History of Bismarck
Bismarck was the first of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine. Named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the ship was laid down at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg in July 1936 and launched in February 1939. Work was completed in August 1940, when she was commissioned into the German fleet. Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz were the largest battleships ever built by Germany, and two of the largest built by any European power.
In the course of the warship's eight-month career, Bismarck conducted only one offensive operation that lasted 8 days in May 1941, codenamed Rheinübung. The ship, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, was to break into the Atlantic Ocean and raid Allied shipping from North America to Great Britain. The two ships were detected several times off Scandinavia, and British naval units were deployed to block their route. At the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the battlecruiser HMS Hood initially engaged Prinz Eugen, probably by mistake, while HMS Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck. In the ensuing battle Hood was destroyed by the combined fire of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which then damaged Prince of Wales and forced her retreat. Bismarck suffered sufficient damage from three hits by Prince of Wales to force an end to the raiding mission.
The destruction of Hood spurred a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy involving dozens of warships. Two days later, heading for occupied France to effect repairs, Bismarck was attacked by fifteen Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; one scored a hit that rendered the battleship's steering gear inoperable. In her final battle the following morning, the already-crippled Bismarck was engaged by two British battleships and two heavy cruisers, and sustained incapacitating damage and heavy loss of life. The ship was scuttled to prevent her being boarded by the British, and to allow the ship to be abandoned so as to limit further casualties. Most experts agree that the battle damage would have caused her to sink eventually.
The wreck was located in June 1989 by Robert Ballard, and has since been further surveyed by several other expeditions.
The Battle of the Denmark Straight
At 05:45 on 24 May, German lookouts spotted smoke on the horizon; this turned out to be from Hood and Prince of Wales, under the command of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland. Lütjens ordered his ships' crews to battle stations. By 05:52, the range had fallen to 26,000 m (28,000 yd) and Hood opened fire, followed by Prince of Wales a minute later. Hood engaged Prinz Eugen, which the British thought to be Bismarck, while Prince of Wales fired on Bismarck. Adalbert Schneider, the first gunnery officer aboard Bismarck, twice requested permission to return fire, but Lütjens hesitated. Lindemann intervened, muttering "I will not let my ship be shot out from under my ass." He demanded permission to fire from Lütjens, who relented and at 05:55 ordered his ships to engage the British.
The British ships approached the German ships head on, which permitted them to use only their forward guns; Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could fire full broadsides. Several minutes after opening fire, Holland ordered a 20° turn to port, which would allow his ships to engage with their rear gun turrets. Both German ships concentrated their fire on Hood. About a minute after opening fire, Prinz Eugen scored a hit with a high-explosive 20.3 cm (8.0 in) shell; the explosion detonated unrotated projectile ammunition and started a large fire, which was quickly extinguished. After firing three four-gun salvoes, Schneider had found the range to Hood; he immediately ordered rapid-fire salvoes from Bismarck's eight 38 cm guns. He also ordered the ship's 15 cm secondary guns to engage Prince of Wales. Holland then ordered a second 20° turn to port, to bring his ships on a parallel course with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to shift fire and target Prince of Wales, to keep both of his opponents under fire. Within a few minutes, Prinz Eugen scored a pair of hits on the battleship that started a small fire.
Lütjens then ordered Prinz Eugen to drop behind Bismarck, so she could continue to monitor the location of Norfolk and Suffolk, which were still 10 to 12 nmi (19 to 22 km; 12 to 14 mi) to the east. At 06:00, Hood was completing the second turn to port when Bismarck's fifth salvo hit. Two of the shells landed short, striking the water close to the ship, but at least one of the 38 cm armour-piercing shells struck Hood and penetrated her thin deck armour. The shell reached Hood's rear ammunition magazine and detonated 112 t (110 long tons) of cordite propellant. The massive explosion broke the back of the ship between the main mast and the rear funnel; the forward section continued to move forward briefly before the in-rushing water caused the bow to rise into the air at a steep angle. The stern also rose as water rushed into the ripped-open compartments. Schneider exclaimed "He is sinking!" over the ship's loudspeakers. In only eight minutes of firing, Hood had disappeared, taking all but three of her crew of 1,419 men with her.
Bismarck then shifted fire to Prince of Wales. The British battleship scored a hit on Bismarck with her sixth salvo, but the German ship found her mark with her first salvo. One of the shells struck the bridge on Prince of Wales, though it did not explode and instead exited the other side, killing everyone in the ship's command centre, save Captain John Leach, the ship's commanding officer, and one other. The two German ships continued to fire upon Prince of Wales, causing serious damage. Guns malfunctioned on the recently commissioned British ship, which still had civilian technicians aboard. Despite the technical faults in the main battery, Prince of Wales scored three hits on Bismarck in the engagement. The first struck her in the forecastle above the waterline but low enough to allow the crashing waves to enter the hull. The second shell struck below the armoured belt and exploded on contact with the torpedo bulkhead, completely flooding a turbo-generator room and partially flooding an adjacent boiler room. The third shell passed through one of the boats carried aboard the ship and then went through the floatplane catapult without exploding.
At 06:13, Leach gave the order to retreat; only five of his ship's ten 14 in (356 mm) guns were still firing and his ship had sustained significant damage. Prince of Wales made a 160° turn and laid a smoke screen to cover her withdrawal. The Germans ceased fire as the range widened. Though Lindemann strongly advocated chasing Prince of Wales and destroying her, Lütjens obeyed operational orders to shun any avoidable engagement with enemy forces that were not protecting a convoy, firmly rejecting the request, and instead ordered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to head for the North Atlantic. In the engagement, Bismarck had fired 93 armour-piercing shells and had been hit by three shells in return. The forecastle hit allowed 1,000 to 2,000 t (980 to 1,970 long tons) of water to flood into the ship, which contaminated fuel oil stored in the bow. Lütjens refused to reduce speed to allow damage control teams to repair the shell hole which widened and allowed more water into the ship. The second hit caused some additional flooding. Shell-splinters from the second hit also damaged a steam line in the turbo-generator room, but this was not serious, as Bismarck had sufficient other generator reserves. The combined flooding from these two hits caused a 9-degree list to port and a 3-degree trim by the bow.
While Prince of Wales was retreating, the hydrophone operators on Prinz Eugen detected torpedoes. It was unlikely that torpedoes were actually fired but both German ships took evasive manoeuvres. At the same time a shadowing Short Sunderland flying boat from No. 201 Squadron RAF approached too closely and the German heavy anti-aircraft artillery fired on it. A Lockheed Hudson from No. 269 Squadron RAF witnessed the battle from a distance and remained in touch until 08:08. After the battle, the Sunderland reported the oil slick and guided the destroyer Electra to the site where Hood had blown up. The destroyer found only three survivors.