Hunting the Bismarck – Part I

The first and last voyage of the German icon

The battleship Bismarck
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Without doubt, the Bismarck is the single best-known German warship of World War II. Large, fast, hard to sink and equipped with the latest in German radar and optics technology, it quickly earned notoriety after it sank the HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy. The panicked British response eventually brought low the German monster, but only after a chase involving every single ship they could mobilize. 

At least, that's one side of the story. The other is that the Bismarck was a ship built according to World War I design sensibilities, its intended purpose was to raid commercial shipping rather than hunt down enemy warships, it sank a single aging enemy ship during its short career, and it was destroyed on its first mission – a far less flattering picture. This article will try to give you an impartial description of the Bismarck's famous voyage.

Bismarck firing her guns at the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the only battle she won
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

German war planners knew that Britain's Achilles' heel was its far-flung colonial empire. Britain itself was reliant on a constant flow of supplies, and disrupting these would make it much easier to defeat the island nation. (Read our earlier article) Germany didn't have nearly enough U-boats to accomplish this early in the war, so the job fell to heavy surface ships. In fact, since Germany could never match the Royal Navy (RN) in numbers, hitting Britain's commerce was the best use of whatever ships they had.

The newly-built Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz seemed perfectly suited for the role. At a sustained speed of 30 knots, they were faster than any battleships the RN had (making them great commerce raiders), and their wise beam made them stable firing platforms.

Bismarck as a new ship in 1940
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Their armor, however, was a mixed bag. It was of a high quality, but the armor cover pattern followed World War I design principles: it was good against short-range fire hitting the ship from the side, but far weaker against long-range plunging fire hitting it from above. Also, important ship parts, such as power and signal cables to the turrets ran outside the armor and were very vulnerable to combat damage. The Bismarck was intended to operate in the North Atlantic, where visibility, and thus the likelihood of long-range fire, was often limited – and since it was designed before the adoption of radar, the designers did not expect radar-guided long range fire.

The main battery of eight 15-inch (380mm) guns in four turrets was perfectly sufficient against cargo ships, but not at all outstanding when compared to other World War II battleships, some of which had 16-inch (400 mm) guns (not to mention the Yamato’s 18-inch (460 mm) cannons). In fact, there were even some World War I ship designs that had a greater broadside weight (the total mass of steel and explosives hurled at the enemy in a full salvo) than the Bismarck. Having said that, the Bismarck’s guns enjoyed a rather high firing rate due to their use of cartridge cases. The cases turned the loading procedure into a two-step process: load the projectile, then load the cartridge with the powder. All other navies used three-step loading: projectile, then fore charge, then rear charge. The tradeoff to the high rate of fire was that the case and ejection ports were very bulky, which the Germans compensated for by having relatively smaller cannons and only two guns in each turret. In practice, the Bismarck’s rate of fire could be 1.5 times higher than that of the British battlecruiser HMS Hood, and almost twice as high as the battleship HMS Prince of Wales – the Bismarck’s adversaries in her first battle.

The Bismarck’s two front turrets, “Anton” and “Bruno”
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Another weakness, which proved critical for Bismarck, was her use of three propeller shafts, one along the centerline. Generally, ships could steer without rudders by running screws on one side faster than on the other, but trials proved that the Bismarck was extremely hard to control this way.

Bismarck was deemed ready for her first commerce raid by the spring of 1941. The raid flotilla was originally planned to comprise her, her sister ship Tirpitz, and two other capital ships. Delays on the construction of the Tirpitz and damage to the intended escort, however, left the Bismarck with one other ship, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

It’s been speculated that the Bismarck’s mission had a secondary goal beyond simply sinking British shipping: interservice rivalry. The leaders of the Kriegsmarine knew that the army will receive most of Germany’s resources once the invasion of the Soviet Union commences. They speculated that a spectacularly successful commerce raid might earn the navy enough prestige and attention to secure future funding and raw materials. They were concerned that Hitler might disallow the risky operation, and decided to simply not tell him about it in advance. The Führer was only consulted at midnight on May 21, when the ships were already heading towards the open ocean – he consented to the raid, though with some reluctance.

On the night of May 18-19, 1941, the two ships sailed from a port in occupied Poland, and headed north to Norway, and ultimately for the Denmark Strait, the body of water between Greenland and Iceland, far north in the Atlantic. Once through the strait, they would be in the Atlantic proper, ready to hunt British convoys.

