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The Sinking of the Bismarck: The Demise of Nazi Germany‘s Mightiest Battleship


The German battleship Bismarck, named after the 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, was the pride of the Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany‘s navy) when it was commissioned in August 1940. At 823 feet long and displacing 50,900 tons fully loaded, the Bismarck was one of the largest and most powerful battleships ever built. Its eight 15-inch guns could hurl 1,800-pound shells over 20 miles, and its 12.6-inch-thick armor belt made it virtually impervious to enemy fire. With a top speed of over 30 knots, it was also fast for a battleship of its size.

The Bismarck‘s Mission

In May 1941, under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, the Bismarck embarked on Operation Rheinübung, a mission to raid Allied shipping convoys in the Atlantic that were bringing vital supplies to Britain. Accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, the Bismarck sailed from Gdynia, Poland, on May 18 with the intention of breaking out into the Atlantic undetected.

The German naval high command, led by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, believed that powerful surface raiders like the Bismarck could cripple Britain‘s vital trans-Atlantic supply lines and force them to sue for peace. However, the British Royal Navy was determined not to allow the Germans to repeat the devastating attacks on shipping they had carried out in World War I with surface raiders and U-boats.

The Battle of the Denmark Strait

On May 24, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood intercepted the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The Hood, launched in 1920, was the pride of the Royal Navy and a symbol of British naval power. Though modernized in the 1930s, its armor protection was relatively light compared to more modern battleships like the Bismarck.

In the ensuing battle, the Bismarck‘s fifth salvo struck the Hood near its aft ammunition magazines, causing a massive explosion that tore the ship in half. The Hood sank in just 3 minutes, taking with it all but 3 of its crew of 1,418 men. It was the worst loss of life from a single ship in British naval history.

The Prince of Wales, despite being a more modern battleship, was also damaged in the engagement and forced to withdraw. The Bismarck did not emerge unscathed, however. It had sustained a hit that caused it to leak fuel, reducing its speed and range. Admiral Lütjens decided to attempt to reach the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France for repairs.

The Pursuit

What followed was one of the most intense and dramatic naval pursuits in history. The Royal Navy, enraged by the loss of the Hood and determined to avenge its sinking, launched a massive hunt for the Bismarck. "Sink the Bismarck!" was the order of the day, and every available warship was called into the chase.

The Bismarck‘s fuel leak and reduced speed allowed the British to catch up. On May 26, Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the carrier HMS Ark Royal attacked the Bismarck in the stormy seas of the North Atlantic. One torpedo hit jammed the Bismarck‘s rudders, severely damaging its steering capability and allowing the pursuing British ships to close in.

The Final Battle

On the morning of May 27, 1941, the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, along with several cruisers and destroyers, caught up with the crippled Bismarck. In a one-sided battle, the British ships pounded the Bismarck with over 2,800 shells, utterly destroying its superstructure and killing most of its crew.

Despite the overwhelmingly superior British firepower, the Bismarck refused to surrender and continued to fire back until its last operational gun was silenced. Hundreds of German sailors were killed as the ship was turned into a blazing wreck. Just after 10:30 am, with its magazines exploding and fires raging out of control, the mighty Bismarck slipped beneath the waves and sank with most of its crew.

Out of a crew of over 2,200 men, only 116 survived the sinking. The Bismarck‘s captain, Ernst Lindemann, and Admiral Lütjens were among the dead.

Significance and Legacy

The sinking of the Bismarck was a major victory for the Royal Navy and a huge boost to British morale after the loss of the Hood. It demonstrated the vulnerability of even the most powerful battleships to air attack and marked a turning point in naval warfare. The age of the battleship as the dominant naval weapon was coming to an end, and the aircraft carrier would soon reign supreme.

For Germany, the loss of the Bismarck was a significant blow to the prestige and morale of the Kriegsmarine. It shattered the myth of German naval invincibility and forced a major reassessment of German naval strategy. Plans for further surface raiding missions by battleships were abandoned, and the focus shifted to the U-boat campaign.

The Bismarck‘s sinking also had a profound psychological impact on both sides. For the British, it was a much-needed victory that helped erase the shame of the loss of the Hood and proved that the Royal Navy was still a force to be reckoned with. For the Germans, it was a stunning defeat that shook their confidence and forced them to confront the reality of British naval superiority.

In the end, the Bismarck‘s story is one of hubris, courage, and tragedy. It was a marvel of naval engineering and a symbol of German military might, but its brief and spectacular career ended in a catastrophic defeat that foreshadowed the eventual Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Data and Statistics

Specification Bismarck
Length 823 ft 6 in (251.0 m)
Beam 118 ft 1 in (36.0 m)
Draft 31 ft 2 in (9.5 m)
Displacement 50,900 long tons (51,700 t)
Propulsion 3 Blohm & Voss geared steam turbines, 12 Wagner boilers, 3 propellers
Speed 30.01 knots (55.58 km/h; 34.53 mph)
Range 8,870 nmi (16,430 km; 10,210 mi) at 19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph)
Complement 103 officers, 1,962 enlisted men
Armament 8 × 15 in (380 mm) SK C/34 guns, 12 × 5.9 in (150 mm) SK C/28 guns, 16 × 4.1 in (100 mm) SK C/33 guns, 16 × 37 mm SK C/30 guns, 12 × 20 mm FlaK 30 guns
Armor Belt: 12.6 in (320 mm), Deck: 4.7-7.9 in (120-200 mm), Turrets: 14.2 in (360 mm), Conning tower: 13.8 in (350 mm)

(Data from Gröner 1990, pp. 33-35)

Crew Casualties

  • German casualties: over 2,000 killed
  • British casualties (HMS Hood): 1,415 killed
  • British casualties (other ships): approx. 10 killed

Sources and Further Reading

  • Bercuson, David J., and Holger H. Herwig. The Destruction of the Bismarck. Overlook Press, 2003.
  • Garzke, William H., and Robert O. Dulin. Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 1985.
  • Grützner, Jens. Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann: Der Bismarck-Kommandant – Eine Biographie. VDM Heinz Nickel, 2010.
  • Kennedy, Ludovic. Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck. William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1974.
  • Mulligan, Timothy P. Neither Sharks Nor Wolves: The Men of Nazi Germany‘s U-Boat Arm, 1939-1945. Naval Institute Press, 1999.
  • Range, Clemens. Die Ritterkreuzträger der Kriegsmarine. Motorbuch Verlag, 1974.
  • Zetterling, Niklas & Tamelander, Michael. Tirpitz: The Life and Death of Germany‘s Last Super Battleship.Casemate Publishers, 2009.