German battleship Bismarck

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Career Image:Nazi war flag.png
Ordered: 16 November 1935
Laid down: 1 July 1936
Launched: 14 February 1939
Commissioned: 24 August 1940
Fate: Scuttled on 27 May 1941
General Characteristics
Displacement: 41,700 t standard;
50,900 t full load
Length: 241.5 m waterline
251 m overall
Width: 36.0 m
Draft: 9.3 m standard
10.2 m full load
Armament: 8 x 380 mm (15 in) (4×2)
12 x 150 mm (5.9 in) (6×2)
16 x 105 mm (4.1 in) (4×2)
16 x 37 mm (8×2)
20 x 20 mm (20 x 1)
Aircraft: 4, with 1 double-ended catapult
Propulsion: 12 Wagner superheated boilers;
3 Blohm & Voss geared turbines;
3 three-blade propellers, 4.70 m diameter
150,170 hp (110 MW) = 30.1 knots (54 km/h) trials
Range: 9,280 nautical miles (17,200 km) @ 16 knots (30 km/h)
Complement: 2,092 (103 officers, 1962 enlisted, 27 prize crew)

The German battleship Bismarck is probably the most famous warship of the Second World War. Named after the 19th century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck's fame came during the Battle of the Denmark Strait in which the flagship and pride of the British Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood was sunk in May 1941, and for the subsequent relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy which ended with her loss just three days later.



Design of the ship started in the early 1930s, following on from Germany's development of the pocket battleship Deutschland class cruisers and the Gneisenau class "battlecruisers". Construction of the second French Dunkerque class battleship made redesign necessary, and Bismarck's displacement increased to 42,600 tons, although officially her tonnage was still only 35,000 tons to suggest parity with ships built within the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty. Fully laden, Bismarck and her sister-ship Tirpitz would displace more than 50,000 tons. The prototype of the proposed battleships envisaged under Plan Z, Bismarck's keel was laid down at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg on 1 July 1936. She was launched on 14 February 1939 and commissioned on 24 August 1940 with Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann in command.

This formidable ship was intended primarily as a commerce raider, having a broad beam for stability in the rough seas of the North Atlantic and fuel stores as large as those of battleships intended for operations in the Pacific Ocean. Still, with eight 15-inch main guns in four turrets, substantial welded-armour protection and designed for a top speed of not less than 29 knots (she actually achieved a very impressive 30.1 knots in trials in the calmer waters of the Baltic), Bismarck was capable of engaging any enemy warship on at least equal terms. Her range of weaponry could easily decimate any convoy she encountered. Should Bismarck break through into the spacious waters of the North Atlantic, where she could refuel from German tankers and yet remain undetected by the British, the Allied convoy network could be in peril for months on end.

Combat history

Breakout into the Atlantic

Bismarck sailed on her first and only mission, codenamed Rheinübung, on 18 May 1941, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Other German capital ships that were to have participated in the sortie were unavailable because of mechanical problems and war damage, but the mission went ahead under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens. The Germans had various objectives: destroy as much Allied shipping as possible and force the British to suspend convoys, even temporarily; compensate for their weak submarine presence in the Atlantic; divert British naval forces from the Mediterranean to reduce the risks of the planned invasion of Crete and to allow Rommel and his forces to cross to Libya.

The British Admiralty had already suspected that a breakout was likely and Bismarck's departure was confirmed for them from a combination of Ultra intelligence (deciphered Enigma code messages), a report from a Swedish cruiser that had sighted the battleship and the Norwegian resistance. Three days later, she was photographed by a Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft while resting in a Norwegian fjord (Altenfiord). A subsequent bombing raid by the RAF proved fruitless as the Germans had already left Norwegian waters by that stage. Royal Navy cruisers and other warships were deployed to watch the various routes she could take into the Atlantic.

Heading north, then north-west, the German fleet subsequently made good and largely uneventful progress across the Norwegian Sea towards Greenland and the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, the gateway into the Atlantic. While in waters to the north of the Arctic Circle, it remained undetected by British air reconnaissance, which was too far to the south. With a mind on convoy-raiding, Lütjens was hopeful of an easy breakout into the Atlantic, aided by foggy weather, but his plans were to be frustrated. On the evening of 23 May, his force was detected by the radar-equipped heavy cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk, that had been patrolling the Denmark Strait in the expectation of a German breakout. The rival ships exchanged fire but the British cruisers sensibly retired to a safe range and shadowed the enemy while their own heavy units drew closer.

