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The Bismarck: The German Battleship That Sank for No Purpose

Updated on September 25, 2020
emge profile image

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College, and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters

The beginning.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had put many restrictions and Germany was forbidden to have any capital warships like battleships and other heavier warships. The maximum tonnage permitted as per the treaty was the Deutschland warships which weighed in at 14,200 tonnes fully loaded. In the first world war, Kaiser Wilhelm II had built up a formidable Navy to challenge the Royal Navy. He had tried to break the blockade of the Royal Navy by engaging them in the famous battle of Jutland but despite a tactical victory, it was a strategic defeat because the blockade remained in force. The Allies were keen that once again Germany should not be able to build a formidable Navy.

Adolf Hitler when he came to power played into the hands of the allies the British and France. Though he tore the treaty of Versailles clause by clause he did not build up naval power and concentrated mostly on building up the army. The OKW had very little concept of naval warfare and the Navy apart from U-boats was not given the importance it needed.

The Germans built very few capital ships in fact only two major battleships were built one of which was the Bismarck. With the Royal Navy having enforced a blockade of the German ports the German navy had very little room for maneuver and mostly used the North Sea passage between Iceland and Greenland to venture into the Atlantic.

The Bismarck's keel was laid in 1936 and the ship commissioned in 1939. It displaced 52,600 tonnes with a top speed of 30 km and 15 eight-inch guns. Command of the ship was given to Admiral Günther Lütjens. Had Hitler any concept of airpower he could have easily got two or three aircraft carriers constructed. German technology was up to the mark for it. In case he had given importance to naval warfare the complexion of the war in the Atlantic would have been different.

At the start of the war in 1939, the Germans had just two battleships and some heavy cruisers which were known as 'pocket battleships'. These were not sufficient to turn the tide of the war against the Royal Navy. Most of these warships went on a one-way suicidal mission to the Atlantic and never returned. The same fate awaited the Bismarck.

HMS  Hood sinking
HMS Hood sinking

Bismarck the raider

The launch of the invasion of Poland left the Kreigsmarine Commander Grand Admiral Reader completely nonplussed. He had proposed a fleet of battleships to dominate the oceans as he had been told by Hitler that there would be no war till 1944. He had very few surface warships and he had to make do with what he had.

The Bismarck entered service in August 1940 and with Captain Ernst Lindemann in command, it departed Hamburg for sea trials in Kiel Bay. Testing of the ship's armament, power plant, and seakeeping abilities continued in the Baltic Sea.

The Bismarck was to be used as a raider to attack British convoys in the North Atlantic. The battleship's 15-inch guns would be able to strike from a distance and destroy the convoys with very little risk to the ship itself.

Orders were given by the Admiralty for the Bismarck to proceed into the North Atlantic and intercept allied shipping. The battleship had no escort except for one cruiser Prince Eugene. The odds were thus heavily weighted against the battleship and it was known to the Admiralty that the Bismarck was on a doomed mission.

Despite this, Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine) was launched and proceeded under the command of Vice-Admiral Günter Lütjens. The cruiser Prinz Eugen sailed alongside the warship and both sailed out on May 22, 1941, towards the shipping lanes.

The battle

The British were wary of the Bismarck and its capability. They were particularly fearful of the fact that this battleship would loom out of the mist of the ocean on unsuspecting conveys and rain its heavy guns on them. A task force was formed to locate and sink the Bismarck.

The warship sailed towards the shipping lanes and crossed the strait between Iceland and Greenland. The Bismarck was detected by the cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk which called for reinforcements. The British Admiralty responded and directed two capital ships the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood to proceed to the scene of the sighting.

On the morning of May 24, the battle commenced and within 10 minutes of the battle, the accuracy of the Bismarcks guns came to the fore as they hit the Hood and the ship blew up and sank within three minutes. 1415 lives were lost.

The Prince of Wales saw HMS Hood sink and decided not to enter into combat with the Bismarck and broke battle. During the battle, Bismarck was hit in a fuel tank, resulting in a leak and consequent reduction in speed. Vice Admiral Lutjens instructed the prince Eugene to proceed on its task while he maneuvered towards the German-controlled port of Brest.

The Royal Navy had two aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Victorious. searching for the Bismarck. On the night of 24th May, two aircraft from HMS Victorious attacked the battleship but did not have much success. Two days later they had better luck when two aircraft from the Ark Royal were able to get direct hits to the Bismarck and its propeller was disabled. The ship could no longer move forward and began to just move in circles where it was hit. It could do nothing except wait for the inevitable to happen.

The British brought in two battleships and two heavy cruisers to attack the German warship. The battle commenced but it was an unequal battle as the Bismarck could only go in circles. The Bismarck's guns fell silent and the crew decided to scuttle the ship to prevent it falling into the hands of the Royal Navy.

More than 2000 of the ships compliment jumped into the ocean and about 100 were rescued by the Royal Navy but the Navy did not stop further to pick up the other survivors on the plea that a German U-boat was approaching. Contrary to the rules of naval combat nearly 2000 sailors were left in the sea to die. Nobody has commented on this but I am afraid I will have to make my opinion clear. This was an act of cowardice and needs to be condemned.


Comments

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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      3 weeks ago from Singapore

      Tom, thanks for the info

    • profile image

      tom 

      3 weeks ago

      captain lindeman and admiral gunther lutyens died in bismarck,prince eugene was sunk by bikini atoll nuclear test,family of bismarck executed by hitler for 1944 plot,new german destoyer admiral lutyens,bismarck was called pocket battleship, rudder of bismarck was damaged ,just three survivors from hood

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      3 weeks ago from Singapore

      Flourish, thanks for your comment. In a similar incident a U-boat commander was executed by firing squad at the end of the war. Laws are for the losers only.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      3 weeks ago from USA

      That’s really sad. They could have at least taken them as POWs and let them live.

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      Tom, thanks for the info

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Tom, I have seen the movie bismarck a long time back. Thanks for all the information that you add.

    • profile image

      tom 

      4 weeks ago

      fairey swordish biplane fired torpedoes

    • profile image

      tom 

      4 weeks ago

      movie sink the bismarck based on cs forester true story but some characters are fictitious ,movie has hindi news reader ,i have read cdr mullenheim books battleship bismarck.,no u boat was seen,germany had an incomplete aircraft carrier called hindenburg,mullenhiem was adc to captain lindemann

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      Anupam, it's nice to read your comment and interact with you

    • Anupam Mitu profile image

      Anupam Mitu 

      4 weeks ago from MUMBAI

      Oh God! Shame on them really.

      A few days ago, I watched a movie based on the life story of the first Indian women Naval Officer, GunjanSaxena, and I felt so proud at that moment.

      I watch the movies while walking. Watched 'the social dilemma' yesterday and after watching that removed all the social media apps from my mobile. And look trying to express my feelings here.

      It's always nice reading you, though not getting enough time to sit and read "Fire and the Sword".

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