KMS Bismarck was one of the most powerful battleships ever made when it took to sea in May, 1941. The product of forty years of capital ship development, and also of forty years of Anglo-German naval rivalry, it was still far too little to pose a credible threat to British naval supremacy. It was employed only once, and on that journey, its real target was commercial shipping. Within days, it was sunk.
The experience of World War I had taught the German Navy that it would never build up enough power to decisively defeat the Royal Navy in a direct fight. Here, the Battle of Jutland was instructive: the outnumbered Germans caused slightly more damage than they received, but it remained damage that they could not repair or replace as easily as the British could. Faced with the certainty that they could not effectively challenge the Royal Navy on such a scale, the Germans of the interwar period chose not to waste their resources in trying to do so.
Far more successful had been the German effort at economic warfare on the seas, between the submarine threat and the use of cruisers as commerce raiders. These two tactics worked well in tandem, because each demanded very different countermeasures from the enemy. The grouping of ships into convoys, shepherded by destroyers, works well against submarines, but it would pose easy prey for a heavy cruiser or a battleship acting as a raider. Also, these techniques required the expenditure of significant resources on the enemy’s part in response. Therefore, the Germans built the pocket battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, with which they hoped to employ the same tactics in a future war.
Hitler’s rise to power changed the priorities of the German Navy. Hitler wanted his navy to have vessels that were qualitatively superior to British ships, even if there were not enough of them to challenge British naval hegemony as a whole. Specifically, two new vessels laid in 1936 were intended to be the foundation of a new, world-class navy: Schiff F and Schiff G, later to be christened as the Bismarck and Tirpitz.
These vessels were built by Blohm & Voss at Wilhelmshaven. Schiff F, the first of the two vessels (also known as the Ersatz Hannover), was christened as the Bismarck on February 14, 1939; Dorothea von Loewenfeld, granddaughter of the Chancellor for whom the ship was named, launched it at the ceremony. The ship still lacked its superstructure and armament, however.
The Bismarck’s design was largely an extension of the features of the pocket battleships into the scale of a true battleship. The ship enjoyed heavy armor, which was made even more effective through the addition of new alloys. To this was added a main armament of eight heavy guns arranged in four turrets. There were also twelve medium guns and 32 anti-aircraft guns.
The Bismarck was officially commissioned as a naval vessel on August 24, 1940. In contrast to its very public launching, this was done quietly, largely to conceal the newly-armed vessel’s capabilities. Official testing followed in September, and in December, it was transferred to Hamburg for its last preparations. In January, it underwent additional testing in the Baltic Sea. There, it was coupled with its heavy cruiser escort, the Prinz Eugen; its captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, had studied with the Bismarck’s captain, Ernst Lindemann.
While the Bismarck was undergoing its testing, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made a successful voyage in February and March, sinking thirty British vessels. The British mustered a significant effort to combat this threat, but the two pocket battleships reached harbor in Brest. In April, the Royal Air Force was successful in damaging the Gneisenau in harbor. The Navy, however, still wished to keep its opponents busy in the North Atlantic, in part because they wanted to divert British naval resources from the fighting in the Mediterranean.
Technical problems complicated their plans. Originally, the Bismarck, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen were to make a joint voyage under the command of Admiral Guenther Luetjens. The need for repairs in its boiler room removed the Scharnhorst from the group, and damage from a mine delayed delayed the readiness of the Prinz Eugen. At last, the Bismarck’s voyage was scheduled for May 18.
The actual departure was at 2 in the morning on the 19th. Under cover of darkness, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left Gotenhafen (Gdynia in Poland) to carry out Operation Rheinuebung. As the pair passed the Danish coast and took to the North Sea, they were spotted by a variety of neutral vessels. British intelligence was aware of the Bismarck’s voyage by May 21. Two capital ships, the Prince of Wales and the Hood, were activated to begin a search for the German ships.
For their part, the Germans deviated from the original plan by making port at Bergen in Norway. The plan had involved refueling at sea, but the Prinz Eugen carried less fuel due to its size, and Luetjens decided to refuel in port instead. When conditions were favorable to begin the sortie, the Germans would be able to begin more quickly. Once again, however, this enabled British intelligence to monitor the vessels more readily.
Again the German vessels weighed anchor at night, leaving Bergen at 10 pm on the 21st. The British were not aware of this until the following evening, and the Germans took heart at the indications that their escape was not registered. Once the British realized that the Bismarck had left harbor, however, the Royal Navy reinforced the Prince of Wales and Hood with additional vessels and sent this task force for a rendezvous near Iceland.
First contact was made at 7:22 pm on the 23rd. Two British cruisers, the Suffolk and Norfolk, encountered the German vessels and came briefly under fire. The smaller ships managed to escape, but continued to monitor the German ships with their radar.
On the 24th, the Prince of Wales and the Hood made contact with the enemy. The British plan was to disable the Bismarck first, but this plan was foiled by the fact that the Germans had reversed their relative positions, putting the Prinz Eugen in the lead. When the firefight began, the Germans turned the tables on the British, converging their fire on the Hood. The Hood exploded with only three survivors.
All other vessels were also damaged. Luetjens decided to return to port, with St. Nazaire as his destination. First, however, he had to press on south and then east through the Atlantic. The Prinz Eugen proceeded independently. For their parts, the Prince of Wales, the Suffolk and Norfolk continued to pursue the Bismarck from a distance.
On the 25th, the Bismarck came under attack by Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the carrier Victorious. In all, they made only one hit, and the effect was negligible. Still, as time went on, more British forces converged along the Bismarck’s path. When British reconnaissance aircraft located the Bismarck again on the 26th, visual contact was maintained until an attack was possible.
That evening, the carrier Ark Royal sent more torpedo-bombers, and this time, a hit damaged the Bismarck’s rudder. Unable to change direction, the Bismarck might as well have been a stationary target. A concerted attack came the following day, the 27th, and the Bismarck fought back tenaciously. At last, crippled, the ship was scuttled, and it sank a little after 10:30 am. In all, there were 119 survivors.
For all of its strengths, the Bismarck had had a very short career in the Navy. Among its statistics are two that are most telling: “Time in service 277 days. Operational life: 215 hours.” (Jackson, page 24)
Ballard, Robert. Robert Ballard’s Bismarck. Chartwell Books, 2007
Jackson, Robert. The Bismarck: The Battle for Naval Supremacy in World War II. Barnes & Noble, 2002.
Parrish, Thomas ed. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
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