It's 2 AM on May 19th, 1941, and under the cover of darkness the mighty battleship Bismarck
slips free of her moorings and heads out to sea. The ship is impressive, largest in the
German fleet, with a displacement of over 50,000 tons, packing 64 guns, with foot-thick
armor protecting her from enemy fire. She's headed for the Danish straits, where she'll
be joined by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and her three destroyer escort. Overhead,
the fearsome Luftwaffe provides air cover, watching over the convoy of ships until they
are out of range. Their mission is to slip past British defenses and make for open water
in the Atlantic, where they will raid allied shipping and cripple Britain's ability to
continue its war effort.
A few days later though the German convoy encounters the Swedish cruiser Gotland- Sweden
is a neutral nation and thus the Germans aren't concerned about being attacked by Swedish
coastal defenses, but unbeknownst to the Germans, the Captain of the Swedish ship radios a report
back to naval headquarters, which is passed along to the British naval attache to Sweden
by Swedish officers with sympathies to England. Royal Navy Captain Henry Denham immediately
transmits the information to the British Admiralty, who review a report by Allied code-breakers
that a raid on the Atlantic was imminent and realize this is the flotilla enroute to wreck
hell on British shipping. A pair of Supermarine Spitfires are quickly ordered into the air
over the Norwegian coast to search for the German ships- they must be found immediately,
and the ships of the convoy, to include the mighty Bismarck, must be sunk at all costs-
the very fate of Britain hangs in the balance.
The now legendary Bismarck had her keel laid on the 1st of July, 1936 in Hamburg, Germany.
She was to be a replacement for the old pre-dreadnought SMS Hannover, and a counter to the french
Richelieu-class of battleships. Though on paper she was within the 35,000 ton limit
imposed by international treaty that governed battleship construction in the period between
World War I and World War II, in reality she far exceeded those limits- though by the time
she was completed the treaty system had fallen apart due to Japan's withdrawal and was not
enforced. She would come to displace over 50,000 tons and measure 823 feet (251 m),
immediately becoming the largest battleship in Europe until the commissioning of the HMS
Vanguard by Britain after the end of the war. Her complement included 1,962 enlisted men
overseen by 103 officers, and she could carry 4 Arado floatplanes for scouting and spotting
fire. She had a cruising range of 8,870 nautical miles (16,430 km) and could move along at
19 knots, putting much of the Atlantic at risk for the Allies.
One of the most formidable ships ever built at the time, the Bismarck sported eight 15
inch (38 cm) guns arranged in four twin gun turrets, with two stationed forward, and two
aft. Her secondary armament was made up of twelve 5.9 inch (15 cm) guns, sixteen 4.1
inch (10.5 cm) guns, sixteen 1.5 inch (3.7 cm) guns, and twelve anti-aircraft guns. Her
sides were protected by a belt of armor a foot thick, and her upper and main decks were
armored with 2 inches (50mm) and 3.9 to 4.7 inches (100 to 120mm) of armor plating respectively.
Not only could the Bismarck dish out one hell of a pounding, but she could take it in return
and keep on firing.
On the 5th of May, 1941, the Bismarck is ordered on a mission to raid Atlantic shipping. German
U-boats had been very successful to date, but the British had begun moving their merchant
ships in large convoy fleets protected by destroyers and small aircraft carriers. The
losses against German U-boats were growing exponentially, but with the Bismarck and her
destroyers to support them, the Germans could wreak havoc on British shipping- potentially
even ending the war by forcing Britain's surrender. Eleven days later, the Bismarck leaves her
port in Poland and makes for the Danish straits were she is joined by the Prinz Eugen and
three destroyers, along with a small flotilla of minesweepers.
The German mission is so secret that even its crew is unaware of their destination or
assignment, and it isn't until noon on May 20th that the crew is told over loudspeaker
of the ship's mission. At about the same time though a group of swedish aircraft flying
reconnaissance come across the German fleet, radioing their composition and heading while
remaining unseen by the Germans. One hour later, the Swedish cruiser Gotland intercepts
the fleet and shadows it for two hours as it passes by Swedish territorial waters. The
Germans are unconcerned by the Swedish ship, though privately Captain Ernst Lindemann,
commanding officer of the Bismarck, fumes that operational secrecy was effectively lost.
The Swedes may be neutral, but any stray radio chatter reporting their position could be
picked up by Allied spies- and the Germans always suspected that the Swedes harbored
many Ally sympathies and could simply give the ship up to the British. Captain Lindemann
orders the convoy increase speed and get out to open water as fast as possible, the quicker
they reach the atlantic, the safer they will be.
