On 22 June 1941, the largest, costliest, and most bitter, brutal and destructive military campaign in recorded history began when four million mostly German troops stepped off along a thousand mile front in their long march to destroy the Red Army.
Most Red Army units were taken completely by surprise. Up until 21 June, Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union were defacto allies. Furthermore, Stalin’s purges had eviscerated the Red Army, and even the limited reforms brought on by Marshal Georgy Zhukov after the near defeat in Finland the year before couldn’t change the fact that the quickest way to get shot or sent to Siberia was showing any capacity for independent thought. The new T-34 and KV-1 tanks, which were far superior to anything the Germans had, were the Soviets’ only tactical advantage, though the lack of any competent supporting leadership or logistics and communications systems rendered them mostly ineffectual.
But what the Soviets lacked tactically was more than compensated for in the long run by the Germans’ flawed strategic thinking. “Blitzkrieg” was an operational concept not a strategy, but Hitler was using it as one. Blitzkrieg finally had its bugs worked out after poor showings (in professional warfighters’ eyes at least) in Poland, France and the Low Countries, but finally came into its own in the Balkans, even if the still mostly foot bound and horse drawn Wehrmacht was not equipped to properly exploit it. In any case, Blitzkrieg was enemy focused, not terrain focused and its ultimate objective was always the destruction of the enemy army. Hitler believed that a quick campaign to destroy the Red Army would cause the “whole rotten house to crumble down”. He could not have been more wrong.
Hitler underestimated Stalin’s control of the population and willingness to sacrifice it to slow the invasion. The German General Staff estimated that the Red Army had 350 divisions. By August the German Army killed or captured more than 2 million Soviet soldiers and identified more than 600 divisions. The stunning advances and destruction of entire Soviet fronts in July and August turned into the realization in September and October that the Red Army didn’t matter. In the vast wilderness of the Russian hinterlands, only the Communist regime in Moscow mattered. But by then it was too late: the weather turned and the Eastern Front had turned into an apocalyptic battle of attrition.
Upon hearing of Barbarossa, Churchill was asked if he would support Stalin despite him standing for everything Churchill opposed. He replied, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I’d at least make a favorable reference to the Devil”.
The first phase of the Second World War was over; it’s most destructive phase had begun.
The capture of a fully functional five rotor Enigma machine off of U-110 in early May, 1941 allowed Bletchley Park to read the German Kriegsmarine operation’s orders within days, and sometimes hours after they were transmitted.
The first use of the newly available intelligence windfall were the locations of all of the German tankers and supply ships that U-boats used to replenish without going back to port. Between 2 and 5 June 1941, four Norwegian and Danish flagged tankers, and two freighters packed with torpedoes and food were sunk. The lost ships so upset the German rotation that the operation was the equivalent of sinking 30 U-boats. The British let slip to a known German double agent that the ships were identified due to the preponderance of search assets in the Atlantic because of the Bismarck, and a spy in the Kriegsmarine Headquarters.
Math doesn’t lie. The British Isles required X tonnage of shipping resources to maintain the war effort and the Germans were sinking more tonnage than was being built. Churchill knew it, and if nothing changed the war would be over by the end of the year. For Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Chief of the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) that was not soon enough. Raeder was a surface man, and he was being outshone by his erstwhile subordinate, Adm Karl Doenitz, the chief of the U-boats. Ton for ton, Raeder’s surface raiders (hehe) were much more effective than the U-boats but there were only so many. Raeder wanted a decisive blow to knock out Great Britain. Fortunately for him, the brand new battleship Bismarck just finished its sea trials in the Baltic. The Bismarck was the most powerful battleship in the seas around Europe, and clearly outclassed anything the British had. In early May 1941, Raeder conceived of Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine) to bring Great Britain to its knees once and for all.
