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Bismarck at her commissioning


The German battleship Bismarck was one of the most famous warships of the Second World War. The lead ship of her class, named after the 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck displaced more than 50,000 tonnes fully loaded and was the largest warship then commissioned.

Bismarck only took part in one operation during her brief career. She and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugenmarker left Gotenhafen (Gdyniamarker) on the morning of 19 May, 1941 for Operation Rheinübung, during which she was to have attempted to intercept and destroy convoys in transit between North America and Great Britainmarker. When Bismarck and Prinz Eugen attempted to break out into the Atlanticmarker, the two ships were discovered by the Royal Navy and brought to battle in the Denmark Strait. During the short engagement, the British battlecruiser , flagship of the Home Fleet and pride of the Royal Navy, was sunk after several minutes of firing. In response, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the order to "Sink the Bismarck," spurring a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy.

Two days later, with Bismarck almost in reach of safer waters, Fleet Air Arm Swordfish biplanes launched from the carrier torpedoed the ship and jammed her rudder, allowing heavy British units to catch up with her. In the ensuing battle on the morning of 27 May 1941, Bismarck was heavily attacked for almost two hours before sinking.

Building and commissioning

The design of Bismarck was begun in the early 1930s, following Germany's development of the "pocket battleships" and the Scharnhorst class warships.Bismarck was planned to be the prototype for other battleships envisaged under Plan Z, like the H class. Bismarck s keel was laid down at Blohm and Voss' shipyard in Hamburgmarker on 1 July, 1936. Launched on 14 February 1939, the battleship was commissioned on 24 August 1940 with Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann in command.

At Bismarck s commissioning, she was the largest warship to date. Under Plan Z, she was intended to be part of a fast battleship squadron for a main battle line of larger subsequent battleships. However, with the outbreak of war in 1939 and the increased demands on the German armament industry, Plan Z was no longer practical. As a result, Bismarck was used as a commerce raider. She was reasonably well suited for this, being faster than any of the Royal Navy battleships; her endurance qualities, which were quite good for their period, were also better than any of British battleships that might give chase. Being a good fighting ship with many innovations, and a formidable opponent for any heavy unit in the Allied navies, Bismarck could engage any enemy battleship escorting an Allied convoy on reasonably equal terms and her range of weaponry could cause devastation to any undefended convoy.

Senior officers



Operation Rheinübung

Breakout into the Atlantic

Bismarck completed preparations for her Atlantic sortie in the Bay of Danzigmarker, refuelling almost to capacity and leaving the port of Gotenhafen (now Gdyniamarker) on her first and only mission, codenamed Rheinübung (Rhine Exercise) in the early hours of 19 May 1941. She was accompanied only by the heavy cruiser . Other capital ships, including the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, that were to have participated in the sortie were unavailable because of mechanical problems and war damage. Moreover, plans to use Bismarck's sister ship, , were shelved because she had not yet finished sea trials. Despite these setbacks, the mission went ahead under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens. The Germans had various objectives: destroy as much Allied shipping as possible and force the British to suspend convoys, even temporarily; compensate for their weak submarine presence in the Atlantic; divert British naval forces from the Mediterranean to reduce the risks of the planned invasion of Crete and to allow supply and reinforcement to Rommel's Afrika Korps in Libya; and to wear out British warships forced to extended patrols. For the first part of the journey, as far as Norway, the route from the Baltic was chosen in preference to a North Sea breakout via the Kiel Canalmarker.

The British had learned from Ultra intelligence (deciphered Enigma code messages) about German air surveillance of the Denmark Strait and the Royal Navy's home base at Scapa Flowmarker, as well as the April 1941 delivery of charts for the Atlantic to the Bismarck. (However, the British decrypted no Enigma messages from or to the Bismarck squadron during Rheinübung.) British radar-equipped heavy cruisers, able to refuel in Iceland, were sent to patrol the Denmark Strait. Unequipped to refuel battle squadrons at sea, the Home Fleet awaited a firm sighting report before its ships deployed. On May 20, 1941, the Swedish seaplane-cruiser encountered and tracked the German battle group steaming north-west past Göteborg. A Norwegian officer in Stockholm learned of the sighting from a Swedish military intelligence source and informed the British naval attaché, who promptly radioed the Admiralty: "Most immediate. Kattegat today 20th May. At 15.00 two large warships escorted by three destroyers, five escort craft, ten or twelve aircraft passed Marstrand course north-west 2058/20th May 1941. B-3 repeat B-3". "B-3" indicated uncertainty about the report's validity, since this information was more precise and timelier than anything the naval attaché had obtained in a year at his station.

Alerted by this report, at 03.30 on 21 May the Admiralty requested air reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast. A Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft found and photographed Bismarck in a fjord (Grimstadfjorden, near Bergenmarker) at 13.00, only two hours after Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had arrived. With this hard information, the British Home Fleet despatched the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Hood towards Iceland. Cruisers covered other approaches to the North Atlantic.

Some books about the Bismarck mention a sighting report supposedly radioed by Norwegian agents on 20 May and acknowledged by the British. This story apparently originated in the 1967 book The Greatest Gamble. No evidence, either direct or circumstantial, supports this story. British and Norwegian authorities deny that secret agents were involved before or during the Bismarck operation, and that the Norwegian resistance had radio or other ability to communicate swiftly with Britain and Sweden in May 1941. Radio links between Britain and the Norwegian resistance were established in 1942.

Both German ships had intended to refuel in Bergenmarker but while Prinz Eugen did so, Bismarck failed to. This was later to have very serious consequences for Bismarck, especially as she had sailed from Gotenhafen with tanks less than brimful and had already used up about one-ninth of her full load during the voyage to Norway. Lütjens knew that an oiler, the Weissenberg, was waiting for him in the Arctic at least a day's sailing away. It was strange that, even with this information, he did not take this opportunity to refuel Bismarck for what could be a hazardous voyage. Moreover, his decision to stop in Bergen overturned any previous decision to head straight for the Arctic and the Weissenberg. It also wasted a day and exposed him to detection by British air surveillance.

