De-mythologising the ‘invincible’ Bismarck…at last…

I’ve been writing a bit of military history lately on this blog, courtesy of a couple of recent anniversaries – Jutland and D-Day. I thought I’d wrap it up, for now, with a two-parter debunking some of the mythology surrounding the German battleship KM Bismarck, whose sortie into the Atlantic in May 1941 lasted just 210 hours before she was sunk by the battleships of the Home Fleet.

KM Bismarck in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, 24 May 1941. Bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055.
KM Bismarck in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, 24 May 1941. Bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055.

Part of the mythology, I suspect, flows from the fact that Bismarck and her consort, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, sank HMS Hood – largest warship in the Royal Navy. As for Bismarck – well, let’s look at the myths:

HMS Rodney's guns at full elevation. In May 1941, Rodney was the most powerful battleship in the world. Just not the fastest. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS Rodney’s Mk I 16-inch guns at full elevation in 1940. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

1. Supposedly, Bismarck was the most powerful battleship in the world. Bismarck was not even the fastest or heaviest-armoured German ship. The preceding Scharnhorst class was faster by a knot (more in service) and had thicker belt armour. Nor did Bismarck have the greatest fire-power by comparison with contemporary British, French and Italian battleships. Bismarck was armed with eight 38 cm SKC/34 (14.96-inch) guns firing Psgr. m. K. L/4,4 projectiles for a broadside of 6,400 kg. Setting aside rates of fire, this was less than the 7,030 kg fired by Britain’s WWI-era battleships with eight 15 inch guns – ten of which were still in service in May 1941 – and less than the 7,212 kg fired by their latest King George V class. It was way less than HMS Rodney, which had nine 16 inch guns firing a broadside of 8,360 kg. Bismarck’s final battle on 27 May 1941, thanks to break-downs in King George V’s guns, was essentially down to a ship-to-ship duel between Rodney and Bismarck between 0920 and 0954 hours. Rodney pulverised the German vessel.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was less than nine months in commission. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).
HMS Prince of Wales – King George V class battleship that engaged Bismarck on 24 May. She was both better armoured and had a heavier broadside. (Public domain).

2. Apparently, Bismarck’s armour was special composition and proof to all shells. By the 1930s metallurgy had long since hit the limits possible with the chemistry of steel additives and processing techniques. Naval armour worldwide was based on the process invented by Krupp in 1894, and there was little to choose between variations. Bismarck’s armour was of the types used on German warships since the Deutschland of 1928. Wotan Harte n/A (‘new type’) steel was within a few percent of the quality of equivalent Allied armour. Krupp Cemented n/A face-hardened armour, used for vertical plates, was marginally inferior to US Class B armour. Wotan Starrheit (WSh) was extra-hard but brittle armour used in thin sections to protect the crew of light guns from splinters and bullets.

Bismarck’s 320-mm main belt was vulnerable to British 14-inch shells at ranges below 11,872 metres and to British 16-inch/6 CRH APC shells below 16,400 metres, and an examination of the wreck in 2001 revealed that it was penetrated. Anything that penetrated the main belt was meant to be stopped by the sloped armour deck beyond. In the final battle, two shells got into the propulsion spaces – a complete armour system failure.  Examination of the wreck in 1989 revealed that the conning tower, with its 350-mm side armour, was penetrated 25 times. The difficulty the British had was that despite the theoretical vulnerability of her armour, Bismarck was optimised for the ranges of that battle – the British guns were firing horizontally, so many shells ricochetted off the water before hitting, destroying their ability to penetrate.

Photo by Prinz Eugen gunnery officer Paul Smalenbach shows Bismarck down at the bows after suffering hits from HMS Prince of Wales that caused heavy flooding forwards and cut off access to the forward oil fuel. This damage prompted Admiral Lutjens to abort the cruise and head for Brest for repairs. Public domain, NH 69732, U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command
Photo by Prinz Eugen gunnery officer Paul Schmalenbach shows Bismarck down at the bows late on 24 May after suffering hits from HMS Prince of Wales that caused heavy flooding forwards and cut off access to the forward oil fuel. This damage prompted Admiral Lutjens to abort the cruise and head for Brest for repairs. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NH 69732, U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command

