“Bismarck”- battleship of the German navy, one of the most famous ships of the Second World War. Named after the first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck. During his only campaign in May 1941 it sank in the Denmark Strait the British battle cruiser “Hood”. The hunt of the British fleet for the Bismarck that began after that three days later ended in its sinking.
Ship Type: “Bismarck”(later another ship of this type was built – the battleship “Tirpitz “) was originally created as the successor to “pocket battleships “and was mainly intended for conducting raider operations against merchant ships. Thus, the volume of the Bismarck’s fuel reserve is more typical of Pacific battleships, and the speed of 30.1 knots shown on tests in the Baltic Sea was one of the world’s best values for such ships. After the launch of the second French battleship of the Dunkirk class, the project was changed towards a further increase in size. The Bismarck was the first after the First World War. A full-fledged battleship of the German fleet: the armament, which included eight 380-mm SKC-34 cannons in four towers, allowed it to withstand any battleship on equal terms. The keel of the Bismarck was laid at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg on 1 July 1936. The ship left the stocks on February 14, 1939, on Valentine’s Day. The Fuhrer Adolf Hitler and the granddaughter of Prince Bismarck Dorothea von Loewenfeld, who traditionally “christened” the ship with a bottle of champagne, were present at the launch. On August 24, 1940, the battleship was handed over to the command of the captain of the first rank: Ernst Lindemann. Equipment installation and testing continued until the spring of 1941.
Breakthrough to the Atlantic
Operation “Rhine teachings”. The main purpose of the operation was merchant ships on the British sea lanes. The Bismarck was supposed to pull back the convoy ships to give Prince Eugen the opportunity to attack the transport ships. Admiral Gunter Lutyens, appointed to command the operation, asked the command to postpone the start of the operation so that the Tirpitz, which was also being tested, the Gneisenau being repaired, or the battleship Scharnhorst stationed in Brest could join it. The commander-in-chief of the German fleet, Gross Admiral Erich Raeder, refused. May 18, 1941 “Bismarck”and “Prince Eugen” left the Kriegsmarine base in Gotenhafen (now the Polish port of Gdynia ).
On May 20, the Bismarck was sighted from the Swedish cruiser Gotland; on the same day, a squadron of two large ships was reported by members of the Norwegian Resistance. On May 21, 1941, the British Admiralty received a message from its military attaché in Sweden that two large ships had been sighted in the Kattegat. From May 21 to May 22, the German unit parked in the fjords near the Norwegian city of Bergenwhere “Bismarck” and “Prince Eugen” were repainted for the steel-gray color of the ocean raider, and “Prince Eugen” additionally received fuel from the tanker “Wallin”. The Bismarck did not refuel, which, as it turned out later, was a serious mistake.
While parked, the ships were spotted and photographed from a Spitfire, a British Air Force reconnaissance aircraft. Now the British side has identified the Bismarck. British bombers were sent to the refuel area, but by that time the German ships had left the area. The Bismarck and Prince Eugen passed the Norwegian Sea unnoticed and crossed the Arctic Circle. The British were looking for them much further south.
The commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral John Tovey sent the battle cruiser “Hood “and the battleship “Prince of Wales “( the HMS Prince of Wales ) with destroyers escort to the south-west coast of Iceland. The cruiser “Suffolk”( HMS Suffolk ) was to join the cruiser “Norfolk”( HMS Norfolk ) already in the Danish Strait. The light cruisers HMS Manchester, HMS Birmingham and HMS Arethusa were to patrol the strait between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. On the night of May 22the admiral himself, at the head of a unit consisting of the battleship King George V and the aircraft carrier “Victoria” with escort ships, left the British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. The flotilla was to wait for the appearance of German ships in the waters to the north-west of Scotland, where it was to join the battle cruiser “Repulse » ( the HMS Repulse ).