Battle of the Denmark Strait

Template:Main At approximately 05.30 on Saturday 24 May, as the German squadron was about to leave the Denmark Strait, Prinz Eugen's hydrophones detected the presence of two additional ships some distance to port. By 05.45 both were in sight, although the German fleet had not yet identified the enemy force. In reality, it was a British battle-group comprising the new battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood, under the command of Rear Admiral Lancelot Holland. Prince of Wales had only recently been completed and was still being worked up (indeed, she sailed to meet Bismarck with dockyard workmen still on board completing her fitting-out). Hood had been built as a fast battlecruiser and modified to give her protection more like a battleship, but still had relatively weak deck armour. That other British ships had detected them was not unexpected by the Germans but that they would turn out to be capital ships was a nasty surprise.

At 05.49 Holland ordered fire to be concentrated on the leading German ship, Prinz Eugen, believing it to be Bismarck. Fortunately for the British, the captain of Prince of Wales was soon to realize the error and changed his target. Holland amended his order on the correct ship to be targeted but this did not reach Hood's gunnery control before the first salvo. Hood fired first, at 05.52, and in daylight, followed very soon afterwards by Prince of Wales. The range to the German ships was c. 12.5 miles. More than two minutes went by as Admiral Lütjens hesitated to respond, before Captain Lindemann took the initiative and ordered fire to be returned on the lead British ship, the Hood, which the Germans had identified when the British ships made a turn towards them at 05.55, having fired several salvoes. This manoeuvre was undertaken, it appears, in an attempt to place themselves in the "zone of immunity". Closer in, the Hood would be less vulnerable to plunging fire and the advantage of superior German gunnery control would be lessened. The disadvantage was that, during the dash, eight of the eighteen British heavy guns could not be brought to bear and speed and spray severely hampered accurate fire control.

Both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen opened fire on the Hood, at a range of 11 miles. The early gunfire from the German ships was very accurate and within two minutes the Hood had been hit by an 8" shell from Prinz Eugen. It struck the British ship near the mainmast and caused a huge fire which the Hood's crew tried to bring under control. However, Bismarck had also been hit by the Prince of Wales, causing a fuel leak from the forward tanks; therefore Lütjens ordered his cruiser to switch its guns towards the Prince of Wales, which his own secondary guns was now targeting. At 06.00 Hood, which was about to turn to port to bring her full weight of armament to bear on Bismarck, was hit amidships by at least one shell from Bismarck at a distance of under 9 miles. Very shortly afterwards observers on both sides saw a huge jet of flame race skywards, followed by a rumbling explosion that split the huge ship in two. Splinters rained down on Prince of Wales, half a mile away. The Hood's stern rose and sank shortly before the bow, all within three minutes. Admiral Holland and 1,415 crewmen went down with the ship. Only three men (Ted Briggs, Bob Tilburn and Bill Dundas) survived this disaster and were rescued about two hours after the sinking by the destroyer HMS Electra. The British Admiralty later concluded that the most likely explanation for the loss of the Hood was a penetration of her magazines by a single 15" shell from Bismarck, causing the subsequent catastrophic explosion. Recent research by submersible craft suggests that the initial explosion was in the after 4" magazine, and tracked to the forward 15" magazines via the ammunition trunks.

Prince of Wales had to turn towards the German fleet to avoid hitting the wreckage left by the flagship and was hit hard a number of times, losing several crew on the compass platform. Still, her own gunfire had caused damage to the Bismarck. The British battleship turned away, laying smoke, her aft turret firing briefly under local control. She had received 7 hits (3 of them from Prinz Eugen) and mechanical failures had left her with all but one of her main guns out of action. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were forced into emergency manoeuvres when they believed they had detected the sounds of torpedoes and then by the appearance of a Sunderland flying-boat. Although Captain Lindemann wanted to chase Prince of Wales and "finish her off", Admiral Lütjens ignored his suggestions since delay risked the possibility of encountering more warships and prejudiced his main task of convoy destruction. Incredibly, in a battle lasting less than 20 minutes Bismarck, with her impressive consort punching far above her weight, had destroyed one capital ship and forced another to turn away, something almost unknown in the Royal Navy and which was to cause the Admiralty to hold a special board of inquiry.

