Monday, August 10, 2015
The battleships BISMARK and TIRPITZ by Eric Rossignol
Prior to the First World War, the naval construction race between Germany and Britain saw two nations leap-frogging each other as their naval architects sought to create bigger and better battleships. Faced with British industrial might, the Germans, who on the whole produced better ships, found they could not win the numbers game. More than two decades on, Plan Z could not hope to fully match the British, who had a head start due to their large, if mostly elderly, extant battle fleet.
Barred by the Anglo-German Naval Agreement from creating a fleet more than thirty-five per cent of the Royal Navy’s size, the Germans decided to go for quality rather than quantity. They achieved their aim without protest, because the British refused to believe the biggest of the new warships – Bismarck and Tirpitz – were intended to contest the open seas upon which the empire’s trade flowed. In that way the Germans pulled off a masterly deception, even if they received a lot of help from their future enemy in doing so.
Using the Washington Treaty and the later London naval conference as its guide to fair play, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement limited Britain’s next generation of battleships to 35,000 tons and it was expected the Germans would do the same. The head of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Erich Raeder told his naval architects to create a battleship that would in reality displace 45,000 tons (standard), but in July 1936 the official figure handed over to the British was 35,000 tons, with a beam of 118ft and a draft of 26ft. The principal weapon would allegedly be the 14.8-inch gun. In reality, the Germans armed Bismarck and Tirpitz with eight 15-inch guns as primary armament, with twelve 5.9-inch guns as secondary, plus sixteen 4.1-inch, sixteen 37mm and thirty-six 20mm anti-aircraft guns. The UK’s Director of Naval Construction assessed that such a broad beam and shallow draught indicated the main theatre of operations for Germany’s ‘Battleship F’ (the future Bismarck) would be the Baltic, in other words against the Russians, something with which some senior naval officers agreed. By early 1937 there were those in the Naval Intelligence Division who argued the Germans were probably lying about the new battleship’s dimensions – that she had more displacement, deeper draught, bigger guns and was generally much larger, probably indicating an ability for deep ocean raiding and the endurance to match. Such views were politically inconvenient in an era of appeasing Hitler.
It was easier to invest blind faith in the Germans keeping their side of the bargain. The British have a habit of playing things straight when others might be cheating because it’s the done thing, the honourable course. Scrutinizing the reality of Bismarck’s design might have led to the conclusion that Britain should also cheat, but that would not do. Better not to look too closely.
It was also easier on the public finances. Hitler, who left the technical details of warship construction to his admirals, saw the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as worthwhile only because, in promising not to rival the Royal Navy’s supremacy, Germany could build up a navy that would at least be big enough to counter French maritime power and also, of course, to support territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe.
In this way the British agreed to allow Germany five capital ships, a pair of aircraft carriers, twenty-one cruisers and sixty-four destroyers, plus a sizeable number of U-boats. By being so generous they of course permitted the Germans to build the very warships that would prove to be the Royal Navy’s biggest worry in May 1941. Bismarck was laid down in July 1936, her sister ship, Tirpitz, that October. Bismarck was, in reality, almost 814ft long and 118ft wide, with a deep load draught of more than 34ft. Even her standard displacement of nearly 41,700 tons – not including fuel oil, feed water for boilers and ammunition – was, of course, a flagrant breach of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Bismarck’s fully loaded displacement was 50,900 tons, though the British did not know that until after the war.
In late December 1936, in a report intended to be seen by the Foreign Office – also copied to DNI as well as C-in-C of the Home Fleet – Captain Troubridge expressed a suspicion there was some kind of bid to outwit the British. He wrote: ‘The Anglo-German naval agreement was one of the masterstrokes of policy, which have characterized Germany’s dealings with her ex-enemies since the war. When the time is ripe, as history shows, it will unquestionably go the same way as other agreements; but the time is not yet.’ However, the final sentence of this passage was not conveyed back to the Foreign Office, possibly because the Ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, thought Troubridge should restrict his comments to naval matters, rather than speculating on political intent.
