Hunting the Bismarck – Part II

The first and last voyage of the German icon

The Sinking of the 'Bismarck', 27 May 1941, painting by Charles Turner
(Painting: National Maritime Museum, London)

In our previous article (Read our earlier article), we related the first half of the story of the German battleship Bismarck, the pride of the Kriegsmarine and one of the most famous ships of World War II. Sent on a mission to raid British commerce shipping in the Atlantic, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen encountered British forces in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The first clash ended with the sudden destruction of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, and the withdrawal of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The damaged British battleship joined two heavy cruisers which were shadowing the Bismarck as she made her way out into the Atlantic.

The loss of Hood was a sore blow to British morale but was not entirely in vain. The Prince of Wales scored three hits on the Bismarck, and the latter was now both taking on water and leaking fuel oil, the trail of which made her easier to follow. Bismarck was losing fuel at a rate which meant she was no longer able to continue her original mission. In the afternoon, she briefly turned around and charged her pursuers. Those evaded, but the ruse worked: Prinz Eugen took the opportunity to slip away into a squall, and continued the original mission alone. The Bismarck turned towards the French port of Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast, which had a drydock capable of a servicing a ship her size. (Later in the war, the dock was destroyed by British commandos (Read our earlier article) to prevent it from being used for such a purpose.)

The drydock at Saint-Nazaire the Bismarck was heading for, photographed later in the war, after the British raid
(Photo: Royal Air Force)

Bismarck also suffered less critical damage to her forward radar, which was disabled by her own guns. Radars at the time used vulnerably vacuum tubes, and when the forward turrets were turned in the radar’s general direction, the pressure wave from the shots could shatter those.

One of the Bismarck’s radars (though not the one knocked out in the battle)

The destruction of the Hood shook both the British populace and the high-ranking decision makers. All available ships were pulled from their missions and redirected to intercept Bismarck. The Home Fleet left its harbor at Scapa Flow in Scotland and gave chase, but they were far behind. Two old battleships, one in the middle of escorting a convoy, also headed for the German raiders. Force H, containing the carrier Ark Royal, sailed out of Gibraltar and headed north. The venerable battleship Rodney, one of the only two British ships armed with 16-inch (400mm) cannons, peeled off from the convoy it was escorting in Atlantic and turned back east, almost bursting her boilers to get into the action in time. Six battleships and battlecruisers, two carriers, 13 cruisers and 21 destroyers were all hunting the Bismarck.   

Map of the route taken by Bismarck, Prince Eugen, and the British ships pursuing them
(Image: Citypeek / Wikipedia)

Combat damage slowed the Bismarck down to 27-28 knots, but she was still fast enough to slip the noose; it became vital to slow her down even more. At 10 p.m., the carrier Victorious launched nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers to intercept the battleship. The inexperienced pilots first almost attacked HMS Norfolk still shadowing the Bismarck; they then almost attacked a U.S. Coast Guard cutter which was in the area for unrelated reasons; finally, they zeroed in on Bismarck. Besides firing her anti-aircraft guns, the battleship also fired explosive shells at the sea to create giant splashes of water that might knock a torpedo off course or even crash a plane. The Swordfishes all survived, but they, in turn, missed except for one plane. That one's torpedo hit the thick armor on Bismarck and failed to cause significant damage. Ironically, the Bismarck's wild maneuvering to evade the torpedoes did more damage: the rapid movement loosened the collision mats that were used to patch the hole punched by the Prince of Wales, which increased flooding and forced the crew to abandon one boiler room. Even after repairs, the ship could only sail at 20 knots, allowing the Royal Navy to catch up – unless they lost her from sight.

Swordfish torpedo bombers preparing to take off from HMS Victorious and attack the Bismarck
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

But that's exactly what happened. Wary of U-boats that might come to Bismarck's aid, the shadowing British ships moved in a zig-zag pattern to avoid torpedoes. Bismarck was at the extreme range of the Suffolk's radar, and briefly dropped off the scope every time the pursuer made a turn to port. At 3:00 a.m. on May 25, Admiral Lütjen abandoned the plan to lead the chasers into a U-boat ambush and took a sharp turn straight towards Saint-Nazaire. This maneuver happened to coincide with one of the Suffolk's turns, and when the cruiser returned to her previous heading, Bismarck was no longer on radar.

HMS Suffolk, the cruiser that shadowed the Bismarck from the first encounter until the moment she slipped her pursuers on May 25
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Bismarck slipped her pursuers, but not entirely and not for long. Admiral Lütjens still thought he was being followed, and figured that breaking radio silence would not make his situation any worse. He sent several long messages to the naval headquarters in Paris. Unknown to him, these messages were intercepted by the British and the direction of the broadcast allowed them to triangulate Bismarck's position. Or rather, it would have allowed that, but incorrect plotting led them to believe that the German ships was heading back east rather than south. The British ships headed off in the wrong direction and the mistake was only noticed seven hours later, by when Bismarck was far away.

Admiral Günther Lütjens, the officer in overall command of the German operation
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The British blunder was followed by a stroke of good luck. Decrypted German radio messages and reports from the French Resistance revealed that the Luftwaffe was preparing the escort the Bismark to safety once it got close enough to the French coast, and this information helped them figure out the ship's real destination.

Captain Ernst Lindemann, captain of the Bismarck
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

An RAF flying boat spotted Bismarck on the morning of May 26, confirming she was heading for France, and that she would be reach the protection of U-boats and German bombers within a day. Due to the mis-plotting the day before, some British ships were too far to get to her in time, while others were low on fuel and had to head home.