On the evening of May 23, in the half-ice-covered Danish Strait in thick fog, the Norfolk and Suffolk made visual contact with the German flotilla. The Bismarck opened fire on the Norfolk. The British ships relayed the message to their command and retreated into the fog, continuing to follow the enemy on radar at a distance of 10-14 miles. After firing on the Bismarck, the nose radar failed, so Lutyens ordered the Prince Eugen to move ahead of the Bismarck. To make it difficult to identify the ships, the tops of the gun turrets were painted over in a dark color and covered with a swastika tarp on the decks.
Battle in the Danish Strait
The British ships Hood and Prince of Wales, which were on their way to intercept the Bismarck, made visual contact with the German formation in the early hours of the morning of 24 May. British ships began combat at 5:52 am at a distance of 22 km. Vice Admiral Holland, the commander of the British group, ordered to open fire on the first ship, mistakenly considering it “Bismarck”. The Prince of Wales realized the mistake and opened fire on the second German ship. The German side did not answer for some time: Admiral Lutyens had an order not to engage in battle with enemy warships if they did not enter the convoy. However, after several British volleys, Captain Lindemann announced that he would not allow firing at his ship with impunity. Prince Eugen and Bismarck returned fire on the Hood. Holland realized his mistake, but his order apparently did not come to fire control as the Hood continued firing at the Prince Eugen to the end.
At 5:56 am, the Prince of Wales scored hits with a salvo: the shell penetrated the fuel tanks, causing an abundant leak of fuel and the ingress of water into the tanks. As a result, the Bismarck began to leave an oil trail. But a minute later, the Hood was hit by the second salvo of the Prince Eugen and the third salvo of the Bismarck, and fires began in the stern and amidships of the ship. The Bismarck was hit by the Prince of Wales’s ninth salvo below the waterline, and a third later. By 6:00 the ships were at a distance of 16-17 km… At this time, an explosion was heard on the “Hood”, probably caused by the hit of the fifth salvo of the “Bismarck” in the ammunition storage, the ship was torn in two, the bow and stern flew into the air, and it sank in a matter of minutes. Except for three people, the entire team of 1,418 people died.
The battleship “Prince of Wales” continued the battle, but very unsuccessfully: it was forced to approach the rendezvous of up to 14 km with two German ships in order to avoid a collision with the sinking “Hood”. In addition, the “Prince of Wales” was a new ship, work on the final installation of the guns was still not completed on it, and the shipyard workers tried to repair the jammed guns of the bow four-gun turret during the battle. The battleship covered itselff with a smoke screen and left the battle, during which he received seven hits.
Captain Lindemann offered to start the pursuit and to sink the “Prince of Wales”, but Admiral Lutyens decided to continue the campaign. On the “Bismarck” one of the generators was put out of order, water began to flow into the boiler room No. 2, two fuel tanks were punctured, there was a trim to the bow and a roll to the starboard side. Lutyens decided to take the Bismarck for repairs to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, from where, after repairs, he could freely go out into the Atlantic. In addition, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau could later join him. The captain of the Prince Eugen was ordered to continue his attacks on the British convoys on his own.
Pursuit of Bismarck
Norfolk, Suffolk and Prince of Wales continued to pursue the Germans, reporting their location. The death of “Hood”was extremely painful in the British Admiralty, and a special commission was later established to investigate its circumstances. Most of the British warships stationed in the North Atlantic were involved in the hunt for the Bismarck, including ships guarding many of the convoys. So, to the west of Ireland battleship “Rodney » ( the HMS of Rodney ) and three of the four destroyers escorting turned into a military transport ship “Britannic», on the morning of May 24, it was ordered to leave the convoy and join Admiral Tovey’s compound. Additionally, two more battleships and two cruisers were involved. Formation H, stationed in Gibraltar, was also alerted in case the Bismarck moved in their direction.
On May 24 at 18:14, the Bismarck turned in the fog directly at its pursuers. There were no hits in the short exchange of volleys, but the British ships were forced to evade, and Prince Eugen successfully broke contact. “Prince Eugen”arrived in French Brest 10 days later. At 21:32, Lutyens informed the command that due to a lack of fuel, the Bismarck could not continue trying to shake off the pursuers and was forced to go straight to Saint-Nazaire.
