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The Battleship Bismarck

Shell after shell slammed into the mighty battleship. Some penetrating the sturdy armour belt, others simply bouncing off and into the water around her. Faced with a wall of enemy ships, her deck already engulfed in flames, time was running out for one of the world’s last great battleships – yet still, she fought on.  

The name Bismarck has become iconic – a battleship of such proportions, of such speed and power, that it sent fear shuddering through Allied naval commanders. Here was a ship that could outrun and outfight practically everything in the world at the time – if she was let loose on merchant shipping lanes in the Atlantic, results could be catastrophic. 

The Bismarck also represented Germany’s rejuvenation from the ashes of World War I. A nation whose slow-rebuild after the Great War had been marshalled carefully by the Treaty of Versaille, but which now broke free with staggering results. This is the story of one of the true goliaths in naval history that emerged during the final death throes of the battleship era and the extraordinary naval undertakings that finally brought her down.    

Development 

Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922
Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922

Under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922 by the U.S, U.K. France, Italy and Japan, strict limitations were placed on the construction of new battleships as a way of curtailing any future arms build-up. Germany was not part of the naval treaty but was heavily constrained under the terms of the Treaty of Versaille which prevented it from fully building up its armed forces again. 

Any goodwill that may have existed in the 1920s quickly evaporated and by the mid-1930s suspicions over Germany’s intentions led to France becoming the first nation to break the treaty when it laid down the battleship Richelieu in 1935. Gradually each nation bent the treaty to their own will until it formally expired in 1937 – leaving everybody free to do exactly as they wished, and we all know what happened next.  

Germany, with its charismatic, and ultimately psychopathic, new leader, Adolf Hitler was already well on his way to forming a mighty army that would soon bulldoze its way across Europe, but at sea, things were very different. Germany knew full well just how powerful the British Navy was at the time, and to have any hope of competing on the high seas, the nation needed some battleships – and preferably some awe-inspiring, monstrously sized battleships. 

The Bismark was officially ordered in 1935, shortly after the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement which essentially sought to keep the German navy at a specific size ratio in relation to the Royal Navy. It’s thought that the Germans saw this agreement as a way of forging a closer bond with Britain, while Britain took it as a way of keeping Germany on a short leash as the expiration date of the 1922 agreement neared. Needless to say, both assumptions now seem laughably absurd and did little more than infuriate the French at the time. 

The Bismarck was to be the first of two Bismarck-class battleships that had been designed in response to the two giant Richelieu-class battleships the French were now producing. Initial plans called for ships that would displace no more than 35,000 tons, which would theoretically remain within the 1922 treaty guidelines. In reality, however, both ships surpassed that figure by some way through some – how shall we say – discreet modifications. The second Bismarck-class ship, the Tirpitz was started in October 1936 and completed in February 1941. Unlike her more famous older sister, the Tirpitz she saw considerably more action at sea but was sunk by Royal Airforce bombers in November 1944.  

Launch   

Bundesarchiv Bild 193-04-1-26, Schlachtschiff Bismarck
Bundesarchiv Bild 193-04-1-26, Schlachtschiff Bismarck. By bundesarchiv, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As the mighty Bismarck moved down the slipway at the Blohm & Voss shipya d in Hamburg on Valentine’s Day 1939, she must have caused a swelling of pride in those who witnessed her descent. 

With the start of World War II still, seven months away, the full force of this newfound German military might had yet to be seen. But here was the perfect embodiment of a new, strong Germany, no longer a nation browbeaten by the injustices of the Treaty of Versaille – one of the largest battleships ever produced, a titan that even the mighty Royal Navy would struggle to match. She was named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who was a huge factor in the unification of Germany in 1871 and served as its first chancellor until 1890. It was a hallowed name for an extraordinary new ship.   

After successful sea trials, the Bismarck was commissioned on 24th August 1940, just two months after the fall of France that had seen German rule across much of Western Europe firmly cemented. Yet while supremacy on land was all but assured, at sea, it was quite a different matter. The British Royal Navy remained a fearsome proposition and vast amounts of goods were still making their way to Britain from the United States and her various territories around the world. Hitler and his commanders reasoned that if Britain’s lifeline could be severed – or at the least severely disrupted – it might force the British to the negotiating table.       

