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The hunt for the Bismarck

Written by Sakhal

A new corsair campaign

In the spring of 1941, the Supreme Command of the German Navy held a series of meetings to set the most functional strategy for the immediate future. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Chief Commander of the fleet, knowing that he was alone in defending the role of the large warships against the enemy convoys which crossed the Atlantic, was determined to impose his standpoint to his contradictors, because he had reasons to think that Hitler agreed with him. And for Raeder this nullified any discussion or uncertainty. He based his position in the fact that large warships had achieved great success in this kind of operations. He was referring to the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, which few days before had docked in Brest, starting base for the German incursions in the Atlantic. Commanded by Admiral Gunther Lutjens, both units had spread terror and death during more than one month.

In the late January 1941 the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had received orders of carrying out a sortie in the North Atlantic while the Admiral Hipper raided the route to Sierra Leone. In the first attempt of breaking the blockade those battlecruisers had miraculously avoided their destruction by the Home Fleet. They had been saved by a persistent fog. The 3rd February they managed to cross unnoticed the Danish straits. At the same time, the Admiral Hipper had departed from Brest toward the south. The 8th February, the two battlecruisers, lurking on the route of Halifax, sighted an approaching British convoy. The German ships separated to prepare a concentrical attack but, unexpectedly, they realized that the convoy was escorted by the battleship Ramillies. Lutjens immediately broke contact, as he had fundamental instructions to avoid encounters with enemy ships of similar power. His caution was rewarded the 22nd February, when he sank five ships belonging to a convoy which had departed from England.

Fearing the reaction from the British Navy, Lutjens moved southward and the 8th March he found a convoy from Freetown. But also this time he saw a battleship, the Malaya, among the escort ships, so he could not do anything else than to invite a group of submarines to attack the convoy. After having betrayed his presence in the area, Lutjens decided to return to the western Atlantic, where he achieved his greatest success. The 15th March he intercepted six empty tankers, separated from a convoy from England, sinking or seizing all of them. The following day he sank another ten ships which largely belonged to the same convoy. So, in just two days, he sank or seized over 80,000 tonnes of ships. But the battleship Rodney, while escorting a convoy to Halifax, was approaching. Lutjens had taken a lot of risk and achieved a lot, so he headed toward Brest, where he arrived the 22nd March. During their corsair campaign, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had sunk or seized ships for a total of 115,000 tonnes.

This explains clearly why Raeder and also Hitler wished to repeat such a campaign. At that point, England seemed particularly vulnerable in the sea. Lutjens, however, believed that such strategy was very wrong and dangerous. Wrong because, as he believed, the large warships were not the most suitable for ambushes, for this required to send them to a venture without protection. The success of the corsair campaign which he had starred should not lead to an excess of confidence. A fortunate hit from a torpedo or a cannonade would be enough to sink a battleship or a cruiser which Germany could not replace. Admiral Doenitz, commander of the submarine fleet, supported the views of Lutjens. He did not waste a chance to remind Raeder that the most suitable weapon for hunting the convoys on the Atlantic was his own. The General Headquarters, however, used to employ the submarine weapon as an auxiliary one.

One of the things that infuriated Doenitz was the obstinacy of sending the German submarines to intercept the British convoys in the Mediterranean. Doenitz stated that the Italian should handle those on their own, for a German submarine sent to the other side of the Gibraltar Strait could be given up for lost. Doenitz was amazed by the ignorance that his illustrious colleagues showed about a subject that a novice submarinist would find obvious. The crosscurrent crossing of the Gibraltar Strait in surface would take too long to be carried out under the darkness of a single night. The underwater crossing, to which the submarines would be forced because of the enemy surveillance, would be almost impossible in the middle of the strait, because the current would drag back to the Mediterranean the submerged submarines, whereas the navigation near the coast, where crosscurrents could be exploited, would be too dangerous during war time. So, according to Doenitz, the submarines would be trapped once they entered the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. It was necessary to ponder about which forces should be sent to the Mediterranean, because they could not be retrieved for utilization in other operation zones.

