The Largest German Battleship Ever Built Was Brought Down By A Lowly Biplane

by Daniel Russ on July 9, 2009

The Bismark, The Largest German Battleship Ever Built.

The Bismark, The Largest German Battleship Ever Built.

On May 19th, 1941, Germany launched the largest battleship ever built at the time, named for the former German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark. It was 825 feet long, displaced 50,000 metric tons of water, and would be the largest Battleship until the Japanese launched the Yamato. It’s mission was to disrupt re-supply of the British by America through the North Atlantic. It’s main guns consisted of eight 380 mm cannons, 12 150 mm cannons and 16 105s.  It had formidable armor plating all around and a well-trained crew.

Captain Ernst Lindemann was anxious to moved out of the Denmark Strait and start fighting. He did not stop to top off the fuel tanks, which proved a deadly mistake. Two days out, the Royal Navy discovered the Bismark and engaged it. Sadly, it sank the HMS Hood in an exchange that cost Britain over 1300 seamen in just 15 minutes. Churchill ordered all British Naval assets to the Bismark.

In the next few days, every British naval gun within range fired on the Bismark, and every Royal Navy ship not within range closed on it. At 9:05 PM,  the third day out in the dead of night, a single Fairey Swordfish launched a torpedo that jammed the upper rudder hinge into place. The Bismark, unlike most dreadnoughts, only had a single rudder, and this damage could only be repaired in dry dock. The Bismark now had to steer erratically using different rpm speed on the twin propellers, avoid the pursuing Royal Navy and try and make it to the French coast where it controlled the ports.

Other hits from the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS King George V, The Cossack, the Maori, the Zulu and even a Polish battleship Piorun opened holes in the hull that diluted fuel oil. The Royal Navy had to try and stay out of range because German gunners were very accurate. However, driven by the need to get revenge for the HMS Hood, they basically piled on and pounded the Bismark until the superstructure was afire and the guns were silent.

On May 27, only eight days after its maiden voyage, the juggernaut slipped beneath the waves. The Bismark has been hit by over a hundred large shells and torpedoes. About 100 German sailors survived and were picked up by the Royal Navy, but many more were left to drown.

Churchill had won the day. And a small 1930s era biplane flown by John Moffett, was the David in this fight with Goliath.

The Fairey Swordfish, A 20 Year Old 1930s Era Plane Was The Undoing of the Bismark

The Fairey Swordfish, A 20 Year Old 1930s Era Plane Was The Undoing of the Bismark

Sources and Citations

Bercuson, David J. and Herwig, Holger H. The Destruction of the Bismarck (Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 2001)

Kennedy, Ludovic. Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck (London, 1975)

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom May 3, 2011 at 3:49 pm

The Bismarck actually had twin Rudders, her weakness really lay (and had been shown in sea trials) in that her screws were of convergent design, and therefore were not able to have much of a turning effect when the rudders were amidships, let alone 12 degrees to port (I think anyway).

Gerald November 26, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Hard to believe that during the Swordfish attack’s Bismarcks’ AA turrets did not down a single plane due to her advanced weapon systems which could not calibrate for the slower speed of the obsolete torpedo planes.

KeithA0000 March 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm

AA in the Atlantic theater was nothing like the saturation AA seen in the Pacific theater…

Louis August 22, 2017 at 3:54 am

Calling the Piorun a “battleship” is rather an overstatement. The Poles did not have battleships before the war, and only some destroyers escaped to the British in 1939. And when the Poles lost one of them (Grom, I believe), they were given a replacement by the british: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ORP_Piorun_(G65)
So its a destroyer.

gary October 14, 2019 at 5:56 pm

Not sure about this, but I believe the Bismark was actually scuttled by its own crew, Royal Navy gunnery having almost entirely failed to penetrate the armour of the vessel’s citadel – only one 15″ shell having succeeded. So, the upper works of the ship may have been in shambles, but the vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking – until the crew opened sea-cocks and flooded the vessel.

Daniel Russ November 23, 2019 at 10:44 am

Yes, they scuttled it. But It was caused by the torpedo strike.

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