The Battle of the Denmark Strait was a naval engagement in the Second World War, which took place on 24 May 1941 between ships of the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine. The British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood fought the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which were attempting to break out into the North Atlantic to attack Allied merchant shipping (Operation Rheinübung).
Less than 10 minutes after the British opened fire, a shell from Bismarck struck Hood near her aft ammunition magazines. Soon afterwards, Hood exploded and sank within three minutes, with the loss of all but three of her crew. Prince of Wales continued to exchange fire with Bismarck but suffered serious malfunctions in her main armament. The British battleship had only been completed in late March 1941, and used new quadruple gun turrets that were unreliable. Prince of Wales soon broke off the engagement.
The battle was a tactical victory for the Germans, but its impact was short-lived. The damage done to Bismarck’s forward fuel tanks forced the abandonment of the breakout and an attempt to escape to dry dock facilities in occupied France, producing an operational victory for the British. Incensed by the loss of Hood, a large British force pursued Bismarck resulting in her loss three days later.
In April 1941, the German Kriegsmarine intended to send the recently completed fast battleship Bismarck into the Atlantic Ocean to raid the convoys carrying supplies from North America to Britain. The operation was intended to complement the U-boat attacks on British supply lines during the Battle of the Atlantic. The two fast battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had just completed a similar operation, code-named Berlin, between January and March that year. The number of major warships available to the Germans was limited; Bismarck’s sister ship Tirpitz was not yet operational, Scharnhorst was in need of a boiler overhaul after Operation Berlin, and Gneisenau had been torpedoed while in Brest, France. Work on the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer, both under refit in Germany after their own raiding operations, was delayed by British air attacks that struck supply depots in Kiel. Admiral Günther Lütjens, the fleet commander who was to command German forces during the planned Operation Rheinübung, sought to delay until repairs to Scharnhorst were completed or Tirpitz could join Bismarck, but the Oberkommando der Marine (Naval High Command) instructed Lütjens to begin the operation as soon as possible to keep pressure on Britain’s supply lines. As a result, the only vessel available to support Bismarck was the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.
The British Royal Navy learned of Bismarck’s sortie after the Swedish cruiser Gotland spotted the vessels passing through the western Baltic Sea on 20 May; Gotland’s report was passed to the British naval attache in Stockholm, who forwarded it to the Admiralty. British reconnaissance aircraft confirmed the Germans’ presence in Norway. Now aware that major German warships were at sea with the intention to break into the Atlantic, the Royal Navy began to despatch vessels to patrol the likely routes, including the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and Suffolk to cover the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Another group, consisting of the battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and a screen of six destroyers,[nb 1] under the command of Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland in Hood, cruised to the south of Iceland to intercept the Germans once they were detected. Norfolk and Suffolk spotted Bismarck and Prinz Eugen on the evening of 23 May; Suffolk was fitted with radar that allowed them to shadow the Germans through the night whilst remaining outside of German gun range.
Prince of Wales was a newly commissioned King George V-class battleship, similar to Bismarck in size and power. Prince of Wales had not yet been properly “shaken down”, and her crew was inexperienced. She still had mechanical problems, especially with her main armament. The ship had sailed with shipyard workers still aboard working on her.
For 20 years after her commissioning in 1920, Hood was the largest and heaviest warship in the world. Combining eight massive BL 15-inch Mk I naval guns with a top speed greater than any battleship on the sea, Hood was the pride of Great Britain’s navy, and embodied the world dominance of British naval power. Despite this, Hood had one conspicuous flaw as compared to the super-dreadnought battleships she served alongside: as a battlecruiser, much of her bulk was dedicated to extra engine power instead of comprehensive armour coverage. This came from her design as a Admiral-class battlecruiser to meet the threat of the German Mackensen-class battlecruisers during World War I.
While her 12-inch belt armour was considered sufficient against most capital ships she was likely to encounter, her 3 inches of deck armour left her vulnerable to plunging fire at long range. At the time of her commissioning in World War I, naval gunnery was severely inaccurate at the ranges necessary to produce plunging fire, and Hood’s greater speed and maneuverability were seen as an acceptable trade-off. However, as the accuracy of naval gunfire increased in the inter-war period, Hood was eventually scheduled to receive an upgrade in 1939 that would have doubled her deck armour to 6 inches, but the outbreak of World War II meant the upgrade never took place. She thus sortied to war at a marked disadvantage against the new capital ships of the Axis powers.
Aware of Hood’s inadequate protective armour, distant to the southeast of where the battle took place, Holland’s superior (Admiral Sir John Tovey) considered ordering him to have Prince of Wales sail ahead of Hood. With the ships in this position, Tovey concluded the better-protected Prince of Wales could draw the German battleships’ large-shell gunfire. Ultimately, Tovey did not give the order, later saying “I did not feel such interference with such a senior officer justified.”
Both plans go awry
The original track chart of HMS Prince of Wales for the battle of the Denmark Strait, with manuscript additions
The Kriegsmarine had hoped that the Bismarck force would enter onto trans-Atlantic commerce raiding, from the Norwegian Sea via the Denmark Strait, undetected and unopposed. The Germans based this hope upon a transit from German territorial waters on the North Sea; and, through the territorial waters of German-occupied Norway into the Norwegian Sea, undetected by aerial searches; neutral ship encounters; and traditional “coast-watching” observations performed by formal and informal efforts of maritime intelligence gathering, in the neutral and occupied countries surrounding the North Sea.