The Bismarck 

When the Bismarck appeared it was not only the largest ship ever built by Germany, it became the largest European battleship by displacement. Only Japan’s Yamato-class ships – which we’ve already covered here on Megaprojects – and the U.S Iowa-class battleships displaced more during the war. Her total displacement came in at 41,700 tons empty and 50,300 tons fully loaded, with a length of 251 metres (823 ft 6 in) – the size of two and a half football pitches – a beam of 36 metres (118 ft 1 in) and a draft of 9.9 metres (32 ft 6 in). The Bismarck was a large ship and her size and balance gave her the added benefit of being fast in all weather. Below deck, the ship was compartmentalised much more than usual which in theory would make the ship much harder to flood.  

Battleship Yamato during sea trials October 30, 1941
Battleship Yamato during sea trials October 30, 1941

The Bismarck came with three Blohm & Voss geared steam turbines and twelve oil-fired Wagner superheated boilers, giving her a 148,116 shaft horsepower and a maximum speed of 30.01 knots (55.58 km/h – 34.53 mph) – faster than pretty much anything the Royal Navy had at sea at the time, with the possible exception of one ship – HMS Hood, which could travel at roughly the same speed.  

Her crew was composed of 103 officers and 1,962 enlisted men and even came with its own newspaper, Die Schiffsglocke (The Ship’s Bell), which was published only once by the commander of the engineering department, Gerhard Junack. 

The Bismarck also had a dazzling arsenal that begins to tell you just why the British were so keen to hunt this monster into extinction. It had eight 38 cm (15 in) SK C/34 guns, arranged in four twin gun turrets, two forward and two aft. Then we have the twelve 15 cm (5.9 in) L/55 guns, sixteen 10.5 cm (4.1 in) L/65, sixteen 3.7 cm (1.5 in) L/83, and twelve 2 cm (0.79 in) anti-aircraft guns – bring the total number of guns onboard to a run and hide sixty-four. 

The ship also had four Arado Ar 196 reconnaissance floatplanes stowed away either in a double hangar in the middle of the ship or the two single hangars next to the funnel. These aircraft could be launched via a double-ended athwartship catapult.

And finally, not only was the Bismarck absurdly fast and brutally well armed, she came with some of the thickest armouring around. Her main belt, the armour that fortified the ships hull, was 320 mm (12.6 in) thick and covered by a pair of upper and main armoured decks that were 50 mm (2 in) and 100 to 120 mm (3.9 to 4.7 in) thick. The ship’s turrets were protected by 360 mm (14.2 in) thick faces and 220 mm (8.7 in) thick sides.

When we put all of this together, it formed a fearsome battleship that may not have been the greatest battleship at sea at the time, but it was certainly in the upper echelons. HMS Hood was certainly one her closest equivalents, but while the pride of the British Navy could just about keep up, this was an ageing ship that hadn’t undergone many of the upgrades that were coming through at the time especially altering the armour to take into account the steep incoming curves of newer weapons. Essentially shells were now dropping much vertically onto the top of the ship, rather than hitting the well-armoured sides.    

Operations Begin

Under the cover of darkness on 19th May 1941, the huge bulk of the Bismark departed Germany and headed into the Baltic Sea, where she was joined by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. As this sparkling new monster set to sea, her crew numbered 2,221 officers and enlisted men, higher than what was needed, but included 65 members of the admiral’s staff and a prize crew of 80 sailors, who would be used to commandeer captured vessels.  

USS Prinz Eugen (IX 300) at sea during Operation
USS Prinz Eugen (IX 300) at sea during Operation

The two ships were set to take part in Operation Rheinübung, the latest in a series that aimed to disrupt merchant shipping heading to the UK. They were joined by three destroyers, Z10 Hans Lody, Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt, and Z23, along with a group of minesweepers as they began their journey around Denmark. 

No doubt naval commanders knew full well that a group of ships that size might well be spotted, but there was certainly a hope that the flotilla would remain covert for as long as possible. 