Nevertheless, the DNI saw it, as did C.-in-C. Home Fleet. The Royal Navy was of course subject to the direction of the democratically elected government of the day, and neither the government, nor the British people was minded to pick a fight with Germany over its naval intentions. After the Second World War, Troubridge was asked by the wartime DNI himself, Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, why he did not flag up more prominently his concerns over where the Kriegsmarine’s expansion plans might be headed. Troubridge responded that while he had initially remained open-minded, though still wary, he hoped the Germans genuinely intended sticking to the restrictions. That they did not became obvious after Bismarck’s launch. Troubridge told Godfrey that a British diplomat based in Hamburg assessed Bismarck was ‘drawing a good deal more than she should’. The truth is that while the Royal Navy would have been quite open to the idea that the Germans were breaking the rules, the political leadership did not want to rock the boat. When Britain guaranteed Poland’s security on 31 March 1939, Hitler responded within weeks by applying ‘untragbar’ to the naval agreement and tearing it up, leaving the British with new battleships that abided by limitation treaties but were, on an individual basis, inferior to Bismarck.
Faced with two battleships, a pair of battlecruisers under construction, and three pocket battleships – each displacing around 16,000 tons (deep load) and armed with six 11-inch guns – already commissioned into service, between April 1933 and January 1936, the Royal Navy decided that despite Germany having nearly defeated Britain through unrestricted submarine warfare in the First World War, the main threat still lay in surface raiders. Funds were funnelled towards modernizing elderly, First World War-era capital ships and building new cruisers and battleships. Since the First World War the British had built only two new battleships, Rodney and Nelson (both laid down in 1922). Stunted in appearance, with a trio of massive gun turrets, each of which mounted three 16-inch guns, all placed forward, they were nevertheless effective, despite brutish lines and slow speed. The principal British naval aim was domination of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, to secure those zones from the depredations of surface raiders and keep open supply routes and connections to far-flung parts of the empire. As the menace of Fascism grew through the 1930s, even the pacifist British public and parsimonious governments of the day found they could not ignore the need for new battleships. Initially, because the King George V Class battleships were designed to abide by naval limitation treaties, they were planned with a displacement of 35,000 tons. But the lapsing of those agreements ultimately gave naval architects an opportunity to be somewhat more ambitious, and so their displacement rose by another 5,000 tons. Unfortunately, because the design had originally played by the rules, the 14-inch gun was retained. Upgrading the main armament would have meant going back to the drawing board and, with the drumbeat to war sounding loudly, that simply was not possible. At 745ft long, with a beam of 103ft, the King George V Class ships were 68ft shorter and 15ft narrower than Bismarck and Tirpitz. The deep load displacement of 42,076 tons was less than the German battleships, although it was believed until after the Second World War that the Kriegsmarine’s new battlewagons were about the same displacement as the Royal Navy’s. With belt armour of 15 inches (maximum), the British ships were also, overall, less heavily protected than Bismarck and Tirpitz. With a top speed of 28 knots, they were one knot slower. Prominent among those urging creation of a new breed of ocean-going monsters in the early 1930s was Winston Churchill, who, as First Lord of the Admiralty a quarter of a century earlier, presided over the RN during the final years of its pre-First World War naval build-up. As war clouds gathered, he experienced many sleepless nights wondering if the British navy would manage to keep its lead over the Kaiser’s fleet. Now, despite all the blood and treasure spent in the early part of the century, Britain was once more involved in a naval arms race. The interwar treaties had merely postponed the inevitable settling of scores incubated by the unsatisfactory settlement at Versailles. Throughout his wilderness years (1929–1939), when no British government would listen to his dire warnings of a gathering storm, Churchill kept in touch with the Admiralty, which tolerated his forthright advice and lobbying on ship construction matters. The former First Lord of the Admiralty gave the Navy a voice in Parliament, even if it was rarely heeded, at a time when many in government doubted the whole point of the RN. Its bitter enemies included the upstart Royal Air Force, which had gained control of the naval air arm and suffocated maritime aviation ambitions in case they drew scarce funds away.
