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The Bismarck’s Last Battle

FinalBattle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is a massively edited and expanded version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood.

I also apologize for not publishing this yesterday as I had planned. I went a lot deeper into my research and could not complete it before I needed to go to bed. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

After a sleepless night in which they attempted to regain control of their ship and endured multiple attacks from destroyers before sunrise, the officers and crew of Bismarck were preparing their ship and themselves for what they all understood would be their final engagement. That sense of fatalism had been fueled by messages they received from Grand Admiral Raeder and Adolf Hitler that were broadcast to the entire crew. Raeder’s message said `All our thoughts are with you and your ship. We wish you success in your difficult fight.’ Hitler addressed the crew `All of Germany is with you. What can be done will be done. Your devotion to duty will strengthen our nation in its struggle for its existence. Adolf Hitler.’ At that point the crew knew that both Raeder and Hitler already considered them dead. Bismarck’s 4th Gunnery Officer Kapitänleutnant Burkhard von Mullenheim-Rechberg was told by another gunnery officer spoke words that Mullenheim-Rechberg would never forget: `Today, my wife will become a widow, but she doesn’t know it yet.’

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lütjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

On that fateful morning the British ships prepared for a battle, even Admiral Tovey donned his steel helmet and put cotton in his ears as his ships closed the range with the German ship. Rodney, which was already being prepared for her overhaul in Boston had much gear stowed about her decks.  Bismarck was ploughing in to force 8 winds (34-40 knots) and Bismarck struggled to maintain seven knots against the wind as the tension on her bridge mounted as the officers and watch standers knew that they would soon meet the British Battleships that would soon sink their ship. These German officers were realists who knew that their lack of maneuverability made them both a sitting duck for the British onslaught, and not be able to control their gunfire as they might have under better circumstances.

At 0833 Tovey order his ships to close with the last reported position of Bismarck. Their lookouts sighted the German ship at 0843 at a range of just over 25,000 yards. Rodney opened fire at 0847 followed by King George V a minute later. Bismarck’s forward turrets opened fire at 0849, and her first salvos straddled Rodney, something that sent shivers through British sailors who remembered the fate of the Hood, however that was the closest Bismarck got. Her inability to maintain a stable course, something necessary for accurate naval gunfire inhibited her gunnery, while Bismarck’s position amid rain squalls degraded the accuracy of the British gunfire.

For about 12 minutes an uneventful exchange of gunfire ensued, but at 0902 Rodney found the range and two of her 16” shells hit the forward part of Bismarck’s bridge, killing many senior officers and knocking out her forward fire control radar and fire direction equipment, also damaging turret Bruno, the forward 15” turret directly forward of the bridge. The hit blew the rear armor off the turret and over the side of the ship. The hydraulic lines to Anton were cut by a hit and her guns drooped down to their maximum depression, making them useless. At 0908 shells from both British  Battleships, as well as the cruisers destroyed the forward gun direction radar and disabled turret Anton. Bismarck’s Fire control was shifted to the aft fire control center under Mullenheim-Rechberg. In six minutes half of Bismarck’s main battery, and her main fire director destroyed.

Under his control Bismarck’s aft turrets, Cäsar and Dora began to find the range of King George V, and on their fourth salvo straddled the British flagship, but at 0913 the director cupola was destroyed by a 14” shell from King George V. The result was that Bismarck was no longer able to control its main battery fire. Mullenheim-Rechberg wrote about his reaction to the hit:

“My aft director gave a violent shudder, and my two petty officers and I had our heads bounced hard against the eyepieces. What did that? When I tried to get my target in view again, it wasn’t there; all I could see was blue. I was looking at something one didn’t normally see, the `blue layer’ baked on the surface of the lenses and mirrors to make the picture clearer. My director had been shattered. Damn! I had just found the range of my target and now I was out of the battle.”

Mullenheim-Rechberg, ordered the turrets to continue under local control, but within fifteen minutes every turret on Bismarck was out of action. At 0921 turret Dora was put out of action when a shell misfired in the starboard gun, killing much of the turret crew and leaving the gun tube peeled back like a banana. Ten minutes later turret Cäsar was silenced. Only a few guns of her secondary armament, useless against battleships remained in action. At 0930, Captain Lindemann passed the order to prepare to scuttle and abandon ship.

With no real threat to themselves the British ships closed to point blank range, Rodney to a mere 2500 meters, where her 16” and 6” blazing away and hitting the helpless ship with almost every shot, as did King George V and the cruisers from slightly farther away. Without opposition They fired shot after shot into the helpless German ship, but she still remained afloat, though the burning of fires within, seen through holes in her upper deck. She was listing 20 degrees to port and down by the stern, yet on her mainmast her battle flag still flew. Admiral Tovey could not believe Bismarck had remained afloat despite the barrage she had been subjected. In the last minutes before he ordered that the rate of fire be increased, as he due to the smoke he could not see shots hitting hitting. He was concerned. He had remained on station close to ten hours longer than his fuel situation recommended, and he knew that the Germans would certainly send Luftwaffe bombers and U-Boats to attack any British ship the found. Every minute that he remained would make his ships return that much more hazardous.

As the British continued to fire, the situation aboard Bismarck became ever more desperate. Lütjens had been killed. Lindemann was trapped on the forecastle of the ship and made no attempt to escape the sinking ship.

Reluctantly, Tovey ordered the British Battleships to cease fire and withdrew do to a lack of fuel and the real threats of air and submarine attacks. Whether Bismarck remained afloat or sank, Tovey had no doubt the great German ship would never make port. But there was much sympathy for crew of Bismarck. One British officer thought “Pray God I may never know. Another thought “What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt.”  For 45 minutes the British ships had rained a hail of steel  at Bismarck without threat to themselves. Rodney’s Captain, F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton said “I can’t say I enjoyed this part of the business much, but I didn’t see what else I could do.” Likewise, King George V’s Captain, W.R. Patterson remarked that he would have stopped firing earlier if he had been able to see what was going on aboard Bismarck. 

Observers on the British ships could see flames shooting out of the many holes in her superstructure and little knots of men scurrying about the decks, some climbing over rails and jumping into the sea. Aboard Bismarck Mullenheim-Rechberg saw Rodney just 2500 meters away, her now silent guns still trained warily on Bismarck and he wrote “I could look down their muzzles. If that was her range at the end of the battle, I thought, not a single round could have missed.”  

As the King George V and Rodney withdrew from the action Bismarck all that remained was death and destruction. All senior officers except First Officer Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels were dead. Oels ordered that the ship be abandoned and scuttled before he was killed trying to direct some 300 members of the crew to safety, and telling them that the ship had been scuttled and they needed to abandoned ship when a shell hit the crowed space, killing him and over 100 crewmen.  Since scuttling cocks and watertight doors has already  The senior remaining engineering officer Gerhardt Junack ordered the scuttling charges fired, just as HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedos which hit the German ship. The hits stuck the armored belt of Bismarck, and one hit her superstructure as she began to capsize. None would have sunk the Bismarck. 

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

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The end of the Bismarck

The British battleships and cruisers fired 2,876 shells at Bismarck, of which an estimated 300-400 hit Bismarck. This doesn’t mention her previous damage; the three 14” hits scored by Prince of Wales, the three aerial torpedoes from the Swordfish from Victorious and Ark Royal, including the one in a million hit on the night of 26 May which crippled her, and another 3-5 torpedo hits from Rodney and Dorsetshire. 

