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Sink the Bismark

Sometimes, the line between the glory of the military triumph and the defeat and humiliation is very tenuous. In the war in the Atlantic, in a famous chapter that involved one of most famous and mythical warship in history, this line came up again. This warship was Bismark! After inflicting a mortifying defeat to the English navy, the Royal navy made its best to revenge the lost of Hood by also inflicting a painful moral loss to the Krigsmarine, which surely would drastically weaken it.

Bismark, considered the best equipped warship in the world, was the proud of the German’s navy, with 251 meters (823 feet) of length and weighing 50 000 tons. Even the “age of battleship” was coming to an end with the advent of modern aviation and aircraft carriers and even in that moment the Japanese warships Yamato and Musashi and the American Missouri, with a higher firepower and armour than Bismark were about to emerge, this German warship was still a wonderful achievement of engineering and none of those others had the same fame as Bismarck did.

In middle of May 1941, the chances a victory of England were low. At sea the situation continued to worsen. And then, two large and heavily escorted German warships are marked in the Atlantic. If “Prinz Eugen” and “Bismark” ever gathered with “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau”, it would be a disaster to the British merchant navy. But, how to oppose to these behemoths of steel, and especially to Bismarck, reputed as unsinkable? Churchill’s reply was brief and undisputed: “Sink the Bismarck!”.

Sink the Bismarck

Bismark. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Bismark and Prinz Eugen have left the Baltic with the mission code Rheinübung, “Exercise Rhine”, and was the follow-up of Operation Berlin, carried out by the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. These had sown terror in the Atlantic sinking about 22 ships, but they could not follow on mission due to mechanical problems.

Sir John Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet, had a fleet consisting of 2 lead ships (“King George V” and “Prince of Wales”); 2 battleships (“Hood” and “Repulse”) and 1 aircraft carrier (“Victorious”). At first glance the proportion seemed to be satisfactory, but the “Bismarck” was bigger than any British battleship and was estimated to be faster than any of them. Moreover, the Germans did build combat vessels able to withstand better than their English counterparts.

English units had not, in any way, an equivalent value. Built 25 years before, the “Repulse” had less guns than the “Bismarck”; was poorly protected and it lacked fire range. Although powerful, the “Hood” had more than 20 years of service. The “Prince of Wales” was too young and two of its towers had been placed just three weeks before, thus giving the crew not enough time to practice. The “Victorious” was in similar conditions, at that time its planes had just boarding, whose pilots – reservists – had landed for the first time on an aircraft carrier! Therefore it could be assumed that Tovey had only one unit, the “King George V”, which truly was able to face the “Bismarck”.

On May 23, 1941 at 19:22 the “Bismarck”, accompanied by “Prinz Eugene” was sighted near Denmark. Both of them were less than 13,000 meters (8 miles), an insignificant distance for the German guns that could fire almost to 40,000 meters (25 miles approx.). Commander Ellis, commander of the “Suffolk”, immediately changed course to take shelter inside the fog and marked the enemy. Keeping contact by radar, manoeuvred in a way to leave the “Bismarck” gain distance and take a place in his rear to allow him to track without himself being signalled. Without taking his eyes of the white dots, representing the two enemy ships on the radar, he saw them cut their way in a very rapid progress. Then, the commander Ellis came out of the fog, spotted the Germans at 15 miles and threw up in its wake, sending at the same time, a series of messages.

At 20:30, after an hour of running at full speed, Norfolk, suddenly leaving the fog, sighted the “Bismarck” and “Prinz Eugen” at about six miles to port-side, sailing on their course. The commander Philips immediately turned the rudder completely to starboard, to take refuge in the fog while covering his escape with a smokescreen. But this time, the “Bismarck” did not let himself to be surprised and initiated an accurate shot. Three shots of 380 framed the “Norfolk” and another bomb dropped in its track. Luckily the cruiser was untouched, although some pieces of shrapnel had fallen on board; even then he re-entered the fog without faults.

Sheltered in the fog, the “Norfolk” manoeuvred as the “Suffolk” to take an observation point in the enemy’s rear. Placed on its flank, of port-side, to be quite sure that the “Bismarck” could not escape in this direction. And that was how the pursuit began.

The squadron of the Counter Admiral Holland, comprising the “Hood”, the “Prince of Wales” and 6 “destroyers”, forced the march to cut the path to the enemy. At 5:35 am in the dawn on 24, spotted the two German ships and turned the course to approach.

Sink the Bismarck

Having reached 23 Km (14 miles approx.) of his opponent, the “Hood” and “Prince of Wales” opened fire on the “Bismarck” and the “Prinz Eugen”, which immediately responded by firing on the “Hood”.

