Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Seventy Years Ago in the North Atlantic

On 24 May 1941 in the north Atlantic a climatic battle between the Royal Navy and Germany's newest battleship, Bismarck, took place. Bismarck with the cruiser Prinz Eugen as escort were intended to break out into the Atlantic and act as commerce raiders, their mission was called Operation Rhine.

Several days earlier, an RAF Spitfire had spotted Bismarck navigating around Denmark on its way to breakout. Word was soon flashed to the Admiralty of the action. Quickly blocking forces were sent to guard the entrances around Iceland. The Royal Navy did not want such a powerful warship with 8 15-in guns on the loose sinking thin-skinned merchant ships escorted by destroyers.

So on 24 May 1941 the honor of engaging Bismarck and Prinz Eugen fell to the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood and her brand new consort the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The advantage from the start of the battle was with the Germans as luck placed them in a position to cap the Royal Navy's "T" unlike Nelson at Trafalgar. The British strove to close the range before turning broadside but the action was furious. By the time HMS Hood started to turn, she had already been kissed by the Bismarck guns. HMS Prince of Wales was also trying to shoot, but she was a new ship with complex turrets and shipyard workers still aboard. As HMS Hood turned, the killing shot rang down and penetrated her aft magazine. There resulted such a tremendous explosion the ship rapidly pitched bow up and sank. Out of the whole crew, only three would be pulled out alive. The battle had not been one-sided, Bismarck received damage also. As HMS Prince of Wales withdraw with battle damage, the German raiding force split.

Prinz Eugen would go on to raid merchant ships and return safely to port. Under appallingly bad weather conditions that almost grounded the RAF, the cruiser participated in the Channel Dash from French ports to more protected ports in Germany. Prinz Eugen would earn a reputation as a lucky ship. She survived having her entire stern blown off by a RN submarine and colliding with another German warship. VE day found her still afloat and tied up in port. She would be turned over to the Americans. Prinz Eugen would participate in the Bikini Atoll atomic tests where she survived the Able and Baker explosions. Since she was still afloat it was decided to tow her, this tow got her to Kawajelin where the cruiser finally lost her battle with Neptune. She capsized offshore and her stern still juts out of the water. The only existing Arado float plane in the work resides in the National Air&Space Museum, this plane was off Prinz Eugen. Indeed a lucky ship and crew.

As Prinz Eugen split off, Bismarck was faced with a bitter choice. The British had managed to score enough hits to open up the ship's fuel tanks and a lengthening slick trailed behind Germany's newest and mightiest warship. So reluctantly the warship steered towards France and a safe port to repair the damage. With this decision, Bismarck's fate would be sealed in a few days.

Sinking of HMS Hood landed like a lightning bolt at the Admiralty. HMS Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and since her commissioning had traveled the globe showing the Union Jack. And now she was gone with HMS Prince of Wales damaged. The reaction of the British was immediate and the order flashed out - Sink the Bismarck!

The British Home Fleet and Force H from Gibraltar would endeavour to follow that order. But the problem was where was the Bismarck? Cruisers would shadow her and then lose her. Home Fleet had only so much fuel before it had to turn home. Finally a Coastal Command Catalina spotted Bismarck again and from thence the fight was on.

HMS Victorious would launch the first aerial strike against Bismarck. The battleship needed to be slowed down so the Home Fleet with HMS King George V and HMS Rodney could engage her. Though the Fairy Swordfish did score one hit on Bismarck, it did not disable the ship. The honor and fame of sealing Bismarck's fate fell to Swordfish launched from HMS Ark Royal, which was rushing up from the south as part of Force H. After a failed earlier strike, the second strike scored a hit on Bismarck's rudders, jamming them in place and preventing the ship from steering straight.

The battle the next day between HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, and Bismarck would be brutal and a slugging match. The German ship could not maneuver so once the British got the range, the shells poured in and reduced her to a flaming wreck with many dead. As the Germans ordered the scuttling charges set, a British cruiser sent torpedoes zipping in to hit the stricken battleship. With a resounding explosion, the feared Bismarck slipped beneath the waves still shy of the protecting air cover of the Luftwaffe in France.

With Bismarck's sinking, the honor of the Royal Navy had been avenged. HMS Prince of Wales would be repaired and later sunk off Panang Malaysia alongside HMS Repulse on 10 December, 1941. Both ships would be sunk by bombers of the Imperial Japanese Army. With the sinking of these two ships, the ascendancy of the airplane, that started when RN FAA Swordfish hit the Italian navy at Taranto, was complete.

The impact the loss of the ship on the Nazis was far more profound. Bismarck's sister ship Tirpitz would never break out into the Atlantic to threaten British rule of the seas. Instead Tirpitz would lurk in the Norwegian fjords always menacing convoys going to the USSR and becoming a bombing target of the RAF. In the end, it was the RAF who managed to finish off the Tirpitz after RN X-craft had damaged the battleship. Nor would any other major German combatant ship threaten England's maritime lifelines after Bismarck's sinking, it fell to the U-boats to carry that load and almost win the Battle of the Atlantic.

28 May 2011 -
Corrected sinking date of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse along with location of sinking.

Johnny Horton - Sink the Bismarck.
Exploring the wreck of HMS Hood.
Matching site dedicated to the German battleship Bismarck.
Information on the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. warning - may see pop-ups.
Video tribute of Prinz Eugen. Duration 9:09.
NatGeoTV footage of the wreck of Bismarck. Reason no main gun turrets are left is main guns are gravity seated and if a sinking ship rolls while sinking, the turrets will fall out. And the loss of the top weight of those turrets may right a ship before it impacts the ocean floor.

Final musing, what I originally wrote I wrote from memory without reference to external sites. Sometimes I scare myself on what I remember.


Legion said...

If I ever lose connection to the Military Channel or Military History Channel I know Anna will be there to feed my interest. No wonder I like her so much!!! XXXOOO

Anna said...

LOL Legios. Thank you for such a glowing review. I merely stand upon the real scholars when I tackle history posts. Thank them and especially thank/remember those who have done great things to defend civilization.