The shells fired included 380 of 40.6 cm (16”) from Rodney339 of 35.6 cm (14”) from King George V527 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Norfolk254 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Dorsetshire716 of 15.2 cm (6”) from Rodney, and 660 of 13.3 cm (5.25”) from King George V

Though the British had had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained  afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

Following the scuttling order, the ships  watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams. Likewise, pumps which were being used to pump water out of flooded spaces were reversed. Likewise engineers had the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. At 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the torpedos fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship still argue. But truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. It was estimated that about 800 men successfully abandoned ship. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser believed that they spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations to avoid attack. Aboard King George V, Admiral Tovey mused of the words that he would finish his operational report.

Their withdraw left hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted, the U-558 had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers Junack, Mullenheim-Rechberg and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck. Combined with the three men who survived the sinking of Hood, those lost on Prince of Wales, and other ships, nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished during Operation Rheinübung. Junack entered the West German Navy when it was established and in 1958 was the first commander of the Bundesmarine damage control and survival school. Mullenheim-Rechberg became a diplomat and later wrote Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story. Admiral Tovey retired in 1946 became a member of the House of Lords. He died in 1971. Captain F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton retired as an Admiral in 1950 and served in a number of minor civil service positions until 1983. He died in 1984. Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1943 and was appointed Third Sea Lord and Controller where his primary mission was the creation of the vast amphibious armada used from Operation Torch to D-Day. In May of 1945 he was promoted to Admiral and Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet. He died unexpectedly at his home at the age of 57 in September 1945. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder resigned following Hitler’s Tirade against the surface Navy following the Battle of the Barents Sea in January 1943. After the war he was tried for major war crimes by the International Military Tribunal and was found guilty on all four counts and sentenced to life in prison. He was release for health reasons in 1955 and died in 1960. Captain Patterson was Knighted and promoted to Admiral. He retired in 1950 and died in 1954. 

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. In fact only two of Rodney’s 16” shells penetrated Bismarck’s armored belt out of the hundreds of shells that hit her. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

As the survivors went into the water the Bismarck began to sink by the stern as she began to capsize. Some crew member attempted to dive headfirst over the port side only it break their necks on the bilge keel. Others decided to slide feet first as the ship began to capsize. When Bismarck sank some 800 of her crew were adrift in the open Atlantic. The Dorsetshire and the last of Vian’s destroyers went to rescue of the survivors. The sea conditions and their injuries made rescue hard, but then a lookout sighted a periscope, and the rescuing ships took up their lines and steamed away, leaving hundred to die of exposure or drown. A few others would be rescued by German and Spanish ships, but of over 2200, officers, crew, and the admiral’s staff, only 115 survived.

At 1100, Winston Churchill informed the House of Commons of the battle: “This morning shortly after day-break, the Bismarck virtually immobilized, without help, was attacked by British battleships that pursued her. I don’t know the result of this action. It seems however, that Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and now will be sunk by torpedoes. It is believed that this is happening right now. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful enemy battleship, as she is the newest enemy battleship and the striking of her from the German Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining effective mastery of the Northern sea and maintenance of the Northern blockade.” Churchill had just sat down following the announcement when he was handed a note. He rose again From his seat and said: “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.” After so much bad news the members loudly and lonely cheered and clapped at the news.

The German High command issued their statement in the evening.

“Berlin, May 27, 1941. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces announces: The battleship Bismarck, which in her first battle against superior British forces sank the Hood and damaged the King George V, had her speed reduced by a hit forward. A torpedo from an aircraft attack that took place on the 24th of May, again affected her speed. On May 26, when 400 miles west of Brest, towards 21 hours, the ship was again hit by two aerial torpedoes from aircraft, destroying one steering gear and propellers, and the ship was unable to steer. During the night, the Chief of Fleet, Admiral Lütjens sent the following report to the High Command of the Navy: ‘Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer. Chief of Fleet.’ Contending with enemy naval forces which were gradually being reinforced, the battleship Bismarck went on fighting in her incapacitated state, until finally, on the morning of May 27, she fell victim of the superior strength of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, several cruisers and destroyers. The British formation itself has been attacked early today by German bombers. The thoughts of the entire German people are full of pride and sorrow towards the victorious fleet commander, Admiral Lütjens, during his naval battle in Iceland, towards the battleship Bismarck, her commander, Captain Lindemann, and his brave crew.”

Bismarck was now at the bottom of the seas, and within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world. While the legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surviving German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Bismarck’s Survivors in England

But from the perspective of the survivability of a battleship against overwhelming odds and against a massive number of hits by shells and torpedoes. Bismarck was not sunk by the fusillade of British shells and torpedoes, but by the actions of her crew, ordered by Captain Lindemann and carried out by Commander Junack and his engineering and damage control teams. The expedition which discovered her wreck and subsequent explorations of the her by multiple teams have determined damage sustained by Bismarck by the British gunfire and torpedoes was not the cause of her sinking, at least of when she sank. Of all the hits on her main armored belt, only two of the 16” shells of Rodney pierced them. None of the torpedoes, except the last ditch strike launched by Ark Royal’s Swordfish which disabled her steering gear and ended her chance of a safe escape to France, did any appreciable damage.

The one weakness were not appreciated at the time was the structural weakness of the stern of Bismarck, a design flaw found in the Scharnhorst Class, and the Admiral Hipper Class Heavy cruisers. After Bismarck was lost, Tirpitz and other ships with the same weakness were corrected. The last 35 feet of the stern collapsed either shortly before her sinking or afterward. In 1942 Prinz Eugen had her stern collapse from a single torpedo hit.

However, even today there are many controversies about what was the cause of the sinking of Bismarck, however, there are no ships that were designed and built after the Washington and London Naval Treaties, even those built in defiance of them, that ever survived the amount of damage that Bismarck sustained in her short career. Prince of Wales was sunk by just four aerial torpedoes, Roma of the Vittorio Veneto Class, was sunk by one hit by a German guided rocket, Jean Bart of the French Richelieu Class, put out of action by a few 16” shell hits from USS Massachusetts, and last but not least the massive Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi. Both ships were far larger than Bismarck and had much heavier armored belts, decks, and turrets, yet they were sunk by much less ordnance. Yamato was by 11-13 Mk 13 Aerial torpedoes and 6-8 550-1000 pound bombs. Her sister, Musashi was hit by an estimated 19 torpedos and 17 bombs. Their weakness was their torpedo protection. Though on paper their torpedo protection appeared strong there were three major weaknesses. First the voids between the triple underwater armored belts were left empty, rather than filling them with reserve water or fuel. Second, the upper main belt was not joined well to the lower torpedo belt, which created a vulnerable seam just below the waterline, and finally, their bow sections, which were very long were poorly protected, resulting in massive flooding when hit by torpedos. The only modern battleship to survive a large number of hits from 14”, 8”, and 6” shells, was USS South Dakota which was struck by at least 26 shells, but only one was 14”. It is it is doubtful if she or any other ship could have survived the damage inflicted on Bismarck.

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

The Last Chance: 820 Squadron’s Stringbags vs. Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

There is one other thing to mention. I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a crewman on the Bismarck, knowing that nightfall would bring them safely unter the protection of the Luftwaffe, and then discover that there was no escape from death and destruction. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

The Admiralty knew that the disaster could not be covered up, and within three hours of the battle sent out a press release detailing the situation: “British naval forces intercepted early this morning, off the coast of Greenland, German naval forces, including the battleship Bismarck. 

The enemy were attacked, and during the ensuing action H.M.S. Hood (Captain R. Kerr, C.B.E., R.N.) wearing the flag of Vice-Admiral L. F. Holland, C.B., received an unlucky hit in the magazine and blew up. The Bismarckhas received damage, and the pursuit of the enemy continues. It is feared there will be few survivors from H.M.S. Hood. 

