80 years ago on 27 May 1941, the pride of Hitler’s shipbuilding programme, Bismarck, was sunk – ending one of the greatest chases in naval history.
Bismarck had already sunk ‘The Mighty Hood’ during the Battle of Denmark Strait in the North Atlantic, and Britain had been determined to hunt the German battleship down – not only to protect vital supplies reaching its shores by naval convoy, but also determined for the loss of HMS Hood to be publicly avenged and restore their dominance at sea.
Here are 10 extraordinary facts about the hunt for the Bismarck.
1. Hitler foresaw Bismarck’s weak spot
When Hitler visited Bismarck he had upset his admirals by pointing out that this vast powerful ship would be vulnerable to aircraft carrying torpedoes. It would in fact be a torpedo bomber that hit her vulnerable rudders and left her disabled, making her destruction a matter of time.
2. The Battle of Demark Strait was very short
The Battle of Denmark Strait between Bismarck and the British ships HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales was one of history’s shorter battles between capital ships. Hood was blown-up after just 7 minutes and Prince of Wales turned and fled about 10 minutes after the first shot was fired.
3. The battle …to be ready on time
The British battleship HMS Prince of Wales that clashed with Bismarck alongside HMS Hood was so new there were still lots of civilian contractors aboard trying to finish her off and get her main armament working smoothly.
4. HMS Hood’s final salute
As Hood was sinking her bow section stuck straight up vertically in the air. Witnesses were astonished to see one of her great guns fire a last shot, straight up into the air. The trapped, doomed crew firing a salute seconds before she sank beneath the waves, a hopeless act of defiance.
Of the Hood’s crew of 1418 men, only three men were rescued, all of the rest died.
5. HMS Prince of Wales’ crucial stroke of luck
Prince of Wales was lucky to avoid the fate of the Hood. A shell from Bismarck smashed through her armoured plating and came to rest deep in the bowels of the ship next to a boiler room, but failed to explode. It was found once they were in dry dock in Scotland.
6. The decisive raid on Bismarck could well have never taken place
HMS Ark Royal was an aircraft carrier whose torpedo bombers were the only Royal Navy force capable of stopping Bismarck from reaching a safe port in occupied France. The decisive raid on Bismarck could well have never taken place. Earlier in the day a German U-boat had Ark Royal in its crosshairs but the German submarine had run out of torpedoes.
7. A key change of course
One British battleship, HMS Repulse, was on her way to America for a total refit when she was turned around and sent to sink Bismarck. The Admiralty wanted her 16inch guns, the largest afloat, brought to bear on the German battleship
8. A fatal message home
The British lost Bismarck and did not know whether it was heading for Norway or France. Then a German Luftwaffe general, Hans Jeschonnek sent a message encrypted by Enigma to the German naval high command asking about the fate of his son who was aboard. He was told the ship was making for Brest. The message was intercepted and deciphered at Bletchley Park by a 20 year old female code breaker, Jane Fawcett, and transmitted to the pursuing ships of the Royal Navy.
9. The small but mighty Piorun
Small destroyers harassed Bismarck on its last night afloat. Notable among them was the Polish destroyer Piorun. As soon as it arrived on the scene it charged at Bismarck, nearly three times its length and 20 times its weight. It radioed “I am a Pole” and opened fire. Its tiny guns took on the massive battleship for an hour. Bismarck landed a salvo of giant shells just 20m away which caused Captain Pławski to pull away.
10. An error ended up ensuring Bismarck was ultimately disabled
The torpedo bombers of Ark Royal were sent to attack Bismarck but mistook the British ship HMS Sheffield for the German battleship. They dropped 11 torpedoes. Thankfully their magnetic tips malfunctioned and the ship was spared. The malfunction of the torpedoes meant that the crews loaded torpedoes with contact fuses for the next attack, when they did find and disable Bismarck.