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

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

h69721

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.

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 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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Nothing Remains Static: The Never Built G3, Amagi, and Lexington Class Battle Cruisers

artist

Artists Depiction of G3 Battlecruiser 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This weekend I will be reflecting on the old year and the coming new year, but tonight I decided to tweak and republish an article from about four years ago dealing with the battle cruisers being built by Great Britain, Japan, and the United States after the First World War. They represented the pinnacle of naval design for their era and would have been far superior to their adversaries had technology and war remained static. As Admiral Ernest King noted:

“Nothing remains static in war or military weapons, and it is consequently often dangerous to rely on courses suggested by apparent similarities in the past.”

As the First World War ended a new Naval Race was heating up. The United States had announced its intention during the war to build a navy second to none while Imperial Japan was making plans for a fleet that would give it superiority in the Western Pacific. The British, though still be far the largest naval power in the world were burdened by the massive costs of war and empire, but also seeking to maintain their naval dominance and to that end they were in the process of building a class of massive super-Dreadnought battleships, and Battle Cruisers.

The ships known as battle cruisers were first built by the British Royal Navy as a compliment to the all big gun Dreadnought battleships. The Battle Cruiser concept was for a ship of roughly the same size and firepower as a Battleship but sacrificing protection for greater speed, endurance and range.  and Japan joined in the Battle Cruiser race before and during the war. Unlike Britain the United States had concentrated on building battleships but following the war began to design and build its own class of massive battle cruisers.

800px-InvincibleBlowingUpJutland1916

HMS Invincible Blowing Up at Jutland 

During the war the weaknesses of the type were exposed during the Battle of Jutland where three British Battle Cruisers, the HMS InvincibleHMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up with the loss of most of their crews; of the 3311 officers and sailors on the ships only 26 survived. The HMS Lion was almost lost in a similar manner but the heroic actions of her crew saved her from her sisters fate. The British ships had glaring deficiencies in armor protection and the arrangement of their ammunition magazines and hoists which certainly contributed to their loss. Their German counterparts on the other hand proved much tougher and though all sustained heavy damage while engaging British Battleships and Battle Cruisers, only one the Lützow was lost. She absorbed over 30 hits from large caliber shells and only lost 128 crew members.

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HMS Hood

As the war progressed other Battle Cruisers were built, the British launched the HMS Repulse and HMS Renown and completed the HMS Hood shortly after the war was over. The Japanese built the four ship Kongo class from a British design, the first of which, the Kongo was completed in a British yard. As the powers embarked on the next Naval Race planners and naval architects designed ships of massive firepower, better protection and higher range and speed. All would have been better classed as Fast Battleships.

The British designed and began construction on the G3 class in 1921, while the Japanese began work on the Amagi Class, and the United States the Lexington Class. However the construction and completion of these ships as Battle Cruisers was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty.

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The treaty, which was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each. Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest, in fact the G3 Class had just been approved for construction.

The G3 class would have comprised four ships and been similar to the N3 Class Battleships. They were very well balanced ships and would have mounted nine 16” guns in three turrets on a displacement of 49,200 tons and deep load of 54,774 tons. They had an all or nothing protection plan meaning that the armored belt was concentrated in vital areas around the armored citadel, conning tower, turrets and magazines and engineering spaces. Their armor belt would have ranged from 12-14 inches, deck armor from 3-8 inches, conning tower 8 inches, barbettes 11-14 inches, turrets 13-17 inches and bulkheads 10-12 inches. Their propulsion system of 20 small tube boilers powering 4 geared steam turbines connected to 4 propeller shafts would have produced 160,000 shp with a designed speed of 32 knots.

The four ships, none of which were named were ordered between October and November of 1921. Their construction was suspended on November 18th 1921 and they and the N3 Battleships were cancelled in February 1922 due to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty. Many concepts of their design were incorporated in the Nelson Class battleships which were a compromise design built to stay within the limits of the treaty.

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Amagi Class as Designed, Akagi as Completed (below) 

JapaneseAircraftCarrierAkagi3Deck_cropped

The four planned Japanese Amagi Class ships would have mounted ten 16” guns on a displacement of 47,000 tons at full load. Their propulsion system 19 Kampon boilers powering four Gihon turbines would have given them a maximum speed of 30 knots, They would have had less protection than the G3 ships being more of a traditional Battle Cruiser design. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty the Japanese elected to convert two of the ships, the Amagi and Akagi to aircraft carriers. Amagi was destroyed on the ways during the great Tokyo earthquake and Akagi was completed as a carrier. The other two vessels were scrapped on the ways.

