Prince of Wales Escapes
After the loss of the Hood, the battle continued. Prince of Wales was about 1,000 yards astern of Hood. Seeing the flagship explode, Captain Leach ordered a hard turn to starboard to avoid the wreckage. Hood was engulfed in smoke, but the stern was still above the water. The forward section still had some momentum but was listing to port and sinking rapidly. After clearing the wreckage, Leach swung Prince of Wales back onto 260 degrees, bringing his full broadside to bear.
The turn of Prince of Wales disrupted the gunners on Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, but they soon found the range again. With the range down to 15,000 yards, the fire from both sides was finding its mark.
A 15-inch shell from Bismarck hit the bridge of Prince of Wales. Although it did not explode, it killed several key personnel, and for a short period disrupted command of the ship. Direction was transferred to the aft position. She was also hit by an 8-inch shell from Prinz Eugen, knocking out fire control of several 5.25-inch guns, and two more hits caused minor flooding. At 6:03 am, Bismarck passed the port beam of Prinz Eugen, causing that ship to temporarily cease fire. The heavy cruiser had turned away because of suspected torpedoes.
Leach did not close the range. Prince of Wales had managed to hit Bismarck three times, although no explosions had been observed. Bismarck struck back, hitting the starboard crane of Prince of Wales, causing much splinter damage. Another shell hit amidships below the rear funnel under the waterline but failed to explode. It did cause some flooding and required the ship to counter flood to maintain trim.
Leach felt his ship was taking heavy damage––it had been hit four times by Bismarck and three times by Prinz Eugen. His own ship’s main armament was still not working properly, and his crew lacked the experience to adjust for this. Believing his ship might suffer serious damage, Leach ordered Prince of Wales to withdraw behind a smoke screen at 6:05. Also, Bismarck had completed passing Prinz Eugen so that ship’s guns would soon be back in action. Whether this influenced Leach is unknown.
Admiral Lütjens was surprised to see Prince of Wales turn away, but he dismissed calls from some of his men to pursue the British ship. It was doubtful they would be able to catch her. Also, Bismarckherself had been hit. Two shells had caused minor damage. However, one 14-inch shell had struck below the waterline causing some flooding and reduction in speed. Worse, some fuel tanks had been ruptured causing the loss of several hundred tons of precious fuel oil.
Lütjens soon realized he could not continue with the mission to attack British convoys due to the loss of fuel. Prinz Eugen was therefore detached to proceed with raiding while Bismarck turned back. The battleship headed for the nearest port with a drydock big enough to take Bismarck, at St. Nazaire, France.
Sinking the Bismarck
On May 26, a British aircraft spotted the battleship and radioed her position to other warships in the area. A force of 15 Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from the carrier Ark Royal converged on Lütjens’ ship, and one torpedo damaged Bismarck’s rudder so badly that all the giant ship could do was sail helplessly in a circle.
Like a pack of lions, the chasing British battleships Rodney and King George V caught and engaged Bismarck at a range of 16,000 yards. The German gunners’ return fire was ineffective, and the helpless Bismarck was torn apart. At 10:40 am on May 27, 1941, the German battleship sank some 300 nautical miles west of Ushant, France. Only 110 of her crew of 2,222 survived the sinking. Admiral Lütjens went down with the ship.
This article By Mark Simmons originally appeared on Warfare History Network.