At 19:45 on 21 May Lütjens put out to sea, detaching his destroyer escort early on 22 May. Heading north, then north-west at , the German fleet made good and largely uneventful progress across the Norwegian Seamarker towards Greenlandmarker and the Denmark Straitmarker between Icelandmarker and Greenland, the gateway into the Atlantic. This circuitous course was against Group North's recommendation to steam directly for the Atlantic between Iceland and the Faeroe Islandsmarker. It was also too far south to make a rendezvous with the Weissenberg to refuel Bismarck. Nevertheless, while in waters to the north of the Arctic Circle, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen remained undetected by British air reconnaissance, which was too far south. With a mind on convoy-raiding, Lütjens was hopeful of an easy breakout into the Atlantic, aided by foggy weather, but his plans were to be frustrated.

Aerial reconnaissance under clouds by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy on 22 May ascertained that the Bismarck had sailed from Bergen. With this intelligence the Home Fleet Battle Fleet, including the battleship HMS King George V and the aircraft carrier Victorious, put to sea. The Battlecruiser Squadron already bound for Iceland was ordered to cover the Denmark Strait. A bombing raid on 22 May by the RAF proved fruitless, as the Germans had already left.

On the evening of 23 May, the German force was detected by the heavy cruisers and Norfolk that had been patrolling the Denmark Strait in the expectation of a German breakout. The rival ships exchanged fire and Norfolk had a near miss when a German shell bounced off the water and struck the bridge of the ship but did not explode nor inflict any casualties. The heavily outgunned British cruisers retired to a safe distance and shadowed the enemy while their own heavy units drew closer. However, Bismarck's forward radar had malfunctioned as a result of the recoil from her heavy guns firing during this skirmish, and Lütjens was obliged to order Prinz Eugen to move ahead of Bismarck in order to provide the squadron with forward radar coverage. This decision later confused the converging British forces as to the identity of each German ship, their silhouettes being similar.

Battle of the Denmark Strait

Bismarck as seen from Prinz Eugen, firing at HMS Prince of Wales during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, shortly after the sinking of HMS Hood, 24 May 1941.
At approximately 05:30 on Saturday 24 May, as the German squadron was about to leave the Denmark Strait, Prinz Eugen's hydrophones detected the presence of two additional ships some distance to port. By 05:45 both were in sight, although the German force had not yet identified the enemy force. It turned out to be a British battle-group comprising the new battleship Prince of Wales, and the ageing battlecruiser Hood, under the command of Rear Admiral Lancelot Holland. Prince of Wales had only recently been completed and was still being worked up (indeed, she sailed to meet Bismarck with about 100 civilian workers still on board completing her fitting-out). Hood had been built as a battlecruiser and modified to give her protection more like a battleship, but still had relatively weak deck armour. The Germans were not surprised that they had been detected by British ships, but that they would turn out to be capital ships was an unexpected development.

At 05:49 Holland ordered fire to be concentrated on the leading enemy ship, Prinz Eugen, believing it to be Bismarck. Fortunately for the British, the captain of Prince of Wales was soon to realise the error and changed his target. Holland amended his order on the correct ship to be engaged but this did not reach Hood's gunnery control before the first salvo. Hood fired the first shots of the battle at 05:52, in daylight, followed very soon afterwards by Prince of Wales. The range to the German ships was c. . The first salvo from Hood landed close to Prinz Eugen, causing minor shell splinter damage near the aft turrets.

More than two minutes went by without a reply from the German ships, before Captain Lindemann ordered fire to be returned on the lead British ship. This was Hood, which the Germans had identified only when the British squadron made a turn towards them at 05:55. This manoeuvre was undertaken, it appears, in an attempt to place themselves in the "zone of immunity", an area inside which both plunging fire, in particular, and direct enemy fire is relatively ineffective. Closer in, Hood would be less vulnerable and the advantage of superior German gunnery control would be lessened. The disadvantage was that, during the dash, eight of the eighteen British heavy guns could not be brought to bear.

Both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen opened fire on Hood, at a range of . The early gunfire from the German ships was very accurate and within two minutes Hood had been hit by at least one 8-inch shell from Prinz Eugen. It struck the British ship near the mainmast and caused a large fire which Hood's crew tried to bring under control. Prinz Eugen hit Hood three times during the engagement. However, Bismarck had also been hit by Prince of Wales, causing a fuel leak from the forward tanks; therefore Lütjens ordered his cruiser to switch its guns towards Prince of Wales, which his own secondary guns were now targeting. Bismarck survivor Baron Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg initially claimed that the hits on his ship were scored by Hood with her third salvo. However, it is equally likely that these hits were scored by Prince of Wales, as it is clear that Hood was targeting Prinz Eugen for the majority of the battle and that the order to change target to Bismarck saw most of her salvoes fall between the enemy ships, hitting neither. At 05:54 the range was down to 22,000 yards (20 km), at 05:57 it was down to just 19,000 yards (17 km). Bismarck then fired a fourth salvo which was slightly long and astern of Hood. At the same time Holland had ordered "2 Blue", a 20-degree turn to port. Before the ship began a turn to port Hood fired a fifth salvo at 05:59:30.

