How To Lose A War At Sea

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Table of Contents

America’s Greatest Naval Victory?
Battle of the Chesapeake, September 1781 1
The Shoals of Tripoli
The Philadelphia and the First Barbary War, 1803 12
Nelson’s Masterpieces
The Nile and Trafalgar, 1798 and 1805 19
Remember the Maine!
Naval Battle of Santiago, July 3, 1898 36
Tsushima
Japan vs. Russia, 1905 48
Catch Me if You Can
Flight of the Goeben, July–August 1914 57
A Beach Too Far
Gallipoli, October 1914–January 1916 69
Decision by Indecision
The Battle of Jutland, 1916 83

The Oddly Anachronistic Voyage of Admiral Graf Spee
November 1939 94
This Is No Drill!
Air Raid Taranto, November 11, 1940 106
British Drama, Italian Comedy
Battle of Cape Matapan, March 1941 114
When a Short War Turns Long
The Life and Death of the Imperial
Japanese Navy’s Air Service,
1941–1945 122
Sink the Bismarck!
North Atlantic, March 1941 131
The Valiant and Violent Story of the ABDA Fleet
Pacific, February 1942 148
“Scratch One Flattop”
Coral Sea Pacific, May 1942 158
Massacre Under the Midnight Sun
The Tragedy of Convoy PQ17, July 1942 169
Disaster in the Dark
The Battle of Savo Island, August 1942 181
The Guns of November
Battleships Duel off Guadalcanal, November 1942 191

The Enigma That Wasn’t
The Battle of the Atlantic, 1943 198
Their Own Worst Enemy
The Battle of the Komandorski Islands, March 26, 1943 205
“You Sank My Battleship!”
Battle of North Cape, December 26, 1943 212
Drawing a Line in the Ocean
Marshall Islands, January 1944 224
Overlord at Sea
Operation Neptune, June 1944 235
Hellcats over the Philippine Sea
The Marianas Turkey Shoot, June 1944 247
After the Turkey Shoot
Invasion of the Marianas, June–August 1944 257
Halsey Leaves the Back Door Open
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944 270
The Forgotten Battle
Peleliu, September–November 1944 280
Sink the Tirpitz!
Norway, 1942–1944 291
Irresistible Force, Immovable Obstacle
Iwo Jima, February 1945 302

Divine and Deadly Wind
Kamikazes at Okinawa, April 1945 315
The Worst Place to Land
Inchon, September 15, 1950 322
Cold War Burning
Kennedy Quarantines Cuba, October 1962 334
When Bad Guy Fights Bad Guy
Operation Morvarid, November 29, 1980 342

SINK THE BISMARCK !
North Atlantic, March 1941

 

