How the Mighty Bismarck Was Sunk
By Tony Long in Wired
1941: The German battleship Bismarck, her steering gear knocked out by a torpedo and unable to maneuver, is finally cornered and sunk by ships and planes from the Royal Navy, ending one of the most intensive naval manhunts in history.
Schlachtschiff Bismarck, pride of the Kriegsmarine, was a state-of-the-art warship in all respects save one: Battleships were already in their twilight as a dominant offensive naval weapon when the Bismarck slid down the ways at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, although few yet grasped this reality. The advent of carrier-borne aircraft, including dive bombers and torpedo planes, meant that the battleship, despite its bristling array of weaponry, was terribly vulnerable and therefore obsolete.
The British were no more cognizant of this fact than the Germans were when the Bismarck, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, weighed anchor in Norway on May 21 for Operation Rheinübung, its first sortie against enemy merchant shipping. The British Admiralty, made aware of the Germans’ departure, alerted its squadrons at sea that Bismarck was breaking out into the North Atlantic.
The hunt was on. The pursuit was one of World War II’s great naval epics, inspiring authors and filmmakers.
On board the Bismarck, her skipper, Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann, in consultation with the fleet chief (Flottenchef), Adm. Gunther Lütjens, elected to take his ship and the accompanying Prinz Eugen into the shipping lanes by way of the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Directly in their path lay the Royal Navy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk. On the evening of May 23, Suffolk sighted the enemy warships and sent a position report to the Admiralty. Heavy units of the Home Fleet, including the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship Prince of Wales, scrambled to intercept the Germans.
Early the next morning, Hood and Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. It was over in 15 minutes. In a blow to rank alongside the sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in 1939, the Hood blew up when a 15-inch shell from Bismarck penetrated the ship’s armor belt and exploded in an after magazine. The Hood, for 20 years the largest warship in the world, sank without a trace, taking down 1,415 officers and ratings. Only three men survived. The Bismarck turned her guns on Prince of Wales and badly damaged her before the British ship threw up a smoke screen and retired from what became known as the Battle of the Denmark Strait.
Any elation on board the German ships was tempered by the knowledge that the entire Home Fleet was now pursuing them. Lindemann favored following up the Prince of Wales in the hope of sinking her but was overruled by Lütjens.
Rather than returning to Norway through the Denmark Strait, a move most historians agree would have been the prudent one, Lütjens opted to make a run for the French port of Saint-Nazaire. There, he reckoned, the damage sustained during Bismarck‘s engagement with the Hood — including some ruptured fuel tanks — could be repaired. It would also be easier to return to the Atlantic battleground from France than from Norway.
All the while, the cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk, along with the damaged Prince of Wales, continued shadowing the Germans. With the British ships zig-zagging to avoid possible U-boat attacks, Lütjens made his move to disengage. Bismarck changed course and increased speed to close on the enemy, which withdrew under a smoke-screen cover. This maneuver allowed Prinz Eugen to slip away to embark on her commerce war. Alone now, Bismarck, low on fuel, set a course for the French coast. The British, meanwhile, had lost contact. Lütjens’ move looked like it might pay off.
Had Bismarck maintained radio silence, it’s unlikely the British would have found her again. But five hours after giving them the slip, Lütjens chose to send off a lengthy message to Gruppe West. It was intercepted by the British, who were able to plot an approximate position. Another 24 agonizing hours would pass before Bismarck was spotted again, this time by a patrolling Catalina aircraft from Coastal Command. Force H, which included the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, was the closest British unit to the battleship, but time was running out. It was decided to attack Bismarck from the air.
Obsolete Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes were launched from Ark Royal to inflict what proved to be the crippling blow. Bismarck‘s fire-control system, ironically, was too sophisticated to draw an accurate bead on these cumbersome, slow-moving biplanes, allowing them to release their torpedoes at almost point-blank range. The Bismarck was hit several times, but only one torpedo caused real damage, and it proved decisive. The torpedo struck the stern on the starboard side, jamming both rudders at 12 degrees to port. Efforts to undo the damage failed, and the great battleship was left turning in a wide circle, unable to steer, and doomed.
Now Force H, which also included the battlecruiser Renown and the cruiser Sheffield, closed in. They were joined by the battleships Rodney and King George V, as well as other cruisers and destroyers. It was no longer a question of if, only when.
Meanwhile, Adm. Karl Dönitz, commander of the German U-boat fleet, ordered all submarines in the vicinity to render what aid they could, even if it just meant recovering the Bismarck‘s war diary before she went to the bottom. Kapitänleutnant Herbert Wohlfarth, commander of U-556, rushed to the scene even though all his torpedoes had been expended during the boat’s month-long patrol. It was a frustrated Wohlfarth, then, who watched helplessly as the Ark Royal, accompanied by the Renown, passed directly before his periscope.
The final battle began at 0847 on May 27, when Rodney opened fire on Bismarck from a distance of about 12 miles. The German answered with her forward turrets and scored some hits, but it was a hopeless situation. Forty-five minutes after the shooting began, all four of Bismarck‘s 15-inch batteries were out of action, allowing the British to move in even closer. For 74 minutes they pounded Bismarck with their big guns (it’s estimated that the ship was hit by more than 500 shells of 13.3 cm or larger) and fired torpedoes at her. Finally, pounded into a blazing wreck, Bismarck went under. It remains unclear to this day whether she sank as result of British gunfire or was scuttled by her crew.
Only 116 men from a complement of more than 2,200 survived the Bismarck‘s sinking.
The loss of the Bismarck was a shattering blow for the Kriegsmarine. Although a number of powerful German warships remained afloat, among them the Bismarck‘s sister ship, Tirpitz, the navy began shifting its strategy, putting a heavier emphasis on its U-boats to carry the sea war to the British.
When it was over, Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander of the British Home Fleet, said: “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 colors still flying.”