by Grant Michaud and Michael Emmerich
From the Baltic Sea to the Denmark Straits
In spring of 1941, the German Kriegsmarine conducted a successful North Atlantic operation (Operation Berlin) with the battleships Scharnhorst
, sinking a total of 22 allied cargo ships in nearly 2 months. For the next operation of this kind, it was planed to use Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship - the Bismarck
For some time it was even considered to shorten training operations of its sister ship Tirpitz
and send both ships into the North Atlantic together. It was first planned to do a combined operation with the battleships Scharnhorst
which were stationed in Brest, France after their operation earlier that year. Though, both ships were not operational due to mechanical failures and damages caused by British air attacks. Therefore the brand new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen
was selected to operate with the Bismarck
Operation Rheinübung started on May 18th 1941, when the ships left Gotenhafen (Gdynia). It was the biggest operation of this kind, a total - of two supply ships, five tankers and two reconnaissance ships were send to Norway and the North Atlantic in support these two warships. The Germans tried everything to keep the start of the operation secret - but they were unsuccessful. While passing the Swedish coast, they were spotted by the Swedish aircraft-cruiser Gotland
, and it is very likely that this information was forwarded to the British. In addition, several Norwegian resistance members reported that "two unidentified major ships, escorted by several
smaller ones" had passed by the coast.
On May 21st, the German ships arrived in the Grimstadtfjord, Norway where their camouflage painting was removed and Prinz Eugen
was refueled. The Bismarck
did not refuel its tanks, a decision that proved to be an essential error for later operations. Unknown to the Germans, they had been photographed by a British reconnaissance Spitfire, giving the British the exact location of the German ships.
In the evening, the German ships left the Fjord and headed north. While the weather got worse from hour to hour, dusk set-in and low clouds prevented the ships from detection from the air. The original planning for the operation was to refuel the ships again in the Norwegian Sea. But the commander of the task group, Admiral Lütjens, skipped that refueling. The reason for this cannot be found today, but it is possible that he wanted to profit by the bad weather (which was good for the Germans to stay undetected), to get past Iceland as soon as possible, and refuel when they reached the North Atlantic. Therefore, the ships changed course in the morning of May 22nd and headed directly towards the Denmark Straits while visibility went down to 300-400 meters. On midnight of the next day, the ships were informed by the Group North (land based headquarters in charge) that the ships were still undetected and they continued their course. During the afternoon, the weather go a little better and the ships reached the ice barrier, their course now lead through ice fields as they headed south west.
At 19:22, Bismarck's
Fumkmeßortungsgeräte (radar detectors) found a signal on the port side and only moments later the silhouette of the British cruiser Suffolk
appeared in the dusk. The British ship disappeared in the dusk again and started to shadow the German ships with its radar equipment. About one hour later, a second British cruiser - the Norfolk
-closed in. Bismarck
opened fire on the British ship firing five salvos, but scored no hit. The vibrations of the heavy artillery fire disabled the forward radar detector of the Bismarck
, therefore the German ships changed positions: The Prinz Eugen
now in the lead, followed by the
Aware that the British detected them, Admiral Lütjens informed the German headquarters about the detection by the British ships. Despite the fact that the weather got worse again, the German B-Dienst (radio intelligence) on board of the ships was able to decode the British radio messages and it got obvious that the British cruisers were able to shadow the German ships with their radar equipment.
Click here to see an animated map of Operation Rheinübung
At about 5:00am on May 24th, Prinz Eugen's
underwater microphones reported the sound of two turbine-powered ships on the port side. At 5:39am, the German ships were informed that the Suffolk
had send a detailed position report of the German ships. And, only 6 minutes later two smoke clouds were detected by the Prinz Eugen
. The fast closing ships were first identified as cruisers but it soon got clear what ships were approaching: Two British battleships. They were identified as the British battlecruiser Hood
and one battleship of the King George V
class (the Prince of Wales
From Ireland to the Denmark Straits.
It was in the spring of 1941 that the battlecruisers Scharnhorst
were tucked away safely in the port at Brest, France. At least, they thought they were safe. With constant air attacks Scharnhorst
had been hit, and the faulty engines of the Gneisenau
, neither of the duo were in shape to put to sea. Even if they had, the battlecruiser Hood and other units of the Home Fleet had been ordered on the 28th of April to patrol 350 miles west of Brest.
It was on the 18th of May, at Scapa Flow that the crewmembers of the Hood
heard of the Bismarck
for the first time. It was during middle watch that they had been briefed of the upcoming mission. It was to be another patrol of the Bay of Biscay when they received word that the Bismarck
and two light cruisers escorted by three destroyers, had, made a break out of Kiel. They were reported to be heading in a north westerly coarse. So, they were told that the cruiser Kenya and a destroyer screen would patrol the northern waters and they would maintain their present mission. If there was a verified sighting, than they were to make a high
speed run to the contact.
At this time all the admiralty had at hand to intercept such a powerful warship as the Bismarck
- BB King George V (KGV)
- BB Prince of Wales (POW)
- BB Rodney
- BB Ramillies
- BB Revenge
- BC Hood
- BC Renown (Force H)
- BC Repulse
- CV Victorious
- CV Ark Royal (Force H)
- CA Suffolk
- CA Norfolk
- CA Dorsetshire
- CA Sheffield (Force H)
This was along with two light cruiser squadrons along with their five destroyer flotillas. The units from Force H would have to steam from Gibraltar.
, the light cruisers were for the most part at Scapa Flow and the destroyer flotillas. Dorchester
was on convoy duty and detached herself to join in the pursuit. Ramilles
was also on convoy duty, but could be called on.
