In Pursuit of the Bismarck

Dec. 22, 2017

Bismarck, pictured, slams HMS Prince of Wales with fearsome artillery during Operation Rheinübung, an attempt to block allied shipping to Europe. German Federal Archives

The German battleship Bismarck was the most powerful warship in the world. She was launched to great acclaim in 1939 and finished her sea trials in April 1941. The British knew the Bismarck would soon make its first sortie into the Atlantic and prepared for it as best they could.

The Bismarck mounted eight 15?-inch guns and 81 smaller ones. She had a top speed of 31 knots and was more heavily armored than anything else afloat. No ship in the Royal Navy was a match for it in single combat, so the British planned to fight the fearsome newcomer with team tactics.

Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen lifted anchor at Gotenhafen Roads near Danzig in Poland on May 18, 1941. They slipped through the channel between Denmark and Sweden and out of the Baltic, heading for Nazi-controlled Norway on the first leg of their breakout into the North Atlantic.

Their mission was not to directly challenge the Royal Navy, which had numerical if not qualitative superiority. The objective was to sever the British lifeline, the merchant convoys that were bringing supplies from North America. German U-boats had been operating against the convoys with deadly effect, but there were not enough of them to do the job alone.

British reconnaissance confirmed the arrival May 21 of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen at Grimstad Fjord in Norway. For the next six days, Bismarck would command the full attention of British Home Fleet. The international press followed the action with front page reports. Before it was over, Bismarck would sink the pride of the Royal Navy, the renowned battle cruiser HMS Hood.

The British put everything they could into the pursuit, eventually leaving convoys and troop ships unguarded and shifting all of the resources they could to find and sink Bismarck. Both sides were chronically hampered by bad luck, misjudgments, and mistakes. Fortunately for the British, the Germans got the worst of it.

The chase came down to a very close finish. Bismarck, leaking oil from a lucky British shot, was hours away from escaping toward the coast of occupied France for repair and refit. The Home Fleet battleships and cruisers were in no position to prevent it.

The only chance was by the British carrier Ark Royal, arriving from Gibraltar with a complement of obsolete Swordfish biplanes, but nobody expected much from the Swordfish. Bismarck’s armor was built to withstand attack from weapons much bigger than their light aerial torpedoes.

However, one last turn of fate remained, and it would go against Bismarck.

HMS Hood is sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in a painting by J. C. Schmitz-Westerholt. HMS Prince of Wales is in the foreground. J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt via U.S. Naval Historical Center


Germany had failed in its attempt to conquer the British Isles in the Battle of Britain in 1940, but the rest of Europe, from Norway to the Pyrenees, was under German control. Britain’s ability to defy the Germans and continue the war depended on the vulnerable supply lines from overseas.

When Bismarck began its run, the British had 11 convoys in progress. Battleships and other naval combatants had been pressed into duty as escorts. Despite the protection, German U-boats were sinking between 30 and 50 merchant ships a month.

The scheme of the Kriegsmarine, the German navy, was to add capital ships to the attack and cut the British lifeline once and for all. By the middle of summer, more ships would be available, including Bismarck’s sister battleship, Tirpitz, then in workup trials, and the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were in repair for battle damage.

However, Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, commander of the the German navy, did not want to wait. Operation Rheinübung (“Rhine Exercise”) would be launched in May with Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, and accompanying destroyers. Adm. Günther Lütjens would command the task force with Capt. Ernest Lindemann as captain of the flagship Bismarck.

Raeder was explicit in his orders to Lütjens: “First and foremost battle against supplies. Goal is always the convoys, not the escorts, which are to be evaded if they are not significantly weaker.” He understood that the overall advantage in numbers of the Royal Navy was insurmountable. “We must strive for local and temporary command of the sea in this area and gradually, methodically, and systematically extend it,” he said.

The British Home Fleet was based at Scapa Flow in the Scottish Orkney Islands and commanded by Vice Adm. John C. Tovey, who did not know what route the Germans would take. He led part of the responding force himself, including the battleship King George V, to cover the southern approaches. Vice Adm. Lancelot Holland led the northern squadron, consisting of the new battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Hood, and six destroyers.

Holland’s flagship was the aging Hood, the largest vessel in the Navy. She had eight 15-inch guns but was rated a battle cruiser rather than a battleship because of the light armor installed when she entered service in 1920. She was called “The Mighty Hood” by the newspapers but the thin decking was vulnerable to enemy fire that struck on a plunging trajectory.

