Battleship Bismarck and her sister ship Tripitz, the largest warships in service with the Kriegsmarine, were among the world’s most powerful vessels in their class.
Bismarck had a very short combat history – she fell victim to the Royal Navy warships and aircraft shortly after her action against the battlecruiser HMS Hood. It was that fight of a single German battleship against the superior force of the Royal Navy that gave birth to the Bismarck’s legend.
Bismarck was built at Blohm und Voss shipyard in Hamburg. She was laid down on July 1, 1936 and launched two and a half years later, on February 14, 1939. The battleship was named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The ship’s fitting out took another year and a half, following which Bismarck was commissioned on August 24, 1940 under the command of Kapitän zur See (Captain) Ernst Lindemann. In mid September the battleship set course for Kiel before entering the Baltic Sea for her shake-down cruise. In December Bismarck returned to Hamburg for final fitting out and correction of various snags discovered during sea trials. In March 1941 Bismarck deployed to the Baltic Sea again to continue the sea trials and work-ups ahead of her first combat assignment. The battleship operated from the port of Gdynia in German-occupied Poland.
From the very first days of World War II the Kriegsmarine deployed their largest assets against the Allied shipping lines. Those twentieth century corsairs used their guns against enemy ships with impunity since their escort more often than not consisted of light and/or obsolete warships. The German raiders could also use their superior speed and range to effectively evade the more potent adversaries. Bismarck was no exception and she too became a corsair ship. By pure chance, during operation “Rheinübung” (the Rhine Exercise) she was accompanied only by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. On the night of May 18/19 both ships, escorted by several destroyers, left the port of Gdynia and set course for Grimstadfjord in Norway, just south of Bergen. The German force was led by Admiral Günther Lütjens, who set up his command post aboard Bismarck.
The German ships lying at anchor at Grimstadfjord were detected by British reconnaissance aircraft, which immediately put the Royal Navy on high alert. In the evening of May 21 Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left the Norwegian fjord in a hurry and steamed towards the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland in a bid to break out into the Atlantic. Two days later Lütjens’s force stumbled upon heavy cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk which began to shadow the German fleet. In the meantime battlecruiser HMS Hood and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales left their base at Scapa Flow to intercept Bismarck.
The encounter between the two fleets took place in the early morning of May 24. The British ships opened fire first. One of the shells fired from Prince of Wales found its mark and penetrated Bismarck’s hull. Although the battleship took in several hundred tons of water and began to lose speed, her gunners responded with very accurate fire and scored a direct hit on Hood’s ammunition magazines causing a huge explosion. Within minutes HMS Hood went to the bottom taking with her all but three of her crew.
Having eliminated HMS Hood German gunners turned their attention to Prince of Wales. Although the British battleship took several hits, the shells caused only limited damage. The German giant had less luck: the shells fired from Prince of Wales caused considerable damage. Bismarck took on more water and began to leak fuel. However, the malfunction of all main artillery turrets soon forced the crew of Prince of Wales to disengage under the cover of smoke screen. The success of the German flotilla was bitter-sweet, since Bismarck was now in no shape to continue her Atlantic raid. In the meantime the Royal Navy ordered all available assets to give chase to the German force. Among the British ships were battleships King George V (the flagship of Admiral Tovey, the Commander in Chief of the British Home Fleet), Rodney and still serviceable Prince of Wales. The battleships were supported by battlecruisers Repulse and Renown, aircraft carriers Victorious and Ark Royal, as well as a flotilla of smaller vessels. Now the hunter became the prey – wounded and besieged.
On the night of May 24/25 Bismarck came under attack by Fairy Swordfish torpedo bombers from Victorious. While only one of the torpedoes reached its intended target (causing only minor damage), the battleship took on more sea water while performing evasive maneuvers, which further reduced her speed. Realizing that operation “Rheinübung” would have to be aborted, Admiral Lütjens ordered his force to split up. Under the cover of darkness and taking advantage of the stormy weather the German ships broke away from the British force. Prinz Eugen continued on the southerly course, while Bismarck made for Brest.
On the following day, May 26, the British aircraft picked up the chase after Bismarck, despite horrendous weather conditions. Finally, the crew of a Consolidated PBY Catalina spotted the German battleship and passed her location on to Force H consisting of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, battlecruiser Renown and the light cruiser Sheffield. The attack on Bismarck began in the evening when the Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal scored three direct torpedo hits on the German battleship. Two of the torpedoes seriously damaged both of Bismarck’s rudders, leaving one of them in the deflected position, which effectively stripped the ship of her ability to maneuver. Despite the damage, Bismarck once more managed to slip away, however briefly. Soon the battleship was intercepted by a force of the Royal Navy destroyers, which included the Polish warship ORP Piorun. The light ships launched a brave, but ineffective torpedo attack against the German battleship and then proceeded to shadow Bismarck passing her location and current course to Admiral Tovey. The noose was beginning to tighten...
The decisive blow against Bismarck was dealt by battleships King George V and Rodney, supported by heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire. The engagement took place in the morning of May 27 at which point the German warship could barely maintain seven knots and struggled with the stuck rudder. Her crew had no option but to join the fight. The battle began shortly before 9 am with shells fired from Rodney’s guns reaching their target. Before long Bismarck’s both forward main artillery turrets were put out of action, followed by the main (forward) range finder and fire control station. It was then only a matter of time before the aft main battery turrets and Bismarck’s secondary guns were silenced as well. The British ships closed in and for over an hour proceeded to mercilessly pound what still remained of Bismarck with their heavy guns. Finally, at 10.36 the mighty battleship – the pride of German Kriegsmarine – went to the bottom finished off with torpedoes launched from HMS Dorsetshire. Bismarck sank just as the crew were preparing to scuttle the battleship following orders of Cmdr Lindermann. Only 116 members of the ship’s crew survived the British attack.
Bismarck’s wreck, resting at a depth of almost 4 800 m, was discovered in 1989 by an expedition led by Robert Ballard. Two independent efforts to search the wreck were launched in 2001: one of them was organized by Deep Ocean Expeditions, the other by David Mearn. The team led by James Cameron finally reached the wreck in 2002 and managed to survey Bismarck’s interior for the first time. The documentaries, articles and books that followed failed to conclusively explain the direct cause of the ship’s sinking (was it the British torpedoes, the deliberate opening of the bottom valves or the detonation of the explosives set up by the crew?). However, they did manage to rekindle interest in the mighty German battleship.
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