In the event, the ground-level coast-watching observations from both neutral and occupied territories identified the principal combatant units sortied for the Exercise Rhine operation from the moment they left German territorial waters. The combatants (Bismarck and Prinz Eugen) were identified by in-country coast-watchers located in Denmark; who were able to identify the ships and communicate with their clandestine contacts, the dates and times of the German surface units, moving in their designated coast-watch areas of responsibility.
The ships of neutral Sweden acknowledged the transit of the main combatants in the normal shipping lanes in the North Sea, and reported on them in their normal routine to their maritime authorities. Swedish territory as well hosted individual ground-level coast watchers who were able to follow and report on movements in Swedish coastal waters. These observations were passed directly to Royal Navy intelligence by routine maritime diplomatic channels maintained by the British naval attaché in Stockholm. Thus, when Bismarck and her escort moved into the unoccupied fjords of German-occupied Norway, for final coastal refuelling and topping off of ships’ stores and supplies, the RAF (weather permitting) was able to keep a final watch on the location and timing of the German raider force. If the Germans were not aware of the specifics of the enemy’s continuing intelligence coverage and surveillance, up to this point, they should have been generally aware of – and concluded – that the forces conducting the aerial surveillance had had the benefit of the prior surveillance and intelligence on the operation from its start.
Holland’s battle plan was to have Hood and Prince of Wales engage Bismarck while Suffolk and Norfolk engaged Prinz Eugen (which, Holland assumed, still steamed behind Bismarck and not ahead of her). He signalled this to Captain John C. Leach of Prince of Wales but did not radio Wake-Walker, who as Commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron directed Suffolk and Norfolk, for fear of disclosing his location. Instead, he observed radio silence. Holland hoped to meet the enemy at approximately 02:00. Sunset in this latitude was at 01:51 (ship’s clocks were four hours ahead of local time). Bismarck and Prinz Eugen would be silhouetted against the sun’s afterglow while Hood and Prince of Wales could approach rapidly, unseen in the darkness, to a range close enough not to endanger Hood with plunging fire from Bismarck. The Germans would not expect an attack from this quarter, giving the British the advantage of surprise.
The plan’s success depended on Suffolk’s continually unbroken contact with the German ships. However, Suffolk lost contact from 00:28. For 90 minutes, Holland neither sighted the German ships nor received any further news from Norfolk or Suffolk. Reluctantly, Holland ordered Hood and Prince of Wales to turn south-southwest but he detached his destroyers which continued searching to the north. However, the loss of contact should be understood as temporary and tactical only; and not strategic in terms of the tactical outcome. Suffolk lost contact with its reconnaissance target (the enemy fleet) in what was essentially a closed, confined rectangular space; aligned generally northeast (the entrance to the Denmark Strait) to southwest (the exit of the Strait into the Atlantic). The enemy units were firmly constrained by the Greenland ice pack to the north, and the extensive Royal Navy minefield to the south along the coast of Iceland. Given the prior warning of the German sortie, there was ample time for the Royal Navy to place armed reconnaissance at both ends of this narrow alignment. Suffolk and Norfolk were at the eastern entrance to the Strait (where contact was made immediately upon Bismarck’s entry). Holland was waiting at the western end as the Bismarck force exited the Strait.
Strategically, it was an unquestioned fact (including the approximate timing) that Bismarck’s and Prinz Eugen’s entrance into the Atlantic (the fundamental objective of Rhine Exercise), was known from the moment the fleet left German territorial waters. And that was a long enough time span before the fleet’s final fitting out for transit to the Denmark Strait, that Lütjens could not have helped but to realize, that his force would not under any circumstance enter the Atlantic undetected nor would it enter unopposed. And by the time it was opposed, it would occur with forces that would likely ensure his fleet’s ultimate destruction. And such destruction would take place before any supply convoy units (the whole purpose of the operation) were threatened by Operation Rhine Exercise.
Before contact was re-established, the two squadrons missed each other narrowly. Had the German ships not altered course to the west at 01:41 to follow the line of the Greenland icepack, the British would have intercepted them much earlier than they did. The British destroyers were just 10 mi (8.7 nmi; 16 km) to the southeast when the Germans made this course change. If the visibility had not been reduced to 3–5 mi (2.6–4.3 nmi; 4.8–8.0 km), the German vessels would probably have been spotted (since generally on a calm, clear day ship lookouts can observe large objects and ships about 12 miles (19 km) distant on the horizon. And if the ship’s lookouts are in a crow’s nest, the observable distance is even farther).
Just before 03:00, Suffolk regained contact with Bismarck. Hood and Prince of Wales were 35 mi (30 nmi; 56 km) away, slightly ahead of the Germans. Holland signalled to steer toward the Germans and increased speed to 28 kn (32 mph; 52 km/h). Suffolk’s loss of contact had placed the British at a disadvantage. Instead of the swiftly closing head-on approach Holland had envisioned, he would have to converge at a wider angle, much more slowly. This would leave Hood vulnerable to Bismarck’s plunging shells for a much longer period. The situation worsened further when, at 03:20, Suffolk reported that the Germans had made a further course alteration to the west, placing the German and British squadrons almost abeam of each other.