Prince of Wales, sister battleship to King George V, was so new that civilian contractors remained aboard trying to fix a recurring problem with the main guns.

When British bombers arrived at Grimstad Fjord in response to the reconnaissance sighting, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were gone, leaving their destroyer escorts behind. Prinz Eugen had refueled in Norway, but for reasons not clear, Lütjens and Lindemann did not top off the Bismarck tanks.

Mike Tsukamoto/Staff


The Germans had several possibilities for passage to the North Atlantic. The most direct routes were to the south of Iceland, but they carried the risk of discovery by spotters from the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney Islands or by the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow.

Lütjens chose to swing wide to the north and come down the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. In May, the navigable channel of open water was only about 30 miles wide, narrowed by pack ice extending eastward from Greenland and by British mine fields.

Lütjens, told by German intelligence that the British were still at Scapa Flow, was surprised to find the British heavy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk patrolling the strait. In an otherwise inconsequential exchange with Norfolk, the Bismarck’s forward-looking radar was damaged by the firing of its own guns. Prinz Eugen, with its intact radar, moved into the leading position.

The German ships emerged from the strait just after midnight May 24 and encountered Holland’s squadron at about 5:30 a.m.

Holland planned to double-team Bismarck with Hood and Prince of Wales while the two cruisers kept Prinz Eugen occupied, but he made several mistakes.

He could have waited across the path of the approaching Germans, presenting Hood’s eight big guns and the 10 from Prince of Wales broadside to the enemy’s bow. Instead, he charged ahead on an intercept course. Thus, only the guns in his forward turrets could be brought to bear, reducing his firepower by half. It was further diminished when one of the problem guns on Prince of Wales stopped working altogether.

Holland initially targeted his biggest guns on the leading German ship, which he mistakenly believed to be Bismarck. Meanwhile, Lütjens ordered a hard turn to port and brought his ships around to fire broadside on the British.

British pilot Dennis Briggs spotted the German battleship Bismarck west of Brest, France, and alerted the Royal Navy. Imperial War Museum


The engagement began at 5:52 a.m. and rapidly closed to a range of 10 miles. The lofted ballistic trajectory of the shells from Bismarck brought them crashing almost straight down on Hood. Four minutes into the battle, a shot from Bismarck struck at the most vulnerable point, between the funnels where the armor plating was only three inches thick. It punched through several decks and into a magazine, setting off hundreds of tons of high-explosive shells.

The flames rose upward for a thousand feet and when they subsided, Hood broke into two parts and sank. Of the crew of 1,421, only three were picked up alive. Admiral Holland was not among them.

Loss of Hood was a devastating blow to the British. The news enraged the nation, and especially the Royal Navy, which called in all of the assets it could—battleships, battle cruisers, aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers—to find and destroy Bismarck. Ocean liners, merchant ships, and one convoy carrying troops to the Middle East were abandoned as their escorts rushed to the North Atlantic.

Unknown to the British, three shells from Prince of Wales had hit and damaged Bismarck, finding gaps in the defensive armor, exploding among the oil tanks, and blowing a hole in the side of the ship. Some of the oil was contaminated with water, making it useless for fuel, and some was leaking out into the sea.

There was no real danger Bismarck would run out of fuel, but its flexibility was limited by a reduction in speed and other measures taken to conserve oil. The declination to refuel in Norway had come back to haunt Lütjens.

Lütjens decided to head for the nearest dry dock at Saint-Nazaire on the French coast to make repairs. He sent Prinz Eugen southward alone under covering fire from Bismarck to carry on the mission against the convoys. Bismarck headed south as well, then circled around and took up a course toward France.

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At 3 a.m. on May 25, the British lost contact with Bismarck. The cruisers were shadowing the battleship but when Suffolk began a zig-zag movement, Bismarck suddenly increased speed, looped astern of them, and was gone.

Lütjens, unaware that the British had lost track of him, broke radio silence at 9:30 a.m. with a series of coded reports to Germany. Radio direction-finding stations in Britain and Ireland intercepted his signals, determined his position, and sent the bearings to Tovey’s navigation officer on King George V.

Unfortunately, the navigation officer made an error in plotting. Tovey changed course and headed at full speed in the wrong direction.

