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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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Early British Aircraft Carriers: HMS Argus, Furious, Eagle, Courageous, Glorious, Hermes and Ark Royal

The British Royal Navy was the first to grasp the importance of the aircraft carrier and the first to embark on a carrier construction program and establish a Fleet Air Arm. Between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second the Royal Navy would build 7 carriers.  These ships in almost all cases were somewhat experimental as the Royal Navy experimented with flight deck and island designs, arresting systems, catapults and designs. The initial ships were all converted from other types with only two the Hermes and Ark Royal being built from the keel up as carriers.

HMS Furious

HMS Furious: Furious was built as a Courageous class large light cruiser and mounted two 18” guns in single turrets. A flying off platform was added as was a second flight deck aft following the removal of those guns. She operated Fleet Air Arm Sopwith Pups but aircraft that attempted to land on her aft deck encountered severe turbulence caused by the air currents coming around the superstructure and funnel gasses. She was the first ship to land an aircraft underway on August 2nd 1917 during her trials however the pilot Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning was killed when his Pup’s engine choked on a later attempt. After the war Furious was laid up until she was taken in hand for conversion to an Aircraft Carrier between 1921 and 1925.  When she was completed she could operate a 36 aircraft air group. Between the wars she supported Fleet operations and was used in the testing and evaluation of aircraft. She conducted the first night landing on a carrier when she landed a Blackburn Dart on 6 May 1926. She received a number of overhauls and modernizations. During the war she supported numerous fleet operations including the North Africa landings, operations in the Mediterranean and operations against German fleet units in Norway including the Battleship Tirpitz. Her limitations began to show and she was placed in reserve in September 1944 and paid off in April 1945. She was subsequently used to evaluate the effects of explosives on her structure. She was sold for scrap in 1948.

HMS Argus 1918

HMS Argus: The Argus was converted from the Italian Ocean Liner Conte Rosso which was purchases by the Royal Navy with the intent of converting her into an Aircraft Carrier.  She was built with a flush unobstructed flight deck after the Royal Navy’s unsuccessful divided flight deck experiment used on the HMS Furious following her conversion from a Light Battle Cruiser to a carrier. Argus was launched in 1917 and commissioned just prior to the end of the war on September 19th 1918.  Argus was small (15,775 tons) She was only capable of 20 knots and carried 18 aircraft. Like the USS Langley she was not a true frontline though she was used in that role as well as a training ship until the end of the 1920s when she was withdrawn from frontline service. Since she was built before the Washington Naval Treaty she was considered an experimental ship and not counted against Britain.  By the 1930s she was regulated to serving as a tender for remote controlled DH.82B Queen Bees.  During the early part of World War II the Royal Navy suffered heavy losses and the Argus assumed front line duties escorting convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and ferrying badly needed aircraft to Malta for the Royal Air Force. She finally was withdrawn from service in 1944 and used as an accommodation ship until scrapped in 1946.

HMS Eagle 1942

HMS Eagle: Eagle was laid down as the Chilean Battleship Admirante Cochrane prior to World War I and her construction was suspended until the Royal Navy purchased her for completion as a through deck Aircraft Carrier. She was 667.5 feet long and displaced 26,000 tons full load and carried up to 21 aircraft.  She conducted sea trials but was taken back to the shipyard for improvements including an all oil-fired plant, anti-torpedo bulges and a longer island structure. She was commissioned in 1924 an saw much service through the 1920s and 1930s serving in the Mediterranean and the Far East until the outbreak of the Second World War.  With the outbreak of hostilities she was recalled from the Far East where she spent most of her time in the Mediterranean escorting convoys, launching airstrikes against Italian bases and fleet units sinking the submarine Iride and the depot ship Monte Gargano in the Gulf of Bomba on 22 August 1941.

HMS Eagle burning and sinking

She was damaged by near misses by Luftwaffe bombers in October returned to England for repairs before returning to the Mediterranean in February 1942. She and her aircraft were very important in the defense of Malta until she was sunk during another Malta relief mission Operation Pedestal by the German U-Boat U-73 on 11 August 1942.  Hit by 4 torpedoes she sank in 4 minutes with the loss of 160 officers and crew.

HMS Hermes

HMS Hermes: The Hermes was the first carrier built as such from the keel up using a cruiser type hull.  The design of the Japanese carrier Hosho was influenced by Hermes which was launched before Hosho was laid down although Hosho commissioned earlier. Hermes was a pioneer design with a full length flush flight deck and starboard side island structure. She was limited by her small size and slow speed although she could embark almost as many aircraft than could the much larger Eagle. She did have significant limitations including protection, endurance, only 6,000 miles at 18 knots and small air group size which varied from 15-20 aircraft. She primarily served on the China Station until placed in reserve in 1937. In 1939 she was reactivated briefly serving with the Home Fleet before being assigned to the South Atlantic Station. She sailed with HMS Prince of Wales for the Far East in late 1941 but did not accompany the Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore where they would be sunk when trying to intercept a Japanese convoy on December 8th 1941.

