Battle of Atlantic , May 1941 , Sinking of Death Star..errr..German superbattleship Bismarck

“Hitler’s U-Boat War” , Clay Blair Jr.
“The War For All Seas” , Ewan Mawdsley
“World War II At Sea” , Craig L. Symonds
“The War With Hitler’s Navy” , Adrian Stewart
“Bismark” , William Shrier
“Pursuit” , Ludovic Kennedy
en. wikipedia

U-boat operations in the North Atlantic were interrupted on May 22 by the most dramatic event in the naval war to that time: the Atlantic sortie of the super battleship Bismarck. Admiral Raeder Commander in Chief of German Navy in Berlin despite objections of his staff , was planning a big operation with almost all capital ships of German Navy for a big merchant raiding maneuvere against British convoys in Atlantic , especially using newly constructed battleship , 42.000 ton Bismarck on her first battle sortie. Using almost all capital ships of Grman Navy was risky but Raeder with incoming Operation Barbarossa wanted to increase prestige of Navy i eyes of Hitler. The whole operation called Rheinubung and it involved both battlecruisers Scharnhost and Gneisenau in Brest (which made another commerce raiding in Atlantic in first months of 1941) , sailing from Brest and battleship Bismarck and Hipper class cruiser Prinz Eugen to break into Atlantic from Skajerak Strait and passing through North Sea and meanwhile by a miracle not to be detected by Royal Navy Home Fleet in Scotland.


Battleship Bismarck

Operation Rheinubung was fatally compromised before starting though. In Brest RAF Coastal Command determined to take out of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau with constant air raids , finally put a torpedo on Gneisenau on 6th April 1941 , severely damaging her. Scharnhorst also came up with machinery problems. As a result neither battleship could leave Brest yet and weight of whole operation fell on Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

Accompanied by the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, Bismarck sailed from Kiel in the early hours of May 19. Bletchley Park could not read naval Enigma on a current basis in May; thus the British Admiralty had no advance warning from that source. But the British naval attaché in Stockholm learned of the sortie on the night of May 20 and alerted the Admiralty. The next day, RAF reconnaissance planes spotted the two ships near Bergen. Bletchley Park broke an old (April) Enigma message which stated that Bismarck had taken on board “five prize crews” and “appropriate charts,” which led the Admiralty to believe, correctly, that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were embarked on a convoy-raiding sortie in the North Atlantic. When he got the news, Winston Churchill gave a simple—but legendary—order: “Sink the Bismarck!” All available capital ships of the Home Fleet and Force H from Gibraltar put to sea.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, equipped with primitive radar, entered fogshrouded Denmark Strait on May 23, hugging the ice pack off Greenland. Two 10,000-ton heavy cruisers, HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk, also equipped with primitive radar, were patrolling the passage. HMS Suffolk, which had better radar than Bismarck, found the Germans late that evening and brought up HMS Norfolk. Bismarck detected HMS Norfolk on radar and fired her first salvos of the war. She got no hits; moreover, the shock of her 15″ guns damaged her radar. As a consequence, Prinz Eugen moved into the van. Tracking by radar, HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk hung on tenaciously.

In response to the alert, the new commander of Royal Navy Home Fleet, Admiral John Tovey, sent the big (42,000-ton) battle cruiser HMS Hood and the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, with destroyer screens, to intercept the German ships in the south end of the Denmark Strait. The four converging British ships significantly outgunned the German ships. HMS Hood, like Bismarck, had eight 15″ guns; HMS Prince of Wales had ten 14″ guns. HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk, like Prinz Eugen, each had eight 8″ guns. But HMS Hood was ancient (complated in 1918) and thinly armored, and newly built first King George V class battleship HMS Prince of Wales was still in workup and some of her guns were not yet firing properly. HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk, also ancient, were less well-armored than Prinz Eugen.

In the early morning hours of May 24, the opposing naval forces met. Admiral Holland commanding HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales made the mistake of opening the attack on a slanting course, which prevented them from bringing all guns to bear simultaneously, and which offered the Germans a better target. Mistaking Prinz Eugen for Bismarck, Hood opened fire on the former at a range of fourteen miles. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen responded immediately with deadly accurate fire. Taking a hit in her magazines, Hood blew up and sank within minutes. The British destroyer HMS Electra could find only three of her 1,419-man crew. Badly damaged by two hits and bedeviled with malfunctioning guns, HMS Prince of Wales disengaged and retired behind a smoke screen. But she had got two or three 14″ hits in Bismarck’s forward fuel tanks and a fuel-transfer station, which deprived Bismarck of a crucial thousand tons of fuel oil.