Unfortunately for them, a group of Swedish aircraft spotted the ships early on and this information quickly reached the British. Sweden was officially neutral at the time, but information like that usually found its way to the allies.   

The group of German ships made a brief stop at Bergen in Norway, where a British aircraft was able to fly above the Bismark and photograph the enormous ship. The British already had two cruisers patrolling in the vicinity, HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk, but with such a leviathan now on the prowl, British commanders weren’t taking any chances. The battlecruiser HMS Hood, the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and six destroyers were ordered into the area as reinforcements. In the meantime, 18 bombers were dispatched to attack the Germans, but as the weather deteriorated, they failed to find the German ships.  

With the Germans presumably planning to swing down into the Atlantic from the north, British ships must have had a rough idea of where they could find them, but we’re still talking about staggering distances here. They concluded there were three possible passages but gambled that the Germans would choose the furthest from Britain between Iceland and Denmark, known as the Denmark strait and HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk would be ordered to wait in the area.   

HMS Suffolk was the first to encounter Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, who were now sailing alone, but remained at a safe distance, no doubt wary of the enormous firepower that lay in wait. It was soon joined by HMS Norfolk who strayed a little too close and narrowly escaped after the Bismarck opened fire on her with all her might.

Throughout the night, fierce weather hampered operations but the two British ships remained close by monitoring the German progress. At one point the Bismarck turned in an attempt to surprise the British cruisers, but their radars gave them plenty of warning and both scampered quickly to safety. Engaging the Bismarck without reinforcements would have been little more than suicidal for these two much smaller ships.  

Battle of the Denmark Strait

An immense confrontation was brewing as further British ships arrived in the area. German plans to make it into the Atlantic as quietly as possible had now gone completely out of the window and they would have to fight through whatever Britain was sending their way. 

The British had formulated a plan to attack the two ships, but after HMS Suffolk lost contact for around 90 minutes during the night of 24th May 1941, that plan too became redundant. As the two groups converged, first missing each other narrowly before finally coming into contact at 5.35 am, between Greenland and Iceland, carefully made plans were not on the cards. 

The Battle of Denmark Strait began at 5.52 am as HMS Hood opened fire. In the confusion, it appears that shells were first fired at the Prinz Eugen rather than the Bismarck because crews on the British ship had assumed that the German battleship would be ahead of the smaller heavy cruiser. Quickly targets were changed and shells began pouring through the sky towards the Bismarck, but vital minutes had been lost. Bismarck was initially hit by three shells, though damage was light, before the two German ships began hitting back at 5.55 am. 

Just eight minutes after the battle commenced, HMS Hood was in the process of turning to port when she was hit by a shell fired from the Bismarck that crashed through her relatively light armour and found its way to the ammunition magazine and detonated 112 tons of cordite propellant. A cataclysmic explosion erupted breaking the ship in two. HMS Hood quickly reared up before disappearing below the waves just three minutes after she had been hit. Of the 1,415 crew members on board, only three survived. 

With HMS Hood out of the way, the two German ships turned their guns on HMS Prince of Wales, which was almost immediately hit by a shell that managed to pass through the command centre of the ship, killing almost everybody inside – though ironically not the captain. Yet the British ship fought back and landed a fourth shell on the Bismark in just ten minutes, followed by two more, while all the time taking on significant damage itself. Like a pair of exhausted boxers pummeling away, something had to give in this chaotic scene and finally, with her guns malfunctioning, HMS Prince of Wales staggered away from the fight. 

The Hunt 

The loss of HMS Hood was a catastrophe for the Royal Navy. The ship had been among the finest in the world and she’d been dispatched in less than 10 minutes. In response, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered every available ship into the area to hunt the Bismarck down, which included six battleships and battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers. 

HMS Hood (51) - March 17, 1924
HMS Hood (51) – March 17, 1924

The Bismarck was limping with oil trailing in her wake, but she could still outrun most ships. After a series of small engagements, none of which resulted in serious damage, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen separated and the huge German battleship eventually drifted out of sight of the pursuing pack. 

