalina due to Lütjens' stupid message to Hitler was paying off now, because the British still (barely) had time to recover their aircraft and get them back in the air before dark. Fifteen Swordfish went off again at 19:10, with darkness rapidly closing in, as late in the day as daylight would permit an attack - and if no attack could be mounted that day, the Bismarck would have had all night to steam toward Luftwaffe (and maybe U-boat) protection. Bismarck chose this moment to fire on Sheffield, which had gotten too close for its own good, and shell fragments from a straddle killed three men on that ship. Schneider still had game. The bumbling Swordfish, though, were ready to pounce.
|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).|
The Bismarck at this point had taken multiple torpedo hits and shell damage. It could no longer maneuver, could steam at speed but was locked into a circular pattern, and night was closing in. While the darkness brought temporary protection, that would vanish in less than twelve hours. It was only a matter of time before the British ships, which had disengaged to refuel, would return in daylight and finish her off. Someone suggested blowing the rudder off with dynamite, but Lindemann dismissed that because it likely would have blown off the propellers as well. Lütjens gave up and signalled to Berlin the following message, acknowledging his fate, at 21:40 on 26 May:
"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 float planes with last messages for home, but the catapault 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, the 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 under way|
Now it was target practice for the British, but they had used up the astonishing total of 700 main battery shells - and the Bismarck still floated and had not struck its colors. Many of the British shells, even the heaviest, simply bounced off the Bismarck's thick armor. Still, the ship now was aflame from stem to stern and was listing 20 degrees to port, so its end was certain. Rodney came alongside and fired at point-blank range to little purpose into the defenseless, sinking ship, then launched two torpedoes, one of which struck the Bismarck but still did not sink it. The men on the Bismarck now tried to scuttle the battleship rather than have her be captured, which would have been catastrophic to German pride and morale. F First Officer Hans Oels ordered everyone who could to abandon ship. Chief Engineer Gerhard Junack, below decks and out of communication with anyone, had his men set demolition charges and then scramble topside. Almost none of them escaped, Oels and the others being killed by explosions before they could get out.
|Bismarck sits right-side up, smaller batteries intact|
The Bismarck was riddled by over 400 hits, but still she floated. At 10:20, an hour and a half after the battle had begun, Tovey in London ordered the cruiser Dorsetshire to finish the Bismarck off with torpedoes. It scored two hits, one on each side, which finally hastened matters. At 10:35, the Bismarck finally rolled over to port and sank stern-first. It was gone by 10:40, and some swore that they saw Captain Lindemann standing on the stern and saluting as she disappeared under the waves.
|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|
Out of about 400 men in the cold Atlantic water, Dorsetshire and accompanying destroyer Maori rescued 110 before operations were called off due to a U-boat report. A German U-boat that came by after the British ships left later rescued three men, and a German trawler plucked another two out of the water. These five survivors could at least give Hitler and Raeder a general idea of what had happened that morning. 114 men out of 2200 survived, which was terrible, but at least better in a sense than had been the case with the Hood.
|The huge Swastika on the Bismarck remains the largest still on open public display - if you can get 15,000 feet down to see it|
The wreck of the Bismarck lay undisturbed until rediscovered on 8 June 1989 by Dr. Robert Ballard. The ship sits upright at 4791 meters (15, 719 feet), deeper than the Titanic which Ballard also found. It sits on top of an underwater volcano, having hit near the top and slid two-thirds of the way down. Investigation showed that the scuttling had worked, flooding the ship and preventing any implosions from rapidly increased external water pressure. The study suggested that it was the scuttling, rather than the damage from the torpedoes, that made the ship sink when it did, though it ultimately would have sunk regardless. The entire stern section broke off while the Bismarck sank and went missing. To date, it has not been found.
Results of Operation Rheinübung
|King George VI boards HMS Victorious after the battle to inspect it and congratulate the crew on their brilliant success|
That the Bismarck sinking was a huge British victory is undeniable. The Germans lost the pride of their fleet, the strategic balance in the Atlantic was restored, and the Germans never again challenged the Allies' surface dominance. The Tirpitz, the equal in every way to the Bismarck, never saw enemy action despite being ready for action only months later. It spent its entire life skulking in Norwegian fjords, hidden by camouflage netting and protected by antiaircraft guns and the Luftwaffe. Hitler had Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels turn the Bismarck story into an epic, which Goebbels successfully did, and the story has become legendary on both sides with glory showered on both sides. Still, Hitler was left with nothing to show for his vast and continuing investment in a surface fleet that now was completely useless. After a few more such disasters, Hitler ultimately fired Admiral Raeder at the beginning of 1943 and installed Admiral Karl Dönitz, a U-boat experts, in charge of the Kriegsmarine and, ultimately, as his successor as Fuhrer. The pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck justified 300 years of British seafaring prowess and constant vigilance, proving the value of having redundant capabilities and endless reserves in a moment of crisis.
