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The hunt for the Bismarck

By Sakhal

Anchored in the docks at Gdynia (Poland), the Bismarck departed for her first and last war action the 19th May 1941, followed by the Prinz Eugen. The Scharnhorst and her sister Gneisenau were unable to accompany the Bismarck due to their severe breakdowns, and this had not stopped Admiral Raeder in his risky obstinacy of sending the invaluable battleship to the designated corsair mission without a proper escort. When the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen, two ultramodern warships, departed from the Gotenhafen military dock, nobody though that one week later the Bismarck would be lying in the seabed in the North Atlantic. But for now, the Bismarck is the pride of the new Nazi Germany, powerful and self-confident, albeit in excess. Already when the keel of the Bismarck was laid down, Hitler ignored the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. There was no intention to dissimulate the magnitude of the new project, and the displacement exceeded 50000 tonnes at full load. Launched in 1939 equally as her twin Tirpitz, the Bismarck differed from her sister in a slightly lesser displacement, reduced anti-aircraft armament and absence of torpedo tubes. The Bismarck was equipped with radars for navigation, localization and fire control. The long operational range would allow the Bismarck to be an insidious persecutor, while maneuverability was excellent due to a special type of rudder, but this would be precisely the cause of her fate.

The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen arrived to the Norwegian fjords without any incident. There, Admiral Lutjens decided to stay until bad weather and thick fog would appear, to help cover the presence of the corsair warships in their way to the North Sea and later the Atlantic, where they should intercept the convoys destined to supply England, which traveled north of Iceland along the Denmark Strait. Despite the secrecy on which the departure of the Bismarck had been kept, the British Admiralty had been warned shortly after, and now the Home Fleet was alerted. German intentions seemed clear for the British: to repeat the exploits previously made by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau over the Allied convoys. This time the danger seemed greater, since few escort vessels could confront a warship like the Bismarck. Mobilizing the entire Home Fleet did not made anyone to feel proud, but it seemed to be imperative. Everything would be tried to prevent the German warships from reaching the Atlantic. In the fjord of Kors, the two German warships were about to depart when a British reconnaissance aircraft flew over the town. An omen bitterned Admiral Lutjens and his staff, and eventually all the young officers destined in the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen. Why had they to venture into enemy waters without having a proper escort? If only Germany would have an aircraft carrier... In the afternoon of the 22nd May, another British observer inspected the fjord, but this time the ships had already departed. Then the alarm was sent to the British Admiralty, and 45 minutes later, the battleship King George V and the aircraft carrier Victorious left Scapa Flow (Scotland) escorted by an impressive fleet of cruisers and torpedo boats. The great hunting had begun.

Scapa Flow was the great base from where the Home Fleet watched the North Sea and the North Atlantic. With the first alarm, had departed as well the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood, and now Vice Admiral Lancelot E. Holland, protected by a flock of lesser warships, patrolled the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland. Meanwhile, three cruisers and a certain number of torpedo boats patrolled the wide space existent between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. At this point, the British had in their minds the omen of Germany being able to subdue Britain by winning the "Battle of the Atlantic"; German corsair ships had already sunk about 750000 tonnes of ships, without counting the sinkings caused by the U-Boot, and nobody could foresee the extent of the damages caused by the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen if they achieved free pass towards their targets. The night of the 22nd May, Winston Churchill telagraphed Roosevelt: "Yesterday, 21st May, the Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen and eight merchants were marked in Bergen. This afternoon we found that they had already left. We have reasons to believe that they have planned an important mission on the Atlantic. If we could not catch them in their route, your Navy would be certainly in condition of sighting them and give references. The Prince of Wales, the Hood, the Repulse and the aircraft carrier Victorious, alongside with auxiliary ships, will hunt them. Give us the information and we will do the work."

The hunt for the Bismarck

The battleship Bismarck as she looked just after her final sortie. The camouflage pattern shown in this picture, intended to break the silhouette of the ship to distant observers, was painted in 1941 but replaced in May of the same year by a scheme all in grey.

