History | 7 September 2017Where is the Bismarck? Share article facebook twitter google pinterest During World War II, the German Navy was a powerful force, defeating British naval defense throughout western Europe. Among the German fleet was its fiercest ship, a juggernaut named Bismarck. In May 1941, after attacking and sinking the powerful British battleship, HMS Hood, the Bismarck headed out into the North Atlantic, threatening the transatlantic shipping lanes that were vital to Britain’s survival. The Sinking of the Bismarck is the tale of the Royal Navy’s hunt for—and unlikely defeat of—the Bismarck, history’s most powerful sea raider. The Bismarck was launched at Hamburg on February 14, 1939, and the naming ceremony was performed by Frau von Loewenfeld, a granddaughter of Germany’s famous chancellor. Before the launching took place, Adolf Hitler made a twelve-minute speech in which he declared that the Bismarck laid the foundations of the Nazi state he wished to build. On May 24, 1941, British forces launched torpedoes at the Bismarck, successfully creating a direct hit. The scope of the damage wasn’t known, however, as British ships lost track of the Bismarck in darkness and fog. Loss of contact with the Bismarck caused the British government in London, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill later admitted, the “utmost anxiety.” For Admiral Tovey, whose fleet had got within a hundred miles of the enemy and then lost her, there were a number of urgent questions to try to answer on that morning of May 25. Had the Bismarck turned west toward Greenland to meet a German tanker for refueling? Had she turned south for a rendezvous with a tanker near the Azores, or southeast for repairs at Brest or St. Nazaire on the French coast? Or had she perhaps turned back for the Denmark Strait whence she could continue home to bases in Norway and Germany? After considering all the possibilities, Sir John chose the first two: that the Bismarck was steering either west for Greenland or south for the Azores in order to refuel. He directed the cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk to cover the west and northwest courses. He ordered the carrier Victorious to send planes on an aerial search in that general direction. Her protecting cruisers were to accompany her. The battle cruiser Repulse was now so short of oil that she was instructed to leave the squadron and proceed to Newfoundland for refueling. On the way, she would be in a position to cover the western search area. The battleship Ramillies was some 400 miles to the south and steaming almost due north. She was told to continue on course. She was old and slow and hardly able to stand up to the Bismarck should they meet alone. But she was all the British had at the moment to engage the German battleship if she had veered south toward the Azores. Sir John himself turned southwest with what was left of his Home Fleet. Not much was left. His battle cruiser and carrier, as well as his cruisers and destroyers, were gone. His one remaining battleship, the King George V, was scarcely a match for the more powerful Bismarck, so he ordered her sister ship, the Prince of Wales, to join him. Though crippled, the Prince of Wales had doggedly remained in the search with the Suffolk and Norfolk. She now left them to join Admiral Tovey’s flagship. The King George V, anchored in Iceland. This was Admiral Tovey’s flagship, in which he spent a week in pursuit of the Bismarck. There were other heavy British ships which might play a vital role if the Bismarck were found again. The chief of these was the battleship Rodney. Although the Rodney, as we have seen, was badly in need of repairs, her commander was sure she could put up a good fight if necessary. All night long, the Rodney had been steaming at full speed to join Admiral Tovey. About 3:00 a.m. on the 25th, when her destroyer escort began to fall behind in the rough seas, Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton pushed his battleship on alone, leaving his destroyers to catch up as best they could. When he learned two hours later that the Bismarck had been lost, the Rodney was about 400 miles southeast of the German ship’s last known position. This, the captain saw at once, was a pretty good place in which to be. He was sure that the Bismarck was now making for a French or Spanish port for repairs. If so, the Rodney was almost directly in her way. The wisest course, therefore, was for Captain Dalrymple- Hamilton to stop and remain just about where he was. And that is what he did. Vice-Admiral Somerville’s Force H—including the battle cruiser Renown, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and the cruiser Sheffield—was still more than a thousand miles to the southeast. All it could do for the moment was to continue at full speed to the northwest. At first it seemed to Somerville that he had left Gibraltar too late to get in on any action. But then it began to occur to him that, if the Bismarck made for a Spanish or French port, he might still join the fight. He pressed on as fast as he could. Unlike Somerville and Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton, the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet did not believe that the lost Bismarck was heading southeast toward Spain or France. All morning long—from 6:30 a.m. until nearly eleven o’clock—Admiral Tovey steered southwestward, searching in vain for the vanished enemy. A British soldier, aboard a cruiser, observing a battle in progress. Then the British had a stroke of luck. Admiral Luetjens broke radio silence! Early in the morning, the Admiral had begun to send a series of coded radio messages to German naval headquarters reporting the Bismarck’s position and other information. The British were dumbfounded—but grateful. They could not decode the German admiral’s figures giving his latitude and longitude. But they could determine his position fairly accurately by means of radio direction-finding stations in Britain and Northern Ireland. Why did the crafty and experienced German admiral take such a risk? Not one of his messages was urgent, or even necessary. We discovered this after the war when the contents of the messages became available from the German naval archives. Why did he send them and risk giving away his