Britain took extraordinary precautions to prevent German capital ships from breaking out into the Atlantic not because they sank many ships (though in some cases they did), but because they sent the convoy system into chaos. This chaos added weeks to transit times in some cases, and scattered some convoys which made the stragglers easy pickings for aux cruisers and U-boats. In March, the cruiser Admiral Hipper nearly shut down the sea lanes along the west coast of Africa, and the Admiralty was still recovering from the damage done by the breakout of the battlecriusers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in April.
Operation Rheinübung was the plan to re-break out the battlecriusers from France, and breakout the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer from Norway along with the Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from the Baltic, so they could form an unstoppable flotilla in the Atlantic. The British would be forced to mass their fleet of older battleships and battlecruisers to take them on. While the Brits consolidated, the convoys would be at the mercy of the Germans.
In the second week of May 1941, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen took on extra supplies, prize crews for future captured vessels, and the operation’s commander, Vice Admiral Gunter Lutjens. On the night of the 18th, Lutjens quietly slid out of the harbor at Gdynia, Poland.
It was the beginning of Churchill’s worst nightmare.
After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non Aggression Pact in August 1939, and the dual invasion of Poland the next month, National Socialist Germany and Soviet Communist Russia were de facto allies, a state of affairs Hitler was happy to promulgate. His reason: Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union was set to begin on 22 June 1941. On 28 May, Hitler and his generals finished the final conditions check. With the Polish mud finally drying, Hitler approved the last mass of German troops to move in a carefully orchestrated and extremely efficient manner into their staging areas along the Soviet border. They would certainly be detected. That’s just three weeks to move more than a million more men (joining two million already there) and their equipment to the border.
Although Stalin considered Hitler a “Brother in Socialism” (his words), he was not naive. He’d read Mein Kampf. In an ideology where might makes right, only one flavor of socialism could be dominant. Conflict with Nazi Germany was inevitable. Stalin just believed that Hitler was not be foolish enough to start a war with the Soviet Union before finishing off Great Britain (which was fully supported by Goebbels’ propaganda efforts). Hitler took seven months to prepare for the invasion of France, a significantly smaller endeavor than invading the Soviet Union, and would need at least a year to consolidate the British isles after the expected summer invasion of England (again supported by Goebbels). That meant an invasion of the Soviet Union in 1943 at the earliest, with 1944 more likely. To Stalin, any information to the contrary was just part of a British plot to get the USSR into the war that they were clearly losing.
Stalin was right, but that didn’t mean the information was incorrect. The British had been passing select Ultra intercepts to the Soviets for months detailing Operation Barbarossa. However, Stalin refused to believe Hitler would betray him in 1941, despite information to the contrary from American and British sources, and Soviet spies and sympathizers in Germany. There were some limited mobilizations that spring but it was mostly done behind Stalin’s back by Georgy Zhukov, one of only two marshals to survive Stalin’s still ongoing Great Purge. On 21 May, during a Central Committee meeting, the head of Soviet intelligence, General Ivan Proskurov, argued with Stalin that a German invasion was imminent. After the meeting, Stalin had him taken out back and shot.
There was no more talk of an invasion for the next four weeks.
In the face of inevitable German victory on the island of Crete following the capture of Maleme Airfield, Lieutenant General Freyburg requested that Admiral Cunningham, Commander of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, begin the evacuation of the island. Ironically, the first action of the evacuation was the landing of “Layforce” at Suda to help cover the withdrawal to Sphakia on the south coast of the island. Layforce was an ad hoc collection of various commando battalions (and included the writer Evelyn Waugh, its intelligence officer) in the eastern Mediterranean commanded by the eccentric and colorful Colonel Robert Laycock.
In response to his staff’s prediction of heavy losses to the Luftwaffe, Admiral Cunningham said, “It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition”.
16,500 Commonwealth soldiers were saved over the next few days.
Unable to maneuver and sailing in a circle at seven knots, the Bismarck spent the night of 26 May, 1941, fending off British and Polish destroyers. At 0847, the Bismarck was sighted by Admiral Tovey’s squadron of battleships, which included the new HMS King George V, and the HMS Rodney with its unique configuration of three turrets forward of the superstructure, and none behind. They were joined shortly by the cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire.
