The sinking of the Bismarck: a cat and mouse chase across the Atlantic
The battleship Bismarck was one of the gems of the Kriegsmarine, bristling with fearsome weaponry. Nick Hewitt explains how Britain sank this behemoth, and how its brutal loss would undermine Hitler's confidence in German sea power
On 27 May 1941, HMS Dorsetshire sent the following signal to the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet: “Torpedoed Bismarck both sides before she sank. She had ceased ring, but her colours were still flying.”
So ended the German battleship Bismarck’s only operational sortie, which had begun from the Polish coastal city of Gotenhafen (modern-day Gdynia) just over a week before. The dramatic story has been told and retold in books, documentaries, a feature film – and even a country and western song. But the truth remains, perhaps, the most compelling account of all.
Bismarck was launched in February 1939. Weighing in at over 50,000 tons when fully loaded, she displaced more than any other European battleship in service; she was fast, well-protected and heavily armed. When Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg joined Bismarck in June 1940 as fourth gunnery officer and personal adjutant officer to the ship’s captain, Ernest Lindemann, he was fully trusting of her capabilities. “I had supreme confidence in this ship,” he wrote in his memoirs. “How could it be otherwise?”
Commissioned on 24 August 1940, by March 1941 she was ready for her first mission, Operation Rheinübung: a raid on the Atlantic convoy routes which merchant ships used to transport vital supplies to Britain from North America. Accompanied by the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and under the overall command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, Bismarck departed Gotenhafen early on 19 May.
The British watched Bismarck’s progress apprehensively. Between January and May in that year, 277 British and Allied merchant ships totalling almost 1.5 million tons had been sunk, mostly by German U-boats in the Atlantic. Putting merchant ships into convoys was the answer, but a powerful German surface force could spell disaster, as Bismarck could overwhelm any convoy escort, forcing the merchant ships to scatter and leaving them vulnerable to submarines.
Bismarck: the feared German battleship
Builders | Blohm & Voss, Hamburg
Laid down | 1 July 1936
Launched | 14 February 1939
Commissioned | 24 August 1940
Ships in class | Two (including Tirpitz)
Displacement | 53,000 tons (max)
Length | 251m
Maximum speed | 30 knots (35 mph) during trials
Armaments | Eight x 380mm, 12 x 150mm, 16 x 105mm (anti-aircraft), 16 x 370mm (anti-aircraft), 18 x 20mm (anti-aircraft)
Armour thickness | Belt 320mm, turrets 360mm, main deck 120mm (maximum)
Aircraft | Four Arado Ar 196 floatplanes
Crew | 2,065 (though more than 2,200 were on board during the Atlantic sortie due to the inclusion of the Admiral’s staff, prize crews and war correspondents)
Lütjens’ route took him through the Kattegat (a sea area between Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and along the Norwegian coast to Bergen. His squadron was spotted twice, once by a Swedish cruiser and once by members of the Norwegian resistance, and by 20 May, London knew that Bismarck was at sea. On 21 May RAF reconnaissance pilot Michael ‘Babe’ Suckling photographed the two ships refuelling in the fjords near Bergen. He hand-delivered the developed prints from his base at Wick, in northern Scotland, to London.
In response, Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, sent cruisers to patrol the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, and the Iceland-Faroe Gap to the south-east. The battlecruiser HMS Hood and the brand-new battleship HMS Prince of Wales raced to Iceland, while the rest of the fleet waited at Scapa Flow, its Orkney base, ready to depart at short notice. For now, there was nothing else to do but wait. Winston Churchill cabled US president Franklin D Roosevelt a worrying message: “Tonight they [Bismarck and Prinz Eugen] have sailed. We have reason to believe a formidable Atlantic raid is intended.”
The chase begins
Early in the morning of 23 May, while dodging ice floes and battling through rain, fog and occasional snowfall, Lütjens began his dash through the Denmark Strait. Despite the foul weather and Lütjens’ efforts to stay concealed, at 7.22pm Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were sighted by the British cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk.
Neither side sought a battle. The outgunned British wanted to ‘shadow’ the Germans, reporting their position until more powerful reinforcements arrived, while Lütjens wanted to shake off his pursuers and vanish. Twice, the admiral turned towards the enemy vessels to try and drive them away (and once Bismarck even opened fire, narrowly missing Norfolk), but the British cruisers hung on until reinforcements arrived at dawn the following day.