The “Prinz Eugene” hit the target with its first shot in less than a minute. The fire that broke out at the opening of the mast of the aft, spread quickly to the bow of the “Hood”. In turn, the “Bismark” already framed the British ship by many times and ended up to hit him unerringly. The flames in the “Hood”, amounted to several hundred meters high. A huge column of smoke rose in the air and the “Hood” exploded through the middle and broke in two, disappearing in a few minutes. About 30 tons of steel went to the bottom of the sea, since its ammunition magazine has exploded. More than 1,400 sailors perished with him, only three survived. The disappearance of the “Hood”, the pride of the British Navy, was traumatic. A complete generation of sailors had been brought on the idea that the “Hood” was the most powerful ship in the world war.

The “Prince of Wales” would face now the wrath of the enemy all alone. A round of 380 mm from “Bismarck” did raise a wall of water just off the flanks of the English battleship. Then, in 12-second intervals was followed by extremely fast jets of smaller water raised by the 150 mm howitzers of the “Bismarck” and the projectiles of the “Prinz Eugen”.

A shell of 380 mm reached the control tower, went through it and exploded in the other side. The control tower has become a pile of rubble; all officers and men were killed or wounded. The situation worsened further when the cannons refused to shoot. The “Prince of Wales” was hit by two bullets that you crossed the flanks by the height of the waterline and several compartments were flooded, thus being forced to withdraw from the fight.

The Bismarck did not come out unscathed from the battle: He was hit in the flank which caused an oil leak, depleting his provisions and contaminating the other fuel tanks. Admiral Gunther Lutjens realized that it would mean the end of the journey for the battleship across the Atlantic and headed for repairs in Saint-Nazaire, South direction – although prudence recommend him to head North to the Norwegian high latitudes.

f it was necessary to sink the Bismarck, before the catastrophe, now its destruction imposed itself doubly. Although it was noted later that the German ship left behind a long trail of oil, he continued to sail to southwest, in full swing and intact appearance. At the same time, the situation could result in a disaster, which led the Admiralty to take stringent provisions.

Commanded by Rear Admiral Sir James Somerville, the force H comprised by the cruiser “Ronown”, the aircraft carrier “Ark Royal”, the cruiser “Sheffield” and six “destroyers”, was in Gibraltar. The normal mission was to prevent the passage of the strait to the Italian fleet.

It was decided to launch it in pursuit of the “Bismarck”. Furthermore, the battleships “Ramillies” and “Rodney”, received orders to intercept the “Bismarck”. Six hours after the destruction of “Hood”, two new battleships, one battleship, an aircraft carrier, three cruisers and nine “destroyers” have joined the chase.

By 18:30, the radar of”Suffolk” indicated that he was rapidly approaching the enemy. Fearing a surprise, Ellis turned broadside and increased the maximum speed of his boat. At that moment, the “Bismarck” went out from the mist, right at the bow, opening fire with everything he got. Ellis commanded spreading a smoke curtain and managed to hide.

The British feared that the “Bismarck” could use his speed to escape overnight. There was only a way left for reducing their march: Sending an attack before nightfall, by the planes of the “Victorious”. The planes were released on the “Bismarck”, each one was able to carry a torpedo and all managed to return to the carrier. A torpedo exploding was seen, however, the speed of the “Bismarck” has not diminished.

By midnight, the “destroyers” that accompanied the “King George V” had to abandon it to reach Iceland. Soon, also the “Repulse” had to leave to refuel. The situation worsened at 3:30 am on May 25, because “Suffolk” lost the trail of the “Bismarck” and only 31 hours and a half later would return to sight the enemy.

On 26 May, at 10:30, the “Bismarck” was sighted by a “Catalina”. The British have lost precious time making a long turn in the direction of the North Sea. After they found almost the flank of the enemy, they were now far, far beyond its rear. If the “Bismarck” continued to move towards France in a normal way, it would become impossible to meet him again, because the depletion of British deposits prevented any sustained effort at high speed.

The “Bismarck” distanced about 50 miles from the “King George V” and could soon benefit from air cover. All hope now lay in the British aircraft “Ark Royal”. Once the enemy’s position was given by radio, they prepared 15 aircraft. At 14:50 they took off to attack the “Bismarck”, which was 40 miles away.

The strike force flying between rain and fog, detected a ship on the radar picture, at the site where, more or less, they hoped to find the “Bismarck”. Thinking that it was the enemy ship, they launched the attack. Stung on the ship, not knowing that in fact this it was the “Sheffield”. On board the “Sheffield”, the captain of sea and war Larcom, panicked when he realized the planes over his ship. Instantly gave orders to force the pace, at full speed, and turned towards trying to escape the attack. The “Sheffield” did not fire a single shot and almost miraculously escaped. The misidentification almost turned into a disaster.

A very bewildered formation returned to the “Ark Royal”. Despite the violent oscillation of the boat, the planes were refueled and loaded with more torpedoes. At 19:00 the planes were grouped again on the vessel and the formation was ready to leave.

