Why did Germany’s epic battleship Bismarck fail so quickly? Was it inevitable that such a creation would be an immediate lightning rod for all of the Allied forces?
“The study of past sea battles, tactical employments, and ship design are relevant today as we consider a return to the great power competition similar to the 1930s. Our current investments and force design will determine victors and losers in any future sea battle. What we can learn from past errors in force design is important so as not to re-learn them in a new conflict” – USN Captain Jeff Kline, Professor of Practice, Naval War College
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Despite being the largest battleship that the Germans had ever built, the Bismarck’s failure was expected by many. The ship itself was built to manifest German greatness in the eyes of the Führer and to act as a motivational tool for the German public.
The British Royal Navy boasted the world’s greatest navy entering World War 2 and despite losing over 50,000 sailors to the Germans, had a considerable upper hand on the German navy throughout World War II. Bismarck was an attempt by Germany to try and match the greatness of the Royal Navy.
If we analyze the situation that Bismarck faced, we might find some internal reasons regarding the Germans that led to the failure of the famous battleship. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss some of the mistakes that the Germans made which ultimately sealed the fate of Bismarck.
A significant factor of the failure was that the Germans made crucial mistakes when designing the battleship.
Because the German battleship designers lacked experience, they followed outdated design philosophies that were used in battleships during World War I.
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Consequently, the design of Bismarck had inferior defensive capabilities. For example, its main belt armor was thin and installed vertically, decreasing its horizontal defensive ability. Similarly, the Bismarck’s upper and main armored decks were not strong enough, as evidenced by the lack of protection on its turrets.
Moreover, likely due to the anachronistic designs, its defenses against air combatants was subpar, leaving it open to Allied air strikes. Therefore, even with an advanced manufacturing process, the Germans were not able to produce a battleship that was powerful enough because of their outdated design.
On the other hand, the Royal Navy had only built 2 battleships, HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson, and no battlecruisers between 1918 – 1939, thus their fleet was almost all WW1 vintage.
The HMS Rodney was built in 1927, while only the HMS Prince of Wales was in any sense modern. However, the Prince of Wales was still so fresh that in fact she still had dockyard workers on board. The Royal Navy hardly possessed an elite and modern battlecruiser unit.
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In addition to the outdated design of Bismarck, the Germans had not realized that battleships were no longer the preeminent weapon.
The importance of the air force increased exponentially during World War II. On May 22nd 1941, the Royal Air Force spotted that German battleships had left the harbor.
Multiple days later on May 26th, more aircraft had found and tracked the Bismarck, something that traditional vessels would not be able to do.
During the final battle, the aircraft dealt the nail in the coffin for the mighty German vessel. The skies were now where wars were won due to wartime innovation, and the British had caught on to this trend, manufacturing two aircraft carriers to assist in the war effort and ultimately proving that they were superior to traditional approaches.
As a result, aircraft carriers would become the overlord of the sea.
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Another serious mistake was that the German military did not emphasize the importance of information security. Prior to the sinking of Bismarck, during the Rhine Exercise, the British military had already deciphered Germany’s military codes and destroyed several German replenishment oilers. This had ruined Germans’ Rhine Exercise.
Then, on May 25th 1941, after Bismarck was damaged and on its way back to the harbor, a German admiral on the ship, Johann Günther Lütjens, sent a telegram out from the ship to the military command. Even though Johann Günther Lütjens’ tactics were successful and created opportunities for Bismarck to retreat, his decision of sending this telegram was the most serious mistake he had ever made. It was so deadly that it finally led to Bismarck’s sinking and his own death.
When the admiral sent out the telegram, he was too confident that Bismarck had already escaped from the Royal Navy.
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However, the Royal Navy captured this and successfully captured Bismarck’s location. Had the admiral never sent this, the British military would have resorted to searching blindly on the sea by navy and air force for the Bismarck. Then, Bismarck may have been able to have retreated safely.
But, was retreating really an option? We must also remember that Lütjens was under orders to attack British shipping, so he wouldn’t have wanted to retreat. His signal gave his general location, but it was patrolling aircraft that located Bismarck.
Had Bismarck retreated, HMS Hood, the largest battlecruiser in the British Navy, would have been spared being sunk by the Bismarck on May 24, 1941. Hood was sunk in a matter of minutes, losing all but 3 of its 1,418 crewmembers. The legendary battle between Hood & Bismarck was chronicled in Theodore Taylor’s book, H.M.S. Hood Vs Bismark: The Battleship Battle.
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One more important mistake that the Germans made was regarding Bismarck’s fuel. At that time, Bismarck was designed with a maximum speed faster than most of the British ships. In addition, Bismarck’s fuel capacity was designed for an eight-day sailing while maintaining its maximum speed. Therefore, even if Bismarck had lost the battle, it would still have had the ability to retreat safely.
Bismarck under construction by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg, 1938
Lütjens’ signal was instrumental in helping the Royal Navy locate Bismarck, and the damage received from the Prince of Wales was significant, but it was the airstrike that damaged the screws and the rudders that was the decisively fatal blow in the end. Once Ark Royal’s aircraft (open cockpit biplanes) had hit, Bismarck needed repairs, and there was only one dock she could go to in France. The Royal Navy then had a good idea of her course and intercepted her as a result.
Moreover, after deciding to retreat, Bismarck had been sailing with high speed for three days. As a result, when it was found by the Royal Navy, there was not much left in its fuel stores. So that maintaining high-speed sailing was not possible even if the crew had been able to repair the broken rudder.
The significant factor wasn’t Bismarck’s fuel state, but the ship’s inability to maneuver, which doomed her. Ark Royal’s airstrike damaged the rudders and in the sea state it proved too difficult to steer by engines.
This left her vulnerable to Rodney and King George V and their attendant cruisers and destroyers. At the end, Rodney closed to 3000 yards (point blank range for 16 inch guns) to finish off Bismarck. ‘After the sinking, Admiral John Tovey said, “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 colours flying.”‘ (wiki) Bismarck’s great threat to the British nation was her great power.
Had she escaped into the North Atlantic she and her consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, would have been free to savage the vital convoy routes between North America and the UK.
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HMS Rodney firing on Bismarck, which can be seen burning in the distance
In fact after close observation by the explorer Robert Ballard when he found Bismarck at the bottom of the sea in 1989 it was discovered that despite being bombarded at close range Bismarck was mostly intact. “A detailed underwater survey of the wreck in 2002 showed that the sustained close-range shelling was largely ineffective in the effort to sink the ship, the many torpedoes launched at Bismarck were also almost completely ineffective, and the massive plating of the armour deck was also found to be virtually intact.” (Wiki)
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Both ships were vastly faster and vastly better armed than convoy escorts, which would have fought gallantly and died futilely defending their convoys. The scattering merchant ships themselves would have been easy prey to the battleship and her heavy cruiser attendant. U-boat henchmen lurking nearby would have completed the destruction – PQ17 is evidence enough of that.
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Small wonder then that the Royal Navy mobilised every available capital ship north of Gibraltar to deal with the menace. In addition continued to devote disproportionate levels of effort to counter Bismarck’s sister, Tirpitz until she too sunk. The British Admiralty has known since the days of Pepys that command of the sea is what kept Britain safe from invasion and was the anvil of victory over oppression in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.
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