Related U-boat Successes
|A torpedoed tanker|
There were several positives for the Germans from Operation Rheinübung, some of which are seldom acknowledged. The sinking of the Hood has gone down in history as the last and greatest success of the Germany Navy, justifying to some limited extent the vast German expenditures on its surface fleet. The Bismarck also caused damage to several other ships, such as the Prince of Wales (sunk by the Japanese later that year), putting that ship out of action for months. The British had to expend vast quantities of fuel and ammunition to track down and sink the Bismarck, and had to leave several convoys with lessened protection. The Admiralty was fixated on the Bismarck for a week, to the exclusion of other, vital areas of concern. The U-boats took advantage. After hitting 50 ships in March and 48 in April 1941, the U-boat totals skyrocketed to 66 in May and 65 in June 1941, before settling back to 21 in July and 32 in August. The May/June surge saw the two highest monthly totals of all of 1941. That surge precisely when the Bismarck was on the loose and during the immediate aftermath, when convoy-protective ships were damaged and needed resupply and refit, is hardly coincidental. The Bismarck can truthfully be said to have achieved the goals of Operation Rheinübung of major convoy sinkings, but only in a back-handed manner and at the doleful cost of itself.
Survival of Prinz Eugen
Prinz Eugen, released into the Atlantic by the huge distraction caused by the Bismarck chase, successfully refueled from a tanker on May 26 - the day before the Bismarck sank - but suddenly developed mechanical difficulties itself. It sailed for France for engine repair, putting into Brest on 1 June 1941, and sat there for the remainder of 1941. It attracted British bomber attention that would have gone to the Bismarck instead if the big ship had made port. Hit on 1-2 July, Prinz Eugen was repaired and survived to make its escape early the following year. Hitler was done with surface raiders and orders his cruisers home to Germany. Prinz Eugen returned to Germany unscathed during the "Channel Dash" of February 1942, accompanied by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. It remained operational for the duration of the war, helping maintain the fiction of German naval might, the "fleet in being" idea. The days of cruiser raids into the Atlantic, though, were over.
German Re-Allocation of Resources
|The Tirpitz spent its career in isolated Norwegian fjords|
The Bismarck's demise proved to be an extremely useful lesson for the Germans. It was obvious now that the Kriegsmarine had no hope whatsoever of challenging the British in surface actions. However, the German surface fleet, against all logic, now reached its maximum usefulness to the Germans. If it had continued operating in the Atlantic, the German ships could have been picked off one by one, but the Kriegsmarine came up with a better plan. The Tirpitz was sent to northern Norway and hidden away there, remaining a lurking presence - virtually a "fleet in being" all by itself - for the remainder of the war. By forcing the Germans to realize at last the hopelessness of a surface fleet, the British induced them to carefully protect what was left and, somewhat perversely, helped keep the remaining Kriegsmarine warships afloat. The British became obsessed with the Tirpitz and launched raid after raid upon it, wasting planes, pilots, mini-submarines and aviators. When finally (and pointlessly) sunk in November 1944, the Tirpitz had kept major British capital assets tied up in Scotland for three full years when they could have been better employed elsewhere
|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.|
The truth must be told: while the Bismarck was a well-handled ship that could and did cause a lot of damage, it was not an especially good design. The Bismarck was, in fact, a poor design for the time. It was based on the obsolete World War 1 Bayern class, which had numerous design flaws. For instance, her electrical and other services were situated above her armoured deck and so were very vulnerable to battle damage - HMS Rodney knocked out both of Bismarck's forward turrets, half of her main guns, with a single shell, the decisive blow of Bismarck's career, because of this. Her secondary armament was inefficiently divided between low and high angle guns, when the threat of air attack had become paramount. Her radar was vulnerable to blast damage from her own guns and was put out of action when she fired on Norfolk and Suffolk, not by the enemy, an elementary error. The Bismarck's armour was 25% less effective than British armour, and the welding of her stern was so poor that it broke clean away as the ship sank (a problem also suffered by the Titanic). It is one thing to congratulate the ship and its crew for their valor and ruthlessness, but the ship's design itself revealed German designers' rustiness after decades of no battleship construction.
|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|
The Kriegsmarine had been wasting time, money and, most importantly, steel on building two aircraft carriers. Had these ships been ready to accompany the Bismarck, and had the Bismarck set sail with Tirpitz and the other pocket battleships as a unit, the war at sea may have taken a completely different course. However, the heart had gone out of the effort even before the Bismarck sailed. Even though some desultory construction on the Graf Zeppelin, the planned first carrier, resumed in 1942 during a temporary upswing in German fortunes, the whole project was scrapped by 1943. This freed up steel to be used for tanks, and Hitler preferred that the men crewing these ships die not at sea, but instead while holding worthless "fortresses" on the Eastern Front. No major German surface vessels were completed after the Tirpitz in 1941. The German surface fleet was over.
Effect on the Battle of Crete
|German paratroopers landing on Crete from Ju 52s|
The Bismarck was hunted down by Force H out of Gibraltar. This diversion worked, the planes from that Force ultimately dooming the Bismarck, but if Force H was out in the Atlantic, it couldn't also be in the Mediterranean. While the Admiralty was calling every available ship into the hunt for the Bismarck, the Germans were busy in the eastern Mediterranean. The day after the Swedes alerted the British that the German ships were headed their way, German paratroopers descended upon Crete. That battle, which lasted until 1 June 1941, was as much a sea battle as land one. The battle for the island was extremely close, and the Luftwaffe sank three British cruisers and six destroyers, while damaging two battleships, an aircraft carrier and four cruisers. The absence of reinforcement by Force H may well have contributed substantially to loss of Crete, which remained a thorn in the British Admiralty's side for the remained of the conflict.
|Bismarck as it looks now on the sea floor|
The 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.