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Bismarck Class Battleships
Model featured: KMS Bismarck
- circa May 1941 -
The KMS Bismarck was Nazi Germany's second largest warship (surpassed only by her sister ship KMS Tirpitz which was slightly longer and launched later). Commissioned on August 24th, 1940, the Bismarck had taken four years to build at the Blohm & Voss Shipyard in Hamburg. From October to November 1940 she conducted sea trials in the Baltic before sailing back to Hamburg to complete her outfitting.
In March 1941 she again left Hamburg and sailed to Gotenhafen where she took on supplies and camouflage paint was added. In mid-March she embarked the first two Arado 196 sea planes and with these conducted more trials again in the Baltic Sea. In April she got the last two Arados for her full complement of four aircraft. The ship was now fully equipped.
Given the disparity in strength between the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) and the Royal Navy, German strategy at sea during World War II was to avoid a traditional naval battle and attack Allied merchant shipping with surface raiders and submarines (U-boats).
Earlier in December 1940, German raiders Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper had put to sea. These warships, together with two other battle cruisers - the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau that sortied during the first quarter of 1941 - evaded British patrols and sank 47 Allied merchant ships. These actions disrupted British convoy defenses and severely crippled the flow of shipping across the Atlantic. The man in charge of this successful operation was Admiral Günther Lütjens. German U-boats took advantage of the confusion and sank another 138 merchant ships over the same four-month period. In an attempt to continue their successes, the Kriegsmarine planned a new operation.
Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine)
The purpose of Operation Rheinübung was to attack enemy convoys in the North Atlantic for a period of several months and sink as much enemy tonnage as possible. However it was not possible to use Scharnhorst and Gneisenau due to damage caused by British air attacks. Instead the Germans planned to use their newest heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen together with Bismarck as both ships were currently conducting sea exercises with the light cruiser Leipzig.
On May 18th, 1941, Admiral Lütjens briefed the officers of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen on his intentions. The Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were to proceed out of the Baltic Sea and head north to Bergan in German occupied Norway from where they would try to break out into the open North Atlantic using a route passing either north or south of Iceland. Then they would be beyond the range of Allied scout planes and could enjoy easy hiding and relative impunity while raiding enemy shipping.
Both the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen got underway in the early morning hours of May 19 escorted by 3 destroyers preceded by a minesweeper. By nightfall the task force reached the western end of the Baltic Sea and turned north to pass through the Great Belt (Denmark). On the following morning the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had reached the Kattegat, near Sweden. The route chosen was a more direct route but it was also a route more watched by the Allies... and not being seen was paramount to the raiders success.
On May 20th, while in the Kattegat, the German battle group was sighted by numerous Danish and Swedish fishing boats and the Swedish cruiser Gotland who quickly alerted the British so that Royal Navy patrols were increased. Additionally, the British fleet at Scapa Flow was alerted.
On May 21 the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were again sighted and this time photographed by a British Coastal Command Spitfire. On May 22 the Bismarck took the lead, heading for a course north of Iceland, and by noon was zigzagging due to enemy submarine and aircraft alerts.
On May 23, another alarm proved false when a sighting of supposed enemy ships proved to be icebergs. Having reached the ice limit, the two raiders changed course to head through the Denmark Strait and the open sea beyond. However, early that evening they were sighted yet again - this time by a British cruiser, the Suffolk, at a range of only 7 miles. A few hours later a 2nd British cruiser- the Norfolk - reached the vicinity and was spotted by the Bismarck who opened fire with five salvoes from the main battery. Although no hits were scored and the Norfolk escaped, the blast of Bismarck's forward turrets damaged her forward radar set and disabled it. Shortly afterwards the Prinz Eugen passed the Bismarck and took the lead. Meanwhile the Bismarck reversed her course and tried to engage the Suffolk - which realized the maneuver and also withdrew.
Morning of May 24th the German warships were engaged by a stronger British force - the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood. As the British squadron closed, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen concentrated their fire on the Hood. A German salvo at a range of 18,000 yards straddled the Hood and she blew up in a huge explosion. Only 3 survivors from her company of 1,419 men were rescued. The Prince of Wales, outgunned and damaged by German shell hits that followed almost immediately, wisely broke off the action and retired under a smoke screen. However, the Bismarck had also been hit by two 14-inch shells from the Prince of Wales - one of which caused a fuel leak and contaminated several oil bunkers with salt water. She was also losing some oil and her top speed reduced to 28 knots because 2,000 tons of sea water in the forecastle. Unable to contemplate continuing her mission, Bismarck turned south-east and headed for Brest in German-occupied France.
Just after dusk - in order that the German cruiser might still prey on Allied shipping in the open Atlantic - Prinz Eugen broke away to the southwest and escaped. British - and now American - naval forces continued to converge on the area with the US Coast Guard Cutter Modoc sighting the Bismarck at 11PM and, just after midnight of the 24th, a strike by nine Swordfish aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier Victorious managed to hit Bismarck with one torpedo. The damage proved minor, however, and the British prepared to launch another attack in the morning. About an hour later all Allied ships in the area lost contact with the German battleship... and she slipped away in the darkness.
On May 25th many anxious hours passed for the British as all hopes for finding Bismarck again rested on the many warships closing the area or in the long-range patrols by Coastal Command aircraft flying out of Britain and Iceland. Although the German battleship had avoided many British patrols and was only 670 miles northwest of Brest, she was still far from the safety of the Luftwaffe air cover. However, it would be difficult for the Royal Navy to catch Bismarck as the British Battle Squadron was too far to the north. Fortunately for the British, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in Force H out of Gibraltar found herself SE of Bismarck's reported location and directly in the path to Brest.
At 10:30 AM - on May 26th - a British Catalina aircraft spotted the Bismarck again. Seven hours later the cruiser Sheffield dispatched from Force H sighted the Bismarck and began shadowing her.
Following an abortive air strike that afternoon in which fourteen Swordfish mistakenly attacked (but missed) Sheffield, a second strike of fifteen Swordfish took off from Ark Royal that evening. Over the next hour or so, the British aircraft released thirteen torpedoes in a series of attacks against the German battleship. The Bismarck was hit by two (or possibly three) 18 inch Mk-XII torpedoes. One torpedo (or two) hit the port side amidships doing little damage. However, the last torpedo hit the stern in the starboard side damaging the steering gear and - as a result of this attack - both rudders were jammed at 12º to port. Bismarck's fate was sealed. Slowed to a crawl by needing to use her screws alternately in an effort to not turn back, she could no longer escape her converging pursuers.
After midnight on May 27th, one Polish and four British destroyers closed the range and made multiple torpedo attacks on Bismarck - without any hits. A few hours after dawn, the British battleships King George Vand Rodney steamed into view and - at 0847 -engaged Bismarck at a range of 16,000 yards. German return fire was inaccurate, probably owing to crew exhaustion. In succession, one after the other of Bismarck's main turrets were put out of action. As the British warships closed the range, an indeterminable number of hits from point blank range reduced her to a blazing shambles. The British cruiser Dorsetshire gave the coupe de grace - firing two 21" Mk-VII torpedoes into Bismarck's starboard side at a range of 3,280 yards and a third Mk-VII into her port side at a range of just 2,400 yards. Less than 2 hours after the battle started, the Bismarck sank (possibly actually scuttled by the crew) some 300 nautical miles west of Ushant, France. Only 115 of her crew of 2,222 men were rescued.
Bismarck's wreck was discovered June 8th, 1989 at a depth of 15,700 feet by an expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard.
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