The most infamous warship of the Kriegsmarine was the mighty
battleship Bismarck. She and her sister ship, Tirpitz, were at this
point the most powerful warships ever constructed by any European
or American shipyard. (Only the Japanese built larger battleships,
the Yamato and Musashi both being bigger and having
larger—18.1-inch—guns.)
The Bismarck’s maiden voyage captured
the full and undivided attention of the Royal Navy and
British high command, up to Prime Minister Winston Churchill
himself, and her legendary status echoes down through today. The
latter fact is all the more remarkable when one considers that her
active career began, climaxed, and concluded all in the course of
about a week’s time.
Unlike the “pocket” battleships, which, although modern, had
their roots in the 1920s, the Bismarck was a purely modern vessel,
designed, laid down, and launched as World War II took shape and
commenced across Europe. Construction was started when her
keel was laid in Hamburg during the summer of 1936—shortly
before Hitler and the Nazis hosted the International Olympic
Games in Berlin. The Bismarck’s hull slid into the water in April
1939, right about the time that Germany was breaking the six-month-
old Munich Pact by swallowing the nation of Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, England, belatedly recognizing Prime Minister
Neville Chamberlain’s catastrophic misjudgment in making that
pact, finally began to prepare for the possibility of war. The traditional
champagne bottle was smashed onto the warship’s hull by
the granddaughter of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who in 1871
was widely acknowledged as the founder of the German state.
For more than a year, as the war began and Poland, Norway,
France, and other nations were occupied by Germany, Bismarck
was fitted out for operations. She was commissioned in August
1940, at which time her captain, Ernst Lindemann, took command;
the next month she began sea trials in the Baltic Sea. Most
of her training runs took place along the coastline between Kiel
and Danzig. By the end of the year she had returned to Hamburg,
where final adjustments based on the sea trials were made.
Bismarck was expected to sail to Kiel at the start of 1941. That
port was the main base of the Kriegsmarine, and because of a
canal across the base of the peninsula of Jutland (Denmark), it
gave German ships access to both the North and Baltic seas, without
entailing an exposed voyage through the Skagerrak, the passage
north of Denmark and south of Norway. However, British
bombers had sunk a German ship in the canal, temporarily closing
the passage, so the battleship had to wait in Hamburg for several
months.
During this time, Captain Lindemann entertained a visitor, the
Swedish naval attaché to Germany, who sent a detailed description
of the great ship back to Stockholm. It didn’t take long for
that description to be leaked to British agents, providing the Admiralty
with a significant, and frightening, intelligence bonanza. It
seemed clear that the Bismarck, with her eight 15-inch
guns, great size (860 feet long), and massive armoring, would
overmatch any single battleship in the Royal Navy.
Furthermore, although this fact was not immediately known, her
total of 150,000 horsepower in engines made her faster than all but a very few,
and much more lightly armored, British battleships and battle cruisers.

