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 !”