Lexington_battlecruiser_conversion_models

lexington-class-battle-cruisern11978

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The United States Navy planned the six ship Lexington Class. These ships would have mounted eight 16” guns on a ship measuring 874 feet long and 105 feet in beam, displacing 43,254 tons at full load, or nearly the size of the Iowa Class battleships. They would have had a maximum speed of 33 knots being powered by 16 boilers which drove 4 GE electric turbines producing 180,000 shaft horse power. Theirs was a massive engineering plant and while the class did not have as heavy armor protection as either the G3 or Amagi classes, they were superior to them in speed as well as endurance. Upon ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty four of the six ships were cancelled and the remaining two, the Lexington and Saratoga competed as aircraft carriers.  Had any of the ships been completed as Battle Cruisers it is likely due to their speed that they would have operated primarily with the the carriers that the US Navy built during the 1930s.

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One can only speculate what the navies of World War II would have looked like had the Washington and the subsequent London Naval Treaties not been ratified. One can also only imagine how the war at sea would have been different had the ships completed as carriers been completed as Battle Cruisers.

However that was not to be, of the planned 14 ships of these three classes only three were completed, all as aircraft carriers, ships that helped to forge the future of naval operations and warfare for nearly a century. Thus the uncompleted ships are an interesting footnote in naval history yet have their own mystique. and one might wonder if the new aircraft carriers currently being built by the United States, Britain, China, India and other nations will also be displaced by advancing technology as were these ships.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Stringbags vs. the 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-wright 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 hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. The weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair the damage. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabling Tovey with King George V, Rodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German.

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.

To be continued…

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The Never Built Battlecruisers of 1921: The G3, Amagi and Lexington Classes

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Artists Depiction of G3 Battlecruiser 

As the First World War ended a new Naval Race was heating up. The United States had announced its intention during the war to build a navy second to none while Imperial Japan was making plans for a fleet that would give it superiority in the Western Pacific. The British, though still be far the largest naval power in the world were burdened by the massive costs of war and empire, but also seeking to maintain their naval dominance.

The ships known as battle cruisers were first built by the British Royal Navy as a compliment to the all big gun Dreadnought battleships. The Battle Cruiser concept was a ship of roughly the same size and firepower as a Battleship but sacrificing protection for greater speed, endurance and range.  and Japan joined in the Battle Cruiser race before and during the war. The United States had concentrated on Battleships.

800px-InvincibleBlowingUpJutland1916

HMS Invincible Blowing Up at Jutland 

During the war the weaknesses of the type were exposed during the Battle of Jutland where three British Battle Cruisers, the HMS Invincible, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up with the loss of most of their crews of the  3311 officers and sailors on the ships only 26 survived. The HMS Lion was almost lost in a similar manner but for the heroic actions of her crew. The British ships had glaring deficiencies in armor protection and the arrangement of their ammunition magazines and hoists which certainly contributed to their loss. Their German counterparts on the other hand proved much tougher and though all sustained heavy damage while engaging British Battleships and Battle Cruisers, only one the Lützow was lost. She absorbed over 30 hits from large caliber shells and only lost 128 crew members.

h60404

As the war progressed other Battle Cruisers were built, the British launched the HMS Repulse and HMS Renown and completed the HMS Hood shortly after the war was over. The Japanese built the four ship Kongo class from a British design. As the powers embarked on the next Naval Race planners and naval architects designed ships of massive firepower, better protection and higher range and speed. All would have been better classed as Fast Battleships.

The British designed and began construction on the G3 class in 1921, the Japanese the Amagi Class, and the United States the Lexington Class. However the construction and completion of these ships as Battle Cruisers was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty.

invincible 490

The treaty was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each. Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest, in fact the G3 Class had just been approved for construction.

The G3 class would have comprised four ships and been similar to the N3 Class Battleships. They were very well balanced ships and would have mounted nine 16” guns in three turrets on a displacement of 49,200 tons and deep load of 54,774 tons. They had an all or nothing protection plan meaning that the armored belt was concentrated in vital areas around the armored citadel, conning tower, turrets and magazines and engineering spaces. Their armor belt would have ranged from 12-14 inches, deck armor from 3-8 inches, conning tower 8 inches, barbettes 11-14 inches, turrets 13-17 inches and bulkheads 10-12 inches. Their propulsion system of 20 small tube boilers powering 4 geared steam turbines connected to 4 propeller shafts would have produced 160,000 shp with a designed speed of 32 knots.

