Key point: The Bismarck was a technological wonder, but that didn't save it from destruction.
In 1960 Twentieth Century Fox released the film Sink the Bismarck! Based on C.S. Forrester’s bestselling book The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck, the documentary-style film tells a gripping and reasonably factual account of the most famous sea chase in history.
In an early scene, German Fleet Admiral Günther Lütjens addresses the crew of the battleship as they head out to the Atlantic. With the typically bellicose posturing usually portrayed in American war films, Lütjens proclaims, “Officers and men of the Bismarck! This is the fleet commander. I can now tell you that we are going out into the North Atlantic to attack the British convoys. We are going to sink their ships until they no longer dare to let them sail! It is true we are only two ships [Bismarck was sailing with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen]. But the world has never seen such ships! We are sailing in the largest, the most powerful battleship afloat, superior to anything in the British Navy! We are faster, we are unsinkable!”
From that point on, the viewer is left with little doubt of the German warship’s invincibility and power. Yet this is not true. Bear in mind that the movie was made in 1959, a full 18 years after the Bismarck had been sunk. This has become the Bismarck legend. But most legends have no more validity than what one accepts at face value.
Like many other historical icons, Bismarck’s power has been greatly magnified and distorted. What was once believe about Bismarck is pure fiction. In fact, rather than the most powerful battleship in the world, she was actually among the ranks of less heavily armed capital warships in 1941. True, her engineering and fire control, engines and gunnery were superb. But those factors alone do not warrant top billing.
The development of heavy warships since 1906 when HMS Dreadnought, the first all big gun ship, was launched was a steady climb in size and power. But it was most often a constant duel between size, weight of armor, speed, and gun caliber.
During World War I, the old tactic of battleships steaming in parallel lines battering away at one another ended with the epic Battle of Jutland. In four separate encounters on May 31, 1916, two huge fleets met off Danish Jutland in the North Sea. When it was over, three British battlecruisers had blown up, but the main force of the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet had suffered little crippling damage. Even when the biggest guns were employed, it was armor protection that mattered most. Unfortunately, some naval design experts had yet to grasp this fact.
All Jutland proved was that the old way of ending wars with battleships was over.
When the Third Reich dawned in 1933, Germany had already begun a massive shipbuilding program. Destroyers, cruisers and, most effectively, U-boats were constructed in great numbers, but the queens of the sea would still be the mighty battleships. Senior Kriegsmarine officers believed they could be far more effective at hitting and sinking convoys, the lifeline of the United Kingdom, than in dangerous ship-to-ship duels.
Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, first commissioned the building of three Deutschland-class cruisers, Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee. While officially heavy cruisers, they were euphemistically called “pocket battleships.” Each “panzerschiff,” or armored ship, carried six 11-inch guns in two turrets as its main armament.
Three 14,500-ton Admiral Hipper-class cruisers, Hipper, Blucher, and Prinz Eugen, each carried eight 8-inch guns in four turrets. Formidable in themselves, they were soon superseded.
The powerful 32,000-ton Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were launched in 1936. They each carried nine 11-inch guns in three turrets. A certain hazy sense of purpose surrounds these two ships. They were referred to at various times as battlecruisers, heavy cruisers, and even battleships. Since the battlecruisers were traditionally meant to act as fast scouts rather than capital ships, this betrays an uncertainty in the Kriegsmarine as to what their role was meant to be.
Not so for Bismarck, laid down in 1936 and launched at the Blohm & Voss Shipyard near Hamburg on St. Valentine’s Day, 1939. A beaming Hitler attended the ceremonies.
The new battleship was to be armed with eight 15-inch guns in four turrets and a dozen 5.9-inch rifles in six turrets. At 42,000 tons and protected by 13 inches of armor, Bismarck was the biggest warship ever built in Germany. With both radar and advanced fire control systems to aim her guns, she was capable of doing great damage to other warships and totally destroying any unarmored merchant ship with ease.
The Royal Navy watched her progress with trepidation. When war broke out the primary targets of the German warships were the Atlantic convoys that provided Britain with vital supplies of food and raw materials. They carried munitions, planes, tanks, food, supplies, and troops to Great Britain’s armies. If the vulnerable transports and tankers could be sunk, it was only a matter of time before Britain would fall.
However, Bismarck was not feared for her firepower alone. The British Admiralty worried over what she could do to convoys, Britain’s lifeline. The Royal Navy needed to stop her.
In the spring of 1941, Bismarck was undergoing sea trials in the Baltic Sea. When she and her consort, the Prinz Eugen, finally left the Baltic and Norwegian waters to head out to the Atlantic, the fate of Great Britain was uncertain. Already Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had sunk 22 ships totaling 115,000 tons. And they had nowhere near Bismarck’s firepower.
In May, 16 convoys were out in the Atlantic, headed for the Mediterranean or the British Isles. Even with Royal Navy destroyers, cruisers, and battleships providing escort, they were all vulnerable to Bismarck’s huge guns.
Bismarck was the all-consuming obsession of the British Admiralty. For six days, through good and bad weather, good luck and tragedy, two fleets and nearly a dozen individual warships tried to find, engage, and sink the German behemoth.
On May 24, the pride of the Royal Navy, the huge battlecruiser HMS Hood, met up with Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. When Hood and the terror of the seas met for the first and last time it really came down to the two biggest kids on the block slugging it out to see who was toughest. One was an old fighter with a heavier punch but a shorter reach, while the other was a young boxer who could hit faster.
Less than 10 minutes after they opened fire on each other, the mighty Hood received a hit that pierced her main ammunition magazines and exploded in a massive detonation that killed all but three of her 1,400 crewmen. What really mattered was not the size of the guns. It was range, armor protection, and accuracy. Hood and Bismarck carried almost identical main armament.
Hood’s loss was a deep blow to Great Britain, and it only served to steel British resolve. To the rest of the world watching the sea drama unfolding it seemed to prove that Bismarck was invincible. Sinking the Hood was a propaganda bonanza for the Third Reich. Avenging the Hood was a rallying cry for the British nation. Neither side could back down.
The Royal Navy scraped together every available ship, and in the end, by the sheerest luck and steadfast determination, two Royal Navy battleships finally turned Bismarck into a flaming wreck.
For more than 70 years Bismarck’s superiority has been taken for granted. The 1960 film added to the legend, and in time it was taken as fact. But how did it start? Who was the first to make the statement that Bismarck was incomparable? Careful research among German and British archives from the Imperial War Museum and the Naval Historical Center reveals not a single public pre-1941 proclamation of Bismarck as “the most powerful and/or biggest” battleship in the world. Not even the Nazi War Ministry or the Propaganda Ministry seems to have made such a claim. Josef Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, certainly the master of deceit and spin control, would have been the logical one to say it, but he was too smart. Any naval expert would have challenged a boast of Bismarck’s strength, and the Third Reich would have lost face.
The closest to such a claim was during her launching at the port of Kiel. Hitler proudly stated that Bismarck and her sister Tirpitz were the “most powerful warships ever built in Germany.” That too is not fully accurate. Back in 1916 during the height of the Great War, SMS Bayern was launched. She was the first of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s new superdreadnoughts. She carried no less than eight 15-inch guns, the same as Bismarck would carry 23 years later. Hitler seems to have forgotten this minor point.
The most the Germans could honestly say, if such a word would ever be recognized by the German Propaganda Ministry, is that Bismarck was the newest and most advanced warship in the world. After a careful study of the major warships of the time, it appears the mighty Bismarck’s bark was worse than its bite.