Raeder would not dare to support these ideas in front of Hitler, because this would have required to contradict him. Besides, Raeder ultimately owed his high position to Hitler. In such circumstances, the result of these meetings was predictable. Lutjens and Doenitz had to nod and accept the orders from Raeder. The plan imposed by the Grand Admiral mimicked that which had inspired the fortunate and recently ended campaign: the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau would return to the Atlantic as soon as their maintenance work were completed, but this time along with the Bismarck. When this name was heard for the first time on the meeting table, all of the attendants lowered their eyes with visible discomfort. The Bismarck was the flagship of the German Navy and, having been launched only one year ago, she seemed too valuable to risk in a corsair campaign. It seemed reckless to send that splendid warship - which besides constituted a flagrant violation of the Versailles Treaty - to such a venture in the middle of the ocean.

The obstinacy of Raeder was such that, when he was informed that the breakdowns of the Scharnhorst were more severe than what has been anticipated and that the ship would have to undergo long repairs in Brest, he ordered to replace the Scharnhorst by the much less powerful Prinz Eugen and effectuate the designated corsair mission without further delay. Shortly after, more bad news arrived to the High Command. During an aerial raid against the port of Brest a British torpedo bomber had severely damaged the Gneisenau, leaving her out of action for some months. Thus, the invaluable battleship would be sent to the middle of the ocean without anything close to a proper escort.


The battleship Bismarck as she looked like just before her final sortie. The stripped camouflage scheme 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 an all-grey scheme. There was also a swastika painted in the forecastle deck for aerial reconnaissance.


Class: Bismarck (Bismarck and Tirpitz)

Built in: Blohm und Voss Shipyards, Hamburg

Authorized: 1935

Keel laid: 1st July 1936

Launched: 14th February 1939

Completed: 24th August 1940

Fate: Sunk on 27 May 1941

Length (total): 251 meters

Length (in waterline): 241.5 meters

Beam: 36 meters

Draught: 9 meters

Displacement (standard): 42,344 tonnes

Displacement (normal): 45,951 tonnes

Displacement (full load): 50,996 tonnes

Engines: 12 Wagner boilers; Blohm und Voss steam turbines of simple reduction; three propellers

Power (total): 150,170 shaft horsepower

Speed (maximum): 30.1 knots (55.7 kilometers/hour)

Operational range: 9280 nautic miles (17,186 kilometers) at 16 knots

Fuel load: 7461 tonnes

Armor: 145-323 millimeters in armored belt, 45 millimeters in anti-torpedo bulkhead, 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 millimeters in conning tower

Armament: 8 x 380-millimeter 47-caliber cannon (4 x 2), 12 x 150-millimeter 55-caliber cannon (6 x 2), 16 x 105-millimeter 65-caliber cannon (8 x 2), 16 x 37-millimeter cannon (8 x 2), 12 x 20-millimeter cannon (12 x 1), 6 x reconnaissance aircraft

Complement: 2092


April-May 1941: In the Baltic Sea.

18 May 1941: Navigation alongside the Prinz Eugen during Operation Rheinubung.

23 May 1941: Sighted by the British heavy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk.

24 May 1941: Battle of Denmark Strait; the Bismarck sank the battlecruiser Hood and mildly damaged the battleship Prince of Wales, which in turn hit her thrice; the Prinz Eugen left and the Bismarck was hit by a torpedo launched by an aircraft from the aircraft carrier Victorious, receiving mild damages; she finally managed to escape from the prosecutors.

26-27 May 1941: Nocturnal attack from British destroyers which caused no damage.

27 May 1941: Attacked by the British battleships King George V and Rodney; sunk by torpedoes from the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire.

Anchored in the port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia), in the Gulf of Danzig (Gdansk), the Bismarck departed the 19th May 1941 for her first and last war action, followed by the Prinz Eugen. An encoded order blocked the military and commercial navigation in wide sectors of the Baltic Sea, to keep the departure secret. But despite of this caution an encoded message arrived to the British Admiralty. Meanwhile, the two ships crossed without any incident the Belt, the Kattegat and the Skagerrak, and headed northward to take refuge in the fjord of Kors, in the Norwegian coast. There, Lutjens decided to stay until bad weather and thick fog appeared, to help cover the presence of the corsair warships on their way to the North Sea and from there to the North Atlantic, where they should intercept the convoys which supplied England by traveling north of Iceland along the Denmark Strait.

