(May 21, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, as songster Johnny Horton recounted, “In May of nineteen forty-one...‘Sink the Bismarck!’ was the cry that shook the Seven Seas.”
On May 19, 1941, the Royal Navy’s worst fear was realized — the Bismarck had set sail! At 53,000 tons, and with, “... guns as big as trees, and shells as big as steers ...,” the Royal Navy had no ship that could match the Bismarck’s eight 15- and 12 six-inch guns, nor its speed. It was, “... the biggest ship that had the biggest guns. Even though, “The Bismarck ... [may not have been] ... the fastest ship that ever sailed the sea,” with a top speed of 35 mph, for a ship that size, it was very fast.
With the Bismarck, was the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, a substantial warship in its own right. Both were brand new and sported the latest in naval technology. For both, it was their maiden voyage. The Prinz had a top speed of almost 38 mph and carried eight eight-inch guns in four turrets. The two warships were captained by Ernst Lindemann and Helmuth Brinkmann.
Commanding the little fleet was Adm. Günther Lütjens, who was described as, “...an undemonstrative man, tall and thin, with dark, serious eyes ... highly intelligent, able, and courageous ...” But he was also very reserved, bordering on cold, with few friends.
He was a confirmed monarchist and never used the Nazi salute. He even protested against the treatment of the Jews! This mission had several purposes: (1) commerce raiding against the enemy; (2) relieve some of the pressure on the Regia Marina Italia in the Mediterranean by drawing off some of the Royal Navy; and (3) positive propaganda, which a successful mission would bring.
The Royal Navy could not allow these two very powerful warships loose to prey on convoys. “They had to sink the Bismarck, the terror of the sea.”
As the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen sailed through the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden on May 19, they were spotted by the Swedish cruiser Gotland. Knowing that the, “cat was out of the bag,” the German ships put into the Norwegian port of Bergen. There the Prinz Eugen refueled, but the Bismarck, inexplicably, did not.
The heavy cruiser Norfolk, flagship of First Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir W. Frederic Wake-Walker, joined heavy cruiser Suffolk, which was equipped with a highly advanced radar system, in patrolling the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland. If the German ships appeared, they would sound the alarm.
The battle cruiser Hood and brand-new battleship Prince of Wales, captained by Ralph Kerr and John Leach, respectively, set sail from Scapa Flow, on May 21, bound for the Denmark Strait and history.
Vice-Adm. Lancelot E. Holland commanded this squadron. That same day, the Bismarck sailed to its destiny. The Hood was generally regarded as the most formidable ship in, and the pride of, the Royal Navy, while the Prince of Wales was the newest addition. Even so, at 45,000 tons, it was no match for the Bismarck.
Among other issues, it was having problems with its guns. The Hood was almost as heavily armed as the Bismarck. The biggest difference was armor. The Hood had little. However, the British felt that the two capital ships, together with the two cruisers, would be equal to the task.
“For six long days and weary nights they tried to find her trail.”
On May 22, the Kriegsmarine informed Adm. Lütjens, erroneously, that (1) the breakout was undetected; (2) the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow had not stirred; and (3) there was no operational commitment of enemy naval forces.
The cruisers picked up the enemy’s scent the next morning. At that time, the Bismarck was in the lead, followed by the Prinz Eugen. The Bismarck fired several salvos at the Norfolk. These had no effect on the Norfolk, which turned and ran for the cover of fog.
However, the jolt of the battleship’s big guns, knocked out its forward radar, so it switched places with the Prinz Eugen. This maneuver apparently went undetected by the British, as later, the Hood first opened fire on the smaller lead, ship. The Suffolk contacted Adm. Holland on the Hood, who dispatched it and Prince of Wales to the Denmark Strait.
At dawn on May 24, 1941, the British sailors sighted the German ships 17 miles away. “Out of the cold and foggy night came the British ship the Hood, and every British seaman, he knew and understood, They had to sink the Bismarck, the terror of the sea.”
When the distance closed to 13 miles, the British opened fire, at 5:52 a.m.
“We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound.”
The Germans could tell that these were big guns that were firing and, therefore, were not the two cruisers. A few minutes later the Bismarck’s First Gunnery Officer, Adalbert Schneider, yelled into the telephone, “The Hood — it’s the Hood!”
Adm. Lütjens was under orders, “... to avoid engagements with equal or superior forces unless forced by the enemy.” The Germans were facing equal, if not superior forces. He and the Bismarck’s captain argued about their course of action. After a few minutes, with the distance rapidly closing, Capt. Lindemann snapped, “I will not allow my ship to be shot out from under my ass!” and issued the command to fire.
“The Bismarck started firing  miles away. We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound. But when the smoke had cleared away the mighty Hood went down.”
In less than 10 minutes, the Hood — the pride of the Royal Navy — and all but three of her crew of 1,415, had ceased to exist. The German warships then turned their attention to the Prince of Wales, which, after suffering serious damage, broke off the engagement. The two German officers argued again, with Capt. Lindemann wanting to pursue, and finish, the Prince of Wales, and being overruled by the admiral.
When informed of the situation, Hitler wondered, “If now these British cruisers [the Norfolk and Suffolk] are maintaining contact, and Lütjens has sunk the Hood, and nearly crippled the other, which was brand new and having trouble with her guns during the action, why didn’t he sink her, too? Why hasn’t he tried to get out of there or why hasn’t he turned around?” It was as if der Führer, with no maritime experience, and thousands of miles away, but using common sense, had a better grasp of the situation, than did his commanding admiral!
