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Weapons of World War Two

The Battle of the Atlantic (May 1941)

Bismarck battleship

Bismarck battleship

The 18th May 1941 the "Bismarck" combat group departed from the military port of Gotenhafen, to start a raid against the British supply lines in the Atlantic; it was the beginning of the "Rheinubung" operation. The group was formed by the battleship "Bismarck" and the heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen", two splendid and very modern ships. Nobody thought that this would be the last mission of the "Bismarck". One week later, no more than a scrap heap and a few dozens of castaways would remain from the superb battleship. But at the moment the ship was, with reason, the pride of the new Nazi Germany, powerful and self-confident, albeit in excess. When the keel of the "Bismarck" was laid down, Hitler was already unconcerned about the limits imposed by the Versailles Treaty; because of that, the new battleship had a displacement above 50000 tonnes, without resorting to subterfuges, as it had been done to build the former "pocket battleships". Launched in 1939 like her twin "Tirpitz", she differed from the latter in just some details: she had a slightly inferior displacement, a reduced anti-aircraft armament and a lack of torpedo tubes. The vertical armor reached a maximum of 305 millimeters and the horizontal one 102 millimeters. She was fitted with a radar for navigation, localization and fire control. The notable operational range rendered her a fearsome long-range weapon. The maneuverability was excellent thanks to a special type of rudder, but this would be precisely the cause of her fate. After being hit by the Swordfish from the squadrons 810, 818 and 820 embarked on the "Ark Royal", the ship was left with her rudders blocked and forced to revolve around herself without being able to maneuver. Practically immobilized, she would be totally dismantled by the British salvos. Her sinking put an end to the illusion held until then of being able to collapse Britain with the corsair ships or the large surface ships. From that moment the U-Boote would have the say.

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, Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, knew that he was alone in defending the role of the large surface ships in the war against the Allied convoys in the Atlantic, but he was determined to impose his standpoint to his main contradictors because he had reasons to believe that also Hitler shared his views. The main reason on which Raeder based his opinion was that the large surface units had given excellent results in this type of operations. This was opposed by the commander of the "Bismarck" himself (1), who stated that the large warships were not the most suitable ones for ambushes, for this meant in a sense to send them to venture without any protection. The "Bismarck", considering all of her power, seemed like a wasted ship for a war of ambushes. She displaced 50153 tonnes and was armed with eight 380/47 cannons, twelve 150/55 cannons, sixteen 105/65 anti-aircraft cannons and thirty-six 20-millimeter fast-firing cannons. But ultimately Raeder's views prevailed and the "Bismarck" departed for her first and only mission (2), followed by the heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen". An encrypted order prohibited the navigation to every military and mercantile ship in wide sectors of the Baltic Sea, to keep the departure of the great battleship secret. But despite this caution another encrypted message arrived to the British Admiralty, which immediately put the Home Fleet in state of alarm. In that very moment it was started a dramatic chase which would end one week later with the sinking of the German battleship at little less than 400 miles away from Brest. She received the "coup de grace" from the British cruiser "Dorsetshire". Admiral Lutjens and a very large part of the crew sank along with their ship.

(1) Gunther Lutjens was born in Hamburg in 1889 and died in the North Atlantic in May 1941 when he sank along with his battleship. He made History for being the protagonist of one of the most spectacular naval encounters of the Second World War. At the beginning of the conflict he took part in operations in the North Sea with the cruisers Nurnberg, Leipzig and Koln. in April 1940 he commanded the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in the campaign against Norway. In July 1940 Lutjens succeeded Admiral Wilhelm Marschall in the position of Chief of the Fleet. It was precisely the success achieved in the operations carried out with the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst which led Grand Admiral Raeder to base on the large surface units his strategy for attacking the British convoys in the Atlantic, against the opinion of Admiral Doenitz and Lutjens himself, who were determined supporters of the intervention of submarines in such type of actions.

(2) The Bismarck, commanded by Captain Lindemann, departed from the port of Gdynia in the Gulf of Danzig the 18th May. She crossed without difficulties the straits which led to the Norwegian coast and there she took shelter in the Kors fiord. The fog banks had to play a tactical role in this mission. Thereafter the Bismarck entered the North Atlantic, where she sank the battlecruiser Hood the 24th May. Being subject to an inexorable chase by the British fleet, she was finally sunk the 27th May.

Launched: 14 February 1939 in the Blohm und Voss shipyards of Hamburg

Length: 251 meters

Beam: 36 meters

Draught: 10.2 meters

Displacement: 50153 tonnes at full load

Propulsion: Brown-Boveri steam turbines on three shafts fed by twelve Wagner boilers, for a total power of 130000 horsepower; three propellers

Maximum speed: 29 knots

Operational range: 15000 kilometers at 19 knots

Armor: 305 millimeters in waterline; 51 millimeters in deck (102 millimeters above magazines); 330 millimeters in conning tower; 350 millimeters in main turret front; 205 millimeters in secondary turret front

Armament: Eight 380-millimeter cannons (4 x 2); twelve 150-millimeter cannons (6 x 2); sixteen 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (8 x 2); sixteen 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (8 x 2); thirty-six 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (4 x 4 plus 6 x 2 plus 8 x 1); one catapult and six aircraft

Complement: 1989 (2192 as flagship)

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