“Nevertheless, there shall be one more, one absolutely last, chance. Four hours later the torpedo aircraft take off again, and this time they find the right enemy, dive down into the German anti-aircraft fire, drop their torpedoes — and hit. One of the torpedoes crashes against the side armor of the colossus. The ship shudders a little – that’s all. But a second hits it not more than a yard from the rudder, utterly smashing everything that enables the ship to be steered, Rudderless, the “Bismarck” can no longer maneuver, can only turn around in a circle. Here, almost at the edge of the radius of action of it’s own air arm, it has received this mortal blow.”
This was how the mortal blow was struck to the mighty German Battleship “Bismarck”, as described by author C.D. Becker, a former German naval officer in his 1955 book “Defeat at Sea”. The British naval forces moved in to finish off the “Bismarck” on today’s date, May 27, in 1941.
Admiral Raeder’s “Plan Z”
The German “High Seas Fleet” had engaged in very little action during World War One. A great many powerful battleships and cruisers had been built, but once the war commenced, the Kaiser and his admirals, afraid to expose their capital ships to risk, did very little with them. Hence, other than the immense, but largely inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1915, the High Seas Fleet sat at anchor throughout “the Great War” as it was then called. This time, they planned on doing something with a surface fleet. Germany’s Admiral Raeder (below) had produced “Plan Z” whereby Germany would have a nucleus of eight
battleships, various cruisers, destroyers, a large number of submarines, and even four aircraft carriers to challenge the British surface fleet more directly. Unfortunately for the Germans, Raeder’s plan was based on a war starting in 1944. Thus when Hitler got antsy and started up in 1939, the projected fleet was mostly in the planning stage. Only two full sized battleships were anywhere near ready; the “Bismarck” and the “Tirpitz”. With only these and a few of the other ships ready, the plan was for them to sneak out, raid British commerce, and be gone before the Brits even knew they had struck. In this time before “radar” was known to be effective, such a plan just might work.
“Bismarck” and “Prinz Eugen” Escape, the “Hood” Blows Up
It didn’t work, but the “Bismarck” came close to making it work. She was a formidable ship indeed. Displacing 41,700 tons, she was heavily armored on both her decks and her sides, but she could make a speedy 29 knots. And her main armament were eight 15 inch cannons, with four placed fore and aft. This made “Bismarck” the largest and most powerful enemy ship which the Brits had to face. They tried to keep her under careful surveillance, but accompanied by the cruiser “Prinz Eugen”, she managed to slip the British blockade sailing from Bergen, in Nazi-occupied Norway on May 21, with the intention of moving north of Iceland and breaking out into the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The Brits however were soon appraised of her movements and sent the newly completed battleship HMS “Prince of Wales” (so new, that some of the workmen were still on board making the final touches), and the heavy cruiser HMS “Hood” along with six destroyers to intercept her.
“Hood” was also a very powerful ship, but she was a cruiser – meaning that she had been built with less armor than a full battleship, in order to gain speed. This proved to be a tragic flaw, for in an engagement on May 24, one very well-aimed shell from the “Bismarck” managed to penetrate “Hood’s” deck armor, reaching her aft ammunitions store, and causing her literally to blow up. This great warship broke into two pieces, and sunk in less than three minutes (above). Out of a crew of over 1800 men, there were only three survivors. The “Prince of Wales” had also been sufficiently damaged that she was forced to withdraw.
The Brits Catch Up With the “Bismarck”
But the “Bismarck” herself had sustained some significant damage. Wounded, and trailing a large oil slick, she detached from “Prinz Eugen” and moved at a reduced speed for the safety of German air cover and repairs on the coast of Nazi-occupied France, at the port of St. Nazairre. “Bismarck’s” luck was about to run out. Just as she was reaching the safety of that aircover, she was spotted by a Britsh flying boat, and her position reported. A squadron of torpedo planes from the aircraft carrier “Ark Royal”: was dispatched to attack “Bismarck” and possibly slow her down enough for the rest of the available surface vessels to show up and attack her once again. These planes were really old fashioned and outdated – “Swordfish” biplanes. But in proof that
airpower was to vanquish the old battle- wagons, one of the torpedoes struck the “Bismarck’s” rudder. As mentioned in the excerpt from Bekker’s book, without her steering mechanism, the “Bismarck” was helpless. She could only steam in circles and wait for the enemy to assemble. And on this date in 1942, a squadron of British vessels including the battleships HMS “King George V”, and HMS “Rodney” came together and put an end to the “Bismarck”. But Britain’s joy over the death of the “Bismarck” would not last too long. Further proof that airpower was destined to overcome the mighty big-gun ships which had ruled the seas for so long was to come on December 10 of that very year when HMS “Prince of Wales” with whom the “Bismarck” had just slugged it out, along with HMS “Repulse” was sunk in the Gulf of Siam by Japanese land-based bombers.
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Defeat at Sea – The Struggle and Eventual Destruction of the German Navy in WW11. by C.D. Bekker, henry Holt & Co., U.S., 1955
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SEA WARFARE FROM THE FIRST IRONCLADS TO THE PRESENT DAY Thos. A Crowell Co., New York, 1975.
by C.S. Forester, Curtis Publ. Co., 1959