Back at the British embassy in Sweden, Captain Henry Denham receives an urgent report by
a Swedish officer with sympathies to the Allies- exactly as feared by the Germans. Though the
Bismarck is not named in the report, what is clear is that a large German force is making
for open water, and there can only be two conclusions: the Germans are preparing for
a cross-channel invasion of England, or they are moving forces out into the Atlantic in
order to cut Britain off from America and the vital war supplies the US is providing.
Either possibility spells disaster, and Captain Denhan immediately contacts the British Admiralty
with his information. Back in England an intelligence officer confirms that his code breakers at
Bletchley Park had decrypted reports that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had taken on
prize crews- crews of sailors meant to take over damaged enemy ships and sail them back
to friendly waters for repairs- and that their Captains had requested additional navigational
charts. This could mean only one thing: the long-awaited German push into the Atlantic
was finally coming, and leading the offensive was the most feared battleship in Europe.
A pair of Supermarine Spitfires are immediately ordered into the air to search for the German
flotilla off the coast of Norway, while at the same time the Germans launch their own
aerial reconnaissance mission over the British naval base at Scapa Flow. The Germans discover
that one aircraft carrier, three battleships, and four cruisers are still anchored at Scapa
Flow, which confirms their belief that the British are unaware of the Bismarck and her
battle group's mission. That night, the Bismarck reaches the Norwegian coast where her minesweepers,
two raiders, and their destroyer escorts break off and continue north without her. The next
morning, the Prinz Eugen intercepts radio broadcasts ordering British recon aircraft
to search for two battleships and three destroyers northbound off the Norwegian coast, and at
0700 hours the Germans spot four unidentified aircraft believed to be British planes which
immediately depart the area. Shortly after noon the German destroyers, minesweepers and
raiders reach Bergen and anchor at Grimstadfjord. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen meanwhile
are taking on supplies and fuel while a pair of luftwaffe BF 109 fighters fly overhead
to provide air cover.
Despite the air cover though, British Flying Officer Michael Suckling flies his Spitfire
directly over the German flotilla at a height of 26,000 feet (8,000 m) and takes photos
of the Bismarck anchored alongside her remaining escorts. Managing to break away from the defending
German fighters, Suckling makes it back to base where the pictures are immediately analyzed
and a report sent to the Admiralty. The British battlecruiser HMS Hood, the battleship Prince
of Wales, and six destroyers are ordered to reinforce a lone pair of cruisers that are
currently the only force patrolling the Denmark Strait. Meanwhile the British Home Fleet is
put on high alert in Scapa Flow and puts out to sea. The greatest naval battle of the European
theater is in the making, with the fate of Britain in the balance.
The British immediately dispatch 18 bombers to attack the anchored ships, though as luck
would have it the weather over the fjord where the ships are sheltering worsens considerably
and the bombers are unable to locate the German fleet. The next day at 1930 hours, the Bismarck,
Prinz Eugen, and their three destroyer escorts all leave Bergen and put out to sea once more,
and it wouldn't be until midnight when the force was already well out to sea that Hitler
is informed of the raid on the Atlantic. By this time it has become clear to the German
senior command staff that Hitler was no master strategist, despite his proclivity for personally
overseeing every aspect of the war effort. Thus the choice had been made to not let the
Fuhrer know of the Bismarck's mission until it was far too late for him to stop it, thus
grudgingly, Hitler consents and the Bismarck continues on her way.
The next day at 0410 hours, the three escorting destroyers are detached from the fleet as
the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen attempt to dash through the Denmark Strait and break
out into the open Atlantic. Speed is increased to 27 knots and both ship’s radars are activated-
potentially giving them away to Allied forces but also allowing them to monitor any threats
bearing down on them. The move is risky, but mists have reduced visibility to between 3,000
and 4,000 meters- which suits the Germans as it provides them cover from air attack,
but could also give that same cover to British ships lying in wait to ambush the two German
vessels. The mood is tense aboard the Bismarck, if they can break past Iceland they'll be
out into the open Atlantic and safe from British attack. But they're so close to Britain now
that at any moment these mists could be hiding a British fleet waiting to pounce.
At 10:00 hours the Germans encounter ice floes which force them to reduce speed and adopt
a zigzag route through the dangerous icebergs. This further slows their break-out to the
north Atlantic. At 19:22, hydrophone and radar operators raise the alarm after detecting
the HMS Suffolk at a range of approximately 12,500 meters, and the Prinz Eugen's radio-intercept
team confirms their worst fears: their location has been reported.
