Article by Naval History and Heritage Command:
At noon on May 19, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck lay in Kiel Bay, about to set out on her first and last war cruise. Admiral Gunther Lutjens, who had been decorated with the Knight Insignia of the Iron Cross for his part in the Norwegian campaign, addressed the ship’s company through the loud speaker system:
“The day that we have longed for so eagerly has at last arrived–the moment when we can lead our proud ship towards the enemy. Our objective is commerce-raiding in the Atlantic, imperiling England’s existence. . . . I give you the hunter’s toast, ‘good hunting and a good bag.'”
Aboard the Bismarck, besides the admiral and his staff of 75, was a crew of about 2,200 officers and men and a special prize crew of about 80 men. The commanding officer was Kapitan z. See Ernst Lindemann.
The Bismarck was probably as formidable as any battleship then in service. Her primary armament consisted of eight 38-cm guns, mounted in four turrets, with a maximum range of 23.6 miles. These 15-inch guns fired projectiles weighing 1,700 pounds. Her secondary battery consisted of twelve 15-cm. guns (5.9 inches), mounted in six turrets, She had 16 twin-mounted 10.5-cm. long-range anti-aircraft guns (4.13 inches) and an unknown number of 37-mm. and 20- mm. close-range anti-aircraft guns.
Although her standard displacement was listed by the Germans as only 35,000 tons, the Bismarck s loaded or deep displacement was not far short of 50,000 tons. Her length was 797 feet and the maximum beam at least 118 feet. She was divided into longitudinal sections, numbered from aft forward. Almost all the Bismarck’s armor was welded. The main armor belt is believed to have been at least 13 inches thick, protecting 71 percent of the waterline from forward of “A” turret to abaft D turret. It appears to have withstood penetration by 16-inch shells. Along the length of the armor belt, but at a distance of 18 feet inside of it, extended torpedo bulkheads. Their height was from the gun deck to the ship’s bottom. The turret faces were reported to be at least 11.8 inches thick and the tops of the turrets at least 13.8 inches. From sections 8 to 14 inclusive, double bottoms were built into the ship, extending each side as far as the slope of the armored deck.
The Bismarck’s maximum speed, obtained during trials, was 32.5 knots.On the evening of May 19th the Bismarck, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, two destroyers and two mine sweepers sailed from Kiel Bay. A third destroyer and three mine sweepers joined the squadron as it proceeded through the Kattegat on the 20th. Relays of ME-109 s provided air protection. On May 21st, aircraft of the British Coastal Command identified the German battleship and cruiser proceeding north in Norwegian waters. The British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk were ordered by the Admiralty to take up positions in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland.
Fully aware it had been sighted, the German squadron continued on its course, detaching the three destroyers and entering the straits between Norway and the Shetland Islands at 0800, May 22d.
By the late afternoon of the 23d the Bismarck and Eugen were moving southwestward through the Denmark Strait at high speed. They were sighted by the Norfolk and Suffolk. The Bismarck fired three salvos from her heavy guns, under conditions of poor visibility. There were no hits, and the two British cruisers successfully shadowed the German units throughout that night. Other British warships were moving toward the Denmark Strait at high speed. At 0415 on the 24th the Eugen signaled the Bismarck that smoke wisps had been sighted to port.
At 0535 the British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Hood closed to engage the Bismarck. Action was joined at 25,000 yards. Three shells from the third salvo of the Hood, which had been first to fire, hit the Nazi battleship. Flooding of three forward sections of the Bismarck reduced her speed to about 28 knots. The Germans opened fire on the Hood with great accuracy. The second and third salvos straddled and hit the battle cruiser. Fire broke out in her port battery and spread rapidly. At 0600 she was straddled again and a tremendous explosion split the ship. With her guns tilted at a violent angle, theHood attempted to fire one more salvo from her forward turrets. She sank within 3 or 4 minutes.
