- Last battle of the battleship Bismarck
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=The last battle of the "Bismarck"
caption=The Final Battle,
27 May 1941. Surrounded by shell splashes, "Bismarck" burns on the horizon.
Second Battle of the Atlantic
May 26– May 27 1941
flagicon|Nazi Germany|naval|size=63px "
Home Fleetof the Royal Navy
strength2=2 aircraft carriers 3 battleships 4 cruisers 7 destroyers
casualties1=1 battleship sunk 2,200 dead ["Bismarck"’s complement as Fleet Flagship was 2220 (2092 + 128 Fleet staff) (Chesnau, p.224). For "Operation Rheinubung" she embarked over 100 supernumeraries, including merchant seamen to act as prize crews, cadets in training, and a film unit (Kennedy, p.33). The number of these supernumeraries, and hence the exact number of casualties, is unknown.] 110 captured 1 Cat "captured"
casualties2=1 destroyer sunk 49 dead [3 aboard HMS "Sheffield" + 46 from HMS "Mashona"]
The last battle of the German
battleship"Bismarck" took place in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 300 nautical miles (560 km) west of Brest, France, on 26– 27 May 1941. Although it was a decisive action between capital ships, it has no generally-accepted name.
The battle was a sequel to the
Battle of the Denmark Strait, fought on 24 May 1941, in which "Bismarck" and her escort the "Prinz Eugen" had sunk the prestigious British battlecruiserHMS "Hood" and damaged the battleship "Prince of Wales" forcing it to withdraw. Following that battle "Bismarck" was pursued for more than two days by ships and aircraft of the Royal Navyand Royal Air Force. Eventually, on the evening of 26 May, she was crippled by a torpedo bomberattack, and on the following morning she was brought to battle and sunk. No British ship was sunk during this action, but the destroyer HMS "Mashona" was sunk by German bombers during the subsequent withdrawal.
German and Allied naval strategies in the Atlantic theater of operations were complementary to the fact that south of the limits of aerial reconnaissance from Iceland there existed, in the early part of World War II (1940 – 1943) an area in the North Atlantic where surface combatants were immune from both aerial reconnaissance, and aerial attack due to the absence in the theater of land based aircraft of sufficient range (combat & reconnaissance radius); operational endurance (loiter capability); and remote sensing capability (radar); to search, identify, track and coordinate the attack upon such surface units as were found.
German naval strategy recognized that this area was a potential “Killing Zone” where their surface raider units could roam at will, searching for targets of opportunity to attack and sink, and that no aerial search would exist to identify them and warn an approaching convoy of their presence in sufficient time; so as to avoid such an attack. The German naval high command further reasoned, that if its surface raider units were as fast as cruisers (25 – 35 knots); better armed than cruisers (main batteries larger than 14”); better protected than cruisers (armor protection greater than 14”); and had the endurance of cruisers (15,000 tonnes fuel load, and efficient diesel electric propulsion for normal cruising operation); then a small number of such ships could significantly disrupt the allied Atlantic convoys.
And allied convoys could not simply go around this zone by using a more northern track across the Atlantic within aerial recognizance range of eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Ireland. The normal breakup and southern migration Arctic ice sheets creates ice floes and bergs which, combined with darkness, fog, the need for visual and radio silence, made it too hazardous to attempt. A more southern route would, after June 1940 have placed such convoys under the areal threat of the German Air Force located in occupied France. So running the gauntlet in the zone was the only option, and the Germans realized they could make the allied convoys pay a high price for doing so.
But the German navy suffered from an Achilles heel which negated in the end this entire proposition. It was only in the “killing zone” that there existed an area where effective aerial reconnaissance did not exist. In the gateways which guarded the entrance to the zone there existed very effective aerial and surface reconnaissance that would ensure that: (1) After about January 1941 no surface unit(s) could enter the zone without being identified; and (2) After contact was established, sufficient resources existed to maintain contact with the German surface units until they were either forced to retire (to neutral or occupied ports), or were destroyed.