Class: Bismarck (2 units)

Type: Battleship

Shipyard: Blohm und Voss, Hamburg

Development: Ordered in 1935, keel laid the 1st July 1936, launched the 14th February 1939, completed the 24th August 1940, sunk the 27th May 1941

Length (total): 251 meters

Length (in waterline): 241.5 meters

Beam: 36 meters

Draft: 9 meters

Armament: 8 x 380 millimeters (47 calibers) cannons, 12 x 150 millimeters (55 calibers) cannons, 16 x 105 millimeters (65 calibers) cannons, 16 x 37-millimeter cannons, 12 x 20 millimeters cannons, 6 aircraft

Armor: 145-323 millimeters in armored belt, 45 millimeters in anti-torpedo bulwark, 50 millimeters in upper deck, 30 millimeters in main deck, 80-120 millimeters in armored deck, 130-360 millimeters in main turrets, 220-340 millimeters in barbettes, 20-100 millimeters in secondary turrets, 220-360 mm in conning tower

Displacement (standard): 42344 tonnes

Displacement (normal): 45951 tonnes

Displacement (full load): 50996 tonnes

Propulsion plant: 12 boilers Wagner, 3 shafts actuated by steam turbines Blohm und Boss, developing 150170 horsepower

Maximum speed: 30.1 knots (55.7 kilometers/hour)

Operational range: 9280 nautic miles (17186 kilometers) at 16 knots

Fuel load: 7461 tonnes

Complement: 2092

During the night of the 22nd and 23rd days, the British fleet commanded by Admiral Sir John Tovey sought the Bismarck within fog banks without success. But around 20:00 o'clock, it came a radio message reporting that the Suffolk, one of the cruisers that were patrolling in the Denmark Strait, had sighted the two ships. Curiously, within the fog, it had been the eyes of a mariner who first detected the enemy ships and not the radars. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were trying to enter the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait when the Suffolk finally managed to put the two dots on the radar screen. The message from the Suffolk had been received as well by Vice Admiral Holland, who was aboard the Hood lurking in the waters south of Iceland. The Hood was the last exponent of a generation of battlecruisers built just before and during the First World War. With a displacement of about 46000 tonnes and being even longer than the Bismarck, the Hood was, if not the best, one of the best warships on the world, when she entered service in 1920. But in 1941, the Hood was somewhat dated; her main cannons had the same caliber than the ones mounted on the Bismarck, but they were shorter, and the Bismarck was equipped with more modern fire control systems. Alongside the Hood was the Prince of Wales, battleship of about 35000 tonnes that had entered service recently.

Admiral Holland decidedly goes in search of the Bismarck, and in the early morning of the 24th day, the British squadron commanded by Holland detects the Bismarck... in the same moment that the Bismarck detects the Hood. During a couple minutes both colossi seem to study each other, separated by a distance of 23 kilometers. Now Holland is probably remembering when he asked for a modernization of the Hood that was denied by the Parliament. Now the Hood had to engage one of the most dangerous warships on the world... How much capable would be she against her rival? Holland shouts the order of firing against the Bismarck. Aboard this one, Admiral Lutjens is assessing the alternatives that the situation offers. His orders are clear: he must reach the Atlantic and the convoys, sinking as many as possible. He is not there to make a demonstration of strenght against the Home Fleet. But he knows that this was not a fortuitous encounter; the enemy is pursuing him, and there is no reason to delay the unavoidable. Hence Lutjens orders to open fire against the Hood, and the Prinz Eugen starts firing as well.

It is question of few minutes. At the fifth salvo, the Hood is shaken by a terrible explosion. During a moment, Lutjens inspects the enemy ship through the binoculars and then he orders: "Change of target to the left!". So the crew of the Bismarck knows that the Hood has been put out of action. Now the cannons of the German ships fire against the Prince of Wales. The crew of this ship has witnessed the disaster on the Hood with anguish. The Hood was suddenly hit and one of the four-inch batteries was set in fire. Everyone though that the hit had been superficial, but the armor of the Hood was too light to resist the large-caliber projectiles fired from the Bismarck. And at such large distances, the projectiles have a dangerous curved trajectory. The impact had effect in a powder magazine that was too close to the deck. At 6:00 o'clock, from the Prince of Wales it can be seen the Hood exploding and raising in the air. When the smoke is dispersed, the two halves of the ship are rapidly sinking. Still firing, the Prince of Wales has to turn aside to avoid the remains of the Hood. From the 1500 men aboard the Hood, only 3 could be rescued. The remaining ones followed the fate of the ship, including Vice Admiral Holland.

