In the Spring of 1941, air attacks on England had failed to break the will of her population to carry on the war. Heavy combat in the Atlantic focused on Kriegsmarine U-boats attacking merchant ships bound for England and attempting to starve the British into submission. Except for a few exceptions, German capital ships had not entered the Atlantic to raid convoys. That would change with the sortie of the battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in May 1941.
Bismarck was a modern ship with substantial armor and eight 15″ guns. Admiral Originally the battlecruisers Gneisnau and Scharnhorst were to sail also, but Gneisnau was damaged by air attack and Scharnhorst needed new boilers after her own sortie into the Atlantic. Neither ship accompanied the Bismarck. Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck, was certified for action by her captain but was not assigned to the mission. Originally scheduled for April, it was delayed to allow the Prinz Eugen to be repaired after hitting a mine. The ships would then have to cope with longer daylight hours, making them easier to find.
What the German Admiral Gunther Lütjens and his planners did not know was the growing cooperation between the United States Navy and the Royal Navy. The Americans had agreed to extend their patrols to include the Western Atlantic. New Catalina long-range patrol aircraft were made available to the British. These agreements allowed the British to concentrate their search capabilities closer to home. Also, the new carrier HMS Illustrious had recently been commissioned. Intelligence revealed that the Germans ships had received new charts and the French port of Brest was obviously fitting out to support a large ship.
Nevertheless, Lütjens sailed on May 19 from Germany with escorts for Norway. For whatever reason, Lütjens did not order the Bismarck to fill her tanks from the available tankers. Hiding in the Norwegian fjords, a RAF spitfire photo reconnaissance aircraft found her on May 20-21. This caused panic throughout the Royal Navy. If the two ships could break out into the open Atlantic, they would wreak havoc on the convoys. The escorts were not capable of dealing with such a force. Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, had superior numbers of ships but had to spread them out. Royal Navy stations from Gibraltar to Iceland were alerted to watch for the ships.
HMS Norfolk, and her sister cruiser HMS Suffolk, were assigned to patrol the Denmark Straits between Greenland and Iceland. They saw the German ships on May 23rd and alerted the Home Fleet. Tovey, who had divided his forces into two groups, had the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood closest to the targets. Soon he would arrive with HMS King George V, HMS Illustrious and other ships.
HMS Hood was built in 1920, and had always been slated to be overhauled and fitted with more substantial armor. Due to her tours between the wars, this was never done, and her design was flawed. Sacrificing armor for speed, Hood was not capable of surviving heavy gunfire of modern battleships.
On the morning of May 24, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales came within range. As they approached form the North, they could only present their forward guns to fire on the Germans. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen turned to and fired. Within seventeen minutes, Bismarck had been hit three times, causing her to ride low in the bow. HMS Hood had blown up and cracked in two, killing all but three of her 1,418 crewmembers. Prince of Wales, a new battleship and suffering from teething troubles, had mechanical difficulties that were compounded by several hits from Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.
The sinking of the HMS Hood enraged the Royal Navy and the British public. Lütjens realized that the battle damage meant the end of the Atlantic sortie, and he decided to make for Brest. To allow the Prinz Eugen to escape, Bismarck turned briefly on her pursuers and the heavy cruiser sailed away. Bismarck then attempted to evade the British once more. Lütjens hoped that before the British could make contact again he would reach the protection of land-based aircraft in France.
The British once again lost sight of the Bismarck until May 26, when a Catalina patrol plane, with an United States Navy officer on board, saw Bismarck through the clouds. Tovey turned to HMS Ark Royal’s swordfish torpedo bombers – old, slow biplanes nicknamed ”stringbags”– who had little night attack training. They succeeded in damaging Bismarck with two torpedoes. One caused little damage when it hit the waterline near the bridge, but the other jammed the rudder. Tovey did not understand why reports showed the Bismarck turning towards his force, which was now pursuing Bismarck, until the swordfish pilots reported their two torpedo hits.
Lütjens now realized that he had serious problems. He could not adequately steer the ship, and the increased use of the engines further limited his fuel supply. Now he began to regret not refueling in Norway. Also, his fast battleship was now slowed as she had to steer with her engines.
Tovey was able to bring superior firepower to bear on the Bismarck on May 27th, 1941. Completely outnumbered and outgunned, the British ships fired repeatedly as the Bismarck’s guns slowly grew silent. After some 400 shell hits, the Bismarck’s survivors began to scuttle the ship and abandon her. Only a few hundred of her 2,000 crewmembers were rescued when a report of a U-boat ended the Royal Navy’s rescue efforts. Shocked German sailors watched their comrades slip away as the ships gained speed, some falling right out of their hands. Lütjens and his staff went down with the Bismarck. Hitler was outraged with Grand Admiral Raeder, the mission’s superior commander and Chief of Naval Operations, and vowed to never let the Tirpitz make a similar foray. Bismarck’s sister ship became one of the most underutilized warships, spending much of her time hiding in the Norwegian fjords. Numerous attacks by midget submarines and aircraft failed, until “tallboy” bombs sank Tirpitz in 1944.
Controversy would haunt the sinking, as the German survivors claimed they scuttled the ship before the British sank her. Also the Germans claimed vengeance was the actual reason the rescue efforts stopped, as punishment for the death of almost the entire crew of the Hood.