The Voyage Begins

It wasn’t until early March that the Kiel Canal was cleared and the
battleship made the passage to the fleet’s port. She was attacked
by British bombers there on March 12, though no damage was inflicted.
A little later she ventured eastward to the port of Gdynia,
in captured Polish territory near Danzig. (During the war the
Germans called the port Gotenhafen.)
Admiral Erich Raeder, in command of the Kriegsmarine,
hoped to assemble a massive force of powerful surface ships, dispatching
them into the North Atlantic to disrupt Allied convoys
and destroy, in gunnery actions, any British task force that dared
to challenge it. His ideal was to pair Bismarck with her sister ship,
Tirpitz, and send the fast, powerful battle cruisers Gneisenau and
Scharnhorst—currently anchored in the port of Brest, in occupied France—along
with them. Three heavy cruisers, Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper,
and Prinz Eugen, would complete the powerful fleet.
However, the British knew about the battle cruisers in Brest
and went after them aggressively. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire,
an airplane-launched torpedo wrecked Gneisenau’s propellers and
flooded two engine rooms. At the same time, boiler issues put her
sister ship, the Scharnhorst, out of action. The intended raiding fleet
would certainly have horrified the Admiralty into long, sleepless
nights, but now both battle cruisers were bottled up in Brest and
had suffered damage that would keep them in port for many more
months. Additionally, Scheer and Hipper both sustained damage
from the RAF while anchored in Kiel, and Tirpitz encountered
delays in construction, which forced her to wait until autumn
before she could commence operations—though
she did join Bismarck in Gotenhafen after her commissioning.
Although the strength of the task force was necessarily reduced,
Admiral Raeder was determined to order the mission to proceed.
He was eager to prove to Hitler that the Third Reich’s large investment
in surface warships had been a worthwhile expenditure. Admiral
Günther Lütjens, who had commanded the German battle
cruisers on a successful raid earlier in the war, would command
the small task force of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen for Operation
Rheinübung (Rhine Exercise). He brought a staff of more than
sixty men, and of course would fly his flag in the new battlewagon.
In early May, Hitler toured both of these mighty battleships and
asked Lütjens directly if he foresaw any risks in the mission.
“None,” the admiral replied confidently. He declared that the
powerful anti-aircraft batteries on Bismarck would be more than
enough to protect the ship from enemy torpedo bombers.
Just before she left port, some eighty sailors came aboard Bismark
to serve as prize crews for potential captured merchantmen,
bringing the battleship’s complement to 2,221 officers and men by
the time she departed Gotenhafen, early in the morning of May 19.
The two ships, accompanied by Luftwaffe fighters and bombers as
well as destroyers and U-boats, made their way through the Denmark
Strait, toward the North Sea. They passed a Swedish cruiser,
which duly reported the movement to headquarters in Stockholm.
Within an hour or two, that information had been leaked to the
British, and the Admiralty began to make preparations to challenge
another daring raiding voyage.
The man who bore the responsibility for tracking, stopping, and
sinking the Bismarck was Admiral Sir John Tovey, at the massive
base in Scapa Flow on the northern coast of Scotland. A number of
the Royal Navy’s battleships were too slow to participate in a search
for the modern German warships, but Tovey had command of the
very modern battleship King George V and the even more recently
launched Prince of Wales. Both of these ships were nearly—but
not quite—equal to Bismarck in speed, armor, and armaments. They
had batteries of 14-inch guns, compared to the German ship’s
15-inch bore, and were not quite so heavily armored in the anti-torpedo
“belt” below the waterline. Tovey also had Hood at his disposal,
a battle cruiser with powerful guns and exceptional speed.
Where Hood came up short compared to the Nazi battleship was
in armor protection, especially on her upper surfaces, which were
vulnerable to plunging gunfire and bombing.
Other, older, British ships would also, of necessity, come into
play. Repulse and Renown, battle cruisers even more lightly armored
than Hood, at least had above-average
speed. Rodney, one of only two British ships
(the other was HMS Nelson) that, with her 16-inch
guns, actually outgunned Bismarck, would also join
the search, though she could not come close to the German ship’s
speed. Aircraft carrier Victorious was detached from convoy duty,
and the venerable Ark Royal was called up from Gibraltar to add
another aerial element to the chase.
On May 20–21 the German raiders sped through the Skagerrak,
passing around the southern promontory of Norway and steaming
up the coast as far as Bergen, where they dropped anchor in
Grimstadfjord. Here Prinz Eugen topped off her fuel tanks from a
friendly tanker; curiously, despite having adequate time to do the
same, Bismarck did not take on any more fuel.
While Tovey, for the moment, kept his ships at Scapa Flow,
he waited for information. The Photographic Reconnaissance
Unit (PRU) of the RAF was at this point a relatively new organization,
but it was about to prove its worth. The PRU’s mainstay
was a modified Spitfire, a model stripped of guns and armor and
