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Bismarck, launched in 1939, was a German Bismarck Class battleship named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and built for Nazi Germany’s navy, the Kriegsmarine. Bismarck had a sister ship Tirpitz, and the two of them were the largest battleships that Germany ever built. Commanded by Captain Ernst Lindemann, Bismarck came into service during WW2, but had a short career.


After being heavily pursued in the Atlantic Ocean by a major force of British warships and torpedo laden aircraft, Bismarck was sunk by a combination of British firepower and German scuttling charges. In 1989 the wreck of Bismarck was discovered to be in the Atlantic Ocean, four hundred miles west of Brest, France.

Why was Bismarck built?
A new battleship was required to replace SMS Hannover, a pre-dreadnought battleship launched in 1905. The name that was initially used for the new ship when it was ordered, under Contract F', was Ersatz Hannover, which translates as Hannover replacement.

Where was Bismarck built?
The contract to build Bismarck was won by the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and her keel was laid down on July 1, 1936.

The Launch of Bismarck
Bismarck was launched on February 14, 1939, with the christening speech being made by Adolph Hitler, and the christening being carried out by the granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck, Dorothee von Lowenfeld.

How Big was Bismarck?
At the time of her launch, Bismarck was the largest of Germany’s warships and had a larger displacement (41,700 tons) than any other European battleship. Bismarck had a length of 823ft 6ins, a beam of 118ft and a draft of 32ft 6ins. Twelve superheated boilers, three Blohm and Voss geared turbines and three 3 bladed screws powered Bismarck to a top speed of 30 knots.

How Big was the Crew on Bismarck?
A standard complement of crew aboard Bismarck consisted of just over one hundred officers and approximately two thousand enlisted men. The crew was made up of twelve divisions which would each be assigned their positions. Three divisions would be assigned to the engine room, two to the anti aircraft guns, four to the main and secondary batteries, one to ammunition handling, one to cooking and carpentry, and the remaining division would be signalmen, radio operators and quartermasters.

Bismarck Armament
Eight 38cm SK C/34 guns were the backbone of Bismarck’s armament. Two turrets, Anton and Bruno, house two guns each and face forward, while a further two turrets, Caesar and Dora, faced to the rear with two guns each. Twelve 15cm SK C/28, sixteen 10.5cm SK C/33, sixteen 3.7cm SK C/30 and twelve 2cm Flak 30/38 guns made up the secondary armament. Bismarck also carried four Arado Ar 196 Floatplanes.

Bismarck Sea Trials
Bismarck commenced her sea trials on September 15, 1940, when she headed for Kiel Bay before moving on to Arcona and the Gulf of Danzig. During the trials it was discovered that steering Bismarck purely by altering the revolutions of the propeller proved to be extremely difficult, however she was very stable when it came to testing the guns. Bismarck returned to Hamburg for minor alterations when the trials were completed. Her fitting out was also completed during this visit.

Bismarck Description Leaked to the British
The sinking of a merchant ship in the Kiel Canal prevented Bismarck from reaching Kiel to begin her service. During the five week delay the Swedish naval attaché to Berlin, Captain Anders Forshell, was hosted aboard Bismarck. Forshell took a detailed description of Bismarck back to Sweden with him, which was subsequently leaked to Britain by sympathisers in the Swedish Navy.

Arrival of Bismarck in Kiel
Once the wrecked merchant ship had been removed, Bismarck made her way to Kiel, briefly grounding on the Kiel Canal’s south shore. She arrived in Kiel on March 9, 1941, where she was supplied with ammunition, fuel and other supplies. While in Kiel, Bismarck was given a coat of dazzle camouflage paint.

Hitler Tours Bismarck
On March 17, 1941, Bismarck moved on to Gotenhafen in preparation for her first operation. While moored there she visited by Adolph Hitler and Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, who were given an extensive tour of Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz.

What was Operation Rheinubung?
Operation Rheinubung, translated as Exercise Rhine, was an operation planned by the Axis Power Germany to carry out raids on Allied Powers' shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s purpose was to prevent merchant shipping from bringing supplies of food and raw materials to Britain. Tirpitz was due to join Bismarck for the operation however delays in her completion meant that Bismarck would be joined by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen instead. Operation Rheinubung was commanded by Admiral Gunther Lutjens who was stationed aboard Bismarck.

