Bismarck

The battleship Bismarck was ordered by the German government for the German Navy in 1935. Completed in 1940, at 41,700 tons, was considered the most powerful warship in the world.

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left port on 18th May 1941 but it was not until 21st May that British intelligence was informed that the ships were refuelling in Bergen Fjord in Norway. Afterwards the ships headed for the Denmark Straits in an attempt to avoid the Royal Navy based at Scapa Flow. However, Admiral John Tovey had been informed of its position and he called up every available warship to destroy Germany's most powerful battleship.

On 23rd May the Bismarck was spotted by the heavy cruiser Suffolk. Using its recently installed radar to track the German ship it was soon joined by the Norfolk. At the same time the Hood and Prince of Wales moved in from the other direction to tackle the German ships head-on.

The warships went into battle on the morning of 24th May. The engagement began when the Hood began firing at the more advanced Prinz Eugen. When the Bismarck arrived it used its 15-inch guns and after taking several direct hits the Hood exploded before sinking. Only three out of a crew of 1,421 survived.

The two German ships now turned on the Prince of Wales and after being badly damaged fled from the area. The Bismarck was also damaged and had a ruptured fuel tank. This resulted in an oil leak and a reduction of her maximum speed. That evening the Bismarck was attacked by nine torpedo bombers and scored one direct hit.

It was decided that she was now vulnerable to attack and orders were given for her to return to the port of Brest. Steaming at moderate speed to conserve fuel it was sited by a British flying boat on 26th May. The aircraft followed the Bismarck until the light cruiser Sheffield took over that afternoon. It was soon joined by the Ark Royal and the Renown. Soon afterwards the Bismarck was hit which resulted in her steering gear being jammed.

Now severely disabled, the Bismarck was now surrounded by the King George V, Rodney, the Norfork and the Dorsetshire. After an hour and a half the Bismarck was a blazing wreck. At 10.36 a.m. the Bismarck sank killing all but 110 of her crew. The loss of its largest ship marked the end of the German Navy's incursions into the Atlantic.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) The Manchester Guardian (26th May, 1941)

An admiralty announcement on Saturday said that the battlecruiser Hood suffered an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up. It is feared that there will be few survivors. The 35,000 ton Bismarck, one of Germany's two newest battleships was damaged.

The two new German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz may both have been present, though only the Bismarck is mentioned in the official bulletin. Recently the German Admiralty was at pains to let the world know that both were completed and on service. They are reported to have been designed to steam at more than 30 knots, and if that is their speed the Hood should be the ship most likely to keep them within range in a running fight. None of our battleships can exceed 25 knots apart from the new King George V class, and we know nothing of their whereabouts.

The destruction of the Hood is surprising, for her design was based on the lessons of Jutland, where three battlecruisers were all destroyed by the blowing up of their magazines. The armour protection for the Hood was considered by the experts to be the most effective that could be devised. All the protection possible was provided in the gun turrets and ammunition trunks to prevent the flash of an explosion passing down the trunk into the magazine and the handling rooms - the cause of the destruction of the Queen Mary, the Indefatigable, and the Invincible at Jutland - and more than a third of the weight of the ship was devoid of armour.

(2) The Manchester Guardian (28th May, 1941)

The Admiralty last night told the story of the destruction of the Bismarck, Germany's 35,000-ton battleship, after a pursuit of more than 1,750 miles.

After the loss of H.M.S. Hood on Saturday very strong forces were sent out to hunt the Bismarck. They included Home Fleet units under Admiral Sir J.C. Tovey in H.M.S. King George V and Mediterranean Fleet units under Admiral Sir J.F. Somerville in H.M.S. Renown. H.M.S. Rodney and H.M.S. Ramillies, which were on convoy duty, and the aircraft-carriers Ark Royal and Victorious were among other notable ships in the pursuit.

The Bismarck came very near to making port. She was about 400 miles due west of Brest when she was brought to bay early yesterday morning, having then been hit by torpedoes from aircraft (which played a vital part in the operations) and destroyers.

Our heavy ships were in action in the final phase, but it was the cruiser Dorsetshire which dealt the final blows - with torpedoes - at eleven o'clock yesterday morning.

In the first action on Saturday the Bismarck was accompanied by the 10,000 ton cruiser Prince Eugen. "Measures are being taken in respect of her," Mr. Churchill told the House of Commons yesterday. Apart from the Hood, only one British ship was damaged, H.M.S. Prince of Wales, which was slightly damaged on Saturday but was still able to engage the Bismarck again.