At 05:35, lookouts on Prince of Wales spotted the German ships 17 mi (15 nmi; 27 km) away. The Germans, already alerted to the British presence through their hydrophonic equipment, picked up the smoke and masts of the British ships 10 minutes later. At this point, Holland had the options of joining Suffolk in shadowing Bismarck and waiting for Tovey to arrive with King George V and other ships to attack, or ordering his squadron into action. He chose the latter at 05:37. The rough seas in the Strait kept the destroyers’ role to a minimum and the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk would be too far behind the German force to reach the battle.
Hood opened fire at 05:52 at a distance of approximately 26,500 yd (24,200 m). Holland had ordered firing to begin on the leading ship, Prinz Eugen, believing from her position that she was Bismarck. Holland soon amended his order and directed both ships to engage the rear ship, Bismarck. Prince of Wales had already identified and engaged Bismarck, whereas Hood is believed to have continued to fire at Prinz Eugen for some time.
Holland was a gunnery expert; he was well aware of the danger posed by Hood’s thin deck armour, which offered weak protection against vertical plunging fire. Holland therefore wanted to reduce the range as quickly as possible, because at a shorter range the trajectory of Bismarck’s shells would be flatter, and the shells would therefore be more likely to hit the armour belt protecting the sides of the ship or glance off the top deck, rather than penetrate vertically though the deck armour. Holland closed the range at an angle that placed the German ships too far forward of the beam, which meant that only 10 of the 18 British heavy guns could train and presented the Germans with a bigger target than necessary. One of Prince of Wales’ forward guns became unserviceable after the first salvo, leaving only 9 still firing. Suffolk and Norfolk tried to engage Bismarck during the action but both were out of range and had an insufficient speed advantage over Bismarck to rapidly close the range.
The Germans also had the weather gauge, meaning that the British ships were steaming into the wind, spray drenching the lenses of Prince of Wales “A” turret’s 42 ft (13 m) Barr and Stroud coincidence rangefinder and both British ships’ “B” turret 30 ft (9.1 m) rangefinders. The shorter based (15 ft (4.6 m)) ones in the director towers had to be used instead. Holland had Prince of Wales stay close to Hood, conforming to Hood’s movements instead of varying course and speed, which made it easier for the Germans to find the range to both British ships. It would have aided Holland’s gunners if they had both fired upon Bismarck as originally planned, since they could time precisely each other’s salvos to avoid mistaking one ship’s fire for the other. The British could also use Concentration Fire, where both ships’ main armament salvos would be controlled by one ship’s fire control computer—probably Prince of Wales’ modern Admiralty Fire Control Table.
Prince of Wales struck her target first. She would ultimately hit Bismarck three times. One shell struck the commander’s boat and put the seaplane catapult amidships out of action (the latter damage not being discovered until much later, during an attempt to fly off the ship’s War Diary on the eve of her final battle). The second shell passed through the bow from one side to the other without exploding. The third struck the hull underwater and burst inside the ship, flooding a generator room and damaging the bulkhead to an adjoining boiler room, partially flooding it. The last two hits caused damage to Bismarck’s machinery and medium flooding. The hit also severed a steam line and wounded five of Bismarck’s crew by scalding. The damage to the bow cut access to 1,000 long tons (1,000 t) of fuel oil in the forward fuel tanks, caused Bismarck to leave an oil slick and reduced her speed by 2 kn (2.3 mph; 3.7 km/h). Bismarck was soon listing 9° to port and lost 2 m (6.6 ft) of freeboard at her bow.
The Germans held their fire until 05:55, when both German ships fired on Hood. Lütjens did not immediately give the order to begin firing. Bismarck’s first gunnery officer, Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Schneider, asked “Frage Feuererlaubnis?” (Permission to open fire?) several times without receiving a response, until the captain of Bismarck, Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann, impatiently responded: “Ich lasse mir doch nicht mein Schiff unter dem Arsch wegschießen. Feuererlaubnis!” (I’m not letting my ship get shot out from under my arse. Open fire!)
A shell hit Hood’s boat deck, starting a sizable fire in the ready-use 4 in (100 mm) ammunition store but this fire did not spread to other areas of the ship or cause the later explosion. It is possible that Hood was struck again at the base of her bridge and in her foretop radar director. There has been contention over which German vessel struck Hood; Prinz Eugen (Kapitän zur See Helmuth Brinkmann), was firing at Prince of Wales, following an order from the fleet commander. The Gunnery Officer of Prinz Eugen, Paul Schmalenbach is quoted as saying that Prinz Eugen’s target was Hood.
Sinking of Hood
A sketch prepared by Captain JC Leach (commanding HMS Prince of Wales) for the 2nd Board of Enquiry, 1941.
The sketch represents the column of smoke or flame that erupted from the vicinity of the mainmast immediately before a huge detonation which obliterated the after part of the ship from view. This phenomenon is believed to have been the result of a cordite fire venting through the engine-room ventilators.