equipped with cameras and extra fuel capacity. On May 21 one of
these Spitfires took off from Wick, in northern Scotland, and flew
across the North Sea to the Norwegian coast. The pilot spotted
Bismarck at anchor in the fjord and captured several stunningly
clear photographs. Nearby, the Prinz Eugen lay alongside a tanker.
The next day, in much nastier weather conditions, another PRU
flight flew into the fjord just above the waves and discovered that
the ships had departed—and one of the great chases in naval history
was under way.
Bismarck and her cruiser had slipped out of the fjord just after
midnight on the 21st, escorted by several destroyers for a few hours.
By dawn, the two massive warships were alone, steaming a northwesterly
course. The weather was hazy, with plenty of low clouds,
giving the German vessels good cover as they made their run
toward the open sea at high speed.
Admiral Tovey had to guess which of three routes the German
raiders would take, if they were in fact attempting to break out into
the Atlantic. They could have dared to race straight west, passing
between the Faeroe Islands and Scapa Flow, but that risky course
took them very close to the main base of the British Home Fleet.
A second possible route could run north of the Faeroes but south
of Iceland; like the first route, this passage lay within easy range of
land-based aircraft.
The third route, and the one most often employed by German
raiders, was the Denmark Strait, the passage of water between Iceland
and Greenland, and this is where Tovey expected Lütjens to
make his breakout. The strait was a remote stretch of far-northern
waters, where even during the long days of the arctic summer
the weather precluded reliable aerial reconnaissance. A minefield
blocked off much of the passage closer to Iceland, while the winter
ice pack still lay atop the waters for several hundred miles off the
coast of Greenland.
For the moment, two heavy cruisers, Suffolk and Norfolk, endured
the unpopular duty of patrolling the Denmark Strait. Even
in May the weather was bitter cold, and storms tossed waves high
against and over the cruiser’s hulls. They were relatively modern
ships, but far more suited for duty in tropical waters than patrolling
up near the Arctic Circle. Each cruiser was equipped with batteries
of 8-inch guns but neither was a match for the Prinz Eugen, let
alone Bismarck, in a gunnery duel. But their task was to scout, not
to fight, and their intrepid crews took the mission very seriously.
The navigable passage of the strait was only about twenty-five
or thirty miles wide. At 6 p.m. on May 23, a lookout on Suffolk’s
bridge was stunned by the apparition of a great gray shape slipping
out of the fog. Somehow he managed to shout out the sighting of
a ship and the bearing; he amended his report to include two ships
even before any of his shipmates could react.
In the presence of the 50,000-ton battleship, the 10,000-ton
cruiser went to flank speed and raced for a nearby fog bank, vanishing
into the murk before Bismarck could get off a salvo. Suffolk
was equipped with a relatively modern radar set and shadowed the
Germans along their southwesterly course while remaining mostly
out of sight. At the same time she radioed a report of the sighting,
which was picked up by Norfolk but not by Admiral Tovey, who
by then was at sea in King George V. The second cruiser plowed
through heavy seas to join her sister ship, bursting through the
sketchy visibility to come upon Bismarck in all her glory. This time
the Germans were ready, and Norfolk hastily retreated among a
barrage of near-misses.
With Suffolk to starboard and Norfolk to port, the raiders
plunged through the strait. The former cruiser had good radar,
but her radio was encumbered by ice on the upper aerials; the latter
lacked the radar but had a working radio, so at last Admiral Tovey
learned of the sighting. The closest British big ships were Hood and
Prince of Wales, then about three hundred miles away and under
the command of Admiral Lancelot Holland. Under orders from
Tovey, they set off on a converging course at top speed.
Hood was the only battle cruiser in the British Navy. She had
been commissioned in 1920, and though limitations in her armor
protection had resulted in no similar ships being launched, she had
long been touted as a proud and modern ship. She was well known
and admired not just in the naval service,
but throughout England.
Though Prince of Wales was the most modern battleship in the
Royal Navy, she was not yet fully operational, and in fact had a
large complement of workmen aboard who were still putting the
finishing touches on her commissioning. Still, she raced forward
behind Hood under an impressive head of steam, both great ships
plowing through rough seas. Their accompanying destroyers had
an even rougher ride, frequently disappearing under the waves
from the viewpoint of the battleships.
Throughout the night of May 23–24, the great ships plunged
through icy seas on a course just north of due west. No crewmen
on either of the big ships, and certainly not on the destroyers, got
any sleep that stormy night. They received steady updates from the
doughty cruisers and by 3 a.m. had learned that they were drawing
close to the German raiders. Before dawn Holland had turned his
ships onto a southwesterly heading, one that nearly paralleled Bismarck
but allowed the British ships to gradually close the distance
between the two adversaries. The battle cruiser remained in the
lead, with Prince of Wales trailing very close behind.