Bismarck and Operation Rheinubung
With a complement of more than 2,200, Bismarck left Gotenhafen on May 19, 1941, to take part in Operation Rheinubung with the Prinz Eugen. They were escorted by three destroyers, five minesweepers and approximately 10 aircraft. The fleet and escort were shadowed, for a while, by Sweden’s cruiser HSwMS Gotland, who transmitted their position to Sweden's naval headquarters. Britain’s naval attaché to Sweden, Captain Henry Denham, forwarded the information to the Admiralty.

Bismarck reaches Norway
When Bismarck and Prinz Eugen reached Bergen, Norway, the minesweepers left them and Bismarck was repainted ‘outboard grey’. Spitfire pilot Michael Suckling managed to photograph Bismarck and her fleet anchored at Bergen, which led to the strengthening of the Allied patrol of the Denmark Strait. Battle cruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, and their newest battleship HMS Prince of Wales, two cruisers and six destroyers now patrolled the area.

Bismarck Engages HMS Norfolk
On May 24, 1941, having realised she was being shadowed a little too closely by the British heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk, Bismarck engaged HMS Norfolk firing five salvoes. HMS Norfolk retreated behind a smoke screen and Bismarck discovered that her radar had been disabled by the concussion from the gunfire.

Bismarck at the Battle of Denmark Strait
Just before 06.00 on the morning of May 25, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were spotted by the Germans. Approaching Bismarck and Prinz Eugen head on, Hood fired first followed by Prince of Wales. While Hood engaged Prinz Eugen and Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck, both German ships concentrated their fire on HMS Hood.

Bismarck Sinks HMS Hood
Bismarck continued to fire at Hood with it’s 38cm guns while her secondary guns turned on HMS Prince of Wales. Prinz Eugen was also ordered to attack Prince of Wales. During the salvoes, at least one of Bismarck's armor piercing shells punctured Hood's armor and made it’s way to the ammunition magazine causing a huge explosion that tore HMS Hood apart and sunk her. After managing three hits on Bismarck, HMS Prince of Wales retreated badly damaged after being hit by both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

Damage to Bismarck
Two of the hits received by Bismarck led to approximately 2,000 tons of water flooding into the bow which contaminated the oil stored there, which caused a list to port of nine degrees and a trim by the bow of three degrees. The oil slick being left by Bismarck was spotted by a British Short Sunderland that reported it to Norfolk and Suffolk.

The Pursuit of Bismarck
With Bismarck now needing repairs, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen headed south towards occupied France, while the British Prime  Minister Winston Churchill issued the order to sink the Bismarck. Consequently, the Royal Navy ordered every warship in the location to join in the pursuit of Bismarck. In total 2 aircraft carriers, 6 battle cruisers and battleships, 21 destroyers and 13 cruisers were all chasing Bismarck.

British Aircraft Attack Bismarck
Around midnight the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious launched 9 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers and 6 Fairey Fulmar fighters to attack Bismarck. Although alerted to the attack, Bismarck didn’t manage to shoot down any of the aircraft, although she evaded eight of the torpedoes. The ninth torpedo struck Bismarck amidships and caused minor damage. More damage was caused to Bismarck by her evasive action, causing her speed to drop to 16 knots.

The British Lose Bismarck
Shortly after the Swordfish attack Bismarck doubled back behind Prinz Eugen into a squall, and the two ships separated, Bismarck heading east and Prinz Eugen south west. The confusion caused by this manoeuvre allowed them to get away from the British, who had lost radar contact with them. Bismarck managed to carry out a few repairs and transfer some oil from the front of the ship to the back, giving them a slightly increased speed of 20 knots. Bismarck continued on towards Brest, France.