At 06:00, Holland ordered his force to turn once again to port to ensure that the aft main guns on both Hood and Prince of Wales could bear on the German ships. In terms of the force balance this would nominally give Holland’s force the advantage of 18 large caliber (14/15 in.) guns (10 in Prince of Wales, 8 in Hood); to 8 (8 – 15 in. in Bismarck).
During the turn, a salvo from Bismarck, fired from about 9 mi (7.8 nmi; 14 km), was seen by men aboard Prince of Wales to straddle Hood abreast her mainmast. This straddle meant that some of the salvos fell to port, some to starboard (of the hull), and some precisely aligned over the center of the main deck of Hood. It is likely that one 38 cm (15 in) shell struck somewhere between Hood’s mainmast and “X” turret aft of the mast. A huge pillar of flame that shot upward ‘like a giant blowtorch,’ in the vicinity of the mainmast.
This was followed by an explosion that destroyed a large portion of the ship from amidships clear to the rear of “Y” turret, blowing both after turrets into the sea. The ship broke in two and the stern fell away and sank. Ted Briggs, one of the survivors, claimed Hood heeled to 30 degrees at which point ‘we knew she just wasn’t coming back’. The bow rose clear of the water, pointed upward, pivoted about and sank shortly after the stern. “A” turret fired a salvo while in this upright position, possibly from the doomed gun crew, just before the bow section sank.
Splinters rained down on Prince of Wales .5 mi (0.43 nmi; 0.80 km) away. Hood sank in about three minutes with 1,415 members of the crew. Only Ted Briggs, Bob Tilburn and Bill Dundas survived to be rescued two hours later by the destroyer HMS Electra.
The Admiralty later concluded that the most likely explanation for the loss of Hood was a penetration of her magazines by a 38 cm (15 in) shell from Bismarck, causing the explosion. Recent research with submersible craft suggests that the initial explosion was in the aft 4 in (100 mm) magazine and that it spread to the 15 in (380 mm) magazines via the ammunition trunks. It has been suggested from examination of the wreckage, found in 2001, that the magazine explosion in the 4 in (100 mm) armament near the mainmast caused the vertical blast of flame seen there, and this in turn ignited the magazines of the aft 15 in (380 mm) guns that caused the explosion that wrecked the stern. This explosion might have travelled through the starboard fuel tanks, igniting the fuel oil there, setting off the forward magazines and completing the destruction of the ship.
A photo taken from the Prinz Eugen shows the Hood exploding in the far distance with the Prince of Wales nearby
The wreck of Hood revealed the bow section bereft of any structure. A huge section of her side is missing, from the ‘A’ barbette to the foredeck. The midship section had its plates curled outward. Moreover, the main parts of the forward structure, including the 600 long tons (610 t) conning tower, were found about 1.1 km (0.59 nmi; 0.68 mi) away from the main wreckage. This has sparked theories that the 15 in (380 mm) forward magazines exploded as a result of the force, flames and pressure, caused by the detonation of the aft magazines. However, a team of marine forensic scientists has found that implosion damage to the forward hull due to the rapid sinking of the Hood, is the most likely cause of the state of the forward hull, and they do not support any theory that the forward magazines exploded.
Prince of Wales alone
Prince of Wales found herself steering towards the sinking Hood. Her commanding officer, Captain Leach, ordered an emergency avoidance turn away from Hood’s wreckage. This violent change of course disrupted her aim and put her in a position that made it easier for the Germans to target her. She resumed her previous course but was now under the concentrated fire of both German ships. Prince of Wales was struck four times by Bismarck and three times by Prinz Eugen. One shell passed through her upper superstructure, killing or wounding several crewmen in the Compass Platform and Air Defence Platform. Pieces of another shell struck her radar office aft, killing the crewmen within.
A 20.3 cm (8.0 in) shell from Prinz Eugen found its way to the propelling charge/round manipulation chamber below the aft 5.25 in (133 mm) gun turrets, and a 38 cm (15 in) shell from Bismarck hit underwater below the armour belt, penetrating about 13 ft (4.0 m) into the ship’s hull, about 25 ft (7.6 m) below the waterline, but was stopped by the anti-torpedo bulkhead. Fortunately for Prince of Wales, neither shell exploded, but she still suffered minor flooding and the loss of some fuel oil. Contrary to some[which?] mistaken opinion, the 38 cm (15 in) shell that struck Prince of Wales below the waterline did not endanger her magazines, as it came to rest abreast an auxiliary machinery room.
The original gunnery plot of HMS Prince of Wales for the battle of the Denmark Strait.
This shows the ranges and bearings of the 18 salvos fired by Prince of Wales under director fire control between 05:53 and 06:02. Three salvos fired by “Y” turret under local control are not shown. The track of Bismarck (in red) is a post-battle estimate.
By this time, serious gunnery malfunctions had caused intermittent problems with the main armament, leading to a 26% reduction in output. According to Captain Leach, he decided that continuing the action would risk losing Prince of Wales without inflicting further damage on the enemy. He, therefore, ordered the ship to make smoke and withdraw, ‘pending a more favourable opportunity’. Prince of Wales turned away just after 06:04, firing from her rear turret under local control until the turret suffered a jammed shell ring, cutting off the ammunition supply and making the guns inoperable.