3. Allegedly, Bismarck was unsinkable and had to be scuttled. The debate reflects bragging rights. The British wanted to say they’d sunk Bismarck – avenging the loss of Hood. The Germans were as eager to claim the British couldn’t.  The controversy arose because Bismarck did not succumb to a 90-minute bombardment by two battleships and two heavy cruisers that produced around 300-400 hits. Admiral Sir John Tovey had to abandon the engagement for lack of fuel, calling for any ship with torpedoes to finish off the blazing wreck. Bismarck sank at 1039 hours, a few minutes after being struck by torpedoes from HMS Dorsetshire. The controversy erupted because at 0920 hours, just 33 minutes after the final battle began and 69 minutes before Bismarck sank, two heavy shells penetrated the machinery spaces. This prompted the XO, Hans Oels, to order scuttling charges set and fired – 6 sticks of dynamite in each engine room. However, a study by US naval analysts W. Garzke and R. O. Dulin shows the charges were not fired in every case because of water inflows into the engineering spaces caused by battle damage. Indeed, by 0930 the ship was already wallowing from the amount of water on board, some of it deliberately introduced to counter-flood after battle damage three days earlier in the Denmark Strait.

Survivors from Bismarck being pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, 27 May 1941. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Survivors from Bismarck being pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, 27 May 1941. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Ships sink for two reasons; loss of reserve buoyancy (flotation) or loss of reserve stability (rolls over or, less often, sinks by bow or stern). One of the reasons why Bismarck did not lose the latter is because the British bombarded her from both sides – evening out damage to a ship that had unusually high natural stability. Her designed metacentric height of 4.09 metres was the highest of any battleship of the 1930s, meaning she was lively in a seaway but hard to affect with asymmetric flooding. Sinkage was therefore by loss of reserve buoyancy. Analysis of the wreck in 1989, by submersible, showed the hull had not imploded, meaning Bismarck was flooded when it sank. An investigation in 2001 revealed significant underwater damage to the hull sides, including areas of missing plating, consistent with torpedo damage. In other words, the scuttling order contributed to Bismarck’s end, but was not sole cause.

Oels’ order made military sense because it meant the Germans could end a lost battle and save life. By 0930, when the order was given, the ship was wrecked, all heavy guns had been disabled (turret Caesar was knocked out at 0931) and the crew were being slaughtered by the British barrage. Unfortunately, few of those left in the water could be picked up by the British because of a U-boat alert.

In fact, Bismarck was a fairly average battleship, even by European standards. I’ll be exploring the design in the next post. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 200 pxIf you’d like to see some more of my naval writing, check out my book Blue Water Kiwis, which I wrote in 2000 as an official 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy. It’s available on Kindle, and free to Kindle Prime users in 2016.

 


18 thoughts on “De-mythologising the ‘invincible’ Bismarck…at last…

    1. The scuttling – ‘Measure Versenken’, to the Germans, is interesting – it’s produced a lot of what I can only call ‘armchair history macho posturing’ over who ‘sank’ Bismarck, though I think it’s a non-issue. A multi-compartmented vessel will not fill and sink quickly.

      For me one of the clinchers is that Bismarck already underwater damage when the battle began, much of it from flooding forwards after a hit from HMS Prince of Wales in the Battle of the Denmark Strait. This gave her a 9 degree list and dropped her bow by 2 metres. They had to slow down to temporarily patch the holes, and took more water on board to counter-flood. The Atlantic was in one of its typical stormy moods and being down by the head gave the ship a lot of gyp, apparently, during the run towards Brest – her propellors kept breaking the surface. In the final battle, the British lobbed 2876 shells at her, of which around 400 hit. Into this mix the Germans partially completed the scuttling procedures – and then the British followed up with more shells and, finally, four Mk VII torpedoes with a 336 kg warhead. Like any complex system, Bismarck failed in a complex way…

  1. Am I reading this right? They could damage each other from 16 kilometres apart? Well, I’m never believing it again when in a high seas battle scene in a movie the ships get up close and personal.