Unable to maneuver, all of the Bismarck’s turrets were out of action by 0931. Tovey closed to point blank range to sink the Bismarck, lest his battleships run out of fuel and the Germans somehow tow the it back to port. For almost 90 minutes, the four ships pounded the hulk but the Bismarck wouldn’t sink, despite being hit more than 300 times. (Remember, the “best” ship the British had, the Hood, sank after just three hits and six minutes.) Admiral Tovey eventually had to head back to port to refuel. At 1039, the Dorsetshire put four torpedoes into the Bismarck and it capsized and sank.
At 1100, only 21 minutes after the sinking, Winston Churchill informed the House of Commons about the operations against the Bismarck: “This morning shortly after day-break, the Bismarck virtually immobilized, without help, was attacked by British battleships that pursued her. I don’t know the result of this action. It seems however, that Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and now will be sunk by torpedoes. It is believed that this is happening right now. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful enemy battleship, as she is the newest enemy battleship and the striking of her from the German Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining effective mastery of the Northern sea and maintenance of the Northern blockade.”
Churchill had just sat down when he was given a note, he rose again and said: “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.”
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?
After the Hood was sunk, a rarely furious Churchill told the Admiralty “I don’t care how you do it, you must sink the Bismarck.”. By the evening of 24 May 1941, every British warship in the Western Hemisphere was converging on the North Atlantic. That evening, aircraft from the carrier Victorious put a torpedo into the Bismarck, but all it did was slow it down a few knots.
That night, the Bismarck turned on her pursuers and in the confusion, the Prinz Eugen escaped. After midnight, Lutjens ordered the Bismarck to zig zag (to avoid submarines) which forced the Suffolk and Norfolk to do the same. In the early morning hours of 25 May, the Bismarck sprinted off and got behind their forward looking radar before the cruisers knew what happened. The Bismarck was gone.
Greece was a disaster. Crete was lost. Iraq was a mess. Turkey made overtures to Germany. Rommel was at Halfaya Pass in Egypt. The Royal Navy suffered horrible losses in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Hood was sunk. In his memoirs, Churchill said the the 24th and 25th of May was the “worst weekend of my life”.
However, the Bismarck didn’t breakout as thought. The shell from the Prince of Wales that pierced the fuel tanks proved much more problematic. It couldn’t be fixed at sea, and the Bismarck, only four days into its journey, was already down to 35% of its fuel. Lutjens decided to send the Prinz Eugen on into the convoy lanes, and make for the French port of St. Nazaire to repair.
And then try again with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
Just before midnight on 23 May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck with the trailing heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen took advantage of an impending snow storm and turned to fire on the shadowing British cruisers. The storm line played hell with radar and the move surprised the British. Their sudden evasive maneuvers caused them to lose contact with the Germans for over three hours. However, during that engagement, the Bismarck’s big guns rendered its own forward mounted radar inoperable. So while the British were out of contact, Lutjen’s ordered the Prinz Eugen in the lead so it could use its own radar to cover the forward arc of the formation. When the Suffolk, still in the snowstorm, reacquired the Germans at 0300 on 24 May, it reported the Bismarck was still in the lead.
At 0530 the Hood and Price of Wales spotted the Germans, with the larger ship in the north and the smaller, one and half km south. Because of the distance, VADM Holland on board the Hood, couldn’t tell which direction they were going. And since the Suffolk reported the Bismarck was in the lead (Bad MASINT. Bad), Holland assumed they were heading back north. He ordered the formation to pursue. The Suffolk and Norfolk at this point were inexplicably under radio silence and didn’t correct. Since the Prinz Eugen was in the lead and the Germans were actually headed south, this order effectively placed the British in the unenviable position of having its own “T” crossed.