“It must have been around 5.45am, the rising sun having already lit up the horizon, when the smoke plumes of two ships and then the tips of their masts came into view on our port beam,” recalled Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg. “The silhouettes of the ships below them became visible... I heard Albrecht [Bismarck’s second gunnery officer] shout, ‘The Hood!’”
Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland – second-in-command of the home fleet, who was sailing on Hood – faced significant challenges. Hood had a formidable reputation, but she was old, and to ensure that she could reach high speeds and boast big guns, her designers had sacrificed deck armour. Conversely, Prince of Wales was so new that she had left port with civilian technicians aboard to work on her unreliable four gun turrets. Trying to close the range and overcome these serious handicaps, Holland drove his formation towards the enemy, which meant the British ships could only fire their forward guns against the Germans’ full broadsides when the action began at 5.52am.
Bismarck sinks the Hood
Within minutes, Holland realised his mistake and started to turn his ships to bring their aft (rear) turrets into action, as shells from both German ships began to drop around Hood and smash into her superstructure. But it was already too late.
“[She] disappeared into a big orange ash and a huge pall of smoke,” Leading Sick Berth Attendant Sam Wood recalled. “Time seemed to stand still. I just watched in horror... the Hood had gone.” 1,415 men died; there were only three survivors. The entire battle lasted just nine minutes.
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen now turned their fire on Prince of Wales, and the ship’s commander, Captain John Leach, narrowly escaped death after a large shell from Bismarck smashed into the battleship’s bridge, killing or wounding everyone else there. He wisely withdrew under cover of a smoke screen, and for the rest of the day, Prince of Wales and the two cruisers, now under the command of Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker in Norfolk, continued to shadow from a distance.
Lütjens had his victory, but Prince of Wales had hit Bismarck twice. One exploding shell flooded a boiler room, reducing her speed, while the other penetrated an oil tank, contaminating her fuel and causing it to leak into the sea. Lütjens signalled Berlin, stating that he intended to detach Prinz Eugen to continue the raid and take Bismarck to the French port of Saint-Nazaire for repairs. To cover the cruiser’s escape, at 6.14pm Lütjens traded salvoes with Prince of Wales.
In London, Winston Churchill spent an anxious night considering the consequences of the day’s action. He later wrote in his 1950 book, The Grand Alliance: “What if we lost touch in the night? Which way would she go? She had a wide choice, and we were vulnerable almost everywhere.”
And if Bismarck did manage to escape, the damage to British prestige would be incalculable, particularly in the still-neutral United States. Admiral Tovey’s fleet was already on the way, but now every ship that could be mobilised rushed to the Atlantic. More cruiser patrols were ordered out, extra battleships were detached from convoy escort duties, and Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force H raced north from Gibraltar with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and battlecruiser HMS Renown.
Desperate to slow Bismarck, Admiral Tovey, moving south from Scapa Flow but still about 330 miles away, pushed his aircraft carrier HMS Victorious ahead at high speed to launch an air strike. Victorious flew off her aircraft just after 10pm, when she was 100 miles from Bismarck. After a nightmarish journey though darkness, low cloud and rain, the Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked into a storm of shell fire; Lindemann even red his ship’s 380mm main guns into the water to create huge splashes ahead of the attacking biplanes. Bismarck dodged eight torpedoes, but the ninth struck the centre of the vessel. Violent manoeuvring worsened the German battleship’s flooding and eventually cost her another boiler, further slowing her speed. All the Swordfish returned safely.
British celebrations were short-lived, however. At 3am, Wake-Walker, concerned about U-boat attacks, ordered his shadowing warships to zigzag. As the British ships temporarily turned away from him, Lütjens increased speed, broke radar contact and slipped away. “The day,” wrote Churchill, “which had begun so full of promise, ended in disappointment and frustration.”
Hunting the Bismarck
By dawn on 26 May, the situation was bleak. Bismarck had vanished, and although the navy’s best guess was that she was making for the French port city of Brest, nobody was sure. The frantically searching warships were running out of fuel when, at 10.30am, a patrolling Catalina flying boat piloted by a US Navy pilot on secondment to the RAF picked up Bismarck steaming east.