Once the departure of the Bismarck was revealed, the British Admiralty set the Home Fleet in state of alert. The German intentions seemed clear for the British: to repeat the exploits previously made by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau upon the Allied convoys. This time the danger seemed greater, for they were only a few the escort ships which could confront a capital ship like the Bismarck. Mobilizing the whole Home Fleet against only two German ships did not seem to make anyone proud, but it seemed imperative given the amount of damages that the previous German raid had caused. Which route would the Bismarck follow for reaching the Atlantic? Such question, along with that relative to the role of the Prinz Eugen (would she maybe be used to deceive the British about the route followed by the Bismarck?), led the Admiralty to place a series of sentinels between the North Sea and the Denmark Strait. Everything would be tried to prevent the German warships from reaching the open Atlantic. The effect of this mobilization was to divide the British forces, for they had to be scattered throughout hundreds of square miles.

The two German ships were about to depart when a British reconnaissance aircraft overflew Kors, not far from Bergen. A certain omen fell upon Lutjens and his staff, lowering also the morale of the young officers serving onboard the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen, who lamented to have to venture into enemy waters without having a proper escort. Their mission was ideal for a pair of battleships accompanied by an aircraft carrier. If Germany had at least one available aircraft carrier...

The hunt begins

On the afternoon of the 22nd May, another British observer overflew Kors, reporting that the German warships had disappeared. The alarm call was sent to the Admiralty, and from there it was relayed to Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet. Three quarters of an hour later, he ordered the battleship King George V and the aircraft carrier Victorious to weight anchors and leave Scapa Flow, escorted by an impressive fleet of cruisers and torpedo boats. The great hunting had begun.

Scapa Flow, located in the northernmost Scotland, was the great base from where the Home Fleet watched the North Sea and the North Atlantic. Following the first alarm, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood had departed as well, and Vice Admiral Lancelot E. Holland, supported by a flock of lesser ships, began to patrol the Denmark Strait, between northern Iceland and southeastern Greenland. Meanwhile, another British squadrons were stationed in strategic places. The cruisers Birmingham, Manchester and Arethusa, and a certain number of torpedo boats, were patrolling the ample extension between Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

At the moment of this great mobilization, the British were feeling the omen of Germany being able to subdue Britain by winning what Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill had called the "Battle of the Atlantic". The German corsair ships had already sunk about 750,000 tonnes of British ships, not counting those sunk by the U-Boot, and nobody could foresee the extent of the damages caused by the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen if they managed to reach the routes of the convoys. The same day that the Home Fleet left Scap Flow, Churchill informed President Roosevelt about the situation. Since time ago both leaders had discussed about the risk that the convoys faced in the Atlantic routes.

The 24th April, for example, Churchill had redacted a letter to Roosevelt to indicate the most dangerous points, according to the Admiralty. He pointed that it was probable that the next dangerous route was that located west of the 35th meridian west and south of Greenland, a zone where the British had difficulties to operate. Churchill requested that reconnaissance flights were carried out from Greenland to detect the German submarines before these could make contact with the convoys. Albeit United States was officially a neutral country, it was obvious on which side this country was. Churchill was requesting a direct intervention, even if United States had to avoid any openly hostile actions against German units. It seems that the German were deeply concerned about this collaboration, to the point that Raeder and Doenitz requested permission from Hitler to let the German submarines to operate in a less restricted way against United States. Hitler, however, feared the consequences of provocative actions against such a powerful enemy.

On the night of the 22nd May, Winston Churchill telagraphed Roosevelt: "Yesterday, 21st May, the Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen and eight merchant ships were sighted in Bergen. This afternoon we found that they had already left. We have reasons to believe that they have planned an important mission in the Atlantic. In case that we could not catch them in their route, your Navy would be certainly in condition of sighting them and giving references. The Prince of Wales, the Hood, the Repulse and the aircraft carrier Victorious, along with auxiliary ships, will hunt them. Give us the information and we will do the work."


