They were some of the last great duels of big gunned battleships in history. At the end of May, 80 years ago in 1941, there were a series of engagements in the Atlantic known simply as the hunt for the German super-battleship, the pride of Hitler’s shipbuilding programme, Bismarck.
The most senior German naval officers were desperate to prove themselves before the start of Hitler’s giant invasion of the Soviet Union later in the summer. As soon as their newest battleship, Bismarck, the world’s biggest and most powerful commissioned warship, was ready it was sent to sea. Its mission was to scythe through Britain’s vulnerable supply lines from the rest of the world – ships carrying the food, raw materials and oil to keep Britain’s people fed, and its war industries running.
Britain sent the battleships of its Home Fleet to sea, and scrambled to redeploy resources all over the Atlantic from Gibraltar to the coast of the Americas. Ever since Renaissance princes like James IV of Scotland and his southern rival Henry VIII had placed cannon on ships, battleships had dominated the world’s oceans.
The mighty clash at Jutland in 1916 saw a clash of the two most powerful fleets of battleships ever assembled as Britain and Germany fought for control of the seas. Many survivors of that clash were aboard the ships that now, once again, were at war. This time around revolutionary new weapon systems, in their infancy at Jutland, were now capable of changing the course of war at sea.
The first sighting
Bismarck was located from the air. A reconnaissance Spitfire flew over the Norwegian fjords in which the battleship and its accompanying vessels, like the cruiser Prinz Eugen, were anchored on 21 May. It was electrifying news – the commander of the British Home Fleet in Scapa Flow despatched two of his battleships, Hood and Prince of Wales to beef up the British presence in the North Atlantic, and placed his other ships on standby.
The German flotilla left Norway and passed through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. On 23 May, the smaller British ships Norfolk and Suffolk picked up the scent and shadowed the Germans, radioing in their positions. Norfolk got too close in the freezing fog and Bismarck fired her guns in anger for the first time. The British cruiser was ‘straddled’ by giant shells (landing either side of the ship) and was lucky to escape only with superficial damage.
The following dawn was beautiful. The sea was, briefly, relatively smooth, and reflected the glorious pinks of the sunrise. Watching seamen felt it an appropriate backdrop, because the Royal Navy’s battleships had found the Germans and were closing to intercept – battle was inevitable.
‘The Mighty Hood‘ and the Prince of Wales
Hood was feted as the most powerful warship on earth, but it was old, and due an upgrade to her deck armour. Prince of Wales was conversely so new that civilian engineers were still aboard trying to finish her. Admiral Holland, aboard Hood, thought the best thing to do was close the range as quickly as possible and batter Bismarck, which together they outgunned.
At 0552 the British guns roared sending three quarter of a ton high explosive shells over 14 miles to the German ships. Steaming hard into the wind the spray blinded some of their range finding gear and the rear turrets could not be brought to bear.
Aboard Bismarck the admiral, Lütjens, seemed temporarily paralysed. He had hoped to avoid fighting British capital ships and here was the mighty Hood charging into action. Bismarck’s Captain Lindemann took matters into his own hands and ordered his gunnery officer to open fire saying, “I will not let my ship be shot out from under my arse.”
The Germans scored hits on the British, in return the Prince of Wales managed to send a shell slicing through Bismarck’s forecastle, not exploding but causing significant damage. Unfortunately for the British the impact of that damage would be measured in hours and days, whereas the fate of this battle would be decided in seconds.
At 0559 Holland felt he had closed the range enough and ordered his ships to turn and present their full broadsides to the Germans. As Hood responded to his command, she steered straight into the path of a salvo from Bismarck. One shell crashed down through the deck armour, into the bowels of the ship and seems to have detonated in a magazine – this caused an astonishing chain reaction which saw Hood torn apart by a gigantic explosion.
The shattered remnant of her hull sank within seconds taking 1,415 men to the bottom. Just three survivors were later picked up.