Despite efforts by crew members and civilian technicians to repair the shell ring, it took until 08:25 for all four guns to be back in service, although two of the guns were serviceable by 07:20. This temporarily left only five 14 in (360 mm) guns operational, but nine of the ten were operational in five hours. The final salvos fired were ragged and are believed to have fallen short. The ship retired from the battle around 06:10. Thirteen of her crew had been killed, nine were wounded. The timing of Prince of Wales’ withdrawal was fortunate for her, as she had come into torpedo range of Prinz Eugen and turned away as the German cruiser was about to fire.
Breaking off the action
On Bismarck there was tremendous elation at the sinking of Hood. There was also a keen expectation that they would close on Prince of Wales and possibly finish her off. Lindemann requested that Lütjens allow Bismarck to do just that. Even if Tovey’s squadron had left Scapa Flow the previous day, he would still be more than 300 nmi (350 mi; 560 km) away from Bismarck – even if Bismarck diverted to sink Prince of Wales (a chase Lindemann calculated would take only two or three hours).
Lütjens refused to allow Lindemann to give chase, giving no explanation. Lindemann repeated his request, this time more assertively. Lütjens held firm orders from the German Naval Commander, Großadmiral Erich Raeder, to avoid unnecessary combat with the Royal Navy, especially when it could lead to further damage that could hasten delivering Bismarck toward the waiting hands of the British. He broke off combat instead of pursuing Prince of Wales and ordered a course of 270°, due west. Bismarck had fired 93 of her 353 base-fused Armour Piercing (AP) shells during the engagement.
This clash between the two senior German officers reflected their disparate and distinct command functions. As captain of Bismarck, Lindemann operated first and foremost as a tactician. As such, he had no doubt that his ship’s immediate objective was to destroy Prince of Wales, and he had pressed his case as far and hard as he should. Lütjens, as fleet chief and task force commander, operated at the strategic and operational levels. To some degree, his orders were clear – attacking convoys was his priority, not risking “a major engagement for limited, and perhaps uncertain, goals”. Nevertheless, Raeder had also ordered Lütjens to be bold and imaginative, to accept battle if unavoidable and conduct it vigorously to the finish.
The reality was that Lütjens’ orders did not cover a spectacular success like the one just achieved. His priority therefore was to stick to his instructions – to concentrate on sinking merchant shipping and avoid encounters with enemy warships whenever possible. Moreover, before leaving Germany, Lütjens had told Admirals Conrad Patzig and Wilhelm Marschall, that he would adhere to Raeder’s directives. This meant he did not intend to become the third fleet chief to be relieved for contradicting Raeder’s orders; Marschall, one of his two predecessors, had been relieved of command for not following his orders to the letter despite the fact that Marschall’s analysis of the changes in the tactical situation since the orders were issued resulted in the sinking of the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and its two escorting destroyers. Nor was he predisposed to discuss his command decisions with a subordinate officer.
Even if he had known it was the untried Prince of Wales he was fighting and not King George V, Lütjens would probably have stuck to his decision. Following her would have meant exposing the squadron to further gunfire as well as to torpedo attacks from Norfolk and Suffolk. He would have risked his ships and crews on an expressly forbidden opportunity. Lütjens would also have been facing a foe that was still combat effective, despite the hits taken the RN’s damage assessment was that damage sustained was limited and caused no significant reduction in combat efficiency.
Between 06:19 and 06:25, Suffolk fired six salvoes in the direction of Bismarck, having mistaken a radar contact with an aircraft for Bismarck. Suffolk was actually out of gun range of both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen at the time.
Holland’s death led to responsibility for Prince of Wales falling to Wake-Walker in Norfolk. With this command came the responsibility of coping with Bismarck until enough British warships could concentrate and destroy her. His choice was either to renew the action with Bismarck, or ensure that she be intercepted and brought to action by other heavy units. Wake-Walker chose the latter course, continuing to shadow the German ships. Further offensive action, he concluded, would cause more damage to Prince of Wales than to Bismarck and endanger his cruisers, plus he knew Tovey was on his way. He ordered Prince of Wales to follow Norfolk at her best speed, so that Norfolk and Suffolk could fall back on her if attacked. At 07:57 Suffolk reported that Bismarck had reduced speed and appeared damaged.
Since Bismarck’s receiving the first hit in the forecastle, all six of the ship’s 26-man damage control teams had worked ceaselessly to repair the damage.[further explanation needed] When it was reported that the tips of the starboard propeller could be seen above water, Lindemann had ordered counterflooding two compartments aft to restore the ship’s trim. He then sent divers into the forecastle to connect the forward fuel tanks, containing a much-needed 1,000 long tons (1,000 t) of fuel, first to the tanks near the forward boiler then to the rear fuel tank by way of a provisional line running over the upper deck.
Both these maneuvers failed. Lindemann then requested permission to slow Bismarck and heel the ship first to one side then the other to weld patches from the inside to the holes in the forward hull. Lütjens refused, again without comment. Eventually, he had to agree to slow the ship to 22 kn (25 mph; 41 km/h) to allow hammocks and collision matting to be stuffed in the holes of the No. 2 boiler room and the auxiliary boiler room to stop the growing ingress of seawater. This attempt also failed. Boiler Room No. 2 was shut down, with a loss of speed to 28 kn (32 mph; 52 km/h).
