Bismarck: why was the WW2 German battleship so feared? Plus 9 things you didn’t know about its only mission

Named after the ‘Iron Chancellor’ who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871, the battleship Bismarck was intended to be a national icon – but it had a short life at sea. Iain Ballantyne reveals nine lesser-known facts about the ship and its sole mission…

The German battleship Bismarck of the German Kriegsmarine during early World War II

Launched on Valentine’s Day 1939 at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, the battleship Bismarck inspired love in many of those watching her go down the slipway.

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A powerful representation of Germany’s rise from the ashes of the First World War, it was a fearsome combination of size, swiftness and firepower. Bismarck was nominally meant to be 35,000 tons to meet the stipulations of the Washington Naval Treaty [which placed limits on the size of battleships]. That treaty lapsed, allowing naval architects of the major maritime powers to add a further 5,000 tons, but then the Germans secretly pushed it even further. Bismarck’s true displacement when fully laden was 50,933 tons – a fact the Allies only discovered when they acquired secret German naval documents after the Second World War.

With a top speed of 29 knots, Bismarck (and her sister vessel Tirpitz, launched in April 1939, were faster than any the Royal Navy could send to war. Its eight 15-inch main guns were of a bigger calibre than those of Britain’s new King George V-class battleships – and though Britain did possess warships with larger guns, they were built in the 1920s and couldn’t match Bismarck for speed.

By May 1941, with the battle of the Atlantic in full swing, Bismarck was a latent threat. British naval forces were spread thin, tasked with protecting Atlantic convoys, fighting the Italians and Germans in the Mediterranean, and watching a belligerent Japan. Could the overstretched British stop Bismarck from breaking out of the Baltic and into the Atlantic to join forces with U-boats?

The vessel’s long-awaited first deployment was expected to be a severe trial of Britain’s national will and the Royal Navy. And so it proved, though for the Germans it was a major test of nerve that ultimately ended with the sinking of the Bismarck.

Here Iain Ballantyne, author of Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom, reveals nine lesser-known facts about the battleship and its one and only sortie…

1

The Kriegsmarine was afraid to tell Hitler that Bismarck had gone to war

For all Bismarck’s power, the top brass of the Kriegsmarine still feared the Royal Navy. So they did not give Adolf Hitler advance notice of Bismarck’s deployment in case he banned them from doing so. They knew the Führer was anxious about the humiliation Germany would face if she lost a ship named after its first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

When Kriegsmarine boss Grand Admiral Erich Raeder finally confessed to having sent Bismarck out, Hitler asked if it and her consort – the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen – could be called back. He was especially worried about what British aircraft carriers might do to cripple Bismarck and leave her at the mercy of enemy battleships.

2

Bismarck almost sank a second Royal Navy ship during its sortie

For the Germans, the breakout into the Atlantic got off to a good start. During a clash in the Denmark Strait on 24 May, Bismarck managed to sink the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood, when a cataclysmic explosion ripped the elderly battlecruiser apart. All but three of her 1,418-strong crew were lost.

The new Royal Navy battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, almost suffered a similar fate. Bismarck hit Prince of Wales close to its ammunition compartments, but in that instance Bismarck’s shell fragmented and did not explode. However, Prince of Wales did land three hits on Bismarck, one of which punctured a fuel-oil tank, forcing plans for Bismarck to attack convoys to be abandoned – the ship was forced to make for port for repairs.

3

Bismarck may have escaped had it not been for loose German tongues

Still reeling from the loss of Hood, in the early hours of 25 May the British lost track of Bismarck. During the 31 hours following Bismarck’s disappearing act, Royal Navy warship commanders mostly kept their radio silence – unlike the Germans, who were wireless signal blabbermouths.

Admiral Günther Lütjens, who was aboard Bismarck and was the mission’s commander, made frequent progress reports to German naval headquarters. It was a huge error. Although Germany’s naval Enigma signal codes were still hard to crack, the Bismarck’s transmissions enabled British Radio Direction Finding (D/F) stations to identify the battleship’s general location and heading.

