Entering the second world war, Britain was still the top naval power in the world.
While the British Navy was superior in its entirety, Nazi Germany had created a ship that terrified the British. One-on-one, it could take out any ship in the British fleet.
Eventually, it was sent out into the open ocean of the North Atlantic to disrupt shipping. When the British found out, they dedicated almost all of their fleet in the North Atlantic to its destruction.
Learn more about the sinking of the Bismarck on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
During the first World War, the German navy had developed itself to a position where it could rival the British Navy, at least in the North Atlantic.
In 1916 during the Battle of Jutland, Germany faced the British in what was the largest naval battle in history in terms of the gross tonnage of ships. The battle was inconclusive, but it showed that Germany had become a serious naval power.
However, with the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles placed serious restrictions on the size of the German navy and the type of ships they could have. Given the advances in technology through the 1920s and 30s, these restrictions put Germany well behind other great powers.
When Adolf Hitler came to power, he set about rearming the German military. In the case of the navy, that would require developing a new type of warship that would trump anything that the British or the French had, in particular, the new Richelieu-class battleships that the French began building in 1935.
In that spirit, the Germans developed a new class of battleship which would be one of the largest battleships in the world.
The new class of battleship, and the name of the first such ship, was named after the former German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, who played a huge part in the unification of Germany in the 19th century.
Several interwar treaties limited the size of battleships, in particular the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, the London Naval Treaty of 1930, and the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936.
This limited Germany to building ships that had a maximum displacement of 35,000 tonnes.
The keel for the Bismarck was laid in 1936 in Hamburg, and it was launched on February 14, 1939. The Germans had built a ship that was larger than that allowed by treaty. The Bismarck was actually 41,700 tonnes empty and 50,300 tonnes fully equipped.
Most importantly, it had some of the thickest armor ever put on a ship. The turrets had a total of 14.2 inches or 36 centimeters of armor, and the belt around the ship had 35 centimeters or 13.8 inches of armor.
However, the main deck only had about 4 inches of armor.
The ship was equipped with eight 15-inch guns.
Hitler had hoped that the Bismarck would resurrect the German surface fleet. The Bismarck was called “unsinkable”. Note to all aspiring ship builders out there, never call your ship unsinkable.
However, other navies like Britain and the United States had discovered that the battleship’s era was ending. While Germany was focused on building the greatest battleship in the world in the 1930s, its future adversities were focused on building aircraft carriers. More on that in a bit.
The Bismarck was commissioned and put into service on August 24, 1940.
It spent the next several months doing sea testing in the Baltic Sea and performing limited escorts for some ships in the region.
Its first real mission, which would send it out into the Atlantic, was known as Operation Rheinübung, which began on May 19, 1941.
The plan was pretty simple, and it was just an extension of what the Germans had been doing for years in the North Atlantic.
Throughout World War I and II, the Germans engaged in submarine warfare to disrupt allied shipping. They would send out packs of u-boats to harass and attack civilian shipping.
As a tactic, it was quite effective. During the second world war, the Germans managed to sink 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships from 1939 to 1945.
The plan was for the Bismarck to sail into the North Atlantic along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, eight supply ships, four u-boats, and attack allied shipping.
At first, it might seem that using submarines would be more effective. After all, you can’t really see a submarine, and they would be capable of launching a torpedo and then running away.
Almost all of the allied defensive measures were orientated towards anti-submarine warfare. Ships would travel on convoys, and the military escorts that would travel with them were designed for hunting subs.
If a battleship like the Bismarck were to happen upon a convoy, it would be a disaster. They could just pound away at all of the ships in the flotilla one after the other, and there wouldn’t be much they could do about it.
The smaller naval escorts couldn’t do much of anything against a large battleship.
The British knew about the Bismarck. Their intelligence services had gotten reports of the ship as it had been sailing around the Baltic Sea for the last several months. So, when they received word that the Bismarck was heading into the North Atlantic, they took action.
One of the facts regarding naval warfare at this point in time was that once a ship was in the open ocean, it was very difficult to find. You would have to send out spotter aircraft, have a ship get lucky and happen upon it, or hope they would break radio silence so you could triangulate their position.
The British made taking out the Bismarck the top priority of the Home Fleet, which was the naval fleet that protected the British Isles.
The Royal Navy sent out a small armada of ships to find the Bismark. This included the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS King George V, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious.
On May 24, the British encountered the Bismarck and its support ships in the Strait of Denmark, which is the body of water between Iceland and Greenland.
At 5:52 am, the Hood and the Prince of Wales sailed right for the German ships, and the Hood opened fire.
At first, both the Hood and the Prince of Wales were targeting the Prinz Eugen as it was in front of the Bismarck.
Within a matter of minutes, the Hood was hit by the Prinz Eugen, which caused a fire on the deck, and then was hit by the Bismarck. The shot from the Bismarck hit the magazine of the Hood, which caused a tremendous explosion that broke the ship’s keel and launched a column of fire 600 feet into the air.