Bismarck Relocated
Following a long message to shore from Bismarck, which the British intercepted, they wrongly deduced that Bismarck was heading for Norway. Admiral John Tovey reacted by sending the British fleet in the wrong direction for seven hours. On May 25, British code breakers decoded an order to the German Luftwaffe to provide support for Bismarck on her journey to Brest. Armed with this information, the British concentrated their search and Bismarck was spotted 790 miles north west of Brest, by a United States Navy Catalina piloted by Ensign Leonard B. Smith, and soon after by Fairey Swordfish from the carrier Ark Royal.

HMS Sheffield Mistaken for Bismarck
After returning to Ark Royal, the Swordfish were armed with torpedoes and sent after Bismarck. Unknown to them, HMS Sheffield had been order to shadow Bismarck and the Swordfish attacked Sheffield by mistake. However the torpedoes, which had been fitted with magnetic detonators, failed to work correctly and left Sheffield undamaged.

Bismarck Disabled
The Swordfish returned to Ark Royal and were rearmed with torpedoes fitted with contact detonators. Meanwhile Bismarck fired at Sheffield as fifteen Swordfish approached. Sheffield retreated and the Swordfish attacked Bismarck. Bismarck fired her main guns into the sea to cause spray that would interfere with the aircraft but was was hit by two torpedoes, one that caused minor damage amidships and a second that struck her stern near the rudder. This second hit caused the port rudder to become locked, leaving Bismarck only able to steam in a large circle.

Bismarck’s Final Battle
On the morning of May 27, the British battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V opened fire on Bismarck. Bismarck returned fire with a salvo that straddled Rodney, but her accuracy declined as the disabled ship moved unreliably in the heavy seas. In excess of 700 shells had been fired by the two British battleships causing heavy damage to Bismarck, who was on fire and listing at twenty degrees. HMS Rodney fired two torpedoes and claimed a hit.

The Sinking of Bismarck
The crew of Bismarck were believed to have opened sea cocks and set scuttling charges as they were ordered to abandon ship. The British Cruiser HMS Dorsetshire was ordered to sink the Bismarck so fired torpedoes into her starboard side and then her port side. Bismarck sank at 10.40 on May 27, 1941.

What Happened to the Crew of the Bismarck?
Many of the crew were killed in action, particularly those who had been on deck. However those who remained alive as the scuttling charges were ignited endeavoured to leave the stricken ship. HMS Dorsetshire and the British Destroyer HMS Maori lowered ropes into the sea to pick up the estimated 800 men in the sea, however rescue attempts were abandoned after lookouts spotted what they believed to be U-boats. Dorsetshire had rescued 85 men and Maori 25. A few others were rescued later but many were drowned. Only 114 of the estimated 2,200 crew survived.

Who Sank the Bismarck?
There has been much conjecture over whether the Bismarck was sunk by the British ships or by the scuttling carried out by her crew. Discovery and inspection of the wreck on June 8, 1989, by oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard (who also located RMS Titanic), and later inspections by subsequent expeditions, led to the conclusion that whether or not she sank by scuttling, she would have sunk from her damage anyway.

Where Did Bismarck Sink?
Bismarck was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 400 miles (650km) west of Brest, France. She is laying at depth of around 15,719ft (4,791m) and is in an upright position. While sinking, Bismarck collided with an underwater volcano (extinct) causing a landslide and sliding down it. Bismarck came to rest approximately two thirds of the way down the mountain. The stern of Bismarck, which appears to have become detached where a torpedo hit, has not yet been found.

Bismarck Specifications:
Class and Type: Bismarck Class Battleship - Complement: 2,065
41,700 tons - Length: 823ft 6in (251m) - Beam: 118ft (36m) - Draft: 30ft 6in (9.3m)
148,116 shp, 12 Wagner superheated boilers - Propulsion: 3 x geared turbines, 3 x three blade screws - Speed: 30 knots - Range: 8,870 nautical miles
8 x 38cm SK C/34 - 12 x 15cm SK C/28 - 16 x 10.5cm SK C/33 - 16 x 3.7cm SK C/30 - 12 x 2cm Flak 30/38
Main Deck 4 to 4.7ins - Belt 12.6ins - Turrets 14ins
Aircraft: 4 x Arado Ar 196 floatplanes

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Published 2018

Global Anchor Limited

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By James Drake

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