It was at this time that the Admiral Whitworth discussed his plans with the officers ‘If possible we will make a end-on approach, so as to present the minimum target.' It was the first time many of the officers had been warned of this weakness. To horizontal shots the 12-inch side armor could stand up to quit a bit but the horizontal protection was a weakness to plunging shots. The lower decks were never told of this, so on they started to patrol the familiar pattern until the operation was canceled. Moreover, they were on the move to Hvalfjord, Iceland to wait 8 days for the cruisers Norfolk
At sunset, the fleet put to sea to guard a convoy from the possible threat of the Bismarck
. After three days of cold wet weather, the group put back into Hvalfjord, Iceland. It was to be only three more days until we were to find out the Bismarck
had put into Gyndia, Poland. Therefore, on the 5 of May, the Hood set sail for Scapa Flow once again.
It was at the time of arriving back in the Flow that saw Admiral Whitworth off to Whitehall. His replacement was to be Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland with the command also came the command of the Battle Cruiser Squadron and second in command of the Home Fleet. While at the Flow we had gunnery practice with all caliber’s and were confident that are shooting would be straight and true in the path of the Bismarck
So it was that on the 21st of May whne the fleet received a signal to Admiral Holland from the CinC of the Home Fleet ‘ Flying your flag in Hood
and taking Prince of Wales
under your orders sail at 0001 on May 22 and proceed with moderated despatch to Hvalfjord.’ The crew received this as another few nights of cold and misery ahead; defiantly it was not to be looked forward to.
It was the next morning the crew was then briefed on the details of the mission. Commander Cross told the crew that the Bismarck
and a Hipper
class cruiser were joining up and expected to leave Bergen and that his battlecruiser squadron were to patrol the area north of Iceland. Admiral Tovey in KGV
would patrol with the rest of the fleet, along the southern approach to the Atlantic. They were also told that cruisers and aircraft were patrolling the most likely routes, so that they may give proper warning.
So, it was that Captain Ellis of the HMS Suffolk
waited for his overdue replacement in his closed bridge. It was to be this way, when they seen the Bismarck
and Prinz Eugen
for the first time at 7:22 the evening of the 22 May. She had been tracking the 2 ships with her sophisticated Type 272 radar, which had the ability to look in different directions, without the ship having to move. However, with the build up of ice on her aerials, and other parts her ability to see far ahead was hindered. The Type 272 radar had a range of 13 miles, when operating at it’s peak conditions. After stumbling out of a snow squall not seven miles away, by accident they were on a parallel coarse and spotted the German duo. Right away ‘Action Stations’ was piped throughout the ship. Full speed, and a sharp turn to port back into the snow squall,was ordered as the radar was locked onto the targets. They also flashed out the news ‘ Immediate. One battleship one cruiser in sight bearing 020 degrees course 240 distance 7 miles’. However, this message was never received by either Admirals Tovey or Holland. And, it was at this time of most importance that the Norfolk
was racing through the same poor weather. Was on a intercept course with Suffolk
. Also, at this time Admiral Holland who was still three hundred miles away to the south ordered up 27 knots and a change of coarse of 295 degrees. This he figured would put them on a coarse for interception. About an hour later the Norfolk
under Captain Phillips literally stumbled into the two ships. As her inferior Type 79 Y radar did not detect the duo with its short range, and forward looking ability only until it was almost to late. So, at 2032 the message: ‘One Battleship, one cruiser in sight’ was sent. This was the two Admirals first actual plotting of the Bismarck
from a surface vessel. Meanwhile, the Norfolk
who was in a desperate situation, reversed coarse as the great 15-inch shells of the Bismarck
straddled her (6 or 5) times. But, with smoke, speed and luck she managed to take up a position so that she could follow them. Having the 18th Cruiser Squadron under Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker shadowing the two ships. One, the Suffolk
with superior radar, and the other Norfolk
with the better radio. The two take to following the pair on a course roughly parallel to Greenland, and sending a steady stream of reports in. This pair was to perform the cruiser’s job of finding and shadowing the enemy superbly. With the Bismarck
and Prinz Eugen
sprinting up to 30 knots and zigzagging in the snow squalls. The two tenacious cruisers hung on with their only advantage being a 2-knot speed advantage. It was around this time that Admiral Holland signaled his plan of action to Captain John Leach aboard the POW
. That with the Hood
leading the pair of ships, they were to concentrate all there fire on the Bismarck
. Which, they had assumed was leading the pair. All the while, the Suffolk
were to simultaneously attempt to engage the Prinz Eugen
. The British cruisers unfortunately never received this report due to the forgotten ban on the use of radio or radar, so that the Bismarck
didn’t detect them. Then at around midnight, the Bismarck
and Prinz Eugen
were once again lost in a snowstorm. The Signal was sent from the Norfolk
: ‘Enemy lost in snowstorm.’
Now Admiral Holland, who had shaped a course that would of brought his force across the path of the Bismarck
and Prinz Eugen
. 'We're at a loss', the crews of the Hood
were told to assume a ‘relaxed action stations.’ Holland had a quick conference with his officers, and decided to reduce speed to 25 knots and a change of coarse to the north. With this thinking, it was thought that Admiral Lutjens who now knew he was being followed. Holland thought that he would make a dash to the southwest to shake his followers as he was now passing Iceland. He additionally, thought that with his position if the Germans turned south he would be close to an intercept. If not, by 0210 hours then they would reverse coarse and start to a make a coarse to the south. The worst that came now, was that his plan of trying to cross the T or at least meet the enemy from the front was now spoiled. After 0210 hours, the Admiral ordered the force south then south east as to consolidate his strength on the bow of the Bismarck
if his estimated coarse was right. To cover the northerly area of the ice edge the destroyers that had fallen back earlier were directed to
take a position guarding the north. All the while, Admiral Tovey was still bringing his force up to guard against any backtracking that Lutjens would do.