Prince of Wales turning to avoid the sinking Hood.
At 06:00 Hood, which was in the process of turning to port to bring her full weight of armament to bear on Bismarck, was hit amidships by at least one shell from Bismarck's fifth salvo at a distance of under nine miles (16,500 yards). Very shortly afterwards observers on both sides saw a huge jet of flame race skywards, followed by a rumbling explosion that split the huge ship in two. Splinters rained down on Prince of Wales, away. Hood's stern rose and sank shortly before the bow, all within three minutes. Admiral Holland and 1,415 crewmen went down with the ship. Only three men (Ted Briggs, Bob Tilburn, and Bill Dundas) survived. They were rescued about two and a half hours later by the destroyer Electra. The British Admiralty later concluded that the most likely explanation for the loss of Hood was a penetration of her magazines by a single 15-inch shell from Bismarck, causing the subsequent catastrophic explosion. Recent research by submersible craft suggests that the initial explosion could have been in the aft 4-inch magazine, followed by the aft 15″ magazine and that it may also have spread to the forward 15-inch magazines via the starboard side ammunition passage.

Prince of Wales had to turn towards the German fleet to avoid hitting the wreckage left by the flagship and was hit a number of times by gunfire from both German ships. Still, her own gunfire had caused damage to Bismarck. The British battleship turned away, laying smoke, her aft turret firing briefly under local control. She had received seven hits (three of them from Prinz Eugen) and mechanical failures had caused intermittent problems with her main guns and her aft turret jammed as she turned away.

The death of HMS Hood; a smoke cloud fills the sky above Hood's position, just after the ship exploded
At 06:03 Prinz Eugen, which at that point had fired 183 20.3 cm shells, reported propeller noises to starboard, bearing 279° and 220°. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were forced into emergency manoeuvres and sighted a Sunderland flying boat shortly afterwards. Although Captain Lindemann wanted to chase Prince of Wales and "finish her off", Admiral Lütjens ignored his suggestions since delay risked the possibility of encountering other heavy enemy ships. In a battle lasting less than 20 minutes Bismarck and her consort had seen one enemy capital ship destroyed and another withdraw, an action almost unknown in the Royal Navy.

At 08:01 Bismarck made the following transmission to Group North:
Sections XIII-XIV.
Electric plant No.
4 broken down.
Port No.
2 boiler room is making water but can be held.
Maximum speed 28 knots (52 km/h).
Denmark Strait wide.
Floating mines.
Two enemy radar sets recognised.
Intention: to put into Saint-Nazairemarker.


Faulty intelligence had led the Germans to believe that Prince of Wales was not yet ready for action, therefore reports from Bismarck referred to her as King George V, the first of that class, which had been active for some months.

Despite the jubilation on board Bismarck, the battleship was not safe. The British knew her position, her forward radar was out of action and she had received three hits, one of which caused water to leak into and contaminate fuel oil in storage. From then on, Bismarck had to reduce speed to a maximum of 20 knots (37 km/h) to conserve fuel. Lütjens eventually decided that he would have to head for the French coast (the dry-dock in Saint-Nazaire) for repairs, while ordering Prinz Eugen to continue commerce raiding alone. The British continued to shadow her, Prince of Wales having rendezvoused with Norfolk and Suffolk. To enable his consort to escape, Lütjens turned on his pursuers and forced them to turn away, thus allowing Prinz Eugen to steam on out of British radar range. The plan was to be executed on the signal "Hood". Lütjens first attempt failed. However at 18:14 a second attempt succeeded, the two German ships parted and Bismarck signalled "Good hunting".

The chase

Determined to avenge the sinking of Hood, the British committed every possible unit to hunt down Bismarck. During the early evening of 24 May an attack was made by a small group of Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from 825 Naval Air Squadron of the aircraft carrier Victorious. One hit was scored resulting in a single fatality (Bismarck's first); however, the blast caused only superficial damage to Bismarck's armoured belt. The effect of the attack reopened the Bismarck's earlier "wounds:" the collision mats which had been used to block further flooding in the bow region had come loose, due to constant jarring from evasive action and the firing of the anti-aircraft guns. The packing of the damaged bulkheads was also loosened, leading to the complete flooding of the forward port boiler room, which was abandoned. This caused the bow to go down further. Lütjens thus ordered speed to be reduced to 16 knots (30 km/h) while the mats were repaired.

For some time Bismarck remained under long-distance observation by the British. At about 03:00 on 25 May, the ship took advantage of her opponents' zig-zagging and performed an almost three-quarter clockwise turn behind her pursuers to escape towards the east and then south-east. Contact was lost for four hours; however, perhaps in awe of British radar capabilities, it appears that the Germans did not realise their good fortune. Lütjens, for reasons that are unclear but possibly believing that Bismarck was still being tracked (despite a communication sent by Group West telling him the opposite), transmitted a half-hour radio message to HQ, which was intercepted thereby giving the British time to work out roughly where he was heading. However, a plotting error made on board King George V, where Admiral John Tovey, commander of the British Home Fleet, was leading the pursuit, incorrectly calculated Bismarck's position and caused the chase to veer too far north. Bismarck was therefore able to make good time on 25/26 May in her unhindered passage towards France and protective air cover and destroyer escort. By now, though, fuel was becoming a major concern to both sides.

The British had a stroke of luck on 26 May. In mid-morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command Catalina reconnaissance aircraft from 209 Squadron, which had flown over the Atlantic from its base on Lough Ernemarker in Northern Irelandmarker across Donegalmarker through a small air-corridor secretly provided by the Éire government, spotted Bismarck (via her oil slick) and reported her position to the Admiralty. From then on, the German ship's position was known to the British, although the enemy would have to be slowed significantly if heavy units hoped to engage it out of range of German aircraft protection. All British hopes were now pinned on Force H, whose main units were the aircraft-carrier , the battlecruiser and the cruiser . This battle-group, commanded by Admiral James Somerville, had been diverted north from Gibraltarmarker.