The Hood is broken in half and sunk

During the whole night and the whole day 23, Tovey navigated amid sparse fog banks, waiting for news which did not arrive. It was at 20:00 o'clock when the radio announced that the Suffolk, one of the cruisers which were watching on the mouth of the Denmark Strait, had sighted the two German warships. Beyond the thick fog, the eyes of a proud mariner had detected the ships before than the radar. Immediately, the commander of the Suffolk ordered to head toward the ships to check whether the Bismarck was really there, and also to confirm if the radar, whose achievements were praised, was something really useful. In that time, the radar was a precious invention which was in constant evolution. That of the Suffolk, for example, could only detect in forward position, and this forced the commander to turn toward the enemy. He seemed amazed when the pale screen showed the two dots corresponding to the enemy ships.

With even greater joy, Tovey received the news of the discovery of the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen, which in that moment were trying to enter the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait. The message from the Suffolk was received by Holland as well, who onboard the Hood was lurking in the waters south of Iceland. This battlecruiser, with a displacement of 46,000 tonnes, was certainly one of the most powerful warships in the world when she entered service in 1920. However, in 1941 she was somewhat outdated. She was a match for the Bismarck regarding the caliber of her main cannons, but not regarding their length, nor the sophisticated fire control system which equipped the German battleship. Alongside the Hood was the Prince of Wales, a battleship of 35,000 tonnes which had recently entered service. Holland chased the Bismarck with determination and on the early morning of the day 24, at 5:30 o'clock, his squadron sighted the German battleship, at the same time that this latter sighted the Hood.

During a couple of minutes both colossi, separated by a distance of 23 kilometers, seemed to analyze each other. On the binoculars they appeared like dark dots showing up on the grey line of the horizon. Holland was probably recalling when the Royal Navy asked funds for the modernization of the Hood and the request was denied by the House of Commons. Now the old battlecruiser had to face an encounter with a colossal warship. How would she behave against her rival? Holland ordered to open fire and stayed immobile, looking through the binoculars. At the same time, Lutjens was assessing the options that the situation offered. His orders were clear: he had to reach the Atlantic and then sink as many convoys as possible, while avoiding to engage in combat against warships of similar or greater firepower. What would be the most convenient to do? To flee toward the Atlantic? He knew that the encounter was not a fortuitous one; the enemy was mercilessly chasing the Bismarck and from this standpoint there was no reason to delay the unavoidable, beginning with this duel to the death. Also Lutjens stayed immobile when he ordered to open fire, and he did not need to look toward the Prinz Eugen to know that she had begun to fire against the Hood as well.

It was a matter of few minutes. After the fifth salvo, Lutjens saw how the Hood was shaken by a terrible explosion. During a moment, he looked through the binoculars to make sure what he was seeing, and then, with his usual cold and distant tone, he ordered: "Change of target to the left!". This is how the crew of the Bismarck knew that the Hood had been put out of action. Then the cannons of the two German warships opened fire against the Prince of Wales. The crew of this latter witnessed the disaster with anguish. The Hood was suddenly hit and one four-inch battery was set in fire. Everyone though that the impact had been superficial, but the armor of the Hood was too light to resist the projectiles from the Bismarck. Also because at long distances projectiles follow a curved trajectory which is particularly dangerous, as this increases the chances of hitting the deck of a ship. The impact had effect in a powder magazine which was too close to the deck. At 6:00 o'clock, the crew of the Prince of Wales saw the huge battlecruiser exploding and rising on the air. When the smoke dispersed, the two halves of the ship were seen rapidly sinking. The Prince of Wales had to turn aside to avoid hitting the remains of the Hood, while she fired against the enemy and released some shallops which later returned without success. From the 1500 men onboard the Hood, only three could be rescued. The rest, including Vice Admiral Holland, shared the fate of their ship.


The battlecruiser HMS Hood as she looked like in 1941.