In the evening on May 24, Admiral Tovey ordered the aircraft carrier “Victoria” reduce the distance, and at 22:10 it started with 9 torpedo “Suordfish “. Under heavy fire, they attacked the battleship and achieved one torpedo hit on the starboard side. Despite bad weather, darkness, inexperience of crews and breakdown of the guidance beacon, all planes were able to return to Victoria by 02:30. There was no serious damage, the only torpedo hit was in the main armor belt. The Bismarck’s crew lost one man (the first loss for the Germans during the campaign). To protect against raids, all anti-aircraft guns and even large-caliber guns were involved, the Bismarck increased its speed and performed torpedo evasion maneuvers. As a result, the canvas patches, which were put on the hole in the bow, came off, and the leak and trim on the bow intensified. Boiler room 2 was finally flooded.
On the night of May 24-25, the Bismarck, taking advantage of the fact that its pursuers, apparently fearing a possible attack by submarines, began to make zigzags, broke off contact. At 4:01 am on May 25, Suffolk reported: “Contact with the enemy has been lost.”
However, the Bismarck apparently continued to receive signals from the Suffolk radar, and at 7:00 am on May 25, Lutyens informs the command that the pursuit is ongoing, and at 09:12 he transmits another, very long, radiogram. In the evening, the command informs Lutiens that the British, apparently, have lost him, and orders to report data on their position and speed, if this is not the case. Lutyens does not send a return radio message, but radio interception of the morning messages allows the British side to approximately determine the location of the Bismarck. Nevertheless, Tovey mistakenly concluded that the Bismarck was heading for the strait between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and its connection began to move northeast.
At 10:10 am on 26 May, the Bismarck was discovered 690 nautical miles northwest of Brest by the US-British crew of the Catalina seaplane of the British Coastal Aviation Command. The plane took off in the search from the Castle Arcdale base on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Leonard B. Smith, Ensignof the US Navy, unofficially, due to the fact that his country at that time did not participate in the war, served as an instructor and also a co-pilot on the Catalina seaplanes in RAF 209 Squadron. To avoid heavy anti-aircraft fire, Smith hastily dropped depth charges and took the seaplane into the clouds, subsequently losing sight of the enemy. Later that day, the Bismarck was also sighted by two other American pilots, Lieutenant Johnson of RAF 240 Squadron and Ensign Reinhart of RAF 210 Squadron. Lutiens remained about 690 miles to Brest (France). This meant that when approaching the shores of occupied France, he would soon be able to use Luftwaffe aircraft to cover his ship from the air.
At 14:50, biplane torpedo bombers “Swordfish” flew to the place of detection. By that time, the British cruiser Sheffield, which had separated from the formation to establish contact with the Bismarck, was in this area, and the unannounced pilots mistakenly launched a torpedo attack. Fortunately for the British, none of the 11 torpedoes fired hit their targets. After that, it was decided to replace the magnetic fuses on the torpedoes, which showed themselves poorly in this attack, with contact ones.
By 5:40 pm, Sheffield had established eye contact with the Bismarck and began pursuit. At 20:47 fifteen torpedo bombers from the Arc Royal launched a second attack on the Bismarck. The pilots drove the two aircraft so low that the teams of the rapid-fire small-caliber artillery were higher than the attackers and could hardly distinguish them against the background of the rough sea. British pilot of the low-speed biplane “Swordfish” John Moffat achieved a hit that had decisive consequences: trying to dodge the torpedo, the Bismarck turned left, and instead of a belt of armor on the starboard side, the torpedo hit the stern, causing severe damage to the steering mechanism and jamming the rudders. “Bismarck” lost the ability to maneuver and began to describe the circulation… Attempts to restore controllability were unsuccessful, and the battleship began to move northwest.
At about 21:45 Bismarck opened fire on Sheffield, wounding 12 (according to other sources, 13) people, and at night entered into battle with the British formation, which consisted of the destroyers “Cossack “( HMS Cossack ), “Sikh “( HMS Sikh ), “Zulu » ( HMS Zulu ) and “Maori » ( HMS Maori ), together with the transmitted UK Polish fleet destroyer “Thunder» ( Piorun ). Neither side achieved direct hits. By morning, the order was given to stop. The ship was already within range of the German bomber aviation.
