The Hunt for Bismarck: The Ultimate Battleship Battle

Kyle Mizokami

Key Point: The Bismarck was Nazi Germany's dangerous secret weapon. The Royal Navy did all it could to find it.

On May 23, 1941, the Battleship Bismarck was on a roll. The largest and most powerful ship in the German Navy, the mighty Bismarck had broken out into the Atlantic Ocean, sunk a Royal Navy battlecruiser, badly damaged a battleship and was poised to add its guns to a naval blockade that threatened to strangle Great Britain.

Ninety-six hours later, heavily damaged, the battleship was on the bottom of the North Atlantic. Bismarck’s swift reversal of fortune was the result of a heroic effort by the Royal Navy to hunt down and destroy the battlewagon, and avenge the more than 1,400 Royal Navy personnel killed in the Denmark Strait.

The German battleship Bismarck was the the pride of the Kriegsmarine, Nazi Germany’s naval service. Construction began in 1936, and the ship was commissioned in April 1940. It and its sister ship, Tirpitz, were 821 feet long and displaced fifty thousand tons, making them by far the largest warships ever built by Germany. Despite its size, twelve Wagner steam boilers made it capable of a fast thirty knots.

Like any battlewagon, Bismarck’s firepower lay in its main gun batteries. Bismarck had eight fifteen-inch guns in four large turrets, each capable of hurling a 1,800-pound armor-piercing, capped projectile 21.75 miles. This gave it the ability to penetrate 16.5 inches of armor at eleven miles.

The relatively small size of Germany’s World War II navy made it incapable of taking on the British and French navies head-on. Instead, the Kriegsmarine was given a much more limited role, of shepherding invasion fleets and cutting off the flow of commerce to Great Britain. On May 18, 1941, Bismarck and its escort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, embarked on Operation Rheinübung, a campaign to sink Allied shipping in the North Atlantic and knock Britain out of the war.

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