This week in the War, 26 May–1 June 1941: Sink the Bismarck!

Sinking of HMS Hood, 24 May 1941; painting by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt [Public domain, wiki]

Sinking of HMS Hood, 24 May 1941; painting by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt [Public domain, wiki]

“Sink the Bismarck, at any cost,” was the order that Winston Churchill gave to the Royal Navy when the world’s most powerful battleship was on the rampage in the North Atlantic. After a long and harrowing chase, Churchill’s wish was granted, this week in the war. On 27 May 1941, units of Britain’s Home fleet caught up with the German battleship and sank her with great loss of life.

The Bismarck, together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, were first sighted at anchor in Norway on 21 May. By 23 May, they were in the Atlantic, passing through the Denmark Strait between the coasts of Greenland and Iceland. (German battle-cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, had followed the same route, earlier in the year).

The first units of the Home Fleet to give battle were the brand new and not completely finished battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the ageing battle-cruiser HMS Hood, which had been commissioned in 1920 and had long been the pride of the Royal Navy. In a disastrous engagement on 24 May, the Hood was sunk and the Prince of Wales damaged and forced to withdraw. Artist J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt provides a vivid portrayal in the painting above. HMS Prince of Wales is recognizable in the foreground, with her distinctive four-gun fore-turret. Only three of HMS Hood‘s crew of over 1,400 survived.

After the engagement, the Prinz Eugen and the Bismarck went separate ways, and the British Admiralty lost track of them. The Bismarck remained lost until the morning of 26 May, when a Coastal Command Catalina flying boat spotted her steaming at high speed towards the safety of the German-occupied France. If the Bismarck and, afterwards, the Prinz Eugen were to join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest, then the four warships would constitute a formidable force if they chose to sail out as a group.

Torpedo attacks by Fairey Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal finally resulted in a lucky hit. The Bismarck‘s rudder was jammed.

Destroyers (including HMS Cossack of ‘Altmark’ fame) shadowed the wounded giant throughout the night. British battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney engaged her on the morning of 27 May.

The Bismarck sank a little after 10.30am, perhaps as a result of torpedoes fired from the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, perhaps as a result of being scuttled by her crew. Of Bismarck‘s complement of over 2,000, just over 100 survived.

Sink the Bismarck --- movie DVD cover [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Sink the Bismarck — movie DVD cover [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The blog post by Christopher Chant gives extensive details of the Bismarck‘s foray into the Atlantic (Operation Rheinubung) and her eventual sinking.

For movie-goers who enjoy a retrospective, the 1960 black-and-white movie Sink the Bismarck! rekindles the drama of the times, tracing the week-long chase from the viewpoint of the ‘strictly-by-the-book’ Chief of Operations at the British Admiralty, Captain Jonathan Shepard—played by veteran British actor, Kenneth More. Dana Wynter plays WREN Second Officer Anne Davis, who supplies the love interest. It fails to blossom until the end of the movie when the Bismarck has been sunk and the two of them emerge into the sunlight from the Admiralty bunker. Shepard comments that since it is already nine o’clock, they should go for dinner. Anne points out that it is nine o’clock in the morning, and suggests breakfast instead.

James Bond fans will know that the movie’s director, Lewis Gilbert, also directed The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

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