On 15 February 1939, a large crowd gathered in Hamburg’s Blohm and Voss shipyard to witness the launch of Germany’s most innovative new battleship, the Bismarck. The ship was named in honour of the architect of German unification, Otto von Bismarck; Hitler even drew comparisons between himself and the 19th century statesman in a speech during the elaborate ceremony. The largest capital ship in the Kriegsmarine, the 251-metre-long Bismarck, was both a celebration of Germany’s industrial power and rapid recovery from defeat in the First World War, while also serving as a grave threat to the Allies, both symbolically and practically.
The commission of the Bismarck-class battleships represented a significant shift in Nazi Germany’s naval rearmament policy. In the years of Nazi rule up to 1938, Germany’s armed forces were built up with France and Poland in mind as future enemies. In April 1933, Hitler announced that Britain’s Royal Navy would never again be considered a potential adversary of Germany’s fleet. Although statements such as this were likely posturing towards Britain accepting more lenient terms on German naval rearmament (which would be achieved in June 1935 with the Anglo-German Naval Agreement), the fleet that was built up in the first five years of Nazi rule was constructed with the likelihood of continental warfare in mind.
Then, on 28 May 1938, Hitler issued instructions to consider Britain a potential enemy. This, combined with a memorandum from the German Naval Warfare Directorate highlighting British naval superiority, led to the drafting of Plan Z. This plan for rapidly developing the German fleet envisioned the construction of three hundred U-boats, sixty-eight destroyers, forty-three cruisers, four aircraft carriers and, at the heart of the fleet, six 50,000-ton Bismarck-class battleships. The Bismarck-class ships would be the largest warships of their type to be constructed in Europe. Although there was nothing revolutionary in their design, the Bismarck was simply stronger, faster and had greater firepower than Britain’s capital ships. Although the Bismarck was built to engage enemy battleships, the German Navy’s command intended to use it to attack shipping channels in the Atlantic that were vital to British commerce.
However, when Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the German fleet was still vastly inferior to that of the Allies. Initially, Admiral Raeder, the commander in chief of the Kriegsmarine, was hesitant to use Germany’s heavy surface ships on enemy merchant vessels, instead focusing on supporting the Norway campaign and preparing to carry out Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain. After Operation Sea Lion was indefinitely postponed, Raeder could finally afford to start sending surface ships in conjunction with U-boats into the Atlantic to prevent shipments to Britain. After the success of Operation Berlin, a smaller-scale battleship raid in the Atlantic, Rainer was confident enough to employ the Bismarck. In an operation named Rheinübung, the Bismarck would engage in a 3-month sortie into the Atlantic with the support of the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen and a flotilla of auxiliary ships, aiming to block allied shipping to Britain.
By May 1941, when Operation Rheinübung began, trans-Atlantic shipments of food and raw materials were Britain’s lifeline and essential to maintaining the war effort. Admiral Raeder and the German High Command believed that Britain could be defeated by forming a blockade in the Atlantic through the use of a combination of surface ships and U-boats. As such, Bismarck and Prince Eugen were commanded to only engage the Royal Navy if necessary and to instead avoid confrontation while attacking merchant ships. Setting off from Gdynia in Poland on 18 and 19 of May respectively, Prince Eugen and Bismarck sailed out of the Western Baltic and up the Norwegian coast. Although a Swedish aircraft carrier reported a sighting of the Bismarck group to the Admiralty on May 21, the ships managed to avoid RAF bombers by ducking into a fjord under the cover of low clouds.
Setting out from Norway the next day, the Bismarck group sailed northwest around Iceland undetected, entering the Denmark Straight, the passage between Greenland and Iceland. The British Admiralty, aware of the Bismarck’s expedition but not of its current location, had sent two heavy cruisers, HMS Norfolk and Suffolk, to patrol the Straight. To the south of Iceland, Vice-Admiral Holland commanded a group consisting of the battleship HMS Hood, the battlecruiser HMS Prince of Wales and six destroyers, ready to engage the German ships when sighted. On the evening of May 23, HMS Suffolk sighted the Bismarck, opting to trail behind the German ship using its modern long-distance radar, staying out of the range of the Bismarck’s battery of eight 15-inch guns. HMS Norfolk, equipped with an older radar, mistakenly came within range, only narrowly escaping gunfire by deploying a smokescreen. Vice-Admiral Holland, having received a message from the heavy cruisers that night, set out with his group to intercept the German ships.
Holland planned to engage the Bismarck group in a ‘Nelsonian’ fashion by drawing up parallel to the enemy, maximising the utility of each ship’s weaponry, while also presenting a larger target for return fire. The guns of the heavy cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk could do little damage to the Bismarck’s 12-inch-thick cemented steel armour. As such, they were designated to fire on Prince Eugen, while HMS Hood and Prince of Wales were intended to take on the Bismarck.
