The Bismarck: the end of Battleships with WW II Air Power

On this day in 1941, The Schlachtschiff KMS Bismarck, pride of the Kriegsmarine, is sunk by the combined effects of shellfire, torpedo hits and deliberate scuttling. The killer blow was delivered by British aircraft launched from the HMS Ark Royal. Though a state-of-the-art vessel when she slid down the ways at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, battleships would prove morbidly obsolete with the advent of air power in WW2.

Bismarck displaced 41,700 tons as built and 50,300 tons fully loaded, with an overall length of 823 feet, a beam of 118 feet and a maximum draft of 32 feet. She was Germany’s largest warship, and displaced more than any other European battleship, with the exception of HMS Vanguard, commissioned after the end of hostilities. Bismarck was powered by three Blohm & Voss geared steam turbines and twelve oil-fired Wagner superheated boilers, which developed a total of 148,116 shaft horsepower and yielded a maximum speed of 30 knots.

The ship had a cruising range of 8,870 nautical miles at 19 knots, and was equipped with three search radar sets, mounted on the forward and stern rangefinders and foretop. Bismarck boasted eight 15 inch guns arranged in four twin gun turrets: two super-firing turrets forward–“Anton” and “Bruno”–and two aft—-“Caesar” and “Dora.” Her smaller armaments included twelve 5.9 inch guns, sixteen 4.1 inch guns and twelve 0.79 inch anti-aircraft guns; the main armored belt was 12 inches thick.

In the course of the warship’s eight-month career under its sole commanding officer, Captain Ernst Lindemann, Bismarck conducted only one offensive operation, lasting eight days in May 1941, codenamed Rheinübung. The ship, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, was to break into the Atlantic Ocean and raid Allied shipping from North America to Great Britain. The two ships were quickly detected several times off Scandinavia, and British naval units were deployed to block their route.

At the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the iconic battle cruiser HMS Hood initially engaged Prinz Eugen, probably by mistake, while HMS Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck. In the ensuing battle the Hood was destroyed in 15 minutes by the combined fire of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, taking down 1,415 hands with her. The damaged Prince of Wales was forced to retreat in her own smokescreen, and Bismarck suffered sufficient damage from three hits to force an end to the raiding mission, setting a course for refitting at the French port of Brest.

The destruction of Hood spurred a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy involving dozens of warships. Two days later, steaming for occupied France and her needed repairs, Bismarck was attacked by 16 obsolescent Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; one scored a hit that rendered the battleship’s steering gear inoperable. In her final battle the following morning, the already-crippled and cornered Bismarck was severely damaged during a sustained engagement with two British battleships and two heavy cruisers, was scuttled by her crew, and sank with 2,200 hands still aboard.

The loss of the Bismarck was a shattering blow for the Kriegsmarine. Although a number of powerful German warships remained afloat, among them the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz, the navy began shifting its strategy, putting a heavier emphasis on its U-boats to carry the sea war to the British. As the Brits, Yanks, Soviets and Japanese continued to lose their battle wagons, the writing was on the bulkhead; dreadnoughts were dead.

When it was over, Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander of the British Home Fleet, respectfully opined, “The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds, worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colors still flying.”

And here endeth the lesson.