May 27th in German History: The Sinking of the Bismarck

Bismarck | German ship | Britannica
The Bismarck.

The German battleship Bismarck was the pride of the German Navy and the terror of the Allies, or at least of the allied media. The Bismarck was the largest battleship in the world when it was built. It was built with the intent of returning the German surface fleet to a place of prominence similar to that which it held before the First World War. The Bismarck would have a short service history, however, as it was sunk on May 27th, 1941.

The Bismarck was constructed as part of Germany’s planned naval rearmament, Plan Z. She was meant to be superior in size and quality to British battleships and so would be able to threaten the numerically superior British fleet and counter the expanding French fleet. Construction began in 1936 and was completed in 1940, when she was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine. The ships were initially within the 36,000 ton limit imposed on battleships by the Washington Naval Treaty. However, like much of German rearmament, the ships violated the treaties and far exceeded that limit by the end of their construction. By 1937 that limit ceased to matter as Japan had broken it, allowing the other members to invoke the escalator clause and build ships weighing as much as 46,000 tons. The Bismarck was 251 meters long and when fully loaded displaced 50,300 tons. The ship had over 2,000 crew and was powered by advanced engines and possessed state-of-the-art radar for the time. The ship’s main armament consisted of eight 15 inch guns. These were certainly large, but smaller than the guns on many British battleships. Bismarck spent several months following her commissioning in various ports in Germany and occupied France. On May 19th, 1941, Bismarck began operation Rheinubung, a raid into the Atlantic to destroy Allied shipping. The original plan was for Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz to meet up with the two Scharnhorst class battleships, but the Tirpitz was completed too late and the two other battleships needed repairs. Thus, Bismarck ventured out with only the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen and three destroyers which would turn back on the 22nd. The Bismarck was quickly sighted after it ventured out from the Port of Gotenhafen, Norway. The British trailed the two ships with cruisers but did not engage until May 24th. At 5:45 in the morning HMS Prince of Wales, a battleship, and HMS Hood, a battlecruiser, engaged with the Bismarck. The two German ships concentrated fire on Hood, destroying her in eight minutes after a shell detonated her ammunition. The Prince of Wales sustained heavy damage but was not destroyed, and was able to hit the Bismarck several times. Following this loss, Winston Churchill ordered all British ships in the region to peruse the Bismarck. The British ships attempted to track the Bismarck down, but for nearly a week were only able to engage in a few inconclusive artillery duels. On May 26th, the Bismarck was spotted by a US Navy plane heading towards the port of Brest. The only British force in range were the planes on the HMS Ark Royale. The carrier launched two attacks comprised of Swordfish biplane bombers. Torpedoes from these bombers immobilized the Bismarck, destroying her propellers and inflicting structural damage. The British Navy was thus able to catch up to her, and on May 27th crippled the ship with naval gunfire. Captain Lindemann and his first officer were killed, but the remaining crew scuttled the ship with demolition charges. Of a crew of 2,200, only 114 were picked up by German and British ships. The rest were either killed by British gunfire or drowned.

The Bismarck, for all of its reputation, was probably in the end a poor use of resources for the German Navy. The Bismarck sunk an antiquated battlecruiser, damaged a battleship, and occupied part of the British Navy for a week. The total cost of the battleship exceeded the damage that it inflicted. Further, even if the Bismarck had inflicted an amount of damage equivalent to its cost, it would not have significantly reduced British naval power. A far better use for the resources and money that went into the construction of the Bismarck would have been the construction of more U-Boats. Such ships were far less expensive, 4 million Reischmarks compared to 200 million, and ultimately more effective at cutting off British trade. Germany would shift its priorities for naval construction towards U-Boats. However, this shift would be made too late to win the Battle of the Atlantic.

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