At 0247, the Suffolk
was steaming at a full speed of 30 knots heading south when she radioed, that she was in contact with the enemy. On the Hood’s
plot, this put the Bismarck
and Prinz Eugen
35 miles to the northwest. With the Hood
in the position, she wanted, ahead of the enemy. But, there was an unforeseen error and the Hood
were heading on a coarse of 200 degrees. While both the Bismarck
and Prinz Eugen
were on a heading of 220 degrees. Therefore, this ended up putting the ships on a diverging coarse. ‘Action Stations’ was sounded in both capital ships and they increased their speed to 29 knots. The Hood’s
best speed after months, of pounding across the seas from one emergency to another, while the POW
struggled to keep up with the Hood
. From the POW
, the black plume with sparks coming from the Hood
showed the once proud ship straining to keep her speed up. Dawn came at around 0200 hours, with it being nothing more than a gray winter day with patches of cloud allowing for some visibility. At 0500 hours, Admiral Holland had gave the order to ‘Prepare for instant action.’ Which by now, the crews were beyond being told to prepare as they were ready and waiting. As the lookouts on both ships, strained there eyes for the enemy to the north there was a shout at 0535, ‘Alarm starboard green 40.’ At 17 miles to the northwest, the larger ship Bismarck
had been spotted.
The orders where dispatched to the admiralty ‘Emergency to Admiralty and C in C, Home Fleet. From BC1 - one battleship and one heavy cruiser, bearing 330, distance 17 miles. My position 63 -20 north, 31 - 50 west. My course 240. Speed 28 knots.’ Then the order for ‘Blue 4’ to be flown was given This meant a change of course to the starboard. With the ships turning in succession, so that both could fire with only there forward batteries. On board the Prince Of Wales
, they also had spotted the enemy and switched there coarse when ordered to. While some eyes where on the enemy, others where on the Hood
waiting for the order to fire as the gongs finished there gonging. They watched and waited, as they new the admiral wanted to close range as soon as possible. But, the holding fire was getting to make them wonder if the admiral had changed his mind at the last moment. On board the Hood
the Director Control Tower called the range, ’Twenty - eight thousand …twenty- seven five…’ Then came ‘On the ready to fire.’
The Battle of the Denmark Straits
At 5:50am the ships closed up to a distance of 20,000 meters, when the battle begun. On board the Bismarck
, the British battleship was identified as King George V
, according to German intelligence information, the Prince of Wales
had been thought not to be operational yet.
Click here to see an animated battlemap
opened fire on 5:52am, and the Prince of Wales
30 seconds later. Bismarck
replied after two or three salvos fired by the Hood
, followed by the Prinz Eugen
on 5:55am. Because of their angle of approach, the British ships only could use their forward guns while the Germans could fire with the advantage of a full broadside. Since the German ships as a very similar silouette, the Hood
first concentrated its fire on the smaller Prinz Eugen
, while the Prince of Wales
identified the ships correctly and targeted Bismarck
. Both German ships concentrated their fire on the Hood
, first firing turret-group salvos (i.e. four guns at once), and then switching to full salvos.
first salvo was too short, going into the sea starboard of the Prince Of Wales
. The impacts of Prinz Eugen's
first salvo could not be detached, but the second was already a near miss. With the third salvo, Prinz Eugen
scored a hit on the Hood
on the boat deck, starting a fire in the ammunitions stored there. After the third salvo, Prinz Eugen
switched fire to the Prince of Wales
The second, third and fourth salvo of the Bismarck
got closer and closer to the Hood
and the following fifth salvo was a direct hit in the area of the Hoods
main mast. Only seconds later, at 6:00am, the Hood
exploded and broke into two pieces.
So, when at the range of twenty-eight thousand yards the Director Control Tower signaled ‘On ready to fire.’ That is when Captain Kerr turned to Admiral Holland and inquired, quite so politely ‘Permission to fire, sir?’ The Admiral replied ‘Thank you. Yes. Open fire.’ Kerr nodded to the Chief Yeoman who intern whirled about and commanded ‘Flag Five, Hoist.' Kerr then lifted the DCT voice handset and said: "Open fire." The firing gong sounded once again, this time to be followed by the thundering crash. As, the four forward guns fired all at once. In one salvo of the 15 inch guns, there were four 1,920 pound shells fired at more than the speed of
sound. The range was now 26,500 yards and the time was 0553 hours.
In the POW
, they watched and waited for the Admirals signal to fire. Wondering if there had been a last minute change of plans, when suddenly the signal came ‘Open Fire.' This was followed by the great orange flashes from the A and B turrets on the Hood
. Not a moment later, the POW
opened fire in pulverizing roar. Unfortunately, her target was not the lead ship as the Hood
was firing on. Nevertheless, it was the gunnery officer who directed his own ships fire at the Bismarck
seeing the Hood’s
error. The Hood
let off her second salvo, before Holland commanded ‘Shift target to the right.’ Within the next two minutes, the Hood
rammed in six more salvos. But, it was on the third that there was four flashes with red centers that appeared from the side of the Bismarck
. These were followed by more flashes, then there was four splashes around the starboard beam of the Hood
. Not seconds later, followed by an explosion at the base of the mainmast. ‘We’ve been hit at the base of the mainmast, sir, and we are on fire.’ Came the report after the hit. It was then that the Bismarck
and the Prinz Eugen
turned to open there firing arc’s completely. Back on the
, she had been hit by more AP shells from the Prinz Eugen
, who now switched fire on to the POW
. But, on the amidships boat deck the 4-inch ready use ammunition, was going up in a brilliant show of flame and explosions. This in turn set off the nine and a half ton of stored UP rockets. As these were going off, shooting up into the air and the small explosives under them went off it looked as if there were fused high explosive shots also being fired at them. As the shells and rockets continued to go off, the captain ordered everyone back from the fire to let it burn it self out. There was just to much of a carnage on the deck to waste any lives.