As well as taking on seawater, Bismarck was leaking fuel oil. Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to drop back and see how much of a trail she was leaving astern. The carpet of oil was broad enough to cover both sides of the ship’s wake, was all colours of the rainbow and gave off a strong smell – all of which helped disclose Bismarck’s location.
The damage to Bismarck’s forward fuel tanks, combined with a missed opportunity to refuel at Bergen earlier in the voyage, left less than 3,000 long tons (3,000 t) of fuel remaining, not enough to operate effectively against the Atlantic convoys. The element of surprise – which was considered essential for the operation’s success – had most definitely been lost; the German ships continued to be shadowed by Wake-Walker’s squadron. Lütjens concluded that he needed to abort Bismarck’s mission and head toward a convenient dockyard for repairs.
The question was which dockyard to head for. The nearest friendly ports were Bergen and Trondheim in Norway, a little over 1,000 mi (870 nmi; 1,600 km) away. Steaming in that direction meant a return passage north or south of Iceland, with the enemy’s air forces now fully alerted to their presence and the possibility of other heavy units between them and Scapa Flow. Lütjens knew his intelligence was unreliable. Hood had been reported by Group North to be off West Africa and there had been no reports of a King George V-class battleship in the vicinity.
Disregarding Lindemann’s recommendation to return to Bergen, Lütjens ordered Bismarck to head for the French port of Saint-Nazaire. Prince of Wales pursued for several hours and re-engaged on several occasions before the German ships evaded pursuit. Although the French coast was 600 mi (520 nmi; 970 km) further away than Bergen, Saint-Nazaire held the potential of longer nights and wider seas in which to shake off Bismarck’s shadowers, plus the possibility of luring them across a line of U-boats. It would leave Bismarck poised on the edge of the British trade routes once the damage were repaired; it also meant the potential support of the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Both ships had been stationed at Brest in France, since the end of Operation Berlin earlier that year but had been kept in port for repairs and overhaul. While Brest was closer than Saint-Nazaire, it was within range of Royal Air Force bombers.
Lütjens detached the undamaged Prinz Eugen to continue raiding on her own. The cruiser went further south into the Atlantic, where she refuelled from a tanker at sea. She suffered engine trouble, abandoned her commerce raiding mission without having sunk any merchant ships, and made it to Brest.
Although Bismarck had been damaged in the engagement and forced to reduce speed, she was still capable of reaching 27 to 28 knots (50 to 52 km/h; 31 to 32 mph), the maximum speed of Tovey’s King George V. Unless Bismarck could be slowed, the British would be unable to prevent her from reaching Saint-Nazaire. Shortly before 16:00 on 25 May, Tovey detached the aircraft carrier Victorious and four light cruisers to shape a course that would position her to launch her torpedo bombers. At 22:00, Victorious launched the strike, which comprised six Fairey Fulmar fighters and nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers of 825 Naval Air Squadron, led by Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde. The inexperienced aviators nearly attacked Norfolk and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCGC Modoc on their approach; the confusion alerted Bismarck’s anti-aircraft gunners.
Bismarck also used her main and secondary batteries to fire at maximum depression to create giant splashes in the paths of the incoming torpedo bombers. None of the attacking aircraft were shot down. Bismarck evaded eight of the torpedoes launched at her, but the ninth struck amidships on the main armoured belt, throwing one man into a bulkhead and killing him and injuring five others. The explosion also caused minor damage to electrical equipment. The ship suffered more serious damage from manoeuvres to evade the torpedoes: rapid shifts in speed and course loosened collision mats, which increased the flooding from the forward shell hole and eventually forced abandonment of the port number 2 boiler room. This loss of a second boiler, combined with fuel losses and increasing bow trim, forced the ship to slow to 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph). Divers repaired the collision mats in the bow, after which speed increased to 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph), the speed that the command staff determined was the most economical for the voyage to occupied France.
Shortly after the Swordfish departed from the scene, Bismarck and Prince of Wales engaged in a brief artillery duel. Neither scored a hit. Bismarck’s damage control teams resumed work after the short engagement. The sea water that had flooded the number 2 port side boiler threatened to enter the number 4 turbo-generator feedwater system, which would have permitted saltwater to reach the turbines. The saltwater would have damaged the turbine blades and thus greatly reduced the ship’s speed. By morning on 25 May, the danger had passed. The ship slowed to 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph) to allow divers to pump fuel from the forward compartments to the rear tanks; two hoses were successfully connected and a few hundred tons of fuel were transferred.
As the chase entered open waters, Wake-Walker’s ships were compelled to zig-zag to avoid German U-boats that might be in the area. This required the ships to steam for ten minutes to port, then ten minutes to starboard, to keep the ships on the same base course. For the last few minutes of the turn to port, Bismarck was out of range of Suffolk’s radar. At 03:00 on 25 May, Lütjens ordered an increase to maximum speed, which at this point was 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph). He then ordered the ship to circle away to the west and then north. This manoeuvre coincided with the period during which his ship was out of radar range; Bismarck successfully broke radar contact and circled back behind her pursuers. Suffolk’s captain assumed that Bismarck had broken off to the west and attempted to find her by also steaming west. After half an hour, he informed Wake-Walker, who ordered the three ships to disperse at daylight to search visually.
