On This Day

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Associated Press
A direct hit blasts the Bismarck shortly before it sank, May 27, 1941.

On This Day: British Royal Navy Sinks German Battleship Bismarck

May 27, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On May 27, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck was sunk in an attack by British planes, destroyers and battleships. The Bismarck had destroyed the battlecruiser Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, three days earlier.

Bismarck Sunk in First Mission

In the winter of 1940-1941, the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, had success in its mission of attacking Allied ships in the Atlantic to cut off the flow of supplies to Britain. The United States, which would not enter the war until December 1941, provided aid to the British Royal Navy in the form of support convoys in the Atlantic.

The Kriegsmarine launched Operation Rheinubung in May 1941 to attack the U.S. and British convoys. It would be led by the Bismarck, the 41,673-ton pride of the navy, which was making its first mission.

On May 19 the Bismarck, under the control of Adm. Gunther Lutjens, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen set off from Poland, moving north through the North Sea and then west to the North Atlantic through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland.

The Royal Navy had been tracking the two ships and, on the morning of May 24, its battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Hood engaged the German ships west of Iceland. The German ships focused on attacking the Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy; after less than 15 minutes of fighting, a salvo from the Bismarck penetrated the Hood, causing a massive explosion.

British author Ludovic Kennedy, a member of the Royal Navy during the war, recalled: “For most Englishmen the news of the Hood's death was traumatic, as though Buckingham Palace had been laid flat or the Prime Minister assassinated, so integral a part was she of the fabric of Britain and her empire.”

Just three of the more than 1,400 men aboard the Hood survived. The Bismarck suffered damage in the fight, leading Lutjens to decide to take the ship to France for repairs. Three British ships—the Prince of Wales, Norfolk and Suffolk—followed. A team of Swordfish torpedo planes attacked the Bismarck later that night, but they inflicted minimal damage and the British soon lost contact with the Bismarck.

The British, who were intent on destroying the Bismarck as revenge for the sinking of the Hood, regained contact with the Bismarck on May 26 as it was nearing the French coast. That evening, 15 Swordfish planes launched an attack, with one torpedo strike crippling the Bismarck’s steering.

The strike rendered the Bismarck a sitting duck as four British destroyers and a Polish destroyer attacked through the night until two battleships, the King George V and Rodney, arrived in the morning.

“For 74 minutes, the Bismarck received a continuous hammering that no other warship could have taken. … Moreover, neither the main belt nor the armour deck were seen to be penetrated during the combat, and in the end it was her own crew who scuttled the ship,” says KBismarck.com.

After hours withstanding heavy fire, the Bismarck sank at 10:39 a.m. Hundreds of crewmen were left floating in the frigid, oily water. The British ships Dorsetshire and Maori rescued a combined 111 crewmen before the Royal Navy issued a U-boat warning and ordered its ships out of the area. Others were saved the following day, but just 115 of the crew of more than 2,200 survived.

Background: Construction of the Bismarck

After World War I, the German navy was severely restricted by the Treaty of Versailles. It was not until 1935, with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, that Germany was allowed to develop its navy.

It soon ordered the building of what would become the Bismarck and its sister ship, the Tirpitz. After three years of construction at a Hamburg shipyard, the Bismarck was launched in February 1939 at a ceremony attended by Adolf Hitler, who delivered a short speech.

Bismarck was Germany’s first ‘real’ post-World War I battleship, with guns and protection of similar scale to those of the best foreign combat ships,” writes the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

Video: The Bismarck in Action


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