In his documentary Bismarck: The First Full Story, filmmaker James Cameron introduces us to Bismarck as follows:
“You have to imagine a ship so powerful it could bring an entire nation to its knees. For me, the Bismarck was the Death Star, it was a kind of mechanised warfare that hopefully will never exist again. It was this monstrous piece of steel that held together no matter what the British could throw at it, and when it finally sank, it became a legend with the same kind of force in the human imagination that Titanic had”.
So why would a ship that, from the time it set sail lived for only nine days, capture the attention and imaginations of so many?
Battleship Bismarck was designed as an improved version of earlier German Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and featured many of the same features. However, in line with an escalator clause added to the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935, allowing battleships of up to 45,000 tons to be accepted, Bismarck’s final design allowed for increased displacement – reaching 41,700 tons.
One of the most outstanding characteristics of the new Bismarck was its superb capability to absorb damage. A 320-mm belt backed by a 110-120 mm sloped armour deck was considered more than enough to defeat any projectile at any distance and made the battleship practically immune in close range engagements.
The new design was wider than its predecessors, to improve stability, and longer, due to the addition of a fourth battery turret. The traditional arrangement of four twin turrets was maintained with new, powerful 38 cm main guns. Secondary artillery was the same as the Scharnhorst class, however, the single turrets amidships were upgraded to twins.
On 23 October, after conducting various tests, the ship was ready to set sail at full speed. The propulsion plant originally designed to reach 138,000 hp and 29 knots actually obtained 150,170 hp and 30.1 knots, making Bismarck one of the fastest battleships in the world, and faster than any battleship in the Royal Navy.
After a further six months of preparations and sea exercises, Bismarck headed into the North Atlantic, and on 18 May 1941 Operation Rheinübung (Rhine Exercise) began. Its mission: to attack the Allied convoys crossing the ocean between the United States and Great Britain with oil, food and other supplies. Nazi leaders hoped that their “unsinkable” state-of-the-art battleship would sever the Allied lifeline and starve the British into submission.
A ferocious battle began on 24 May. From 14 miles away, Hood fired the first shots at Bismarck. Shells that screamed overhead at 2,000 miles per hour narrowly missed their marks. Bismarck opened fire against Hood, with one shell exploding, causing Hood to split in two and sink in just three minutes. All but three of the 1,421 crewmen were killed. It was the Royal Navy’s largest loss of life ever from a single vessel.
Seeking revenge for the devastating loss of Hood, British Admiral John Tovey called on all available ships in the British Home Fleet to hunt down Bismarck before it could reach the safety of the French coast.
Two days after Hood sinking, two Coastal Command Catalina flying boats set off on a reconnaissance mission, sighting Bismarck. An air strike was launched from carrier Ark Royal. Fifteen Swordfish, fitted with contact pistols, took off to attack Bismarck. Britain’s buzzing biplanes descended like gnats upon Germany’s formidable predator. The courageous pilots in the biplanes’ open cockpits flew low so Bismarck’s sailors couldn’t train their guns, and the battleship’s anti-aircraft defences had trouble with the bombers’ slow speeds. British torpedoes from the archaic bombers managed to strike the ship’s weakest point—its undefended rudders.
Bismarck was hit by two (or three) 18 inch MK XII torpedoes. One torpedo hit the port side amidships and another hit the stern in the starboard side. Both rudders jammed. The damage to Bismarck was serious, reporting to High Command of the Navy (O.K.M.) “Ship unable to manoevre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”
The final battle began at 0847 on 27 May as the Rodney opened fire, followed by King George V one minute later. Within minutes, Norfolk and Dorsetshire joined the battle. As a result of an avalanche of British firing, all four of Bismarck’s turrets, as well as its secondary guns were put out of action and the order was given to scuttle and abandon ship.
Firing by the British Fleet continued at point blank range. By mid-morning, the pride of the German navy had become a floating wreck with numerous fires aboard, unable to steer and with her guns almost useless because she was listing badly to port. Bismarck finally capsized and sank at 1039.
The battle had lasted for almost two hours, and Bismarck had shown a formidable capacity for resistance. A total of 2,876 shells had been fired, giving the German ship a hammering that no other warship could have taken.