In view of the damage to Bismarck, the German commander, Admiral Günther Lütjens, changed plans. The Prinz Eugen was to separate from Bismarck and raid British shipping alone. Prinz Eugen’s engines malfunctioned at this moment so she couldn’t keep pace with Bismark anyway. (Prinz Eugen abandoned Operation Rheinenburg and reached Brest on 1st June 1941 without sinking a single ship) Bismarck was to go directly to St. Nazaire for repairs. Before the new plan could be executed, however, Lütjens had first to shake his shadowers, HMS Suffolk, HMS Norfolk, and the damaged HMS Prince of Wales, and the destroyers. He swung Bismarck at the shadowers—as if to attack—and during the resulting confusion, Prinz Eugen slipped away, southbound into the vast Atlantic.

When Dönitz learned that Bismarck had been hit, he volunteered the entire Atlantic U-boat arm to assist. Lütjens hastened to accept the offer and, as a first step, he requested that Dönitz set a submarine trap in grid square AJ-68, 360 miles due south of Greenland. The plan was that Lütjens would “lure” his shadowers into the square on the morning of May 25 so that the U-boats could attack them, causing sufficient diversion for Bismarck to elude them.

On the afternoon of May 24, Dönitz directed five boats to form the trap. Three of the boats were commanded by Ritterkreuz holders: Lüth in the old Type IX U-43, Endrass in the old Type VIIB U-46, and Kuppisch in the Type VIIC U-94, who had only a few torpedoes. The other two boats, fresh from Germany on maiden patrols, had not fired any torpedoes: the first Type IXC† to reach the Atlantic, U-66, commanded by Richard Zapp, age thirty-seven, and the VIIC U-557, commanded by Ottokar Paulshen, age twenty-five. Kleinschmidt’s IXB U-111 was to join the trap after refueling from one of Bismarck’s supply ships, Belchen. Two other boats, Helmut Rosenbaum’s U-73, fresh from Lorient, and Claus Korth’s U-93, took stations slightly to the east of the trap.

Dönitz set a second submarine trap in the Bay of Biscay, 420 miles due west of Lorient. It was comprised initially of four Type VII boats. Two of these U-Boats were out of torpedoes though. (U-98 , U-556) a total of fifteen boats, seven in western waters, eight in the Bay of Biscay were diverted from their patrol zones in Atlantic , and severely deplating German Navy combat power against merchant convoys (which would compound eventual fiasco and failure of Operation Rheinubung)

Late that evening, May 24, Bismarck’s shadowers drew the new aircraft carrier HMS Victorious onto her track. When HMS Victorious had closed to within 120 miles of Bismarck, she launched nine old Swordfish biplanes, each armed with a single 18″ aerial torpedo and fitted with primitive ASV radar. The Swordfish picked up a contact and prepared to attack, but the “blip” turned out to be cruiser HMS Norfolk, which by radio put the planes back on the correct course. A second “blip” proved to be three U.S. Coast Guard cutters, Modoc, Northland, and General Greene, on “neutrality patrol.” Immediately afterward, however, the planes found Bismarck. Courageously flying into a wall of antiaircraft fire, the Swordfish attacked within view of the Coast Guard cutters, scoring one hit. Astonishingly, all nine Swordfish survived and returned to HMS Victorious.

The single torpedo hit on Bismarck did no damage, but the attack had important consequences. During Bismarck’s violent maneuvering to avoid the torpedoes, the makeshift repairs to the damage sustained earlier in the day from HMS Prince of Wales fell apart and Bismarck lost more oil and took on tons of water, which slowed her. This mishap led Lütjens to abandon the plan to “lure” his pursuers into a submarine trap, and he headed directly for Brest, which was closer than St. Nazaire. Accordingly, Admiral Dönitz shifted seven of the eight boats (leaving U-111 to refuel) in western waters east toward the presumed track of Bismarck and moved the five boats in the Bay of Biscay trap farther to the north.
During the early hours of May 25, Bismarck shook her pursuers. The Germans rejoiced. If Lütjens could remain undetected and maintain speed, Bismarck would soon reach the Bay of Biscay U-boat patrol line and would be within range of Luftwaffe aircraft based in France, which could provide an aerial umbrella. The onset of nasty Atlantic storms would help Bismarck remain undetected. The British wept. The great prize had unaccountably slipped from their grasp. The stormy weather diminished hope that she could be found again.