Battle of the Denmark Strait"Bismarck"'s fuel tanks had been damaged, and her intention was to reach the port of Brest for repair. Her companion, the "Prinz Eugen", had left to continue further into the Atlantic.The action began after "Bismarck", which had eluded the British forces ("Prince of Wales" and the heavy cruisers "Norfolk" and "Suffolk") pursuing her, was sighted by a patrolling British aircraft on the afternoon of 26 May. It consisted of four main phases. The first phase consisted of air strikes by torpedo-bombers from the British aircraft carrier"Ark Royal" which disabled "Bismarck" by jamming her rudders. The second phase was the shadowing and harassment of "Bismarck" during the night by British destroyers, with no serious damage to any ship. The third phase was an attack by the British battleships "King George V" and "Rodney", supported by cruisers, on the morning of the 27th. After about 90 minutes of fighting "Bismarck" was sunk by the combined effects of shellfire, torpedo hits and deliberate scuttling. On the British side, "Rodney" was damaged by near-misses and by the blast of her own guns. [Kennedy, pp. 206, 283.] British warships rescued 111 survivors from "Bismarck" [ One of these survivors died of his injuries, while the remainder became Prisoners of War.] before being obliged to withdraw, leaving several hundred men to their fate, because of an apparent U-boatsighting. In the final phase the withdrawing British ships were attacked by aircraft of the " Luftwaffe", resulting in the loss of the destroyer HMS "Mashona", and German ships and U-boats arrived at the scene of the sinking and saved five more survivors.
Determined to avenge the sinking of the "pride of the Navy" HMS Hood in the
Battle of the Denmark Strait, the British committed every possible unit to hunting down "Bismarck". The old "Revenge" class battleship HMS "Ramillies" was detached from convoy duty southeast of Greenland and ordered to set a course to intercept "Bismarck" if she should attempt to raid the sea lanes off North America.
During the early evening of
24 Mayan attack was made by a small group of Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers of 825 Naval Air Squadronunder the command of Eugene Esmondefrom the aircraft carrierHMS "Victorious". One hit was scored, but caused only superficial damage to the "Bismarck"’s armoured belt.
That the Swordfish were able to attack Bismarck at all without suffering any losses was due to a bit of good luck on their part. These old torpedo bombers were slow aircraft, and Bismarck's antiaircraft fire control was developed for much faster planes. As a result, none of the Swordfish were downed.
For some time "Bismarck" remained under long-distance observation by the British. At about 03:00 on
25 Maythe 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 radarcapabilities, it appears that the Germans did not realize their good fortune. For reasons still unclear, Admiral 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 HMS "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 Mayin her unhindered passage towards Franceand 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 CommandCatalina reconnaissance aircraft from 209 Squadron RAF, which had flown over the Atlantic from its base on Lough Ernein Northern Irelandacross a small corridor secretly provided by the Irish government, [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/09/a2059409.shtml BBC - WW2 People's War - World War Memories of an Ulster Childhood ] ] 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 carrierHMS "Ark Royal", the First World War era battlecruiserHMS "Renown" and the cruiserHMS "Sheffield". This battle group, commanded by AdmiralJames Somerville, had been diverted north from Gibraltar.
Night of 26th-27th
At dusk that evening, and in atrocious weather conditions, Swordfish from "Ark Royal" launched an attack. The first wave mistakenly targeted "Sheffield" which had been detached from Force H under orders to close and shadow "Bismarck". 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. Despite the lateness of the day it was decided to try again. The attack went in, in almost darkness, at around 21:00. A hit by a single torpedo jammed "Bismarck"’s rudder and steering gear 15
°to port. This resulted in her being, initially, able to only steam in a large circle. Repair efforts by the crew managed to get the rudder back to 0° but now the ship was sailing towards "King George V" and "Rodney", two Home Fleetbattleships that had been pursuing "Bismarck" from the west. The largest and most powerful warship yet commissioned had now been rendered a near-sitting duck by a single antiquated biplane. After extensive efforts to free the jammed rudders, the fleet commander finally acknowledged the by-now impossible position of "Bismarck" in several messages to naval headquarters. Lütjens promised that the ship would fight until its last shell was spent. "Bismarck" was still able to make way and achieve some steering by adjusting the relative speeds of the propeller shafts.
Throughout that night, "Bismarck" was the target of incessant torpedo attacks by the Tribal class destroyers HMS "Cossack", HMS "Sikh", HMS "Maori" and HMS "Zulu", and the
N class destroyerORP "Piorun" of the Polish Navy. 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.
At 23:40 on 26 May, Lütjens signalled Group West, "Ship unmanoeuvrable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer. [Jackson 2002, p. 91.]
The sinking of the "Bismarck"
The morning of Tuesday 27 May 1941 brought a heavy grey sky, a rising sea and a tearing wind from the north-west. Because of this north-westerly gale, Tovey concluded an attack on "Bismarck" from windward was undesirable. He decided to approach on a north-westerly bearing. Provided the enemy continued steering northwards, he would deploy to the south on an opposite course at a range of approximately 15,000 yards. "Bismarck" was sighted bearing 118 degrees, 25,000 yards distant. [Barnett, 311.]
