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The last flight of the Bismark


Today, 82 years ago on May 27th 1941, German battleship Bismarck was sunk – 114 survived, 2086 did not. Three miles deep on the ocean floor are almost 3500 men from this epic ocean battle.

As a condition of the WWI Armistice Germany surrendered its entire navy fleet, a humiliating act. Pre-WWII Hitler ordered the Bismarck built in secret. At 53,000 tonnes, approximately 251 metres long and 36 meters wide, powered by 3 engines delivering 150,000 horse power, it was the largest warship of its time. It carried eight 15 inch cannons propelling 2000 pound shells more than 32 kilometres.

The Bismarck was named after the Chancellor of Germany, Prince Otto von Bismarck, nicknamed the ‘Iron Chancellor’. Captain of the Bismarck, Ernst Lindemann, referred to the ship as “he”, considering it too powerful to be female. Sea trials revealed that, when the rudders were disabled, the Bismarck did not steer well with only propellers – an Achilles heel.

Head of the Kleigsmarine (German Navy under Nazi rule) was Admiral Erich Raeder. He opposed Nazi etiquette, retaining the naval salute rather than adopting the Nazi raised arm. He also refused to dismiss Jewish sailors and officers.

On April 2nd 1941 the Bismarck received orders to join the cruiser Prinz Eugen embarking on 3 months raiding commercial ships in the Atlantic ‘Operation Rheinburg’. Orders were given not to engage enemy battleships, commercial convoys being the only prey. As Operation Squadron Leader, Admiral Lutjens, was riding on the Bismark, he outranked Captain Lindermann.

On May 19th 1941 Operation Rheinburg launched into the Baltic Sea. The operation would only last nine days.

From Poland, Lutjens travelled around Iceland into the Denmark Strait to enter the North Atlantic Ocean. The operation was spotted by a spitfire photo reconnaissance mission, triggering British Admiral Tovey into action. To block the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, Tovey redeployed cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk from patrolling the Denmark Strait to shadowing the Bismark.

Tovey sailed from the United Kingdom aboard King George V with aircraft carrier Victorious and battlecruiser Repulse. Battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Hood were deployed south to cover the Denmark Strait exit into the North Atlantic.

Five days later Suffolk and Norfolk sighted Bismark. Bismarck fired at Norfolk, which disappeared with Suffolk into the Arctic fog. With the arrival of Hood under Admiral Holland, both Hood and Suffolk opened fire, mistakenly at Prinz Eugen first. Lutjens did not want to engage but, not wanting his ship sunk, Lindermann opened fire on the Hood, sinking the pride of the British fleet eight minutes later. Of the Hood’s 1400 sailors only 3 survived.

The next day Prince of Wales attacked Bismarck but retreated with 13 dead and 9 wounded.  The Bismarck had received 3 hits, resulting in his front compartments flooding, the bow down 3 degrees and listing 9 degrees to port. 1000 tonnes of fuel was cut off due to tank damage and Lutjens decided to steam for France for repairs.

Norfolk, Suffolk and Prince of Wales continued following Bismarck. Entering from the east was Tovey, in pursuit with battleship Rodney and 3 destroyers (Tartar, Mashona and Maori). Steaming north from the Mediterranean was Admiral Summervilles with carrier Ark Royal, battlecruiser Renown, and cruiser Sheffield.

16 hours after Hood was sunk, aircraft carrier Victorious was 120 miles east with Swordfish (antiquated by-planes carrying 1 torpedo each) onboard. At 22:30 the Swordfish were launched, with a torpedo hitting the Bismark boiler room killing one crewman, but then the British lost contact.

The following day May 26th, Royal Airforce Coastal Command sent out reconnaissance flights, locating the Bismark at 10:30. At 14:00 Ark Royal launched a Swordfish strike, unfortunately dropping over the cruiser Sheffield but thankfully missing. At 19:00 another attack was launched, causing rudder damage to the Bismarck. Unable to manoeuvre using only propellers, the Bismark steered away from France into the direction of Tovey. A death sentence for Bismarck.

On the 9th and final day, May 27th 1941, the British came bearing down. Tovey’s plan, saw King George V, Rodney, Tartar and Mashona attack from the west, Norfolk from the north, and cruiser Dorsetshire which joined in from the south. At 08:00 the British sight Bismark and at 08:47 ocean battle began.

Rodney fired the first salvo from 16 inch cannons, then King George V fired her 14 inch cannons. The Bismark returned fire toward Rodney, but fell short. Norfolk and Dorsetshire fired with their 8 inch cannons.

At 08:59 Rodney hit the Bismark, knocking out 2 forward turrets (16 inch cannons). Norfolk hit Bismarck’s fire-control tower, killing Adalbert Schneider (who had sunk the Hood). Bismark lost 50% of its gunnery strength in the first 15 minutes of battle, along with its viewfinder – effectively leaving it blind. In 90 minutes of battle more than 2800 shells were fired at the Bismark with more than 400 hits.

At 10:15 Tovey called a cease-fire and ordered Dorsetshire to torpedo Bismark. Before the torpedos hit, the Bismarck turned upside down, slidding stern first into the sea. Although already sinking the Germans opened all valves on the Bismarck and ignited the scuttling bombs.

Dorsetshire and Maori went in to save people but a reported sighting of a German U-boat saw them both sail away leaving several hundred in the water to die. Dorsetshire rescued 85 and Maori 25. Five more were picked up by the Germans. Of a crew of 2200 men only 114 survived. Tovey, said “The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying.”

Today families of the Bismarck hold an annual service at the memorial on the Bismarck family estate. 

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 26 May 2023 and written by Te Hira Henderson, Curator Taonga Maori at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: The last cruise of the German battleship Bismarck, firing a broadside at the British battlecruiser HMS Hood in May 1941 – shortly before it sank in the Atlantic, with the loss of 2300 lives.

29 May 2023

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