- James Houser
May 27, 1941 - The Sinking of the Bismarck
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 27, 1941. After seven days of running battle, the German battleship Bismarck is cornered in the North Atlantic. Under fire from British battleships and torpedoes, the flagship of Nazi Germany’s fleet finally capsizes and sinks beneath the waves. One of World War II’s classic dramas has ended – but the moral to the story is not what you might expect.
Britain stood alone. Nazi forces occupied most of Europe, and Rommel’s panzers were knocking at the gates of Egypt, threatening to capture the Suez Canal. Even though they had survived the Blitz in 1940, British civilian morale was still high but fading. They had no chance of defeating Nazi Germany on their own, and their only lifeline were the convoys that threaded through the teeming U-Boat wolfpacks in the Atlantic, bringing the food, supplies and resources they needed to keep running as a country. With no prospect of the United States’ entry into the war anytime soon, there was little chance of a sudden change of fortune. Britain badly needed a victory.
The British did not know it, but they were hardly Hitler’s first priority. The Germans were planning their offensive against the Soviet Union, and most of Hitler’s energy was going into planning for that clash of titans. Some in the German high command, though, still believed that Britain was the primary target, and among them was Germany’s naval chief, Admiral Erich Raeder.
Raeder knew that the German High Seas Fleet was no match for the Royal Navy as a whole – it was why the Germans had never tried to invade Britain. Nevertheless, he believed that Britain could be starved out and forced to surrender by cutting off her supply from the sea. The U-Boats were already doing their work in the Atlantic, but submarines are limited: they can barely defend themselves, have limited visibility, and carry a limited stock of ammunition. Instead, Raeder proposed the use of “surface raiders”: large surface ships that would criss-cross the Atlantic destroying shipping and sinking commerce.
Raeder believed this strategy could eventually force Britain to her knees without a land invasion. By May 1941, he had been carrying out the strategy for several months with some of his ships. The issue was that the Germans had precious few surface warships; the Army and Luftwaffe absorbed the lion’s share of Nazi resources, and the groups that had carried out the last raids were still damaged. When Raeder decided to launch another raid in May, the only ships available were the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battleship Bismarck.
The Bismarck has become one of the most famous ships of World War II, so it’s worth dwelling on a little. The only of Germany’s two modern battleships of the whole war, it was quite the monster, displacing 49,000 long tons fully loaded and with a battery of eight 15-inch guns and 12 6-inch guns as its main armament. It took over 2,000 men to crew and had 320mm of belt armor. At 792 feet long and 118 feet wide, she was a beast – but she had flaws. Notably, her antiaircraft mountings were unarmored, and there were only 44 AA cannon – far less than, say, the 129 antiair guns on a U.S. Iowa-class battleship of the late war, or even the 90 antiair guns of the USS South Dakota, which would be launched in June. In short, Bismarck would be a tough opponent on the surface – but was desperately vulnerable from the air.
After Hitler had blessed off on their surface raid, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left the Baltic Sea on May 19, 1941, bound for the North Atlantic. The small task force was led by Admiral Gunther Lutjens, one of Germany’s top admirals. The smaller battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were supposed to have joined them, but Scharnhorst was still being repaired from the last raid and Gneisenau had been damaged by a British bombing raid – an ill omen – but the raid went on regardless.
Almost immediately, the British knew of the raid. German intelligence and information security were desperately bad – in fact, German military intelligence was probably the worst in Europe, even compared to smaller countries – and the Kriegsmarine in particular was leakier than the morning after Taco Bell. Even before the ships had left, British intelligence received word they were loading up extra fuel and additional crewmen – the sure sign of a raid. By May 21, the British knew that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had sailed, and sent out planes and ships to try to track them down and intercept them. Thus began the chase.
For the next seven days, the British would devote virtually every resource they had to tracking down and sinking Lutjens’ task force. They were hyper-sensitive about their Atlantic supply lines, but they also wanted to score a major propaganda victory against the Germans and boost civilian morale. The Bismarck getting loose in the Atlantic wouldn’t be a death blow to the British war effort, but could severely damage morale.
Admiral Sir John Tovey, the Commander of the British Home Fleet, had two battleships, the battlecruiser Hood, and an aircraft carrier at the Royal Navy’s Scottish islands base of Scapa Flow. Scapa Flow dominated the North Sea, so Tovey predicted that the Germans would try to swing far north and slip between Greenland and Iceland at the Denmark Strait. To head them off, he dispatched the Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales to intercept and sink the German force. One battleship and one battlecruiser should be enough for a battleship and a heavy cruiser (which was considerably smaller.)
The HMS Hood had been “Pride of the Royal Navy” in the 1920s and ‘30s, and had enjoyed a long career as the biggest ship afloat – but it was sadly outdated by 1941. She cut a fine figure, making her a very “sexy” ship, but by 1941 she had reached middle age and badly needed some plastic surgery. Despite her size and powerful armament, her armor was decidedly thin by modern standards, and her age meant that she was long overdue for an overhaul. Due to her popularity and constant place in fleet reviews, though, the overhaul kept getting put off…and off…until May 1941 arrived and she needed to go fight the Bismarck. It would be like pulling Brett Favre back into the NFL.
