Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Bismarck, Sortie and Sinking of (May 1941)

The sinking of the Bismarck occurred at the height of German battleship operations in the Atlantic Ocean. The commander of the German navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, expected the new battleship Bismarck, which was to be available in the spring of 1941, to provide an opportunity to test the navy's "battle group" strategy in support of a war on commerce. Repairs to the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst forced delays, and the naval command decided to send the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to sea as soon as possible to attack shipping in the North Atlantic in Operation rhine exercise. Raeder was determined to demonstrate the value of the battleships to the war effort, and the Bismarck was rushed into action with an incomplete antiaircraft control system and equipment scavenged from other ships.

Vice Admiral Günther Lütjens, the fleet commander and task force leader, opposed the "piecemeal approach" and advocated delaying the mission until the other battleships were available, including the Tirpitz. His pessimism played a key role in his decisions over the course of the operation.

British intelligence, including ultra, alerted the Royal Navy that a major German naval operation was under way, and aircraft spotted the two ships in Bergen on 21 May 1941. The British took countermeasures to patrol the Iceland-Faroes passage and the Denmark Strait to block the German breakout into the Atlantic. On 23 May, the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk spotted the two German raiders in the Denmark Strait. The persistence of the British cruisers in shadowing the German ships led Lütjens to conclude that the British possessed new radar.

Off Iceland at about 5:55 a.m. on 24 May, in the Iceland Battle or the Battle of the Denmark Strait, British Rear Admiral Lancelot E. Holland's battle cruiser Hood and battleship Prince of Wales engaged the Bismarck. The Hood was hit in her magazines by the German battleship's fourth salvo and blew up. Only 3 of her 1,419 crewmen survived. The Prince of Wales took seven hits (four from the Bismarck) and was damaged.

Although the Bismarck had received only three hits, the ship was leaking oil, and her speed was also reduced from flooding in the forward compartments. At about 4:00 p.m., Lütjens detached the Prinz Eugen in a vain effort to draw the British off while the Bismarck made for the French port of Saint-Nazaire to carry out repairs. In the early morning of 25 May, the Bismarck managed to elude her pursuers, but Lütjens was unaware of this in spite of reports from Naval Command Group West. When Lütjens broke radio silence, these messages were picked up by Allied high-frequency direction-finding (HF/DF) receivers. Increased German radio traffic along the French coast suggested that the destination of the Bismarck was a French port, which was later confirmed by a British intercept of a Luftwaffe signal. The chief British ships that had been chasing the Bismarck in the wrong direction now altered course. In the meantime, Force H with the aircraft carrier Ark Royal had departed Gibraltar to provide air reconnaissance off the French west coast.

On 26 May, Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the Ark Royal and Coastal Command's patrol bomber (PBY) aircraft regained contact with the Bismarck. Late in the day, Swordfish from the Ark Royal attacked, and a lucky torpedo hit jammed the German battleship's twin rudder system, making her unable to maneuver. With no air cover or help from the U-boats or other ships available, the fatalistic Lütjens, remembering the reaction to the scuttling of the Graf Spee and Raeder's orders to fight to the last shell, radioed the hopelessness of the situation.

At 8:45 a.m. on 27 May, the British battleships King George V and Rodney opened fire. By 10:00, although hit by hundreds of shells, the Bismarck remained afloat. As the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire closed to fire torpedoes, the Germans scuttled their ship. Three torpedoes then struck, and the Bismarck went down. Reports of German submarines in the area halted British efforts to rescue German survivors. Only 110 of the crew of 2,300 survived. Lütjens was not among them.

A furious Adolf Hitler regarded the sinking of the Bismarck as a major loss of prestige and ordered that no more battleship operations be undertaken without his permission. The major German ships were now relegated to the defense of Norway, leaving the brunt of Germany's naval war to the U-boats.

Keith W. Bird

Further Reading
Bercuson, David J., and Holger H. Herwig. The Destruction of the "Bismarck." Woodstock, NY, and New York: Overlook Press, 2001.; Burkard, Baron von Müllenheim-Rechberg. Battleship "Bismarck": A Survivor's Story. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990.; Winklareth, Robert J. "Bismarck" Chase: New Light on a Famous Engagement. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

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