Last battle of the battleship Bismarck: Wikis

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The last battle of the Bismarck
Part of Second Battle of the Atlantic
Bismark039.jpg
The Final Battle, 27 May 1941. Surrounded by shell splashes, Bismarck burns on the horizon.
Date 26–27 May 1941
Location Atlantic Ocean
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom
 Canada
Australia Australia
Poland Poland
Free French Forces Free French
Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders
United Kingdom John Tovey Nazi Germany Günther Lütjens  
Strength
2 aircraft carriers
3 battleships
4 cruisers
7 destroyers
1 battleship
Casualties and losses
1 destroyer sunk
49 dead[1]
1 battleship sunk
2,200 dead[2]
110 captured

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 battlecruiser HMS 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 Navy and Royal Air Force. Eventually, on the evening of 26 May, her steering gear was crippled by a torpedo bomber attack, 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.

Contents

Overview

German and Allied naval strategies in the Atlantic theatre of operations were cognizant of 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 theatre 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 attacks 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 (armour 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.

Allied convoys could not simply go around this zone by using a more northern track across the Atlantic within aerial reconnaissance 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 aerial 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.

In the 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.[3] British warships rescued 111 survivors from Bismarck[4] before being obliged to withdraw, leaving several hundred men to their fate, because of an apparent U-boat sighting. 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.

Origins

Map of Operation "Rheinübung" and Royal Navy operations against the battleship Bismarck

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 May an attack was made by a small group of Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers of 825 Naval Air Squadron under the command of Eugene Esmonde from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. One hit was scored, but caused only superficial damage to the Bismarck's armoured belt.

For some time Bismarck remained under long-distance observation by the British. At about 03:00 on 25 May the 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 radar capabilities, 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 May in her unhindered passage towards France and protective air cover and destroyer escort. By now, though, fuel was becoming a major concern to both sides.

HMS Renown

The British had a stroke of luck on 26 May. In mid-morning a Coastal Command Catalina reconnaissance aircraft from 209 Squadron RAF, which had flown over the Atlantic from its base on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland across the Donegal Corridor, a small corridor secretly provided by the Irish government,[5] spotted Bismarck (via a trailing oil slick from the ship's damaged fuel tank) 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 carrier HMS Ark Royal, the First World War era battlecruiser HMS Renown and the cruiser HMS Sheffield. This battle group, commanded by Admiral James Somerville, had been diverted north from Gibraltar.

Night of 26th-27th

Five of the aircrew involved in the Bismark attack, photographed in front of a Swordfish aircraft

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 Fleet battleships 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 destroyer ORP 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.[6]

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.[7]

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 (approximately 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[citation needed]. 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 Reuters reported news from Britain that the ship had been sunk. In Britain, the House of Commons was informed of the sinking early that afternoon.[8] Dorsetshire and Maori attempted to rescue survivors, but a U-boat alarm caused them to leave the scene after having rescued 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." In 1960 Johnny Horton celebrated this battle with the hit "Sink the Bismarck".

Aftermath

After the battle, the British warships returned to London with the Bismarck survivors. After a lengthy period of interrogation and processing, the survivors spent the rest of the war as prisoners.

Ships involved

Nearly a hundred ships of all kinds were deployed to operate with, against, or because of Bismarck:

Axis

Allied

Neutral

See also

References

  • 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

Notes

  1. ^ 3 aboard HMS Sheffield + 46 from HMS Mashona
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Kennedy, pp. 206, 283.
  4. ^ One of these survivors died of his injuries, while the remainder became Prisoners of War.
  5. ^ BBC - WW2 People's War - World War Memories of an Ulster Childhood
  6. ^ Jackson 2002, p. 91.
  7. ^ Barnett, 311.
  8. ^ http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1941/may/27/war-situation

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