Faulty intelligence had led the Germans to believe that Prince of Wales was not yet ready for action, therefore reports from Bismarck referred to her as King George V, the first of that class, which had been active for some months.

Despite the jubilation onboard the Bismarck, the battleship was not safe. The British knew her position; her forward radar was out of action (a consequence of the skirmish with the British cruisers the previous day); and she had received three hits, one of which caused water to leak into and contaminate fuel oil in storage. From then on, she had to reduce speed to a maximum of 20 knots to conserve fuel, and left a large oil slick in her wake. Lütjens eventually decided that he would have to head for the French coast (the dry-dock in St Nazaire) for repairs. The British continued to shadow her, the Prince of Wales having rendezvoused with Norfolk and Suffolk. At one stage Bismarck rounded briefly on her pursuers, in order to give Prinz Eugen the opportunity to detach and escape with the message: "Good hunting".

The Chase

Template:Main Image:German Battleship Bismarck firing on PoW.jpg

Determined to avenge the sinking of Hood, the British committed every possible unit to hunting down Bismarck. During the early evening of 24 May an attack was made by a small group of Swordfish biplane torpedo planes from No. 825 Naval Air Squadron of the aircraft carrier Victorious. One hit was scored, but caused only superficial damage to Bismarck’s armoured belt.

For some time Bismarck remained under long-distance observation by the British. At about 03.00 on 25 May, the ship took advantage of her opponents' zig-zagging and performed an almost three-quarter clockwise turn behind her pursuers to escape towards the east and then south-east. Contact was lost for four hours; however, perhaps in awe of British radar capabilities, it appears that the Germans did not realize their good fortune. For reasons still unclear, Lütjens transmitted a half-hour radio message to HQ, which was intercepted thereby giving the British time to work out roughly where he was heading. However, a plotting error made onboard the King George V, now in pursuit of the Germans, incorrectly calculated Bismarck’s position and caused the chase to veer too far to the north. Bismarck was therefore able to make good time on 25/26 May in her unhindered passage towards France and protective air cover and destroyer escort. By now, though, fuel was becoming a major concern to both sides.

The British had a stroke of luck on 26 May. In mid-morning a Coastal Command Catalina reconnaissance aircraft from No. 209 Squadron RAF, which had flown over the Atlantic from its base on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland across a small corridor secretly provided by the Eire government, spotted Bismarck (via her oil-slick) and reported her position to the Admiralty. From then on, the German ship's position was known to the British, although the enemy would have to be slowed significantly if heavy units hoped to engage it out of range of German aircraft protection. All British hopes were now pinned on Force H, whose main units were the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal, the old battlecruiser Renown and the cruiser Sheffield. This battle-group, commanded by Admiral James Somerville, had been diverted north from Gibraltar.

At dusk that evening, and in atrocious weather conditions, Swordfish from Ark Royal launched an attack. The first wave mistakenly targeted the Sheffield that was by now shadowing the quarry. Although precious time was lost by this incident, it proved beneficial to the British in that the magnetic detonators on the torpedoes used against Sheffield were seen to be defective and for the following attack on Bismarck were replaced by those designed to explode on contact. In a final attack, almost in darkness at around 21.00, a "miracle" hit by a single torpedo jammed Bismarck's rudder and steering gear. This rendered her virtually unmanoeuvrable, able only to steam in a large circle in the general direction of HMS King George V and Rodney, two frontline battleships that had been pursuing Bismarck from the west. The largest and most powerful warship yet commissioned had now been rendered a sitting-duck by a single aircraft. After extensive efforts to free the jammed rudders, the fleet command finally acknowledged their by-now impossible position in several messages to naval headquarters. Lütjens promised that the ship would fight until its last shell was spent.

Throughout that night, Bismarck was the target of incessant torpedo attacks by the Tribal class destroyers Cossack, Sikh, Maori and Zulu, with the Polish Piorun. Neither side scored a hit but the constant worrying tactics of the British helped wear down the morale of the Germans and deepened the fatigue of an already exhausted crew.

