The Bismarck is Crippled

Force H, 25 May 1941. HMS Renown (foreground), HMS Ark Royal (center) and HMS Sheffield (background)

There’s a theory out there that the Germans only lost the Second World War because of their own mistakes. I don’t subscribe to that, but they were definitely their own worst enemy on occasion. In the Nazi hierarchy, or any totalitarian system for that matter, status is not based on your accomplishments, but on recognition from the powers that be, in this case, Hitler.

On the night of 25 May 1941, when the Bismarck was out of contact and could have easily made it safely to France if she had stayed that way, Hitler sent a signal to Admiral Lutjens that congratulated him on his victory over the Hood, and wished him a happy birthday. It was the proudest moment of Lutjens’ life. This in itself wasn’t bad, but Lutjens was unwilling pass up the opportunity to directly reply to Hitler. So he sent off a message thanking him and provided more detail regarding the battle. This signal was picked up by several British radio direction finders, and triangulated. At first light a Royal Navy lend-lease Catalina flying boat found the Bismarck.

Lutjens’ vanity handed the British another chance at the Bismarck.

However, the Bismarck was still clear to reach the safety of the Luftwaffe air umbrella at its present speed. There were no British surface ships close enough. The task to stop the Bismarck fell to the obsolete Swordfish bi-plane torpedo bombers from the carrier Ark Royal, part of Force H that sailed up from Gibralter. The Ark Royal had just enough daylight to launch two air strikes to slow the Bismarck.

The first air strike at 1450 was a disaster. The planes mistakenly attacked the British cruiser HMS Sheffield whom had sprinted forward from Force H to gain radar contact (in their defense the Sheffield had a very similar superstructure and turret placement as the Bismarck, albeit smaller). The Sheffield didn’t fire on the friendly planes and the only reason she wasn’t sunk was because the magnetic fuses on the torpedoes didn’t work. These were switched back to contact fuses for the second strike.

The second attack found the Bismarck but began badly with only one hit and inconsequential damage from the first wave. Due to maneuvering in the twilight, the second flight found itself approaching from the stern. In the impending darkness they pressed on despite the terrible angle of attack. Against all odds, a torpedo hit the Bismarck from directly astern and jammed the rudder just after the biplane that dropped it flew down the length of the ship, essentially buzzing Lutjens and Capt Lindemann on the bridge.

The stuck rudder forced the Bismarck into a slow turn to port as divers tried to fix it. They were unable to do so and the the Bismarck sailed in circles for the rest of the night.

Do you believe in miracles?

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