The Royal Navy search became frantic, as many of the British ships were low on fuel. Victorious and her escorting cruisers were sent west, Wake-Walker’s ships continued to the south and west, and Tovey continued to steam toward the mid-Atlantic. Force H, with the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and steaming up from Gibraltar, was still at least a day away. Unaware that he had shaken off Wake-Walker, Lütjens sent long radio messages to Naval Group West headquarters in Paris. The signals were intercepted by the British, from which bearings were determined. They were wrongly plotted on board King George V, leading Tovey to believe that Bismarck was heading back to Germany through the Iceland-Faeroe gap, which kept his fleet on the wrong course for seven hours. By the time the mistake had been discovered, Bismarck had put a sizeable gap between herself and the British ships.
British code-breakers were able to decrypt some of the German signals, including an order to the Luftwaffe to provide support for Bismarck making for Brest, decrypted by Jane Fawcett on 25 May 1941. The French Resistance provided the British with confirmation that Luftwaffe units were relocating there. Tovey could now turn his forces toward France to converge in areas through which Bismarck would have to pass. A squadron of Coastal Command PBY Catalinas based out of RAF Castle Archdale in Northern Ireland joined the search, covering areas where Bismarck might head in the attempt to reach occupied France. At 10:30 on 26 May, a Catalina piloted by Ensign Leonard B. Smith of the US Navy located her, some 690 nmi (1,280 km; 790 mi) northwest of Brest. At her current speed, she would have been close enough to reach the protection of U-boats and the Luftwaffe in less than a day. Most British forces were not close enough to stop her.
The only possibility for the Royal Navy was Ark Royal with Force H, under the command of Admiral James Somerville. Victorious, Prince of Wales, Suffolk and Repulse were forced to break off the search due to fuel shortage; the only heavy ships remaining apart from Force H were King George V and Rodney, but they were too distant. Ark Royal’s Swordfish were already searching nearby when the Catalina found her. Several torpedo bombers also located the battleship, about 60 nmi (110 km; 69 mi) away from Ark Royal. Somerville ordered an attack as soon as the Swordfish returned and were rearmed with torpedoes. He detached the cruiser Sheffield to shadow Bismarck, though Ark Royal’s aviators were not informed of this. As a result, the Swordfish, which were armed with torpedoes equipped with new magnetic detonators, accidentally attacked Sheffield. The magnetic detonators failed to work properly and Sheffield emerged unscathed.
Upon returning to Ark Royal, the Swordfish loaded torpedoes equipped with contact detonators. The second attack comprised fifteen aircraft and was launched at 19:10. At 20:47, the torpedo bombers began their attack descent through the clouds. As the Swordfish approached, Bismarck fired her main battery at Sheffield, straddling the cruiser with her second salvo. Shell fragments rained down on Sheffield, killing three men and wounding several others. Sheffield quickly retreated under cover of a smoke screen. The Swordfish then attacked; Bismarck began to turn violently as her anti-aircraft batteries engaged the bombers. One torpedo hit amidships on the port side, just below the bottom edge of the main armour belt. The force of the explosion was largely contained by the underwater protection system and the belt armour but some structural damage caused minor flooding.
The second torpedo struck Bismarck in her stern on the port side, near the port rudder shaft. The coupling on the port rudder assembly was badly damaged and the rudder became locked in a 12° turn to port. The explosion also caused much shock damage. The crew eventually managed to repair the starboard rudder but the port rudder remained jammed. A suggestion to sever the port rudder with explosives was dismissed by Lütjens, as damage to the screws would have left the battleship helpless. At 21:15, Lütjens reported that the ship was unmanoeuvrable.
With the port rudder jammed, Bismarck was now steaming in a large circle, unable to escape from Tovey’s forces. Though fuel shortages had reduced the number of ships available to the British, the battleships King George V and Rodney were still available, along with the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Norfolk. Lütjens signalled headquarters at 21:40 on the 26th: “Ship unmanoeuvrable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.” The mood of the crew became increasingly depressed, especially as messages from the naval command reached the ship. Intended to boost morale, the messages only highlighted the desperate situation in which the crew found itself. As darkness fell, Bismarck briefly fired on Sheffield, though the cruiser quickly fled. Sheffield lost contact in the low visibility and Captain Philip Vian’s group of five destroyers was ordered to keep contact with Bismarck through the night.
The ships encountered Bismarck at 22:38; the battleship quickly engaged them with her main battery. After firing three salvos, she straddled the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun. The destroyer continued to close the range until a near miss at around 12,000 m (39,000 ft) forced her to turn away. Throughout the night and into the morning, Vian’s destroyers harried Bismarck, illuminating her with star shells and firing dozens of torpedoes, none of which hit. Between 05:00 and 06:00, Bismarck’s crew attempted to launch one of the Arado 196 float planes to carry away the ship’s war diary, footage of the engagement with Hood, and other important documents. The third shell hit from Prince of Wales had damaged the steam line on the aircraft catapult, rendering it inoperative. As it was not possible to launch the aircraft, it had become a fire hazard, and was pushed overboard.