"Rodney" and "King George V" drew closer to "Bismarck" in line abreast, 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 09:00. "Bismarck" returned fire, but her inability to steer and her list to port severely affected her shooting accuracy. Her low speed of seven knots also made her an easy target and she was soon hit several times, with the
heavy cruisers HMS "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 fire into the superstructure while "King George V" fired from further out; her fire would strike the "Bismarck" from a more vertical angle and be more likely to penetrate the decks.
"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 Reutersreported 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-boatalarm caused them to leave the scene after rescuing only 110 "Bismarck" sailors, abandoning the majority of "Bismarck"’s 2,200 man crew to the mercy of the water. The next morning " U-74", dispatched to try and rescue "Bismarck"’s logbook (and which heard sinking noises from a distance), and the German weather ship "Sachsenwald" picked up five 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." During the late 1950s or early 1960s Johnny Horton celebrated this battle with the hit "Sink the Bismarck" [http://www.rhapsody.com/johnnyhorton/greatesthits/sinkthebismarck/lyrics.html (link to lyrics)] .
Nearly a hundred ships of all kinds were deployed to operate with, against, or because of "Bismarck":
* German heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen"
* The German destroyers "Hans Lody" (Z-10), "Friedrich Eckoldt" (Z-16), and "Z-23".
* The German submarines "U-46", "U-48", "U-66", "U-73", "U-74", "U-93", "U-94", "U-98", "U-108", "U-138", "U-552", "U-556", and "U-557".
* The Italian submarines "Barbarigo" and "Ghilieri".
* The German weather ships "Sachsenwald", "Lauenburg", and "
* The German tankers "
Belchen", "Egerland", " Esso Hamburg", "Friedrich Breme", "Heide", " Lohingen", " Weisenburg", and "Wollin".
* Boats of the German 5th Minesweeping Flotilla.Allied
* The British battleships HMS "King George V", HMS "Prince of Wales", HMS "Ramillies", HMS "Revenge", HMS "Rodney", and HMS "Nelson".
* The British
battlecruisers "Hood", "Repulse" and "Renown"
* The British aircraft carriers "Victorious" (800Z and
825 Naval Air Squadrons) and "Ark Royal" (810, 818, and 820 Naval Air Squadrons)
* The British
heavy cruisers "HMS Suffolk", "Norfolk", "Dorsetshire", and "London"; and "Exeter", with convoy WS-8B.
* The British
light cruisers "HMS Kenya", "Galatea", "Aurora", "Neptune", "Hermione", "Edinburgh", "Manchester", "Arethusa", "Birmingham", and "Sheffield"; and "Cairo", with convoy WS-8B.
* The British
destroyers HMS "Achates", "Antelope", "Anthony", "Echo", "Somali", "Eskimo", "Jupiter", "Electra", "Icarus", "Active", "Inglefield", "Intrepid", "Lance", "Legion", "Punjabi", "Windsor", "Mashona", "Cossack", "Sikh", "Zulu", "Maori", "Tartar", "Faulknor", "Foresight", "Forester", "Foxhound,", "Fury", "Sherwood", and "Hesperus".
* The British
submarines "H44", "P31", "Sealion", "Seawolf", "Tigris", "Sturgeon", "Severn", and "Pandora".
* The Canadian destroyers HMCS "Assiniboine", HMCS "Saguenay", and HMCS "Columbia"
* The Free French submarine "Minerve"
*The Australian destroyer HMAS "Nestor"
* The Polish destroyer "Piorun"Neutral
* The Spanish
heavy cruiser"Canarias" (attempted to rescue some survivors from "Bismarck")
Operation Rheinübung, the intended mission of the "Bismarck" and "Prinz Eugen"
*Chesnau, Roger (Ed.) "Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1922-1946". Conway Maritime Press, 1980. ISBN 0-85177-146-7
*Dewar, A.D. Admiralty report BR 1736: "The Chase and Sinking of the “Bismarck”". Naval Staff History (Second World War) Battle Summary No. 5, March 1950. Reproduced in facsimile in Grove, Eric (ed.), "German Capital Ships and Raiders in World War II. Volume I: From “Graf Spee” to “Bismarck”, 1939-1941". Frank Cass Publishers 2002. ISBN 0-71465-208-3
*Kennedy, Ludovic. "Pursuit: The sinking of the Bismarck". William Collins Sons & Co Ltd 1974. ISBN 0-00211-739-8
*Müllenheim-Rechberg, Burkard von. "Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story". Triad/Granada, 1982. ISBN 0-58313-560-9.
*Schofield, B.B. "Loss of the Bismarck". Ian Allan Ltd 1972. ISBN 0-71100-265-7
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