How the sinking of Germany's greatest battleship proved the value of naval aviation
At the time of its launch, the German battleship Bismarck, the namesake of the 19th century German chancellor responsible for German unification, was easily the most powerful warship in World War II Europe, displacing over 50,000 tons when fully loaded and crewed by over 2,200 men. She had a fearsome armament of 8 15-inch guns alongside 56 smaller cannons, and her main armor belt was over a foot of rolled steel. Her top speed of over 30 knots made her one of the fastest battleships afloat.
The German Kriegsmarine was never going to have the numbers to confront Great Britain’s vast surface fleet, but the German strategy of attacking merchant shipping using U-boats, fast attack cruisers and light battleships had been bearing fruit. A ship as fast and powerful as the Bismarck raiding convoys could do horrendous damage and make a bad supply situation for Great Britain even worse.
The Bismarck was launched with great fanfare on on March 14, 1939, with Otto von Bismarck’s granddaughter in attendance and Adolf Hitler himself giving the christening speech. Extensive trials confirmed that the Bismarck was fast and an excellent gunnery platform, but that it’s ability to turn using only it’s propellers was minimal at best. This design flaw was to have disastrous consequences later.
The German plan was to team the Bismarck with its sister ship Tirpitz alongside the two light battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. This fast attack force would be able to outgun anything it could not outrun, and outrun anything it could not outgun. Pursuing convoys across the North Atlantic, the task force might finally push the beleaguered merchant marine traffic to Great Britain over the edge.
But as usually happens in war, events put a crimp in plans. Construction of the Tirpitz faced serious delays, while the Scharnhorst was torpedoed and bombed in port and the Gneisenau needed serious boiler overhauls. The heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper that might have served in their place also needed extensive repairs that were continually delayed by British bombing. In the end, the Bismarck sortied with only the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and a few destroyers and minesweepers on May 19, 1941, with the mission termed Operation Rheinübung.
Great Britain had ample intelligence on the Bismark through its contacts in the supposedly neutral Swedish Navy, and Swedish aerial reconnaissance quickly spotted the sortie and passed on the news. The British swiftly put together a task force to confront the threat. After docking in Norway, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen headed towards towards the North Atlantic and the convoy traffic between North America and Great Britain.
They swiftly found themselves shadowed by British cruisers, and in the Denmark Strait were confronted by the famed battle cruiser Hood and the heavy battleship Prince of Wales. After a short, furious exchange of fire a round from the Bismarck hit one of Hood’s main powder magazines, blowing the ship in half and sinking it in a matter of moments. Only three of 1,419 crew members survived. This was followed by a direct hit to the bridge of the Prince of Wales that left only the captain and one other of the command crew alive, and after further damage it was forced to withdrawal.
The handy defeat of two of its most prized warships stunned the British navy, but the Bismarck did not emerge unscathed. A hit from the Prince of Wales had blown a large hole in one of it’s fuel bunkers, contaminating much of its fuel with seawater and rendering it useless. The British scrambled every ship it had in the area in pursuit, and the Bismarck continued to be shadowed by cruisers and aircraft. The Prinz Eugen was detached for commerce raiding while the Bismarck headed to port in occupied France for repairs, trading distant fire with British cruisers.
Even damaged, the Bismarck was faster than any heavy British ship, and it took bombers from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal to bring it to heel. A torpedo hit on the Bismarck’s stern left her port rudder jammed, leaving the Bismarck to loop helplessly, and a large British surface task force closed in. Adm. Günther Lütjens, the Bismarck’s senior officer, sent a radio message to headquarters stating that they would fight to the last shell.
Unable to maneuver for accurate targeting, the Bismarck’s guns were largely useless, and British ships pounded it mercilessly, inflicting hundreds of hits and killing Lütjens alongside most of the command staff. After the Bismarck was left a shattered wreck, it’s senior surviving officer ordered it’s scuttling charges detonated to avoid its capture, but damaged communications meant much of the crew did not get the word. When it finally capsized and slipped beneath the waves, only 114 of a crew of more than 2,200 made it off alive.
The Bismarck was one of the most powerful machines of war produced in World War II, and it generated real panic in a Great Britain that possessed a far more powerful surface fleet than Germany. But in the end, the Bismarck fell prey to the same weapon that doomed the concept of battleships: Aircraft.