Friday, 1 February 2013

Best vs Best

On 14 February 1939, the battleship Bismarck was unveiled and media reported that the ship was 35,000 tonnes which was the limit under the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had to follow. The ship was actually 50,000 tonnes. Because of her size, the Bismarck was considered a "he" instead of a "she". The Bismarck was not only the largest warship in the Nazi German navy, but also named after Otto von Bismarck who united all German states under one empire during the 19th century. Hitler promised that war against the British would not happen until 1945 which is when the Navy is ready in full force. When World War Two broke out, the German Navy was unprepared and outnumbered by the British Royal Navy. The German Navy had to think about maneuver tactics and had the task to destroy merchant ships heading to Britain in an effort to starve them.

Hitler did not like the idea of destroying merchant ships heading to Britain as he was afraid that losing warships meant losing prestige. He told an admiral that he was a hero on land but a coawrd at sea. Hitler thought he knew everything about ground war as he fought in World War One. He left the Luftwaffe to his trusted deputy Hermann Goring but had no understanding of the Navy and its structure.

Operation Rheinuburg (Exercise Rhine) was a three month mission to strike merchant ships at the Atlantic. Warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were under repair after being attacked by the RAF and Bismarck's sister ship Tirpitz was still under construction. Only the Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen were sent but were outnumbered by the Royal Navy. The two ships left in secrecy and even the crew did not know until the the ships set sail. Admiral Gunther Lutjens commanded the two ships while Captain Ernst Lindermann commanded the Bismarck under Lutjens' authority.

When Hitler visited the Bismarck, an admiral was deliberately absent to avoid the possibility of getting Hitler's disapproval for Exercise Rhine to commence. The ships set sail and were spotted by the Norwegian resistance at the Norwegian coast and a Swedish crusier but continued to a naval base in Norway. During their stay at Norway, Prinz Eugen topped up it's fuel while the Bismarck had paintings on the haul to camouflage itself and its size. The sighting led to a Royal Navy captain in Stockholm to send a message back to Britain. An RAF spitfire came in and saw the ships at port and escaped after the port raised the alarm. The Royal Navy sent ships to intercept the Bismarck before it disappeared into the Atlantic. All possible escape routes like the Denmark Strait, North Sea, North Atlantic Sea and the English Channel were blocked. The Bismarck sailed in the Denmark Strait when HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk saw spotted it but were told to hold back as the two did not have the firepower to take on the Bismarck. The Bismarck opened fire on the two ships but the recoil of the guns knocked the ship's radar out of action so Prinz Eugin had to take the lead. Hitler was disappointed by the ships' deployment and wanted them back but was too late.

As the Bismarck sailed south, HMS Hood accompanied by HMS Prince of Wales tried to intercept them. The HMS Hood, built in 1920, was the pride of the Royal Navy as it was not only the biggest but most powerful in it's fleet. The battle between the Bismarck and HMS Hood was a battle between the pride of the German Navy and the Royal Navy. The plan was for the Hood and Prince of Wales to block the German ships' path meaning that they can use all it's guns while the Germans can only use it's front guns. The Norfolk and Suffolk lost contact of the Bismarck and after recalculating it's position, the Hood and Prince of Wales came too late meaning that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugin accidently had the tactical advantage of having all it's guns facing the British who can only use it's front guns. The Hood was already in action stations for hours while the Bismarck sounded the alarm after spotting the Hood. The Bismarck crew were suprised they were taking on the Hood.

The Hood and Prince of Wales opened the first shots at Prinz Eugen. Litjens refused to return fire following strict orders not to engage warships. Lindermann was frustrated saying "I will not have my ship shot out from under my ass" and ordered the Bismarck to open fire. It's first and second salvo fell short but the third scored a direct hit on the Hood exploding anti aircraft amunitions. Flames erupted and the compass tower was hit by the Bismarck's fourth salvo. The Hood turned left so it could use all its guns but took another direct hit in the main magazine causing a massive explosion. The Hood exploded in half and sank. It's forward guns fired in anger before sinking into the water. There were only three survivors on board the Hood who were being thrown up to the surface by the ship's exploding boilers. The Hood sank 8 minutes into the battle and the Prince of Wales steered hard to avoid the wreckage. The HMS Prince of Wales was only three weeks into service prior and still had civilian contractors on board at the time of the battle. It's guns were malfunctioning and the ship had no experience in combat. The ship retreated after taking 17 hits while Litjens continued his patrol rather than chasing the lone British ship. The Bismarck crew were horrified at the sinking of the Hood fearing that they could be next.

The Bismarck had suffered 3 damaging hits from the Prince of Wales and suffered ruptures in fuel tanks and flooding water in the front compartment. The Bismarck sailed to German occupied France for repairs while Prinz Eugen broke away. The British were devestated by the lost of Hood and deployed all ships to find the Bismarck. The Prince of Wales, Norfolk and Suffolk followed from the South, Admiral Tovey on the King George V and it's fleet followed from the east while Force H followed from the south. HMS Victorious sent Swordfish torpedo bombers to strike the Bismarck. The swordfish was considered old and outdated and gained the nickname "String bag". It only had one torpedo so they had to make their shot count. Eight swordfish planes attacked the Bismarck at the altitude of 200 feet and all but one made a direct hit. The direct hit caused shockwave with a Bismarck crewmember thrown to his death toward a plane catapult. It was the ship's first fatality. Royal Navy ships were following in a zigzag to prevent U boats from striking but their zig zag tactics caused the Bismarck to outmeneuver by turning around as the British headed south and after, headed west for France.

The Bismarck disappeared so a British leased American PBY Catalina with an American co-pilot later spoted them and retreated after taking heavy fire. The Catalina crew were hailed as heroes when the came back. 15 Swordfish planes came in for a second airstrike. They lost their suprise when it ran into a US coast guard cutter and the Bismarck opened fire. The Bismarck's stern was ripped by a torpedo so the ship's rudders were broken and unable to maneuver. In both airstrikes by the swordfish torpedo bombers, none of them were hit by the Bismarck's guns because the guns could not be directed slow enough.

The Royal Navy surrounded the Bismarck with King George V and Rodney at the west, Nolfolk at the north and the Dorsetshire at the east. The Royal Navy opened fire with Rodney being the first to hit and destroy the Bismarck's front gun turrets. King George V's guns hit the Bismarck's gunnery control centre while the Norfolk struck the fire control tower. After taking so many hits, the Bismarck had wounded crew on deck dying with legs or arms missing from explosion. The Dorsetshire fired it's torpedoes but at the same time, the Bismarck scuttled itself so the ship's sinking is debated. 115 crewmembers survived and rescued out of the 2200 crew.

After the Bismarck's sinking, the Japanese showed that planes and aircraft carriers are the new weapons of naval warfare during the attack on Pearl Harbor ending the battleship era.