The Prinz Eugen is immediately ordered to engage the Suffolk, but through the fog the
Germans are unable to clearly make out their target. Rather than light themselves up and
give the British an easier target to spot and fire back at, the Germans hold their fire
while the Suffolk retreats to a safe distance, continuing to shadow the Germans ships. At
2030 hours, the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk joins the Suffolk, but strays too close to
the Germans who immediately open fire. The Bismarck fires five salvos from her main gun,
three of which score hits on the Norfolk but cause superficial damage. The Norfolk responds
by laying down a smoke screen and fleeing into a fog bank to lick its wounds- the opening
salvo of Europe's greatest naval battle has officially been fired.
The concussion from the big guns of the Bismarck though have knocked out her radar set, and
the Prinz Eugen is ordered to take point so she can use her own radar to find the British
formation. Hoping to surprise the British ships shadowing them, the Germans wait until
the Bismarck has been overtaken by a rain squall and then put the ship through a 180
degree turn, steaming full speed ahead at the two British ships. The surprise attack
however is defeated by the Suffolk's radar, which easily detects the Bismarck's maneuver
despite its heavy rain cover, and the British ships evade the pending attack. The British
cruisers remain on station throughout the night, continually relaying the German position
to the rest of the British fleet. The Germans know a fight is coming, and try to get what
rest they can through the stormy weather.
The weather finally breaks early on the morning of the 24th of May, as hydrophone operators
aboard the Prinz Eugen detec t a pair of unidentified vessels approaching at high speed. A half
hour later German lookouts spot smoke on the horizon, and a few minutes later the ships
are revealed to be the Hood and Prince of Wales. Alarms ring and klaxons sound as the
men rush to battle stations, the Bismarck training her big guns on the approaching threats.
At 0552 hours, the Hood opens fire at extreme range, and a salvo of shells explodes in the
water around the Prinz Eugen, which the British have mistaken for the Bismarck. The Prince
of Wales responds a minute later, firing her own salvo at the Bismarck, though its shells
too fall short of their mark. As the British ships approach, they continue raining down
fire around the Germans, though the Germans don't respond. Inside the bridge of the Bismarck,
first gunnery officer Adalbert Schenider requests permission to return fire twice, but is denied
twice by Admiral Gunther Lutjens, fleet chief of the Kriegsmarine. After a few more close
calls, Captain Lindemann can no longer bear it and mutters, “I will not let my ship
be shot out from under my ass!” and formally requests permission to return fire from Lutjens,
who at last relents.
The British ships are approaching head on, which only lets them use their forward guns.
The Germans meanwhile are able to bring all of their guns to bear on the British and fire
full broadsides. British Vice Admiral Holland orders his ships to turn 20 degrees to port,
allowing them to close the distance to the Germans while bringing their rear gun turrets
into the fight.
Rather than split their fire like the British, the Germans concentrate their fire on the
Hood, and almost immediately after being freed to return fire, the Prinz Eugen scores a direct
hit with a high explosive shell, starting a large fire. British damage control crews
rush to put out a fire that threatens ammo stores and manages to put out the flames before
the entire ship goes up in one giant explosion. Unfortunately for the British though, the
Germans have found their range to the Hood, and the Bismarck immediately opens fire with
rapid salvoes from its main guns. Its secondary guns are ordered to engage the Prince of Wales,
scoring one or two hits with fail to penetrate her heavy armor plating.
The Prinz Eugen is then ordered to shift her fire onto the Prince of Wales, in order to
keep both enemy vessels under fire, and a few minutes later the Prinz Eugen scores two
direct hits on the British ship which set off several small fires. The Prinz Eugen then
drops behind the Bismarck so that she can use her radar to monitor the location of the
Norfolk and Suffolk, which have been shadowing the battle. At 0600 hours, the Bismarck scores
a direct hit on the hood with an armor piercing shell which penetrates deep into the bowels
of the ship and detonates 112 tons of explosives stored below. A massive explosion immediately
breaks the back of the Hood, splitting her into two pieces. The battle for the Atlantic
has lasted only eight minutes so far, and already the British have lost one ship and
The Bismarck immediately shifts her fire to the Prince of Wales. The British ship is now
outnumbered two to one, and the Bismarck manages to score a direct hit with its first salvo,
striking the bridge. The round does not explode on impact but instead passes through the bridge
and out the other side, though it kills everyone inside save for Captain John Leach and one
other officer. Hurt and limping, the Prince of Wales nonetheless returns fire and scores
several direct hits on the Bismarck, hitting her on the forecastle and above the torpedo
bulkhead and flooding a turbo-generator room. A third round passed straight through a lifeboat
and the float plane catapult, though it too fails to explode on impact.