The duel against the Prince of Wales was favorable for the Bismarck, which managed to hit the British battleship four times with her 380-millimeter cannons. One of the hits had impacted in the conning tower, killing everyone who was in there. Other hits had destroyed two of the 356-millimeter cannons. Despite this temporary victory, Lutjens had to meditate about the next movements. The Bismarck herself was not intact; one of the projectiles from the Prince of Wales had caused a leak on a fuel deposit under the waterline, causing a notable loss of fuel that would later have terrible consequences, because from that moment, the Bismarck started to leave a visible trail in the ocean. After the encounter, the German ships continued their travel towards the south-west. A big hunting had been started and the fate of the Bismarck seemed already decided. From Gibraltar a new squadron had departed, formed by the battlecruiser Renown, the cruiser Sheffield and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. The heavy cruiser Norfolk and her accompanying squadron were already pursuing the German ships from a secure distance, while these continued their route during the 24th day until shortly before 19:00 o'clock, when they changed course heading again to the north.

The hunt for the Bismarck

The battlecruiser Hood as she looked in 1941.

The hunt for the Bismarck

The battleship King George V as she looked in 1940.

The Norfolk and her squadron, surprised by the change of attitude of the enemy, exchanged some shots with the German ships. With the unexpected maneuver, Lutjens managed to distract the enemy while the Prinz Eugen could escape intact (this ship would manage to reach Brest some days later). Lutjens had already assumed the fate of the Bismarck. Admiral Tovey ordered the carrier Victorious to precede the squadron to launch an aerial attack against the Bismarck. At 22:00 o'clock, nine torpedo planes departed from the carrier and two hours later they reached the Bismarck. The Germans opened a terrible barrier of fire, but the planes attacked with despise to danger. Despite at least one of the torpedoes hit the Bismarck, no damages were apparently caused. Around 3:00 o'clock in the early morning of 25th day, the Suffolk lost radar contact with the Bismarck. Dozens of British ships were converging on that point, but misteriously the enemy seemed to have disappeared. But nothing special had happened; the Suffolk, forced to advance in zig-zag, had got too far from the Bismarck and hence broke the radar contact.

Lutjens had lost any hope to be able to accomplish his mission, for the entire British fleet was watching the Bismarck. Hence he decided to escape towards Brest as well. Meanwhile, the British had intercepted a communication coming from the point where the Bismarck should be located. This was the most serious mistake made by Lutjens, who broke the silence in such a crucial moment. Actually, Lutjens did not know that the British Fleet had lost his trail one hour ago, so he thought that breaking the silence would not make a difference in such circumstances. But from Paris, the High Command of the Kriegsmarine, wiser, orders the Bismarck to remain silent. The order is obeyed, but it is already too late. Sir John Tovey has received a message from the Admiralty's Operations Center with the position of the Bismarck; he is surprised when reading it, but he has to comply with the orders received, and hence he orders his squadron to head towards the north. What Admiral Tovey does not know is that the officer of the Admiralty who calculated the position committed a mistake, and now the Home Fleet navigates in opposing direction to the Bismarck, which continues heading towards Brest.

During nine hours, the Home Fleet continued moving away from the Bismarck, until the British found themselves hundreds of miles away from their target. Meanwhile the Bismarck, which until then had been favored by the mistake committed by the enemy, had managed to escape the siege and had taken already an advantage that could seem considerable. During all the 25th day the British Admiralty was afraid of having lost the prey. But the Bismarck had her own share of trouble: she was losing speed because of the hole opened in the fuel deposit, which made imperative to decrease speed to prevent fuel exhaustion. During the night, the British Admiralty decided to move the entire fleet towards a point to the south, alleged location of the Bismarck. However, the squadron that had departed from Gibraltar was unknowingly heading towards the Bismarck, while following its route to the north. In the dawn, the British Admiralty ordered to launch Catalina hidroplanes from bases in North Ireland to seek for the Bismarck. This seemed already the last hope, but it gave fruits: at 10:30 o'clock of that fatidic 26th May, one of the observers discovered the Bismarck and gave alarm... but he had approached in excess the Bismarck and the anti-aircraft artillery managed to bring down the aircraft.

