Let’s turn to an event that has all the aspects of a Hollywood war movie, the hunt and the tragic end of the battleship Bismarck. The context : May 1941, England is alone against the Nazi ogre, France has been defeated, the United States will not go to war until December of the same year. The players: the German and British fleets, rivals since Battle of Jutland 1916, led by some of their most prestigious ships. The scenario: the Bismarck, terror of the Navy; the Hood's sacrifice, the torpedo spell, the hunt and the kill… The issues and the lessons: the survival of England, the end of the era of the great battleships. All the ingredients are there for a compelling story.
The renewal of the Kriegsmarine
The Treaty of Versailles had crushed Germany. Its fleet, which had stood up to the Royal Navy, must have suffered the humiliation of a scuttling in the English bay of Scapa Flow. Before Hitler’s arrival in 1933, the Kriegsmarine is just a small coastal navy. It was in 1935, after skilful negotiations, that Germany obtained the right to launch the construction of fast battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, armed with 280 mm guns. Within the German fleet, two options emerge: that of Admiral Reader, in favor of building a balanced fleet, and that of Doenitz who, convinced that war is near, prefers to bet on a fleet of sub sailors. The first, commander-in-chief of the navy from 1928, relied on a program until 1948, and among other things launched the construction of two aircraft carriers. But the acceleration of events forced him to revise his plans, and priority was then given to the construction of two heavy 42,000-ton battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz.
The name of the first was chosen by the Führer, and it is not by chance: it must symbolize the renewal of the german pride. Launched in 1936, she was commissioned on August 24, 1940. Monster 251 m long, 36 m wide, and equipped with four turrets, two 380 guns. She was the most modern ship of her time. , and the best balanced. It combines firepower, speed, maneuverability and protection. Only the Japanese and the Americans will do better later ...
The war launched, Reader will have to revise his plans, and his somewhat unbalanced fleet (pocket battleships, and a monster) will force him to choose a strategy: rather than the frontal attack against a much superior fleet (even aging) he will choose "racing war", that is to say the harassment of English supplies and the attack on convoys.
Duel of titans
Bismarck was ordered to leave Kiel on May 21, 1941, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The squadron is commanded by theAdmiral Lütjenscold and taciturn, a great patriot but not very fond of Nazi ideology; he shares the Bismarck bridge with Commander Lindemann, of the opposite character, but just as competent. The group's mission: to harass and destroy any enemy convoy, as long as the circumstances allow!
England has not been idle, and prepared for the "reception" of Bismarck. The Scapa Flow squadron has been reinforced and the Home Fleet has, among other things, three battleships, two heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers and twelve destroyers; she is joined by the aircraft carrier Victorious and the cruiser Repulse. Yet, even if the number is large, the value is irregular: the Repulse dates from 1917, two battleships are the very recent King George V and Prince Of Wales? destined to be the future hard core of the Navy, but not yet 100% ready. Finally, there is the Hood : this is the pride of the English navy; Dating back to 1920, she has long been the most modern ship in the world and remains the darling of the British despite her advanced age.
The Home Fleet spotted the Bismarck as it left the Norwegian fjords. Cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk are launched in pursuit by Admiral Tovey, as a small squadron of Hood, Prince Of Wales and six destroyers are ordered to ambush near Iceland. The chase is taken by the two cruisers, who exchange a few shots with the Bismarck, but above all are content not to lose it ... Meanwhile, the admiralty decides to strengthen its presence with a squadron made up of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, of the battle cruiser Renown, the cruiser Sheffield and six destroyers, who were ordered to leave Gibraltar. The threat of Bismarck is therefore taken very seriously.
Hunted by Suffolk and Norfolk, Lütjens' flotilla heads straight for Holland, commander of Hood. The harassment continued on the night of May 23 or 24, and at dawn the two titans, the Hood and the Bismarck found themselves in a fighting position! The English fire first, then the Germans, who recognized "Albion's pride" but confused Prince Of Wales with King George V. The deluge of fire lasts fourteen minutes; the English do not manage to "cross the T", to get into an ideal firing position and the Bismarck's salvos are more and more precise. The German artillerymen hit the mark on the fifth impact: several shells exploded in the middle of the old cruiser, at a distance of 18,000 m: an explosion of several hundred meters tore the unfortunate Hood, literally cut in two! Of the 1421 crew, only three will be recovered by a destroyer after the battle ... The Prince of Wales barely avoids the wreck that sinks into gray water ... He too suffered the blows of German ships and, above all , is overheating, its weaponry not yet working! Hit by seven shells, he saw his turrets break down one by one! Commander Leach, wounded, manages to order the retreat by camouflaging himself in his own smoke screen ... Bismarck gives up pursuing him and the English cruisers and destroyers were unable to approach.
Within minutes, the German ship sank the symbol of the Royal Navy and severely damaged its most recent vessel: the shock is terrible for England.
The Bismarck and the Swordfish
On the German battleship, the euphoria of victory gave way to the toll of the damage suffered. The Prinz Eugen was unharmed, but the Bismarck was hit three times by the Prince Of Wales: one of the English shells hit the hull just above the bow and 4000 t of water rushed into the boat, it lost oil and sinks in from the front: its offensive potential is therefore seriously damaged! Lütjens then decides to go to the French ports for repairs, a longer but safer route ...