When the government of the day reluctantly ordered new battleships, Churchill immediately offered strident advice to the Admiralty. Some of it was not entirely welcome, in particular his criticism of the decision to opt for 14-inch guns, which were smaller in calibre to those mounted in the new Japanese and American ships. Even the Queen Elizabeth Class battleships Churchill had been midwife to more than two decades earlier packed the punch of a 15-inch gun. He stated in a letter of August 1936 to Sir Samuel Hoare, First Lord of the Admiralty: ‘It is terrible deliberately to build British battleships costing £7,000,000 apiece that are not the strongest in the world.’
Originally the King George V Class were to have a dozen 14-inch guns, which Churchill thought gave a weighty punch that offset the smaller calibre. However, the ships were redesigned to take only ten 14-inch guns. Churchill thought this a disaster, not only because it caused a delay in getting them into service but also because the punch was, in his view, not strong enough.
It was maintained by the Admiralty that, even so, the more numerous 14-inch guns – ten of them rather than eight 15-inch or nine 16-inch – had a faster rate of fire. The superior velocity and range of their shells would give them a longer reach and greater penetrative power. Mr Churchill was not persuaded. The former First Lord later grumbled that Britain gambled the fortunes of the Navy, and control of the sea, on ‘a series of vessels, each taking five years to build, which might well have carried heavier gun power.’ All ships of the King George V Class were laid down in 1937, but completion was slowed due to Britain’s withered shipbuilding capacity, which was suddenly burdened with not only constructing battleships, but also aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and submarines. The first of class, King George V, named after the recently deceased monarch, was laid down on News Year’s Day 1937 and launched in late February 1939, less than seven months before war broke out.
Prince of Wales, named after the prince who became Edward VIII before abdicating in late 1936, was laid down the same day and went into the water in May 1939. Duke of York, named in honour of the prince who became King George VI following Edward’s abdication, was laid down in May 1937 and would not be launched until February 1940. Two other ships of the class, Jellicoe and Beatty, were also ordered. Named after the feuding admirals who commanded the British fleets at the unsatisfactory Battle of Jutland during the First World War, their names were subsequently changed, possibly to avoid reminding a country on the brink of war that the Royal Navy’s magnificent battleships could sometimes fail to utterly defeat an enemy. Jellicoe became Anson, named after Admiral of the Fleet Lord Anson, an eighteenth century swashbuckler, who circumnavigated the world on a raiding expedition and reformed the Navy, introducing standard uniforms for officers and improving its fighting efficiency. Beatty became Howe, to celebrate another legendary Admiral of the Fleet, who, before Nelson, was the Royal Navy’s greatest hero in the interminable wars against the French of the eighteenth century. Anson and Howe would not be completed until 1942. By late 1940 only King George V had been commissioned, with Prince of Wales racing towards completion. So, while five British battleships were ordered, by the time Bismarck and Tirpitz were close to commissioning only two of them were anywhere near readiness, with Rodney and Nelson the most modern fully operational battlewagons the UK possessed on the outbreak of war. The rest of the Royal Navy’s capital ships were a mixture of reconstructed First World War-era or, worse, vessels hardly changed at all since that conflict. The RN’s ships were also spread across the globe trying to safeguard the Empire, while Germany could concentrate its smaller, but more modern, surface fleet in home waters, ready to send out on raiding missions. The likelihood of the Royal Navy having its capital ships, and enough of them, in the right place at the right time to intercept German raiders was slim. Therein lay the folly of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. The Kriegsmarine had been allowed thirty-five per cent of the British navy’s strength when in war it was no easy matter for the Royal Navy to concentrate even that percentage of its power in home waters to counter Germany. The situation was of course made worse by the fact that Bismarck was potentially worth at least two British battleships. Had they instead worked to enforce Versailles and the various treaties restricting naval construction the British might have prevented, or at least delayed further, the advent of Bismarck and her sister. They might have, therefore, have bought time to rebuild old ships like Hood.