The Bismarck then engaged the Prince of Wales and straddled and hit with the first salvo. Both 5.25-inch directors were put out of action and water was entering the Prince of Wales aft. Her commanding officer, Capt. J. C. Leach, temporarily broke off the action, and the Bismarck made no attempt to maintain contact.
Aboard the Bismarck there was great jubilation. Sausage, chocolate, and cigarettes were dispensed. It was announced that Hitler had conferred the Knight Insignia of the Iron Cross on Fregattenkapitan Schneider, first gunnery officer. There appears then to have been a dispute between Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann as to the Bismarck‘s next move, with the captain favoring an immediate return to Bergen. It was decided, however, that the Eugen should part company and refuel, while the Bismarck set her course south and reduced speed to conserve fuel.
Meanwhile the Prince of Wales, Norfolk, and Suffolk continued to shadow the enemy. There was a brief action at 1847 on the 24th when the British battleship engaged the Bismarck at long range; she apparently was not hit. Meanwhile the aircraft carrier Victorious, the battleships King George V, Rodney, and Ramillies, the battle-cruiser Repulse and four cruisers were taking up positions to intercept the Bismarck.
At 0015 on the 25th the Victorious launched seven torpedo-carrying Swordfish planes, supported by five Fulmar monoplanes. One hit was made on the starboard beam of the Bismarck, but her armor was not penetrated. The Bismarck put up a tremendous antiaircraft barrage and even fired on the attacking planes with her heavy guns; one Fulmar may have been brought down by the wind current set up by a 15-inch shell. One other Fulmar and two Swordfish were lost.
The Prince of Wales briefly reengaged the Bismarck, shortly after the Swordfish attack, and the German battleship then made a determined effort to shake off her pursuers. In the darkness, she apparently worked around the stern of the British warships and set a course back across the Atlantic for France. The approximate position of all the British forces arrayed against her was now known aboard the Bismarck with the exception of the positions of the Ramillies and the Repulse. When news was received that further units had left Gibraltar, Admiral Lutjens decided to address the crew. He said U-boats and aircraft were on the way to the aid of the Bismarck, but that the best that could be expected was that the ship would fight to the last and take one or two of the British battleships to the bottom with her. The crew was depressed, and friction developed between the Admiral s staff and the Bismarck‘s officers, presumably because of Lutjen’s decision to run for France instead of putting back to Norway. Hope revived, however, as the Bismarck moved eastward undetected throughout the day and night of the 25th.
At 1030 on the 26th a Catalina of the Coastal Command sighted the Bismarck about 550 miles west of Land s End. The King George V, Rodney, and Renown were now converging on the Bay of Biscay. Reconnaissance planes from the Ark Royal took up the watch on the Bismarck, At 1500 an air striking force was dispatched from the Ark Royal, but its attack was ineffectual. The second and decisive attack was made by 15 Swordfish, armed with torpedoes, and lasted from 2055 to 2125.
The 400 men assigned to the Bismarck‘s anti-aircraft guns maintained a furious barrage, but the crews, which had been on watch almost continuously for 5 days, were near exhaustion and their fire was not as effective as previously. The planes attacked simultaneously from a number of points, diving to the attack at an angle of about 50.
One torpedo struck amidships on the port side, one on the starboard quarter, and possibly a third on the port quarter; The torpedo which hit the starboard quarter wrecked the steering gear, jamming the rudders and causing the Bismarck to turn slowly in circles to the starboard. Frantic efforts were made to repair the damage: It was announced that the man who succeeded in freeing the rudders would be given the Knight Insignia of the Iron Cross. Divers succeeded in centering one rudder, but the other could not be freed, Efforts were made to steer the ship by her engines, but after a short period, instead of proceeding on her intended southeasterly course, the Bismarck was actually northwest of her position when the attack was made. There appears to have been further controversy among the officers. The captain, when asked by an officer whether he should try to blow off the jammed rudder, is reported to have replied, “Do what you like; I am through with it.” The ship’s best speed was now reduced to 10 to 12 knots.