On board the POW
, things were going as well as to be expected, for a new ship with civilian technicians on board for work on the forward turrets. B turret fired one salvo before becoming jammed in one position making her unworkable, A turret let off four shots with it's 14 inch guns, but by the third salvo they were down to three guns out of the possible total of six. At 0559 Admiral Holland ordered a turn of 20 degrees to port, with the range now down to 19,000 yards. They had to bring all there guns to bear, as the situation was getting to look bad. As the ships began there turn, the Bismarck
let loose her sixth salvo. Just as X and Y turrets let loose with there pent up furor, on the Hood
there was a blinding flash followed by a muffled roar. As the ship had seemed to come to a sudden stop.
At once, she took a list of ten degrees to the starboard. Some recall seeing a yellowish cloud of smoke being released, others on the Norfolk
and Prinz Eugen
recall seeing a bright huge column of flames crawling up into the sky at least four times the height of the main mast. This was followed with a roll to the port, which did not seem to quit. It was then that the crew realized that she was done for. As the great ship rolled over her back broke, and her screws came up in the air, there is a report that the A and B turrets let loose a final salvo as the two parts of the ship went down. But this was never confirmed it was probably the mercury switches closing to fire the guns one last time. On board the POW
, they could only stare in silence until someone said ‘Well, that’s the end of her.’ ’What’s that?’ ‘Hood’s
gone!’ the crew members who seen the ship break apart and disappear felt sick and weak kneed as the pride of the Royal Navy was gone. With a crew of 1,421 officers and men, there were only three survivors.
Once the Germans recovered from there shock, they switched to shooting full broadsides at the POW
. Remarkably, the poor shooting of the POW
was starting to pay out with two hits on the forward part of the Bismarck
. Later to find out that they had holed one of the fuel oil bunkers. Their success was paid for in full as she received a total of 7 to 8 hit, that consisted of 15-inch and 8-inch shells. With the fall of Admiral Holland, Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker took over immediate command and ordered Captain Leach in POW,
to break off action and head for cover. The POW
was not to return to port, but to become part of the screen behind the now bloodied Bismarck
and the Prinz Eugen
The Hunt for the Bismarck
After reviewing the damages caused by the shells of the Prince of Wales
, it was clear that the Bismarck
could not continue its operations and had to return to a friendly port. There were two alternatives: Return and break through the Denmark Straits again to return to Germany or to continue its course and sail into a port in occupied France. The fuel situation was not considered as too dangerous yet, therefore Admiral Lütjens decided to continue the course into the Atlantic giving the ships a better chance to escape. Once they were able to escape the shadowing British cruisers, there even might be the chance to meet with one of the pre-stationed tankers and refuel the ships.
At noon of May 24th Lütjens was informed that the fuel situation was worse than expected and that there was no chance to gain access to the forward oil tanks. The fact that Bismarck
did not refuel in Norway now proved to be a major disadvantage to the operation. The fuel shortage forced the Germans to reduce the speed to 24 knots while they were still shadowed by Norfolk
and the Prince of Wales
, following Bismarck's
oil trail. The German ships also lost any operational freedom and had to
take the direct course to France. In the following hours, it was decided that the Prinz Eugen
should be detached for commerce war in the Atlantic instead of following the damaged battleship. This should be approved with a maneuver with the code-name "Hood". Still following the Prinz Eugen
, the Bismarck
should turn north towards the British ships and fulfill a short attack, giving the cruiser the chance to escape in the Atlantic. A first attempt on 15:30 failed, but after some fog layers at 18:00 a second attempt was successful. The British cruisers had to break away when the German battleship suddenly broke through the fog, only 10 miles away shelling the British ships. No side did score any hit, and after the short engagement, the German battleship turned southagain, now alone hunted by the British Navy.
At about 23:30, the Bismarck
was attacked by 8 Swordfish torpedo bombers, launched by the British carrier Victorious
, which launched its planes about 120 miles away from the Bismarck's
position despite the worsening weather in a desperate attempt to slow down the German battleship. Unknown to the Germans, the British ships were running out of fuel, too and their only chance to engage the Bismarck
was to reduce the ships speed. Despite the heavy flak fire, all aircraft launched their torpedoes, but only one of them hit the Bismarck
- but this hit did cause only slight damage. It hit the belt armor just below the waterline, not penetrating the armor protection. More serious was that caused by the evasive maneuvers, the repairs of the hull damage broke again and the ship had to slow down to 16 knots to tighten up the leaks again.
During all this time, the British cruisers and the Prince of Wales
still shadowed the German ship. Due to the danger of German U-Boats they were executing Zig-Zag courses while the Bismarck
was heading south in a straight line. As a result, they lost radar contact with the German ship in each Zig for a few minutes, establishing it again on the other leg of the Zag. And now what happened had to happen: at about 3:00 on May 25th, the Bismarck
took the chance produced by the Zig-Zaging to escape from the shadowing cruisers. The success of this maneuver, was not known in the German ship. Although the British were desperately searching the Bismarck
and reported the loss of contact two hours later, the British radar was still received on the German battleship. But the Germans did not know that the signal was too weak to return to the British cruiser.
While the British were desperately seeking the Bismarck
, the situation on board of the ship got worse. Still thinking that they were shadowed by the British cruisers, Admiral Lütjens made a big error - if not the biggest error in the whole operation. On 08:46 he send off two long radio transmission (over 30 minutes each) to the German headquarters, describing the situation on board and reporting details of the destruction of the Hood. The German Headquarters „Gruppe West" however were able to decode British radio transmissions and knew that the British lost contact with the German ship, but after the long radio transmissions send by the Bismarck
, it was impossible that the British would not know the battleships position.
What happened now could only be described as a coincidence of history: The staff on board of the British flagship King George V
made an unbelievable error in calculation the Bismarck's
position. According to them, the ship now was on a northern course, heading to the narrow between Iceland and the Farör-Islands. Therefore, all British ships were ordered for intercept courses to the calculated position, although several other ships calculated the right position. While the German battleship continued on its way south, the British ships raced north, enlarging the distance to the German ship minute by minute. When they knew about the error, the German ship already was 150 miles away and their fuel reserves made it impossible for most ships to continue the hunt. While continuing its way south, there were plans to build a second mock-up funnel on the Bismarck
to give the ship the appearance of the British warship to deceive anybody who would spot the ship from the distance. But this plan was never executed.