The Sinking of the Bismarck

On the morning of Tuesday 27 May 1941 Rodney and King George V drew closer to Bismarck, with their enemy well illuminated by the morning sun in the background. Rodney steered to the north so that her gunfire would work the length of Bismarck, while King George V took the side. They opened fire just before 0900. Bismarck returned fire, but her inability to steer and her list to port severely affected her shooting capacity. Her low speed of seven knots also made her an easy target and she was soon hit several times, with heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire adding their firepower. One salvo destroyed the forward control post, killing most of the senior officers. Within half an hour, Bismarck's guns were all but silent and she was even lower in the water. Rodney now closed to point blank range (approx 3 km) to strike the superstructure while King George V fired from further out.

Bismarck continued to fly its ensign. With no sign of surrender, despite the unequal struggle, the British were loath to leave the Bismarck. Their fuel and shell supplies were low - a demonstration of how difficult it was for a battleship to sink a similar unit in a balanced engagement. However, when it became obvious that their enemy could not reach port, Rodney, King George V and the destroyers were sent home. Norfolk had used its last torpedoes, therefore Dorsetshire launched four torpedoes which may have hit the Bismarck at comparatively short range. Although the battleship's upper works were almost completely destroyed, her engines were still functioning and the hull appeared to be relatively sound; therefore rather than risk her being captured, Captain Lindemann gave the order to scuttle and then abandon ship. Most of the crew went into the water, but few sailors from the lower engine spaces got out alive.

Bismarck went under the waves at 10.39 hours that morning. Unaware of the fate of the ship, Group West, the German command base, continued to issue signals to Bismarck for some hours, until Reuters reported news from Britain that the ship had been sunk. In Britain, the House of Commons was informed of the sinking early that afternoon.

Dorsetshire and Maori stopped to rescue survivors but a U-boat alarm caused them to leave the scene after rescuing only 110 Bismarck sailors, abandoning the majority of the Bismarck's 2,200 man crew to the mercy of the water. The next morning U-74, dispatched to try and rescue Bismarck's log-book (and which heard sinking noises from a distance), and the German weather ship Sachsenwald picked up 5 survivors.

After the sinking Admiral John Tovey said: "The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying."


Over the years, the ship achieved near mythological status, and was popularized in the 1960 Johnny Horton hit song, "Sink the Bismarck". The wreck of Bismarck was discovered on 8 June 1989 by Dr Robert Ballard, the marine archaeologist also responsible for finding the Titanic. Bismarck rests at a depth of approximately 4,700 m (15,500 ft) about 650 kilometres west of Brest, France. Analysis of the wreck showed extensive damage to the superstructure by shelling and some minor damage to the hull by torpedo hits, but also suggested that the Germans scuttled the ship to hasten its sinking, though this has never been confirmed by marine investigators (but is confirmed by survivors). Ballard has kept the exact location of the wreck a secret to prevent other divers from taking artifacts from the ship. Ballard considers that practice, which happened to Titanic, a form of grave robbing.

A later dive on the wreck also identified the location, and brought back further images, as part of a documentary sponsored by the British Channel 4 on the Bismarck and HMS Hood.

The documentary film Expedition: Bismarck (2002), directed by James Cameron, reconstructs the events leading to the sinking of Bismarck. During the programme, one of the issues that James Cameron sets out to investigate is the cause of the sinking of the Bismarck. His findings were there were not enough damage below the waterline of the ship to confirm that she was actually sunk by shells and torpedos. In fact upon close inspection of the wreckage, it was confirmed that none of the torpedos nor shells penetrated the 2nd layer of the inner hull. Hence the Germans' story of have scuttled their own ship is supported in this light.


The second Bismarck expedition was funded by British entities as part of a tour to the wreckage of Hood, which was found and filmed in 2001. The new research firmly centered on an otherwise insignificant issue of the Bismarck sinking under British fire versus self-scuttling to avoid capture, even though the cause of the ship's final demise was enemy action. This question of British or German national pride gained propaganda status after the Hood's extremely shredded and mangled remains were shown on TV, which many British people considered humiliating in the face of Bismarck's easily recognizable and relatively well-preserved hull.

