Why the Bismarck myths were – well, myths

As we saw in the previous post, the German battleship KM Bismarck has been subject to its fair share of mythology. Much flowed from exaggerated claims about Bismarck’s characteristics. In fact the only real advantage of Bismarck was size.

Bismarck after completion in 1940.  Click to enlarge. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-04-1-26.
Bismarck after completion in 1940. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-04-1-26.

In the 1930s, battleships were limited to standard displacement of 35,561 tonnes (35,000 long tons) by international treaties dating to 1922, to which Germany was party via the Naval Agreement of 1935. At British insistence this was defined with specific consumables aboard. The only way to get around Treaty limits was by cheating, and Bismarck flouted the rules by a wide margin. Bismarck’s standard displacement was 42,321 tonnes, full load 45,928 tonnes and extreme battle load 50,933 tonnes. The real limit faced by her design team, led by Hermann Burkhardt, was the width of the lock gates on the Kiel canal, through which Bismarck was required to pass.

On the deck of the Bismarck.  Note the doubled secondary battery, 150- and 110-mm guns above. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-05-3-39
On the deck of the Bismarck. Note the doubled secondary battery, 150- and 110-mm guns above. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-05-3-39
SMS Baden, the 1913 design to which German naval architects looked when planning Bismarck. Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R17062
SMS Baden, the 1913 design to which German naval architects looked when planning Bismarck. Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R17062

The Germans didn’t have access to data available to the British from WWI battle experience and subsequent experiments. But in any event, German philosophy remained that of WWI. Although Bismarck followed trend in higher speed – 136,000 shp/29 knots without forcing – her design was WWI-era, with a low sloped armour deck,  optimised for short-range battles. The deck was thin – maximum 120 mm, against the maximum 232 mm adopted by the British in their contemporary King George V, over the magazines.

Bismarck's triple-propellor arrangement and cut-away stern. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-30-5-34A
Bismarck’s triple-propellor arrangement and cut-away stern. Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-30-5-34A

One of the design team, Heinrich Schulter, wasn’t happy with the extent of Bismarck’s belt armour, which didn’t extend far enough below the waterline, but couldn’t enlarge the ship to support more. In the Battle of the Denmark Strait, HMS Prince of Wales hit Bismarck below the armour, causing substantial flooding.

Part of the reason why Bismarck ran into that armour limit – despite being well over the legal displacement figure – was because the design was inefficient. The main armament followed Baden of 1913, eight 380-mm (14.96-inch) guns in four double turrets. This wasted displacement by comparison with battleships that used triple and quad turrets. Other retrograde features included a displacement-wasting double secondary battery of 150 mm (surface) and 110 mm (AA) guns, when other navies were adopting single batteries with dual-purpose weapons.

Another down side was the decision to provide triple screws, which resulted in a cut-away stern, causing loss of reserve buoyancy as well as vulnerability to whipping – oscillation of the hull girder under explosive forces. This was evidenced in Bismarck’s case by the fact that the stern suffered structural failure and broke off at Frame 10, probably as the ship sank, after suffering torpedo damage the day before.

Bismarck soon after completion. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-13-5-09.
Bismarck soon after completion. Public domain, Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-13-5-09.

Plus sides included underwater subdivision – 22 major compartments – and the usual German attention to construction detail. Some structural members were ‘Wotan Weich’ steel, high-tensile steel that combined armour and structural characteristics. The technique originated in the US and had been developed by the Carnegie Steel Company in 1910, but was hugely expensive. The British were sparing with their equivalent, ‘D’ steel, for that reason. Indeed, only the US navy was able to enjoy much use of high-tensile steels in ordinary construction.

The upshot was that Bismarck was a tough-built ship, but otherwise very average by world standards, with less fire-power than many contemporary battleships. The Germans knew it too; they built two ships to Bismarck design, but then moved on to a larger and more heavily armed ‘H’ type. The outbreak of war prevented any of those being completed.

Needless to say, the real story of Bismarck is one of people – and it is difficult to envisage her 210-hour sortie without thinking of the 2,065 sailors on board, young men who knew their fate – but faced it stoically, dutifully, and of whom just 117 survived. The British sailors who pulled the survivors from the storm-tossed Atlantic certainly knew the score – which for them was a simple one. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’.

A truth of war, and one that we must not forget.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

That’s the last of the military for a while. Coming up  – more writing posts, some news, and history.


