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History of the German Battleship Bismarck

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The Bismarck was the largest battleship of the German navy during the ‘40s. It was one of the last large battleships before they were eclipsed by aircraft carriers and U-boats. At over 50,000 tons it also eclipsed any battleships that Britain’s Royal Navy had at their disposal.

Construction of the Bismarck battleship first began during the 1930s. It was constructed in the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, and was complete in time for the outbreak of hostilities. In 1940 the Bismarck was commissioned and ready for combat after numerous sea-trials in Kiel Bay.

The Bismarck had a formidable assortment of guns. These included 8 x 5 inch, 12.9 x 5.9 inch and 16 X 4.9 inch guns. In addition to this, the Bismarck had tough armor and a speed of some 29 knots which made the ship hard to catch.

The high command of the German navy remained divided as to whether they should rely just on U-boats, or also engage in further surface fleet action. The sinking of the Graf Spee had highlighted the drawbacks of surface fleet battles, but the Bismarck now provided Germany with an altogether greater battleship. With its armament and assortment of guns the Bismarck revived Plan Z which outlined German surface fleet naval and action.

In 1941 the Bismarck left its harbor to begin Operation Rheinübung, along with the Prinz Eugen cruiser which provided additional support for the operation. This operation targeted British merchant shipping, and was essentially a convoy raid on Allied merchant ships. Sinking the Bismarck therefore became a top priority for the Royal Navy after the Admiralty became informed of the Bismarck’s presence in the Kattegat approaching the North Sea.

As such, two Royal Navy battleships were ordered to locate and pursue the Bismarck. These were the Prince of Wales and the Hood battleships. Their mission was to sink the Bismarck.

The Bismarck continued sailing into the Denmark Straight before it was located by the Hood and Prince of Wales. The Battle of the Denmark Strait in May, 1941 was a victory for the Bismarck which perfectly highlighted how effective this battleship could be. During this battle the Bismarck set the Hood ablaze and sunk it. For years the Hood had been one of the Royal Navy’s largest warships until the Bismarck had eclipsed it, and now the Bismarck had sunk it. In addition to this, the Prince of Wales was also hit, but managed to remain afloat and withdrew.

After this battle the Royal Navy sent re-enforcements. Aircraft carriers were sent to locate the Bismarck, and it was spotted heading for the Biscay Ports. The Royal Navy sent a sortie of Swordfish torpedo bombers to bomb the Bismarck, and one torpedo jammed the rudders of the Bismarck. Without effective rudders the Bismarck had become a sitting duck for the increasing Royal Navy presence heading towards it.

As such, on the 27th May the Royal Navy battleships reached the Bismarck and opened fire. Under heavy fire the Bismarck’s gun turrets were taken out. Torpedoes did the rest and sank the Bismarck, and so the Bismarck slipped beneath the sea.

The Bismarck was therefore the largest battleship ever sunk by the Royal Navy. The demise of the Bismarck, and indeed the Hood, marked the end of the battleship era.  Plan Z was therefore all but abandoned by the German navy.

More about this author: Matthew Adams

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