German Battleship Bismarck – A brief history

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The German Battleship Bismarck was the largest ship of the German Kriegsmarine during the ’40s. It was one of the last great battleships before aircraft carriers and U-boats eclipsed them. At more than 50,000 tons it also eclipsed any battleships that Britain’s Royal Navy had at their disposal. She was named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Construction of the ship began during the 1930s. It was constructed in the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, and was complete in time for the outbreak of hostilities. In 1940, the Bismarck was ready for combat after numerous sea trials in Kiel Bay.

The Bismarck had a formidable assortment of guns. These included 8 x 5 inch, 12.9 x 5.9 inch and 16 X 4.9-inch guns. In addition to this, the battleship had tough armor and a speed of some 29 knots that made the ship hard to catch.

The high command of the German navy remained divided as to whether they should rely just on U-boats, or also engage in further surface fleet action. The sinking of the Graf Spee had highlighted the drawbacks of surface fleet battles, but the Bismarck now provided Germany with an altogether greater battleship. With its armament and assortment of guns the Bismarck revived Plan Z, which outlined German surface fleet naval and action.

German Battleship 'Bismarck' brought into service (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

German Battleship ‘Bismarck’ brought into service (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

Colorized image of the Schlachtschiff Bismarck. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

Colorized image of the Schlachtschiff Bismarck. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

In 1941, the Bismarck left its harbor to begin Operation Rheinübung, along with the Prinz Eugen cruiser which provided additional support for the operation. This operation targeted British merchant shipping, and was essentially a convoy raid on Allied merchant ships. Sinking the Bismarck became a top priority for the Royal Navy after the Admiralty became informed of the battleship’s presence in the Kattegat approaching the North Sea.

As such, the Royal Navy deployed two battleships to locate and pursue the Bismarck. These were the Prince of Wales and the Hood battleships. Their mission was to sink the Bismarck.

The Bismarck continued sailing into the Denmark Straight before the Hood and Prince of Wales located it. The Battle of the Denmark Strait in May, 1941 was a victory for the Bismarck which perfectly highlighted how effective this battleship could be. During this battle, the Bismarck set the Hood ablaze and sank it. The Hood had been one of the Royal Navy’s largest warships until the Bismarck had eclipsed it, and now Germany’s battleship had sunk it. In addition to this, the Prince of Wales was also hit; but managed to remain afloat and withdrew.

The sinking German battleship Bismarck on fire in the distance, surrounded by shell splashes. The photo was taken from one of the Royal Navy warships chasing. (Credits: IWM)

The sinking German battleship Bismarck on fire in the distance, surrounded by shell splashes. The photo was taken from one of the Royal Navy warships chasing. (Credits: IWM)

After this battle the Royal Navy sent reinforcements. Aircraft carriers were sent to locate the Bismarck, and spotted it heading for the Biscay Ports. The Royal Navy sent a sortie of Swordfish torpedo bombers to bomb the Bismarck, and one torpedo jammed the rudders of the Bismarck. Without effective rudders the battleship had become a sitting duck for the increasing Royal Navy presence heading towards it.

As such, on 27 May the Royal Navy battleships intercepted the Bismarck and opened fire. Under heavy fire, the battleship’s gun turrets were taken out. Torpedoes did the rest and sank the Bismarck. Out of a crew of over 2,200 seamen, only 114 survived.

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About Author

Matthew is the author of the book Battles of the Pacific War 1941 - 1945. This is a book that covers nine of the largest land and naval battles in the Pacific Theater.

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