The battleship HMS King George V as she looked like in 1940.

One hour later, the telephon awakened Prime Minister Churchill in his countryside house at Chequers. He had been reunited with some generals and the representative of President Roosevelt, Averell Harriman, until 3:00 o'clock. Churchill was desperately in need of giving some good news not only to Harriman, but especially to the British people and the deputies who supported his government with their votes. In the last weeks he had only communicated disasters, most remarkably the sinkings achieved by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, the withdrawal of the expeditionary force sent to Greece and the withdrawal from Crete. During the night, Churchill and his guests had been waiting with certain inquietude news about the chase of the Bismarck. Now, the telephonic call announced that the largest British cruiser had been sunk.

Meanwhile, the duel against the Prince of Wales had been favorable to the Bismarck, which managed to place four 380-millimeter shots on the British battleship. One of the projectiles had hit right in the conning tower, killing or hurting everyone who was in there. Some other had put out of action two of the ten 356-millimeter cannons. Commander Leach, luckily safe from the explosion in the bridge, had been forced to move his ship away. Albeit Lutjens had been successful in this second encounter as well, he had to carefully ponder his next movements. Also the Bismarck had received some hits. Two large-caliber projectiles from the Prince of Wales had hit her under the waterline and one of them had breached a fuel tank, causing a significant loss of fuel which would later have severe consequences, because from that moment the Bismarck left a visible trail on the ocean. As soon as the Prince of Wales was away from the location of the encounter, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen retook their travel heading toward the southwest.

Admiral Wake-Walker took the command of the prosecution from the bridge of the cruiser Norfolk. At 8:30 o'clock, Churchill was definitely awaken by his secretary, who told him that the Bismarck, after having sunk the flagship of the Royal Navy, was still crossing the ocean. The mood of the Prime Minister was affected also because the Admiralty had taken some battleships from the escort of the convoys to assign them to the hunt of the Bismarck; this meant that a large number of ships, some of them full of soldiers, would be very vulnerable to enemy attacks. The only thing that seemed to comfort him was the optimism which emanated from the bureaus of the Admiralty, where the imminent end of the Bismarck was taken for granted. The great battleship was being tracked from every direction and something indicated that she was also damaged. Besides, the battlecruiser Renown, the cruiser Sheffield and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, commanded by Admiral Sommerville, had been urgently called from Gibraltar. A grand hunt had begun and the fate of the two German warships seemed already decided.

The Bismarck, accompanied by the Prinz Eugen and followed at a safe distance by the Norfolk and the hunting squadron, continued the initial route during some hours. Wake-Walker had indicated the position of the enemy and was waiting the arrival of the King George V and the aircraft carrier Victorious, commanded by Tovey. This latter was still very far from the Bismarck but, navigating at full speed, he expected to reach her the following morning around 9:00 o'clock. During the whole day 24 the Norfolk pursued the Bismarck, but shortly before 19:00 o'clock the German battleship changed her course heading northward again. The Norfolk and the hunting squadron, not expecting this change of attitude, thought that the enemy was preparing to attack and some shots were exchanged without consequences. With his unexpected maneuver, Lutjens managed to distract the enemy to allow the Prinz Eugen to escape intact. Lutjens had assumed the fate of the Bismarck and wanted to safeguard her companion. Some days later the Prinz Eugen managed to take refuge in Brest.

Tovey ordered the Victorious to precede the squadron because he intended to immediately launch an aerial attack against the Bismarck. The commander of the Home Fleet did not have a lot of faith in the torpedo bombers carried onboard the Victorious, among other things because they were manned by novice pilots, but he only needed to stop the enemy as much as possible. At 22:00 o'clock nine torpedo bombers took off and two hours later, being assisted via radio from the Norfolk, they sighted the Bismarck. The German opened a terrible barrier of fire, but the young pilots attacked with despise to danger and managed to hit the target with at least one torpedo, apparently without causing damages.


The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen with the camouflage scheme used in 1941-42, the additional light anti-aircraft cannons installed in February 1942 and an Arado 196 seaplane in the catapult. There was also a swastika painted in the forecastle deck for aerial reconnaissance.