The planes attacked the “Bismarck”. The gunfire lasted a few minutes. Then calm returned. On the return of the squadrons it was found that 5 planes were damaged by enemy fire and only one plane has crashed at sea. After having questioned the crews, it could be established that one of the torpedoes hit the target squarely. The “Bismarck” changed course and was now heading north. But why such a strange behavior, that seemed to be leading him to suicide?

In the early hours of 27 May, the “Bismarck” was torpedoed by “Maori”, the “Cossack” and the “Sikh”, however, none of them reached the target. At 20:15, the “Norfolk” spotted the “Bismarck” about eight miles to the bow and pointed it to the “King George V”, which was keeping some distance, accompanied by the “Rodney”. And then the “King George V “joined the battle.

The “Bismarck” kept silent for two minutes; then, in turn, joined the concert. His third saves framed the “Rodney” and almost hit him.

At 8:54, the 203 mm guns of the “Norfolk” opened fire at 18,000 meters (11 miles). The “King George V” and “Rodney” at lower distances, fired their secondary weapons. At 9:04, the cruiser “Dorsetshire” joined the battle. During the minutes that followed, the British battleships approached even more “Bismarck”. It was apparent that he was hit badly. From “Norfolk” it was possible to two of 380 mm cannons from the bow; they were inoperative.

At an even more shorter distance, the two British battleships pounded the “Bismarck”, not only with its main armament, but also with the secondary. On board the “Bismarck” there was a violent explosion abaft Tower 2, whose top had flown over the bridge. Another shot on target tossed into the air, and then over the gunwale, the shot direction tower of the main artillery.

The speed of the “Bismarck” was now virtually zero.

Around 10 o’clock, from “Bismarck” there was only a helpless and silent wreck without masts nor chimney. The inside of the vessel was just a furnace were flames could be seen through numerous holes made by shells and rips in the hull. However, the “Bismarck” went without lowering their flag and although reduced to impotence and surrounded by enemies, refused to surrender.

The “Rodney” fired enormous projectiles of 406 mm and a torpedo from”Rodney” also hit him. The “Bismarck”, however, continued to float! At 10:15, Sir John Tovey ordered the “Rodney” to follow after “King George V”. As he walked away, the “Dorsetshire” launched two torpedoes on the starboard side of the “Bismarck”. One exploded at the height of the bridge. The cruiser then went to the other side to launch a new torpedo, which also reached the target. Silently, the monstrous wreck, whose flag was still floating, disappeared in the waves and with it 2,200 crew members died, including Admiral Lutjens. Just over a hundred sailors were rescued by British ships present in the area.

The powerful “Bismarck” died at last after a brave resistance against superior forces.

Sink the Bismarck

Unraveling the Myth

Apparently, from the outside, the Bismark was identical to any ship, but the difference was their internal project where below the waterline was five steel walls, which joined the watertight compartments. The facilities of the sailors were small, because besides the aspirants, they also had hundreds of people who had no specific function, thus making the accommodations to be very tight. The space that on other ships was reserved for bedrooms and dining rooms were transformed into extra protection to the complicated compartments of the hull.

History reports that the British destroyed the powerful Bismarck after it was struck by torpedoes, but this report is not true, since the expeditions to the seabed confirmed that the hull Bismarck is intact. The real cause of the sinking is in the fact that the crew, realizing the approach of the British fleet and after two hours of intense fighting where they faced a huge disproportion of forces, opened holes in its hull in order to prevent the British took the ship.

The Bismarck was sunk only given the large number of planes and ships that surrounded him. Moreover, with the rudder damaged due to the attack of Swordfish aircraft, which forced him to sail in circles, making it impossible to escape the British siege, which mercilessly attacked the ship and its crew.

Never a warship had been so punished, and little by little he began to fall to the left, causing water to enter through the holes in the hull, flooding the various decks in sequence, advancing through the chambers and corridors. Everywhere were heard cries of horror, bodies were everywhere, the crew did not know what to do but to save themselves from the impending defeat. Those who were below were trying to climb to avoid being drowned by the fast rising water, while those who were above were trying to escape from the burning hell. Chaos was total.

With the keel in the air and many sailor in the water struggling up and trying to cling to the black and viscous hull, the huge ship disappeared into the seabed. Then the English ships approached and just saved 100 sailors. Alerted by the news that German submarines were approaching and to avoid being caught, the British were forced to leave hundreds of sailors wandering on that churning ocean.

Those who survived the battle, suffered not only in their skin the bitter weight of defeat, they suffered a shock in the faith in which they were educated. The life that inspired its existence was shattered, and killed their unbeaten belief of their race.

About João Fernandes

Graduated in International Relations; Business Manager at Webmind; Blogger and multiple interests in the areas of science, technology, history and politics. Works as a Freelance on websites and advertising.

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