For over 30 hours the Bismarck
was undetected by the British and some hope that they could return to a friendly base returned until 10:30 on May 26th, about 700 miles away from the French coast.
While weather and sky conditions were not very good at this time, a British Catalina aircraft flying just below the cloud cover, spotted the Bismarck
. When the German ship opened fire with all its flak guns (which was not without contradiction on board of the battleship) it got clear to the British and American crew that this was the German battleship and radioed its position. Unknown to the Germans, the Bismarck
was now 125 miles south east of the battleship Rodney
and 135 miles south of the King George V
, it still had a good chance to escape. The battlecruisers Renown
and the cruiser Sheffield
, part of Force H coming from Gibraltar, were much closer, but the British feared an engagement between the Bismarck
and light armored battlecruiser, the shock of loosing the Hood
was still too fresh. Therefore the aircraft carrier Ark Royal
- about 60 miles away from the Bismarck
- was ordered to launch its Swordfish torpedo bombers, despite the unsuccessful attack of the Victorious two days before.
On board of the Bismarck
, several aircraft were spotted after the Catalina made contact with the ship in the morning and it became clear that the British were preparing another attack. But nothing happened during the day until 18:00 when the cruiser Sheffield
came into sight - after over 40 hours, the Bismarck was shadowed by a British warship again. But with the approaching night, there was hope that the ship might escape again, the next day, the Bismarck
would be in range of the German Luftwaffe operating from French bases and would be secure.
At this time, the first wave of 15 Swordfish torpedo bombers launched by the Ark Royal arrived at the Bismarck's
position - but instead of attacking the Bismarck
, all but three of them attacked the shadowing cruiser Sheffield
! And luck was again on the British side. All torpedoes were equipped with magnetic detonators, which were all malfunctioning and therefore the Sheffield
was not damaged in this attack. The British, however, learned their lessons from then on all the other Swordfish were equipped with conventional torpedoes.
The next wave of torpedo bombers arrived at about 21:00 - and this time they attacked the right target. Despite heavy anti aircraft fire the biplanes approached the battleship just above the ocean surface. During this attack, Bismarck's
main artillery opened fire on the shadowing Sheffield
, the near misses caused several causalities on board of the British ship and forced it to retreat. Several aircraft were damaged, but they scored two hits on the German ship: The first hit the armor belt on the port side without causing much damage, similar to the hit scored by the planes of the Victorious. But the second hit was the one that set the fate of the Bismarck
: It disabled the ships rudder while it was in a sharp port turn - making it not maneuverable anymore.
Several desperate attempts were made to get the rudders clear. Without them, the ship could be maneuvered with the props only, but the rudder had to be in a center position. As it was turned to extreme port, it was impossible to control the course of the ship. It was suggested to try to get rid of the rudder by explosives, but heavy seas prevented divers to examine the damage from the outside. While the ship now slowly sailed with a northern course it got clear that they could not escape anymore.
At 23:40 Bismarck
informed its headquarters Gruppe West with this short radio transmission about it’s situation: : „23:40 Uhr. Schiff manöverierunfähig. Wir kämpfen is zur letzten Granate. Es lebe der Füher". It caused hectic actions at the French coast: German destroyers should leave their ports when the weather got better, all available U-boats, even those without torpedoes were sent into the area, the launch of all available long range aircraft in the morning was prepared and the Troßschiff (supply ship) Ermland
was ordered to assist and if possible tow the crippled battleship. But despite all this measures - it was very clear at that time that there was nobody who could assist the Bismarck
in its battle next day. There was also no doubt how this battle would end. So the damaged battleship was waiting for the British to arrive in the morning to take revenge for the destruction of the Hood
The last night
crew was still trying to repair the rudder damage, four British destroyers (Cossack
) assisted by the Polish destroyer Piorun
had encircled the German battleship. Despite the heavy seas, a first coordinated attack was launched at about 23:00, but because of the Bismarck's
defensive fire by its main and secondary guns, all destroyers had to cancel their first attack wave. No hit was scored on either side, however, the massive fire by the German battleship prevented any further coordinated attack. In the following hours until about 4:00 several torpedo attacks were made on the ship, in some cases, the destroyers closed up to 2 miles to the German ship, but none of them was successful. Because of the bad weather, the major British ships did not engage in the battle, it was feared that the German ship could suddenly become visible at short range and could start an immediate, deadly attack.
During the continuing attacks, the German U-boat U-556
arrived in the battle area, it was almost rammed by one of the attacking destroyers. Although the main guns of the Bismarck
could be seen firing, the U-boat could nothing do to assist the battleship. Without any torpedo and low on fuel, it only could transmit the ships position to Gruppe West. It was an irony of history that it was U-556
that was near the Bismarck
and could not support it: When Bismarck
was commissioned, U-556
signed a humorous „sponsorship" document, to assist the big battleships with their little U-boat wherever possible, even if this would mean to tow it back to port. Nobody would have ever thought, how close this would have come to reality....
The continuing night attacks had two results for the Bismarck's
crew. On the one hand, they had no time to think about their fate in the next morning, but on the other hand, there was no chance to take some rest and when the morning arrived, fatigue increased.
In the morning of May 27th Admiral Lütjens decided to save the ships logbook by sending off one of the Arado Ar 196 float planes with it. But it was discovered that the catapult was damaged by shells of the Prince of Wales
during the battle three days earlier, so he requested for an U-boat that should transport this document to France. Although there were several U-boats approaching the Bismarck's
position, none of them could be there in time.
Shortly after 8:30 some smoke clouds were spotted north west of the German ship, which was now heading lowly on a north western course - the British battleships King George V
had arrived and the Bismarck's
crew knew that the final battle had begun.
