The Bismarck Battleship was the first Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany’s navy. The ship represented the clearest example of Germany’s military superiority in the run-up to World War Two. Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz both weigh in at 42,500 tons. The British battleships of the King George V (KGV) class under construction were nearly 12 percent lighter than their German counterparts.
When finished, Tirpitz and Bismarck would best the Royal Navy’s new ships in every department. They each mounted eight 15-inch guns against the 14-inch main armament of the King George V. They were faster and could travel much greater distances without refueling. They were also immensely well protected, with thick layers of steel armor encasing decks and hull, turrets, engine rooms, and magazines. Their enemies often said that the Germans had declared their battleships “unsinkable.” The claim does not seem to have been made officially. The builders revealed after the war that the Kriegsmarine often intervened during the building of Tirpitz and the Bismarck battleship to “raise their levels of unsinkability.” The result was that, in the case of Tirpitz, 40 percent of her overall weight was made up of armor plating. The belief grew that Tirpitz and the Bismarck battleship could survive any torpedo, shell, or bomb that the British ships or aircraft could hurl at them—and it was not unfounded. The British navy had been starved of funds in the postwar years and little effort had been made to develop new weaponry. Torpedoes and shells carried feeble charges and lacked penetrative power. The greatest failure to keep pace with technological developments lay in the area of naval aviation. The Admiralty was only now regaining control of the Fleet Air Arm from the RAF, whose equipment programs had given priority to fighters and bombers. The navy was entering the war equipped with biplanes that looked like survivors from the previous conflict.
The Terror of the Bismarck Battleship
News reached England in May 1941 that Bismarck was at sea. Simultaneously, a great threat and a great opportunity had materialized. Sinking her would count as a magnificent naval victory. It would also provide some longedfor good news after a succession of setbacks, failures, and disappointments. The relief of surviving the Battle of Britain had given way to the bleak realization that the nation was isolated and faced immense difficulties ahead. The country was now engaged in another struggle for existence, which Churchill christened the Battle of the Atlantic. Having failed to bring Britain to terms by the threat of invasion, Germany had switched its strategy and was trying to starve her into submission by cutting off the lifelines that connected her with the rest of the world. Churchill said later that “amid the torrent of violent events one anxiety reigned supreme . . . dominating all our power to carry on the war, or even keep ourselves alive, lay mastery of the ocean routes and the free approach and entry to our ports.”
It was the navy’s principal duty to defend these routes but the task was overwhelming. It no longer had the resources of the French fleet, a large part of which lay at the bottom of Mers-el-Kebir harbor, sunk by British guns. America gave all the help it could, but it had yet to enter the war. Early engagements in the battle for Norway and on the high seas had failed to neutralize the threat from the German navy. Instead, in the spring of 1941, the Kriegsmarine was setting the pace in the struggle.
The main battleground was the vital sea lanes of the North Atlantic. In March and April 1941, nearly half a million tons of Allied shipping had been sent to the bottom. Most of it was sunk by U-boats, whose effectiveness a complacent Admiralty had badly underestimated in the interwar years. Until now the surface raiders that Admiral Pound had feared would “paralyse” the sea lanes had played a secondary part in the campaign. That seemed about to change. A foray by the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in February and March had resulted in the destruction or capture of twenty-two ships totaling 115,600 tons. Now it was the Bismarck battleship’s turn and the transatlantic convoys, already ravaged by land-based bombers’ bombardment and prowling U-boats’ ambush, would be at the mercy of the most powerful German warship yet put to sea.
It was important for Hitler’s long-term war plans that the battleship make it through to the North Atlantic. He was about to turn his armies eastward against the Soviet Union and he needed a cowed and docile Europe at his back. The war at sea presented the best chance of bringing his last enemy in the west to heel. The original operation, code-named Rheinübung, or Rhine Exercise, had been correspondingly ambitious. Admiral Raeder’s plan had been to combine his four biggest ships in a powerful task force that could, temporarily at least, cause a suspension of the convoys, cutting off Britain’s maritime life-support system. The Bismarck and Tirpitz would sail from Germany and meet up with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, now lying at Brest on the French Atlantic coast. One by one, though, his force had been whittled away. A lucky torpedo dropped from a RAF Coastal Command Beaufort had done Gneisenau enough damage to put her out of action for six months. Then the boilers powering Scharnhorst’s steam turbines needed replacing. The battleships would have to operate on their own. For each it would be their first maneuver.