Unaware of the severity of the damage to Bismarck and of her critical loss of fuel, the British did not know where she was going. South in the Atlantic? North back to Germany? East to France? Based on incorrect or botched plotting of DF fixes on Bismarck’s radio transmissions, Admiral Tovey leaned to the view that Bismarck was to break back to Germany via the Iceland-Faeroes passage, and wrongly deployed Home Fleet forces accordingly. At the same time, however, First Sea Lord Dudley Pound at the Admiralty directed Force H (the carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battle cruiser HMS Renown), coming up from Gibraltar, to deploy on the assumption that Bismarck was headed for France. Thus two of the three possibilities were covered, albeit thinly. But the nasty weather worked in Bismarck’s favor, restricting and blinding carrier- and land-based air patrols. During the desperate but fruitless hunt for Bismarck on May 25, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, who were reading the Luftwaffe Red Enigma currently, but not naval Enigma, picked up an important message in Red that related to Bismarck. In response to a query from the chief of staff of the Luftwaffe, who was in Athens for the German airborne assault on the island of Crete, Berlin informed him that Bismarck was “making for the west coast of France.” Bletchley Park rushed this vital information to the Admiralty, but by that time both the British Admiralty and Admiral Tovey commander of Royal Navy Home Fleet had intuitively concluded that Bismarck was headed for France and were redeploying all naval forces accordingly. Nonetheless, the information from Bletchley Park was reassuring.

In the foulest possible weather, on the morning of May 26, the First Sea Lord Dudley Pound directed RAF Coastal Command and carrier-based air to concentrate reconnaissance along a presumed track to Brest. At 10:30—thirty-one hours after Bismarck had been lost—a newly arrived, American-built RAF Coastal Command Catalina piloted by RAF Flying officer F.A. Briggs found her. Ironically, its co pilot was a U.S. Navy ensign, Leonard (“Tuck”) Smith, who was “on loan” to indoctrinate RAF pilots to the peculiar flying characteristics of the Catalina. The British pilot, Briggs, got off a contact report in a simple code, which B-dienst quickly broke and transmitted to Bismarck and to Dönitz.

Bismarck was then 690 miles west of Brest—about thirty-five hours out—but Force H was only seventy-five miles to the east, blocking her way. The Force H commander, Admiral James F. Somerville (who bombarded French Fleet at Oran in July 1940) , directed a radar-equipped cruiser, HMS Sheffield, and a succession of ASV-radar-equipped Swordfish biplanes from carrier HMS Ark Royal to shadow Bismarck while he prepared to launch a flight of Swordfish with torpedoes. The first flight of fourteen Swordfish mistakenly attacked HMS Sheffield, which only escaped destruction by resorting to violent maneuvers. The second flight of Swordfish (fifteen aircraft), firmly guided by Sheffield, attacked Bismarck at 8:47 P.M., launching thirteen torpedoes. Two hit, one amidships on the armor blister to no effect, the other all the way aft, wrecking Bismarck’s steering gear, propellers, and rudder, leaving her unmaneuverable.

From the contact reports of British aircraft intercepted by B-dienst and one message from Lütjens on Bismarck, Dönitz was able to plot the probable track of Bismarck and her pursuers. He directed the Bay of Biscay submarine trap, which had been reinforced by Rosenbaum’s U-73 but less Topp’s U-552, which did not sail (making a total of seven boats), to the most likely point of action and by the evening of May 26, notwithstanding the gale-whipped, raging seas, all were within a few miles of Bismarck and Force H. At 8:00 P.M. the carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battle cruiser HMS Renown of Force H, making high speed, nearly ran down one of the boats, Wohlfarth’s U-556. But Wohlfarth, serving as a “lookout,” had no torpedoes! In frustration he logged: “If only I had torpedoes now! I should not even have to approach, as I am in exactly the right position for firing. No destroyers and no zigzagging. I could get between them and finish them both off. The carrier has torpedo bombers on board. I might have been able to help Bismarck.” He reported the contact and shadowed, but the big ships faster than U-Boats soon outran him.

When Dönitz got word that Bismarck could not maneuver, he ordered all seven boats of the Biscay trap (including Gysae’s U-98, critically low on fuel and out of torpedoes) to converge on Bismarck and defend her. Gysae in U-98 and Wohlfarth in U-556 were to continue as “lookouts” and guide other U-boats to the enemy. Homing on Bismarck’s beacon signals, Rosenbaum in U-73 found her first, shortly after midnight May 27. Bismarck was then under torpedo attack by a flotilla of five Royal Navy destroyers, commanded by Captain Philip Vian in destroyer HMS Cossack (same one who captured German supply ship Altmark off Norway she had a Type 286 radar), responding to HMS Sheffield’s shadow reports. Rosenbaum observed and reported this destroyer action. Bismarck was not hit by destroyer torpedoes , neither she hit attacking destroyers but these constant destroyer attacks wore down her crew to a breaking point with fatigue. The hunt was almost over. The prey was tracked down. Now hunters were coming in for the kill.


