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HMS Hood avenged – 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Bismarck

HMS Rodney engages Bismarck (black smoke on the horizon)
27 May 2021
Death in the endless grey expanse of the Atlantic. The smudge of black smoke on the horizon is the Bismarck.

The silhouette in the foreground is battleship HMS Rodney, part of the naval forced massed to destroy the German flagship – and avenge the loss of HMS Hood at the hands of Bismarck three days earlier.

It took bravery, skill, determination, and luck to reach this showdown in the mid-Atlantic. Bismarck was on course to evade her pursuers and reach the safety of port in occupied France.

That was until a strike by Swordfish torpedo bombers from HMS Ark Royal late on May 26 – the last hope of slowing or halting the Germans.

With its rudder jammed, Bismarck was at the mercy of heavy British forces closing in. The mood aboard Hitler’s flagship was grim.

“Incapable of manoeuvring, we crept towards the superior forces coming to destroy us,” remembered gunnery officer Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg. “As the hours passed, our dying hope that somehow we would still find a way to escape was supplanted by the growing certainty that there was no escape.”

Two battleships – King George V and Rodney – and three cruisers led the charge to finish off the wounded beast, spurred on by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral John Tovey:

“The sinking of the Bismarck may have an effect on the war as a whole out of all proportion to the loss to the enemy of one battleship.”

The final battle, which began shortly before 9am, lasted just under two hours, although Bismarck’s guns were all out of action inside the first 30 minutes of the encounter. At one point, Rodney closed to within just 2,750 yards, her nine 16in guns devastating her German foe from bow to stern. 

The sinking of the Bismarck may have an effect on the war as a whole out of all proportion to the loss to the enemy of one battleship.

Admiral John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet

Crew subsequently rescued by the Royal Navy described the hellish scenes aboard Bismarck in her death throes:

“Boats and lockers had been smashed to pieces, machinery and instruments twisted and broken…Fires had broken out amidships and aft…Sheets of flame were issuing from the funnel…Scenes below deck were indescribable. A direct hit in the after dressing station killed the medical staff and the wounded…Crews in two magazines became trapped men, fires above were raising the temperature within the magazines to a dangerously high level. Finally, the probability of explosion became so acute that rescue work was abandoned. Orders were given to flood and the imprisoned men were drowned…

“Fires on the battery deck had now cut off the forward part of the ship. Lights were still burning aft, but they had gone out forward, where the air was dense with smoke, fumes and gases generated by the bursting shells. Paint was burning off the bulkheads and many men without gas masks suffocated.”

Bismarck eventually succumbed to a series of scuttling charges and torpedoes fired by HMS Dorsetshire.

Of 2,200 crew, perhaps 800 took to the water. Just 111 were rescued following a suspected U-boat sighting.

In Parliament, Winston Churchill stood up to address fellow MPs:

“I have received news that the Bismarck is sunk,” he told them, adding in his memoirs: “They seemed content.”

The ‘Bismarck chase’ as it became known had a decisive impact on the Battle of the Atlantic, as Churchill observed: “Had she escaped the moral effects of her continuing existence as much as the material damage she might have inflicted on our shipping would have been calamitous. Many misgivings would have arisen regarding our capacity to control the oceans.”

Never again would Hitler allow a major warship to sail without his permission. For most of the remainder of the war, the German Navy was reduced to a ‘fleet in being’; the brunt of the battle of the Atlantic would be carried by the U-boat.

This is the last of our historical features marking the Royal Navy's 'hardest week in history' (May 21-27). We hope you've found them informative and a tribute to those involved.

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