She was just under 750 miles – less than a day’s steaming – from safety. The only hope of stopping her lay with Somerville’s Force H, which was under 70 miles away.
Somerville pushed his only cruiser, HMS Sheffield, up ahead to shadow the wounded German behemoth and launched an air strike. In the confusion, the Swordfish pilots accidentally attacked Sheffield, fortunately missing her, but the mistake cost time, as the aircraft had to return to Ark Royal and rearm. With every minute lost, Bismarck drew nearer to Luftwaffe air cover. The second strike launched at 7.10pm and attacked at 8.47pm. John Moffat, who flew one of the Swordfish during the attack, recalled: “I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me... I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it; every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything.” However, Moffat didn’t succumb to his nerves. “I held on, and we got closer and closer... I pressed the button on the throttle. Dusty [Miller, Moffat’s observer] yelled, ‘I think we’ve got a runner!’”
Then, two torpedoes – possibly including Moffat’s – hit Bismarck. Catastrophically, one ripped a hole in her stern and flooded the steering gear compartment, jamming her rudder in a 12-degree turn to port and leaving her unmanoeuvrable. All night, German sailors tried to repair the damage while fending o torpedo attacks by pursuing British destroyers, but at dawn she was still steaming in a circle.
Bismarck's last battle
Bismarck’s last battle began just before 9am on 27 May, when Admiral Tovey approached the slowly circling giant with the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, as well as the cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire.
Tovey’s four ships pummelled Bismarck at a progressively closer range for over an hour, ring nearly 3,000 shells and scoring hundreds of hits. Unable to manoeuvre, Bismarck could barely land a blow in return, and by 10am the German battleship was a wreck. Allied sailor Eric Flory was watching from King George V. “There was the Bismarck away to starboard,” he remembered, “listing to port, guns pointing in all directions... Fires were raging, and the steel plates were showing red hot.”
The Scottish writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy was serving in the destroyer HMS Tartar, and he recalled how he “had never seen a more magnificent warship, and she sat squarely in the water taking terrible, terrible punishment”.
At about 10.20am, Tovey sent Dorsetshire in to finish Bismarck off with torpedoes. Unchallenged, the cruiser manoeuvred around the crippled giant, methodically putting a torpedo into each of her sides. Following these hits, Bismarck rolled over to port and sank by the stern. Subsequent examination of the wreck indicates that the crew may have been flooding the ship at the same time to keep her from the British.
From the original crew of over 2,200, 110 survivors were rescued by HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori; they then left the scene and abandoned hundreds of survivors following a U-boat warning. Five more survivors were subsequently found by German warships searching the scene after the British had left. Lütjens had died earlier in the battle, but Lindemann seemingly chose to go down with his ship and was last seen standing on deck, his arm raised in a salute. Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg was one of the few that were rescued, and he recalled rousing his fellows to action: “‘A salute to our fallen comrades,’ I called. We all snapped our hands to our caps, glanced at the flag, and jumped.”
The fate of Bismarck cast a long shadow. Hitler, never confident about his navy, “radically restricted the movements of these major units”, recalled Kriegsmarine chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. “The success we had had, even with our inferior forces, through bold initiative and the taking of calculated risk, was to be a thing of the past.”
- Read more: Operation Sealion – why was Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain cancelled?
The British remained haunted by the huge effort and considerable luck required to catch Bismarck, and they expended enormous resources ensuring her sister ship, Tirpitz, never broke out. In June 1942, a brief sortie by Tirpitz led to the scattering of Arctic Convoy PQ 17, and its wholesale slaughter by U-boats and the Luftwaffe.
However, Britain’s battle against Bismarck had ultimately proved a success. It fell to Churchill to announce the news to the House of Commons. “A slip of paper was passed to me,” he recalled. “I asked the indulgence of the House and said, ‘I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.’ They seemed content.”
Nick Hewitt is an author and naval historian. He is head of collections and research at the National Museum of the Royal Navy
This content first appeared in BBC History Magazine's Great Battles of World War Two, Volume Two: War at Sea special edition