We’ve got to sink the Bismarck
On Saturday May 24th, at 9 a.m. the BBC broadcast the news to millions of people, that the name that meant all that was good, safe and secure, the Hood
had been sunk. This single loss stirred more emotion in people then the loss of France, Dunkirk and Singapore had. The loss of three cruisers and six destroyers off the island of Crete during the evacuations there didn’t get as much press as the Hood’s
loss. The nation was hurt and the want for revenge was to start a fast burning fire in the entire nation and Royal Navy’s heart.
With the POW
falling back under a rain of shells, she had time to assess her damage. The compass platform had been hit killing all and wounding the rest except for Captain Leach, he remained untouched. Shells had also destroyed the forward 5.5-inch director, radar office, and the aircraft crane. There was an unexploded 15-inch shell near the diesel dynamo, and there was an 8-inch shell in one of the shell handling rooms unexploded. The Bismarck
had in turn taken three hits from the 14-inch guns of the POW
. One had hit the aircraft catapult, the second had destroyed a dynamo room and the third had hit below the bow wave severing the front fuel feed line. So, a large amount of fuel was contaminated and about 2,000 tons of fuel stored forward was now inaccessible. To make matters worse there was now a long trail of oil in the ocean following the Bismarck
. It was the forward fuel spilling out, making an excellent pointing finger for any searching planes.
This had the effect, of making Admiral Lutjens put a stop to the pursuit of the POW
. Which was what the Captain Linemann wanted to do, he wanted to finish the new battleship now. However, the Admiral ordered a resumption of coarse, but after two hours, he realized that he had to head back or make for France. As now, his fuel situation was enough low enough to keep them from their original mission. With the POW
under the command of Wake-Walker she was ordered to fall in behind the cruisers as they start to resume their job of shadowing. For the POW
now with her frustrated crewmen on board and having to run from the enemy her rear turret now also had some of her rear guns jammed.
Now the hunt was to begin C in C Admiral Tovey had the last two battlecruisers Renown
available but on hearing that they might be used the Admiralty ordered that they were not to be exposed to the enemy alone, only with other heavy units. Renown
was with Force H and the Repulse
was with the C in C who aboard the KGV
with the Victorious
and the Second Cruiser squadron, they were some 300 miles from where the Hood
was lost. Following them 250 miles, back was the Rodney
and four destroyers. Admiral Tovey ordered the Ramilles
to leave her convoy bound for Canada and turn back. The Revenge
was ordered from the harbor of Halifax, the cruisers London
were taken off patrol north-east of the Azores, and the Dorsetchire’s
Captain Benjium Martin left his convoy to the armed merchant cruiser Bulolo
and at a high speed steamed to get into the action. On the 24 of May in the afternoon the damage to the Bismarck
was sufficient enough to call a halt to her surface raiding plans, so the Prinz Eugen
was ordered to break away and continue with the original mission. Therefore, she set a separate coarse from the
. However, the Norfolk
would not break contact with the battleship. During the evening of the 24 and 25 the Swordfish from Victorious
tried there luck with strikes against the battleship, but all they could score was a single hit with there 18 inch torpedo’s, and this did no harm to the Bismarck
. On the morning of the 25 of May while it was near the weary radar operators shift the Bismarck
suddenly swung about, Admiral Lutjens turned the battleship back on the pursing cruisers, and opened fire with his 15 inch main guns. For the Norfolk
, there was only one thing to do, and that was break contact and run. After all, they could always re acquire the battleship on their radar once they figured out what his plans were. Nevertheless, by the time the firing had died off, and they went to start their pursuit again, and the great ship was gone. There was no site on radar or by lookout of either ship. The message from Wake-Walker was simple and to the point, ’Have lost contact with enemy.’
For two days, there was no siting of the ships despite, the massive search underway at the time. But, on the second day there was a break in the British fortunes. With the help, of the excellent British radio direction finding his bearings and position were found and passed to the Admiralty. What had happened was the Bismarck
hearing the constant pinging of the British radar thought that their position was know. Little did they realize that the return signal to the Suffolk
was too weak to show the ship, so
they were not detected. However, the admiral believing that he was radioed Berlin about the battle with the Hood
and the resulting damage to his ship. Along with this, he told them of his decision to let the Prinz Eugen
carrier on with out him. In total, the message was thirty minutes long, long enough for them to be found. Now armed with this the admiralty was ready to set up an interception of the battleship. But, with the usual efficiency of the Admiralty instead of radioing Admiral Tovey the position of the Bismarck
they radioed the bearings only. These showing that the Bismarck
was attempting to return the direction that she had come, as this was always a possibility of the search. So, the search was once again directed to the northeast. Also now some of the ship that had originally deployed were starting to run low of fuel, so the Repulse
was ordered to search as she worked her way west to Halifax to refuel. So now, the Admiral Tovey had a force of twenty-one battleships, one battlecruiser, eleven cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, and six submarines. With the departure of the Repulse
, the POW
was placed with the KGV
So now, it was just a matter of time until the mighty ship was to be found. The Coastal Command and the RAF sending all they could to assist in the search. It was a good thing that the ‘special observer’ from the neutral United States, ensign Leonard Smith in a Catalina of 209 Squadron Coastal Command. At 1030 on 26th of May, the Catalina broke through a layer of cloud and spotted the Bismarck
. So, as the shells exploded around her as she circled away she sent the message ‘one battleship bearing 240-5 miles - course 150. My position 43.33N 27-47W.’ This placed the nearest British capital ship the Renown
, a hundred miles to the east of her, with the Ark Royal
that were directly in the Bismarck's
path and she was only 690 miles due west of the Brest. The KGV
were 135 to the north and the Rodney
and her destroyers were 125 miles northeast.