Two hours later two Swordfish torpedo planes launched from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal made contact with the Bismarck. Their report stated that despite the Bismarck was afar from the British fleet, she was in a position where the Luftwaffe could not protect her. The fleet headed towards the Bismarck, but they did not had the intention to engage in combat against her, until the battleships King George V and Rodney arrived, for these were the only warships able to withstand against the Bismarck. Admiral Sommerville, who commanded the squadron departed from Gibraltar, ordered the light cruiser Sheffield to precede the squadron to make contact with the Bismarck and subsequently guide the aircraft upon her. The idea was not bad on itself, but someone forgot to warn the aircraft about the mission of the Sheffield. So when the Sheffield confirmed the position of the Bismarck, the crews of the attacking aircraft, perhaps due to the tension caused by the prolonged mission, confused the Sheffield with the Bismarck, a much larger ship. The aircraft performed a full attack on the cruiser while the astonished and terrified crew desperately maneuvered to avoid the strikes, until the identification could be done. Being a light cruiser, the Sheffield could have been easily sunk if only a single bomb and specially a torpedo had hit her.

Shortly after 19:00 o'clock, fifteen Swordfish departed from the Ark royal, reaching the Bismarck and hitting her with at least two torpedoes, one of which irreparably damaged the rudder. The Bismarck irremediably lost control and started to turn in place. The night was falling while some British destroyers approached the Bismarck, attacking with torpedoes when possible. The Bismarck would end her fatidic adventure 400 miles away from Brest. Shortly after the midnight, the radio on the Bismarck started to transmit again, this time with no concern about enemy detection... The message arrived at Berlin: "Ship not maneuverable. We will fight up to the last projectile. Long live the Fuhrer!". It was later known that some German submarines had converged in the point where the Bismarck was when the British fleet was arriving at full speed. One of the submarines had the Ark Royal at shooting distance, but she had already launched all her torpedoes. At dawn arrived the King George V and the Rodney; this one opened fire at 8:47 o'clock and the other one minute later. The Bismarck replied, and the third salvo hit on the Rodney, but this one would be her last hit. Half a hour later, the Bismarck was in silence and a thick smoke surrounded her.

The hunt for the Bismarck

The aircraft carrier Ark Royal as she looked in 1939.

The hunt for the Bismarck

The battleship Nelson as she looked in 1945. The Rodney was the twin of the Nelson. These ships had lesser anti-aircraft armament in 1941.

Circa 10:15 o'clock the Rodney approached at a distance of 4000 meters and started to fire with all of her artillery against the already defenseless Bismarck. But the this one remained afloat until 10:40 o'clock, when she resulted sunk, after a salvo of torpedoes from the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire impacted on her. Along with the Bismarck died Admiral Lutjens and the most part of the crew; only a hundred men survived to be rescued. Paying with his life and the life of so many men, Lutjens had demonstrated the madness of the strategy adopted by Raeder; from that moment on, it would be the time of Doenitz and the U-Boot. In addition, this event caused a greater disposition of United States to enter the war against Germany, whose rise of power in the Atlantic should not be tolerated. The mistake committed by the Kriegsmarine was perfectly recognized by the British as well; here the story ends with words from Winston Churchill: "In no way could have Hitler employed more efficiently the two large battleships than having them in the Baltic in full order of battle. From time to time, they would spread the rumor of an imminent departure. Thus we would be forced to have reunited in Scapa Flow or in the surroundings practically all of our ships, while they would have all the advantage of choosing the moment without the effort of being always prepared."

Categories: Naval Warfare - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-02-02

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