The Bismarck was the most formidable battle ship of the German fleet and displaced 40,700 tones, making it the largest battleship ever built in Europe. The Bismarck was commissioned on 14 February 1939 and had a crew complement of 103 officers and 1962 men. The OKW was keen for the ship to proceed into the Atlantic to attack British shipping. Hence operation Rheinubyng was launched with the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Hitler visited the ship on 5 may 1941 and exhorted the sailors to live up to the ideals of German valor and Nazi principles.
In May 1941 as per operation Rheinubyng, Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen broke through the British blockade and sailed out into the Atlantic on a raiding mission. The British were initially taken by surprise but soon rallied and assembled a flotilla to tackle the Bismarck. The British were keen to sink the Bismarck as they feared that in case the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, which were under repairs at Brest joined up with the Bismarck, then the effect on allied shipping, could be disastrous.
The battleship was located by HMS Suffolk, and in what is known as the battle of Denmark Strait commenced. The German raider was accosted by HMS Hood and the Prince of Wales. This was a short but fierce engagement and resulted in the pride of the British navy the Hood being hit by the shells of the Bismarck’s 8, 15 “ guns that fired with relentless accuracy. It sank inside 8 minutes with loss of 95 officers and 1,324 seamen. The Prince of Wales retreated. But the Bismarck had also received 3 hits and the commander Admiral Lutjens decided the ship must make it to home or friendly port for repair and refit.
THE RACE TO THE RESCUE
At the same time Admiral Lutjens radioed for help to U boats to secure his rear while he attempted to escape for repairs. Six U-boats answered Admiral Lutjens call and formed a shield for the Bismarck, but 2 of them were without Topedos and also low on fuel. The commander of the British fleet Admiral Tovay was well aware that even after receiving hits the Bismarck could still make 28knots per hour and that was almost the same as the British ships and thus there was every chance the Bismarck would get away. He accordingly called up the Gibraltar squadron which began to survey the sea for the Bismarck. The British flotilla consisted of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal ,cruiser HMS Renown, and the Cruisers HMS Sheffield and HMS Dorsetshire.
THE TORPEDO ATTACK
Aircraft from the British carrier located the Bismarck and launched a torpedo attack on it. The torpedoes from the planes struck the Bismarck and slowed its speed as its fuel tanks got ruptured and the ship began to take in water.
THE CRIPPLING OF THE BISMARCK
The die was now cast against the Bismarck, as a squadron of sword fish from the carrier again struck the Bismarck. This time, on 27 May one of the torpedoes hit the rudder and the Bismarck began to circle round and round in the sea. The British battleships now closed in on the Bismarck and for 3 hours bombarded the ship which despite the bombardment remained afloat. This surprised the English and the British commander again ordered a fresh salvo of torpedoes. At that time Bismarck had only one gun operational. The ship finally heaved to its side and slowly began to sink.
As per naval and maritime convention nets were cast into the sea by HMS Dorset shire and HMS Maori, to help pick up survivors. However due to rough sea few of the men could make it to the nets and only 115 survived. Several of the men who died later were given a ceremonial sea burial in the best naval tradition while a sailor played the lament: ‘Ich hatt einen kamaraden.’ (I once had a comrade). It was a sad and poignant moment for both the sailors of the Bismarck and the royal navy.
The British at that time claimed they had sunk the Bismarck while the Germans always claimed their officers had scuttled the ship to prevent it falling into the hands of the British fleet, The issue was set at rest by the great submarine explorer Dr Robert D Ballard. He had discovered the wreck of the titanic in 1985. Dr Ballard after a search spread over 200 sq miles was able to locate the wreck which was 600 miles of Brest at a depth of 15700 ft. Dr Ballard concluded that German officers had scuttled the ship.