Class: Admiral Hipper (Admiral Hipper, Blucher and Prinz Eugen)

Built in: Germania Shipyards, Kiel

Authorized: 1936

Keel laid: 1936

Launched: 22 August 1938

Completed: 1 August 1940

Fate: Sunk on 22 December 1947

Length (in waterline): 199.5 meters

Length (total): 210.4 meters

Beam: 21.9 meters

Draught: 7.9 meters

Displacement (standard): 14,707 tonnes

Displacement (normal): 16,490 tonnes

Displacement (full load): 18,694 tonnes

Engines: 12 Wagner boilers; Brown-Boveri steam turbines of simple reduction; three propellers

Power (total): 132,000 shaft horsepower

Fuel load: 4320 tonnes

Speed (maximum): 33.4 knots

Operational range: 6500 nautical miles at 18 knots

Armor: 70-80 millimeters in main belt; 12-30 millimeters in upper deck; 20-50 millimeters in armored deck; 70-105 millimeters in main turrets

Armament: 8 x 203-millimeter cannon (4 x 2); 12 x 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (6 x 2); 12 x 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (6 x 2); 8 x 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon (8 x 1), increased to 28 x (5 x 4 + 8 x 1) in January 1942; 12 x 533-millimeter torpedo tube (4 x 3); 3 x reconnaissance aircraft

Complement: 1600


August-December 1939: Negotiations for being sold to Russia.

1-2 July 1940: Hit by two bombs.

23 April 1941: Damaged by a mine.

18 May 1941: Navigation alongside the Bismarck during Operation Rheinubung.

23 May 1941: Pursued by the British heavy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk; the Prinz Eugen placed herself before the Bismarck.

1 June 1941 - 11 February 1942: In Brest.

11-13 February 1942: In the English Channel alongside the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau; caused damages to the British destroyer Worcester.

21-23 February 1942: Toward Norway.

23 February 1942: Hit by a torpedo launched from the British submarine Trident, which caused severe damages in the stern.

February-March 1942: Emergency reparations in Norway.

May-October 1942: Definitive reparations in Kiel; installation of a new stern.

May 1943 - May 1944: In the School Fleet.

June 1944 - April 1945: Gave land support during the operations in the Baltic.

April 1945: Toward Copenhagen.

4 May 1945: Surrendered in Copenhagen.

13 December 1945: Transferred to United States.

January 1946: Toward United States.

17 June 1946: Used as target ship for nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll.

22 December 1947: Sunk in Kwajalein Atoll.

The battle of mistakes

Around 3:00 o'clock on the night of day 25 the Suffolk lost radar contact with the Bismarck. The sudden disapparition caused confusion. Dozens of British warships were converging on the same point expecting to find the Bismarck there, but then she seemed to have vanished, and this would render useless the concentration. The explanation of this mystery was simple: the Suffolk, forced to advance in zig-zag to cause difficulties to possible German submarines, had let the enemy battleship to gain distance and break the radar contact. The German felt watched by the whole British fleet. Having lost any chance to accomplish his mission, Lutjens decided to save the Bismarck by heading toward Brest. This explained his southeast route, as the Admiralty had already guessed. However, the unexpected change of course to save the Prinz Eugen had caused a notable confusion and some people wondered whether Lutjens had orders of not leaving the mission.

Meanwhile, onboard the King George V and in the Admiralty Operations Center people wondered about where the Bismarck could be hidden. A message from the listening stations announced that a German ship was transmitting long messages from the point where, according to all the calculations, the Bismarck should be located. It was difficult to ascertain whether this ship was the Bismarck, for in such case it could be said that the German commander had become mad. Indeed, Lutjens had incurred in his most serious mistake when he broke the silence in such a crucial moment. Most probably, Lutjens had assumed that the British were tracking the Bismarck through the radar and that the Home Fleet was waiting for her, since a group of cruisers had pursued her during the whole day without engaging in combat. Thus, he probably guessed that the enemy was waiting reinforcements before attacking. In such circumstances he probably thought that keeping the radio in silence would be useless.