The British crew first conducted its own sonar survey from scratch to find the Bismarck wreck site, based solely on publicly available information that it was resting at the feet of an undersea volcano, the only one located in the particular area. Then they used ROVs to film the Bismarck's hull externally and firmly concluded the ship sank due to combat damage, receiving numerous artillery and torpedo hits from British vessels.

Dr. Ballard, the original discoverer of Bismarck's wreck criticized the documentary, citing what he considered nationalistic, biased research of limited historic value due to lack of thoroughness. A new American expedition visited the site using smaller and more agile ROVs. These provided some interior shots of Bismarck for the first time, which were aired as part of a one-hour documentary film on NGC.

That survey found no underwater penetrations of the Bismarck's fully armoured citadel and only four direct hit holes on it above the waterline, all of them on one side, as delivered by the Rodneys 16-inch (406 mm) guns. Each of those hits killed 150 to 200 sailors on average, but did not threaten the Bismarck's structural integrity. Huge dent marks signify that the 14-inch (356 mm) shells fired by the King George V bounced off the Wotan type German belt armour. Interior ROV footage showed that the "terrible destruction" the British expedition reported was in fact the torpedo bulges, which were designed to absorb the energy of torpedoes and plunging shells. Underneath the torn bulge sheeting, Bismarck's 320 mm (12.6") thick main belt armour is intact.

The American expedition's final conclusions were strikingly different from the findings of the British expedition. They determined the Bismarck still had floating capacity for at least one day when the British vessels ceased fire and could possibly have been captured by the Royal Navy. Thus the direct cause of sinking was due to self-scuttling, the sabotage of bottom valves by her crew, as claimed by German survivors. A detailed look at computer analysis of the hull's eventual impact on the seabottom explains unintuitive damage as a result of hydrodynamic impact shock inside the ship which was still girded by an uninterrupted curtain of armour. Extensive video footage of the wreck shows the hull is in excellent condition and expected to last at least 300 years.

Although no research infringes on the basic fact that the root cause of Bismarck's crippling and sinking lays in the gigantic British naval efforts, the NGC channel has refrained from re-airing the critical programme since 2004, while the allegedly flawed British documentary is regularly re-run on NGC and the Discovery Channel.

See also


  • Burkhard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck, A Survivor's Story (United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, 1990).
  • Ludovic Kennedy, Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck
  • Robert D. Ballard The Discovery of the Bismarck (Madison Publishing, Toronto, 1990). Describes the search effort for the wreck of the Bismarck, and includes pictures of the wreck.
  • José M. Rico, The Battleship Bismarck. The Complete History of a Legendary Ship (, 2004). PDF eBook describing the complete operational history of the Bismarck from inception to final demise with photos and drawings.

Further reading

  • Ulrich Elfrath and Bodo Herzog, The Battleship Bismarck: A Documentary in Words and Pictures (Schifer Publishing; Atglen, Pennsylvania; 1989) (originally published in German as Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Ein Bericht in Bildern und Dokumentation, Podzun-Palles Verlag, Friedberg, 1975). Includes pictures of the ship under construction and interior pictures, detailed descriptions of fittings and equipment, and biographies of the principal admirals.
  • Paul J. Kemp, Bismarck and Hood: Great Naval Adversaries (Arms and Armor Press, London, 1991)
  • Siegfried Breyer, Battleships and Battlecruisers 1905-1970 (Doubleday and Company; Garden City, New York, 1973) (originally published in German as Schlachtschiffe und Schlachtkreuzer 1905-1970, J.F. Lehmanns, Verlag, Munchen, 1970). Contains various line drawings of the ship as designed and as built.
  • David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig The Destruction of the Bismarck (Stoddart Pulishing, Toronto, 2001). Includes personal accounts of the Battle Off Iceland and the Final Battle.
  • Graham Rhys-Jones The Loss of the Bismarck: An Avoidable Disaster (Cassell & Company, London, 1999). Includes a description of the planning for Exercise Rheinubung.
  • Antonio Bonomi, Stretto di Danimarca, 24 maggio 1941, printed on "Storia Militare" magazine, December 2005.

External links


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