In atrocious weather conditions at 19:25 that evening, Ark Royal launched its Fairey Swordfish for another attack. The first wave mistakenly targeted the Sheffield that was by now shadowing the quarry. Although precious time was lost by this incident, it proved beneficial to the British in that the magnetic detonators on the torpedoes used against Sheffield were seen to be defective and for the following attack on Bismarck were replaced by those designed to explode on contact. In a final attack, almost in darkness at 21:05, a hit by a single torpedo from a Swordfish of 818 NAS (piloted by Sub-Lieutenant John Moffat) jammed Bismarck's rudder and steering gear. This rendered Bismarck virtually unmanoeuvrable, increased her list to port and she was able only to steam in a large circle in the general direction of King George V and Rodney, two frontline battleships that had been in pursuit from the west. After extensive efforts to free the jammed rudders, the fleet command finally acknowledged their, by now, impossible position in several messages to naval headquarters. Lütjens promised that the ship would fight until the last shell was spent. The cost to the attacking British had been five Swordfish damaged, one beyond repair.

Throughout the night of 26/27 May, Bismarck was the target of incessant torpedo attacks by the Tribal-class destroyer , , and , with the Polish Piorun. Bismarck inflicted some damage to the British destroyers. Aboard Zulu a sub-lieutenant in the gunnery control tower lost a hand to shell splinters when a shell landed on the destroyer's forecastle, but did not explode. Cossack had its radio antenna sheared off by a shell. The constant harrying tactics of the British helped wear down the morale of the Germans and deepened the fatigue of an already exhausted crew.

Both Ark Royal and Renown had a lucky escape during the night. The British ships were unaware they had come within firing range of Kapitänleutnant Herbert Wohlfarth's U-556 submarine, which had earlier exercised with Bismarck in the Baltic, with Bismarck being referred to as the submarine's "big brother". However, U-556 was returning from a combat patrol and had spent its torpedoes. U-556 continued to shadow the British forces, reporting their position and guiding other U-boats to the area.

Sinking

The final battle, 27 May 1941.
Surrounded by shell splashes, Bismarck burns on the horizon.


Around 08:00 on 27 May, Rodney and King George V closed to within of Bismarck, with their enemy well illuminated by the morning sun in the background. At this point visibility was only and the sea state at 4-5. High winds were blowing in 320 degrees from the North West at a force of 6-7.Rodney steered to the north so that her gunfire would work the length of Bismarck, while King George V took the side. They opened fire at 08:47. Bismarck returned fire, but her inability to steer and her list to port affected accuracy. Her low speed of seven knots made her an easy target, and she was soon hit several times, with heavy cruisers Norfolk and adding their firepower. At 09:02 an shell from Norfolk hit the main gun director, killing the gunnery officer, Adalbert Schneider, who had been awarded the Knight's Cross in the early hours of the same morning for his part in sinking Hood. At 09:08 a heavy shell from Rodney hit both of Bismarck's forward turrets, Anton and Bruno, disabling the latter; this was followed by another salvo which destroyed the forward control post, killing most of the senior officers. The aft turrets, Caesar and Dora, continued to fire locally. At 09:21 Dora was knocked out. The crew of Anton managed to fire one last salvo at 09:27. At 09:31 Caesar fired its last salvo and was then knocked out. This salvo straddled Rodney jamming the ship's torpedo tubes. Bismarck's salvoes throughout the battle were directed at Rodney, the older ship (perhaps in the hope of achieving a success similar to Hood). When Admiral Guernsey observed this, he remarked: "Thank heavens she's shooting at Rodney". The closest Bismarck came to threatening King George V was when von Müllenheim, under local fire control, zeroed in on the enemy but had his director blown away by a direct hit before fire could be directed at the British battleship. Within 44 minutes, Bismarck's heavy guns were all silent. Rodney now closed to point-blank range (approximately three km) to pound the superstructure, while King George V fired from further out.
Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire on 27 May 1941


Bismarck continued to fly her ensign. With no sign of surrender, despite the unequal struggle, the British were loath to leave Bismarck. Their fuel and shell supplies were low, a demonstration of how difficult it was for a battleship to sink a similar unit, even in an unbalanced engagement. However, when it became obvious that their enemy could not reach port, Rodney, King George V and the destroyers were sent home. Norfolk had no torpedoes left, so Dorsetshire launched three 21-inch (533 mm) torpedoes, which may have hit Bismarck at comparatively short range. The battleship's upper works were almost completely destroyed but her engines were still functioning, although Johannes "Hans" Zimmermann, a boiler room stoker who survived, confirms that salt water had entered the boiler feed lines causing the engineers to reduce speed to seven knots, fearing an explosion, and the hull appeared to be relatively sound; therefore, rather than risk her being captured, survivors have said the order to scuttle and then abandon ship was given. Many of the crew went into the water, but few sailors from the lower engine spaces survived. As Captain Lindemann was presumed killed with all officers after the bridge was hit by a shell, it is unclear whether he could have given the order to scuttle. Some of the survivors, though, strongly maintain they saw him going down alive with his ship.

Bismarck slipped below the waves stern first at 10:39 that morning. Unaware of the fate of the ship, Group West, the German command base, continued to issue signals to Bismarck for some hours, until Reuters reported news from Britain that the ship had been sunk. In Britain, the House of Commonsmarker was informed of the sinking early that afternoon. Dorsetshire and Maori stopped to rescue survivors, but a U-boat alarm caused them to leave the scene after rescuing only 110 Bismarck sailors, abandoning the surviving crew in the water. The next morning U-74marker, which had heard sinking noises from a distance, and the German weather ship Sachsenwald picked up 5 survivors. 1,995 of the ship's crew of 2,200 died.

In all, 2,876 shells of various calibres were fired by the British ships; approximately 300-400 hit. Of the total fired, 714 were heavy-calibre and shells from two battleships, about 80 of which hit Bismarck.