By 0613 though most of the Prince of Wale's guns are out of commission, and she's taken
very heavy damage. Captain Leach orders the ship to retreat and she immediately lays out
a smoke screen to cover her withdrawal, with the Germans firing the entire way until at
last she's out of range. Aboard the Bismarck Captain Lindemann insists on giving chase
and finishing off the heavily wounded British battleship, but Admiral Lutjen refuses and
quotes operational orders that state the ships must not actively engage any forces not protecting
At first the Bismarck does not seem to be seriously damaged, but after the Prinz Eugen
spots heavy streams of oil on both sides of her wake, the Bismarck is ordered to make
for Saint-Nazaire in occupied France for repairs. The Prinz Eugen is ordered to detach and commence
its attacks on allied shipping, leaving the Bismarck to steam back to port alone.
The Prince of Wales meanwhile has joined the Suffolk and Norfolk which are still shadowing
the Germans, though it is ordered to the rear of the formation given her extensive battle
damage. A British flying boat spots the oil slick being left behind by the Bismarck and
reports it to the British ships, who report it back to the British Admiralty. Seeing a
chance to destroy Germany's most powerful ship, the British order all available ships
to give chase, and in total six battleships and battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers,
thirteen cruisers, and twenty one destroyers all begin the hunt for the Bismarck.
At 1814 hours, the Bismarck suddenly turns on the three British ships and opens fire.
The Suffolk, well out of range of its own smaller guns, breaks away at high speed, though
the Prince of Wales, which has repaired nine of its ten damaged guns, fires twelve salvos
in response. No hits land on either side, though the brief action diverts British attention
and allows the Prinz Eugen to finally break away and head out into the Atlantic. With
the Eugen away, the Bismarck turns back and resumes its course to port. She's been damaged
and slowed, but is still steaming along at 28 knots, the maximum speed of the chasing
British ships. If she can't be slowed down, the British won't be able to stop her from
reaching port, and once under cover from the Luftwaffe, any attempt to sink her would be
In desperation, the British launch a nighttime strike from the nearby aircraft carrier Victorious,
which launches six fighters and nine torpedo bombers. As they approach their target though
the inexperienced air crews almost attack the Norfolk and a US Coast Guard cutter by
accident, and the confusion alerts the German's to their approach. As the torpedo bombers
finally spot the correct target, the Bismarck lowers her guns to maximum depression and
opens fire, creating huge splashes of water in the path of the incoming bombers, which
must fly low in order to release their torpedoes. None of the aircraft are hit, but only one
of the nine torpedoes finds it mark, striking amidships along the armored belt that protects
the ship. The damage is light, but the stress of evading the incoming torpedoes has caused
flooding from the forward shell hole scored earlier by the Prince of Wales. The flooding
forces the crew to abandon the port number 2 boiler room and slows the Bismarck down
to a speed of 16 knots.
By morning of the 25th of May though the damage has been largely repaired by damage control
crews and the Bismarck is once more able to steam along at 28 knots. Entering waters known
to be prowled by German U-boats, the British are forced to zig-zag in order to avoid the
lurking threats, which further adds to the Bismarck's growing lead. Successfully breaking
radar contact, the Bismarck circles away to the West and then North, confusing the British
who by this point are low on fuel and desperate to make contact again.
Unaware that she has successfully shaken off her pursuers though, the Bismarck sends a
radio message to Naval Group West in Paris, asking for Luftwaffe air support. British
code-breakers decrypt the messages and successfully triangulate the location of the Bismarck-
though a mistake by the pursuing British puts them on a wrong course for seven hours, adding
even more distance to the Bismarck's lead. The British immediately order every available
ship and plane to search for the Bismarck, but it's not until 1030 hours on the 26th
of May that she's spotted again by a US Navy pilot northwest of Brest. If the Bismarck
isn't stopped soon, she'll be in range of friendly U-boats and the Luftwaffe in less
than one day- yet most of the British forces were not close enough to stop her.