On May 27 at 08:00 am Rodney and King George V approached the Bismarck at a distance of 21 nautical miles (39 km). At that time, the visibility was only 10 nautical miles (19 km) and the sea state reached 4-5 points. The wind was blowing from the north-west, in strength equal to 6-7 points. Rodney was heading north to fire at the Bismarck from a sufficient distance, while King George V moved aside.
The fire was opened at 08:47. The Bismarck responded with fire, but its inability to dodge and roll negatively affected the accuracy of the fire. The low speed (seven knots) also made the ship an easy target for the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire, who combined their firepower. At 09:02 am, an 8-inch (203mm) shell from the Norfolk hit the main rangefinder post on the foremast. When this officer was killed Adalbert Schneider was awarded the Knight’s Cross in the early hours of the same morning for participating in the sinking of the Hood. At 09:08 a 406 mm round from Rodney hit both Bismarck’s, Anton’s and Bruno’s bow turrets, knocking out the latter. Simultaneously, another hit destroyed the forward checkpoint, killing most of the senior officers. The aft towers of the Caesar and Dora continued to fire at close range, but failed to hit.
At 09:21 the Dora was hit. The Anton team managed to fire one last volley at 09:27. At 09:31 the Caesar fired its last volley and then went out of action. The close bursts of shells from this salvo damaged the Rodney, jamming the torpedo tubes. The Bismarck’s fire throughout the battle was focused on Rodney, possibly in the hope of achieving a success similar to that achieved in the confrontation with the Hood. When Admiral Guernsey watched this, he remarked: “Thank God the Germans are shooting at Rodney.”
After 44 minutes of combat, the Bismarck’s heavy guns fell silent. Rodney came within direct firing range (approximately 3 km), while King George V continued firing from a greater distance.
The Bismarck did not lower its battle flag. The British were reluctant to leave the Bismarck alone, but it showed no signs of surrender, despite the unequal struggle. The supplies of fuel and shells of the British squadron were small. This created additional difficulties for ships of the line, seeking to sink a combat unit like the Bismarck, despite the numerical superiority. However, when it became apparent that their enemy would not be able to reach the port, Rodney, King George V and the destroyers were called back home. The cruisers were ordered to finish off the Bismarck with torpedoes. Norfolk used its last torpedoes, while Dorsetshire joined the attack and fired three 533mm torpedoes, which hit the Bismarck at short range.
The upper deck of the battleship was almost completely destroyed, but its vehicles were still functional. Johann Hans Zimmermann (fireman of the Bismarck boiler room) talked about the seawater approaching the fuel supply line to the boilers, which forced the mechanics to slow down to seven knots for fear of an explosion.
The order was given to abandon the ship. Many of the crew jumped overboard, but from the lower decks only a few sailors managed to get out alive. Captain Lindemann was presumed dead with all officers after the bridge was hit by a 16-inch (406 mm) shell. It is also unclear whether he gave the order to leave the ship or not. At the same time, some of the survivors insisted that they saw the captain alive, voluntarily staying with his sinking ship.
“Bismarck” went under water at 10:39 am, standing at the bottom on an even keel. Some of the crew members did not attempt to sail away, but climbed to the bottom and went under the water along with the ship, with their hands raised to greet. Unaware of its fate, Group West – the German command base – continued to send signals to the Bismarck for several more hours, until Reuters reported on news from the UK that the ship was sunk. In Great Britain, the House of Commons reported the sinking of the Bismarck on the same day. Cruiser “Dorsetshire”and the destroyer “Maori” Remained to save the survivors, but because of the alarm raised by the appearance of the German submarine, they left the scene of the battle, managing to save 111 sailors of the “Bismarck”. Among those rescued was the ship’s cat: Sam. In the evening, the German submarine U-74 picked up the three surviving German sailors who escaped on an inflatable raft. Two more sailors on an inflatable raft picked up the next morning the German meteorological boat “Zaksenvald” (A total of 2220 people of the Bismarck team survived 116 people and a cat named Unsinkable Sam.
