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Who sank the Bismarck?

Who sank the Bismarck? Moreover, the Bismarck’s sinking represented one of the greatest team efforts in British history.

But, a British team effort that started with Winston Churchill.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the order “Sink the Bismarck!” This order was as a result of the fate of HMS Hood. The British battlecruiser HMS Hood, flagship of the Home Fleet and pride of the Royal Navy, sunk after several minutes of battle with Bismarck at the Battle of Denmark Strait

According to the American journalist William L. Shirer on Hood’s sinking:

 “As the British ships veered around, a salvo from the Bismarck hit the Hood midships. Observers on both sides saw a scene they had never before looked upon at sea. Between the two funnels of the Hood there was suddenly a volcanic flame that erupted skyward for a thousand feet. Then in a second or two it burned out, and a dense cloud of smoke settled over the sea.”

Only 3 of Hood’s 1,419 men would survive. See our pieces: HMS Hood & Her Sinking By Bismarck & Battle in the Denmark Strait

Churchill would write of the sinking:

“At about seven I awakened to hear formidable news. The Hood, our largest and also our fastest capital ship, had blown up. Although somewhat lightly constructed, she carried eight 15-inch guns, and was one of our most cherished naval possessions. Her loss was a bitter grief, but knowing of all the ships that were converging towards the Bismarck I felt sure we should get her before long, unless she turned north and went home.”

Two days later. Moreover, with Bismarck almost reaching a friendly port. Fleet Air Arm Swordfish biplanes launched from the carrier HMS Ark Royal torpedoed the ship. As a result, Bismarck’s rudder jammed and she was in a helpless state. Churchill would write about HMS Ark Royal, “They carried with them, as it turned out, the Bismarck’s fate.”

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with a flight of Swordfish overhead

When Bismarck was commissioned, she was the largest warship designed by any Navy at the time. Furthermore, under Plan Z, her purpose was to be part of a fast battleship squadron for a main battle line of larger subsequent battleships. Of course Germany did not have the raw materials or infrastructure to complete the vision of Plan Z.

Bismarck numbered 103 officers, this included the ship’s surgeons and midshipmen and 1,962 petty officers and sailors. Furthermore, fleet staff, prize crews, and war correspondents would bring the number on board Bismarck to greater than 2,000.

Captain Lindemann wrote in his War Diary:

“Even though my crew, with few exceptions, has had no combat experience, I have the comforting feeling that, with this ship, I will be able to accomplish any mission assigned to me. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that, in combination with the level of training, we have for the first time in years a ship whose fighting qualities are at least a match for any enemy.”

Bismarck’s first war orders would be given by Raeder and the Chief of the Seekriegsleitung, Admiral Schniewind:

“The primary mission of this operation also is the destruction of the enemy’s shipping; enemy warships will be engaged only when primary mission makes it necessary and it can be done without excessive risk.”

The Royal Navy first began pursuing Bismarck on the 21st of May 1941. At 0800 a British agent stationed in Sweden sent the Admiralty a coded message. Apparently, the agent saw two large German warships sailing north through the strait between Sweden and Denmark the day prior.

British aerial reconnaissance of the ships would identify them as battleships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

RAF aerial reconnaissance photo showing Bismarck anchored (centre right) in Grimstadfjord, Norway

And on the 26th of May Bismarck would be spotted. As a result, one of the most famous messages in Naval history:

“…One battleship…sighted…position 49 30 north…21 50 west…steering 150 degress [roughly southeast by east]…speed…20 knots….”

The British fleet was closing in on the Bismarck. The British pack in included a number of well-known ships: Ark Royal, Renown, Sheffield, in addition, a destroyer flotilla under Captain Philip Vian.

May 27th

Churchill wrote:

“This morning shortly after daylight the Bismarck, virtually at a standstill, far from help, was attacked by the British pursuing battleships,” … “I do not know what were the results of the bombardment. It appears, however that the Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and she will now be dispatched by torpedo. It is thought that this is now proceeding, and it is also thought that there cannot be any lengthy delay in disposing of this vessel. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful, as she is the newest, battleship in the world.”

Churchill went to the House of Commons to address them on the happenings. When he sat down almost immediately an aid handed him a piece of paper and Churchill said “I have received news that the Bismarck is sunk.”

Churchill would credit HMS Dorsetshire with the final knock out blow of Bismarck:

“It was the cruiser Dorsetshire that delivered the final blow with torpedoes, and at 1040 the great ship turned over and foundered. With her perished nearly 2,000 Germans and their Fleet Commander, Admiral Lutjens. One hundred and ten survivors, exhausted but sullen, were rescued by us. The work of mercy was interrupted by the appearance of a U-boat and the British ships were compelled to withdraw.”

Who sank the Bismarck?

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