The Myth and Reality of Bismarck

The myth of the German 1940’s battleship Bismarck has been romanticized by both historians and entertainers in the past century. Indeed, the battleship’s fame and eventual doom glorified it as a tragic hero. However, this perception has overshadowed its innate inferiority to its contemporary opponents, and Rebellion Research analysts have dug deep to debunk this myth for our readers. 

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The Bismarck was an overrated ship; it was arguably the most famous battleship from World War II, despite not accomplishing much. 

The fame Bismarck received for sinking the HMS Hood and being hunted in turn have overshadowed the ship’s shortcomings. The Bismarck took a beating from the best battleships in the British navy but the warships in question were firing at close range, which was ironically the kind of attack the Bismarck’s armor was designed to withstand.

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During Bismarck’s encounters with British Swordfish torpedo bombers (single-engine biplanes affectionately known as “string bags” by their crews) Bismarck’s gunners discovered that their weapons could not turn slowly enough to accurately track the enemy planes. They even had difficulty targeting the newer Fairey Fulmars, which were slow British reconnaissance aircraft. The Bismarck’s gunners tried to compensate by shooting at the water in front of the attacking British torpedo planes in hopes of causing damage by the shell splashes or at least interfering with their aiming procedures. This failed. 

Bismarck scored no hits on the British sorties. Being unable to shoot down her attackers, she suffered a minor torpedo hit on the midship’s armor belt.

Inadequate protection of the steering gear was another issue Bismarck faced. In a second torpedo attack, Bismarck suffered a crippling hit on her aft port quarter which hopelessly locked her rudders in a 12° turn to port. Since the Bismarck-class was designed contrary to the “all-or-nothing” method, where dreadnought battleships are heavily armored in the areas deemed most important to the ship while the rest of the ship receives significantly less armor. 

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Bismarck’s armor supposedly protected the entire ship. However, the elephantine belt over her machinery and magazines had been given such a massive weight of steel– there was a quite limited amount yet available to cover her steering gear– such that though armored in principle, the maneuvering spaces were in effect unprotected below the waterline.

Insufficient ability to steer by differential shaft rotations plagued her as well. One possible solution to the dilemma faced by Bismarck after the torpedo damage to her rudders would be to use differential shaft rotations. The jammed rudders forced Bismarck into a counter-clockwise circle. Stopping or backing the starboard shafts while applying full ahead on the portside shafts theoretically could counter the yawing effect of the jammed rudders, thus enabling her to hold a course — or would if Bismarck had four turbines and four propeller shafts like her near-contemporary, USS North Carolina. However, this was not the case. Bismarck had three shafts. (see postscript) The centerline shaft could not counter the rudder deflection in any case. Nor could the sole portside shaft apply enough power to overcome the rudders and the drag of the starboard and centerline propellers. 

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Wallowing helplessly in a circle Bismarck was doomed unless a friendly ship of sufficient power took her in tow to the Port of Brest or back into the Baltic Sea. Such a rescue was frankly impossible, Bismarck chose to fight and ultimately die under the guns of the victorious Royal Navy.

The German Bismarck class battleships were essentially out-of-date ship designs that used more advanced technology. This was most apparent in their use of fewer guns than was standard at the time, thanks to their turrets only using double barrel cannons. This was a design used in World War I, but in between the wars triple barreled turrets became the standard.

The Battleship Bismarck was basically an enlarged version of the Bayern class with her main armament layout and 3 Shaft propulsion system (Bismarck being an enlarged WW1 design).

North Carolina class battleships used by the US navy not only had triple barrel turrets but also carried bigger guns. The Germans could have armed the Bismarck class with 16-inch guns, but they chose to stick to 15-inch guns that their Navy was more accustomed to.

It is evident that the Germans were behind in terms of ship construction, in part due to the Treaty of Versailles that restricted their Navy. The Bismarck class mounted a number of low angle secondaries that added some unnecessary weight. Other ships at the time used dual-purpose guns to help reduce weight.

The Bismarck was more notable for the British trying to knock it out to avenge the loss of the HMS Hood than anything else. The Iowa, KGV, Roma, and Yamato class battleships, to name a few, were superior to her in every way.

The end and failure of Bismarck’s mission were sealed at the Denmark Strait.

The German battleship Bismarck, seen from the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, shortly before the two ships parted ways after the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24th May 1941. The photograph is taken from the archives of the Prinz Eugen, with identification by her Gunnery Officer Paul S. Schmalenbach, and is, by all accounts, the second to last photo ever taken of the Bismarck. Interestingly, it shows very clearly how low the Bismarck was by her bow after the battle, as a result of the damages inflicted upon her by the battleship HMS Prince of Wales.

The brand new Prince of Wales had several technical problems that caused the persistent malfunctioning of her main batteries throughout the battle and, in all likelihood, was the main reason for its captain John Leach to eventually break off the engagement after the loss of HMS Hood. Despite these challenges, the Prince of Wales was still able to score three hits on the Bismarck, two of which were vital. One 14-inch shell went through an aircraft catapult without exploding, while the other two struck the Bismarck in the forecastle and below its armored belt, respectively. 

The forecastle hit alone allowed 1,000 to 2,000 tons of water to flood into the Bismarck, contaminating its forward fuel storage and flooding a generator room and one of the boiler rooms. 

The damage caused the Bismarck to leak a massive amount of fuel oil, with an oil carpet, considerably wider than the ship’s wake and visible for miles, following her astern. This left Bismarck with fewer than 3,000 tons of oil remaining in its bunkers. 

All attempts to repair the damages, by restoring the connection to the forward fuel tanks and counterflooding two aft compartments in order to force the ship back into a more normal position, failed. 

In the end, the Bismarck’s captain, Kapitän zür See Ernst Lindemann, managed to obtain permission from his superior, Admiral Lütjens, to slow his ship down to 22 knots. This was done in order to stuff hammocks and collision matting into the damage sites to reduce the continuing intake of seawater. 

The sum of the damages and, more importantly, the severe lack of fuel oil, left Lütjens with no other choice than to abandon his original mission of proceeding out in the Atlantic to hunt for British merchant shipping. The Admiral must have had an eerie feeling of impending doom, well aware that he was now forced to run the gauntlet past the entire Home Fleet and the RAF in his damaged ship in an attempt to reach Saint-Nazaire in France for repairs (which in the end he never did).

Painting of the Bismarck about to go under after being finished off with torpedoes from the cruiser Dorcestshire.

A sad scene to be seen in the last images of the crew of the Bismarck, despite desperate efforts by the Royal Navy, more than 2,000 sailors drowned after German submarines approached, forcing British forces to abandon the men in the water. 

Many men who were desperate to try and get on board got dragged beneath the hull of the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire that had taken part in the attack and finished Bismarck off with torpedoes and picked up the most survivors.

Written By Harry Gillespie

Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Haoran Tong, Michael Ding, Tianyi Li, Adele Su Yan Teo & Ramsay Bader