On the contrary, albeit Lutjens could not know it, the British had lost the trail of the Bismarck more than one hour ago, and the chances of escaping from the hunt had unexpectedly increased. Meanwhile, from its listening center in Paris, the High Command of the Kriegsmarine ordered the Bismarck to silence the radio. The order was obeyed, but it was too late, for the enemy direction finders had already set the location of the German battleship. An officer transferred the data to a map and from the Admiralty Operations Center a message with the position of the Bismarck was sent to Tovey. He was surprised when reading the message. Like everyone, he was convinced that the Bismarck was trying to arrive to Brest, but according to the message from London she was heading northward. Which was her intention then? To return to her base through the Denmark Strait? Anyway, Tovey had no other choice than to search the enemy on the location that the message indicated, so he ordered his squadron to head northward. Tovey did not know that the officer of the Admiralty who calculated the position had committed a mistake when transferring the data to the map, and that the Bismarck was indeed following her route toward Brest while the Home Fleet was navigating in opposing direction.

During nine hours, the Home Fleet moved away from the Bismarck, until being hundreds of miles away from its target. Meanwhile, benefited by the mistake committed by the enemy, the Bismarck had escaped from the siege and gained a seemingly considerable advantage. As hours went by, the Admiralty Operations Center was increasingly convinced that the calculations were wrong and that the Bismarck was in route to Brest, and hence very far eastward from Tovey's squadron. The whole day 25 went by amid the concern and the confusion, while the Bismarck was losing speed because, due to the hole opened in the fuel tank, she was in risk of depleting her fuel without possibility of refueling.

During the night, the Admiralty decided to dispel the doubts and send the whole fleet toward the alleged location of the Bismarck, on a further southward route. Given the events from the last hours, the only positive element was that Sommerville's squadron, which had urgently departed from Gibraltar, was navigating northward at full speed across a stormy sea, unknowingly heading toward the Bismarck. At dawn, the Admiralty ordered the Catalina hidroplanes from the North Ireland base to survey as much ocean as possible. This seemed the last chance of finding the enemy, but the obstinacy of an observer gave good results. At 10:30 o'clock, one of the Catalina sighted the Bismarck and sent the alarm call, which was received with great joy in the Admiralty Operations Center. In the attempt of not losing her position, the Catalina got too close to the Bismarck, whose anti-aircraft cannons hit the aircraft. But two hours later another two reconnaissance aircraft, Swordfish biplanes from the Ark Royal, sighted the Bismarck. The aircraft reported that the Bismarck was far from the British fleet but her position was still such that the Luftwaffe could not protect her.

The last battle of the Bismarck

A group of ships promptly headed toward the Bismarck, but everyone agreed that for the time being they had to watch her without engaging in combat, until the King George V and the Rodney, the only battleships capable of fighting against her, arrived. The grand hunt was on its last stages but the unpleasant surprises had not yet finished. On both sides that battle would go down in History as a battle of mistakes.

As soon as Sommerville was warned by the observers from the Ark Royal about the position of the Bismarck, he ordered the Sheffield to precede the squadron to make contact with her and then guide the aircraft upon her. It was a clever movement, but a mistake was close to turn it into a disaster. Once the position of the enemy battleship was confirmed by the Sheffield, the Ark Royal ordered her flights to take off. However, nobody had warned about the presence of the Sheffield, so when the aviators saw the cruiser they mistook her as their target. Onboard the Sheffield the astonished crew underwent terrifying moments, while the commander maneuvered to avoid being hit. Finally, the Sheffield managed to identify herself and the aircraft, already free of bombs and torpedoes, returned to the Ark Royal. From one of the aircraft a message expressing the disappointment and shame of the crews arrived to the Sheffield: "We are afflicted by the mistake."

