BATTLE OF THE DENMARK STRAIGHT

 

 GERMAN BATTLESHIP BISMARCK

 

 

 

Under the conditions imposed upon Germany by the treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War, German shipyards were forbidden to construct surface warships in excess of 10,000 tons. 

The Germans would address these limitations with profound thought and masterly skill in producing a series of fast armored heavy cruisers which would later be referred to as pocket battleships. In 1935 however the Germans secretly began construction on two formidable 51,000 ton battleships, Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz.

The extra tonnage was put to good use and both warships showed a marked superiority in speed and armor in comparison to other Naval designs of the period. This also meant that on the open seas no single battleship could match them.  

Following the successes in the Atlantic achieved by the Kreigsmarine during the winter of 1940 - 41, the German Naval high command began to formulate plans for a much more ambitious and daring operation.

The plan was to send a powerful battle group comprising the newly commissioned battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz accompanied by the heavy battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into the Atlantic to attack supply convoys bound for England.

The operation however began to fall apart almost from the outset as Scharnhorst was forced to undergo major machinery repairs and Gneisenau was seriously damaged by RAF torpedo and bomber strikes. The Tirpitz was then scratched from the operation as she had not yet completed her sea trials.

As a result the German force was greatly reduced to Bismarck and the newly commissioned light cruiser PrinzEugen. The Commander in Chief of the Kreigsmarine Grand Admiral ErichRaeder, believed it imperative to keep pressure on the hard pressed British supply convoys and decided to go forward with a revised operation. 

Raeder's battle plan was for Bismarck which mounted eight powerful 15 inch guns to engage the British escorts which would then allow the Prinz Eugen and her 8 inch batteries to attack and destroy the then unprotected merchant vessels.

In the early hours of May 21st both the Bismarck and Prince Eugen were sighted leaving Kattegat and later that same day identified in Bergen Fjord, the two German ships then entered more open waters and disappeared. 

On May 23rd while on patrol in the stretch of water between Greenland and Iceland known as the Denmark Straight, the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk sighted the two enemy ships. 

After sending an urgent enemy report, both cruisers took up safe positions just out of range of the heavier German guns and began to shadow and report the enemy's position until more powerful British ships could arrive.

The British Admiralty then dispatched orders for all British warships to converge on the southern entrance to the Denmark Straight and block Bismarck and Eugen's attempt at breaking out into the Atlantic.  

The nearest British warships capable of quickly intercepting the German's were the newly commissioned battleship Prince of Wales and the heavy battle cruiser Hood which both  immediately departed Scapa Flow and set an intercept course to engage the enemy by next morning.

All the night of the 23rd - 24th amidst driving rain, snow and attempts by the enemy to shake them off, both Norfolk and Suffolk continued to broadcast the exact position of the German battle group. As the Artic twilight grew into day smoke appeared off Norfolk's port bow, the Hood and Prince of Wales had finally arrived on the scene.

Aboard the Hood and in overall command of the British task force was Vice Admiral LancelotHolland with Captain RalphKerr in charge of the ship itself. Aboard the Prince of Wales Captain JohnLeach would command.

Aboard the Bismarck and in overall command of the German battle group was Fleet Chief Admiral GuntherLutjens with Captain ErnstLindemann in charge of the ship itself. Aboard the Prince Eugen Captain HelmuthBrinkmann would command.

On paper the balance of forces for the upcoming battle favored the British with the 44,000 ton Prince of Wales mounting ten 14inch batteries and a top speed of 28knots along with the 49,000 ton Hood armed with eight 15inch guns and a top speed of 31knots.

The German's countered with the 51,000 ton Bismarck mounting eight 15inch batteries and a top speed of 30knots along with the 19,000 ton Prince Eugen armed with eight 8inch guns and a top speed of 32.5knots.

 

BATTLESHIP HMS PRINCE OF WALES

 

 

 

Hood opened the battle at 05:52 at a distance of 12.5 miles targeting Prince Eugen with her forward turrets . Hood's first two salvo's fell just short of her foe throwing metal splinters and excess water across Eugen's deck. 

At 05:53 the Prince of Wales quickly followed suit targeting Bismarck with her forward turrets firing four salvo's in quick succession, all of which fell over and beyond Bismarck's superstructure.

At 05:55 while both British warships were performing a turning movement twenty degrees to port, at a distance of 11 miles Admiral Lutjens ordered both Bismarck and Prince Eugen to break their silence and open fire against their foremost opponent, the Hood. The first German salvo's however fell short of their target as the British ships continued to close the distance between the two battle groups.

All four warships were now in full action. At 05:56 Prince of Wales fifth salvo overshot Bismarck once again, but her sixth straddled the bow of the German battleship just above the waterline leaving a gapping hole 2 meters in diameter which allowed  two thousand tons of sea water to get into the forecastle.

At 05:57Prince Eugen scored a hit on Hood's shelter deck near the mainmast destroying her 4inch batteries which started a large fire that spread towards the second funnel with alarming speed.

 

  HEAVY BATTLE CRUISER HMS HOOD

 

 

 

At 0600 while the Hood and Prince of Wales were in the process of turning another twenty degrees to port to bring their aft turrets into action, at a distance of nine miles Bismarck let loose her fifth salvo. At least one 15inch shell struck Hood's armor belt and penetrated the ship reaching her ammunition magazines where it detonated.

Suddenly the Hood was rent in twain by an enormous explosion. A few minutes later she had vanished beneath the waves amidst a vast pall of smoke.

The entire crew of the Bismarck were awestruck by what had just unfolded before them. The Mighty Hood, for twenty years the largest warship in the world and pride of the Royal Navy, had split in two and sank in under three minutes.

This catastrophic event happened so fast that there was not even time for the Hood's crew to abandon ship. All but three of her valiant  company, more than 1,500 men including Vice Admiral Holland and Captain RalphKerr had perished.

 

BISMARCK'S FIFTH SALVO TARGETS HOOD

 

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE HOOD

 

The Prince of Wales quickly altered her course to avoid the sinking wreckage of the Hood, a move which now forced her between the sinking Battle Cruiser and the German warships, this  presented the enemy with an easy target switch.

At 06:02Bismarck's heavy guns began to punish Prince of Wales, within minutes she received four hits, one of which completely destroyed the bridge killing all present except for Captain Leach.

PrinzeEugen now entered the unequal fight scoring three additional hits on Prince of Wales now burning superstructure.

 

GERMAN HEAVY CRUISER PRINZEUGEN

 

The Prince of Wales was at a clear disadvantage, at 06:03 Captain Leach launched a smoke screen and ordered his ship to retreat from the combat zone. The British battleship did effect a fighting withdrawal firing three more salvo's with its rear turrets, all of which did not obtain any hits. 

CaptainLindemann now issued orders for Bismarck to pursue and finish off  the crippled Prince of Wales, but Admiral Lutjens intervened, arguing the original battle plan was not to engage British capital ships, but to destroy supply convoys bound for England.

Although Lindemann steadfastly protested, the Admiral superseded him. Thus the battle ended at 06:09 as the Germans fired their last salvo's at the retreating Prince of Wales.

For the British this was an incredible stroke of luck, for instead of pursuing the badly damaged Prince of Wales, the two German warships resumed their original course through the Denmark Straight and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The battle of the Denmark Straight was now at an end, In just 17 minutes the Hood had been sunk with all loss of life but three men, and the Prince of Wales had been severely mauled and forced to withdrawal from the fight.

Although the Prince Eugen suffered no hits in the engagement, Bismarck suffered damage to her bow under the waterline blocking the use of 1,000 tons of fuel oil which reduced her speed to 27knots and left a constant stream of  leaking fuel oil.

Bismarck was also down three degrees by the bow and had a nine degree list to port. Because of this the starboard propellers were at times in no contact with the water. the overall damage was not entirely serious, Bismarck maintained her fighting  capability, still possessed good speed, and had no casualties to report.

 

                                                  

BISMARK'S DAMAGED BOW TAKES ON WATER

 

For Admiral Lutjen's he could have rested content with Bismarck's resounding victory. She had destroyed one of the finest ships in the Royal Navy and crippled another, Bismarck could return to Germany with a major triumph over British sea power. Only the extreme exaltation of the Admiral or the imperious orders by which he was bound could explain the desperate decision on which he finally settled.

At 12:40Bismarck and PrinzEugen set a new course of 180 degrees due south at 24 knots. Command of the British situation now passed to Rear Admiral Walker aboard the Norfolk who choose to continue and shadow the two German warships with the Suffolk and the damaged Prince of Wales.

The sinking of the Hood caused enormous grief and sadness throughout England, the British Admiralty quickly began diverting all available warships from their original missions to join in the hunt for Bismarck. This bold decision however now left most convoys crossing the Atlantic unescorted and at the mercy of the German U-boat wolf packs.

At 6:40 on the evening of May 24th Lutjen's ordered Bismarck to turn and engage her pursuers. Bismarck opened fire on the Suffolk who quickly retired under a smoke screen, then at long range both the Bismarck and Prince of Wales once again exchanged salvo's with neither warship scoring any hits.

Sixteen minutes later the engagement was over and Bismarck turned and once again  resumed her original course.  This action was purely a diversionary maneuver to cover and make good PrinzEugen's escape, which then made off at high speed to the south and after refueling at sea reached the French port of Brest unchallenged some ten days later.

The fuel situation aboard Bismarck was now becoming serious, she had less then 3,000 tons of fuel oil available, unless her engineers could free up some of the 1,000 tons of fuel blocked under the forecastle, the ship would have to drastically reduce her speed in order to reach the French coast.

The British aircraft carrier Victorious would now enter the fight as she came within range to strike at Bismarck. Admiral Tovey knew how imperative it was to prevent the Bismarck's escape and decided the situation warranted a daring and risky night operation. At 10 p.m.  at a range of 120 miles, Victorious launched all nine of her Swordfish torpedo planes against strong head winds and driving rain.

Guided by the Norfolk's wireless,  the Swordfish caught up with Bismarck some two hours later and began their attack. The German anti aircraft fire was so intense that even the main and secondary batteries opened fire.

After skillfully avoiding the first six torpedo runs, Bismarck was suddenly hit directly under the bridge on her starboard side. The damage was minimal however as the torpedo struck at a level of the main armament belt which resisted the explosion.

Despite the heavy German anti aircraft fire not one of the obsolete Swordfish were shot down during their attack and all succeeded in landing safely aboard the Victorious at 0230 in pitch dark conditions with high winds and blinding rain showers.

After the Swordfish attack, Bismarck reduced her speed to16 knots in order to carry out repairs and reduce the pressure within the forecastle. Soon after 0300 on the 25th Lutjens saw the opportunity to break contact with his pursuers.

By taking advantage of the enemy's disposition and the darkness, Lutjens set a new course of 130 degrees southeast and ordered Bismarck's speed increased to 27 knots in a bid to reach the French coast.

The maneuver worked as Suffolk suddenly lost contact with Bismarck. The British Admiralty's hopes of preventing Bismarck's escape were dashed when at 0400 Suffolk reported '' Lost enemy contact''.

Bismarck's disappearance caused the utmost despair and anxiety within the British Admiralty back in London, all seemed as though Bismarck had escaped. However just as hopes were beginning to fade, one of two Coastal Command Catalina flying boats out of Lough Erne in Northern Ireland spotted Bismarck at 1030 on the 26th about seven hundred miles from home and steering for Brest.

After 31 tense hours since contact with Bismarck had been lost, she had been found once again. Unfortunately for the British the battleships King GeorgeV and  Rodney were 135 miles to the north and 125 miles northeast respectively and still far behind the chase. They would never prevent the German battleships escape unless her speed could be drastically reduced.

At 1450 the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal now came within range and launched her striking force of fifteen Swordfish on a attack run towards Bismarck. At 1550 they obtained radar contact with a ship and began their torpedo runs.

Unknown to the pilots the ship within their sights was not the Bismarck but in fact the British cruiser Sheffield. In a extreme stroke of luck for the British the Sheffield was not hit by one of the eleven torpedoes launched because they were fitted with faulty magnetic pistols.

At 1700 hours the Swordfish returned to the decks of the Ark Royal. Some forty minutes later Sheffield obtained a solid contact with Bismarck and skillfully held her in sight. It would be dark soon, the British knew they had one last good chance to stop or at least slow down Bismarck other wise she would escape and reach the French coast next day.

The British put every effort into this last attempt. At 1900 the same fifteen Swordfish used in the previous attack took off from Ark Royal this time with torpedoes armed with contact pistols. 

At 2047 the British found their quarry and pressed home their attack with extreme determination. By 2130 the Swordfish had completed their torpedo assault and headed for home. During the course of their attack two torpedoes had certainly hit Bismarck and possibly a third.

One or two torpedo's had struck Bismarck portside amidships while the other detonated at the stern on the starboard side. the first hits did not cause sufficient damage to Bismarck's superstructure but the second jammed both steering rudders at a twelve degree angle to port.

A shadowing aircraft later reported that Bismarck had been seen to make two complete circles and seemed to be out of control. The flooding within the stern section and other adjacent compartments meant that all repairs would have to be done underwater. Unfortunately, extremely rough seas prevented all attempts by divers to free the rudders.

AdmiralLutjens now had no illusions as to the Bismarck's fate. Shortly beforemidnight he cabled Berlin, ''Ship unable to maneuver we shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer."

The Bismarck was still four hundred miles from Brest. Strong German U-boat forces were now dispatched to Bismarck's rescue. During the night the atmosphere aboard the German warship was silent and tense, each crewman knew that by dawn the British would engage them with capital ships.

At 0843, the British battleships King GeorgeV and Rodney sighted Bismarck and closed to within 20,000 meters. At 0847 Rodney opened fire with King GeorgeV quickly  following suit. Unscathed Bismarck targeted Rodney and returned fire with her forward turrets at 0849 without recording a hit. 

At 0854 the Norfolk arrived and joined the battle quickly followed by the Dorsetshire. Bismarck was now up against two enemy battleships and two heavy cruisers with herself unable to maneuver and a top speed of only ten knots.

 

BISMARCK UNDER HEAVY FIRE

 

At 0902, the British rate of fire began to tell upon Bismarck as she was hit by several shells which struck the forecastle, foremast and destroyed the foretop rangefinder. With Bismarck's third salvo she managed to straddle the Rodney but thereafter the British weight of attack became overwhelming. 

At 0908 Bismarck's forward rangefinder along with her two forward turrets were put out of action. The aft turrets now directed four salvoes against King GeorgeV with no success. At 0913 the aft fire control cupola was struck by a shell from King GeorgeV and was destroyed.

The Bismarck's aft turrets continued the fight blindly firing against Rodney under local control, which at the same time Rodney launched six torpedoes at Bismarck of which none struck their mark.

At 0921 Bismarck's turret closest to the stern was hit and put out of action. Ten minutes later Bismarcks final main turret fired its last salvo before being destroyed.

Aboard Bismarck their remained but only a few secondary guns still in action, but these too were quickly silenced by the avalanche of British fire. Captain Lindemann now gave the order to prepare charges to scuttle and abandon the ship.

At 0940 the Rodney turned across Bismarck's bow pouring in a heavy rate of fire at a range of no more than 4,000 yards, at this point blank range it was impossible for the British to miss a shot as shell after shell tore into the Bismarck which was amazingly still afloat.

Just after 1000, Norfolk launched four torpedoes at a range of 3,600 meters in which two struck Bismarck's starboard side. At 1016  Rodney fired its last salvos hammering Bismarck one last time as the King GeorgeV short of fuel was forced to leave the scene.

The destruction aboard Bismarck was total as she lay wallowing in the heavy seas a flaming, smoking ruin, yet she still would not go under.

For the next twenty minutes the British patiently circled their stricken foe waiting for her to sink. German sailors now began jumping overboard to escape the carnage. Amidst the chaos and destruction Bismarck's mainmast was still standing with the German battle flag still flaying in the wind.

At 1036 Dorsetshire cruised in and delivered a spread of four torpedoes scoring at least  one hit. Captain Lindemann now ordered the remaining crew to abandon ship and detonated the scuttling charges.

 

BISMARCK SLIPS UNDER THE WAVES

 

At 1040, the Bismarck finally went down stern first. With her nearly 2,000 German sailors perished including the Captain and Fleet commander. Only a mere 110 survivors were later picked up and rescued by the British. This work of mercy was cut short by the appearance of German U-boat's which compelled the British to withdrawal.

In all the four British warships fired some 2,876 shells at Bismarck in which approximately 600 found their mark. For seventy four minutes the pride of the German Navy received a punishing barrage that no other warship afloat could have survived. In contrast it was a mere three days earlier that HMS Hood was destroyed and sank in only six minutes after the first German shells were fired.

 

 

 

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