In spring 1941, contemplating how the Royal Navy might contain Bismarck and Tirpitz, Churchill, who had become Prime Minister in May 1940 after a second stint as First Lord of the Admiralty, continued to view the King George V Class battleships with dismay. They were ‘gravely undergunned’.10 Churchill, who was also Defence Minister, applied himself to considering how the Admiralty’s pressing need to construct more warships, including a new class of battleship armed with 16-inch guns, could be prioritized, bearing in mind the competing demands for steel to build tanks for the Army. The first two ships of the Lion Class – Lion and Temeraire – had been laid down just prior to the war, but in October 1939 construction was halted. It was not likely to resume, nor in the end would the final two ships of the class, Conqueror and Thunderer, even be laid down. All that could be managed in the short-term was completion of Duke of York, Anson and Howe; but work would begin by the end of 1941 on the one-off Vanguard, armed with second-hand 15-inch guns, some of which had previously been mounted in the modernized First World War-era fast battleships Warspite and Queen Elizabeth. The turrets themselves came from the light battlecruisers Glorious and Courageous, having been in storage since the early 1920s when these ships were converted to aircraft carriers. With no new battleships realistically possible beyond the KGVs, the fact that Britain at least possessed two 16-inch gun battleships must have been a source of comfort, but also of anxiety.
Comfort, in that the Royal Navy at least had something to outmatch Bismarck’s main fire power, but anxiety because the formidably armoured Nelson and Rodney were so old and comparatively slow, with a top speed of only around 22 knots. It is a poor state of affairs when your most heavily armed battleships were first commissioned nearly two decades earlier. Due to their age they needed constant dockyard attention to keep running. In early May 1941, Nelson was in the South Atlantic, having just undergone maintenance in the dockyard at Durban, South Africa, while Rodney was due to leave Scotland for Boston in the USA and a major refit.
The man in command of the main striking force expected to intercept and kill Bismarck or Tirpitz if, and when, they attempted to break out into the Atlantic was fifty-six-year-old Admiral John Tovey. As Commanding Officer of Rodney in the early 1930s he knew full well the power of her 16-inch guns and also the vulnerability of her worn-out boilers. With King George V as his flagship, Tovey was also aware of the new battleship’s flawed main armament. ‘Jack’ Tovey was no stranger to combat at sea. Having joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet at the age of fourteen, by the outbreak of the First World War he had command of his own destroyer, winning the Distinguished Service Order and a mention in dispatches for his tenacious command of HMS Onslow during the Battle of Jutland.
Tovey commanded the cruisers and destroyers of the Mediterranean Fleet during clashes with the Italians in the early part of the Second World War. Promoted to command the Home Fleet in November 1940, he would have a prickly relationship with Churchill, whom he felt was full of ‘bright ideas’ but was ‘most dangerous’ when he dabbled in matters of strategy and tactics. For his part, Churchill regarded Tovey as ‘stubborn and obstinate’.
On Monday, 19 May 1941, Bismarck weighed anchor in the bay at Gotenhafen, her sailors imbued with supreme confidence. Despite never having been beyond the Baltic, the new Nazi battlewagon had already earned the sobriquet ‘most powerful warship afloat’ and was now to attempt a breakout into the Atlantic to prey on British shipping. In addition to Bismarck’s usual complement of 2,065, there were eighty-two men belonging to the staff of Admiral Lütjens aboard, plus 218 Luftwaffe aircrew and maintenance personnel for the battleship’s four aircraft. When it came to the command team for the imminent Rhine Exercise sortie, there was a stark division between the two principal players: Captain Lindemann, Bismarck’s Commanding Officer, and Lütjens. They had clashing personalities, described as ‘following orders’ (Lütjens) versus ‘obeying common sense’ (Lindemann).
Lütjens was not capable of much empathy for those under his command – something he would later prove more than once – and was also a fatalist, perhaps because he knew he could only manage so many lucky escapes from the Royal Navy. In March 1941, Lütjens saw Rodney’s menacing silhouette emerge out of the darkness as Gneisenau was sinking a merchant ship in the northern Atlantic. The German battlecruiser showed Rodney a clean pair of heels. Was fatalism born of such close shaves really the right attitude for a man entrusted with the most important ship in the German fleet, a symbol of the power of the Nazi armed forces essential to the high morale of the nation? And was it right for him to expect the same mindset from Bismarcks eager, raw crew? Lütjens let them know from the outset they would either succeed or die. With little collective experience of naval warfare, Bismarck’s sailors probably did not comprehend how horrific the sacrifice might be, at least not on board their brand new battleship, which seemed invulnerable. The presence of Lütjens at the head of the mission already filled some men in Bismarck with pessimism. They recognized he had achieved some notable successes, but ‘his reputation on the lower deck was by no means enviable’.
Furthermore, ‘His command in Gneisenau was marked by a chain of misfortunes and the superstitious had come to regard him as a Jonah. This reputation had followed him to Bismarck, producing, in consequence, a depressing atmosphere.’ When she left Gotenhafen, Bismarck’s newly commissioned sister ship, Tirpitz, took her place in port, an attempt to fool British reconnaissance flights into thinking the former had not yet sailed. However, Bismarck was spotted leaving the Baltic by the Swedish cruiser Gotland, and this information swiftly leaked to Captain Henry Denham, the British Naval Attaché in Stockholm.
Had Gneisenau suffered at the hands of Rodney during Lütjens’ previous raiding sortie it might well have persuaded Adolf Hitler to ban any further such adventures by his capital ships. Notwithstanding the brush with Rodney, the success of the sortie by Gneisenau and Scharnhorst contributed to the German fleet’s decision to send out Bismarck just over two months later. Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were by May 1941 lurking at Brest, alongside the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. Exercise Rhine originally involved the two battlecruisers making a foray from Brest at the same time as Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, the operation due to start at the end of April. However, the refit of Scharnhorst would take longer than thought, while Gneisenau was torpedoed during a daring RAF raid on the Brest Roads and then damaged during British bombing of the port’s dry docks. Further misfortune struck when Prinz Eugen suffered mechanical problems. The Prinz Eugen was one of three German heavy cruisers that were far superior to any British ship armed with the same guns – 8-inch main armament – with the exception of the recently reconstructed cruiser London. Completed at Kiel in August 1940, Prinz Eugen was named after the Austro-Hungarian Prince Eugene of Savoy, who defeated the Ottoman Turks at several battles in the eighteenth century. Hitler was another Austrian with hopes of victories in the East. The name was also intended to carry on the spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had ceased to exist with the end of the empire that used to rule the Adriatic from landlocked Vienna via control of the Dalmatian coast. The previous ship to carry the name had been a 20,000-ton battleship of the Austrian fleet, which, following defeat of the Central Powers in the First World War, was awarded to France. She was used as a target ship, the combined fire of four French battleships eventually sinking her off Toulon in the summer of 1922. Well-designed, the Kriegsmarine’s Prinz Eugen gracefully cut her way through heavy seas, keeping her forecastle clean. Possessing similar lines to Bismarck, except of course on a smaller scale, her vulnerability was a high-pressure steam propulsion system that was prone to break down. Like Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen’s design was a cheat – meant to displace 10,000 tons, her actual deep load displacement was 18,700 tons. A lot of this went into her impressive protection, with more than an inch of upper deck armour and an armoured deck inside the ship that was two inches thick. Despite this she had a top speed of more than 32 knots. With a standard complement of 1,600, which was more men than it took to run a British battleship, Prinz Eugen in May 1941 was commanded by Captain Helmuth Brinkman.
He told his sailors at the commissioning of Prinz Eugen the previous summer: ‘We are a happy ship and we are a lucky ship – but in the long run luck comes only to those who deserve it.’ Luck was an essential element of high-seas raider warfare, for the longer a German warship could avoid the tentacles of the Royal Navy, the better to cause distress and damage to the British war effort. As the exploits of the Admiral Graf Spee had shown in 1939, even the mere possibility of a singleton high-seas raider on the loose in the Atlantic and Indian oceans was enough to sow confusion and chaos in shipping lanes across the globe. Sailing times for convoys were disrupted and the Royal Navy found its resources stretched to the limit in both protecting merchant shipping and forming hunting groups. The success of Graf Spee and her sister ship Admiral Scheer in picking off merchant ships and the success of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst later, combined with the depredations of U-boats, were real threats to the Atlantic lifeline that sustained Britain. With America and Russia still neutral, Britain fought a lonely, losing battle against the Germans, who were triumphant on land everywhere, if not always at sea or in the air. The Kriegsmarine hoped that if it was able successfully to stage a surface raider breakout into the Atlantic, then the British might realize their domination of the seven seas was over. Their national morale would be dealt a fatal blow, the population at large would be under threat of starvation, and those who favoured a negotiated peace with Germany might win the argument. The rest of the world not under Nazi dominion might well write Britain off and accommodate Hitler’s desires for economic and territorial domination of Europe.