 

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

Swiftly ships were redeployed to find, sink, and prevent Bismarck intercepting and destroying any of the eleven convoys then at sea. HMS Rodney and the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla made up the Tribal Class Destroyers Somali, Tartar, Mashona, and Eskimo, was west of Ireland escorting the passenger liner RMS Britannic which was serving as a troopship even as Rodney made her way to Boston for a major refit, including her notoriously unreliable engineering plant. Leaving the Eskimo behind to escort, Rodney and the other three destroyers steamed to join Tovey and King George V. Likewise, HMS Ramillies was detached from Convoy HX-127 South of Cape Farewell, to intercept Bismarck from the west, and her sister ship HMS Revenge was dispatched from Halifax, Nova Scotia with the same mission. The elderly Ramillies and Revenge would have have stood little chance in an engagement with Bismarck, but they were better than nothing.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 824  Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 824 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no damage except to scratch and dent the armor plate of Bismarck’s main belt.

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824 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position, like Victorious and Repulse were low on fuel, others like Prince of Wales damaged, and others, like Force H seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs. Brest had good repair facilities and both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were undergoing repairs there. However, as far as the British knew, Lütjens might have doubled back through the Denmark Strait to Norway.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction.

For over 30 hours the British had no idea where Bismarck was or might be heading. Winston Churchill was livid. He was angry at the loss of Hood and Bismarck’s evasion of ships shadowing her. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May the luck of the British changed.

After breaking clear of Prince of Wales, Norfolk, and Suffolk, the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon Be safe. They expected that by the morning of the 27th they would under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France. But, the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. The aircraft was holed by anti-aircraft fire, but sent out the following message:

One battleship, bearing 240º, distance 5 miles, course 150º. My position 49º 33′ North, 21º 47′ West. Time of transmission 1030/26.”

Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location,  but unless something could be done to slow the Bismarck down, the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 120 miles behind Bismarck, too far away to intervene unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Ramillies and Revenge were far to the west and too slow to intercept.

This left Somerville’s Force H to the south, but it did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter her without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

HMS_Ark_Royal_swordfish

820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate. If Bismarck could not be slowed down before dark she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck, would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 825 Squadron it was equipped with Fairey Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

The Swordfish entered service to the Navy in 1936. By all standards these aircraft were antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise, the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent 820 Squadron’s Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

gallbismlastdays03

Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against the German ship.  The first wave of aircraft strike were unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators On the torpedoes failed to detonate,  saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by the flight deck crew, that labored in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men were attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly protected stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. This was mainly due to the most critical design flaw in the class and most other German Capital Ships, and Heavy Cruisers. The structure of the stern was inherently weak. Likewise, the design of the ship’s propulsion system used a three screw system with dual rudders. This was designed to save weight when most other capital ships used a four screw arrangement. The steering gear were hopelessly jammed and the three screw arrangement did not give Bismarck the ability to steer herself and main control just using her screws. The game was now over, except for the final engagement. Escape was now impossible.

After the hit Bismarck steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the hitherto elusive German battleship.

Bismarck’s senior surviving Engineering Officer, Korvettenkapitänen Gerhard Junack recalled the damage and attempts to restore maneuverability to the stricken ship:

    One torpedo which hit amidships caused no damage, but the second affected the rudders disastrously, jamming the port-side rudder at a 15º angle. Immediately, the Bismarck became no longer manoeuvrable.

  • The torpedo-hit on the rudder shook the ship so badly that even in my zone of action in the turbine-room, the deck-plates were thrown into the air, and the hull vibrated violently. Shortly after the blow, water flooded through the port-side gangways into the turbine-room, and clouds of gas and smoke filled the room until the forced ventilation cleared it.
  • The stern compartments of the ship were now flooding, but the men who had been stationed there could still be saved, and soon the carpenters and repair-crew came through, making their way aft. But the ship pitched so violently in the strong sea swell that it was impossible to keep a foothold in the turbulent water surging through the companion-way.
  • All possibilities were now being considered to restore the ship’s manoeuvrability – even if only temporarily. The Commander, Kapitän zur See Lindemann, considered reports from Chief Engineer Lehmann, who was in continual contact with the repair and rescue teams. There was much gesticulation, and at one point the Chief Engineer stepped out of the circle, walked away, turned about, and made a sign of complete refusal. What this was about I am not certain, but eventually it was found possible to connect the hand rudder. But the old rudder would not budge, and to attempt to cut it away with underwater saws was quite impossible because of the heavy swell. A proposal to force the rudder out from below with the help of explosives was rejected, because of the proximity to the propellers. Thus all experiments with the auxiliary rudder were given up as completely hopeless, with the old one immovable.”

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish about Bismarck’s erratic movements that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill. As darkness descended the destroyers of Captain Phillip Vians’s 4th Flotilla, the Tribal Class destroyers Cossack, Maori, Zulu, Sikh and the Free Polish Navy destroyer Piorun, closed with Bismarck subjecting her to a Lilliputian torture. The ships harassed and attacked the German ship with guns and torpedoes. Though their attacks did not succeed they kept the bulk of the Bismarck’s crew up and awake all night. They launched 16 torpedoes without a hit, but a star shell landed on Bismarck’s bow forcing damage control teams to race to the forecastle to extinguish the flames in order to prevent heavier ships nearby from shooting at her. As daylight arrived, Admiral Lütjens, his staff, and Bismarck’s Captain and watch standers prepared the ship for the inevitable confrontation with the British battleships and heavy cruisers.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

The King George V Class Battleships: The Imperfect yet Important British Bulwarks of WII

HMS King George V

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still on my holiday from writing about the novel Coronavirus 19 and President Trump and his Administration’s incompetent response to it. It is a response that has already claimed 85,000 American lives. But, I won’t go any farther tonight on that. Instead I am going back to my series on the battleships designed and built by the British, French, Germans, Italians, and Americans from after the Battleship Holiday mandated by the Washington Naval Treaty, and the restrictions of the London Naval Treaty. The Germans were not signatories to these treaties as they were already under the much more severe provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, until the Hitler regime began to clandestinely violate it in 1934, and publicly in 1935. The British signed at bilateral naval accord with Germany in June of 1935, which the Germans renounced in 1938 in order to build a fleet of battleships that Hitler believed would allow him to achieve naval parity or superiority over the British.

This is the fourth in a series of five articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were already in service or completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty which required the British to scrap 23, the Americans 30, and Japanese 17 Battleships or Battlecruisers to comply with the treaty. Some were allowed to be converted to Aircraft Carriers, and some demilitarized to serve as training or target ships.

This series looks at the modern battleships built by the future World War II combatants between 1932 and 1939. This article covers the British Royal Navy King George V Class. The previous articles dealt with the German Scharnhorst Class, the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class, the American North Carolina Class, and the Frech Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes. The final article will be about the American South Dakota Class. The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

Since there is much disagreement about which of the ships that I have written about I may try to do a comparison to determine which was the best of these classes in the categories, of armament, speed and range, armor protection, reliably, and performance in combat. One has to remember that these were the first battleships built by their respective navies since the First World War, each was built under the constraints imposed by the naval treaties, and their influenced by the developments of potential opponents and the changing world situation. In some cases sacrifices were made on each design due to expediency and the need to get them to the fleet.

HMS King George V in 1941

The last class of Royal Navy Battleships was the Nelson Class of two ships, HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney. They were a compromise design based on N3 Class of battleships which had to be cancelled due to the Washington Treaty. The Nelson’s have been described as a “chopped off” N3 which used the 16” guns of the also cancelled G3 Battlecruisers. The design sacrificed speed for protection and firepower. Their protection was good, as was their armament, but their propulsion plants were a constant source of trouble. By the late 1920s the Royal Navy’s battle force was comprised of the two Nelson’s, the fast Battlecruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse and the 10 ships of the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge Classes all designed before the First World War.

King George V Class Quad Turret being built

The Royal Navy began planning for a new class of battleships in 1928. But these plans were shelved with the signing of the London Naval Treaty which continued the “building holiday” on capital ship construction as well as the size and armament of capital ships until 1937.  Because of the pacifist movement of the 1920, the Great Depression, and the desire of the British government to abide by international treaties in spite of the violations of those treaties, nothing was done until 1937.

With the realization that its battle force was dated, and the knowledge that other nations had laid down new classes of battleships the Royal Navy recommenced planning in 1935.  The Navy planned to build to the maximum of the 35,000 displacement limitation and placed a great measure of emphasis on armor and protection. Early designs emphasized ships with heavy firepower and protection at the expense of speed, like the American Colorado Class, the cancelled South Dakota Class, and early designs for new battleships of similar design by the U.S. Navy in the early 1930s.

Numerous Designs were proposed. Eventually the new class of battleships were designed to achieve a 28 knot speed which made them faster than all existing British battleships, although slower than the Battlecruisers. The planners had alternative designs to use 14”, 15” or 16” guns with the Navy favoring the 15” models which had equipped all of their other ships with the exception of the Nelson’s. However the Admiralty to use 14” as the government was endeavoring to negotiate with other powers to impose a 14” limitation on armament for new battleships, and the Admiralty estimated that a move to arm the ships with 15” or 16” guns could delay the completion of the ships by a year or more.

during the second London Treaty of 1935, the Americans and French agreed to the limit their size and armament of their ships, however neither the Japanese nor Italians followed suite, and as a result all new battleships of other powers had larger guns than the King George V Class. The Italians opting for 15” Guns on the Vittorio Veneto Class, the French and Americans invoking the escalator clause of the treaty. The French opted to arm the Richelieu Class with 15” guns, while the Americans chose to arm the North Carolina, South Dakota and the Iowa Classes with 16” guns. The Japanese Opted for 18” guns for their Yamato Class, which also displaced nearly twice as much as the treaty allowed. The Germans who were not a signatory built their Scharnhorst Class with 11” Guns although, those were an expedient as they were planned to be armed with 15” guns. The Germans also equipped the Bismarck Class with 15” guns.

The Royal Navy attempted to rectify this by placing more guns on the ships than those of other navies. They wanted to mount twelve 14” guns mounted in Three quadruple turrets, but this was impossible on the 35,000 platform without compromising protection, speed, or stability.  Thus the Admiralty compromised on 10 guns mounted in 2 quadruple and 1 twin turret.

ONI Drawing of King George Class

The ships displaced a full load displacement of 42,237 tons in 1942. This increased to 44,460 tons by  1944. The were 745 feet long had a beam of 103 feet, a top speed of 28 knots with a cruising range of 5,400 nautical miles at 18 knots. Their relatively poor endurance limited their operations in the Pacific and even nearly caused King George V to have to abandon the chase of the Bismarck in May 1941. The compromise in displacement also limited the amount of fuel they could carry.

The main batteries of the ships proved problematic in combat. The quadruple turret design caused most of the ships problems. This was demonstrated in the engagement of the Prince of Wales against the Bismarck as well as the King George V in its duel with the same German behemoth when A turret became disabled and completely out of action for 30 minutes and half of the main battery being out of action for most of the engagement for mechanical reasons.  The Duke of York achieved excellent results against the Scharnhorst at the Battle of North Cape, but even in that engagement the main battery of Duke of York was only able to be in action 70% of the time due to the guns  jamming, or being inoperablere for various periods of time.  One of the other drawbacks of the design was that in order to replace a gun due to wear and tear, that the turret itself had to be dismantled in order to remove and replace the guns. Most other navies had planned for the replacement of guns without such such massive work.

The main secondary armament of 5.25” dual purpose guns in twin mounts suffered from poor rate of fire and slow traverse, both of which were well below their designed standards, and definitely inferior to the American 5” 38 dual purpose twin mounts and their Mark 38 fire direction radar.

The mounting of the armament was designed to provide protection against turret explosions which could potentially detonate the ship’s magazines.  The main side and underwater protection scheme was sound and protected the ships well in combat, and might have been the best of the ships built in there era. The vertical protection was also sound as was the protection afforded to the turret barbets and placement of the magazines to shield them from plunging fire.

Only the Prince of Wales was lost due to enemy action. Initially it was thought that she was hit by 6 aerial torpedoes and two 500 pound bombs. Her main armor and underwater anti-Torpedo defenses around her fully armored casemate would have protected her from major damage, but only one of the torpedoes hit that belt. However three torpedoes hit her in areas without such protection, forward and aft of the casemate. Later examination of her wreck revealed that the culprit was a torpedo which detonated in a propeller shaft outside of the armored belt which caused uncontrolled flooding when she was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 8 December 1941. No matter how well protected, no ship is completely proof against the damage of bombs, torpedoes, or now missiles.

HMS Anson conducting gunnery exercises

The propulsion systems of the class developed problems after 1942 when fuel oil quality was decreased because of the need for aviation gas.  The new mixtures which were of  higher viscosity and contained more water than the boilers could effectively bur. This increased maintenance costs and decreased efficiency. To compensate the Admiralty designed new higher pressure fuel sprayers and burners which returned the boilers to full efficiency, and which should be used on the later HMS Vanguard. 

The lead ship of the class the King George V was laid down on 1 January 1937, and  launched on 21 February 1939. She was commissioned on 11 December 1940.  As the flagship of the Home Fleet she took part in the unsuccessful search for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during their early 1941 convoy raiding operation. Later during the hunt for the Battleship  Bismarck in May 1941 during which she earned lasting fame in helping to sink that ship, despite failures in her main battery which silenced half or her main guns.

She took part in the Murmansk convoy protection as well as Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily before sailing to the Far East for operations against the Japanese. She finished the war with the British Pacific Fleet and was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.  She returned as flagship of Home Fleet until she was decommissioned in 1949. She was subsequently sold for scrap in 1957.

Prince of Wales pulling into Singapore

The second ship of the class the Prince of Wales laid down on 1 January 1937, launched on 3 May 1939 and commissioned 19 January 1941 although she was not officially completed until March 1941. Her initial operation came in May 1941 when she sailed with the HMS Hood to intercept the Bismarck. When she sailed she still had shipyard technicians aboard.  Damaged in the action she did score an important hit on Bismarck which cut a fuel line making her forward tanks inaccessible and causing her to make her run for Brest which she did not complete. Another hit damaged Bismarck’ aircraft catapult and a third disabled an electric dynamo. During the engagement she took heavy damage, and suffered malfunctions to her main battery, and withdrew from the action. The question still remains to this day why Admiral Lütjens aboard Bismarck did not decided to finish Prince of Wales off and sailed back the way she came after destroying two of the Royal Navy’s most powerful ships. Repaired and returned to service she could have sailed with her sister ship Tirpitz, maybe in a coordinated operation with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau that could have cost the Royal Navy much more in power and prestige.

Church Service on Prince of Wales at Argentia Bay with Churchill and Roosevelt in attendance

Following her badly needed repairs. Prince of Wales carried Winston Churchill to the Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, where in secret he met with Franklin D. Roosevelt and together drafted the Atlantic Charter. In late 1941 she accompanied the HMS Repulse to Singapore to bolster the British presence in the Far East. Under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips the ships sailed to attack Japanese invasion convoys, but without air cover was sunk by Japanese aircraft which struck her with 4 torpedoes and a bomb, the key hit being a lucky hit on her propeller shaft which caused flooding that caused a loss of power to pumps and anti-aircraft defenses. Repulse was also sunk in the engagement. Their sortie was doomed by an admiral who did not understand the importance of air power, and who had left the carrier sent to assist them, HMS Hermès behind. Poor communication between the land based fighters, Royal Austrian Air Force Brewster Buffaloes which would have been outnumbered and outclassed by Japanese aircraft and the task force destroyed nonetheless.

Prince of Wales sinking and being abandoned

The third ship the Duke of York was laid down 5 May 1937, and launched on 28 February 1940. She was commissioned 4 November 1941. She provided convoy escort for the Lend Lease convoys to the Soviet Union. On December 25th 1943 she and her accompanying cruisers and destroyers sank the  Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943 during the Battle of North Cape. Like King George V and Prince of Wales she also suffered from mechanical failures oof the guns of her main battery. She was transferred to the Pacific in 1944 and served at Okinawa.  She was present  at the Japanese surrender at Singapore. She was decommissioned in 1949 and scrapped in 1957.

Duke of York

The fourth ship of the class the HMS Howe was laid down on 1 June 1937, and launched on 9 April 1940. She was commissioned on 29 August 1942.  She served with the Home Fleet and in the Mediterranean until she was transferred to the Pacific in August 1944. She was stuck and damaged by a Kamikaze in May 1945. Howe was sent for refit at Durban South Africa. She was still in refit when the war ended. She returned home and was placed in reserve in 1950 and scrapped in 1958.

HMS Howe

The last of the class the Anson was laid down 20 July 1937, and launched 24 February 1940. She was commissioned on 22 June 1942. She operated in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic and was sent to the Pacific in 1945 where she  accepted the surrender of the Japanese Forces at Hong Kong. She returned to Britain and was decommissioned in 1951 and scrapped in 1957.

HMS Anson

For the most part the ships of the King George V Class had rather unremarkable careers for The most part with the exception of the Prince of Wales and King George V in the hunt for the Bismarck and the Duke of York sinking the Scharnhorst. They had a number of technical problems which limited their operations in the war, However, they and their brave crews deserve to be remembered as helping to hold the line against the Axis in the early years of the war and sank two of the four German Battleships lost during the war.  This alone was as remarkable achievement as of their contemporaries, for only the USS Washington, and the heavily modernized battleships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia, USS California, and USS Tennessee sank enemy battleships in combat.

The King George V Class suffered serious design flaws, but in the case of their armored casemate and protection from enemy shellfire the were superior to most. Unfortunately, the true measure of their their success and design were never proven. Duke of York sank an overmatched and outnumbered Scharnhorst after her Admiral took too long to remove his ship from danger. Likewise, Prince of Wales was lucky to survive her encounter with Bismarck, and King George V, greatly assisted by HMS Rodney, and a host of cruisers and destroyers backed up by Force H sank Bismarck, which due to a torpedo hit from a Swordfish torpedo bomber from HMS Ark Royal was limited in speed and out of control.

It would have been interesting to see how they would have performed against the Vittorio Veneto Class, the Japanese Nagato, Kongo, or Yamato Class ships, or even the Scharnhorst or Bismarck in an undamaged state. I think they could have easily defeated the Kongo class, but Nagato, and Yamato would have been a different matter.

HMS Duke of York Being Scrapped 

Regardless, I think the King George V Class was a solid design, sadly limited by treaty limitations and the hopes of their government that potential enemies would do the same. Sadly, the Royal Navy even attempted to combine their heavy main battery armament and protection with guided missile and radar developments being made at the same time could have served as command ships of NATO task forces until the 1970s or 1980s. None were over 20 years old when they were sent to the breakers.

Their limitations notwithstanding, they performed excellently in the Second World War. It is sad that none survive today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Power, Beauty and Tragedy at Sea: The Battlecruisers Scharnhorst & Gneisenau

Scharnhorst

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was too tired last two nights to write anything. Thursday I had a long but good day at work and had to clean out much of my private email last night before I could do anything else because I was at over 90% of my email storage capacity. And it took forever to sort through it and get it down to almost 50%. Likewise, I did very little on social media. I finally caught up on my comics from the last couple of days and replied to some correspondence that I needed to do and began to work on this last night, but again found that I was too tired to complete it. So when it appeared that I wouldn’t complete it until after midnight I simply said “what the hell” and put it off until now.

This is another one of those posts to switch things up and write about a class of warships that I find fascinating, the World War II German Battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. First and foremost I think that they were among the most beautiful capital ships ever built. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t have design flaws, or were superior to many other capital ships. Gneisenau’s career was cut short by Germany’s inability to protect her while in port, while Scharnhorst was the victim of an ill planned sortie under the command of an admiral who had no experience commanding large ships and who had only assumed command of her task force the day before. So if you are a Naval history or warship  buff, enjoy.

Have a great day, stay inside and if you have to go out wear a mask and keep a safe distance from others to protect you and them.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

The naval architects of Germany in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Nazi Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy.

Gneisenau refueling  from Tanker Westerwald in July 1939 

The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, Panzerschiffe, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later during the war were reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships which Germany was allowed to retain following the Treaty of  Versailles. The ships incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruising range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns. It was believed that as surface raiders their speed would allow them to avoid battle with all existing battleships except the three British Battlecruisers Hood, Renown, and Repulse, while being able to outgun any heavy or light cruiser they might encounter on such a mission. While they were an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by Hood, Renown and Repulse, as well as later French Dunkerque and Strasbourg. 

Gneisenau

The next and first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau battleships which in reality were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships. The Hermans did. plan to rearm them with 15” guns but the war kept that from happening.

Scharnhorst before the War 

Despite the disparity in their main armament, their displacement and armor protection was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US North Carolina class.  Only the British Hood was superior to them in speed. However, their speed came at a cost, they did not have the long cruising range to make them truly effective commerce raiders because they were propelled by steam turbines which consumed large amounts of fuel. Since the Germans did not have a fleet replenishment system like the U.S. Navy, nor the secure network of worldwide bases of the Royal Navy, they could only operate in the Northern Atlantic or Arctic for limited amounts of time. If damaged there were few safe harbors for them which had the capability of repairing them without them being exposed to allied bombers.

Gneisenau Main Battery

As built they displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand after being damaged in Operation Cerberus to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

Scharnhorst in Action Against HMS Glorious

Scharnhorst was laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936. She was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping in the North Atlantic. On 23 November 1939 they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi while on patrol near the Faroe Islands.

During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers HMS Ardent and Acasta on 7 June 1940. It was the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war. However, Scharnhorst was hit by a torpedo from Acasta which led to her being withdrawn to Trondheim, for temporary repairs before retiring to Kiel for permanent repairs.

Scharnhorst during Operation Berlin and being Refueled during the Operation

From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base. During the action the task force encountered the British Battleships HMS Ramillies and HMS Malaya escorting different convoys which Lütjens refused to engage. After sinking ships from another convoy they encountered HMS King George V and HMS Rodney which they escaped using their superior speed, but by now, Lütjens realize that the danger of continuing the outweighed the potential success and headed for repairs in the port Brest, in occupied France.

While in Brest Scharnhorst needed repairs to a superheater for her boilers, while Gneisenau was damaged during a British air raid and were unable to deploy with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen for Operation Rheinübung, during which Bismarck sank HMS Hood, but was damaged by a 14” shell from HMS Prince of Wales which cut the fuel line from the ship’s forward fuel tanks. Lütjens decided to cut the mission short and escape to Brest, but was damaged by an aerial torpedo from a Swordfish torpedo bomber flying from HMS Ark Royal which wrecked her steering gear and allowed HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, as well as cruisers and destroyers to catch and sink her on May 27th. Prinz Eugen returned safely to Brest to join the Battlecruisers.

The Channel Dash Seen from Prinz Eugen above and below


                          Admiral Cilliax Addressing the Crew of Scharnhorst at Kiel

While at Brest Gneisenau was again bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port, the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  Commanded by Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax,  Operation Cerberus took place from 11-13 February 1942. It involved the Battlecruisers and Prinz Eugen, accompanied by destroyers, E-Boats, and R-Boats. The force was protected heavy Luftwaffe fighter cover, Code named Operation Donnerkeil the air operation was commanded by the legendary Luftwaffe fighter ace, General Adolf  Galland. 

The dash up the English Channel, was unsuccessfully contested by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The German ships successfully broke through the Channel in broad daylight and protected itself from being damaged by aircraft, motor torpedo boats, destroyers, and shore batteries. Once clear of the channel and headed for home both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau struck mines which caused various amounts of damage, but both got through to Kiel.

The success of the daylight passage through the English Channel shocked and infuriated the British public. The Times of London published an editorial on 14 February which fumed:

Vice Admiral Ciliax has succeeded where the Duke of Medina Sidonia failed. Nothing more mortifying to the pride of our sea-power has happened since the seventeenth century. […] It spelled the end of the Royal Navy legend that in wartime no enemy battle fleet could pass through what we proudly call the English Channel.

Despite the fact that then Operation was successful, the high command of the German Navy Their breakthrough was an embarrassment to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The high Command of the German Navy considered it a tactical victory but a strategic defeat, for it had traded a base, albeit exposed from which it could conduct offensive operations, to the defense of Norway, a mission of dubious value at best.

                                    Gneisenau after being Bombed in Floating Dry Dock

While undergoing repairs in a floating dry dock at Kiel Gneisenau was heavily damaged by the Royal Air Force on the night of 26-27 February. The damage was such that the Kriegsmarine High Command decided to elongate her damaged bow section and rearmament to replace her main battery with 15” guns. Once seaworthy she steamed to the port of Gotenhafen for full repairs and rearmament. Although some work was completed the conversion was halted by Hitler who was infuriated by the failure of a German Task Force at the Battle of the Barents Sea, 30-31 December 1942. Hitler fired Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and and gave an order to scrap what remained of the German surface fleet and concentrate on the U-Boat war. Admiral Karl Donitz prevented the scrapping of the fleet, but most ships were laid up and their crews reassigned to provide crews for U-Boats. Gneisenau was disarmed with her 11” and twin 5.9” removed and installed along the Atlantic Wall. One triple 11” turret, either Bruno or Dora was installed as part of a coastal defense battery in Norway. The battery was taken over by the Norwegians after liberation and remained in commission as Austrått Fort until 1968. Since then it has become a well preserved museum.

When the Red Army approached Gotenhafen her remaining crew moved her to the harbor entrance and sank her as a block ship on 27 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped in 1951.

Gneisenau Sunk as Blockship 

Turret of Gneisenau at Austrått Fort Norway

 

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia. On Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey the Scharnhorst set sail with several destroyers undertook Operation Ostfront and the ensuing battle became known as the Battle of North Cape. The mission was an attack on two Russia bound convoys. But the orders were intercepted and decoded by the British. Admiral Bruce Fraser planned a trap to intercept and neutralize Scharnhorst. 

Once Scharnhorst sailed the battleship HMS Duke of York, four cruisers and a number of destroyers as she closed on the convoy. However, due to the sea conditions Bey detached his escorting destroyers and ordered them to return to port.  Duke of York and her supporting cruisers and destroyers engaged Scharnhorst. Bey now realized he had no chance of destroying the convoy and attempted to escape.  However, Scharnhorst was damaged and her speed and maneuvering capabilities impaired.  Now virtually defenseless and surrounded the great ship was sunk with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew. Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Sinking of Scharnhorst by Charles Turner ( c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Survivors of Scharnhorst debark in England 

Thus ended the careers of two of the most beautiful battleships ships to grace the seas. Though their  careers were short they both survived frequent heavy battle damage to return and fight again.  Perhaps  their greatest weakness was the inability of the German Navy to provide them adequate escorts at sea, and the inability of the Luftwaffe to protect them against air strikes while in port. But ultimately their great weakness was the poor naval strategy employed by Hitler and Raeder at the beginning of the war which ensured their destruction. Of the major German surface units only the Pocket Battleships we’re capable of long range commerce raiding operations. The short range of the other heavy German ships, their reliance on steam turbines rather than Diesel engines, lack of air and surface support at sea, and secure overseas bases that that could operate doomed all of them to failure, and resulted in the deaths of far too many brave sailors, fighting for their country in an unrighteousness and evil cause.

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The Hubris of Empire: The Japanese Battleships Yamato and Musashi

Emperor Hirohito on Musashi in 1943

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is an old post of my series on Battleships. Previous post on different battleship classes were about the Battleships constructed under conditions of the London Naval Conference.  These have dealt with the British King George V Class, French Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes, ItalianVittorio Vento Class and the American North Carolina and South Dakota ClassesI then wrote an introduction to the Post Treaty Super-Battleships. This article is the first in that series which will include articles on the German Bismarck and Tirpitz, British Vanguard and American Iowa Class. I do hope to take my mind off present events by writing about other battleship types and classes as well as other types of ships. That being said I expect to be doing a new installment of by COVID 19 articles, which I have pretty much avoided for sanity’s sake the past week.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

They were the largest and most heavily armed battleships ever built. Shrouded in secrecy by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Government the ships were designed to offset projected American numerical superiority. Their names were symbolic of Japan’s history. Yamato was named after Yamato Province, the ancestral home of the Yamato People, the dominant native ethnic group in Japan. Musashi was named after Musashi Province in which lays Tokyo Prefecture.  A third ship of the class, Shinano, was named after Shinano Province in central Japan which was the home of the prestigious Taketa Shingen family during the Senguku period.

The Conning Tower and Bridge of Musashi

The secrecy surrounding their design and construction was unprecedented. Those charged with their deign and construction were thoroughly checked out by Japan’s secret police and sworn to an oath of secrecy. The oath sworn by builders of Musashi at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries  Nagasaki Shipyard were sworn to the oath shown below:

I am aware that all work work involving the construction of the No. 2 Battleship is vital to national security. I will make utmost effort to maintain the  secrecy of the project, and swear that I will leak no information relating to the said battleship, even to relatives and close friends. In the event I violate this oath,  I will submit to the punishment determined by the company and the Navy.  

Yamato during Consrtuction

Security measures around the shipyards where Yamato and Musashi were constructed  were immense. At Nagasaki where there was a large foreign business and missionary population where the shipyard was visible from most of the city at hemp screen of 75,000 square meters was constructed to shield the ship from prying eyes and spies.

Musashi under Construction

When actual preparations for construction were taken in 1937 secret police swept the areas of foreign, especially Chinese workers. Security was increased inside and outside the shipyard, all blueprints accounted for and placed under strict guard while all shipyard workers were photographed with any having knowledge of the plans or supervising the construction sworn to the secrecy oath.

When a top secret blueprint went missing in 1938 at Nagasaki an intense investigation that included the torture of numerous suspects and the jailing of a blueprinter who accidentally swept the document into the trash was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Armor and Protection of Yamato Class

Few pictures exist of the ships and Japanese Naval Officers destroyed many of the records of the ships design and construction just prior to the end of the Second World War. Throughout their existence they were a mystery to the American Navy. During the war the U.S. Navy estimated them to carry nine 16” guns and displace between 40,000-57,000 tons. Even the highly regarded Jane’s Fighting ships listed them at just 45,000 tons.

Yamato and Musashi together in 1943

Preliminary design work began in 1934 and progressed rapidly following Japan’s withdraw from the League of Nations and renunciation of the Washington and London Naval Treaties and withdraw from the 1936 naval talks in London. The early designs varied in the caliber of guns, size and armor, propulsion systems and endurance. Gun calibers ranged from 16” to 18.1” and a combined diesel-turbine system was considered but rejected in favor of traditional steam turbines.

The final design was for a class of five ships. Each would displace 64,000 tons standard displacement and 72,000 tons at full load. They were 862 feet long with a beam of 127 feet.  They were so large that the docks they were built needed to be expanded and special extra large launch platforms had to be built.  At Nagasaki the dock at to be expanded by cutting into the hill adjacent to it.

They were armed with nine 18.1 inch guns in triple turrets which could fire a projectile weighing over a ton. The secondary armament consisted of 12 6.1 inch guns mounted in triple turrets formerly mounted on the Mogami Class cruisers when those ships were equipped with 8” guns. Anti-aircraft defense included twelve 5” guns and twenty-four 25mm anti-aircraft guns. During the war two of the 6.1 inch turrets were removed and replaced with twelve more 5” guns and the 25mm battery was raised to 162 guns. Fire control systems were designed in such a way that the ships could engage multiple surface targets at the same time.

The ships were protected by a massive armored belt ranging from 16 inches to 8 inches with 26 inch armor on the face plates of the main gun turrets. The armor was advanced with excellent sloping but had a flaw where the upper and lower belts connected just below the waterline which exposed them to damage from torpedoes.

Yamato and Musashi viewed beside Battleship Nagato (foreground) just before the Battle of Leyte Gulf

They were powered by 12 Kampon boilers which powered 4 steam turbines and four three bladed propellers. These developed 150,000 shp and could drive the ship at a top speed of 27 knots.

Yamato

Construction of Yamato began on November 4th 1937 at Kure Naval Shipyard. Musashi on March 28th 1938. Traditionally such events were large public ceremonies but these were limited to just a few Naval Staff and Shipyard executives.  Yamato was Launched on August 8th 1940 and commissioned on December 16th 1941, just 9 days after Pearl Harbor. Musashi was launched on November 8th 1940 and commissioned on August 5th 1942 just two days before the U.S. Marines invaded Guadalcanal and two months after the disaster at the Battle of Midway.

Yamato served as Admiral Yamamoto’s flagship at Midway where she saw no action. The next two years she was and Musashi alternated as fleet flagship and conducted operations with Battleship Division One in operations between Mainland Japan and the major Japanese base at Truk. On December 25th 1943 while escorting a convoy she was torpedoed by the submarine USS Skate and suffered heavy damage which flooded a magazine.  On March 29th while underway Musashi was struck near the bow by a torpedo from the USS Tunny.

Musashi Under Attack at the Battle of Sibuyan Sea

Both ships participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and were part of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Central Force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Musashi was sunk by U.S. Navy Carrier aircraft from the Third Fleet on October 24th 1944 during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Hit by 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes she sank with the loss of nearly 1100 of her crew of almost 2400 men. The survivors were rescued by destroyers and disembarked at Corregidor. Some were sent by troop transport to Japan but one of the ships was torpedoed and sunk leaving her survivors adrift for 19 hours before rescue. Those who reached Japan were isolated from the population while about half of the survivors remained in the Philippines where 117 of 146 of those assigned to the defense of Manila were killed in action.

Yamato or Musashi under air Attack

Yamato saw action in the surface engagement on October 25th against the Escort Carriers and Destroyers of Taffy-3 during the Battle off Samar. Her guns helped sink the Escort Carrier USS Gambier Bay but was forced away from the action by torpedo attacks from the valiant destroyers of Taffy-3.

Yamato under Attack April 7th 1945

By April 1945 Japan’s Navy was decimated and holed up in Japanese controlled ports without fuel to conduct all but minor operations. U.S. Naval Forces were raiding Mainland Japan, inflicting heavy casualties among remaining naval, merchant marine, and air units, as well as bases and industrial facilities.

When the United States landed on Okinawa the Japanese Navy and air force launched wave after wave of Kamikaze attacks on the ships in the waters around the island. Yamato, along with Light Cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers were designated the Surface Special Attack Force and loaded with a full load of ammunition but only enough fuel for a one way trip. They got underway on April 6th. The mission was for Yamato to reach Okinawa, beach herself and serve as an “unsinkable” gun battery until she was destroyed. The force was spotted by U.S. Navy flying boats hours after their departure and on April 7th over 400 aircraft launched from Task Groups 58.1 and 58.3 found the Yamato strike group. Devoid of fighter cover the force was doomed. The first wave of attacking aircraft began its attack at 1230. More followed, and by 1400 Yamato was mortally wounded. She had been hit by at least 8 torpedoes and 11 bombs in an hour and a half. Now she was dead in the water and began to capsize at 1405. At 1420 she turned turtle, and at 1423 she exploded when her forward blew up sending up a mushroom cloud nearly 20,000 feet.  Under 300 of her crew of nearly 2400 were rescued.

The End: Yamato Explodes

The Yamato and Musashi  were the largest battleships ever built. But they were  designed when naval experts who planned for a war where the battleship would rule and aircraft carriers played a supporting role. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the Aircraft Carrier the new Queen of the seas. Neither ship ever  faced enemy battleships in combat and both were destroyed by the weapon that the battleship admirals had discounted, carrier based aircraft.

Thus, is somewhat fitting that each ship was commissioned shortly after the triumphs of Japanese and American Naval air power at Pearl Harbor and Midway. However, they have attained an almost mythic status in naval lore. Likewise they are both are symbols to many Japanese of the sacrifice and futility of the war. Their legend lives on in Japanese science fiction. However, both of the cities where the ships were constructed were destroyed by Atomic bombs. They are tragic reminders of the cost of war in human lives, suffering, economic cost and destruction.

In a sense their poetic names and the myths ascribed to them are a tragic requiem to the Japanese Empire and the cost of war. They and their brave sailors were sacrificed when the war was already for all intents and purposes lost. They, especially the Yamato were sacrificed for no military purpose save a convoluted sense of honor, and a nation that waged unjust and criminal wars in China before before it ever dreamed of attacking Pearl Harbor. Many Japanese Navy units, including surface ships, submarines, and Special Naval Units (Marines) engaged in war crimes at sea and ashore.

Of course the vast majority of the crew members of these ships never took part in these crimes because they seldom engaged in combat action until each was destroyed. Both spent most of the war flagships as part of a fleet in readiness. Unlike the German High Seas Fleet of the First World War, or the German Battleship Bismarck, the battleships of the Italian Regina Marina, or the battleships of Vichy France, none ever faced an enemy battleship in combat.

The only Japanese battleships to engage American battleships were the elderly fast battleship Kirishima which was destroyed by the gunfire of USS Washington during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and the even more elderly and obsolete Fuso and Yamishiro which were destroyed by the combined firepower of the survivors of Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, and the USS Mississippi which was not at Pearl Harbor, as well as many cruisers, destroyers, and PT Boats at the Battle of Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Kirishima was lost on the verge of victory to USS Washington and Rear Admiral Willis Lee who used their advantage in radar to singlehandedly destroy Kirishima and her supporting ships even as her destroyer screen was decimated, and the battleship USS South Dakota lost electric power and was heavily damaged.

Yamato  and Musashi were a waste of industrial capacity, manpower, and resources for Japan. Their sister, Shinano, which had been converted to an aircraft carrier, was lost on her maiden voyage to a spread of torpedoes fired from the submarine USS Archerfish, with a huge life of life simply because she was rushed into commission without vital watertight compartments being ready. They were expensive failures in every sense of the word, showing that bigger isn’t always better, and that investment in such expensive ships must take into account the technology that could defeat them. For the moment most nations including the United States, China, Great Britain, France, Russia, and India seem to be placing their bets on the aircraft carrier retaining its dominance, but that could easily be the same mistake of the powers of the Second World War who built battleships, even when it was clear that their dominance was at an end.