Neither Rosenbaum’s submarine U-73 nor any other U-Boat was able to attack the wildly maneuvering destroyers or to find HMS Sheffield, and soon lost contact in the foul weather. By this time the battleships HMS King George V (ten 14″ guns) and HMS Rodney (nine 16″ guns) and the heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Norfolk were closing on Bismarck in raging seas. HMS Rodney was a 1927 made 38.000 ton Nelson class battleship , with better armor , heavier guns 16 inch than most of the battleships operational and a seasoned crew. HMS King George V was the second ship launched as King George Class as recent as 1940 even better and newer armor but with 14 inch guns.


HMS Rodney

king george V

HMS King George V

Between 05:00 and 06:00, Bismarck 's crew attempted to launch one of the Arado 196 float planes to carry away the ship’s war diary, footage of the engagement with HMS Hood , and other important documents. The third shell hit from HMS Prince of Wales had damaged the steam line on the aircraft catapult, rendering it inoperative. As it was not possible to launch the aircraft it had become a fire hazard, and was pushed overboard. Knowing he was doomed, Admiral Lütjens sent off a message to Hitler: “We fight to the last in our belief in you my Führer and in the firm faith in Germany’s victory.”

After daybreak on 27 May, HMS King George V led the attack. HMS Rodney followed off her port quarter; Admiral Tovey commanding the Royal Navy task force , intended to steam directly at Bismarck until he was about 8 nmi (15 km; 9.2 mi) away. At that point, he would turn south to put his ships parallel to his target. At 08:43, lookouts on HMS King George V spotted her, some 23,000 m (25,000 yd) away. Four minutes later, HMS Rodney’s two forward turrets, comprising six massive 16 inch (406 mm) guns, opened fire, then HMS King George V’s 14 inch (356 mm) guns began firing. Bismarck returned fire at 08:50 with her forward guns; with her second salvo, she straddled HMS Rodney. Thereafter, Bismarck 's ability to aim her guns deteriorated as the ship, unable to steer, moved erratically in the heavy seas and deprived her predictable course for firing range calculations.

As the range fell, the ships’ secondary batteries joined the battle. HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire closed and began firing with their 8 inch (203 mm) guns. At 09:02, a 16-inch shell from HMS Rodney struck Bismarck’s forward superstructure destroying main bridge, killing hundreds of men and severely damaging the two forward turrets. According to survivors, this salvo probably killed both Captain Lindemann and Admiral Lütjens and the rest of the bridge staff. The main fire control director was also destroyed by this hit, and all personnel there was killed. A second shell from this salvo struck the forward main battery, which was disabled, though it would manage to fire one last salvo at 09:27. Lieutenant von Müllenheim-Rechberg, in the rear control station, took over firing control for the rear turrets. He managed to fire three salvos before a shell destroyed the gun director, disabling his equipment. He gave the order for the guns to fire independently, but by 09:31, all four main battery turrets had been put out of action.

By 10:00, Tovey’s two battleships had fired over 700 main battery shells, many at very close range; Bismarck had been reduced to a shambles, she became a floating wreck from multiple hits , aflame from stem to stern. She was slowly settling by the stern from uncontrolled flooding with a 20 degree list to port. HMS Rodney closed to 2,700 m (3,000 yd), (point-blank range) for guns of that size, and continued to fire. Tovey could not cease fire until the Germans [struck their ensigns] or it became clear they were abandoning ship. HMS Rodney fired two torpedoes from her port-side tube and claimed one hit.

Bismarck’s First Officer Hans Oels ordered the men below decks to abandon ship; he instructed the engine room crews to open the ship’s watertight doors and prepare scuttling charges. Gerhard Junack, the chief engineering officer, ordered his men to set the demolition charges with a 9-minute fuse but the intercom system broke down and he sent a messenger to confirm the order to scuttle the ship. The messenger never returned and Junack primed the charges and ordered the crew to abandon the ship. Junack and his comrades heard the demolition charges detonate as they made their way up through the various levels. Oels rushed throughout the ship, ordering men to abandon their posts. After he reached the deck a huge explosion killed him and about a hundred others.