The war would be over.
Portrait of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen during the Battle of the Denmark Strait by Michel Guyot. (Image courtesy of Michel Guyot) © Michel Guyot all rights reserved
Late in the evening of 18 May 1941 two new units of Raeder's surface fleet left their Baltic port after completing careful shakedown cruises and training. They were the 15 inch battleship Bismarck and her consort, the 8 inch heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The former was named for the chancellor whose foreign policies had made friendship with England a vital element, attained by avoiding naval and colonial rivalry. The latter was named for the comrade-in-arms of Winston Churchill's ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Eugen's partner in a long and successful struggle by the Germans and the British against Louis XIV's attempts to subjugate Europe. Both ships were the ultimate of naval architecture. Both were equipped with Seetakt; both had special radar rooms as a part of the original design. Their assignment was commerce raiding under the command of Admiral Lütjens. More was expected of them than of previous surface actions, for with their armor, speed and radar they would be difficult to stop, an opinion shared in Berlin and London.
Previous surface raiding had found the Royal Navy radar poor and the raiders making good use of their own. Now the balance was to swing in the other direction with the Royal Navy, Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm radar equipped to some extent. The exact time and route of the pair were not known to the Admiralty, but the break-out was no surprise, and a significant reception was prepared.
On the 21st the two were sighted at Bergen by air reconnaissance. That observation had been followed up on the following day in near-impossible flying weather, and the harbor was found to be empty. The two had sailed for the Denmark Strait, at the time about two-thirds blocked by ice and with most of the remainder the recent depository of 6100 mines. Retreating ice had left a safe passage that Seetakt easily traced, allowing them to avoid the floating bergs as well as the pack ice even in the deep fog that kept British non-radar air patrols from sighting them.
The cruiser Suffolk had received one of the first two 7.5 m type 79Zs in May 1939, later upgraded to type 279, and now was also equipped with the 50 cm type 284 radar for directing the fire of her main armament. She waited at her station at the exit of the mine field. The cruiser Norfolk, which patrolled 80 km to the west, had only the 1.5 m fixed-antenna type 286M, the one that required swinging ship for direction.
At 1920 hours on the 23rd the Suffolk and the Bismarck sighted one another visually as the latter broke briefly from a fog bank. The type 284 transmitter tubes were pushed to the limit to gain the needed power at such short wavelength; this normally allowed operation for only a couple of hours at a time, not too restrictive for gun-laying but hardly suitable for searching. The vertical lobe structure of the 7.5 m set precluded using it for surface search except at very close range. It was the intermittent use required to conserve the 284 that caused the British sighting to be visual. Suffolk scurried for fog before 15 inch shells could be sent her way, got off a sighting report and began tracking the big ship with the 50 cm type 284.
The Bismarck, whose two 80 cm sets were not restricted in duration of operation, had located the Suffolk both with radar and underwater sound before the visual sighting. Fortunately for the cruiser the Seetakt did not incorporate lobe switching and thus could not direct blind fire, having a directional accuracy of only 5°. Because of iced insulators on the radio antenna the Suffolk's first sighting report was received only by the Norfolk and the Prinz Eugen, where it was promptly decoded. The Norfolk soon had a glimpse of the battleship and narrowly escaped a salvo of heavy shells. The shock of gunfire had the effect of knocking out the forward Seetakt to Lütjens's great displeasure, so Prinz Eugen had to lead, as both her radars still functioned. The Suffolk managed to keep her quarry in optical or radar sight and hold the Norfolk close with radio. The Admiralty soon learned of the chase and dispatched the new battleship Prince of Wales and the flagship Hood to intercept. They met the enemy early in the morning of the 24th, despite the Suffolk having lost contact a few hours before. Vice Admiral L E Holland, commanding the squadron, ordered complete radio silence for his ships, including radar, until the German ships were sighted, his fear being that with their greater speed the Germans could escape if alerted.