    1. That’s the movies for ya! It’s true, though. Nelson’s ships absolutely did get alongside each other and that didn’t change much for ages. At the turn of the 20th century naval battle ranges were about 3000-6000 metres. But the guns of the era could fire a lot further, and in WWI the British opened fire at Dogger Bank at around 21,000 metres, though they didn’t hit anything. The big problem, as you can imagine, was fire control when effectively shooting to (and over) the horizon. The longest range hit ever actually achieved was in July 1940 at the Battle of Calabria, where HMS Warspite – using her 25-year old 15-inch Mk In guns, hit the Guilio Cesare at a range of 23,770 metres. One of those battles, as a movie, would be boring. ‘I can’t see the enemy sir’. ‘Never mind, we hit them anyway.’

  2. The chief problem I see with your theory is that you apparently do not realize how SERIOUSLY the Bismarck was damaged before the final battle: Below are just a few of the problems she faced:

    She could not steer a course, nor line up shots, she was partially blind due to the fact her forward radar was out, every time she fired her main guns, it caused more damage to the bulkhead that was damaged at Denmark Strait by POW. This caused more flooding and problems. Her morale was low too boot. She was constantly outnumbered and outgunned and still she took out the Hood, seriously damaged the POW, and hung on for over two hours after being blasted from every possible weapon, range etc.(All this from the original source “Battleship Bismarck; A survivor”s Story” by Von Mullenheim-Rechberg.

    The Bismarck was not “invincible. It’s obvious she was not because she was destroyed. An undamaged Bismarck vs any British warship? My money’s on Bismarck. She had a heavier displacement and could find the target first. The only evidence we have of what an undamaged Bismarck can do is what happened at Denmark Strait and we all know how well that ended up for the Brits.

    The fact is that Tovey was embarrassed that he could not blow Bismarck out of the water and tried for over two hours. Sure it would have eventually sank but it was scuttled first and that is the final reason it went down.

    You have no basis to claim that Bismarck was just an average battleship. None at all because the only facts we have are that she engaged two capital ships and blew one out of the water in five minutes and heavily damaged another (POW was VERY lucky those 15″ and 8” shells that went into her hull did not explode. If they had, chances are that POW would not have been involved with Force Z in the Pacific (I guess that would have been a good thing.)
    Anything AFTER Denmark Strait is a moot point for any discussion because then, Bismarck was seriously damaged and really not in fighting shape, especially after the torpedo issues. Frankly, I am surprised that your article fails to take this into account.

    The fact that is often overlooked is that the stupid Brits were so eager to sink her that they fired for nearly an hour after Bismarck’s guns fell silent. Some officers and crewmen could not watch the cannonade knowing that they were shelling helpless men. Wellington would have called it “doing murder”. Very shameful.

    1. I am well aware of the Bismarck’s damage situation ahead of the final engagement. I have Mullenheim-Rechberg’s account, which I regard as partisan. I refer you to Garzke and Dulin for an engineering analysis.

      1. And partisan how? Because the eye witness was “German” and thus biased? If that’s the case, we have to dismiss any written history that is supported by original, eye witness sources where there might be bias. That’s a TON of work, but you can’t have it both ways!

        I find it interesting that in Garzke and Dulin’s online article “Bismarck’s Final Battle” they list Baron von Müllenheim-Rechberg as a source. Perhaps they don’t consider him “partisan”? Someone should let them know.

        Garzke and Dulin’s work, while detailed, is simply math on paper. Titanic looked excellent on paper but we all know that story. We can talk about the British BC’s at Jutland if you like. Yep, something was wrong with their bloody ships that day, and that continued on beyond May of 1941.

        The facts are in the actual action, not in engineering analysis. In the actual action, Bismarck blew the Hood away in five minutes, (while Bismarck was already seriously damaged) then switching to the PoW, almost immediately hits her, damaging her, and forcing her to run away like a little girl.

        It’s interesting to note that most of the British capital ships were over rated tubs who were more prone to break down (Nelsons and KGV’s top the list of ALL ships of the period) prone to running into mines, or getting torpedoed, simply getting blown away like the vaunted HMS Hood.

        I am sorry, but your “opinion” that Bismarck was average etc, does not hold water. Forgive the pun.

        1. I am not going to debate the issue. You are clearly unaware of historiographical technique, but I respect the fact that you are entitled to your opinion and I hope you respect the fact that I am entitled to mine.

          1. So don’t debate it… But I leave you with this:

            First off, I am not biased pro or anti British/German etc.. I am American. I research facts and arrive an a conclusion.

