70 years ago this week, one of the great dramas of both World War II and Naval History played out. German Battleship Bismark, accompanied by the Cruiser Prinz Eugen, set off to attempt to break out into the North Atlantic and attack merchant shipping trying to supply Britain.
Her course took her north towards Iceland, and then south through the Denmark Strait. There, early on 24 May 1941, the German ships encountered British battleships Prince of Wales and Hood. At about 5:50 am, action was commenced, and all 4 ships were engaged. Prinz Eugen and Bismark both scored hits on Hood, and suddenly, at 6:00am, a monstrous sheet of flame appeared just abaft Hood’s mainmast. A large column of smoke rose into the sky, followed by a thunderous sound. When the flame subsided, Hood’s bow could be seen standing nearly straight up in the sea, and she sank within 3 minutes. Of the 1,418 crew, only three men–Ted Briggs, Robert Tilburn, and William John Dundas–survived. They were rescued about two and a half hours after the sinking by the destroyer HMS Electra.
Prince of Wales withdrew from the action, though both she and Hood apparently had scored some hits. At least three shells struck Bismark, one of which allowed sea water to contaminate her reserve fuel oil, and her radar was out of action. Lutjens, commanding the group, decided to make for the French coast (the dry-dock in Saint-Nazaire) for repairs, while ordering Prinz Eugen to continue commerce raiding alone. Thus the stage was set for one of the greatest encounters between Battleships since Trafalgar.
I’ll let you read on about the action here, though we all know how it ended. With the loss of Bismark on 27 May, 1941, the threat against the Royal Navy from Germany’s High Seas Fleet was blunted, and for the rest of the war the German surface fleet was of little use to her nation.