The Destruction of the Bismarck
, being a battlecruiser weaker than the Hood
, had been ordered not to engage the Bismarck
so with the Ark Royal
, this force being under the command of Vice-Admiral Somerville. He had to send his destroyers’ back to Gibraltar to refuel so now it was just the three ships on their own. Somerville not being totally informed of what the shape of the Scharnhorst
were in so he had to keep an eye each way. On the 27 of May at first light he ordered a scouting of Brest by two Swordfish, but the weather had been horrible that night and the seals on the center shaft of Ark Royal
was leaking again for the third time in as many weeks. Therefore, the speed had to be reduced to save the shaft from further damage. So, at 0645 two Swordfish were launched to take up recon work at Brest. At 0900 on the 27 the carrier and her group were out of position so to begin their search for the Bismarck
, they launched two more Swordfish. Not two hours later, the Bismarck
was sited. So, Somerville in the Renown
and out of sight of the Ark Royal
ordered a turn to the west northwest so that if he had to face the battleship, at least he would have the position this time and Lutjens would be at a disadvantage. For Lutjens he would have to swing his ship about to bring his broadsides to bear. The Renown
with her speed could be sitting ready with her broadsides. Not only that but any change of coarse or fights for the Bismarck
meant only one thing, and that was the weight of the Royal Navy was bearing down on him. The last thing he could afford was time least of all a lucky hit from the Renown’s
15 inch guns could have devastating effects if it were to hit him in the right spot. So Therefore, at 1315 hours Admiral Somerville ordered the 8 inch gunned cruiser to detach from him in the Renown
and try to make contact with the battleship.
Somerville then sent a message to the Admiralty, the C in C in the King George V
and repeating the signal, for information to the Ark Royal
. Upon receiving the signal the Admiralty thing that Somerville had action with the Bismarck
on his mind desperately radioed him forbidding any such action with the heavy support of the KGV
(who by this time had joined the KGV
, but Tovey had to release the POW
for refueling). Meanwhile onboard the deck of the Ark Royal
in the busy radio room they were deciphering the Fleet communication after 14 Swordfish had taken off to take a run at the Bismarck
. There was no way to warn the flight of Swordfish ‘stringbags’ of the presence of the Sheffield’s
position ahead of all the British units and between the Bismarck
The leader of the flight of Swordfish having had several of his planes fitted with the new ASV (Anti Surface Vessel) radar. And within 40 minutes of taking off, the radar sets started to show a surface vessel 20 miles from the Bismarck's
position so they headed in for what they thought was the target. Out of the clouds, they dropped and seen a large vessel so they started there attack runs. At the last minute, three of the planes had seen their mistake and were able to avoid attacking the Sheffield
. Out of the ten remaining planes, two torpedo’s magnetic arming device exploded their fish, three more were to explode in the cruisers wake. The others all combed her trail to miss, so as it was a lucky day for the Sheffield
. But this was not to be a wasted lesson, the defect in the arming device was reported to the Ark Royal
so that the next flight would be armed with simple contact firing pistols.
When the KGV
were ninety miles off from the Bismarck
their speed reduced to the twenty-two knots of the Rodney
. It was decided that if for some reason the Bismarck's
speed could not be reduced then in the morning the KGV
would have to break off the chase. When this was signaled to the Admiralty, they could understand that Admiral Tovey didn’t want to get caught in a battle area and run out of fuel. But on the Prime Minister’s insistence ‘we cannot visualize the situation from your signals. Bismarck
must be sunk at all costs, and if to do this it is necessary for King George V
to remain on the scene she must do so even if it subsequently means towing home.’ This is just one of the many senseless comments to come from the Prime Minister over his years in office. While this was going on the Ark Royal
was busy collecting her aircraft, refueling and rearming them. Now they knew that they were the last chance to reach the battleship before help started to arrive on the seen. This time they were to contact the Sheffield
before they started to attack, the Sheffield’s
job would be to guide them in. When the planes were finally launched, there were just thirteen Swordfish. But, they successfully contacted the Sheffield
and were pointed on their way. At 2047, the first of the stringbags started there run on the Bismarck
to only be met with a hail of gunfire. But, by a miracle the planes were not shot down. But with strong belt the German Captain Lutjens was not to worry about the damage the small torpedo’s would or could make against his twelve and a half inch belt. One torpedo hit the amidships on the port side causing no noticeable damage. The other caught the great ship as she swung to the port leaving her stern open one torpedo was put into the steering gear and the rudder was destroyed under the stern. In all the confusion and lacking any explosions the senior pilot Lieutenant-Commander Tim Coode sent off a message stating ‘Estimate no Hits.’
The message was passed on to the Admiral Tovey in KGV
. Now all hope of stopping the great ship were gone it seemed. When Sheffield
sent out the electrically charged message that the Bismarck
was switching coarse to the North, northwest. Minutes later two aircraft had relayed the same info. Around the fleet the on bridges from destroyers to might battleships' faces broke into a grin, they had her hurt. The Sheffield
was chased off each time she ventured to close and then at 2132 the Tribal class destroyers made contact. Consisting of the Cossack
and the Polish destroyer Piorn
. Throughout the night, these destroyers would make several long distance torpedo runs and fake attacks. So, to help keep the Bismarck's
crew weary for in the morning the capital ships would be in position. At 0500 hours, the Bismarck
was observed trying to launch her Arado, but the damage from the hit by POW
was too great so the plane was sent over the side.