After the sinking, Tovey wrote in his memoirs: "The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds, worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying". The admiral had wanted to say this publicly but the Admiralty informed him: "For political reasons it is essential that nothing of the nature of the sentiments expressed by you should be given publicity, however much we admire a gallant fight".

War diary

At 07:10 on the morning of the final battle, Lütjens, with Bismarck now doomed, requested that Group West send any U-Boat in the area to retrieve the ship's war diary. U-556 was now low on fuel and had passed its shadowing duties and communication with Group West to U-74marker which had just arrived, albeit damaged by depth charges and unable to fire torpedoes. Thus U-556 was underwater when Lütjens sent out the request to retrieve the war diary. An earlier attempt to send the diary via the Arado Ar 196 float aircraft had also failed, due to the damage the catapult had received from Prince of Wales at the Denmark Strait battle (the Arado was dumped overboard and its floats pierced to ensure it sank). However, by this point (08:00) it was far too late for a U-Boat to reach Bismarck.

Role of the Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe came under heavy criticism from Hitler for failing to help Bismarck on the morning of her final battle. Luftflotte 3 had been apprised of Bismarck's intentions as early as May 24 and its units, mainly equipped with Heinkel He 111s, could have been positioned to help the ship. On May 26 Bismarck was within of the French coast (as reported by Flying Officer Dennis Briggs flying a Catalina of No. 209 squadron). An attack by the He 111s, with a maximum range of , could have slowed down Ark Royal and prevented the Fairey Swordfish attack which crippled Bismarck. As it was, the Luftwaffe appeared over the battle area an hour after Bismarck had sunk. 17 Kampfgeschwader 28 He 111s attacked Ark Royal but their bombs missed. Only 218 sorties were flown by the Luftwaffe in support of Rheinübung with KG 100, KG 1, KG 54 and KG 77. The only casualty of these raids was the destroyer Mashona, which was sunk by Kampfgeschwader 77 on 28 May off the west coast of Ireland. A Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor had sighted Rodney but was unable to communicate the position accurately without radar, reporting her as further from the French coast than was the case. Thus a possible chance for the Luftwaffe to attack the British battleship was lost. Meaningful missions did not start until 03:00 on May 27, by which time Bismarck's fate was sealed.

Rediscovery

First discovery by Robert Ballard



The wreck of Bismarck was discovered on 8 June 1989 by Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer also responsible for finding the Titanicmarker. Bismarck rests upright at a depth of approximately 4,791 m (15,700 ft), about 650 kilometres west of Brest, Francemarker. The Bismarck struck an extinct underwater volcano, which rose some 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) above the surrounding abyssal plain, triggering a 2 kilometre (1.25 mile) landslide. Bismarck slid down the mountain, coming to a stop two-thirds down.

Analysis of the wreck not only showed extensive damage to the superstructure by shelling and some minor damage to the hull by torpedo hits, but also suggested that the Germans scuttled the ship to hasten its sinking. This has never been proven by marine investigators but is confirmed by survivors. Ballard has kept the exact location of the wreck a secret to prevent other divers from taking artefacts from the ship, a practice he considers a form of grave robbing.

On discovering the wreck, it was found that the whole stern had broken away; due to the fact it was not near the main wreckage, and has not yet been found, it can be assumed this did not occur on impact with the sea floor. The missing section came away roughly where the torpedo hit was made, raising questions of possible structural failure. The stern area had also received several hits, increasing the damage caused by the torpedo hit. This, coupled with the fact the ship sank "stern first" and had no structural support to hold it in place, suggests the stern became detached at the surface. In 1942 Prinz Eugen was also torpedoed in the stern, which subsequently collapsed. This prompted a strengthening of the stern structures on all German capital ships.

Second expedition

A second Bismarck expedition in 2001 was Anglo-American and funded by a British TV channel. It followed-on from the same team's prior discovery of the long-lost wreckage of Hood which was located and filmed for the first time. An Anglo-American team, consisting of David Mearns, Bill Jurens and Professor Eric Grove, used the information that Bismarck was resting at the foot of the only undersea volcano in that area, to locate it. They then used ROVs to film the hull externally and concluded that the ship sank due to combat damage, having received numerous artillery and torpedo hits.David Mearns claimed significant gashes were found in the hull: "My feeling is that those holes were probably lengthened by the slide, but initiated by torpedoes".

James Cameron expedition

The documentary film Expedition: Bismarck (2002), directed by James Cameron and filmed using smaller and more agile MIR submersibles, reconstructs the events leading to the sinking of Bismarck. These provided some interior shots of Bismarck for the first time, which were aired on the National Geographic Channel (NGC) His findings were that there was not enough damage below the waterline of the ship to confirm that she was actually sunk by shells and torpedoes. In fact, upon close inspection of the wreckage, it was confirmed that none of the torpedoes or shells penetrated the second layer of the inner hull. Cameron put forward a theory to explain the large gashes observed by the Anglo-American expedition: he suggested that Bismarck suffered a "hydraulic outburst" when it hit the bottom. Cameron said the belt held, but inner forces caused the sides to bulge out and break in places. Cameron sent small ROVs into the gashes and into the ship's interior. Twice they came upon torpedo holes at the ends of long gashes. But upon sending the tethered robots even deeper into the ship it was discovered that the torpedo blasts had failed to shatter its armoured inner walls. All that was destroyed was an outer "sacrificial zone" of water and fuel tanks that German engineers had created to absorb torpedo hits and keep interior spaces flood free. "The inner tank walls are untouched by any explosive force", "So the armor worked." Cameron concluded that the torpedoes caused "no significant flooding".