The four ships, none of which were named were ordered between October and November of 1921. Their construction was suspended on November 18th 1921 and they and the N3 Battleships were cancelled in February 1922 due to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty. Many concepts of their design were incorporated in the Nelson Class Battleships.

rys-amagi

Amagi Class as Designed, Akagi as Completed (below) 

JapaneseAircraftCarrierAkagi3Deck_cropped

The four planned Japanese Amagi Class ships would have mounted ten 16” guns on a displacement of 47,000 tons at full load. Their propulsion system 19 Kampon boilers powering four Gihon turbines would have given them a maximum speed of 30 knots, They would have had less protection than the G3 ships being more of a traditional Battle Cruiser design. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty the Japanese elected to convert two of the ships, the Amagi and Akagi to aircraft carriers. Amagi was destroyed on the ways during the great Tokyo earthquake and Akagi was completed as a carrier. The other two vessels were scrapped on the ways.

lexington-class-battle-cruisern11978

The United States Navy planned the six ship Lexington Class. These ships would have mounted eight 16” guns on a ship displacing 43,254 tons at full load. They would have had a maximum speed of 33 knots being powered by 16 boilers which drove 4 GE electric turbines producing 180,000 shp. It was a massive engineering plant and the class did not have as heavy armor protection as either the G3 or Amagi classes but were superior in speed as well as endurance. Upon ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty four of the six ships were cancelled and the remaining two, the Lexington and Saratoga competed as aircraft carriers.  Had any of the ships been completed as Battle Cruisers it is likely due to their speed that they would have operated primarily with the the carriers that the US Navy built during the 1930s.

g416531

One can only speculate what the navies of World War II would have looked like had the Washington and the subsequent London Naval Treaties not been ratified. One can also only imagine how the war at sea would have been different had the ships completed as carriers been completed as Battle Cruisers.

However that was not to be, of the planned 14 ships of these three classes only three were completed, all as aircraft carriers. Thus they are an interesting footnote in the annals of naval ship design and not much more.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Stringbags Versus Leviathan: Royal Navy Fairy Swordfish Attack the Mighty Bismarck

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

This is the second article in a series that I am writing on Operation Rheinubung and the sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck. The first article in the series was written about two years ago and focused on the Bismarck sinking the HMS Hood. This article looks at the attempts by the Fleet Air Arm Squadrons of Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers flying from the HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal to slow down the Bismarck and allow heavy fleet units to catch the the mighty German battleship. 

h69721Bismarck photographed from Prinz Eugen at the beginning of Rheinubung

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 and every warship available began to concentrate on the Bismarck which was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships from the Home Fleet under Admiral John Tovey was moving at the fastest possible speed to intercept the Bismarck while to the far southeast “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, Battle Cruiser HMS Renown and light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave their convoy escort duties and proceed to the Northwest to join the hunt.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With the 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. All of Britain was on edge and when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

gallbismlastdays01 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 Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic as her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest. 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.

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Bismarck, bow on view

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications indicating that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs. Although the British had an understanding that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest it could not be sure and as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing the might German ship to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, then at 1030 on the 26th of May a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location even though chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour. The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. 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 other heavy fleet units.

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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 form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

The aircraft from Ark Royal 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 not what many people would consider capable of completing 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 a crew compartment open to the weather. Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most other aircraft of its day. 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 1941 and providing inspiration to the Japanese for their attack on Pearl Harbor.

gallbismlastdays03

Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind Vice Admiral James Sommerville in command of Force H sent HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck as his carrier, HMS Ark Royal closed to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. A first strike, unaware Sheffield had advanced to a location near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British Cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate causing the torpedoes to miss Sheffield. The aircraft returned to Ark Royal where rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled 15 Swordfish took off for a final attack on Bismarck before night fell and Bismarck would steam into the protection of German air and naval units.

As darkness began to fall 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds attacking from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired at the attacking aircraft with every weapon available, even firing her main battery into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. Bismarck successfully avoided all but two torpedoes, one which struck her amidships causing minimal damage. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her stern jamming her port rudder enabling Tovey with King George V, Rodney, the Heavy Cruiser Norfolk and Dorchester as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with and eventually sink the Bismarck.

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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 Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and unable to maneuver. Now with the chance he would take the opportunity presented to sink the Bismarck and avenge the Hood.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe