The Bismarck Was a Waste

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In early stages of World War II (1939-45) in Europe, Germany, after invading Poland to its east in 1939, turned its attention westward and conquered the “Low Countries” (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) on its way to vanquishing France in spring 1940. With almost all of western continental Europe now under German control, Britain alone stood against Germany.

America had not yet entered the war and wouldn’t until December 1941 when the Japanese attacked the U.S. Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States was, however, supplying Britain with a very significant amount of both war materials and domestic goods under the “Lend-Lease” program. These goods were sent by ship convoy to England across the Atlantic Ocean. German U-boat submarines extracted a huge toll on this vital shipping lifeline, but even though the losses were high, they were survivable, and these supply lines—critical to Britain’s very existence— persevered.

However, in May 1941, Germany introduced a new element into the North Atlantic equation that threatened to bring disaster to Britain. This element was the new German battleship Bismarck. It was a huge, state-of-the-art warship, equipped with the very latest long-range heavy cannon, new stereoscopic range-finders that promised unprecedented accuracy, then-new ship-based radar, and it boasted an intricate system of armor-plating and honey-combed water-tight compartments that rendered her virtually unsinkable. If Bismarck broke out into the vast, indefensible shipping lanes of the North Atlantic, it could wreak catastrophic havoc with the war-sustaining convoys coming across the ocean.

The very existence of Bismarck hung like a malevolent shadow above the Allies’ war effort. In 1941, it was widely believed that this single weapon might determine the very course of the war in Europe. Where the entire Luftwaffe (German air force) had been unable to cripple Britain’s warfighting capability with its aerial assault in the summer of 1940 and bring her to the negotiating table, now—in the spring of 1941—a single warship was threatening to do that very thing. The Allies, especially Britain, were horrified. The British rallied around a national cry of, “Sink the Bismarck!”

As the Bismarck and her companion, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, headed towards the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean through the Denmark Strait, they were intercepted by the British battleships Hood and Prince of Wales. Those two ships were all that stood between Britain’s invaluable but vulnerable shipping lanes and what they thought was national survival. In the next few minutes, perhaps the most famous and consequential surface engagement of all time occurred. The big ships fired on each other, their 14- and 15-inch guns booming with unimaginable destructive potential. It was the naval equivalent of two fearless, big-punching heavyweight boxers standing toe-to-toe, trading lethal knockout blows. Something had to give.

Hood — the pride of the British navy — was struck by a perfectly-aimed salvo from Bismarck and exploded violently, breaking in two and sinking with just three survivors out of a crew of more than 1,400. Observers on the Prince of Wales were awestruck in disbelief and horror. One officer is reported to have simply uttered, “Blimey!”

After barely 10 minutes of fighting, “The Mighty Hood,” as she was known, was gone. But Prince of Wales, despite suffering significant damage herself from Bismarck’s guns, scored some telling blows of her own, such that Bismarck was forced to disengage and head to home for repair.

She never got there.

Thanks to the Royal Navy’s Herculean effort to track her down and the lucky breaks of war, the British managed to catch up to Bismarck, whose speed and mobility had been impacted by damage she suffered in the engagement with Hood and Prince of Wales. British carrier torpedo planes inflicted further damage and now Bismarck was a sitting duck as the superior British forces closed in on her. Led by the battleships King George V and Rodney, Bismarck was pounded into a non-functional hulk, slipping beneath the surface on May 27, 1941.

The Bismarck seemed to be unbeatable in 1941. Yet her final undoing came at the hands of an embarrassingly obsolete weapon, one that no one could have predicted in advance would play the telling role that it did: The carrier-based Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber. This was a biplane aircraft that looked more like Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel WWI fighter plane than a sleek modern attack aircraft. Wobbling unsteadily towards the Bismarck at barely 100 MPH, the Swordfish flew so slowly that the Bismarck’s modern, sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons could not track their motion slowly enough to get an accurate bead on them and shoot them down. The Swordfish was too slow for the Bismarck to hit them accurately. Amazing.

And like Achilles and his vulnerable heel, so too was the Bismarck critically unprotected: Its rudder, which controlled its steering—was exposed and easy to damage. A Swordfish-launched torpedo struck the Bismarck in the rudder, leaving her impossible to steer. So ended her dash for safety and the British fleet caught her the next day and finished her off.

Germany did build another battleship just like the Bismarck, called the Tirpitz. The Allies watched her like a hawk, wary of her every move. But the Tirpitz never made a meaningful combat voyage. It spent pretty much its entire career in port. Its biggest contribution to the war was getting its adversaries to wonder what it might do and causing significant resources to be arrayed against it just in case. However, it never actually did anything. British Lancaster bombers finally blasted it into oblivion in November 1944, six months before the war in Europe ended.

Neither the Bismarck nor the Tirpitz ever sank even a single merchant ship, which was their primary mission. The Bismarck’s ocean-going fighting career lasted eight days. The Tirpitz’ career was effectively zero days. In WW II, Germany was never going to challenge Britain or the United States for surface ship sea supremacy, so it can be convincingly argued that Germany’s capital ships (Bismarck and Tirpitz, the three “pocket battleships” of the Graf Spee class and the two “light battleships” Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) ended up being a waste of resources relative to the combat results they achieved. That’s not to say that these ships didn’t achieve some impressive tactical successes — they did — but Germany’s battleships didn’t make any long-lasting strategic impact on the course and direction of the war.

For the same amount of raw materials and factory bandwidth that went into making these seven large ships (all of which were manufactured in the 1930s, either before the war or just shortly after its commencement), hundreds of additional U-boats and thousands of additional tanks and aircraft could have been produced. These kinds of weapons were much more in keeping with the style of warfare with which Germany had the most success.

But battleships like Bismarck — quite possibly the most beautiful large warship ever built, with its dramatically swept bow and elegantly angled single stack — held an undeniable emotional appeal to maniacally-egotistical, ambitious heads of state with dreams of worldwide domination, and the visceral appeal of wielding one’s battle fleet in grand surface combat obviously overcame the more measured approach of leveraging the country’s industrial/military capabilities for maximum advantage.

In the end, the civilized world should be thankful for the Bismarck’s existence. A WW II Germany with thousands more Focke-Wulf fighters, and Tiger tanks, and hundreds more U-boats would have been that much more deadly and difficult to defeat. The combined industrial capability and manpower reserves of Britain, America and the Soviet Union would have defeated Germany eventually in any case, but victory was achieved sooner and at less cost to the Allies because of the Bismarck.

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