The Mighty Hood

By the time full daylight reigned the two task forces were less than
twenty miles apart, and lookouts in the upper masts and bridges
of the big ships could plainly see the enemy. Here Holland issued
a valiant, and catastrophic, order: he turned his ships hard to starboard,
to steam directly at the flanks of the German raiders, with
Hood still in advance of Prince of Wales. Not only did this take the
rear turrets of the two British battleships out of the fight, but it
guaranteed that the lightly armored Hood would take the first full
brunt of Bismarck’s broadsides.
Hood fired first, at about fourteen miles of range; the other
three heavies joined in seconds later. Bismarck’s salvo was stunningly
accurate, immediately bracketing the British battle cruiser
with a close-set pattern of spuming explosions, with frothing, icy
spray shooting high into the stormy air. The Royal Navy’s shells
plunged farther afield and, making matters worse, one of Prince of
Wales’s big guns in a forward turret was immediately disabled by
a mechanical failure.
The second German salvo scored a hit on Hood, amidships,
sending up a gout of orange flame. But the ship was not disabled,
and in the glow of the flames a new signal became visible on the
battle cruiser’s yardarm. Apparently realizing the danger of his
initial maneuver, Admiral Holland now ordered the Royal Navy
vessels hard to port so that they could bring their rear turrets into
action and run more parallel to the German ships.
It was likely the last order the courageous naval officer gave, as
an entire broadside of Bismarck’s 15-inch shells plunged into Hood.
At least one reached the main and secondary magazines before exploding,
and with that blast the proud, sleek battle cruiser simply
ceased to exist. Eyewitnesses aboard Prince of Wales could scarcely
believe their eyes as the violent eruption cast debris, smoke, and fire
high into the air above the sea where Hood had been.
Hood’s ordnance exploded across the surface of the stormy
waters, while smoke and flame spumed even higher into the cloudy,
windy sky, a pyre that soon merged with the low-lying clouds.
Prince of Wales came upon the wreckage some thirty seconds later,
and by then the forward section of the battle cruiser was all that
remained—then even that swiftly slipped beneath the waves. One
of the escorting destroyers, HMS Electra, steamed for the wreckage,
her crew frantically searching for survivors, for lifeboats, rafts,
any candidates for rescue. Only three men were pulled from the
water; the rest of Hood’s complement, more than 1,400 officers and
enlisted men, perished with their ship.
And Bismarck wasn’t through. Now the full fury of those powerful,
lethally accurate batteries turned against Prince of Wales. In
short order His Majesty’s battleship suffered a multitude of hits
and was forced to turn away from the fight and retire behind a
screen of smoke laid by her racing destroyer escort. Though the
Germans didn’t know the extent of the damage, the British ship
had been badly hurt—not just by Bismarck’s heavy guns, but by
Prinz Eugen’s 8-inch batteries and the battleship’s secondary turrets
of 5.9-inch guns. All of Prince of Wales’s main batteries were out of
action because of damage or mechanical failure, and a direct hit on
the bridge had killed nearly everyone there.
Although many of Lütjen’s men wanted to pursue and destroy
the Prince of Wales, the admiral opted instead to continue with
his assigned mission. Captain Lindemann himself vociferously
argued for continuing the duel, but he was overruled. It turned out
that Bismarck had taken three hits, probably from Prince of Wales.
None of them was disabling, though one blow, forward, had led
to flooding of the forecastle. The battleship was down about three
degrees in the bow, leaking a little oil, and had a bit shaved off her
top speed, though she could still steam a respectable twenty-eight
knots. Onboard repairs stopped the leak and allowed the ship to
pick up a little more speed.
But the pesky Suffolk and Norfolk remained just on the horizon,
and they continued to trail the raiders as the Germans made their
way south. Prince of Wales limped along with the two heavy cruisers,
and they shadowed the enemy ships. Admiral Tovey, still reeling
from the shock of Hood’s demise, nevertheless continued the
pursuit. He knew his surface ships would not make contact before
nightfall, but he ordered a desperate air strike to be launched from
Victorious.
That carrier’s air group consisted mostly of untested youngsters
fresh out of pilot school, leavened by a few veteran leaders.
They could only make a torpedo attack, flying planes that looked
like they belonged to an earlier war. The Fairey Swordfish was
nicknamed the “Stringbag”: it was a frail-looking biplane with
fixed landing gear and a crew of two exposed to the air in an open
cockpit. Each aircraft carried a single torpedo, which it would attempt
to drop into the water from an elevation of less than twenty
feet. With a top speed of around 120 knots, the ungainly aircraft
seemed likely to prove a deathtrap in combat operations.
Still, Victorious launched her squadron on the evening of May
24, and they boldly challenged the German battleship at dusk. The
German gunners were no doubt astounded at the sight of the slow,
ungainly planes closing in from several directions, flying just above
the water. In a lively but nearly bloodless fifteen-minute
engagement, the battleship opened up with all her guns, including the
15-inch batteries—with which she tried to knock down the planes
by tossing up huge waterspouts in their path—while the torpedo
bombers closed in and launched their “fish.” Two of the planes
were damaged, slightly, and two of the torpedoes hit, killing one
German sailor. The untested pilots somehow managed to return
to their carrier in darkness, with every plane landing safely; the
green fliers could, with real justification, now consider themselves
combat veterans.
Bismarck was not sorely damaged by the torpedo hits, both of
which struck her armored belt in its strongest section, but the frantic
maneuvering as she attempted to evade the attackers ruptured
the repaired hull section in the bow, and she once again took water
into the forecastle and lost a bit of speed. In the fullness of the
night, Lütjens sent Prinz Eugen off on a southerly course, while he
directed the battleship to turn west by southwest, toward the coast
of France. Her British shadows, forced to zig and zag as defense
against U-boats, momentarily lost their target from radar; when
they swept back toward the raider’s presumed course, the radar
screens remained empty.