The Bismarck received a message from Hitler saying that “all our thoughts are with our victorious comrades.” Admiral Lutjens replied: “Ship unmaneuverable; we shall fight to the last shell.” The admiral ordered the captain to tell the crew that 81 Junkers planes would come to the support of the Bismarck at dawn and that U-boats had also been dispatched to join in her defense.
During the night the British destroyers Maori, Cossack, and Sikh delivered a series of torpedo attacks at ranges between 3,000 and 9,000 yards. Three hits were claimed; the extent of the damage is not known. Flames were observed on the Bismarck’s forecastle after the attacks, but these were promptly extinguished. The Bismarck kept the destroyers under accurate fire during these night attacks, and it was only by skillful maneuvering and use of smoke that they escaped damage.
In the morning the horizon to the northeast was clear, while rain squalls to the south and east made a poor background, The commander in chief of the British Home Fleet decided to approach on a bearing west-north-west, At 0848 the Bismarck came into sight, about 25,000 yards distant, steering directly towards the British heavy units. The Rodney opened fire at 0847, the King George V at 0848 and the Bismarck at 0850. The Bismarck’s second salvo straddled the Rodney, one round being only 20 yards short, but the accuracy of her fire then deteriorated.
At 0857 the Bismarck sustained her first hit. Five minutes later a 16-inch shell from the Rodney apparently put the German battleship’s A and B turrets out of action. C and D turrets were firing on the King George V when a shell from one of the British warships carried away the rangefinder and paralyzed the control position. These exchanges took place at a range of about 20,000 yards. By 0020 range had been narrowed to 11,500 yards; 10 minutes latter the Bismarck was on fire and virtually out of control, though her C and D turrets were still firing independently and her secondary battery was in use.
Demoralization of the Bismarck’s crew was now apparent. One officer is said to have drawn his revolver and shot several seamen who refused to obey him. Officers were reported to have committed suicide, and scores of the crew jumped overboard before the action ceased. Almost all of the 400 anti-aircraft gunners, for whom no special protection had been provided during surface action, became casualties.
The upper deck was being pounded into a mass of twisted steel. Hatches and doors were jammed in all parts of the ship. Crews in two magazines were drowned when it became necessary to flood the chambers because of fire. A direct hit crashed into a forward compartment where 200 men were trapped under jammed hatches. Fires on the gun deck cut off the forward half of the ship. The air was dense with smoke, fumes and the gases generated by the bursting shells. Paint was burning off the bulkheads and many men without gas masks were suffocated.
By 1000 all the Bismarck’s 15-inch guns were out of action, and fire from the secondary battery was spasmodic. The Rodney, King George V, and the Norfolk, which had joined the action after spotting from the flanks, fired their last salvos front a range of only 8,300 yards. At 1010, out of the Bismarck’s entire armament, only one anti-aircraft gun remained workable, The ship was a wreck, on fire fore and aft, and wallowing heavily. The British commander in chief broke off the gun action at 1022. The cruiser Dorsetshire then fired three torpedoes into the Bismarck, and she sank at 1037.
The Dorsetshire and Maori undertook rescue work, but were forced to break off at 1140 when a submarine was reported in the area. The British ships had picked up 110 of the Bismarck’s company, including 4 officers. A German fishing vessel, which had been operating from Bordeaux as a weather reporting ship, is thought to have rescued another 100 and a few more may have been picked up by U-boats.
The British capital ships and cruisers suffered no damage or casualties in the final action. There were a few casualties and slight damage in the destroyers Cossack and Zulu.Note: The O.N.I. Weekly was issued for the confidential information of the officers of the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Commanding officers of ships and shore activities on the distribution list for The O.N.I. Weekly were authorized to circulate the publication to all commissioned and warrant officers under their command. Because the Weekly was issued at the “Confidential” level it did not contain security classified information at higher levels such as “Secret” or “Top Secret.” Consequently, there is no inclusion of material that could be directly attributed to communications intelligence (such as code breaking) or other extremely sensitive sources.