On 24 May 1941 two mighty ships engaged in battle – the respective pride of the German and British navies: the Bismarck and HMS Hood.
It started six days before when, on the evening of Sunday 18 May 1941, the Bismarck, accompanied by the Prinz Eugene, set sail from the Polish port of Gdynia. It was the Bismarck’s first mission.
“There had never been a warship like her”
Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched just two years earlier, in February 1939, by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1909-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.”
The mission set for the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugene was to head for the Atlantic and cause as much damage and disruption as possible to the British convoys shipping vital supplies across the Atlantic into Britain. On board the Bismarck were two of Hitler’s most senior and able seamen – its captain, 45-year-old Ernst Lindemann, referred to by his crew as ‘our father’, and Fleet Commander, 51-year-old Admiral Gunther Lutjens.
From Poland, the two ships passed Norway where their presence was picked up by the British. British aircraft and ships, keeping a safe distance, monitored their progress as the German ships skirted north of Iceland and then south down the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland.
It was here, in the Denmark Straits, that the British fleet, led by the HMS Hood and Prince of Wales, was ordered to intercept.
“The embodiment of British sea-power”
Built in 1916, the Hood was, according to Kennedy, “the embodiment of British sea-power and the British Empire between the wars.” But the Hood had been built at a time, during the First World War, when enemy shells came in low and hit the sides of a ship near the water line. But in 1941 shells were more likely to arch across the sky and fall onto the upper decks. The decks of the Hood had never been reinforced and therein lay its weak spot. The “embodiment of British sea-power” had been built for a different war.
The Battle of Denmark Straits
In the early hours of 24 May, the opposing fleets with their imposing ships engaged. Thirteen miles apart the ships fired one-ton shells that, travelling at 1,600 miles per hour, took almost a minute to reach their intended target. The noise, which could be heard in Iceland, was horrendous.
The battle lasted merely twenty minutes and both the Bismarck and the Prince of Wales took direct hits, but it was the fate of the Hood that stunned the world. A shell from the Bismarck hit the Hood on its vulnerable upper deck, tore through the ship and penetrated its ammunition room, causing an almighty explosion.
The ship sliced into two, its front end dramatically lifting out of the water. A huge fireball rocketed into the sky, followed by plumes of dense black smoke, with pieces of molten metal shooting like so many white stars, as one German sailor described it. (Pictured is a painting by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt capturing the moment of the Hood’s sinking. In the foreground is the HMS Prince of Wales)
Within five minutes, the HMS Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, had sunk. It was no more. Of its crew of 1,421 men, all were killed – except for three.
The crew of the Bismarck was jubilant. For this they would be the toast of Germany. The Prince of Wales was also struggling, having been hit seven times. The German crew wanted to give chase and finish her off but Lindemann, as captain, not wanting to expose the Bismarck unnecessarily, erred on the side of caution and resisted the temptation.
Also, of greater concern for Lindemann, the Bismarck had been hit by a shell that failed to explode but had caused damage to her fuel tanks. Serious damage.
Leaking oil at an alarming rate, Lindemann knew he had to get her back to safety. He decided on Saint-Nazaire, northern France, a distance of 1,700 miles, a journey of some four days.
The Prinz Eugene and the Bismarck parted ways. The joy of the Bismarck crew had evaporated. Now there was nothing but concern – could they escape the British, could they make it all the way to France? The ship was limping – the fuel leak had forced the captain to greatly reduce speed. France seemed a long way away.
Sink the Bismarck
Meanwhile, in Britain, a nation reeled in shock, stunned by the loss of the Hood. It demanded retaliation. Churchill, reflecting the public mood, issued his famous battle cry: “Sink the Bismarck!”
A fleet consisting of four battleships, two battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, 21 destroyers and 13 cruisers was dispatched.
The chase was on.
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