This is where things started to get frantic within the Royal Navy. Many of the ships were running out of fuel and there was the very real possibility that the Bismarck would be able to make it to the safety of one of the ports in western France. And to make matters worse, the closer she got to shore, British ships would eventually come into range of Luftwaffe aircraft stationed in occupied France. 

It’s at this point in the story that we need to leave the frigid waters of the Atlantic and instead focus on the quietly sedate English countryside and Bletchley Park – home of the British codebreakers who were feverishly working to break messages sent through the German enigma machine. 

What does this have to do with the thrilling battle taking place thousands of miles away? Well, it just so happened that Jane Fawcett, a codebreaker on duty that day, decoded a message that not only gave Bismarck’s current location, but also her intended destination in France. This information was immediately relayed to the hunting pack, and the wolves descended. 

The Sinking of the Bismarck  

You might think the analogy of a pack of wolves might be a little over top but as ships and aircraft began to box Bismarck in, it was exactly that. The British, no doubt burning with revenge over the sinking of HMS Hood, had sent a huge armada to sink a single ship and they weren’t going to stop until the battleship was either in their possession or lay at the bottom of the Atlantic.     

There was every indication that the bloody hunt was about to come to an end. But gradually ships were having to peel away or risk running out of fuel out at sea, there was suddenly a faint glimmer of hope for the Bismarck. If she could make it just that little bit closer to France, air support might just save her.      

But it was not meant to be. The arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal breathed new life into the chase and Swordfish aircraft loaded with torpedoes first located, then began attacking the Bismarck. HMS Sheffield also appeared but had to quickly withdraw after a fierce salvo from the ailing German ship. The next aircraft wave saw two torpedoes strike the Bismarck, jamming her rudder and forcing her to steam in a large circle. Just after 9.30 pm, a message from the ship was sent, it simply read, “Ship un-manoeuvrable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”  

The chasing pack had been reduced because of fuel shortages, but there were still numerous ships available for the final attack on the Bismarck, including battleships King George V and Rodney, heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Norfolk as well as a Polish destroyer ORP Piorun. Throughout the night, the chasing ships stayed close, the scent of the blood now in the air. 

As morning broke, the final confrontation began as the allied ships poured shells towards the Bismarck. Astonishingly, the four British ships fired more than 2,800 shells at the Bismarck, with over 400 of them hitting the ship – but still, this metallic goliath remained afloat – albeit a smouldering wreck. The Bismarck hit back with everything she had left but her ability to aim her guns had been severely compromised. 

At 9.30 am, the order was finally given to abandon ship and scuttle the Bismarck. Fifty minutes later, detonation charges onboard exploded and the ship began its slow descent below the waves. But even here, the British ships were not finished. Two more torpedoes crashed into the German ship but by 10.40 am an eerie silence had descended. The mighty battleship Bismarck was drifting to the bottom of the Atlantic and out of a crew of over 2,200 men, only 114 survived one of the most brutal naval attacks seen throughout the war.  

The Wreck 

In 1989, the wreckage of the Bismarck was discovered about 650 km (400 mi) west of Brest in France – she had come agonisingly close to safety. There were numerous gaping holes in her hull, but considering her final days, one of the most famous battleships ever to set sail was still in remarkably good condition. Her thick armour had done its job and countless dents showed just how many shells hit the Bismarck, but couldn’t penetrate the armour belt. 

The story of Bismarck and her brief foray out at sea has become a World War II classic. A fearsome battleship that the British did absolutely everything in their power to bring down – and only just about did. Some say if the radio communication coming from the Bismarck had been less after the sinking of HMS Hood, she may well have escaped entirely. Instead, the story took a savage turn as she was stalked before taking the kind of beating that any other ship would have quickly bowed to. Even then, it was by the hands of her own crew, rather than the British, that finally brought the Bismarck down.   

German battleship Bismarck – Wikipedia

Remembering the Sinking of the Bismarck – HISTORY

Bismarck: Why Was The WW2 German Battleship So Feared? – HistoryExtra

Top 10 Biggest Battleships of All Time – Navy General Board

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