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Under Water Warfare The Struggle Against the Submarine Menace 1939 -1945
The German Battleship Bismarck

The German Battleship "Bismarck"
The powerful German battleship "Bismarck," was a constant threat to the convoy routes, and her might meant that Admiral Sir John Tovey, as Commander of the Home Fleet, was forced to sail battleships at least in pairs.

The Bismarck - 1941

The Bismarck - 1941

"Bismarck" of 47,000 tons, fully loaded exceeded almost 51,000 tons, she carried 8 by 15 inch guns in twin turrets, with a secondary armament of 16 by 4.1 inch guns, had a speed of 31 knots, and a large cruising range of 8100 miles, 6 seaplanes were on board, and a crew of 2090, made this ship a most formidible fighting unit.

"Bismarck's" usual consort was the heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen," of 14,050 tons, with a main armament of 8 by 8 inch guns.

In May of 1941, the British Naval Attache in Stockholm was able to report the passage of "Bismarck" and "Prinz Eugen" through the Kattegat, the channel linking the Baltic with the North Sea. Coastal Command located the German ships South of Bergen, in a fjord on the Norwegian S.W. coast.

Tovey was setting up his forces in anticipation of a breakout of these major Naval units, the cruiser "Suffolk" was watching the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, whilst her sister ship "Norfolk" was sent in support. Tovey sailed Vice Admiral Holland with 'Hood," and "Prince of Wales," screened by 6 destroyers, from Scapa Flow to the Iceland base of Hvalfjord. Tovey remained at Scapa, maintaining his flagship "King George 5," 5 cruisers, and 5 destroyers in readiness to sail at a moment's notice. The Admiralty reinforced Tovey's command by withdrawing the battle cruiser "Repulse," and the new carrier "Victorious," from a Mediterranean bound convoy.

The Bismarck [ lower left ] photographed by a British Spitfire in Norway's Grimstad fjord, May 1941

The Bismarck [ lower left ] photographed by a British Spitfire in Norway's Grimstad fjord, May 1941.

[ click for enlarged photograph ]

The Luftwaffe had been keeping tabs on the movements of the Home Fleet with continued reconnaissance over Scapa Flow, but on 22 May, 41, bad weather grounded these flights, but a Fleet Airarm flight discovered the German ships had sailed and raised the alarm.

This report was the catalyst Tovey needed to sail his ships from Scapa, which under cover of the bad weather, he achieved unobserved. On the 23rd of May, on the edge of the Greenland ice shelf, "Suffolk" at 1922 (7.22PM ) sighted both German ships at a distance of 7 miles, and was able to track this pair by Radar; soon afterwards "Norfolk," also sighted the German vessels 6 miles away on this occasion, the German lookouts sighted the British cruiser, and "Bismarck" fired her first salvo.

Tovey's fleet was still 600 miles to the South East, and Holland with his force was approaching at high speed from Iceland, he anticipated that he should be able to attack the German Naval force by 0200 (2.A.M.) on 24th of May.

For a period about midnight, the two shadowing British cruisers lost their quarry, but then regained contact at 0247 (2.47 A.M.). Holland eventually sighted the Germans to the West at 0535 (5.35 AM.) The "Hood," although having the largest displacement of any Naval ship afloat, had inadequate armour plating, particularly when compared with this protection carried by "Bismarck."

The German ships concentrated their fire on the "Hood," who at 0600 (6A.M ) suffered an immense explosion in her magazines, and she had sunk in only 4 minutes. Out of 1419 officers and men only one Midshipman and two Sailors survived.

The "Prince of Wales," now became the German's main target and she took direct hits from both German ships, in turn, 2 hits were scored on "Bismarck". The "Prince of WaIes" when 7.5 miles away from the German ships, turned away under cover of a smoke screen. Admiral Lutzens in "Bismarck," decided to make a run for France, Tovey was still 300 miles from the action, and the Admiralty scoured the area for ships that might intercept the German force.

An aircraft attack launched from "Victorious," was abortive, and "Bismarck," now operating alone, managed to shake off her shadowers, and for 31 hours she was making for the safety of the French coast. At 1030 (10 30 A M ) on the 26th of May, a Coastal Command Catalina flying boat sighted the retreating German, 700 miles West of Brest, at this time Force H, including "Renown," and "Ark Royal," were about 70 miles to the East of "Bismarck."

The latter launched 14 Swordfish to attack, but unfortunately it was directed against the "Sheffield". A combination of faulty Torpedoes, and clever manoeuvering from "Sheffield," foiled this attack, avoiding disaster.

A second wave of Swordfish found "Bismarck," at 2100 (9P.M.) and obtained two hits, one amidships did no meaningful damage, but the second put the steering gear out of action, and damaged the "Bismarck's" propellors.

A series of Torpedo attacks by destroyers were ineffectual, now at last, Tovey arrived, and "King George 5," and "Rodney," opened fire at 0847 (8.47A.M.) with "Bismarck" responding a few minutes later. Germany's most powerful ship was systematically pounded to her death over the next 109 minutes.

The German U556, actually sighted "Rodney" at this stage, but she was out of Torpedoes and luck. The County Class cruiser "Dorsetshire," finally delivered the coup de grace, with two Torpedoes into "Bismarck's" starboard side and a third into her port side. So, at 1036(10 36A M ) on 27th of May, she disappeared beneath the waves, leaving only 110 of her company to survive. "Hood," had been avenged.

Prinz Eugen

Prinz Eugen

"Prinz Eugen" developed engine trouble, and made for Brest. She managed to elude British Submarines, and made it back by the 1st of June. Within a further three days British aircraft had discovered her location. "Bismarck's" sister ship "Tirpitz," now nearing completion, would obviously pose a future threat to our convoy routes, and the Royal Navy.

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