The Hood sank within a matter of minutes, killing 1,414 sailors on board. There were only three survivors.
The Prince of Wales also suffered severe damage. They took several hits, which did mechanical damage to the ship, and there was also a shell that hit the bridge.
The British called off the attack, and the Germans sailed away, choosing not to pursue the damaged Prince of Wales.
The Bismarck came away in much better condition, save for a shot that hit a fuel tank near the front of the ship. The Bismarck began leaking fuel, which had two important implications.
The first was that they couldn’t just disappear back into the open ocean. They had to get repairs. Going back to Germany would have been too difficult as the British would be patrolling the narrow gap off the coast of England they would have to sail through to get to Hamburg or Keil.
The captain decided to sail to the German-occupied French port of Brest, which was the only other port that could handle repairs for a ship that size.
The second implication was that they were leaking fuel, which allowed the British to follow the oil slick that the Bismarck was leaving.
With the loss of the Hood, the British admiralty called every ship in the British Home Fleet to join the hunt for the Bismarck.
It was basically a race. The British had to find and sink the Bismarck before reaching a point where the Luftwaffe could provide air cover from France.
At 6:40 pm, the Prinz Eugen split off from the Bismarck to continue its mission of harassing shipping.
At 10 pm, the HMS Victorius, despite being over 120 miles from the Bismarck, sent out nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers however, they failed to do any serious damage.
By the next morning, the British had lost contact with the Bismarck. The ship had stopped leaking fuel, and it managed to evade the British radar.
The British, at this point, still assumed that the Bismarck was heading back to Germany via the North Sea.
Just as the British lost the Bismarck, the captain of the Bismarck made his fatal mistake. Still thinking the British were on his tail, he broke radio silence and sent a lengthy message back to Germany.
The radio transmission allowed the British to triangulate their position and figure out that the Bismarck was heading to France.
On the morning of the 26th, a reconnaissance plane out of Northern Ireland spotted the Bismarck and radioed in its positions. The initial ships involved in the pursuit were running low on fuel, so the battlecruiser HMS Scheffield and the aircraft carrier HMS Royal Ark became the primary ships in the hunt. Both of them were sailing up from the south.
The Royal Ark sent out two Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, which by the way, were biplanes. They encountered a storm and poor visibility and accidentally attacked the Sheffield. Miraculously, the torpedoes didn’t explode.
The bombers returned to reload, changed the detonators on the torpedoes, and returned with 15 swordfish bombers this time.
One of the torpedoes managed to hit one of the weakest points of the ship near the rudder. The Bismarck lost the ability to do anything but sail in circles.
At midnight, the captain sent a message to the Kriegsmarine command saying, “Ship unmanoeuvrable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”
At this point, the Bismarck was a goner, and everyone involved knew it. With the battleship disabled, the British could now take their time.
They waited until daylight on the next morning of the 27th of May.
The British ships, including the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V, began firing on the Bismarck just before 9 am. After an hour of shelling, they managed to disable the main guns on the Bismarck, but the ship wouldn’t sink.
Finally, around 10 am, the battleships left to avoid u-boat attacks, and several torpedoes were launched into the Bismarck by a destroyer. However, that still didn’t sink the ship. It wasn’t until the crew of the Bismarck set off explosions to scuttle the ship that it finally sank at 10:40 am.
The British officers all had a sense of respect for the Bismarck as they never surrendered, and went down flying their flag.
Over 2,000 men aboard the Bismarck died. One hundred ten were picked up by the British, another 74 by a German u-boat, and two more by a German weather ship.
The sinking of the Bismarck ended German surface operations in the Atlantic for the rest of the war. From then on, everything was conducted by u-boat.
Bismarck’s sister battleship, the Tirpitz, was restricted to the coast of Norway, but it too was sunk by the British in 1944.
While the Bismarck managed to sink the HMS Hood, it was hardly a fair exchange given the relative sizes of the British and German navies. Also, the Bismarck and its support ships never managed to sink a single cargo ship.
The sinking of the Bismarck became the basis for the 1959 novel “Last Nine Days of the Bismarck,” the 1960 movie “Sink the Bismarck!” and a popular song from that year of the same name.
The wreck of the Bismarck was discovered in 1989 by Robert Ballard, the same guy who found the Titanic. The ship was found, resting right side up 4,791 meters or 15,719 feet below the surface.
An analysis of the ship’s hull found that it didn’t show evidence of an implosion which normally happens when a non-flooded ship sinks. This is consistent with the theory that the ship was scuttled, and with the stories of the survivors. In fact, only two holes were found in the hull along the ship’s main belt above or below the waterline.
The sinking of the Bismarck was unquestionable the biggest naval action in the Atlantic during the second world war. The loss of the Bismarck changed Germany’s entire naval strategy and thus their entire war strategy. It also was probably the final chapter in the long naval history of battleships.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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