The four British ships fired more than 2,800 shells at Bismarck , and scored more than 400 hits, but but due to newer German battleships thick armor belt , they were unable to sink Bismarck by gunfire. At around 10:20, running low on fuel, Tovey ordered the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire to sink Bismarck with torpedoes and sent his battleships back to port. HMS Dorsetshire fired a pair of torpedoes into Bismarck’s starboard side, both hit. HMS Dorsetshire then moved around to her port side and fired another torpedo, which also hit. By the time these torpedo attacks took place, the ship was already listing so badly that the deck was partly awash. Around 10:35, Bismarck capsized to port and slowly sank by the stern, disappearing from the surface at 10:40.

Around 400 men were now in the water; HMS Dorsetshire and the destroyer HMS Maori moved in and lowered ropes to pull the survivors aboard. At 11:40, HMS Dorsetshire’s captain ordered the rescue effort abandoned after lookouts spotted what they thought was a U-boat. HMS Dorsetshire had rescued 85 men and HMS Maori had picked up 25 by the time they left the scene. A U-boat later reached the survivors and found three men, and a German trawler rescued another two. One of the men picked up by the British died of his wounds the following day. Out of a crew of over 2,240 men in newest German battleship of her era, only 114 survived.

bk survivors2

Bismarck survivors

Despite their sometimes differing viewpoints, these experts generally agree that Bismarck would have eventually foundered if the Germans had not scuttled her first. Just before German battleship went down on 10:35 in the morning , HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori left behind in the battle scene , were preparing additional torpedo attacks for a coup de grace (mercy kill shot) Oceanographer Robert Ballard who found the wreck of Bismarck in 1989 , estimated that Bismarck could still have floated for at least a day when the British vessels ceased fire and could have been captured by the Royal Navy, a position supported by the historian Ludovic Kennedy (who was serving on the destroyer HMS Tartar. Kennedy stated, “That she would have foundered eventually there can be little doubt; but the scuttling ensured that it was sooner rather than later.” Ballard later concluded that "As far as I was concerned, the British had sunk the ship regardless of who delivered the final blow."

With sinking of Bismarck , using of capital ships as surface commerce raiders era was coming to a definite end. Operation Rheinubung had been a clear failure for German Navy. Bismarck’s main mission had been commerce raiding , attacking enemy convoys , she had failed on that one , she did not sink a single enemy merchant ship. Admiral Lutjens was ordered not to engage capital ships of Royal Navy , an orders which both tied his hands but also impossible to fullfill in face of Royal Navy Home Fleet superiorty and willingness to engage. Neither Bismarck / Prinz Eugen duo nor Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (had they sortied from Brest as planned) had effective air cover , recon support or any cooperation from Luftwaffe. That doomed Bismarck from the start as as soon as she get out of Skajerak.

As a result not only Bismarck failed to find a merchant ship to attack or a convoy , actually BdU (Geman Navy submarine command) and Admiral Doenitz in a vain attempt to save her , actually pulled out most of their U-Boats in Atlantic out of their patrol zones and messed whole U-Boat patrol schedule for more than two weeks during Allied convoys sailed across Atlantic unharrassed by U-Boats. So ironically , the first and last sortie of Bismarck actually saved Allied convoys at sea rather than threatened them.

In summary even losses between capital ships are not equal. HMS Hood a 1918 era battlecruiser a much older ship with weaker armor went down with 1.400+ crewmembers , a bitter loss to be sure for Royal Navy. But Royal Navy still had 14 more battleships as capital vessels and three more in construction ready to be put to sea within 12 months. When Bismarck went down , German Navy lost 2.200+ crewmembers. Besides Bismarck was a new ship , just been complated and she was one of four capital ships German Navy all had including Tirpitz which was not put into sea yet. So German Navy lost %25 of its battleship strength.


According to Goebbels , Hitler had been inconsolable and beyond melancholy due to loss of Bismarck. When Admiral Raeder was called upon to Reichs Chancellory in June 1941 , Hitler in a slightly angered attitude , grilled him why Bismarck did not had finished off HMS Prince of Wales in Battle of Denmark Strait ! never occuring to him his orders not to take risk by Royal Navy capital ships in first place , limited maneuver room of Admiral Lutjens in first place.


The loss of Bismarck marked a turning point in the German naval war. Its humiliating failure, together with the failure of the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst to inflict any substantial damage on British maritime assets, brought to a close the dominance of the big surface ships in the Kriegsmarine. Never again was one to sortie into the Atlantic. Virtually overnight the U-boat became the Kriegsmarine’s preferred ship, the only possibility for defeating Great Britain at sea. Admiral Raeder’s influence on Hitler declined; that of Dönitz rose commensurately.