The operation was led by Admiral Günther Lütjens, the commander of the German fleet. His reputation stood high. It was he who had led Gneisenau and Scharnhorst during their late winter rampage. Lütjens’s down-turned mouth and hard eyes seldom broke into a smile. He looked what he was—cold, proud, and utterly confident of his abilities, rarely feeling the necessity to explain critical decisions to those above or below him. His abilities were tied to a strict sense of duty. He could be relied on to follow the spirit of his orders even when he doubted their wisdom. Lütjens was quite aware of the dangers ahead. His ship outclassed any vessel in the British fleet. But the task force he was commanding had shrunk to a fraction of its original strength. It seemed to him probable— even inevitable—that it would eventually be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. Before the start of Rheinübung he had called on a friend at Raeder’s Berlin headquarters to say goodbye. “I’ll never come back,” he told him in a matter-of-fact voice.
The mood aboard Bismarck, though, was buoyant. The ship thrummed with excitement and anticipation as she headed out towards the Norwegian Sea. At noon, over the loudspeakers, the ship’s commander Kapitän Ernst Lindemann at last told the 2,221 officers and men on board where they were going. “The day we have longed for so eagerly has at last arrived,” he said. “The moment when we can lead our proud ship against the enemy. Our objective is commerce raiding in the Atlantic imperiling England’s existence.”
As Bismarck, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, attempted to break into the Atlantic Ocean, the ships were detected several times. British naval units and the RAF were dispatched to block their route. Bismarck show its might when it destroyed the battlecruiser HMS Hood at the Battle of the Denmark Strait. It also forced the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to retreat.
Two days later the British prepared to attack the Bismarck with obsolescent Fairey Swordship biplane torpedo bombers. In the pre-operational briefing, the pilots had been given a detailed plan of attack. It followed the standard Fleet Air Arm method for firing torpedoes at ships at sea. The first three flights were to come in on the port beam from differing bearings. The second wave would do the same on the starboard side. The intention was to force the anti-aircraft gunners to divide their attentions between two targets and to bracket the ship with torpedoes, severely restricting its ability to steer out of their path.
As the planes approached, Bismarck fired with anti-aircraft batteries. One torpedo his the port side, causing minor structural damage.
On a second approach, pilot John Moffat came over the Bismarck. He was alone. “Even at this distance the brute seemed enormous to me,” he recalled. He turned to his right towards her. Almost immediately “there was a red glow in the clouds ahead of me about a hundred yards away as anti-aircraft shells exploded.” Then the gunners were aiming just ahead of him and their fire threw up “walls of water” in his path. Two shells erupted next to and below the Swordfish, knocking it 90 degrees off course. Moffat dropped to fifty feet, just above the height where he might catch a wave and cartwheel into the sea.
This seemed to be below the angle at which the flak guns could operate but, in their place, cannon and machine guns were pumping out red tracer bullets that flowed towards Moffat and his two-man crew “in a torrent.” As he raced towards the target he felt that “every gun on the ship was aiming at me.” He could not believe that he was flying straight into the hail of fire. “Every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything.” But he suppressed his fear and pressed grimly on as the target grew larger and larger.
His training taught him to assess the speed of the ship under attack and fire ahead, using a simple marked rod mounted horizontally along the top of the cockpit to calculate the correct distance to lay off. With the Bismarck looming ahead of him, Moffat felt he could not miss. “I thought, I’m still flying. If I can get rid of this torpedo and get the hell out of here, we might survive.” He was about to press the release button on the throttle when he heard his observer, Sub-Lieutenant John “Dusty” Miller, shouting “Not yet, John, not yet!” Moffat looked back to see Miller’s “backside in the air . . . there he was hanging over the side and his head [was] down underneath the aeroplane and he was shouting ‘not yet!’” Moffat realized what was going on. “It dawned on me that if I dropped that torpedo and it struck the top of a wave it could go anywhere but where it’s supposed to.” Miller was waiting for a trough. Then “he shouted ‘let her go!’ and the next [moment he] was saying ‘John, we’ve got a runner.’”
Relieved of the torpedo’s ton weight, the Swordfish leapt upwards and it was all Moffat could do to wrestle it down below the gunfire streaming overhead. It would have taken ninety seconds to follow the track of the torpedo to the target. Hanging around meant certain death. Moffat put the Swordfish into a “ski turn. I gave the engine full lick and I stood on my left rudder and I shuddered round flat.” It was a maneuver that only the slow-moving Swordfish could pull off and it kept them down beneath the lowest elevation of the guns. He headed away at maximum speed, keeping low until he judged it was safe to climb into the cover of the clouds. He had no idea of whether his torpedo had found its target or not.