After this battle, John Tovey wrote in his memoirs: “The Bismarck fought the most heroic battle under the most impossible conditions, worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and he went under the water with the flag raised. “The Admiral wanted to say this publicly, but the Admiralty objected: “For political reasons, it is important that none of the feelings expressed by you be made public, but we admire the heroic fight.”
The question of the reasons that caused the death of the ship, has long been a subject of debate: whether the torpedoes from the “Dorsetshire” caused fatal damage, or the ship sank as a result of the actions of the hold crew, who received the order to open the hatches. It is believed that the stability of the ship was compromised by the combined action of these factors. Be that as it may, D. Cameron’s underwater expedition to the sunken ship showed that the ship’s hatches were open.
Actions of German submarines during the Bismarck campaign
German submarines, leading in the composition of the “packs of wolves” in the Atlantic Ocean hunting for convoys of Allied forces, were notified of the departure of the “Bismarck”and “Prince Eugen”.
On May 24, a radiogram informed the submarines of the Bismarck’s victory over the Hood and was recommended in the future to be guided by orders that took into account the Bismarck’s operations.
On May 25, a large convoy was spotted and attacked by U-557 a few hundred miles from the Bismarck.
On May 26, the boat received an order to transfer its coordinates to other submarines for a joint attack.
On the morning of May 27, submarines received an order:
Everyone is urgent. The submarines that have retained a supply of torpedoes should immediately proceed at maximum speed to the Bismarck in the grid of the BU-29 square.
The order was received with a delay of 8 hours: it was signed at 21:15 on May 26, when many boats participated in the attack of the convoy and were hiding under water from escorts, unable to receive the order. In addition, at this time, the boats pulled back behind the convoy to the north of the Bismarck. U-556 transmitted a radio message that the Bismarck was in a hopeless battle. At 11:25 a.m. a radiogram was received from the headquarters:
Bismarck fell victim to massive enemy fire. All nearby submarines to search for the surviving crew members of the battleship.
On the evening of May 27, after several hours of searching, the U-74 submarine picked up the three surviving sailors.
Arriving on May 29, two days and seven hours after the sinking of the ship, in square BE-65, U-556 found only a lot of floating debris and a thick layer of oil on the water. After a day of searching, the boat returned to the patrol area.
The last battle of the Bismarck showed how difficult it is for a ship of the line to sink another ship of the line, even when outnumbered. On the other hand, the decisive hit on the Bismarck came from a single torpedo from a small aircraft. It is not known exactly what caused the death of the battleship. According to survivors on the expedition to the remains of the ship, the possible cause of the sinking was the destruction of the ship by the crew, and not an English torpedo. In the hit zone of the torpedo, it is clearly visible that there is no damage to the anti-torpedo bulkhead. The torpedo hit did not sink the ship, but broke the rudder, which gave time for the main forces of the British fleet to approach the battle site. The death of the Bismarck was a vivid illustration of the loss of the leading position in the fleet by battleships. This role passed to aircraft carriers.
Nevertheless, Winston Churchill argued:
Although the merit belongs to everyone, it should not be forgotten that the outcome of the protracted battle was predetermined by the first blow inflicted on the Bismarck by the guns of the battleship Prince of Wales, it was the battleships that played a decisive role both at the beginning and at the end of the battle.
– Winston Churchill, World War II, vol. 3, ch. 17
The German naval command soon abandoned the raider operations of the surface fleet and made the main bet on unlimited submarine warfare. The second ship of the Bismarck class, the battleship Tirpitz, damaged by British mini-submarines and standing for several years under the protection of a boom and a reclaimed breakwater in the Norwegian fjord of Tromsø ( Norwegian Tromsö ), did not fire a single salvo at enemy ships throughout the war. It was sunk on 12 November 1944 as a result of a massive British air raid.