Prince of Wales now faced Bismarck and Prinz Eugen’s fire alone. One shell smashed into the bridge and killed or wounded nearly everyone present. Another punched through its armour and came to rest in the depths of the ship. It failed to ignite, had it done so the ship may have joined the Hood. Within a couple of minutes the Prince of Wales put down a smoke screen and made its escape.
Hunting down the Bismarck
The British were appalled, while in Germany Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, made the most of this stunning victory. Churchill described the next few days as the toughest of the war so far. Bismarck managed to give the shadowing British ships the slip, and threatened to take a terrible toll on the convoys that represented Britain’s lifeline.
Every ship available was redirected to hunt down and destroy the German battleship. An ancient British battleship Rodney had been on its way for a refit in America – it was turned around, and other ships were told to abandon their convoy duties and join the hunt.
Bismarck in fact was not hell-bent on destroying merchant ships but was heading for a friendly port, in occupied France, to repair the damage caused by the Prince of Wales. The problem for the Royal Navy was that she had managed to give her pursuers the slip under cover of darkness.
A grim 24 hours followed for the British until, thanks to intercepted radio messages, decoded by Bletchley Park, and a flying boat operating out of Northern Ireland, Bismarck was found. She was 700 miles northwest of Brest and would be under protective Luftwaffe shore-based fighter cover within a day. The only British asset that might be able to stop her was the contingent of torpedo bombers aboard HMS Ark Royal steaming up from Gibraltar.
The sinking of the Bismarck
At dusk on 26 May, in mountainous seas and a full gale, canvas Swordfish biplanes carrying torpedoes clawed their way into the air and headed around 50 miles to attack Bismarck. Flying so low the wind blew sea spray into the cockpits, the Swordfish made their heroic attempt. Bismarck fired its main armament, sending up giant walls of water which further drenched the aircraft and crews.
Two torpedoes found their targets, one caused some minor flooding as it hit Bismarck’s heavily armoured hull, the other, by absolute fluke hit the German giant’s Achilles Heel, her unprotected steering gear. The rudders were disabled, the port rudder remained jammed at an angle, despite everything the crew could do to free it up.
That night the German admiral reported that his ship was unmanoeuvrable, but “We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.” Neither Bismarck nor the Führer had long to live.
All that night small destroyers harassed Bismarck, denying its crew any respite or sleep. On 27 May, two British battleships emerged out of the gloomy dawn. They had been able to close the gap with the disabled Bismarck and now closed for the kill.
The German was still a terrible threat, she straddled Rodney with one of her first salvoes. But unable to steer properly, battered by giant waves, her aim deteriorated. British shells started to smash into her superstructure. After 20 minutes of battle a shell blew up on her bridge and the German admiral, captain and their staffs were killed. After further terrible punishment, at 0930 the senior surviving German officer ordered his men to abandon ship.
Bismarck was a shambles, its superstructure carved into a grotesque, smoking ruin, fires throughout, scenes of carnage on board that defy description. Aboard one of the British battleships a chaplain took the highly unusual step of begging the senior officers to ceasefire. He was politely told to back off.
Eventually the battleships, dangerously low on fuel and nervous about the submarine threat, broke off the engagement and it was left to the smaller HMS Dorsetshire to fire torpedoes into Bismarck from point-blank range. The pride of Hitler’s navy sank at 1040.
Britain had despatched the greatest threat to its control of the Atlantic. It had required the biggest naval effort of the war thus far and had cost the totemic Hood, with damage to others. But Churchill was determined to demonstrate the commitment and capacity of the Royal Navy to the Americans, who he was actively encouraging to enter the war, and the destruction of Bismarck allowed him to do just that.
Conversely Hitler was furious, he restricted the flow of supplies to his fleet, denied them freedom to operate as they wished and turned his back on a maritime strategy. He was to become absorbed in his invasion of the Soviet Union, due to be launched in a few weeks’ time. But he would turn east with Britain undefeated in the west, her supply lines to the rest of the world intact.