There was one last hazard to face. When he reached Ark Royal the deck was still heaving. As he finally touched down “there was nothing more welcoming than the thump of the wheels on the deck and the clatter of the hook catching on the arrestor wire.” Clambering down from the cockpit, he felt light-headed from adrenaline and fatigue. He told the debriefing officers the little he could, then headed below for a special meal that he was too tense to eat.
The mood among the crews was subdued. Everyone had been disoriented by the cloud and the attacks had all taken place in ones and twos. Only two, possibly three, torpedoes had been seen to hit the target. That was not a cause for celebration. Bismarck’s thick armor meant that even a direct hit amidships would not necessarily prove fatal, as the attacks from Victorious had shown. Moffat thought he might have been responsible for one recorded strike. A pilot who followed him in saw a torpedo exploding two-thirds of the way down the port side.
Visibility was too poor for another attempt that night, but the pilots would be sent off again the following morning. Someone gloomily remarked that “the Light Brigade had only been asked to do it once.” Then a stream of information started to arrive that lifted their spirits. Sheffield signaled that the Bismarck battleship had slowed down. Then came the astonishing news that she had turned around and was heading straight toward the battleship King George V, which was approaching from the north. A little later, two Swordfish returned to Ark Royal from a long reconnaissance to report that Bismarck had lost speed and had steamed round in two full circles. HMS Zulu, which by now had arrived on the scene, confirmed the news: the Bismarck had been stopped, less than five hundred miles from the French coast.
Moffat learned later that it was probably his torpedo that had stopped her. It had exploded at the battleship’s stern, jamming her rudders at 12 degrees and making steering impossible. With that, Bismarck’s fate was sealed. Throughout the night she was subjected to repeated torpedo attacks from fast destroyers which had now caught up. In the morning, King George V and Rodney arrived and closed in for the kill. The end was never in doubt but it still took forty-five minutes of pounding from the two British battleships and the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire before the Bismarck’s big guns stopped firing. By then Lütjens was dead, probably killed when a shell from King George V hit the bridge. Dorsetshire administered the coup de grâce. An able seaman on board, A. E. Franklin, watched two 21-inch torpedoes leave the cruiser’s tubes then saw “a tremendous explosion . . . the fish having truly planted themselves in the bowels of the Bismarck far below the water line amidships.” Dorsetshire closed in to 1,000 yards to deliver another torpedo, which struck squarely on the port side.
John Moffat was flying overhead when she went down. He saw a sight “that . . . remained etched in my mind ever since. This enormous vessel, over 800 feet long, her gun turrets smashed, her bridge and upper works like a jagged ruin, slowly, frighteningly toppled over, smashing down into the sea and her great hull was revealed, the plates and bilge keels glistening dark red as the oily sea covered her. Still leaping from her were men and sailors. There were hundreds more in the sea; some desperately struggling for their lives, others already inert, tossed by the waves as they floated face down.” Moffat was pierced by the knowledge that “there was nothing that I could do to save even a single one.”The Bismarck battleship finally sank, stern first, at 10:39 a.m., four hundred miles west of Brest, an hour and fifty minutes after the battle was joined.
Only 118 of the 2,224 men on board were saved. Most were taken aboard the Dorsetshire. Franklin recorded that with “the battle finished, the humanitarian instinct rises above the feeling of revenge and destruction . . . ropes come from nowhere. Willing hands rush to haul on board the survivors.” But then came a warning that an enemy submarine was in the area. The rescue work broke off and Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori, which was also standing by, made for safety, leaving hundreds of men bobbing in the oil-stained sea to await death.
The relief in London was immense. Churchill’s desperation for a victory had caused him to issue some unfortunate instructions. The night before the end Tovey had signaled that he might have to break off the chase. King George V’s fuel bunkers were draining fast and if they ran dry his flagship would be dead in the water, at the mercy of any prowling U-boat. Churchill’s response, passed on by Pound, was that “Bismarck must be sunk at all costs and if to do this it is necessary for the King George V to remain on scene then she must do so, even if it subsequently means towing King George V.” Tovey was to describe this later as “the stupidest and most ill-considered signal ever made,”1 and the exchange deepened the mistrust developing between the two men.
Churchill broke the news to the nation in dramatic style. He was on his feet in Church House, where the House of Commons conducted its business while the Palace of Westminster was repaired from bomb damage, describing the battle raging in the Atlantic, when there was a commotion and a messenger handed him a piece of paper. He sat down, scanned it and got up again. “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk,” he announced and the assembly erupted in a roar of applause.
This article on the Bismarck Battleship is from the book The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship © 2015 by Patrick Bishop. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
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