Rodney firing on Bismarck, which can be seen burning in the distance
After daybreak on 27 May, King George V led the attack. Rodney followed off her port quarter; Tovey intended to steam directly at Bismarck until he was about 8 nmi (15 km; 9.2 mi) away. At that point, he would turn south to put his ships parallel to his target. At 08:43, lookouts on King George V spotted her, some 23,000 m (25,000 yd) away. Four minutes later, Rodney’s two forward turrets, comprising six 16 in (406 mm) guns, opened fire, then King George V’s 14 in (356 mm) guns began firing. Bismarck returned fire at 08:50 with her forward guns; with her second salvo, she straddled Rodney. Thereafter, Bismarck’s ability to aim her guns deteriorated as the ship, unable to steer, moved erratically in the heavy seas and deprived Schneider of a predictable course for range calculations.
As the range fell, the ships’ secondary batteries joined the battle. Norfolk and Dorsetshire closed and began firing with their 8 in (203 mm) guns. At 09:02, a 16-inch shell from Rodney struck Bismarck’s forward superstructure, killing hundreds of men and severely damaging the two forward turrets. According to survivors, this salvo probably killed both Lindemann and Lütjens and the rest of the bridge staff, although other survivors stated that they saw Lindemann on the deck as the ship sank. The main fire control director was also destroyed by this hit, which probably also killed Schneider. A second shell from this salvo struck the forward main battery, which was disabled, though it would manage to fire one last salvo at 09:27. Lieutenant von Müllenheim-Rechberg, in the rear control station, took over firing control for the rear turrets. He managed to fire three salvos before a shell destroyed the gun director, disabling his equipment. He gave the order for the guns to fire independently, but by 09:31, all four main battery turrets had been put out of action. One of Bismarck’s shells exploded 20 feet off Rodney’s bow and damaged her starboard torpedo tube—the closest Bismarck came to a direct hit on her opponents.
HMS Dorsetshire picking up survivors
With the bridge personnel no longer responding, the executive officer CDR Hans Oels took command of the ship from his station at the Damage Control Central. He decided at around 09:30 to abandon and scuttle the ship to prevent Bismarck being boarded by the British, and to allow the crew to abandon ship so as to reduce casualties. Oels ordered the men below decks to abandon ship; he instructed the engine room crews to open the ship’s watertight doors and to prepare scuttling charges. Gerhard Junack, the chief engineering officer, ordered his men to set the demolition charges with a 9-minute fuse but the intercom system broke down and he sent a messenger to confirm the order to scuttle the ship. The messenger never returned, so Junack primed the charges and ordered his men to abandon ship. They left the engine spaces at around 10:10. Junack and his comrades heard the demolition charges detonate as they made their way up through the various levels. Oels rushed throughout the ship, ordering men to abandon their posts. On the battery deck a huge explosion killed him and about a hundred others.
By 10:00, Tovey’s two battleships had fired over 700 main battery shells, many at very close range. Rodney closed to 2,700 m (3,000 yd), point-blank range for guns of that size, and continued to fire. Bismarck had been reduced to a shambles, aflame from stem to stern. She was slowly settling by the stern from uncontrolled flooding with a 20 degree list to port. Tovey would not cease fire until the Germans struck their ensigns or it became clear they were abandoning ship. Overall the four British ships fired more than 2,800 shells at Bismarck, and scored more than 400 hits, but were unable to sink Bismarck by gunfire. The heavy gunfire at virtually point-blank range devastated the superstructure and the sections of the hull that were above the waterline, causing very heavy casualties, but it contributed little to the eventual sinking of the ship. Rodney fired two torpedoes from her port-side tube and claimed one hit. According to Ludovic Kennedy, “if true, [this is] the only instance in history of one battleship torpedoing another”.
The scuttling charges detonated around 10:20. By 10:35, the ship had assumed a heavy port list, capsizing slowly and sinking by the stern. At around 10:20, running low on fuel, Tovey ordered the cruiser Dorsetshire to sink Bismarck with torpedoes and ordered his battleships back to port. Dorsetshire fired a pair of torpedoes into Bismarck’s starboard side, one of which hit. Dorsetshire then moved around to her port side and fired another torpedo, which also hit. By the time these torpedo attacks took place, the ship was already listing so badly that the deck was partly awash. It appears that the final torpedo may have detonated against Bismarck’s port side superstructure, which was by then already underwater. Bismarck disappeared beneath the surface at 10:40.
Junack, who had abandoned ship by the time it capsized, observed no underwater damage to the ship’s starboard side. Von Müllenheim-Rechberg reported the same but assumed that the port side, which was then under water, had been more significantly damaged. Some survivors reported they saw Captain Lindemann standing at attention at the stem of the ship as she sank. Around 400 men were now in the water; Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori moved in and lowered ropes to pull the survivors aboard. At 11:40, Dorsetshire’s captain ordered the rescue effort abandoned after lookouts spotted what they thought was a U-boat. Dorsetshire had rescued 85 men and Maori had picked up 25 by the time they left the scene. A U-boat later reached the survivors and found three men, and a German trawler rescued another two. One of the men picked up by the British died of his wounds the following day. Out of a crew of over 2,200 men, only 114 survived.