Sinking of the German Battleship Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Bismarck became Germany’s most feared battleship after destroying the pride of the British Royal Navy, the Hood. The Bismarck was disabled by a torpedo bomber on May 26, 1941, and sank on the following day. The event caused a shift in naval warfare strategy, which thereafter began to recognize the value of subsurface and air assets.

Summary of Event

At the time of its completion in 1941, the Bismarck was one of the most formidable battleships of the time. Protected by heavy armor, carrying eight primary guns in four turrets, and capable of speeds of more than 30 knots (nautical miles per hour), it was designed to prey upon commerce in the open sea. The new ship was pressed into service by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder to take part in Operation Rheinübung Operation Rheinübung (Rhine exercise), whose purpose was to intercept convoys of British and American merchant ships in the North Atlantic, lure away their armed escorts, and destroy them all. The commander of the operation was Admiral Günther Lütjens, who had led the similar Operation Berlin Operation Berlin a few months earlier and who now traveled aboard the Bismarck with his staff. Bismarck (ship) [kw]Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck (May 26-27, 1941) [kw]German Battleship Bismarck, Sinking of the (May 26-27, 1941) [kw]Battleship Bismarck, Sinking of the German (May 26-27, 1941) [kw]Bismarck, Sinking of the German Battleship (May 26-27, 1941) Bismarck (ship) [g]Atlantic;May 26-27, 1941: Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck[00260] [g]Europe;May 26-27, 1941: Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck[00260] [g]North Atlantic;May 26-27, 1941: Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck[00260] [g]France;May 26-27, 1941: Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck[00260] [c]Military history;May 26-27, 1941: Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck[00260] [c]World War II;May 26-27, 1941: Sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck[00260] Coode, Trevenen Penrose Vian, Philip Tovey, Sir John Cronyn Lütjens, Günther Lindemann, Ernst Raeder, Erich

Under the command of Captain Ernst Lindemann, the Bismarck sailed from the Baltic Sea port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on Monday, May 19, 1941, and later in the day was joined by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and three destroyers. The task force encountered the Swedish cruiser Gotland in one of the narrow passages connecting the Baltic and North seas on May 20, and although Sweden’s ostensibly neutral status suggested that news of the sighting might not reach the Allies, Lütjens chose to delay his progress. Accordingly, the task force lay up the following day in fjords on the southwest coast of German-occupied Norway and only at nightfall continued its journey into open waters. At this point, the destroyers accompanying the two larger ships dropped away.

The allies were keenly aware of the Bismarck’s dangerous capabilities and made every effort to track it. Besides the sighting by the Gotland (a report of which was forwarded), a British Spitfire plane photographed the ships in the Norwegian fjords on May 21. Another flight the following day revealed that the ships were gone, but the British could not be sure where they were headed.

After assessing the situation, the commander in chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Cronyn Tovey, guessed that the German task force might round northern Iceland and proceed southward through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. Thus he ordered two of his fleet’s best ships, the battleships Hood Hood (battleship) and the Prince of Wales, Prince of Wales (battleship) to take up positions south of Iceland. The heavy cruisers Suffolk Suffolk (cruiser) and Norfolk Norfolk (cruiser) were to patrol the Denmark Strait. On the chance that the Germans might choose another route, Tovey positioned his remaining ships between Iceland and the British base of Scapa Flow in northern Scotland. This last group included the battleship King George V, King George V (battleship)[King George 05] aboard which Tovey himself traveled.

On Friday, May 23, the Bismarck and another German ship, the Prinz Eugen, Prinz Eugen (ship) were sighted by the Suffolk, which managed to radio the news to Tovey while avoiding an engagement. Early the following day, May 24, the German ships encountered the Hood and the Prince of Wales. In the ensuing exchange of fire, a shell from the Bismarck struck the Hood, setting off a conflagration and detonating its magazines. The ship sank in the space of three minutes, dooming virtually all its crew. The Prince of Wales was also hit but managed to escape.

The brief Battle of the Denmark Strait Denmark Strait, Battle of (1941) marked a significant defeat for the British fleet. Although aging and poorly armored, the Hood was nevertheless the pride of the Royal Navy, and its loss was a severe blow to British morale. As a result, the British determined to sink the Bismarck at all costs, diverting as many ships as possible to its pursuit.