position when the whole British navy was vainly searching for a trace of him? Here again a human error crept in. Admiral Luetjens didn’t know the British had lost him! He thought he was still being shadowed. Indeed, in the very first radio message sent at 7:27 on the morning of May 25, he stated: “One battleship and two heavy cruisers maintaining contact.” He had no idea that the “one battleship” (Prince of Wales) and the “two heavy cruisers” (Suffolk and Norfolk) had completely lost him more than four hours before. So he continued to send off his radio messages. And the British direction-finding radio stations continued to get a fix on him. Then Admiral Luetjens had a stroke of luck. This, too, was due to a weird but human error—this time an error of the British. Aboard Admiral Tovey’s flagship, a mistake was made in simple arithmetic. The British Admiralty in London had radioed the Admiral’s ship at 10:30 a.m., giving the bearings on the Bismarck as received at 8:52 a.m. by their direction-finding sets. For some unexplainable reason, the Admiralty failed to give the position of the Bismarck as it had been plotted from the radio bearings. This was a costly piece of negligence. But in the navigation room on the King George V, it was easy to plot the enemy’s position from the bearings given. A navigation officer proceeded to do so. Perhaps he was in a hurry. It is said that his charts were not sufficiently detailed. Whatever the reason, he made a false mathematical calculation. This put the position of the Bismarck considerably to the north of where she had been when last seen on the Suffolk’s radar at 3 o’clock a.m. Admiral Tovey was forced to concluded that the Bismarck had turned north in the darkness and was heading home. He immediately reversed course to northeast and advised all other search ships to steer accordingly. At full speed, Sir John’s Home Fleet headed off in what turned out to be the wrong direction. Two British warships declined to follow the orders of the Commander in Chief. Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton on the battleship Rodney concluded that if the Bismarck were really heading northeast, he was too far south to catch her. But he was now sure in his seaman’s bones that the German battleship was making for France. In that case, the Rodney would be in her way. The Captain, therefore, against superior orders, remained where he was. Rear Admiral Wake-Walker aboard the cruiser Norfolk also felt in his bones that the Bismarck must have turned toward Brest or St. Nazaire on the French coast. On his own—and also contrary to Admiral Tovey’s orders—he set course in that general direction. Force H, coming up from Gibraltar, was not under the direct command of Sir John. Vice-Admiral Somerville aboard the Renown received Admiral Tovey’s orders for the new search northeast but he also disregarded them. He decided to follow instructions of the Admiralty, received shortly before, and assume that the Bismarck was heading for France. In the Admiralty in London there was much confusion. No one at the nerve center of the British navy in London noticed that Admiral Tovey’s plotting of the position of the Bismarck was at variance to their own and that the Home Fleet obviously was going off on a mad chase in the wrong direction. As the hours passed, most of the top-ranking naval officers in London became certain that the Bismarck was making for France. Yet Admiral Tovey was not informed of this. Finally, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Tovey received a radio message from the Admiralty giving a new position for the Bismarck. This had been plotted from radio directional bearings received from the enemy ship’s radio two hours earlier. Admiral Luetjens had continued to send out a stream of radio messages all day. The twenty-fifth of May was his birthday and he had received a number of birthday congratulations radioed from Berlin. Even Adolf Hitler had sent him a message: “Best wishes on your birthday.” It was perhaps only natural for the German admiral to reply—and thus by his radio broadcasts to unwittingly keep the British informed of his course and changing position. He still was sure he was being shadowed. There was no sense in maintaining radio silence when the enemy had his ship on its radar screen and knew exactly where he was. At 8:46 a.m., Naval Group West, under whose command he now was, had radioed Luetjens that it believed he had given the slip to his pursuers. Last enemy contact report [it advised] was at 02:13 [2:13 a.m.]. We have impression that contact with Bismarck has been lost. Unfortunately for himself, his ship, and the crew, the headstrong German admiral did not believe it. He still failed to believe it at 6:30 that evening when Group West again radioed him saying that there had been no British reports of sighting the Bismarck all day. Thus the mistakes on both sides were contributing to the sharpening of the tense drama now approaching its climax. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: AU: The German Navy was a fearsome superpower during WWII, and perhaps the crown jewel in its attack fleet was the juggernaut named Bismarck. This 41,000-ton behemoth was crewed by nearly 2,000 soldiers, over 100 officers, and boasted four weapons batteries and two anti-aircraft guns. Not to mention over forty other mounted guns, space for multiple floatplanes, and an aircraft catapult; The Bismarck was a serious threat to Allied Forces on the water. In May 1941, Bismarck broke out into the North Atlantic, threatening the transatlantic shipping lanes that were vital to Britain’s survival. This is the gripping tale of the Royal Navy’s hunt for the most powerful sea raider in history. The Sinking of the Bismarck: The Deadly Hunt documents the tireless search, and unlikely defeat of this mighty ship. William Shirer is one of the most renowned reporters and historians of the twentieth century. He began his career as a newspaper reporter; later, he became a radio correspondent for CBS, reporting on the rise of Nazism in Germany. His most famous book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is a detailed history of Hitler’s Germany and is still regarded as the best on the subject. Shirer died at age 89 in 1993. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.