Lütjens was almost out of reach. By nightfall on May 26 he would be within protective range of the Luftwaffe. By the next morning, he would be in safe waters. At 10:25 a.m. on May 26, a Catalina flying boat spotted Bismarck from the air, 31 hours after the British had lost contact.

The big battleship was some 700 miles from France. The only force with any hope of stopping her were the open-cockpit Swordfish torpedo bombers on Ark Royal. The Swordfish was an old-fashioned biplane that seldom flew faster than 100 mph when carrying ordnance. It has been described as an “ungainly array of struts, wires, and fabric-covered tubing,” but it was what the Royal Navy had.

The first Swordfish attempt, launched at 3 p.m. on May 26, nearly led to disaster. The aviators mistook the light cruiser Sheffield for the enemy. Their confused attack luckily failed, mainly because faulty magnetic detonators on the torpedoes did not work properly. The Swordfish refueled and rearmed, this time with more reliable contact detonators.

At 7:10 p.m., they launched again, 15 aircraft in three flights. Winds were blowing at near gale force, and the waves were surging 25 to 40 feet high. The deck was pitching violently as the Swordfish took off and the clouds were too thick for them to hold formation. The first two flights struck Bismarck without inflicting any serious damage.

All the British had available for their last-ditch attack were obsolete Swordfish biplanes. Here, a Swordfish returns to HMS Ark Royal after making a torpedo attack on Bismarck. Imperial War Museum


The last flight of five Swordfish attacked at 9:05 p.m., dropping their torpedoes from an altitude of about 50 feet and leading Bismarck by a standard two ship-lengths with their aim. If Lindemann had simply held his course, the torpedoes would have hit the 12½-inch armor belt amidships and done no harm.

Instead, he took an evasive maneuver—turning hard to port. The critical torpedo hit the ship in the stern, jamming the rudder at 12 degrees and putting the ship into a continuous counterclockwise turn. The rudder would not budge, and the crew was unable to cut it free with underwater saws.

No Swordfish were lost in the attack, though the German gunners hit them well enough. One aircraft had 175 holes in it from the flak, but most of the antiaircraft rounds passed through the flimsy canvas structure without detonating. There is no certainty about which Swordfish made the crippling shot, but Sub-Lieutenant J. W. C. Moffatt is usually credited.

As Bismarck steamed helplessly around in a circle, the British fleet, including the battleships King George V and Rodney and the battle cruiser Renown, arrived on the morning of May 27. They opened fire at 8:47 a.m. from 12 miles away, quickly closed to two miles and finally to 3,000 meters, at which range the big guns readily penetrated Bismarck’s vertical armor.

Lütjens and Lindemannn were killed, most likely by fire from Rodney around 9 a.m. Bismarck’s guns were silenced by 9:30 a.m., and by 10 o’clock the ship was blazing fiercely. The Germans, fearing that the wreckage would be towed to Britain and displayed as a trophy, opened the sea valves and exploded scuttling charges. Bismarck sank at 10:40 a.m. Of the initial crew of 2,400, only 118 survived.

In his memoirs, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill emphasized the battleships and the cruisers in his account of the Bismarck but acknowledged that it was the “seaborne aircraft who struck the decisive blows.”


Prinz Eugen arrived in France June 1, having encountered no British warships on its patrol to the south—but having found no convoys either—as all of them had been diverted away from that area. The Germans, shaken by the loss of Bismarck, did not again use their battleships and cruisers in the campaign against the British supply lifeline.

Shipping losses to U-boats peaked in 1942, then declined sharply as Allied anti-submarine capabilities improved. U-boat activity in the North Atlantic was effectively over by 1943.

During the buildup between June 1943 and June 1944 for the D-Day invasion of Europe, thousands of supply ships crossed the ocean. The Germans managed to sink only 92 of them.

When Bismarck’s run ended, it had been in service for 277 days. Counting from the time of its departure from the mooring at Gotenhafen Roads on May 18, its single combat operation had lasted for 215 hours. That was enough to establish it as the greatest chase in naval history.

The story is best known in the United States from the 1960 movie “Sink the Bismarck!” and the song by Johnny Horton—which became something of a minor popular classic—that was associated with the movie, although not part of the actual soundtrack.

In 1989, an exploration found the remains of Bismarck at rest on the ocean floor, three miles below the surface and 400 miles from the coast of France.


John Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent article, “The Shadow War in Cambodia,” appeared in the January issue.