Hood and Prince of Wales lumbered off to stop the Germans, and the encounter of Bismarck vs. Hood passed into legend for all the wrong reasons. On May 24, 1941, Bismarck spotted Hood and Prince of Wales, and the two sides began to pound away at each other with their big guns, squaring off in the icy waters. As Hood began to turn so as to engage Bismarck with her broadsides, one of Bismarck’s shells penetrated the thin deck armor of the Hood and breached her ammunition magazine. A catastrophic explosion immediately destroyed the famous British ship, with only three survivors from its crew of 1,421. The Battle of the Denmark Strait was over almost before it began.
Prince of Wales, though, had injured Bismarck badly with a direct hit on her bow, which caused her to leak oil in her flight across the North Atlantic. Bismarck’s damage at the Denmark Strait meant that, even though she had won, her mission was over almost before it began. The new challenge would be getting back to port for repairs. Lutjens could not raid the North Atlantic with a leaky, listing battleship. Trying to retrace his steps seemed certain to bring disaster now that the British in Scapa Flow were alerted, so Lutjens decided that he had to try and make for France. It was a fatal decision.
Bismarck pushed south. In Britain, the news of the Hood’s sinking was a terrible shock, and the idea that a German ship had gotten one over on the “Mighty Hood” put the population in an uproar. The British public, after all, didn’t know that Bismarck herself had been nearly crippled, or that they had no chance of accomplishing anything substantial anymore. Winston Churchill had his finger on the pulse of his people, and forwarded a new, unequivocal order to every Royal Navy ship in the Atlantic. “SINK. THE. BISMARCK.”
Left alone, the Bismarck might sink all on her own, but the British would not give her that chance. As she steamed south, she left an oil slick that the pursuing task force could easily follow. 19 British warships were horning in on 2 Germans; this included six battleships and battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, and a brace of cruisers and destroyers. The Prince of Wales was hot on her heels, and air patrols from British carriers stabbed through the air in hot pursuit. Lutjens, hoping to salvage something from the debacle, detached Prinz Eugen to try and carry out the mission on their own while he limped back to France. This was another mistake; he would soon miss Prinz Eugen’s AA guns.
It seemed like Bismarck might have shaken her pursuers on May 26, but then Lutjens sent a number of radio transmissions to German forces in France. These signals were intercepted by the British, cracked by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, then relayed to the Fleet, which soon had the scent again. Bismarck desperately tried to get close enough to France to come under the umbrella of German air protection, but to no avail. The British aircraft carrier Ark Royal launched 15 Swordfish torpedo bombers – canvas biplane aircraft that seemed to be from another era – to stop Bismarck before she could escape, and just before nightfall the Swordfish landed three hits on the German battleship. The explosion of the torpedoes jammed the Bismarck’s rudder, and it began turning in a large circle back into the jaws of the British fleet.
As all hope faded, Lutjens transmitted his final signal to the Nazi high command: “Ship unable to maneuver. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer.”
On May 27, the British battleships Rodney and King George V closed in on the battered Bismarck. Though she put up a fight, the outcome was never in doubt. The British guns battered the Bismarck until all her turrets were destroyed, then fired some more. They circled the blazing German hulk, pummeling her with their cannon until they ran short of fuel. As the battleships withdrew, a British cruiser placed torpedoes into the Bismarck just as the crew set off several scuttling charges belowdecks – igniting a lasting controversy over who really sunk Bismarck.
Sunk she was, though, despite taking the pounding like a champ for hours. As Hitler’s flagship sank below the waves, only 110 men were rescued from the scene by British ships from the crew of over 2,000; Lutjens was not among them. The Bismarck’s journey was over.
Though it was a major boon to British morale, and a harsh piece of news that Nazi Germany tried to downplay and conceal, what did the sinking of Bismarck really mean? Bismarck has gotten movies, books, a country song, a metal song, and video games. The drama of the Bismarck’s last cruise is one of the most popular stories of World War II, and for good reason – it’s a damn good epic tale.
For all that, it would be hard to find a military campaign of World War II with LESS impact on the actual war than the epic tale of the Bismarck. What must be noted is that the whole German idea of “surface raiding” was profoundly misguided. The Germans never had enough ships to carry out an effective raiding strategy against Britain; they could only send two ships in 1941, because the other two ships had been damaged in recent actions. The sinking of the Bismarck demonstrated that these small raiding forces were immensely vulnerable. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen sank not one merchant ship during their entire voyage; they sank the Hood, which for all its luster was badly outdated and fighting far out of its weight.
The Bismarck’s demise is the story of the German Navy in World War II. It was never big enough to be a real threat to Britain, but there was a far worse flaw: it completely ignored the new dimension of warfare. Germany never fielded an aircraft carrier. It routinely under-armed its ships with AA guns. It sent surface raiders into waters that British aircraft carriers and shore-based planes roamed and dominated. Against these odds, what chance did the Kriegsmarine have? They weren’t even safe from British planes in port!
The Bismarck’s last battle was an epic tale, but it was a battle that should never have happened. It did not change the course of the war one iota, because its entire voyage was already pointless and it never could have done real damage. It doesn’t matter, in the end, who sank the Bismarck. The Bismarck, like the Kriegsmarine, sank herself.