The rise and fall of the most feared battleship of the Second World War
It was a battleship which was in commission for less than a year, but each day it existed it was a terror of the sea for the Allies. The Bismarck was the most feared battleship in the German Kriegsmarine (War Navy) and, at over 250 metres in length, the biggest. Yet, despite its presence, it would sink only one ship in its only battle. So what exactly made the Bismarck so famous?
Firstly, it was a ship which was a symbol of Germany’s rise from the ashes of the First World War. In the wake of defeat in 1918, Germany was forced to disarm. This included the severe reduction of its Navy from over 40 ships to less than 20. They could also only build new ships to replace old ones. In the mid 1930s and with Adolf Hitler’s Nazis in charge of Germany, this would change.
A further reason was her speed. The Bismarck could reach over 30 knots, almost 35mph. This was an incredible speed for a ship so heavy, making it a terrifying prospect to face in open seas.
The Bismarck was one of the first two ships commissioned to be built by the Nazis, the first of the Kriegsmarine and the beginning of a new regime. It took its name from Otto Von Bismarck, a German statesman who unified the country in 1871. He changed the way the world viewed Germany, and the Nazis hoped that the ship named after him would do the same.
Watching on nervously at the construction of the Bismarck was the Royal Navy. With Britain relying heavily on merchant ships delivering weapons, armaments and food. The fear was that if a powerful and invigorated Kriegsmarine could repeatedly sink supply ships, Britain would be pushed to the brink of surrender.
It would be the spring of 1941 where Bismarck would complete speed trials and head out to go toe-to-toe with some of the finest ships in the Royal Navy. Along with its consort, the Prinz Eugen, the Bismarck sailed out to the Atlantic to intercept a British cargo fleet made up of 16 ships. The fleet was heavily defended by battleships and cruisers, but would still be at risk of the devastating fire power of the Bismarck.
On May 24, following six days of searching from a dozen Royal Navy Ships, the Bismarck was confronted by HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy. This would be part of the Battle of the Denmark Strait, and the only confrontation between the two heavy weights. However, as both had similar firepower, it would be the ship with the most effective armour that would win the day.
Just minutes into the exchange of fire, the Hood was hit with a shell that pierced the main ammunition magazine. This caused a huge explosion and the Hood sank, only three of the 1400 crew survived.
The sinking of the Hood had a significant effect on the propaganda of both sides. For Germany, there was the boast of sinking the ship which had been lauded as the most powerful in the world for almost 20 years. For Britain there was a sense of, and then a demand for, revenge. The message was clear: The Bismarck needed to be destroyed.
On May 26, the Bismarck began its last day afloat. A combination of aerial and naval attacks began with torpedoes launched by Swordfish aircraft, causing damage to the rudder. This resulted in the Bismarck sailing in endless circles. As the crew desperately attempted to fix the problem, British and Polish ships made further torpedo runs inflicting more damage. The following morning, the Royal Navy would move in for the kill.
At 8:47am, battleships HMS Rodney and HMS George V opened fire. Gradually, the two would take out the main guns on the Bismarck. By 9.31am all four of the main guns were out of action. HMS George V opened fire with everything she had, soon to be joined by the heavy cruisers the Norfolk and the Dorsetshire.
By 10:40am. The Bismarck finally sank. Over 2000 of the 2200 crew on board went down with her. The most feared ship on the ocean was no more. The Royal Navy had its revenge for the sinking of the Hood, and struck a significant strategic and moral blow on Nazi Germany.