The Sinking of The Bismarck: Germany’s Largest Battleship | History Hit

The Sinking of The Bismarck: Germany’s Largest Battleship

Chris Pope

27 Oct 2018

Named after the former German Chancellor, the battleship Bismarck was commissioned on 24 August 1940. Officially declared to displace 35,000 tons, she in fact displaced 41,700 tons, making her the largest and most powerful warship in European waters.

In 1941 the German Navy planned a sortie into the Atlantic to attack the vital convoys supplying food and war materials to Britain. The Bismarck sailed from Gdynia on 18 May 1941 in company with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, but the two ships were intercepted by a Royal Navy force in the Denmark Strait, north of Iceland. In the ensuing battle the British battle cruiser HMS Hood was sunk with the loss of all but 3 of her crew on 24 May.

HMS Hood, known as “The Mighty Hood”

The Bismarck was also damaged in the encounter and the German commander Admiral Lütjens decided to divert to France to make repairs after detaching the Prinz Eugen to act on her own. But the Royal Navy was making huge efforts to avenge the loss of the Hood and shadowing cruisers and aircraft dogged the Bismarck as she headed for Brest on the French coast.

British carrier pursuit

British battleships were involved in the pursuit but the aircraft carriers HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal demonstrated that the time of the big battleship was over. Air strikes were launched by Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers, and it was an aircraft from the Ark Royal that struck home decisively, hitting the Bismarck aft with a torpedo that jammed her rudders and made steering impossible.

HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish bombers overhead

Realising his ship was probably doomed, Admiral Lütjens sent a radio signal declaring loyalty to Adolf Hitler and faith in an ultimate German victory. British destroyers attacked the Bismarck during the night of 26/27 May, keeping her already exhausted crew constantly at their battle stations.

Dawn on the 27 May brought the sight of the British battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney closing in for the kill. The Bismarck still had her main armament of 8×15″ calibre guns operational but was out-gunned by the KGV’s 10×14″ and the Rodney’s 9×16″ weapons. The Bismarck was soon being deluged by heavy shells and her own guns were gradually knocked out.

By 10.10am the Bismarck’s guns had fallen silent and her superstructure was wrecked, with fires burning everywhere. The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire finally closed in and torpedoed the now smoking hulk. The Bismarck finally sank at around 10.40am, leaving just over one hundred survivors struggling in the water.

Roger Moorhouse is an historian of the Third Reich and World War Two, author of The Devils' Alliance, Killing Hitler & Berlin at War. In this fascinating episode, he discusses the worst maritime disaster in history: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.
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Figures vary but it is thought 110 sailors were rescued by the Royal Navy, with 5 more being picked up some hours later by a German weather ship and the submarine U-75. Admiral Lütjens and the Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann were not among the survivors.

Chris Pope