Ballard's third expedition

The third survey found no underwater penetrations of the ship's fully-armoured citadel. Eight holes were found in the hull, one on the starboard side and seven on the port side, all above the waterline. One of the holes is in the deck, on the starboard side of the bow. The angle and shape indicates it was fired from Bismarck's port side and struck the starboard anchor chain. The anchor chain has disappeared down this hole. Six holes are amidships, three shell fragments pierced the upper splinter belt, and one made a hole in the main armour belt. Further aft a huge hole is visible, parallel to the aircraft catapult, on the deck. It is unclear whether this was a result of an internal magazine explosion due to a shell penetration of the ship's armour. The submersibles recorded no sign of a shell penetration through the main or side armour that could have caused this. It is likely that the shell penetrated the deck armour only.

Huge dents showed that a considerable number of the 14 inch (356 mm) shells fired by King George V bounced off the German belt armour. Interior ROV footage showed that the "terrible destruction" the Anglo-American expedition reported was in fact the torpedo bulges, which were designed to absorb the energy of torpedoes and plunging shells. Underneath the torn bulge sheeting, the ship's 320 mm (12.6 inch) thick main belt armour appeared to be intact. Of the shell holes pictured in Bismarck's armour, it cannot be confirmed by Ballard that they were full penetrations.

Furthermore Ballard's expedition revealed there were no signs of the implosions that occur when air-filled compartments succumb to outside water pressure. This suggests that Bismarck's compartments were flooded when the ship sank, supporting the scuttling theory.

The American expedition's final conclusions were strikingly different from the findings of the Anglo-American team; they estimated that Bismarck could still float for at least a day when the British vessels ceased fire and could have been captured by the Royal Navy, a position supported by the historian Ludovic Kennedy. Ballard found the hull sound, adding: "we found a hull that appears whole and relatively undamaged by the descent and impact". They concluded the direct cause of sinking was due to scuttling: sabotage of engine-room valves by her crew, as claimed by German survivors.

Criticisms of ship's design



Preston claimed that the design was an enlarged reworking of the World War I Bayern class battleships and retained old-fashioned features particularly in respect of the armour layout, regarded as outdated by the Royal Navy and United States Navy. Authors like Jack Brower or William H. Garzke and Robert O. Dulin have claimed this is not true in their books The Battleship Bismarck and Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II: "This...resulted in some speculation that the Bismarck-class battleships were mere copies of these older ships. This is false; the new ships had to be faster and have more protection, range and firepower; and the percentages allocated to armour protection, firepower and propulsion were not the same as Bayern. The triple-shaft arrangement and the distribution and calibre of the main armament were the only major similarities."

The low location of the main armour deck, in the same position as that in WWI ships, left the two decks above the armour deck exposed to plunging fire and bombs, which the British and Americans reduced by positioning the main armour decks one deck higher. The Bismarck class battleships were designed to fight in the North Sea and the North Atlantic. In these waters poor visibility, especially during the winter, meant relatively short ranges of engagement, typically 10-15,000 m, were expected; the emphasis was, therefore, on close-range protection. The dual armoured decks were chosen by the Kriegsmarine to guarantee that shells and bombs burst upon contact with the upper armoured deck, rather than penetrating deeper into the ship's vitals.

Some communication systems, including her main damage-control centre and fire-control rooms, were beneath the main armoured deck and the cables from bridge and rangefinders were routed through the three armoured shafts between these stations and the rooms beneath the main armoured deck.

The provision of both a secondary armament of twelve guns and the inclusion of a separate battery of sixteen high-angle (anti-aircraft) guns was also criticised on the grounds that fitting two types of weapons required more deck space than the dual-purpose secondary armaments of Allied ships. These weapons enabled both air and surface targets to be engaged, thereby saving on weight used elsewhere in their designs, eliminating the need to carry two sizes of secondary ammunition and facilitating simplified fire-control. The use of dual-purpose armament might possibly have increased the number of anti-aircraft guns but might have weakened the ship's defence against destroyer attacks, which German naval experts deemed more important. The sixteen AA guns gave good performance early in the war, but against newer and better aircraft types it became necessary to convert the guns for dual-purpose use against both surface and aerial threats.

References in the Wehrmachtbericht

The following broadcasts by the Germans were not accurate, due to the fog of war. The Bismarck did not shoot down any British aircraft, and it did not sink or significantly damage any enemy destroyer. The destroyer referred to in the report was , sunk by the Luftwaffe on 28 May.
Date Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording Direct English translation
Saturday, 24 May 1941 Wie ebenfalls durch Sondermeldung bekanntgegeben wurde, stieß ein deutscher Flottenverband unter Führung des Flottenchefs Lütjens im Seegebiet um Island auf schwere britische Seestreitkräfte. Nach einem kurzen schweren Gefecht versenkte das Schlachtschiff "Bismarck" den britischen Schlachtkreuzer "Hood", das größte Schlachtschiff der britischen Flotte. Ein weiteres Schlachtschiff der neusten englischen "King George"-Klasse wurde beschädigt und zum Abdrehen gezwungen. Die deutschen Seestreitkräfte setzten ohne Verluste ihre Operation fort. As also mentioned in a special report, a German task force under the leadership of chief of fleet Lütjens encountered, in the sea area of Iceland, heavy British sea forces. The battleship "Bismarck" sank the British battlecruiser "Hood", the largest battleship of the British fleet, after a short and heavy battle. A further battleship of the newest English "King George" class was damaged and forced to retreat. The German sea forces continued their operation without loss.
Wednesday, 28 May 1941 Wie schon gestern bekanntgegeben, wurde das Schlachtschiff "Bismarck" nach seinem siegreichen Gefecht bei Island am 26. Mai abends durch den Torpedotreffer eines feindlichen Flugzeuges manövrierunfähig. Getreu dem letzten Funkspruch des Flottenchefs Admiral Lütjens ist das Schlachtschiff mit seinem Kommandanten Kapitän zur See Lindemann und seiner tapferen Besatzung am 27. Mai vormittags der vielfachen feindlichen Übermacht erlegen und mit wehender Flagge gesunken. As reported yesterday, the battleship "Bismarck", after its victorious battle near Iceland, was on 26 May hit by a torpedo from an enemy aircraft and left unmanoeuvrable. True to the last radio message from chief of fleet Admiral Lütjens, the battleship was defeated by overwhelming enemy forces and sank with flag flying together with its commander Kapitän zu See Lindemann and its brave crew, on 27 May before noon.
Thursday, 29 May 1941 Das Schlachtschiff "Bismarck" schoß am Abend des 24. Mai fünf britische Flugzeuge ab, versenkte in der Nacht zum 27. Mai einen der angreifenden feindlichen Zerstörer und schoß einen weiteren in Brand. The battleship "Bismarck" shot down five British aircraft on the evening of 24 May sank an attacking enemy destroyer on the night of 27 May and shot up another until it burned.


