Maritime Tales - Sink the Bismarck!

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The sinking of the Bismarck was the subject of a feature film in the 1960s which left an indelible impression on me, Stephen Guy.

The giant German battleship Bismarck was hunted down and destroyed after a frantic search by 46 British and allied warships and many aircraft.

black and white photo of a large ship with a swastika flag

The Battleship, Bismarck. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

German naval top brass believed that by breaking into the Atlantic they could have a decisive effect on the war at sea. In May 1941 the 42,000-ton Bismarck sailed from Norway with the heavy-cruiser Prinz Eugen for operations against the North Atlantic convoys – the lifelines between Britain and the United States.

Bismarck was one of the most powerful warships afloat and even by herself posed a formidable naval threat.  She had four twin 15-inch gun turrets firing high speed shells with the aid of a radar-guided aiming system. She was divided into so many watertight compartments that her crew believed she was unsinkable. The Bismarck’s dramatic Atlantic sortie caused great anxiety in Britain as she was capable of doing untold damage unless stopped.

In a brief action off Iceland she sank the old British battle cruiser HMS Hood with the loss of more than 1,400 lives. In this action she also damaged the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, built at Cammell Laird’s. However, two shells from the Prince of Wales damaged the Bismarck’s fuel tanks. This resulted in a large oil slick which led to the German being hunted down and sunk by the British warships Rodney, King George V, Norfolk and Dorsetshire.

The destruction of the Bismarck and the subsequent sinking of her supply ships largely ended the threat of German surface warships in the Atlantic. The Germans now relied almost totally on U-boats to continue their Atlantic campaign.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there are exhibits linked to the Bismarck. There is a metal splinter from one of Bismarck’s shells recovered from Rodney’s deck. Pre-war tea and jam spoons were sold as souvenirs of the Hood. A Royal Naval issue pair of binoculars has HMS Hood stamped on the case and is dated 1940-1. An inflatable lifebelt was worn by stoker Stan Higgins of Anfield, Liverpool, on the Dorsetshire during the Bismarck action. He was one of the many Merseyside crew members on the cruiser. Ten months later Stan was luckily wearing the same lifebelt when the Dorsetshire was sunk in the Pacific by Japanese dive-bombers. It kept him afloat for 36 hours until he was rescued.

Next week we look at Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz and how she was destroyed.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.