The last chance to catch Bismarck was the Ark Royal and the Swordfish torpedo bombers onboard, only 60 nautical miles away. Acting in terrible weather, poor visibility and with waves that made the carrier's deck buckle 50 feet up and down, a squadron of these obsolete biplanes took off, flew towards the Bismarck... and promptly attacked one of their own ships, the cruiser Sheffield, which was shadowing the battleship and whose presence the pilots were not aware of.

The battlecruiser Renown and the carrier Ark Royal, photographed from the cruiser Sheffield
(Photo: Royal Navy)

In a mixture of dismal failure and spectacular luck, the new magnetic detonators on the torpedoes failed, saving the Sheffield from likely annihilation by friendly fire. The Swordfish returned to the Ark Royal, rearmed with tried-and-true contact torpedoes, then took off again, this time attacking their actual target – after the probably grumpy Sheffield gave them directions to it.

The flight of 15 Swordfish began their attack at 8:47 p.m. The Bismarck's withering defensive fire wounded many pilots and peppered their planes with holes, but, miraculously, the bombers made their attack run without any losses. Speculation on how that was possible points to a variety of reasons from weaknesses in the Bismarck's anti-aircraft guns, through the fact that the shells passed through the fabric skin of the old biplanes without detonating, to claims that the planes were so slow that the German gunners kept leading them by too much.

A Swordfish returning to HMS Ark Royal after the attack on the Bismarck
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Two torpedoes found their target. One caused minor flooding, but the other damaged the port rudder, which became jammed. As mentioned earlier, this was one of the Bismarck's weak spots since her screw shaft arrangement made her uncontrollable without rudders.

Unmaneuverable, the Bismarck was stuck in the open seas and could only wait for the British fleet to catch up with her. Lütjens sent a final message: "Ship unmaneuverable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer."  The crew was given free access to cheese, cigarettes and alcohol, but it did little to lift the mood.

A small force of British destroyers was ordered to harass the crippled ship throughout the night to deplete her ammo stores and to wear down the gunnery crew. Skipping in and out of the Bismarck's range of fire, the small ships launched ineffective but unnerving attacks. ORP Piorun, a destroyer from the Polish navy, messaged "I am a Pole" to the Bismarck with signal lights and attacked with such ferocity that the other ships' crews were worried it might end up ramming the battleship out of sheer spite.

The destroyer ORP Piorun, renamed HMS Noble after the war
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The uncontrollable and demoralized Bismarck met her executioners in the morning of May 27: the old battleship Rodney; the King George V, flagship of the Home Fleet; the heavy cruiser Norfolk, which was one of the first two ships to make contact with the Bismarck; and the Norfolk's sister ship, the Dorsetshire. Rodney opened fire at 8:47 a.m., beginning the Bismarck’s last battle.

HMS King George V, the flagship of the Home Fleet
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The German battleship never got a hit on any of her attackers. A salvo from the Rodney's 16-inch (400mm) guns damaged the bridge and the main fire control director, and killed most German senior officers. With damaged turrets and no fire control, the Bismarck's shooting became erratic until 9:31 a.m., when all four of her main turrets were silenced for good, allowing Rodney to close to a range of 3,000 yards (2,700 m) and fire into her superstructure at point blank range. Fire and smoke spread throughout the German battleship under the relentless British barrage. Some hatch doors became so warped that crewmen couldn't squeeze through to escape. Some German sailors, apparently acting on their own, tried to surrender by flashing signal lights, sending semaphore signals or running up a black flag; the Rodney's captain ignored these attempts and ordered his crew to keep firing. Meanwhile, just as the Bismarck did during her earlier battle, King George V knocked out her own radar with the air pressure of gunfire after 15 minutes of accurate range finding. A flight of Swordfish torpedo bombers was circling overhead; they were there to help finish the job, but were ordered to hold their fire: the Royal Navy wanted the Bismarck to be sunk by surface ships, not the Fleet Air Arm.

HMS Rodney (right) firing salvos at Bismarck during the final battle
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

It's not quite clear what exactly caused the Bismarck's sinking: the roughly 400 hits from British guns, the multiple hits from British torpedoes, or the scuttling charges the crew set in the late stage of the hopeless battle. What's certain is that she started capsizing at 10:35 a.m., less than two hours after the first shots were fired. Her stable and highly seaworthy hull shape failed to save her, but she still took an entire hour’s relentless beating after the loss of her main guns before going down.

Bismarck had a crew of over 2,200; many of these men were now in the water and paddling for their lives. Sailors do not lightly abandon other sailors to death by drowning, even if they’re enemies; however, the British captains were concerned U-boats or Luftwaffe bombers appearing any moment, and any stationary ship rescuing German sailors would be an easy target. Nevertheless, Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori threw scramble nets over the sides and stopped to pick up whomever they could. One crewman on the Dorsetshire, Midshipman Joe Brooks, even jumped into the water to help people climb up. He tried and failed to rescue a German sailor who had lost both arms. The rescue effort was abandoned at 11:40 a.m., when a lookout on Dorsetshire thought he saw a submarine’s periscope, and the ship departed in such a hurry that Midshipman Brooks was almost left behind, saved by a line thrown into the water for him. The two British vessels rescued 110 men; 5 others were picked up by German ships and U-boats in the next few days. The rest died, along with the pride of the Kriegsmarine and any German plans of raiding Allied convoys with surface ships.

HMS Dorsetshire picking up survivors from the Bismarck
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

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