HMS Hermes sinking after Japanese air attack new Ceylon

She remained at Ceylon and escaped from the harbor before the Japanese carrier’s arrived, however returning to port she was spotted by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and attacked by 70 Japanese attack planes which hit her 40 times sinking her with the loss of 307 of her 664 man crew on 9 April 1942.

HMS Glorious and a destroyer taken from Ark Royal at close of Norwegian campaign

HMS Glorious: The Glorious was one of the three Courageous class Battlecruisers designed and built in World War One. Her sister ship HMS Furious had already been taken in hand for complete conversion to an aircraft when the Washington Naval Treaty was ratified. Under the terms of the treaty the Royal Navy had to significantly reduce its number of capital ships.  With their large size and high speed the Courageous class ships, like the American Lexington class were ideal candidates for conversion to aircraft carriers.  Glorious underwent conversion from 1924 until 1930 when she was recommissioned.  With an overall length of 786 feet and full load displacement of 27,859 tons she could carry 48 aircraft and steam at 30 knots. She would spend much of her career in the Mediterranean and undergo modernization from 1934-1935.  At the outbreak of the war she was in the Mediterranean and would take part in the hunt for the German Pocket-Battleship Admiral Scheer in the Indian Ocean until being brought back to the Home Fleet for operations in the Norwegian Campaign.

HMS Glorious sinking picture taken from Scharnhorst

As the British withdraw was completed her Commander requested to steam independently to Scapa Flow to hold a courts martial proceeding against his former Air Group Commander. Sailing with two escorting destroyers Glorious was sighted by the German Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on June 8th 1941.  Unprepared with no Combat Air Patrol up or aircraft at the ready Glorious and her two escorting destroyers were sunk by the German warships. Only 43 of her complement and air group of nearly 1400 men survived.

HMS Courageous entering Malta

HMS Courageous: Courageous like her sister HMS Glorious was taken in hand for conversion to an aircraft carrier in 1924 was recommissioned as such in 1928.  She would serve primarily with the Atlantic and Home Fleets between the wars and upon commencement of hostilities.

HMS Courageous sinking after being torpedoed by U-29 17 September 1939

He became part of a U-Boat Hunter Killer Group and on the 17th of September 1939 barely 2 weeks after the start of the war she was sunk by two torpedoes fired by the U-29 taking with her 518 of her crew including her Captain.  Her loss sent a shudder through the Admiralty and resulted in Fleet Carriers being pulled from this type of duty.

HMS Ark Royal

HMS Ark Royal: Ark Royal was the first truly modern Royal Navy carrier. Designed from the keel up as such she incorporated arresting gear and steam catapults. She also was built with two hangar decks as well as elevators that were integral to the hull and thus protected by the ship’s armor belt. Designed to operate 72 aircraft she normally operated 50-60 as the size and weight of aircraft had increased during the time of her construction and commissioning. Displacing 27,800 tons fully loaded she was 800 feet long and had a top speed of 31 knots and range of 7600 nautical miles (8700 miles) at 20 knots being the only British carrier of the era to compare favorably with her American and Japanese counterparts.  Commissioned in December of 1938 Ark Royal which was intended for service in the Far East was deployed with the Home Fleet and in the Mediterranean until the outbreak of the war. Initially employed on Hunter Killer duty she and her escorting destroyers sank the U-39 on 14 September 1939 followed by the hunt for the Pocket Battleship Graf Spee. She saw action in Norway and was a bulwark of British strength in the Mediterranean where she took part in the attack on the French Fleet at Mes-el-Kébir following the French surrender to Germany and the refusal of the French Commander to either scuttle the fleet or bring to British controlled waters.  She was engaged in numerous engagements and operations including the support of Malta, operations against the Italian Fleet and air strikes on Italian shore installations. She survived frequent air attacks by the Luftwaffe during these operations.  When the Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic Ark Royal was dispatched with Force H to assist in the hunt. Ark Royal’s Fairly Swordfish torpedo bombers found the Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and on their last chance to damage the German behemoth stuck her with a torpedo which jammed the Bismarck’s rudders allowing British Battleships to sink her the following day. She returned to the Mediterranean after this where she was again engaged in protecting convoys bound for Malta. While returning with Force H to Gibraltar following one of these runs on 10 November 1941 she was attacked by U-81 which scored a hit with one torpedo. A combination of poor command response, for which her Captain was found guilty of at court-martial as well as design flaws related to her electric power plant which made damage control nearly impossible once power was lost were responsible for her sinking.

The Royal Navy helped pioneer the development of the aircraft carrier but most of their early ships had significant limitations in design, obsolescent aircraft and poor employment which were responsible for the losses of several of the ships.  However they did contribute to Britain’s ability to survive during the early years of the war.  The ships officers and men of these ships company as well as their air groups helped maintain the sea lanes which kept her in the war and allowed her forces to continue to fight in North Africa during the darkest days of the war.  One can never minimize their service or sacrifice in the especially in the early days of the war.

Today the Royal Navy has no Aircraft Carriers in commission. The last the Ark Royal was paid off this year and it will be nearly a decade before the new Queen Elizabeth class enters service. Until then the Royal Navy will have no capability to project air power in support of any contingency.  Let us hope for Britain that no such contingency arises.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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