23-27 May 1941

There were very few naval battles in the European theatre of the Second World War. The German navy proved too small and the Italian navy too unprepared for naval war. The Royal Navy was overwhelmingly more powerful than the navies of the European Axis states. Yet, remarkably, the small German force did pose a challenge. Alongside aircraft and submarines, the German navy had a number of major vessels designed as merchant raiders. Their task was to support the blockade of Britain by sinking poorly armed and poorly protected merchant convoys in the Atlantic Ocean. The most famous of them was the German battleship Bismarck.

A Fairey Swordfish biplane flies at an air show in Duxford, England in 2010. The slow-moving aircraft was a key element in the Royal Navy’s air arm during the Second World War. Armed with a torpedo, one Swordfish proved enough to cripple the German battleship Bismarck.

Launched in Hamburg in February 1939, Bismarck was the pride of the new German fleet. In spring 1941, the naval commander-in-chief, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, planned to send his small high-seas squadron out into the Atlantic to contribute to the air and sea blockade that was threatening to undermine Britain’s war effort. It was a gamble. Bismarck was to have been accompanied by the new battleship Tirpitz, but it was still undergoing trials; the large battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were undergoing repair. In the end, Bismarck sailed for the ocean on 18 May 1941, accompanied only by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The commander of the force, Vice Admiral Günther Lütjens, was dubious about the possibility of success – and was no enthusiast for Hiter – but he understood the penalty for protesting.

Lütjens was right to be cautious. His departure had been revealed to the Royal Navy by Ultra decrypts and by agents in Norway and Sweden. A reconnaissance Spitfire soon spotted the battleship off the Norwegian coast at Bergen. A British heavy cruiser, HMS Norfolk, finally made radar contact on 23 May in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. The British ship shadowed Bismarck until heavier Royal Navy vessels arrived the following day. The new battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Hood, commanded by Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, prepared to engage. It was, on paper, an even contest, but Bismarck’s gunners were well trained. Soon after firing began at 6 a.m., an accurate shell detonated the ammunition store on Hood. The ship blew up at once and within three minutes had sunk, taking down all but three of the 1,418 men on board. Prince of Wales was damaged too, but Lütjens refused to pursue it since his orders were to avoid engagement with major enemy vessels. Bismarck had also sustained some damage: the forward radar was knocked out and the fuel tanks damaged. Forced to sail at 20 knots, the battleship made for port at Saint-Nazaire on the French west coast to undertake essential repairs.

The battleship Bismarck, seen here at the launching ceremony in Hamburg in Hitler’s presence on 14 February 1939, was the pride of the new German navy. As Germany’s largest warship, the 41,000-ton vessel was expected to play a key role in interrupting trade to the British Isles in the event of war.

Smaller British vessels tried to shadow Bismarck but contact was lost after the German ship took evasive action. It now seemed very likely that Bismarck would escape. Within hours there would be long-distance German air cover from France and the support of German destroyers. Then, against the advice of his staff, Lütjens inexplicably sent a half-hour radio message to shore. This was long enough for the British to intercept the transmission and to fix the ship’s new position, but the British battleship King George V miscalculated the route and lost contact. By chance a Catalina flying boat of the RAF Coastal Command found Bismarck on the evening of 26 May, steaming off the Irish coast and within striking distance of safety in France. The only prospect left for stopping Bismarck’s escape was a lucky air strike. It happened that the Royal Navy aircraft carrier Ark Royal had made its way north from the Mediterranean on hearing of the German threat. The carrier was close enough to be able to send its Fairey Swordfish bi-planes, armed with Britain’s only effective aerial torpedo. The aircraft looked old-fashioned by the standards of recent air combat, but it could operate well enough where there was no air opposition. One of the aircraft found and attacked the German battleship at 9 p.m., shortly before dusk. The Bismarck’s rudder and steering mechanism were damaged and the battleship shuddered to a crawl.

The hit was made in the nick of time, but it was enough. The following morning King George V and the battleship Rodney moved in for the kill. This time the battle was anything but even. Hit after hit rocked the German ship, then at 9 a.m. the bridge was hit and the command wiped out. At approximately 10.30 a.m. the destroyer HMS Dorsetshire sent three torpedoes towards the stricken vessel. At 10.39 the Bismarck sank, with 1,900 out of its 2,000 crew drowned. Recent exploration of the wreck, taken with testimony of the survivors, has raised the possibility that the ship was scuttled at the last moment, rather than despatched by Royal Navy torpedoes. The exact truth of those last few moments may never be known with certainty.

The Bismarck might well have survived to fight another day, though even after repairs, the risk of trying to penetrate into the Atlantic was considerable. In the end, everything was owed to the luck of one Fleet Air Arm aircraft finding the ship at the last moment and, in fading light, inflicting sufficient damage to prevent its escape. The destruction of the Bismarck also highlighted an important truth about naval warfare. After thousands of years, the ship’s dominant position in battle was effectively ended by the advent of air power. Without effective air protection, naval vessels became sitting ducks. Prince of Wales escaped because the Germans had no aircraft carriers, but six months later it was sunk in a matter of minutes by Japanese naval bombers in the South China Sea. Air power did not have it all its own way – the carrier Ark Royal was crippled by a submarine a few months later and sank on its way to Gibraltar – but the tide had turned. Bismarck may have been stopped in the nick of time, but time was running out for old-fashioned battleships.