Let us pray that it never happens again. I can only imagine the shock if an American Nuclear Carrier was sunk by a submarine, a saturation cruise missile attack, or one of the maneuverable Chinese nuclear ballistic missiles. Such a loss would shock the nation and send the Navy into a panic as it scrambled to find a way to recover from such a sinking without losing more carriers. Such an event would be as transformational to naval warfare as were the introduction of the Dreadnaught, and the perfection of the submarine as a tactical and strategic weapon.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sinking Leviathan: The Death of the Bismarck

FinalBattle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

As darkness fell on May 26th, Bismarck, unable to steer towards Brest due to her damage and the following seas steered toward the oncoming British armada at a reduced speed. Her crew, now exhausted from countless hours on watch and at their battle stations knew that they were doomed.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their their ship. As Bismarck’s engineers and damage control personnel sought at way to repair the damage on that dark night Royal Navy destroyers under the command of Captain Phillip Vian harassed her, closing to fire torpedoes and keep the exhausted crew of the mighty German ship engaged at their battle stations throughout the long night. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hooddays before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s First Officer, Fregattenkapitan (Commander) Hans Oels ordered her Chief Engineer Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Gerhard Junack to prepare the ship for scuttling and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations leaving hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

Within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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String Bags vs. The German Leviathan: The Crippling Of the Battleship Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

There is one other thing to mention. I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a crewman on the Bismarck, knowing that nightfall would bring them safely unter the protection of the Luftwaffe, and then discover that there was no escape from death and destruction. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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The Sinking of the Bismarck

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

As darkness fell on May 26th, Bismarck, unable to steer towards Brest due to her damage and the following seas steered toward the oncoming British armada at a reduced speed. Her crew, now exhausted from countless hours on watch and at their battle stations knew that they were doomed.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their their ship. As Bismarck’s engineers and damage control personnel sought at way to repair the damage on that dark night Royal Navy destroyers under the command of Captain Phillip Vian harassed her, closing to fire torpedoes and keep the exhausted crew of the mighty German ship engaged at their battle stations throughout the long night. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hooddays before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s First Officer, Fregattenkapitan (Commander) Hans Oels ordered her Chief Engineer Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Gerhard Junack to prepare the ship for scuttling and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations leaving hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

Within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Swordfish Versus Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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Writing About War

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“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.” Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife 1864

Memorial Day weekend is over but I have not stopped reflecting on war and its cost. Having served in combat myself, and having stood over the wounded in field hospitals in Iraq and having seen the devastation of war up close and personal I have a hard time reducing war to the technology, the tactics and trivia that seem to satisfy the consumers of war porn. Call me whatever you want but I cannot get around the human cost of war. William Tecumseh Sherman reflected that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” 

One of my favorite historians of the Second World War, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the magnificent accounts of D-Day, The Longest Day, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, and the Battle of Berlin, The Last Battle said about his accounts: “What I write about is not war but the courage of man.” I think that writing about courage is appropriate and I do a lot of that. But I think in addition to courage that we also must write about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, especially the leaders who plan and conduct war.

When I teach or write about military history I find it important to make sure that the people who made that history are not forgotten.  After all, as the British military theorist Colin Gray says “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war. He is right of course, people are the one constant in war. Weapons and tactics may change, but people do not. 

Likewise we cannot forget that war, even wars for the most excruciatingly correct and even righteous reasons are always tragic. The cost of war, even so called “good wars” is devastating. Ernest Hemingway wrote “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” To the war porn addicts the words of Sherman or Hemingway surely are offensive, but they provide a necessary warning to the politicians, pundits and preachers who cannot get enough war to satiate their bloodlust and need for power. Sadly, most of the men and women who revel in war without end have neither served in combat or have any skin in the game regarding the wars that they support and those which they work so hard to bring about. Maybe if they did then they would not be so quick to send young men and women to war.

Those who follow me on this site know that I write about war a lot, some might say too much, but I cannot help that. My life has been forever changed by war.  If you look back through my archives you can see how my writing has evolved when it comes to dealing with war and part of that is because I do not want the sacrifices of the men and women who fought those wars to be forgotten or cheapened by a society which from the very beginning of our history has done so. Lieutenant General Hal Moore who co-authored the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young wrote: “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.” By continuing to write and teach I hope to ensure that this does not happen. Maybe I am pissing into the wind so to speak, but I cannot stand by silently.

I am a combat veteran, I have seen the devastation of war, I have lost friends in war, men and women who did not come home. I have seen other friends struggle in the aftermath of war, and I have seen some lose that struggle. Because I am a military historian as well as a priest and I have a sacred duty to ensure that people know the real cost of war.

I do this in my official capacity teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Staff College where I have the honor to serve as faculty.This itself is interesting as I am spending the final few years of a three and a half decade military career teaching the men and women who in not too long of time will be our nation’s senior military leaders. That is a responsibility that I take most seriously. Thus I always, whether it is in teaching the ethics of war, or about the Battle of Gettysburg I attempt to impress this on my students. I preach from day one to every class that their decisions in the planning process, their recommendations to senior political and military leaders, and their decisions on the battlefield impact real people, their soldiers, the people in the lands that they fight and on the home front. 

I have been writing a text for the Gettysburg Staff Ride which I believe will eventually become at least two and maybe more books. I tie a lot of biographic material in with the text, again in order to make what could be a dry and mechanical affair more real to my students and readers. That is one of the reasons that I find going to Gettysburg and walking that hallowed ground so important.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about far more more fascinating. By not denying their humanity, by understanding and appreciating their flaws, even the flaws in their character, I gain a more holistic perspective and develop a greater appreciation and empathy for them and a deeper understanding of my own flaws. As T.E. Lawrence wrote “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.” 

The complex and contradictory nature of humanity leads to a lot of confusion for people who see the world through the black and white lens of cosmic dualism where there is only good and evil and “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  Human nature shows us that things are much more complex, nuanced and blurry, there are far more than fifty shades of gray when it comes to humanity and the participation of men and women in war.

Because of this otherwise good and honorable people can find themselves for any number of reasons, fighting for an evil cause, while people who are more evil than good can end up fighting for a good cause. Now if you are one of those people who are trapped by an absolute ideological or religious certitude which cannot allow for such contradictions, that statement may confuse or even offend you. For that I do not apologize and I hope that you are offended enough to face the truth, for that is the human condition, and that my friends is what history, and especially that dealing with the most destructive and consequential issues involving humanity must deal with.

Over the weekend I did a series on this site about the tragedy of the British Battlecruiser HMS Hood and the German Battleship Bismarck which transpired over the course of a week in May 1941. In that week the two largest and most powerful warships of their day were sunk taking over 3600 of the roughly 3750 sailors aboard to a watery grave in the North Atlantic. While doing this I had the opportunity to go aboard the USS Wisconsin here in Norfolk, a ship that is roughly the same size of those two doomed warships. As I walked the passageways surrounded by massive armor plating It helped me, a sailor who has served aboard a modern Guided Missile Cruiser and other warships to appreciate the life and death of the sailors on those ships. I thought of the Hood’s who with the exception of three sailors being annihilated as the massive ship exploded, and then I thought about the crew of the Bismarck who had nearly half a day to contemplate their end before the British shells turned their ship into a funeral pyre.

So I will continue to write about war and try in the process to humanize it for my readers and to tell the stories of the tragedy that is war in such a way that even those who have not been to war, can imagine it and in doing so make wise decisions if they are to send other people’s children to fight their wars. The subject is far too important to be left to the purveyors of war porn who seek to satiate the bloodlust of others.

As for the form of my writing, I am becoming much more deliberate in trying to craft the story. Barbara Tuchman wrote something that I am now beginning to appreciate as I write my own book on Gettysburg and the Civil War: “I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.”

Anyway, that is all for tonight. Over the coming week I should be putting out my next chapter revision to my Gettysburg text and some other articles.

I wish you all the best.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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