Bismarck, photographed from Prinz Eugen, at the outset of their voyage
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

They were spotted by a Swedish cruiser on the 20th. Though Sweden was a neutral country, pro-British elements in the government promptly alerted the British naval attaché in Sweden, and Britain started launching recon flights to confirm and follow the two ships. Once the two raiders left behind their escort and headed for the Denmark Strait, they were spotted by two British heavy cruisers, the Norfolk and the Suffolk on the 23rd. The 8-inch (200mm) guns on the cruiser had no chance to harm the Bismarck, so they hid in the fog and the approaching darkness, then started shadowing the German ships at radar range and sending radio reports of their location.

British aerial recon photo of Bismarck and her attendant ships while still in Norway
(Photo: Flying Officer Michael Suckling)

The force sent to intercept the German flotilla consisted of two ships. One was the battlecruiser HMS Hood, a venerable interwar vessel and former flagship of the Battlecruiser Squadron. As a battlecruiser (Read our earlier article), it sacrificed armor for the sake of speed and firepower. In fact, it shared a specific weakness with the Bismarck in that she was inadequately armored against long-range plunging attacks, which were not an issue back when she was built.

HMS Hood on her speed trials in the early 1920s
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)

She was accompanied by the battleship Prince of Wales, the newest member of the King George V class. It was so new that the four-gun turrets were still beset by teething problems and were very temperamental. As a result, the ship went into battle with a complement of civilian technicians on board who were there to fix the turrets if they broke down.

HMS Prince of Wales
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

The British plan was to maneuver so that they would catch up with the German ships from the southeast: Bismarck and Prince Eugen would be silhouetted against the last light of the setting sun, while the British ships would be hidden by darkness. The German squadron, however, altered its course to avoid the Greenland ice pack, causing the intercepting ships to reach them much later than planned and at a course close to parallel. They British ships faced a dilemma: if they turned towards their targets, their rear turrets wouldn't be able to fire, as they wouldn't have a clear line of sight. If they stayed on a parallel path, they could fire all of their guns, but they could only close the distance very slowly, exposing Hood to dangerous long-range fire.

Last photo of the HMS Hood as a functioning warship (in the background), taken from onboard the Prince of Wales
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The exchange of fire began at 05:52 a.m. at a range of 26,500 yards (24,200 m). One gun on the Prince of Wales malfunctioned after the first salvo, and several others followed suit later. At 6:00 a.m., a salvo from Bismarck hit Hood. A massive pillar of flame shot upwards at the mainmast of the battlecruiser, followed by an explosion that ripped the ship in two, most likely due to a hit on a magazine. The two halves sank in three minutes, their suction dragging crewmen down. 1,415 men died; three survived because they were thrown up to the surface by a large bubble of escaping air.

Painting of HMS Prince of Wales maneuvering past the sinking wreckage of HMS Hood during the battle
(Painting: J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt)

Prince of Wales kept on fighting alone for a short while, suffering serious damage in a matter of minutes. Outnumbered and with several guns malfunctioning, she turned around and made smoke to cover her escape after no more than a quarter hour of lopsided combat. The British heavy cruisers formerly shadowing the German ships were just about to catch up and enter into firing range, but the battle was already over.

Eyewitness sketch of the location of the explosion that destroyed HMS Hood
(Drawing: Captain John C. Leach, captain of HMS Prince of Wales)

Admiral Lütjen, the German officer in command of the mission, decided not to give chase, as his mission was to concentrate on commerce raiding, and his superior, Admiral Raeder, was quick to sack officers who didn't stick to their orders. One man who disagreed with the decision was Hitler, who later lamented that Lütjen missed a chance to destroy a second British capital ship in a single battle. As it were, the Prince of Wales survived, and the crew, aided by the civilian technicians managed to fix the guns and get the ship into fighting shape by lunchtime. The battleship joined the Norfolk and the Suffolk in shadowing the German force.

Robert Meyrick Ellis, captain of the Suffolk, having lunch on the bridge while shadowing the Bismarck
(Photo: public domain)

The rest of the voyage of the Bismarck, the British hunt for her, and her final battle will be described in the second part of our article.

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