            It’s difficult to respect your opinion when you are partisan yourself (British, thus anti-Bismarck) and you “regard” a rare and important original source on Bismarck as authored “partisan”. Is it not the pot calling the kettle black? Your theory is based on opinion. Mine is based on fact. Try running your theory that Bismarck was an “average Battleship” by a Thesis Committee. (What is rolling on the floor funny is the fact that the authors of the book you tried to steer me towards, one I already own, lists Müllenheim-Rechberg as a source. You just can’t make this stuff up! Too funny. Another note, I have many dozens of books on the battle for the North Atlantic, and hundreds of mimeographed pages from long, out of print documents that I inter-library loaned over my many years of research. I don’t have them all out, but from where I sit in my office, I can count at least eight volumes focused on Battleship Bismarck. I know the histories of these ships inside and out. Although I prefer the history of the Japanese Navy, I am a life long student of Operation “Rhine Exercise”.

            Ironically, the “myth” you are trying to dispel is believed only by those idiots who think Johnny Horton’s “Sink The Bismark” song is factual. Anyone who understands naval warfare also understands that there is no magical, perfect, unsinkable ship. Bismarck was not invincible and that is only believed by Millennials (who don’t even know who fought in WWII), or 40 year old losers who still reside in their elderly parents basement.

            Your typical arrogant “Brit” attitude beautifully paints you for what you are. A pretentious, wanna-be historian who thinks he has nothing to learn. The British version of Sherman and Peabody’s “Mr. Know-it-all”. Someone who can’t admit that he might be wrong, or accept the stone cold fact that there are those out there that might know more that thou. Here’s something for you to learn: I do understand how to research and have earned a double Masters in History and Political Science. I wrote my first Thesis on the BofNA. Put that in your tea, Ol’ Chap.

            “Rodney pulverised the German vessel.” Doing everything you can to try to “De-mythologising the ‘invincible’ Bismarck…at last…” Sounds “partisan” to me. A non-biased pro would have at least mentioned that Bismarck was partially blind, already heavily damaged, with an exhausted crew of low morale, etc… But no. You write that Rodney pulverized her like she was a helpless, overrated bucket. Wow, really? The uninformed, who do not know better when reading your article, would assume Bismarck was strong and healthy. Unfair, and poorly written, with a biased view…incomplete for obvious, and unfounded “glory” reasons. You write like some of these freaky revisionists. I don’t seem to recall reading anywhere in your article that describes the serious damage that Bismarck started the battle with Rodney, KGV et al. I would take a fresh Bismarck class BB ANY DAY against a Nelson. The Nelson’s could not even fire without causing damage to themselves! You know it’s factual, and embarrassing. A butt ugly class, overrated, under powered, hard to steer, slow, and a pathetic turret arrangement.

            Who ever claimed Bismarck was the “most powerful battleship” in the world? Hitler? Hitler said at Bismarck’s baptism in 1939: “National Socialism, however, through the vehicle of its Movement, has imparted to the German Volksgemeinschaft the spiritual and organizing abilities of a world view capable of destroying the enemies of the Reich from now on for all eternity. In the sixth year of the National Socialist revolution, we bear witness today to the launch of this third, now mightiest of battleships in our new fleet.” He said “…OUR new fleet”, not the mightiest battleship in the “world”. Why would he not use the chance to pump up the propaganda machine by claiming she was the mightiest in the world? Probably because no one knew which ship was the mightiest. Although you Brits claimed the “Mighty ‘ood” was. “Good ol’ ‘ood, she get them!” YUP, she got them all right, a few 8″ and 15″ German shells, and one right down into a magazine. Then, the next thing the “Might ‘ood” got was stuck in the mud at the bottom of the Atlantic.
            Again, Johnny Horton fans probably said it. Or the British thought so. Apparently Churchill thought Bismarck was something to deal with because he sent practically the entire fleet on a near wild goose chase after her…. According to Johnny Horton’s song (which you should listen to in all it’s a-historical glory), he sent “every ship a sail” to find her, to sink that ship which had “Guns as big as steers, and shells as big as trees”. *EYE ROLL*

            The weight of factual history and what really happened in battle destroy’s your mathematical, rivet counting opinion and those facts are painful for you Brits, I understand. Bismarck held up very well despite being outnumbered, outgunned, attacked by combined arms, and even damaged from the almost the start. In the final battle, despite the thousands of pieces of ammunition hurled at her, some at point blank range, she did not sink. Also, Bismarck caused more damage to the British fleet, then they did in return. And she did it far faster, with less ammo and more eloquently. You won’t debate the issue because the facts are the facts, and your opinion is based on someone else’s opinion. It’s called the historical record and that is all we have. Your theory is no deeper than trying to debate an “Iowa vs. Yamato engagement”. It never happened and any debate is mere speculation.