8 thoughts on “Why the Bismarck myths were – well, myths

  1. Great information on the Bismark and a great post overall. It’s good to see someone dispelling the myth. There’s plenty of ships that made history for courage and ability. In my eyes, despite so much talk about the class, Bismark isn’t one of them. Bismark is really only famous for being hunted down and sunk. An inglorious end after so much ballyhoo.


    1. It was indeed. Though I can see how the Germans thought they could get away with a raiding cruise – Adm. Lutjens had just returned from a similar cruise with Scharnhorst and Gniesenau, two months earlier. I suspect some of the ‘invincibility’ myth also flows from the difficulty the British had sinking the Tirpitz, which was actually a slightly heavier variant of the design – but this was more technical than anything else, because she spent most of the war anchored in difficult-to-reach fijords that were easily defensible. Once the Brits got going with the Lancaster/Tallboy combination, of course, it was a foregone conclusion.

      I sometimes see online debate about the likely outcome of a ship-on-ship battle between Bismarck and USS New Jersey, which was only slightly higher displacement – but really that’d have been a one-horse race, and I wouldn’t even bother placing bets. Garzke and Dulin have argued that New Jersey was the best battleship design of all time, and there’s a good deal of sense in that. To my mind, the best ‘Treaty’ battleship design was the USS South Dakota, which shoehorned 16-inch guns, armour that was proof to those guns, and a fair turn of speed into the Treaty displacement limits. Nobody else managed to do that.

      That said, I think King George V was probably the best of the European designs – they’ve taken a lot of stick for their faults, including short range; but they were the ONLY fast battleships of WWII to be built with all the lessons of WWI included – and, with the Bismarck class, the ONLY ones to engage in heavy gun combat. Once the teething problems with the quad turrets had been (partially) resolved, and the lessons of the loss of Prince of Wales absorbed, they proved to be excellent ships. They were armoured against 16-inch shell-fire, meaning every other battleship in the world except Yamato and Musashi. And the 14-inch guns weren’t a disadvantage even the Pacific theatre, because they could defeat the armour of any ships the KGV’s were likely to encounter except Yamato and Musashi. Certainly they did everything that was asked of them – and it’s hard to fault that.


      1. Yeah, that’s another thing about the Bismark myth. What did the Tirpitz do? Got stuck in a Norwegian fjord, unable to make repairs fast enough to escape. Another vessel with an unfulfilled destiny as a battleship.

        What I really would have loved to see was the Yamato-class versus the Iowa-class. That would’ve been epic. From what I understand, though, the superior fire-control of the Iowa would’ve decimated the Yamato. Those 18-inch shells would’ve stung if they ever hit. I think it is telling that both Yamato and Musashi were put out of action by aerial attacks. The age of the battleship was over. To me, the best battleship slugfest of ww2 was the Battle of Surigao Strait. Even that was a one-sided affair because the US was able to cross the Japanese “T.” A maneuver with huge tactical advantage that Mahan envisioned but no one ever believed would happen. Oops.


        1. I agree. I suspect it would have been a US victory. The US 16-inch 50/cal was an excellent weapon; whereas the Japanese 18.1-inch was mediocre for its size and not much better. There were also problems with Japanese armour plate. Combine that with better US fire control, higher speed and better US construction materials and detailing, and odds are on for an epic battle for sure – probably 4 x Iowas vs 2 x Yamato + 1 x Nagato + 2 x Kongo class. And it might have happened if Halsey hadn’t been diverted by Ozawa’s decoys at Leyte Gulf. But as you say, the age of battleships was over by then. I agree about Suragao Strait – not just an extraordinary battle of itself, but also the LAST battleship-to-battleship battle, ever. A fitting epitaph to the era.


          1. Oy. The Japanese believed they could bait Halsey like that, and sure enough, it worked. Halsey versus Kurita’s center force would have been a spectacular battle. Our own Trafalgar if we’d won it. Too bad it never happened.


              1. Oh my! I understand Japan’s metallurgy wasn’t quite what it should be. I didn’t realize it was quite that awful As far as I know, 26″ should be sufficient protection. This clearly wasn’t nearly enough. I remember reading that one of Japan’s better aircraft, the N1K2 “George” was enormously capable but had many problems. Landing gear often collapsed, destroying the plane and killing the pilot. The problem, poor quality of steel. So it seems that the Yamato would’ve fared poorly against an Iowa-class. Too bad the great battlewagons didn’t square off and prove it for all history.


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