See also



Notes

  1. "Bismarck Technical Data and Battleship Comparison; retrieved 14 November 2009
  2. Channel 4 - Hood v Bismarck - History - The Battles
  3. von Mullenheim-Rechberg, B., Battleship Bismarck, a survivor's story; new improved edition. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press (1990). ISBN 978-0870210969, pp. 246-76
  4. "The Final Battle (A desperate fight against impossible odds)"; retrieved 27 November 2009
  5. The Scharnhorst class ships were described both as battlecruisers (by the British Royal Navy) and battleships (by the German Kriegsmarine and US Navy)
  6. Garzke and Dulin, p. 303
  7. "Bismarck's Officer Corps"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  8. "Bismarck - The History - Operation "Rheinübung" (Part One)"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  9. Barrett 1991, pp 284-285
  10. Barrett, 285
  11. "Operation Rheinübung: Bismarck's Atlantic Sortie - To the Denmark Strait"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  12. "The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2 - Face-to-Face with a Legend; retrieved 14 November 2009
  13. Chesenau 2002, p. 156
  14. Chesenau 2002, p. 156
  15. "The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2 - The Battle of the Denmark Strait; retrieved 14 November 2009
  16. Doubt had been cast on whether or not Prinz Eugen struck Hood, citing that Hood was not her target. However, Prinz Eugen's Gunnery Officer, Paul Schmallenbach, rejects this, confirming Eugen's target was also Hood: Chesneau 2002, p. 156
  17. Chesneau 2002, pp. 156-158
  18. Chesenau 2002, p. 180: During the filming of Hood's wreck, the rudder was positioned 20 degrees to port, indicating Hood had already begun to execute the "2blue" order
  19. Jackson 2002, p. 90
  20. "The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2 - The Battle of the Denmark Strait; retrieved 14 November 2009
  21. "Operation Rheinübung: Bismarck's Atlantic Sortie - Attacked by Swordfish Torpedo Planes"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  22. Ballard 1990, p. 103 - "Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets" title
  23. BBC - WW2 People's War - World War Memories of an Ulster Childhood
  24. The Story of the Torpedoing of the Bismarck
  25. Ballard 1990, p. 117. Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  26. Jackson 2002, p. 49
  27. The Special Bond between the Bismarck and U-556
  28. Jackson 2002, p. 91
  29. Pictures of the Bismarck's bridge
  30. Ballard 1990, p. 125
  31. Ballard 1990, p. 118. Bismarck:Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  32. Bismarck's Crew: Ship's Complement bismarck-class.dk
  33. Bismarck's Final Battle
  34. Muller et al. 2003, p. 419: Tovey's report of 5 July 1941; Home Fleet No. 896 (H.F 1,325); 5 July 1951; PRO, ADM 234/509,8
  35. Muller et al 2003, p. 419
  36. Ballard 1990, p. 122-123 Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship surrenders her secrets title
  37. Jackson 2002, p.48
  38. de Zeng et al. Vol 1 2007, p. 252
  39. Jackson 2002, pp. 50-52
  40. Ballard 1990, p. 221
  41. Ballard 1990, p. 216
  42. Ballard 1990, pp. 177-178
  43. Ballard 1990, pp. 214-215
  44. Sinking of the Bismarck New York Times
  45. Ballard 1990, p. 194
  46. Ballard 1990, p. 214
  47. Ballard 1990, p. 191
  48. Jackson 2002, p. 85
  49. Jackson 2002, p. 88
  50. Ballard 1990, p. 215
  51. Preston 1977, p. 105
  52. Brower, 2005. p. 16
  53. The 38 cm (15 in) guns mounted on Bismarck were of newer and more advanced design with longer barrels, and had significantly greater range: 36,200 m versus 20,400 m than the older guns. See Gröner, pp. 30, 35
  54. Garzke & Dulin 1990, p. 204
  55. Preston 1977, p. 105
  56. Brower, 2005. p. 16
  57. Garzke and Dulin, pp. 283–285
  58. Ballard 1990, p. 25-26. Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  59. Preston 1982, p. 105
  60. Garzke & Dulin 1990, p. 297
  61. Garzke & Dulin 1990, p. 297
  62. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, p. 538, 540
  63. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, p. 542
  64. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, p. 544


