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The Fall of Battleship Bismarck

One of the most powerful battleships in history. The ship conducted only one offensive operation during which she destroyed the flagship of the British Royal Navy, bringing upon herself revenge of Great Britain’s fleet. The chase, which picked up the Allies has passed into history and ended with her sinking. Here is the story of the famous battleship Bismarck.

Bismarck, and her sister ship Tirpitz were the biggest battleships ever built in Europe, having overall length of over 250 metres, the maximum speed of 30 knots, and crew of over 100 officers and almost 2000 enlisted men. She was armed with eight 38 cm guns built in four turrets, twelve 15 cm guns, sixteen 10.5 cm, sixteen 3.7 cm and twelve 2 cm anti-aircraft guns. Well armoured, the battleship also had her four reconnaissance floatplanes. Bismarck was a serious threat to Allied navy.

Bismarck in 1941
Bismarck in 1941
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 193-04-1-26, Wikimedia Commons

The ship joined German fleet in August 1940 during the World War II. Bismarck’s mission was to join the Battle of the Atlantic and fight against Allied merchant convoys. At this time, Great Britain was highly dependent on supply convoys from the USA, and Kriegsmarine was attempting to collapse the economic potential of the UK by attacking them. German Navy sent U-Boat wolf-packs and surface raiders, like battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which sunk 22 Allied merchant ships from January to March 1941 during Operation Berlin. Nazi command was sure Bismarck will be even more destructive and fearsome weapon. They planned to repeat the operation, but with four battleships – Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Those four ships were to wreak havoc together against the Atlantic shipping.

Bismarck on December 1940, source: bismarck-class.dk
Bismarck on December 1940
Source: bismarck-class.dk

However, three of them could’t get into action on time – Tirpitz was not ready to get into combat before Autumn 1941, Gneisenau was hit by British torpedo during repairs in Brest (and then bombed), and Scharnhorst needed to repair her boilers. Nazi Naval Command needed to adjust their plans – they had to use Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, Germany’s new heavy cruiser.

Into the Atlantic!

After sea trials and trainings in Gulf of Gdańsk from September 1940 to April 1941, Bismarck was prepared and ready. On 22 April Admiral Günther Lütjens ordered to begin the Operation Rheinübung. The time has come – battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were to reach the Atlantic Ocean and hunt for Allied suppy convoys. Lütjens knew, that the key to operation’s success was to stay undetected before reaching the ocean. He had eleven supply ships and a few weather reconnaissance planes waiting for them on the Atlantic and the North Sea.

On 19 may Bismarck left Gotenhafen, heading Danish Straits. She was joined by the Prinz Eugen and six destroyers as their escort. They were immediately spotted the day after while crossing the strait by neutral Swedish cruiser HMS “Gotland”. Sweden informed British embassy about the unit. Brits began to seek German ships – the operation was no longer a secret to the Allies.

On 22 May, after 1-day stopover in a fjord near Bergen and dismissing the escort, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were heading Iceland as soon as possible. Lütjens’ plan was to sail through the Danish Strait, and then enter the Atlantic. German Intelligence was certain that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were no longer chased by British Navy – they were terribly wrong.

Two British heavy cruisers- HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk were patrolling the Danish Strait, when Suffolk spotted German ships. She was shortly joined by Norfolk and both cruisers were tracking Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, trying to hide in a fog and maintain at 6400 metres from German ships. Brits expected support to fight Bismarck.

And the help came – battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship HMS Prince of Wales were patrolling the area near Iceland and right after information about spotting Germans, British Navy sent them to fight Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. Hood was the largest war ship before 1940 when Bismarck was built. She was the pride and flagship of British Navy, last and the most powerful battlecruiser constructed for Great Britain.

British battlecruiser HMS Hood
British battlecruiser HMS Hood
Source: Allan C. Green, Adam Cuerden via Wikimedia Commons
Sinking of Hood

On 24 May began the Battle of the Denmark Strait. German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen fought British battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Just six minutes after first salvo, Hood was hit by Bismarck’s shell. Massive explosion destroyed the aft part of the ship, and the Pride of British Navy sank in only three minutes with 1418 men aboard. She probably was badly hit the ammo magazine. Prince of Wales was forced to disengage from battle, but before that she had hit Bismarck three times. One of these hits caused loss of fuel. Ship’s maximum speed was limited as well. Also, the element of surprise had been lost – Bismarck was unable to enter the Atlantic. The only option was to abort the mission and steer to occupied France, where the battleship could be repaired.

Lütjens ordered the undamaged Prinz Eugen to continue raiding on her own. Norfolk, Suffolk and the damaged Prince of Wales continued to shadow Bismarck, tracking her fuel slick. British Navy ordered all available units to seek and destroy Bismarck.  On 10:00 PM 24 May, they launched an air attack with nine Swordfish torpedo bombers, and made one hit under German battleship’s bridge. No serious damage was done. British shadowers lost contact with Bismarck. At this time, British Force H contanining Aircraft Carrier HMS Ark Royal, battlecruiser Renown, and the light cruiser Sheffield were approaching to intercept.

We shall fight to the last shell

On 26 May, a flying-boat Catalina found Bismarck. German ship was heading East and was not in a range of Luftwaffe yet. On this day Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal launched two air strikes. The second one had two or three hits on Bismarck, causing critical damage on steering. Bismarck started to sail West, with no chance to take control on the ship’s direction. Lütjens signalled the headquarters “Ship unmanoeuvrable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer”.  The ship was doomed.

At 22:37 Polish destroyer ORP Piorun, one of destroyers which joined British cruisers and battleships on May 26, spotted Bismarck. Contact was lost, but soon the battleship was found by other destroyers from the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla. No serious damage was done on both sides, but it was the beginning of ship’s end.

tirpitz
Tirpitz – Bismarck’s sistership.
Screen from World of Warships game. Source: http://worldofwarships.eu/

On the next day the pride of German Navy fought her last battle. Attacked by four British ships – HMS Norfolk, HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and HMS Dorsetshire. After 96 minutes of fighting and taking over 300 hits, the most fearsome battleship in Europe fell silent. Then she was torpedoed and sunk in a few minutes. Over 2100 men died.

After the Battle

Bismarck’s sinking was an end of an era for German Navy and a turning point in the war in the Atlantic. Many German supply ships were destroyed by British, and German abandoned their plans about offensive actions performed by battleships. German Grand Admiral Erich Reader’s independence was limited by Hitler. For Allies, this victory was a step ahead to destroy the evil Nazi Germany.

After the battle, British Admiral John Tovey 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 colours flying.”  This is a story about bravery, sacrifice, dedication and honor. Both sides – German and Allied sailors fulfilled their duty to the end. Too bad, some of them were fighting to enslave the others.

Additional Facts:

  • Bismarck was probably trying to surrender three times during her last battle. Signs were ignored.
  • Unsinkable Sam was a cat who had been owned by an unknown crewman of Bismarck. Rescued by British sailors from HMS Cossack, stayed on the ship until October 1941 when Cossack had been dastroyed by an U-boat. Sam was moved to HMS Ark Royal, and the ship was torpedoed and sunk as well. Sam had no luck and he was transferred to seaman’s home in Belfast. Sam outlived all ships he was staying at.

Watch the World of Warships’ gameplay of Bismarck on Youtube:

That’s the end of the article, thank you for reading. For more please visit MHistory’s Facebook.

Source Zetterling, Niklas; Tamelander, Michael - The Final Days of Germany's Greatest Battleship

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