As it turned out, the battle had not left the Bismarck unscathed. It had been hit by three shells from the Prince of Wales, resulting in a loss of fuel and a reduction in its top speed to 28 knots. Consequently, Lütjens decided to make for the port of Saint-Nazaire on the western coast of occupied France for repairs. The British ships shadowing it lost contact early on the morning of May 25 but were able to estimate its approximate location using radio direction finding equipment. Its precise location was reestablished the morning of Monday, May 26, when a Catalina aircraft, on loan to the Royal Air Force by the United States, sighted the Bismarck approaching the Bay of Biscay.

As Tovey’s ships were too far away to reach it before the Bismarck entered port, the task of interception was given to a flotilla of destroyers commanded by Captain Philip Vian and sailing north from the British colony of Gibraltar. Fifteen Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers launched from the carrier Ark Royal under the direction of Lieutenant-Commander Trevenen Penrose Coode attacked the Bismarck at nightfall. At least two torpedoes struck the ship, one of them jamming its rudders and leaving it unable to maneuver.

By the following morning, May 27, Tovey’s flotilla reached the area. The King George V, the Norfolk, the battleship Rodney, Rodney (battleship) and the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire Dorsetshire (cruiser) began their attack on the German ship shortly before 9:00 a.m., besieging it with 2,876 shells. An hour later, Lindemann gave the order to scuttle the Bismarck, and its sailors struggled to abandon ship. At this point most of the British ships withdrew, leaving the Dorsetshire to finish the attack with torpedoes. The Bismarck sank in heavy seas at 10:39 a.m., only a few days after beginning its first operational deployment. Of its more than 2,200 officers and crew, only 116 were rescued. Both Lütjens and Lindemann perished.


Although German chancellor Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;naval policy celebrated the completion of the Bismarck in 1941, Grand Admiral Raeder believed that Hitler undervalued the country’s surface fleet and underestimated the danger that Great Britain’s naval strength posed. Adding to his concerns was the fact that Operation Berlin Operation Berlin seemed to have had only minimal impact on the enemy. When given an opportunity to mount a similar operation that might vindicate his beliefs, Raeder rushed the Bismarck into action before it had undergone optimal sea trials and before its men had received the best possible training. In addition, Raeder and Fleet Commander Lütjens both knew that the Prinz Eugen was poorly armored and that its pairing with the larger ship was not ideal.

Yet the larger issue at stake had little to do with any shortcomings in the initial phases of Operation Rheinübung. The Bismarck’s loss, traceable to a single torpedo dropped by a slow biplane, revealed that Raeder’s overall strategy was flawed and outdated. The sinking of the Bismarck, and of the Hood before it, marked the end of the era of large—and vulnerable—battleships. Henceforth. submarines and aircraft carriers dominated naval warfare. Bismarck (ship)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bercusson, David J., and Holger H. Herwig. The Destruction of the Bismarck. New York: Overlook, 2001. Emphasizes the American role in the hunt for the Bismarck. Includes short biographies of key figures and histories of the ships involved. Illustrations, maps, extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brower, Jack. The Battleship Bismarck: Anatomy of the Ship. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005. Detailed chronology of the ship’s construction and subsequent career, followed by a short text, photographs, and an extensive series of diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhys-Jones, Graham. The Loss of the Bismarck: An Avoidable Disaster. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999. A comprehensive account of the ship’s career and an examination of the role of the German high command in its loss. Photographs, maps, detailed notes, bibliography, glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steury, Donald P. “Naval Intelligence, the Atlantic Campaign, and the Sinking of the Bismarck: A Story in the Integration of Intelligence into the Conduct of Naval Warfare.” Journal of Contemporary History 22 (1987): 209-233. Attributes the loss of the ship to British superiority in the strategic use of intelligence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winklareth, Robert J. The Bismarck Chase: New Light on a Famous Engagement. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998. Examines inconsistencies in previous accounts of the ship’s pursuit and destruction. Maps, photographs, short bibliography.

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Categories: History