            “…and the crew were being slaughtered by the British barrage.” At least you got that part right. Tovey was so anxious to sink her, that he cared little for the helpless German sailors. British eyewitnesses spoke the same thing: “Murder”. (and that’s unbiased.)

            A “fairly average battleship”…. compared to what? European standards? The Italian and French BB’s were better than those British rust buckets that were only good at breaking down. (or getting torpedoed, hitting mines etc), and sinking of course. I won’t mention that they could hardly hit anything they aimed at…Except KGV was good at targeting and hitting Rodney’s shell splashes. Read about KGV’s embarrassing episode in the Pacific in ’45 trying to hit a stationary target!) The British could not hit a thing, But the German crews could, and very quickly.
            CHEERS!

    2. “The stupid Brits” were “doing murder”. As opposed to the highly intelligent and most gallantly chivalrous Yankees who did humanity a favor by bombing Hiroshima and thus… disabling 146,000 criminals. Very virtuous.

      1. I don’t care if the atomic bombs killed a million Japanese. It saved Allied lives. Japan started it, we finished. “War is hell”.

        What does that have to do with the stupid and pathetic British shooting at (and probably missing most) of the helpless German sailors who were swimming in the water or on deck trying to communicate surrender? ANSWER: “NOTHING”.

        The British Empire used to be able to boast that the sun never sat on their empire! LOL. Now what? Hahahahahahaha. Apparently, some people are plagued by a 200+ year old “post former glorious empire” complex.

        1. I do believe that the Germans sent heavily armed surface ‘raiders’ (cruisers, ‘pocket battleships’ and stuff) out onto the world’s oceans especially to clobber totally defenceless unarmed merchantmen—and they were very good at it; ideal target practice when unarmed folks are making rude gestures as their only form of retaliation.

          Good at it until forced by losses to do the same thing from ambush, concealment under the surface.

          They sowed the wind and reaped their very own whirlwind.

          I marvel that anyone can hit anything (like a ship manoeuvring at any speed in any sort of sea) with gunfire. I think some of the records were set by the US Navy in the Surigao strait in the Leyte Gulf?

          And battleship Yamato set a few records of its own, I believe, in its final fight. As I said before, no quarter can be given (nor expected—pretty unsporting, shooting the swimming survivors of submarine torpedo attacks) (USS Wahoo, anyone?).

          But that’s the name of the game, and who can blame them? (Only some bugger that wasn’t there …)

    3. “The stupid Brits” were “doing murder”. As opposed to the highly intelligent and most gallantly chivalrous Yankees who did humanity a favor by bombing Hiroshima and thus “disabling” 146,000 criminals. Very virtuous. Apparently, some people are still plagued by a 200+ year-old “post colonial inferiority complex”.

    4. Apologies, I’m not an expert—but I do know that in ‘real’ war you try your very best to destroy the other guy before he destroys you.

      And if he isn’t destroyed, you’d be a bit dim to give him any manner of sporting chance; and until you’re certain he’s destroyed (no longer afloat is always a clue) you keep pounding until there’s no grounds for any manner of doubt.

      Sadly there’s no room for gentlemen—that’s an attitude best left to Hollywood and armchair warriors.

      1. That’s too true of the way real naval warfare has always been conducted. The British were reminded of it by Admiral Sir John Fisher (Lord Fisher of Kilverstone) when he became First Sea Lord in 1904 and pointed out that there was nothing gentlemanly about naval fighting. You preferred not to do it. But if you had to – well, you blew them out of the water. He drew on Nelsonic inspiration to make the point. The Bismarck was but one of several major naval threats the British faced in May 1941 – the larger one was the German invasion of Crete, simultaneously with the Bismarck operation (by no coincidence). What more need be said?

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