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75 years since the Bismarck was sunk

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It may have happened on the other side of the world, but pursuit of the German Ship the Bismarck across the Atlantic by the Royal Navy gripped the imaginations of Australians in May 1941.

German naval power was very different from other navies in World War II. Instead of embracing aircraft carriers like Britain, Japan and the USA, it specialised in submarines. These were highly effective and Germany’s strategy was to cut off Britain from vital supplies being brought in from other parts of the world.

The Germans also embraced the concept of surface raiders, which were highly armoured and devastatingly armed. These big gun ships sometimes operated alone but more usually in pairs. The idea was that they were invulnerable to air, surface and submarine attack through a combination of their speed, armour and weapons.

Bismarck, the biggest of them all, was 251 metres long – about three-and-a-half times as long as a Boeing 747 – and displaced more than two large aircraft carriers. She carried four aircraft for reconnaissance, had a main armament of eight 15-inch (38 cm) guns, and a formidable secondary armament of guns thought more than enough for any aircraft foolish enough to come within range.

On 24 May 1941 the Bismarck proved her worth in the Battle of the Denmark Strait. She had put to sea, despite determined reconnaissance efforts, to raid commerce in the Atlantic, together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

Bismarck eventually took on the formidable British battlecruiser HMS Hood. In a short engagement Hood was sunk, with the loss of all but three of her 1418 men. In response, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the order to "Sink the Bismarck", prompting an even more relentless pursuit.

Bismarck was subsequently followed and attacked by several aircraft of the Royal Navy. Hit by torpedoes, she was damaged to the extent that her steering was crippled, and this allowed enemy warships to catch up with her. She was fired upon by around 2800 shells but, although damaged, did not sink. It wasn’t until the attacking warships used torpedoes against her that she went down, by which time her crew was setting off scuttling charges.

As she went down, at 10.40am on 27 May 1941, her Captain Lindemann was seen standing at attention at the stem of the ship as she sank beneath him, refusing to surrender. Virtually all of her 2000 plus crew was lost.

The end of Bismarck spelt the end of the concept of invulnerable surface raiders. The single thwarted operation had cost immense amounts of time, money and lives. But Bismarck’s brave last stand caught the imagination of the world and she was a household name for decades. Post-war books were published; the famous CS Forester’s novel Last Nine Days of the Bismarck being the best known. The book was adapted for the movie Sink the Bismarck! released in 1960. Johnny Horton’s song of the same name captured radio listeners’ imagination.

In 1989 the wreck was found, resting upright, by Dr Bob Ballard, the oceanographer who had also found the Titanic.

Bismarck at anchor. (RN)
Bismarck in Kiel, in March 1941, with crewmembers applying a coat of paint to the hull. The 32cm lower armour main belt which covered 70% of the ship's waterline length can be clearly seen. (Bismarck.com)
Stern view of Bismarck. (US Navy)