This was allied with intelligence gleaned from elsewhere, allowing the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC) in London to ultimately confirm Bismarck was heading for a French Atlantic coast port. It was information crucial to turning the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet around to head southeast.

4

Bismarck’s crew were offered a ‘last supper’ on the eve of their final battle

After being found by an RAF Catalina flying boat and later attacked by Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal – with a torpedo crippling the ship’s steering and halting her escape – the morale of Bismarck’s crew was shattered. Officers fell into a state of deep depression and the battleship’s captain told his men they could take whatever they wanted from the stores, including watches, cheese, cigarettes and alcohol.

This proved to be a poor idea the night before battle. It plunged many of the men into despair and meant they performed their jobs poorly.

5

The only U-boat that reached Bismarck couldn’t help to save it

In the absence of readily available Kriegsmarine battleships or battlecruisers to sail over the horizon, any rescue of Bismarck came down to U-boats being ordered to abandon plans for ambushing the British fleet.

It was an impossible task for slow, tiny submarines that, due to stormy seas and threat of enemy attack, had to crawl along submerged on battery power.

U-556 got the closest, but had no torpedoes left when some of Bismarck’s pursuers came into view of her periscope. On the night of 26/27 May, it was relegated to sending reports to Kriegsmarine headquarters while watching the British attack Bismarck.

6

Hitler was furious

When it became clear Bismarck was at the mercy of the Britain’s naval forces, Hitler asked why it wasn’t possible for the Luftwaffe to inflict the same kind of pain on the British battleships.

He was told that the only way to do that properly, with a co-ordinated torpedo-bomber attack, would have been to have an aircraft carrier at sea. The Germans had started building one, the Graf Zeppelin, but it lay incomplete in a Baltic shipyard.

7

Some Bismarck crew tried to surrender

When the final battle came on the morning of 27 May, the Royal Navy battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, along with heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Norfolk, swiftly incapacitated Bismarck. Hundreds of officers and men were killed on the German vessel, and there was evidence that some people aboard tried to surrender – using semaphore flags and light signals – even as Bismarck’s surviving guns carried on firing.

As for actually taking the surrender of a still defiant enemy, it would have been time-consuming and complex. Also, the British capital ships were running out of fuel and were expecting hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers to come over the horizon at any moment. Had Britain lost either Rodney or King George V to air attack, the blow would have been severe, especially in the wake of Hood’s loss.

8

Bismarck proved hard to sink

Despite being utterly destroyed as a fighting vessel, Bismarck was hard to sink, a product of it being a new warship, but one still based on First World War-era design principles.

Her armoured citadel enclosed her engine room spaces and ammunition magazines, but not other vital areas of the battleship, and hence she stayed afloat even after being utterly destroyed as a fighting vessel.

British torpedoes and shell hits would have slowly taken Bismarck down, but the final blow was levied by the German vessel’s own crew, who detonated the scuttling charges when they abandoned ship.

9

The Royal Navy rescued some of the surviving Bismarck crew

The men of the Royal Navy wanted to sink Bismarck – there was a desire for some measure of retribution for the loss of the Hood and the fire-bombing blitz of Plymouth (the homeport for Rodney, Dorsetshire and other warships) by the Luftwaffe in March-April 1941, which had seen many loved ones made homeless, injured or killed. Destroying a symbol of the Nazi regime on the high seas was likewise a major motivation. But once the guns fell silent on 27 May 1941, the men of the Royal Navy just saw fellow sailors struggling to stay alive.

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In the end, 110 Bismarck survivors were rescued by the Dorsetshire and Maori despite heavy seas. Dorsetshire was forced to withdraw – leaving behind hundreds survivors in the water – after a possible U-boat sighting, but its crew dropped floats over the side for those left behind. Maori too had to leave the scene; as it was running low on fuel, there were concerns about it being sunk by an enemy air attack.

After the war, sailors from the cruiser Dorsetshire and destroyer Maori – themselves both sunk in 1942 – enjoyed reunions in the UK and Germany with the Bismarck survivors they had rescued. The former foes had forged strong bonds of friendship.

Iain Ballantyne is a journalist, editor, and author who has written several military history books on the Second World War and the Cold War, including Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom. Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021