References

  1. "Bismarck Technical Data and Battleship Comparison; retrieved 14 November 2009
  2. Channel 4 - Hood v Bismarck - History - The Battles
  3. von Mullenheim-Rechberg, B., Battleship Bismarck, a survivor's story; new improved edition. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press (1990). ISBN 978-0870210969, pp. 246-76
  4. "The Final Battle (A desperate fight against impossible odds)"; retrieved 27 November 2009
  5. The Scharnhorst class ships were described both as battlecruisers (by the British Royal Navy) and battleships (by the German Kriegsmarine and US Navy)
  6. Garzke and Dulin, p. 303
  7. "Bismarck's Officer Corps"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  8. "Bismarck - The History - Operation "Rheinübung" (Part One)"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  9. Barrett 1991, pp 284-285
  10. Barrett, 285
  11. "Operation Rheinübung: Bismarck's Atlantic Sortie - To the Denmark Strait"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  12. "The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2 - Face-to-Face with a Legend; retrieved 14 November 2009
  13. Chesenau 2002, p. 156
  14. Chesenau 2002, p. 156
  15. "The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2 - The Battle of the Denmark Strait; retrieved 14 November 2009
  16. Doubt had been cast on whether or not Prinz Eugen struck Hood, citing that Hood was not her target. However, Prinz Eugen's Gunnery Officer, Paul Schmallenbach, rejects this, confirming Eugen's target was also Hood: Chesneau 2002, p. 156
  17. Chesneau 2002, pp. 156-158
  18. Chesenau 2002, p. 180: During the filming of Hood's wreck, the rudder was positioned 20 degrees to port, indicating Hood had already begun to execute the "2blue" order
  19. Jackson 2002, p. 90
  20. "The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2 - The Battle of the Denmark Strait; retrieved 14 November 2009
  21. "Operation Rheinübung: Bismarck's Atlantic Sortie - Attacked by Swordfish Torpedo Planes"; retrieved 14 November 2009
  22. Ballard 1990, p. 103 - "Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets" title
  23. BBC - WW2 People's War - World War Memories of an Ulster Childhood
  24. The Story of the Torpedoing of the Bismarck
  25. Ballard 1990, p. 117. Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  26. Jackson 2002, p. 49
  27. The Special Bond between the Bismarck and U-556
  28. Jackson 2002, p. 91
  29. Pictures of the Bismarck's bridge
  30. Ballard 1990, p. 125
  31. Ballard 1990, p. 118. Bismarck:Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  32. Bismarck's Crew: Ship's Complement bismarck-class.dk
  33. Bismarck's Final Battle
  34. Muller et al. 2003, p. 419: Tovey's report of 5 July 1941; Home Fleet No. 896 (H.F 1,325); 5 July 1951; PRO, ADM 234/509,8
  35. Muller et al 2003, p. 419
  36. Ballard 1990, p. 122-123 Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship surrenders her secrets title
  37. Jackson 2002, p.48
  38. de Zeng et al. Vol 1 2007, p. 252
  39. Jackson 2002, pp. 50-52
  40. Ballard 1990, p. 221
  41. Ballard 1990, p. 216
  42. Ballard 1990, pp. 177-178
  43. Ballard 1990, pp. 214-215
  44. Sinking of the Bismarck New York Times
  45. Ballard 1990, p. 194
  46. Ballard 1990, p. 214
  47. Ballard 1990, p. 191
  48. Jackson 2002, p. 85
  49. Jackson 2002, p. 88
  50. Ballard 1990, p. 215
  51. Preston 1977, p. 105
  52. Brower, 2005. p. 16
  53. The 38 cm (15 in) guns mounted on Bismarck were of newer and more advanced design with longer barrels, and had significantly greater range: 36,200 m versus 20,400 m than the older guns. See Gröner, pp. 30, 35
  54. Garzke & Dulin 1990, p. 204
  55. Preston 1977, p. 105
  56. Brower, 2005. p. 16
  57. Garzke and Dulin, pp. 283–285
  58. Ballard 1990, p. 25-26. Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  59. Preston 1982, p. 105
  60. Garzke & Dulin 1990, p. 297
  61. Garzke & Dulin 1990, p. 297
  62. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, p. 538, 540
  63. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, p. 542
  64. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, p. 544


Bibliography

  • de Zeng, H.L; Stanket, D.G; Creek, E.J. Bomber Units of the Luftwaffe 1933-1945; A Reference Source, Volume 2. Ian Allen Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-903223-87-1


  • Admiralty report CB 04039(2) Immune zone analysis of Tirpitz, KGV, Nelson, and QE


Further reading

  • Bercuson, David J. and Herwig, Holger H. The Destruction of the Bismarck (Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 2001) ISBN 9780773733251
  • Bonomi, Antonio. Stretto di Danimarca, 24 maggio 1941, "Storia Militare" magazine, December 2005.
  • Breyer, Breyer, Battleships and Battlecruisers 1905-1970 (Doubleday and Company; Garden City, New York, 1973) (originally published in German as Schlachtschiffe und Schlachtkreuzer 1905-1970, J.F. Lehmanns, Verlag, Munchen, 1970).
  • Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 1, 1. September 1939 bis 31. Dezember 1941 (in German). München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, 1985. ISBN 3-423-05944-3.
  • Elfrath, Ulrich and Herzog, Bodo. The Battleship Bismarck: A Documentary in Words and Pictures Schiffer; Atglen, Pennsylvania; 1989) (originally published in German as Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Ein Bericht in Bildern und Dokumentation, Podzun-Palles Verlag, Friedberg, 1975).
  • Forrester, C.S. Hunting the Bismarck (first published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1959)
  • Jackson, Robert. The Bismarck. Weapons of War: London, 2002. ISBN 1-86227-173-9
  • Kemp, Paul J. Bismarck and Hood: Great Naval Adversaries (Arms and Armor Press, London, 1991) ISBN 9781854090997
  • Kennedy, Ludovic. Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck (London, 1975) ISBN 9780006340140
  • Mulligan, Timothy P. "Ship-of-the-Line or Atlantic Raider? Battleship "Bismarck" between Design Limitations and Naval Strategy", The Journal of Military History 69:4 (October 2005), 1013-1044.
  • Rhys-Jones, Graham. The Loss of the Bismarck: An Avoidable Disaster (Cassell & Company, London, 1999) ISBN 9780304353149


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