On both sides of the horizon, you could just make out the pesky destroyers and then at 0735 Norfolk
, arrived on the scene after 36 hours of straight hard steaming to be in on the final kill. The King George V
and the Rodney
were only 15 miles southeast. Admiral Somerville in the Renown
knowing the fuel situation in the KGV
offered to come and help but Admiral Tovey had no inclination of losing another battlecruiser. Therefore, he ordered Somerville to remain with the Ark Royal
. So, Somerville wanting to be in on the final kill asked his air group if they could launch a strike to which they said no at there was too much of another incident like with the Sheffield
The admirals exchanged signals with their respective commands and at 0830 the KGV
and the Rodney
was seen to the westerly direction, the Norfolk
to the northward and Dorsetshire
who had arrived after pounding some 600 miles to get there. At 0837 the 16-inch guns of Rodney
let loose at a range of 16,000 yards. Not fifty-five seconds later the 14-inch guns of KGV
and the 8 inch cruisers joined fire. The Bismarck
started to return fire two minutes later, and her first shots were uncomfortably close to the Rodney
However, once the British had found there range it really did not matter what the Bismarck
did for she was ripped to shambles in minutes. Both Anton and Bruno turrets were disabled by a salvo from the Rodney
at 0849. After another twenty minutes fire the director control positions were out of action and Caesar and Dora were firing under their own controls. It was not long for these to be in turn knocked out. Now there are only the occasional secondary battery firing, and since the ship was not sinking Tovey ordered the Rodney
into 4,000 yards and the KGV
would stand off to put plunging fire into her. So at ranges of 4,000 yards the nine 16-inch guns of Rodney
were putting salvo after salvo into her. Still the ship doesn’t sink, so Tovey who now has to leave because his fuel is critical orders torpedo’s be used by any ship still possessing them. This it happens to be the Dorsetshire
, so she at 1036 she put two into starboard side and then moved over to the port side where launched one more and this seems to be what finally killed the Bismarck
, but to this day the debate over weather the ship was scuttled of sunk remains a mystery.
· 1044 From C. in C. Home Fleet
ANY SHIPS WITH TORPEDOES ARE TO USE THEM ON BISMARCK.
· 1045 From C. in C. Force H
CANNOT SINK HER WITH GUNS.
· Signals from HMS Dorsetshire
GERMAN BATTLESHIP BISMARCK IS SINKING
ENEMY IS SUNK
AM TRYING TO PICKUP SURVIORS
AM PICKING UP SURVIVORS. TOO ROUGH TO LOWER BOATS.
HUNDREDS ON MEN IN WATER.
· 1107 From Dorsetshire
I TROPEDOED BISMARCK BOTH SIDES BEFORE SHESAND. SHE
HAD CEASED FIRING BUT HER COLOURS WERE STILL FLYING.
The final battle
Although the main guns and gun directors were still undamaged, the German battleship had two disadvantages during the following battle: First its crew was totally exhausted by the several day long chase and the continuos attacks during the night. Second - and more serious - the ship was not able to keep a constant course because of the rudder damage. Therefore it was almost impossible to create usable target solutions for the artillery. As a result, the Bismarck
was not able to score a single hit during its last battle, however near misses caused some damages on the British ships.
The British ships opened fire on the Bismarck
at 8:47, the German ship answering one minute later, concentrating its fire on the Rodney
. It took 12 minutes until the first hits were scored on the Bismarck
. A 16" shell from the Rodney
disabled both forward 38cm turrets while a 8" shell of the now also firing cruiser Norfolk
went into the command tower, knocking out the gun directors there. In the following hour, the backward gun director was destroyed, Turret D was destroyed, heavy fire amidships were ignited and the battleship was turned into a burning wreck. This time must have been horrible on board of the German ship, when one gun after another was silenced and hundreds of people were killed in the rain of shells.
At about one hour after the battle had begun, the last of Bismarck's
guns were knocked out, but the British ships, the King George V
and the cruisers Norfolk
continued to fire until 10:15.
Click here to see an animated battlemap
At this time the ship was no more than a burning hulk when the British cruiser Dorsetshire
was orders to sink the Bismarck
with its torpedoes. These are fires about a quarter of an hour later and the battleship is hit by several of them. It is not clear what was the final reason for the sinking of the ship - the torpedoes, or the scuttling by its crew which was ordered at the same time when the British stopped the artillery fire. It is probably a case of national pride, but it is very likely that a combination of both lead to the sinking of the ship at 10:39.
Followed by the torpedo attack, the Dorsetshire
was ordered to rescue the Bismarck's
survivors, hundreds of them were swimming in the Atlantic ocean at this time. But after the rescue operation were initiated, the British cruiser sailed away with high speed when the sigh of a U-boat periscope was reported (although none of them were in the actual battle area). As a result, only a total of 115 survivors were rescued, 85 by the Dorsetshire
, 25 of the destroyer Maori
, three by the U-boat U-74
and two by the German Weather ship Sachsenwald
the next day. As a „neutral" ship, the Spanish cruiser Canaris
was ordered to the area, but all it could find were some dead bodies.
As the whole Operation Rheinübung was much influenced by luck on both sides, coincidental events, there is another strange event to report in the rescue operations. On its way back to its base, the British destroyer Cossack
found a black cat among the debris of the Bismarck
- the ship cat Oscar which was taken on board the Cossack
. But it seems as if this cat did not bring luck to a ship. About 5 months later, the Cossack
was sunk by a German U-boat, and Oscar was again among the survivors. The cat was then brought on board of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal
which launched the important strike against the Bismarck
. Only three weeks later, the Ark Royal
was sunk too, and Oscar survived this ship again. After this, the animal was not put on another ship again and according to British naval records, it died in 1955.
Being one of the most exciting events in naval history, the hunt for the Bismarck
would not be completed without a few lines about the second hunt for the ship. On June 5th 1989, about 48 years after its destruction, the wreck of the Bismarck
was found by an expedition lead by Robert D. Ballard. The wreck now rests 4790 m deep on the bottom of the sea, upright and in one piece but has lost its stern. This was part of the ship which was damaged by the Ark Royal’s
torpedo bombers and which proved to be a weak part of many German warships in the war.
All of its main guns are gone, the funnel and command tower has disappeared, but the what is left of the ship is surprisingly intact. After the 90 minutes of heavy shellfire from close range, this is a quite remarkable detection. Despite all its damage, even today, the Bismarck
still shows a lot of its power that it represented almost sixty years ago and it can only be hoped that it will never be a tourist attraction like the wreck of the Titanic