The Hood was the finest of that most unfortunate kind of warship, the battle cruiser. As large as a battleship with guns as heavy, it sacrificed armor to gain speed. It was a stylish idea in naval circles before the demonstration that a 5 knot difference in speed did not matter to well-aimed projectiles that easily penetrated thin steel. Three ships of this type had disappeared in the Battle of Jutland in catastrophic explosions. (The German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau traded gun power for speed rather than armor plate, having only 11 inch artillery, small for battleship-class vessels.)
The Hood had a type 279M air warning radar and a type 284 gun-laying set, but radar did not protect her from the first salvos of the two German ships, and she blew up in a mighty explosion, the presumed consequence of a heavy shell penetrating her thin deck armor and detonating the magazines. The German optical fire control was up to the same high standards it had so startlingly demonstrated in action in the North Sea in the previous war and the Bismarck's defective radar was not missed.
The Prince of Wales had a 3.5 m type 281 air warning set and nine fire control radars, but the ship was so new that civilian workmen were still on board, as bad luck would have it, because of problems with the main armament. She was also so new that the gunnery officers had not incorporated radar into their procedures. The radar officer reported accurate ranges throughout the brief fight, but they were not used in calculating gun orders, and it was only the sixth salvo that had the correct range. So it came to pass that in the first encounter of big-gun ships equipped with radar the use of the new technique is enveloped in fog: the forward German set on which the First Gunnery Officer would have relied was dead, and the British set was ignored. What the Hood did will remain unknown, but her first salvo was not on target.
The Prince of Wales developed serious malfunctions in her artillery and sustained enough damage to cause her to withdraw behind a smoke screen. The Bismarck had unintentionally begun replacing fuel oil with seawater though retaining a speed of 28 knots. Why Lütjens did not pursue and very likely sink the Prince of Wales is a puzzle few have understood. At this point the Bismarck was sufficiently damaged that commerce raiding without repair was not possible, and sinking the two most powerful ships of the Royal Navy would have certainly justified the attempt. Lütjens detached the Prinz Eugen to proceed independently to the south and began a straight run for the safety in the Bay of Biscay.
Now the Bismarck was pursued by an ever growing assortment of very heavy ships with the Suffolk again doggedly tracking, but on the 25th she lost radar contact, the almost certain consequence of the intermittent use required of the 284. Lütjens was so impressed with the ability of the Suffolk to follow that he broke radio silence to inform his chief of the radar capability of which he had not been informed and the range capability of which he greatly overestimated. The overestimation probably resulted from navigational errors of one or both ships, as Lütjens compared his calculated position with the continual flow of messages that the Suffolk was transmitting. Lütjens's message allowed British radio-direction finders to get a rough idea of his position, but at the time he incorrectly thought he was being held fast by British radar.
This incident is linked to reports that the Bismarck had a passive radar receiver and had monitored the tracking. If so, it must have been an experimental set of which there is no other record , and the passive receivers that first came into use more than a year later would not have responded to 50 cm waves. It is plausible that the radar operators, presumably briefed on British use of long waves, picked up on communications receivers some of the abundant 7.5 m transmissions, which they would have recognized as radar. Given the circumstances it is unlikely that they would have realized that this equipment was incapable of observing them at the ranges involved.
A sighting through the swirling clouds over a rough sea by a Catalina flying boat equipped with ASV mark II established the Bismarck's position accurately enough for the cruiser Sheffield to be ordered to pick her up with the type 79Y radar, if possible. At this point aircraft from the carriers Victorious and Ark Royal were decisive. Both were equipped with the famous Swordfish biplanes, slow but very tough and possessed of a remarkably long range and a deceiving agility, if not encumbered with torpedo or bomb. They probably sank more tonnage than any other torpedo bomber during the war and were valuable participants until the very end. We shall return to them when describing action in the Mediterranean, the high point of the Swordfish's service.