‘The Mighty Hood’ was the largest battlecruiser ever built and the pride of the British Navy. Being a WWI-era battleship, however, HMS Hood was not built to withstand heavy fire, which was near to impossible to achieve with the poor long-range accuracy of contemporary naval guns. With a deck only one inch thick at parts, HMS Hood could not engage the Bismarck on equal footing; Holland was relying on his numerical advantage. However, when the ships drew up alongside each other just before 6 a.m., HMS Suffolk and Norfolk were nowhere to be seen; they had lost contact with the German ships at night. Hood fired first, mistakenly targeting Prince Eugen, with the first salvo failing to damage the cruiser. The Prince of Wales had more success, hitting the Bismarck three times, flooding its generator room and greatly damaging its fuel tanks.
Admiral Lütjens, the commander of the Bismarck, returned fire, with both German ships concentrating their salvos on the Hood. Just a few minutes after the battle had begun, a shell from the Bismarck plunged through the deck of HMS Hood, detonating its magazines and creating a firestorm that tore the old battlecruiser in two. As the ends of the Hood slipped into the Atlantic, the Prince of Wales was hit by concentrated fire while simultaneously suffering from severe gunnery malfunctions. Turning away just before it entered the Prince Eugen’s torpedo range, the Prince of Wales fled the battle and rejoined Suffolk and Norfolk. Lütjens made the decision to continue into the Atlantic instead of pursuing the damaged cruiser, a decision that Hitler would criticise, saying “Why didn’t he sink her too?”. The loss of the Hood and all but three of her crew shook the British public, with Winston Churchill giving the following command to the Admiralty: “I don’t care how you do it. You must sink the Bismarck”. Sinking the German battleship was no longer purely a mission of strategic importance; it had become a matter of revenge.
As a result, every British warship in the area changed course to join the pursuit of the Bismarck group. Admiral Lütjens recognised that the Bismarck, leaving behind a noticeable oil slick trail, wouldn’t be able to continue with its operation. Changing the Bismarck’s course for Nazi-occupied France, Lütjens ordered the Prince Eugen to slip away from the damaged Bismarck and escape unsought. By the morning of May 25, Lütjens’ situation was worsening; torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious had caused further damage to the Bismarck’s boiler room, reducing its speed even further. Trying to evade the incoming Home Fleet, the Bismarck circled west, then north, breaking from British radar contact. Panicked, the majority of the fleet set out to the west in search of the German ship, while the Bismarck wheeled around them and sailed towards France.
Meanwhile, codebreakers at Bletchley Park were decoding a message sent from onboard the Bismarck, which showed it was heading to France. The admiralty relayed this message to the fleet, which, realising it had been sailing in the opposite direction, changed course to pursue the Bismarck. On the morning of May 26, the Bismarck was closing in on France from where it could be supported by Luftwaffe bombers, with the British ships now hours behind in their chase. Their only remaining hope was HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier that had been stationed at Gibraltar and had sailed north to intercept the Bismarck. Onboard the Ark Royal were fifteen Fairey Swordfish – biplane bombers armed with magnetic-tipped torpedoes. The Swordfish only had time to attempt two attacks before dark.
On the first expedition, the bombers mistakenly targeted HMS Sheffield, a light cruiser tracking the Bismarck, which the Swordfish pilots had not been told about. Fortunately, however, the magnetic-tipped torpedoes malfunctioned, and no hits were made on the British ship. After re-fitting a new set of torpedoes with contact pistols instead of the magnetic ones, the Swordfish set out at dawn. As the Swordfish approached the Bismarck, they found themselves safe from anti-aircraft fire as the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft battery was designed to target faster-moving, modern bombers instead of older canvas biplanes. This left the Swordfish safe to fire at the Bismarck, which was swerving to avoid the incoming torpedoes. Two torpedoes struck the Bismarck; one hitting the battleship’s superstructure, causing minor flooding and the other a direct hit on the rudders, severely damaging the ship’s stern. The rudders were now jammed at a position of 12 degrees to port rendering the ship no longer steerable. The pride of the German Navy now found herself alone, immobile and without air support as a fleet of British ships closed in.
On the morning of May 27, the Bismarck was surrounded by a vast array of British ships: the battleships King George V and Rodney, the battlecruiser Renown, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire, the cruiser Sheffield and nine destroyers. The British ships closed in on the Bismarck, ultimately firing 2,876 shells, of which over 400 hit. Although the ship still wouldn’t sink from the point-blank range gunfire, its superstructure and weaponry were obliterated, with Lütjens and the ship’s leadership dying in the early moments of the battle. It would eventually take torpedoes fired from the Dorsetshire in conjunction with efforts to scuttle the ship by its crew to sink the Bismarck. Operation Rheinübung had failed spectacularly; not a single merchant ship had been sunk during the entire mission. The ramifications for the Kriegsmarine were dire; the operation was intended to justify an increase in expenditure on surface ships to Hitler. Instead, Hitler forbade the use of surface ships against supply routes in the Atlantic, and Britain was able to continue relying on its lifeline from across the ocean.
Yet the failure of the operation was not caused by a fault in the Bismarck’s design but by an underestimation of the power of British radar systems onboard the Royal Navy’s ships. Admirals Raeder and Lütjens intended for the German ships to slip past Britain unnoticed and, if sighted, utilise the Bismarck’s superior speed to break radar contact. However, developments in radar technology, along with the work of code breakers at Bletchley Park, made it near impossible for the Bismarck to break into the Atlantic undetected.
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