At 0552, the Hood’s gunnery officer told the forward turrets to open fire “on the lead ship” which he thought was the Bismarck heading north. But to the gunnery officers in the turrets, the lead ship was clearly the Prinz Eugen heading south, which they engaged. The captain of the Prince of Wales to his credit disregarded order and engaged the Bismarck, and scored several hits despite several guns failing minutes into the battle (she was so new, she still had civilian builders on board), She even scored one hit that was critical to the Bismarck’s fuel tanks. But it didn’t matter at the time. After only eight minutes and five salvoes from the Bismarck, the Hood’s fatal flaw doomed her.
The Hood, launched in 1918, was designed with all of the naval experience of the First World War. She had great speed, powerful guns, and thick side armor to deal with the flat trajectories of shells fired at ranges of 12 kilometers or so. But advances in gunnery during the interwar period saw the ranges of the big guns increase to over 20 km. At this distance, the trajectories were no longer flat but plunging. And the Hood had little deck armor, which was sacrificed for her great speed. At exactly 0600, a 15” shell from the Bismarck hit below the mainmast, penetrated a magazine, which caused a 15” wide 400m high column of fire followed two seconds later by a catastrophic explosion and gray mushroom cloud. The Hood broke in half and sank in two minutes. However, in those two minutes, her forward turrets defiantly fired one last time into the air, and her aft torpedo tubes launched her spread. Only three men of the 1421 man complement survived. The Norfolk (not the Prince of Wales as in the movie) immediately sent off the now famous message, “Hood has blown up.” Followed by a more detailed message from the Suffolk.
With the Hood gone, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen focused fire on the Prince of Wales, landing seven hits between 0602-0604, one of which was in the command tower that killed everyone but the captain. The seriously damaged Prince of Wales disengaged, but only because the Bismarck had to turn to avoid the Hood’s torpedoes. This provided a critical respite from the accurate firing and permitted her to retreat into her own smoke. Admiral Lutjen’s ordered his ships to cease fire at 0609, 17 minutes after the first shot. He didn’t pursue the PoW for fear of being cornered by the King George V and Rodney, whom he thought were close. The Bismarck turned south and proceeded on its primary mission: sinking convoys.
After the failure of the air attack at Grimstadfjord, Norway, Winston Churchill declared the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck the top priority of the British Empire. If it broke out into the Atlantic and began sinking convoys, the war would be over for the British.
The Bismarck’s first obstacle was the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap. It (Germans refer to ships and boats in the neutral) had four choices, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. In summary the closer to Scotland, the more likely a confrontation with the Home Fleet and aircraft from airbases in Scotland, but it was also the least expected, and a confrontation with the Home Fleet was inevitable, better to do it on its own terms. And in a text book case of the Sicilian Vizzini choosing the poison, Adm Lutjen’s chose the obvious choice, but not-not-obvious because he should choose the not-obvious choice of closer to Scotland, of the Denmark Straits between Greenland and Iceland (get all that?).
In any case, the British only had three battleships, one battlecruiser, and one aircraft carrier to cover all four gaps. Two were the only brand new battleships in the Royal Navy (Both still far inferior to the Bismarck) The HMS King George V, and HMS Prince of Wales, a WW1 BB – the HMS Rodney, the aircraft carrier Victorious, and the Pride of the Royal Navy – the battlecruiser Hood. In their very peculiar way of doing everything and doing nothing at the same time i.e. “spreading the jam too thin”, the Admiralty sent a screen of destroyers and cruisers to cover all four with the Hood and Prince of Wales to cover the Denmark Straits and Iceland Faeroe’s Gap, while the KGV, Rodney, and Victorious covered the other two.
On 23 May 1941, the British cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk spotted the Bismarck in the treacherous iceberg and fog laden Denmark Straits. Lutjens tried to engage them but because of radar the Brits retreated beyond the range of its guns and shadowed. Lutjen’s had no choice but to continue.
Upon sighting, the shadowing cruisers radioed Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland on board the Hood to intercept with the Prince of Wales the next day.