The sinking German battleship Bismarck on fire in the distance, surrounded by shell splashes. The photo taken from one of the Royal Navy warships chasing.
The legend of the Bismarck, the formidable German battleship of the 1940s, has become heavily romanticized over the decades by both historians and popular media. This naval behemoth’s rise and subsequent fall is often portrayed with an epic grandeur, but such narratives tend to obscure its evident design and operational flaws.
After diving into historical records, it becomes clear that the Bismarck, though touted as a paragon of naval might, had its share of weaknesses compared to its contemporaries.
14.2.1939 Blohm & Voss in Hamburg.
Moreover, its momentary fame, punctuated by the sinking of the HMS Hood, masked its shortcomings. Ironically, during its fighting with Britain’s Royal Navy, the Bismarck was attacked at close range – precisely the kind of assault it was armored against.
Its encounters with British Swordfish torpedo bombers revealed significant defense gaps.
Bismarck’s anti-aircraft gunners struggled to target these relatively slow-moving biplanes, revealing a glaring design oversight. When faced with even slightly faster British reconnaissance aircraft, such as the Fairey Fulmars, the Bismarck’s defenses further faltered. In their desperation, Bismarck’s gunners attempted to target the waters ahead of attacking British planes, hoping to disrupt their trajectory with water splashes. This strategy proved ineffectual.
The swordfish torpedo bombers on the deck of HMS Victorious before the attack on the Bismarck.
A Swordfish being loaded with a torpedo on the deck of HMS Ark Royal.
HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal, seen from HMS Sheffield.
Further compounding the Bismarck’s problems was its inadequate protection of vital components like the steering gear. After a torpedo attack damaged her rudders, the ship’s course was uncontrollably set into a counter-clockwise circle. The design philosophy behind the Bismarck’s armor distribution was fundamentally flawed, leading to vulnerable sections below the waterline.
Moreover, the Bismarck’s propulsion system design was outdated. It had three shafts, unlike the more modern USS North Carolina which had four, allowing for better maneuverability and damage control.
Interestingly, while the Bismarck’s armament might seem robust, it was, in fact, behind the times. Instead of adopting triple-barreled turrets that became standard in the interwar period, the Bismarck utilized double-barrel cannons. This design choice not only reduced its firepower but also betrayed its World War I-era inspirations.
The battleships of the US Navy’s North Carolina class, with their larger guns and more modern design, were demonstrably superior. The Germans could have armed the Bismarck with 16-inch guns but remained loyal to their 15-inch variants.
These design shortcomings were arguably the result of constraints placed on German naval construction post-World War I by the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty severely restricted German naval capabilities, hampering its ability to innovate.
However, the Bismarck’s most significant failure wasn’t merely technological; it was operational. At the Denmark Strait, the Bismarck’s mission unraveled. The HMS Prince of Wales, despite its own challenges, landed several vital hits on the Bismarck. These attacks severely compromised the Bismarck’s seaworthiness and fuel reserves, causing it to abandon its mission.
Bismarck’s ill-fated journey ended tragically with over 2,000 sailors perishing in the waters.
Survivors of the Bismarck are rescued by british cruiser Dorsetshire.
While many blame the Royal Navy for not rescuing more of the German sailors, the presence of German U-boats in the vicinity made prolonged rescue efforts untenable. The sinking of the Bismarck serves as a stark reminder that even the most vaunted military plans and projects can become quickly undone by design flaws and strategic missteps.
Rodney firing on Bismarck, seen burning in the distance.
Written By Harry Gillespie
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Haoran Tong, Michael Ding, Tianyi Li, Adele Su Yan Teo & Ramsay Bader
Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works