Free at Last

After thirty-one hours of uninterrupted shadowing, Bismarck was
loose, and undetected, in the North Atlantic. That news reverberated
through the Admiralty, all the way to the prime minister—and
even to the United States, where President Franklin Roosevelt, like
Winston Churchill, took a close interest in naval matters. Everywhere
it was heard, it was a frightening portent of nautical disaster.
Ironically, after escaping his pursuers with brilliant maneuvering,
Lütjens made a fundamental mistake by breaking silence
during the morning of May 25. He broadcast a detailed account
of the Battle of the Denmark Strait and included some analysis on
the effectiveness of British radar. Of course, the Royal Navy picked
up the broadcast and made a rough fix on the raider’s position as a
result. However, due to a communications failure, Admiral Tovey
got a report that was a reverse of the actual data and concluded
from it that Bismarck was going to pass near the Faeroes and
return to the Norwegian Coast. Consequently, King George V and
her escorts turned north, steaming away from the German ship.
It wasn’t until very late in the day that the mistake was discovered,
and a true analysis—that the German battleship was headed
for France—was made. Now the search began again in earnest,
with Tovey in King George V closing in, as well as the doughty
Suffolk and Norfolk resuming the chase. Rodney, with her massive
16-inch guns, was operating on her own, and had decks piled high
with equipment since she had been headed for a major refit in the
United States; now she too turned southward to join in the search.
In the early hours of May 26, a Catalina PBY (patrol bomber) operating
from Northern Ireland was directed to extend its search arc
southward, in case Bismarck was veering in that direction to avoid
British air searches. The copilot was an American, a veteran PBY
flier who had been secretly loaned to the RAF to train them in the
use of the long-range, reliable flying boat. The Catalina’s crew spotted
a big ship, flew through some clouds, and emerged into clear
skies directly above Bismarck. The British pilot radioed a report of
the contact while the American copilot desperately maneuvered the
plane in the face of savage anti-aircraft
fire. When the badly damaged aircraft finally limped away,
the Royal Navy once again had a detailed and accurate report
on the German battleship’s position.
A dozen minutes later a patrolling Swordfish from the carrier
Ark Royal spotted Bismarck and was able to stay aloft, out of range,
and follow the raider as she steamed toward France. Unlike Victorious’s,
Ark Royal’s aircrews were among the most experienced in the
Royal Navy. Still, the stormy conditions were a terrible challenge
to flight operations. The forward edge of the flight deck pitched
through a rise and fall of 60 degrees, with a forty-knot
wind blasting the carrier’s bow. Since the Fairey Swordfish would stall below
a speed of fifty-five knots, the carrier had to slow her speed enough
that the planes wouldn’t actually fly backward relative to the ship
when they took to the air. This slow speed also served to amplify
the vessel’s up-and-down lurching.
Nevertheless, a flight of fifteen Swordfish took off in atrocious
conditions, found a target, and launched fifteen torpedoes—at
the British cruiser HMS Sheffield, which had arrived on the scene
and taken over the task of maintaining a radar fix on Bismarck.
Fortunately, that ship—captained by a man with Fleet Air Arm
credentials—evaded the attack, chasing the Swordfish away with
an outraged rebuke over the radio. The flight commander reported
to his captain in chagrin about his perfect attack: “Right height,
right range, right cloud cover, and wrong [expletive deleted] ship!”
After 7 p.m. a second attack was launched, by another fifteen
Swordfish. This time they flew over Sheffield at a height of five
thousand feet and got a fix on the German battleship. The squadron
split apart, attacking in five sections of three planes each so
that they could come at the battleship from different directions. No
matter which way Bismarck turned, she would expose her broadside
to one or more of the attacking sections. The fliers closed in on
their target at dusk, dropping almost to the water level and roaring
in for a bold attack.
The battleship maneuvered desperately, again firing all of her
batteries, trying to evade the torpedo tracks that marked the storm-tossed
sea. The fliers could not be sure of their success, given all
the splashing and blazing and smoking of the battle, but suspected
they had struck at least one, and possibly two, torpedoes into that
heavily armored hull. Once again all of the Swordfish survived,
and it turned out that they had in fact put two of their fish into the
German battleship.
And one of those was a crucial blow, a hit to the starboard rear
that damaged the propellers and wrecked Bismarck’s steering. She
was slowed drastically and lost the ability to steer. Crippled, she
could only turn in circles, soon moving onto a northerly course.
The watchers aboard Sheffield had to beat a hasty retreat as the
battleship turned toward them and opened fire; they wasted no
time in broadcasting news of the raider’s change of course.
This new path took her straight toward the Royal Navy’s big
gunships, which were closing in at flank speed. The damage was
such that the battleship had to slow to eight knots and now just
barely moved through the sea. Night fell, and Sheffield maintained
contact and steadily reported the position of the clearly wounded ship.

