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Deadly Bismarck

The Historic German Battleship Bismarck

By James Donahue

When commissioned in 1940, Hitler’s new battleship Bismarck was designed to be a fearsome killing machine. At 810 feet in length, the 50,000 ton ship was the length of three football fields. She was the largest fighting ship ever built by Germany. This ship had so much heavy armament on her decks she looked like a floating pin cushion. The ship carried a 2100-member crew and boasted a top speed of 30 knots.

Even worse news for allied forces, a second sister battleship, the Tirpitz, was under construction. The German Naval High Command, headed by Admiral Erich Raeder, planned to use the two battleships and a floatilla of other heavy ships as surface raiders to stop Allied merchant traffic in the North Atlantic.

Naturally the British Admiralty was fearful of what a ship like the Bismarck could do and the call went out to find and destroy it. This was accomplished eight months later, but at great cost of men and ships.

Under the command of Captain Ernst Lindemann, Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen succeeded in breaking out into the North Atlantic where they were to begin intercepting the merchant ships. They were escorted by three destroyers, the Hans Lody, Friedrich Eckoldt and Z23, plus a floatilla of minesweepers. The Luftwaffe also provided air cover until the fleet got out of German waters.

This large fleet of German warships did not go unnoticed. Swedish aircraft on reconnaissance spotted them off Scandinavia. Thus the British battle cruiser HMS Hood and the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales were dispatched to engage them. Eighteen bombers also were dispatched to strike the fleet but bad weather that day hid the ships from view from the air.

The outcome was disastrous for the British. This was the Bismarck's first engagement in the war. In the battle the Hood was sunk and the Prince of Wales was forced into retreat with extensive damage. During the battle the Prince of Wales scored three good hits on the Bismarck. One struck in the forecastle near the waterline, the second at the torpedo bulokhead and a third hit the float plane catapult. The battleship was taking on water and it developed a slight list to port. It was also leaking oil.

The loss of the Hood struck a serious blow to the Royal Navy. Upon receiving the news the admiralty ordered an all-out pursuit of the renegade German warships. Six battleships and battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, thirteen cruisers and 21 destroyers were engaged in the hunt. They included the Prince of Wales which, although severely damaged, had turned to follow the Bismarck while crew members restored nine of her ten main guns to working order.

Thus the stage was set for a deadly game of hide-and-seek, brief attacks that brought on short artillery battles and aerial torpoedo attacks, then all of the ships steaming off into the weather, which was doing a good job of hiding the players from one another. Eventually the Bismarck escaped and steamed toward occupied France.

The Bismarck almost made it. She was about one day away from reaching the protection of the German U-boats and the Luftwaffe when U. S. Navy pilot Leonard B. Smith spotted the battleship from a Catalina he was flying northwest of Brest. The only possibility of stopping the Bismarch now rested on the Royal Navy carrier Ark Royal, commanded by Admiral James Somerville, which had been steaming to the area from Gibralter to join in the hunt.

The Ark Royal sent fleets of Swordfish loaded with torpedoes while the British cruiser Sheffield arrived at the scene in time to engage the Bismarck from the sea. The Bismarck opened her battery of guns on the Sheffield, damaging the ship and forcing her to turn in retreat. The diversion, however, helped the Swordfish make their assault from the air. The great battleship opened up with her anti-aircraft batteries and by wildly turning managed to evade all but two of the torpedoes. One of these struck amidships on the port side. The second torpedo struck Bismarck in the stern near the port rudder shaft, putting steerage out of service.

This was the beginning of the end for the Bismarck. With the port rudder jammed, the great battleship was now steaming in a large circle, unable to escape the ongoing British assault. While most of the pursuing ships were forced to turn back from lack of fuel, the battleships King George V and Rodney were still on the job, as were the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Norfolk. As the gun battle went on Captain Lindermann sent the following message to the German High Command: "Ship unmaneuverable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer."

On the morning of May 27, 1941, the British fleet opened fire. By 10 a.m. Bismarck was a floating wreck and burning from stem to stern. She was listing 20 degrees to port and low in the water by the stern. Still the Royal Navy hammered away at the battleship until the Germans struck their colors and made it clear they were abandoning ship.

Finally the British fired torpedoes into the burning wreck until the Bismarck capsized and sank by the stern. Hundreds of men were seen in the water. The destroyers began rescue operations until lookouts spotted what they thought was a U-boat and all rescue operations were abandoned.

Out of a crew of over 2,200 men, there were only 114 survivors