The only possibility to stop the Bismarck lay with the Royal Navy's Ark Royal, a small
aircraft carrier equipped with antiquated Swordfish torpedo bomber biplanes. The odds
couldn't have been longer, but the chance to sink Germany's most powerful ship and break
the back of the German navy would quickly pass, and so the Swordfish are ordered into
the air. Armed with magnetic detonator torpedoes, the Swordfish proceed on a bearing to the
Bismarck, but instead encounter the heavy cruiser Sheffield which had been ordered to
shadow the Bismarck- though the pilots were never told. Believing they were at their target,
the Swordfish proceed to attack the Sheffield, though the magnetic detonators on the torpedoes
fail and the Sheffield is unscathed. Returning to the Ark the Swordfish are rearmed with
contact detonator torpedoes. At 1910 hours, a flight of 15 Swordfish take to the air,
and at 2047 the attack on the Bismarck begins.
Plunging through the growing cloud cover, the small biplanes are raked with anti-aircraft
fire even as the Bismarck fires its main guns on the Sheffield, which has moved in range
hoping for a critical hit from a torpedo attack. The first few salvos manage to score hits
on the Sheffield though, and the cruiser is forced to retreat under a cover of smoke.
The torpedo bombers meanwhile avoid incoming anti-aircraft fire and loose their torpedoes
against the Bismarck, which by now is zig-zagging violently to avoid their attack. Torpedo after
torpedo misses the giant ship, until finally two manage to hit- the first doing minor structural
damage, but the second explodes on the Bismarck's stern, near the port rudder shaft. The rudder
becomes locked in a twelve degree turn, and the Bismarck is no longer able to sail straight,
instead sailing in large circles, utterly helpless versus approaching British forces.
Whether miracle, or luck, the antiquated biplane torpedo bombers have managed to do what the
most modern British ships couldn’t, and now the Bismarck's fate is sealed.
Aboard the Bismarck, Admiral Lutjens sends a radio dispatch to fleet headquarters at
2140. The message reads simply: Ship unmaneuverable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live
the Fuhrer. Her crew, fully cognizant of their fate, grow increasingly depressed- yet remain
committed to fight to the last.
At 2238 a group of five British destroyers encounter the Bismarck, only to be greeted
with heavy fire form her main guns. The Polish destroyer ORP Piorun takes a direct hit yet
continues to close defiantly until a near miss at 12,000 meters forces her to turn away.
Stuck making slow circles, the Bismarck is unable to maneuver, and throughout the night
the British destroyers dart in and out, harassing her with fire until day break.
At sunrise, the British battleship King George V leads the final attack on the Bismarck.
Within minutes the King George is exchanging fire with the Bismarck, its big 16 inch (406
mm) guns raining fire down around her. For her part though the Bismarck immediately scores
several hits on the British destroyer Rodney, though the increasingly heavy seas and her
inability to steer is making it difficult to aim her guns properly. Closing in, the
attacking ship's secondary batteries open fire, joining their 8 inch (203 mm) guns to
the fight. At 0902 hours, a 16 inch shell from the Rodney strikes the Bismarck's forward
superstructure, immediately killing hundreds of men and severely damaging the two forward
turrets. Captain Lindemann and Admiral Lutjens, along with the rest of the bridge staff, are
instantly killed. The Bismarck is now without a captain, and with her two main guns severely
damaged. Moments later another salvo strikes the forward main battery, and it is unable
to fire again save for one final salvo at 0927 hours. By 0931 all four main batteries
are severely damaged and out of action, smoke and fire pouring over her deck.
By 1000 hours the British are at point-blank range and have fired over 700 shells. The
Bismarck has been reduced to a mangled smoking mess of steel wreckage, yet the British continue
firing. They have been ordered not to stop until the ship strikes her colors- or lowers
her flag in surrender- or it becomes clear that the men are abandoning ship. Orders are
given by the surviving officers to scuttle the Bismarck, and scuttling charges are planted
in the depths of her hull. By 1020 hours the British have now fired over 2,800 shells at
the Bismarck, most at close range, and yet still failed to sink her. With the British
ships running low on fuel, the cruiser Dorsetshire is ordered to sink the Bismarck with torpedoes
and the rest of the ships are sent back to port. The Dorsetshire scores two direct hits
with its torpedoes on the Bismarck's starboard side, and two more hits on its port side,
and at last, the incredible ship slips beneath the waves.
Out of a crew of over 2200 men, only 114 would survive, but the Bismark itself would endure
as a testament to German engineering and combat prowess. Struck over 700 times it took four
direct hits by torpedoes at close range to at last send the mighty ship to the bottom,
and after such a staggering combat action it becomes clear why the British feared what
would happen if the Bismarck had ever made it to the open Atlantic and been let loose
upon their merchant shipping fleet.
If you managed to get all the way, congrats. Now go watch our other video: The Most Intense
Tank Battle In History: The Battle of 73 Easting