In May 1941, when most of Europe had yielded to Hitler, the presence in the Atlantic of Germany’s deadliest warship posed a fearful threat to the convoys that kept Britain alive.

The hunting of the Bismarck is one of the great naval stories of all time. Ludovic Kennedy himself took part, as a young officer serving in one of the destroyers, and vividly reconstructs the drama that was a turning point in history,

Today, the battleship is all but dead, but in these pages two of the finest live again the crowning moments of their triumph, and the shattering instant of destruction and defeat.

She was built by Blohm and Voss of Hamburg and went down the slipway there on St. Valentine’s Day, 1939.The German government declared the ceremony a state occasion. Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Hess, Ribbentrop, Him­mler were all present, and a vast crowd cheered to see Otto von Bis­marck’s granddaughter christen their greatest ship with the name of their greatest Chancellor.

Almost a sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide, she was designed to carry eight 15-inch guns and six aircraft, with i3-inch and eight-inch armour made of specially hardened steel on her sides and tur­rets respectively. Listed as 35,000 tons to comply with the Washing­ton Treaty,* she would in fact be  41,700 tons           and more than 50,000  tons fully laden. There had never been a warship like her : she sym­bolized not only a resurgent navy, but the resurgent German nation.

During the next 18 months, while the Wehrmacht sketched in the boundaries of a new German Em­pire from the Pyrenees to the North Cape, the Atlantic to the Vistula, the ship lay alongside the quay fit­ting out, an iron anthill swarming with workmen. Key officers joined, the last being her captain, Ernst Lindemann, 45. By August 24, 1940, the ship was ready to be handed over : the band played on the quarter-deck, the naval ensign was run up, the Bismarck was com­missioned into the German Navy.

That summer, the conquest of France gave the Germans a foot­hold on the very edge of the Atlan­tic battlefield : U-boat bases were set up at Lorient, Brest, La Rochelle, St. Nazaire. German merchant raiders operating on the world’s trade routes had orders to send prizes to French ports; so did the Admiral Scheer when she left Ger­many in October. In December, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper broke out, like the Scheer, through the Denmark Strait between Green­land and Iceland, and put into Brest, the first German heavy war­ship to do so.

Finally, in February 1941, Ad­miral Gunther Lutjens took the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau out to operate in the north Atlantic. “For the first time in history,” Lutjens noted, “Ger­man battleships have succeeded in breaking through the British block­ade. We shall now go forward to success.”

The Atlantic battle was mount­ing to a climax. In March, Allied merchant shipping losses in the At­lantic were the severest so far, more than 350,000 tons; in April, in all theatres, a record of nearly 700,000 tons. To Erich Raeder, Grand Admiral of the German Fleet, it was clear that the tide was running in his favour. Now was the time to gamble with all he had.

The Bismarck was joined in the Baltic by the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and preparatory or­ders were issued. Admiral Lutjens, who had succeeded so admirably with the Scharnhorst and Gneise­nau, would now try to bring these two out also, sailing in the Bismarck as fleet commander.

Lütjens was then 51, a long, lean lamp-post of a man, with cropped hair and a dour, tight expression. He was wholly dedicated to the service, courageous, single-minded, taciturn. He was not a Nazi, gave Hitler the naval not the party salute.

Soon seven support ships sailed from French Atlantic and Nor­wegian ports to take up waiting positions. They could keep the Bis­marck and Prinz Eugen supplied with oil, ammunition, food and water for at least three months. Then, on May 18, the two warships topped up with fuel and weighed anchor to thread their way through the waters between Denmark and Sweden.

The next day, of the northern­most cape of Prussia, they joined up with a flotilla of minesweepers and destroyers, and Captain Lindemann told the crew officially what they had already guessed: that they were going on a three-month cruise to destroy British shipping. He finish­ed, “I give you the hunter’s toast,good hunting and a good bag !”


All that day and night the squad­ron sailed in formation through the Great Belt which divides the two parts of Denmark. Dawn broke to reveal a calm and empty sea, for as a security measure the Germans had frozen all shipping in the waters of the Kattegat and Skager­rak during the squadron’s passage. But they had not reckoned with the Gotland, a Swedish cruiser, which appeared soon after, grey in the sun­light against the green of the Swed­ish coast. She kept company with the German ships for several hours, then swung away. Admiral Lut­jens, aboard the Bismarck, wire­lessed home that he believed his presence had been betrayed.

Into the Open

AT Scapa Flow, ten miles from the coast of Scotland, lay the British Home Fleet, in a sweep of water ringed almost entirely by islands—a natural refuge for war-weary ships. On board the flagship King George V was a green telephone connected by a special shore line to the Ad­miralty in London. On this tele­phone, in the early morning of May 21, Admiral Sir John Tovey, Com­mander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, discussed the Gotland’s sighting.

It came as no surprise, It was known that both the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had completed train­ing. Further, during the past ten days there had been frequent Ger­man reconnaissance flights over the

Flow and additional flights over the Denmark Strait, so that on May i8, at the moment the Bismarck was leaving the Baltic, Tovey had been prompted to order the cruiser Suf­folk on patrol in the Denmark Strait to keep a sharp lookout, especially near the ice-edge, and her sister ship the Norfolk to sail from Iceland to join her.

Tovey was 56 now, a small, blue-eyed, twinkly man, who had enter­ed the Navy at 15. He was deeply religious and radiated confidence, but could sometimes be fierce, An admiral had written of him when he was younger : “Tovey shares one characteristic with me. In myself I all it tenacity of purpose. In Tovey I can only call it sheer, bloody obstinacy.”

There were two things to be done immediately : make an aerial search of the Norwegian fjords, which the Admiralty had already arranged, and bring the fleet to short notice for steam. A signal went out from the flagship’s bridge, and from across the Flow the ships in com­pany answered : the old battle cruiser Hood, 42,00o tons, for 21 years the pride of Britain’s Navy; the new battleship Prince of Wales and aircraft-carrier Victorious; and a score of cruisers and destroyers.

Not until afternoon was the re­sult of the aerial reconnaissance known : the Bismarck was anchor­ed in Korsfjord, the tongue of water that leads to Bergen. The Air Ministry agreed to an Admiralty

request to mount a bombing attack that night. But now came a change in the weather, a mist settled over the sea, it began to rain.

Hours passed. A creeping fear started to gnaw at Tovey’s heart, that the German ships had sailed, were even now heading towards the Atlantic where no less than 1 r Al­lied convoys were at sea. if so, there were no heavy ships to stop them. To Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland he sent a signal to proceed at once to Iceland with the Hood, Prince of Wales and six destroyers.

The next day dawned with more gloomy news; because of the weath­er only two of the 18 bombers that had set out to bomb the German ships had found the target area; both had bombed blind. Then early in the evening came news that the German ships had left Korsfjord, disappearing into the fog. Tovey immediately signalled the remain­ing ships to be ready to proceed with him at 10.45 p.m.

For the. men of the Norfolk and Suffolk, patrolling the Denmark Strait was not a popular job. The open sea here was a narrow passage, at this time of year not more than 3o or 4o miles wide, separating the edge of the Greenland ice-pack from the limits of the British de­clared minefield that stretched northwards from the Icelandic pen­insula of Vestfirdir