In England, the turmoil over the loss of the "mighty Hood" led Churchill to mobilize the entire fleet to hunt down and "[sink] the Bismarck". Thus, the battleships Rodney, Ramillies, Revenge and the heavy cruiser London join the pack. The Norfolk and Suffolk, on the other hand, resumed the chase and did not let go of the German squadron, exchanging some fire with the Prinz Eugen. He finally manages to escape by the South, and leaves his big brother alone to face his fate.
It is time for the Royal Navy to use its advantage over the German fleet: naval aviation. Of Swordfish, old torpedo biplanes launched from the Victorious attack Bismarck like a swarm of hornets; but, the appalling weather conditions and the inexperience of the pilots have led to a failure ... relative. Indeed, if no torpedo hits its target, the battleship's maneuvers to avoid them aggravate the damage and the waterway.
From May 25, a real hide and seek begins in the middle of the North Atlantic. British planes and cruisers regularly lost and found the Bismarck, which kept changing course. On the German ship, concern mounts: the Germans now know they are being hunted by the majority of the English fleet, threatened by the Swordfish, and diminished with a lack of fuel and reduced speed.
Several times, however, the Bismarck seems to escape its hunters, and it is ultimately the Sheffield who manages to hook it up and "take its wheel". But luck still seems to smile on the Germans: Swordfish launched from the Ark Royal miss the target and almost sink… Sheffield! The English aviators, furious with themselves, decide to launch a last attack before dark. On May 26 at 7:15 p.m., the old cuckoos fly away in the middle of a raging sea; they all pass the Bismarck DCA fire barrier and drop their torpedoes ... Only two strike the target, but one will change the tide of the sea war! With only a one in a hundred thousand chance, the torpedo hits the steel monster's rudder on the starboard aft! The battleship almost capsizes, and no longer obeys movement orders: it is ungovernable! The Sheffield, always so reckless, comes out of the mist and fires a few shells without success.
But the main thing is done, the Bismarck is at the mercy of the pack. The problem is that the latter still ignores it.
The killing of Bismarck
The attack on the Swordfish and Sheffield has been misjudged by the Royal Navy; She ignores that she was a total success, and even believes that the German ship is coming to challenge them as she has changed course and is heading straight for them. Will the Bismarck be able to take advantage of this to escape anyway?
The situation on the vessel is unfortunately dramatic: no repairs are possible, the boat is not obeying any order. Lütjens then sends a message to his superiors at 11:40 pm: “Disabled ship. We will fight until the last shell. Long live the Führer! ". German submarines in the area cannot protect the Bismarck, and the Luftwaffe planes are too far away. On board, the German sailors prepare for the hell of the parish, with the only hope of causing maximum damage to their opponents ...
The English fleet, which has finally understood that the mad battleship is at its mercy, is gathering its forces. Individually, the Bismarck is superior to all English ships, but the disproportion of forces leaves no room for doubt. At 8 o'clock on May 27, the English presented to the enemy battleship: the battleships Rodney and King George V, the cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire and a few destroyers. As possible reinforcements, the planes of the Ark Royal and the Renown.
The Bismarck opened fire on Norfolk, the English battleships responded to it at 23,000 m away. The cruisers approached and fired in turn ... The German ship flanked the Rodney, but at 9 am the one-ton shells from the old battleship destroyed the two front turrets of the Bismarck, reducing its firing capacity by 50%! The distance passes in a few minutes from 15000 to 3000 meters; the Bismarck suffered a hail of steel of all calibers and coming from four directions, without trying to avoid it, completely adrift ... The English ships then launched torpedoes. The battleship looks like nothing more than a jagged wreckage, but it is hell on board where the men, the armor of the superstructures completely destroyed, are at the mercy of the shrapnel and seek in vain for shelter under the flood. of fire…
At 10:15 am, the Rodney and the King George V ceased fire. They are relayed by the destroyers who want to carry thestroke with their torpedoes. But the German monster does not want to sink! Torpedoes fail to pierce the armor of her hull! On board, at the same time, the few survivors refuse to let their boat fall into the hands of the enemy, and decide to scuttle it. At around 11 a.m., the Bismarck lay down on the port side and sank aft before slowly disappearing into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.
Time of the Gray Wolves
Dorsetshire is responsible for recovering the survivors: out of 2,200 men, only 115 survived! The English ships suffered little direct damage, but the battleships went so far as to overheat! The Rodney suffered structural deformations because of its excessive rate of fire, the King George V experienced the same inconveniences as its brother the Prince Of Wales ...
The destruction of symbol ship Nazi Germany, following that of its British counterpart the Hood, spells the end of the golden age of battleships. From now on, the English navy, but especially the Japanese and American navies, will turn their naval doctrine towards the use of aircraft carriers, opening a new era in maritime warfare. As for Germany, unable to catch up in this area, it will choose the strategy of its new admiral, Doenitz, and will launch in the Atlantic its pack of Gray Wolves: the U-Boats.
- P. Bois, The end of Bismarck, Socomer, 1990.
- The hunt for Bismarck, by François-Emmanuel Brezet. Tempus, 2019.
- R.D. Ballard, The discovery of Bismarck, Glénat, 1990.
- The end of Bismarck (archive footage)