The Bismarck had not escaped unscathed. It had been hit three times and was taking in seawater, leaking fuel and was down at the bow and leaving a trail. Its speed was reduced. Adm. Lütjens decided to abort its commerce raiding mission, but ordered the Prinz to continue alone. The captain and the admiral now argued over the battleship’s destination, with Lindemann wanting to return to Bergen, while Lütjens ordered the ship to sail for Saint-Nazaire, France, which was 600 miles more distant than Bergen.
News of the Hood’s loss arrived as a gut check to every Englishman, wherever he was. Now there was another reason that the Bismarck must be sunk — revenge and pride.
“Churchill told the people, ‘put every ship a-sail, Cause somewhere on that ocean, I know she’s gotta be, We gotta sink the Bismarck to the bottom of the sea.’”
In response, the battleships Rodney and Ramillies, and cruisers London and Edinburgh, left the convoys that they were escorting in the Atlantic and steamed toward the Germans. The battleship Revenge was ordered to set sail from Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada. The battle cruiser Repulse and aircraft carrier Victorious were ordered from the River Clyde, in England, to the scene.
Adm. Sir James Somerville sailed from Gibraltar with Force H, consisting of the battle cruiser Renown, cruiser Sheffield, aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and six destroyers. Adm. John Tovey, commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, set sail from Scapa Flow aboard the battleship King George V, which was joined by the Rodney.
A total of five battleships, three battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, 13 cruisers, 33 destroyers, and eight submarines joined in the hunt to find, and sink, “That mighty German battleship ...”
Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales, Norfolk and Suffolk continued to shadow the German warship. Then, during the night of May 24/25, contact was lost. Although the Bismarck was actually heading east toward France, Adm. Tovey ordered his ships to go in the opposite direction.
Finally, at the end of the day on May 25, the Admiralty determined that the Germans were actually heading toward France and contacted Tovey.
“The Admiral of the British fleet said, ‘Turn those bows around! We found that German battleship and we’re gonna cut her down.’”
Even so, the British did not know the location of the German battleship. By this time, the Bismarck had opened an insurmountable lead on Tovey’s ships. To conserve fuel, the Bismarck reduced its speed from 28 to 20 knots. Then, on the morning of the 26th, the Bismarck broke radio silence with two long messages to the Fatherland.
This allowed the British to get a fix and narrow the search. Later that day, the Bismarck was spotted by a Catalina seaplane captained by Dennis Briggs, southwest of Ireland. Interestingly, the Catalina’s copilot was an American — Ensign Leonard B. Smith.
Although Adm. Somerville’s Force H might have been able to intercept the Bismarck, it only had one capital ship — the battle cruiser Renown. And by then, the British were reluctant to tackle the Bismarck with a battle cruiser. But Adm. Somerville also had an aircraft carrier.
At 2:50 p.m., 15 Fairey Swordfish armed with torpedoes took off from the Ark Royal. At 3:40 p.m. they attacked, luckily, without success, since the ship they were attacking was the Sheffield, which, unbeknownst to them had been ordered to shadow the enemy battleship.
At 7 p.m., May 26, the Ark Royal relaunched the 15 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. These were World War I era biplanes, with a maximum speed of 90 mph, carrying only one torpedo, and with limited range. But if the Bismarck had refueled in Norway, it would have been able to maintain its 28 knot speed and would, by now, have been under the protective cover of the Luftwaffe.
Although the Bismarck had an awesome arsenal of anti-aircraft weapons, her gunners were not prepared for planes so slow. Of the first 14 torpedoes launched, only one hit the great ship and because of the thickness of its armor, did no damage.
However, the last torpedo that was launched struck the battleship in its Achilles’ Heel, and jammed its rudder. The Germans were aware of this potential, but had estimated the chance of it occurring as one in 150,000! Even then, it only landed there because the ship was turning.
The great ship turned and began steaming toward its pursuers and away from France. At that point, it was “... 10 hours away from ...” the safety of the Luftwaffe’s protective air cover. At first, Tovey didn’t believe the reports.
Although, not a Nazi, Adm. Lütjens recognized the gravity of the situation and sent the following message: “To der Führer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler. We will fight to the last with our trust in you, mein Führer, and our firm confidence in Germany’s victory.”
Der Führer replied, “I thank you in the name of the whole German nation — Adolf Hitler. To the crew of the battleship Bismarck, all Germany is with you. What can be done will be done. Your devotion to your duty will strengthen our people in the struggle for their existence.”
“The fog was gone the seventh day and they saw the morning sun.”
The British had, “... found that German battleship.... The British guns were aimed and the shells were coming fast. The first shell hit the Bismarck, they knew she couldn’t last.”
Only able to make seven knots, the great ship was a sitting duck. Within an hour and a half, the Hood was avenged. Adm. Lütjens’ last message said, “Ship no longer maneuverable. We fight to the last shell. Long live der Führer!”
Although pounded by battleships Rodney and King George V and heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire, the Bismarck would not go down and continued to fly its flag. It was finally scuttled. Of its crew of 2,200, 116 were saved. More would/could have been saved, but the British rescuers were scared off by U-boat sightings.
Afterward, Adm. Tovey said that, “The Bismarck put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds, worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her flag flying.” Even so, history’s most feared warship, which had only been at sea a week, did not score a single hit against its enemies in its final battle.
“That mighty German battleship is just a memory.” For that week, 80 years ago, “‘Sink the Bismarck’ was the cry that shook the Seven Seas.”
Next Week: Outnumbered German Paratroopers Capture Crete
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.