One of the Swordfish from each carrier was equipped with ASV mark II, and green fliers from the Victorious, which had not had time to work up her crews, even to allow them to practice take-off and landing from the deck, found the target and got an ineffective hit on the armor belt. The first attack by 14 planes from the much more experienced Ark Royal went after the shadowing Sheffield instead, of whose presence they had not been informed, but their torpedoes missed. Their next attack of 15 planes found the Bismarck with radar in conditions of 'low rain cloud, strong wind, stormy seas, fading daylight and intense and accurate enemy gunfire'. One torpedo struck the armor belt, another jammed the steering gear, and with that the great ship was doomed. The radar that found the target also found the home ship, and all 15 aircraft returned, to be sure with wounded crewmen, perforated fabric and three crash landings.
With the stricken ship no longer able to reach the protective cover of land-based bombers, dawn came as a death sentence to be executed by the battleships Rodney ordered to the spot with a deck cargo for installation in America and 300 passengers and the King George V. Accurate fire, soon delivered at close range, destroyed the ship that refused to surrender. There are several accounts of this famous battle. The reader is advised to read the one by the Bismarck's Adjutant and Fourth Gunnery Officer and that of the under-water explorer who found the wreck in 1989.
The sinking of the Bismarck put an end to German surface raiding with large ships. Even without that dramatic climax it was becoming increasingly obvious that it simply did not pay. The Scharnhorst cost as much to build as 100 submarines, required a huge crew and elaborate supply, and was not immune to sinking. There was an attempt by the pocket battleship Lützow to renew raiding, but her sortie of 10 June 1941 was countered by a torpedo-plane attack that sent her back to Kiel for months of repair. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, he required many of his surface units for the Baltic. The disguised raiders continued until the Royal Navy removed them, their tankers and supply ships from the seas. Commerce raiding would be left to the U-boats of Konteradmiral Karl Dönitz, and all traces of romance disappeared.
The use by the Kriegsmarine in 1939-1941 of Seetakt was a most impressive consequence of the power of pure radar, the result of a naked radar set mounted on a ship for which no thought had been given as to what its exact tactical function was to be. The naval personnel received little training, but the set was simply ideal for a commerce raider. It was the kind of thing that every alert officer recognized when he first encountered it the torpedo officer of the Hipper a conspicuous exception. Application came immediately and instinctively. There is no evidence of captains considering radar as just 'an interesting device'; they regarded its malfunction to be a major problem for which they demanded the delivery of spare parts by special ship and submarine.
It had not been planned that way by Raeder. On first seeing a radar demonstration he was impressed enough not to interfere but cautioned Kühnhold that his primary research mission was under-water sound. It was the line officers who recognized the new weapon for its value, and their use of it in the few months of surface action was beyond criticism. Except for a technically dull-witted command they could have had blind-fire directed gunnery in 1938. German naval radar had a brilliant beginning that led nowhere.
Typical of the want of understanding at the top was the vacancy of the position of Chef der Abteilung Entwicklung der Nachrichtenmittel (Chief for Development of Signals) from November 1939 until April 1943! Moreover it was not until mid-1941 that the Marine-Nachrichtendienst (Navy Signals Service) was formed and with it a naval career specialty for radar, Seetaktischer Funkmessdienst (Tactical Radar Service). Progress remained slow, and Dönitz was to find his U-boats completely outclassed in either defensive or offensive radar techniques.
A comparison between the two navies offers instruction about their respective use of radar 21 months into the war. The Germans had mounted a prototype Seetakt in 1938, modified it in small ways, and haltingly made it reliable aboard a warship, the obvious responses of competent engineers; it was their only shipborne radar for months yet to come. Despite the Navy's introduction of the equally good air-warning Freya, it was never taken to sea except on vessels in the North Sea as part of the country's air warning system, nor was the excellent gun-laying Würzburg used aboard ship to improve AA fire, although GEMA soon adapted the Seetakt for dual purpose. The British by contrast had by May 1941 almost a dozen different kinds of shipborne radar installed, but it was not until the 10 cm type 271 appeared, with sea trials in March and April 1941, that they had a surface-search set competitive with Seetakt. In their hunt for the Bismarck only one shipborne radar set of the entire pack of hounds was effective, and its inability to maintain continuous search caused it to lose the target vessel at a critical moment, saved by the splendid ASV mark II. It remains a puzzle that a naval command that gave high priority to radar placed so little importance on surface search equipment. The answer to the puzzle probably lies in Britain's approach to radar from the long-wave side.