Once again luck seemed to side with the Bismarck, but those were indeed her last minutes. Shortly after 19:00 o'clock, fifteen Swordfish took off from the Ark Royal and once again the radio of the Sheffield guided them toward the target. This time the Bismarck was sighted and hit by at least two torpedoes, one of which irreparably damaged the rudders. Then, the Bismarck began to turn on herself. The night began to fall while some British destroyers approached the damaged battleship, attacking her with torpedoes whenever it was possible. The travel of the Bismarck had ended 400 miles away from Brest, namely, her salvation.

Shortly after midnight, the radio of the Bismarck started to transmit again. It was a brief message to Berlin but Lutjens was no longer concerned about it being intercepted. It said: "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 agonizing, and where the British fleet was approaching at full speed. It seems that one of the submarines ever had the Ark Royal at shooting distance, but she had already run out of torpedoes. At dawn the King George V and the Rodney arrived. This latter opened fire at 8:47 o'clock and the other opened fire one minute later. The Bismarck returned fire and her third salvo hit the Rodney, but this was her last hit. Half an hour later, the Bismarck had been silenced and a thick smoke surrounded her. Circa 10:15 o'clock the Rodney approached at a distance of 4000 meters and opened fire with all of her cannons, without the Bismarck being able to react. The great battleship was mortally wounded, but she remained afloat.


The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal as she looked like in 1939.


The battleship HMS Nelson, twin of the HMS Rodney, as she looked like in 1945, with increased anti-aircraft armament.

At 11:00 o'clock, Churchill spoke to the House of Commons. The main subject was the loss of Crete, but the Prime Minister could sweeten the bitter news by saying that the Bismarck, which was then agonizing in the stormy waters of the Atlantic, had been neutralized. The deputies seemed to not believe his words and Churchill felt relieved. In that moment, a janitor gave a note to him. After reading it, Churchill topped his speech off: "I have received in this very moment the news that the Bismarck has been sunk." The German battleship had been sunk at 10:40 o'clock, after receiving a salvo of torpedoes from the cruiser Dorsetshire. Lutjens and the largest part of the crew sank with the Bismarck. Only a hundred of men could be rescued.

The news of the sinking of the Bismarck was received with relief by the British and the newspapers published it with large headers. This confirmed that the "old lion" was still fearsome in the sea, and that the Third Reich would have to work a lot to dominate the Atlantic. But the fear had been great. Churchill's personal relief was patent in the telegram that the "old sailor" sent to Roosevelt the 28th May: "Later I will send to you the true story of the battle against the Bismarck. She was a terrible ship, a masterpiece of naval engineering. Her elimination lightens the situation of our battleships, because otherwise we would have had to leave the King George V, the Prince of Wales and the two units of the Nelson class practically immobilized in Scapa Flow, to watch any departure of the Bismarck or the Tirpitz, and while these could choose the appropriate moment, we had always to count on one unit less because of the necessary revisions. But this is another matter. The event will have rather favorable repercussions for the Japanese. I guess that they will be remaking all of their calculations."

For his part, Roosevelt had correctly evaluated the meaning of the spectacular encounter. Talking on the radio the 27th May (the same day of the sinking), the President said: "War is approaching to the edge of the very western hemisphere... The Battle of the Atlantic extends now from the frozen waters of the North Pole to the ice-covered continent of Antarctica... It would be a suicide to wait for the enemy to arrive at the door of our homes... Because of this we have extended our patrols to the waters of the northern and southern Atlantic." This meant that United States had accepted the British invitation for cooperating in the defense of the oceanic routes, putting themselves at one step from war.

On the German side, the end of the Bismarck entailed the defeat of the strategy supported by Raeder. Paying with his life and that of his whole crew, Lutjens had demonstrated the madness of the strategy and how right Doenitz was in supporting the priority of the submarine weapon in this type of war. The wrong of this strategy was confirmed by the judgement from the British as well. As Churchill wrote: "In no way could have Hitler employed more efficiently the two large battleships other than keeping them in the Baltic Sea in full order of battle. From time to time, they would spread the rumor of an imminent departure. This way we would have been forced to keep virtually all of our ships reunited in Scapa Flow or in the nearabouts, while they would have the advantage of choosing the moment without the effort of being always prepared."

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


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-02-02

Article updated: 2020-10-30

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