At the time of her commissioning in 1940 the Battleship „Bismarck“ was the world’s biggest and most powerful battleship. On the contrary, she had the shortest service life of all battleships of the world but, within that short time span of nine months and due to the events that resulted in her tragic loss, she became a legend and perhaps a myth.
The Genesis of the „Bismarck“
Design studies for the new battleship started in 1934 and lastet until May 1935, when the German Navy opted for 15-inch guns and a displacement of 41.000 ts. This configuration exceeded the construction limits imposed on Germany by the Versailles-Treaty of 1919 by far. However, the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935 (June) allowed Germany to build up to 35 per cent of the strength of the Royal Navy and Germany was to honour the 1922-Washington-rules for capital ships with a displacement limit of 35.000 ts for newbuildings and a gun calibre of 16-inch. The design specifications of the new German battleship actually obeyed the second limit, but not the first. The Second London Treaty of March 1936 (signed by the US, UK and France) restricted the gun calibre of capital ships to 14-inch; so the „Bismarck“-design now also exceeded the calibre restriction Germany had promised to obey by signing the Anglo-German agreement. But, the German Admiralty gambled. The Second London Treaty had a so-called „escalator clause“ that allowed the building of 45.000 ts-ships with 16-inch guns, if Japan and Italy refused to sign this treaty until April 1st 1937. They didn’t sign because both powers had bigger battleships on the drawing board. „Bismarck“ had been laid down on July 1st 1936.
The story of the one and only sortie of battleship „Bismarck“ together with the cruiser „Prinz Eugen“ (Operation „Rheinübung“) into the Atlantic in May 1941 has been told very often. Her mission was to interrupt Allied seaborne connections and thus pin down enemy forces. Suffice to say or to add that during the battle of the Denmark Strait, on May 24th 1941, „Bismarck“ and „Prinz Eugen“ sank the British battlecruiser „Hood“ (1,418 casualties) and heavily damaged the battleship „Prince of Wales“. „Bismarck“ herself was hit in the bow – and the ship had to abandon her mission due to heavy damage and fuel shortage and go to Brest (France). It is interesting to note that there must have been altercations within „Bismarck’s“ command during and after the battle of the Denmark Strait. While Admiral Günther Lütjens hesitated for minutes to shoot at the British ships already firing, Captain Ernst Lindemann gave the order to fire the first salvo with the remark: „I will not let my ship be shot away from under my ass. Permission to open fire!“ While Admiral Lütjens, on May 25th, addressed the crew and spoke of „victory or death“ in light of a still favourable position for „Bismarck“, this didn’t boost their morale; in a second address Lindemann, on the contrary, spoke of their arrival in France.
Two days later „Bismarck“ was sunk by British forces and scuttling charges. 2.104 of her crew members died; shortly before „Bismarck“ sank, „Prinz Eugen“ had been dispatched to Brest and escaped. The wreck of the „Bismarck“ was found in 1989 by Dr. Robert Ballard. She is resting in a depth of 4.800 metres.
Ship technical data
- Length/Beam/Draft 251 x 36 x 9,9 metres
- Speed 30,1 kn
- Displacement 43.980 ts (standard), 51.760 ts (full load)
- Builders Blohm & Voss AG, Hamburg
- Commissioned 24.8.1940
- Armament 8 x 38 cm, 12 x 15 cm, 16 x 10,5 cm, 16 x 3,7 cm, 12 x 2 cm
- Complement 2.220