Sunk

The next set of British attackers on the scene was a flotilla of destroyers
under the command of Captain Philip Vian, who had commanded
Cossack when she had cornered the Altmark in Norway
in 1940. Now he had taken the initiative, without orders, to sail
toward the “sound of the guns.” During the night the raider was
harassed by star shells and torpedo attacks from Vian’s British destroyers.
She remained illuminated throughout the night and suffered additional hits
from torpedoes and even from the small-bore guns of the audacious destroyers.
Norfolk, the heavy cruiser that had chased the raider for so long,
arrived during the wee hours and used her lights to guide the massive Rodney
to the crippled target.
By dawn, Rodney had come onto the scene and opened fire with
her nine 16-inch guns at about 8:30 a.m. Immediately these big
shells began to pound home. Lütjens flashed a final radio message,
pledging to fight to the last shell and closing with “Long live the
Führer!” His own batteries replied, but Bismarck displayed none of
the accuracy that a few days earlier had so quickly doomed Hood.
There was an almost listless quality to the return fire from the
slow-moving ship.
Soon King George V arrived and joined in the punishment,
as both British battleships pummeled Bismarck with a relentless
barrage of 16-and 14-inch shells. The great ship was gradually
pounded into a wreck, smoking and flaming across her superstructure,
yet stubbornly refusing to sink. One by one her batteries were
silenced, though the German flag still flew from her mast.
It wasn’t until the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire steamed close and
hammered two torpedoes into her hull, then circled around to put
two more into the other side, that Bismarck, her flag still flying,
slipped beneath the waves. The massive battleship settled to port
and finally sank by the stern.
Dorsetshire and a few other vessels plucked about a hundred survivors
out of the water before the Royal Navy ships were forced to
withdraw in response to a U-boat warning. A few more men were
rescued by a U-boat and a German weather ship a day or two later.
In all, only 107 men out of the more than 2,200 aboard survived
the voyage.
Word of the sinking was quickly radioed to Admiralty headquarters
in London, where the news produced a sense of relief so
profound that it bordered on euphoria. During the morning hours
of May 27, Winston Churchill had just concluded an address to the
House of Commons when he was passed a piece of paper.
The prime minister rose to his feet again and said: “I ask the indulgence
of the House. I have just received news that the Bismarck
is sunk.” Writing about the remark after the war, he concluded,
“They seemed content.”

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