Sinking of the Bismarck

Churchill sent an order to “sink the Bismarck.” This was particularly urgent after the German ship’s fatal attack on the battle cruiser HMS Hood, a few days before, when all but 3 of the Hood’s 1,418 crewmen died.

There is a controversy—still debated—about the Bismarck’s demise. As it happens, some of her crew had signaled “surrender” before the Royal Navy took her out.

The surrender efforts came about, among other things, by the raising of a black flag. This is a naval parley signal (expressed, in common parlance, as “let’s talk”). The Bismarck also used Morse lamps, from the ship’s yardarm, to signal a surrender message, but the Royal Navy's senior officers either didn’t know about the signals or chose to disregard them.

Terry Charman, a senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, provides some of the reasons why the Royal Navy ignored the surrender attempt:

The Bismarck's admiral was a fairly fanatical believer in Hitler and the telegrams he sent were along the lines of “we will fight to the end.” It would have been very dangerous to take the surrender.

With so much damage from the air—and torpedo attacks from HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier—the Bismarck’s steering was jammed. She was in peril unless the Royal Navy captured her instead of sinking her.

The lives of 2,200 men, aboard the Bismarck, were at stake.

Likely believing it was too dangerous to capture the battleship—even if she was disabled, most of her crew was not—the Royal Navy continued to pound the ship which had sent the Hood to the bottom of the Atlantic just days before.

Within two hours of the British attack on her, the once-mighty battleship was a wreck of twisted metal. Among her raging fires were dead and dying crewmen.

When the final torpedo, fired by the Royal Navy, ended her life, the Bismarck sank in the Atlantic (hundreds of miles off the coast of Brittany). Charman—author of The Day We Went to War—also tells us about her survivors:

HMS Devonshire picked up 200 [of the estimated 600] survivors but had to leave a lot of men behind because there was U-boat activity in the area.

Such—as historians tell us—is the awful price of war.

The battle between the Hood and the Bismarck is the subject of popular culture. One of the most-famous songs, about the events which took place in May of 1941, is by Johnny Horton.

This embedded YouTube video combines historical footage (of the Bismarck's launch) together with excerpts from the film "Sink the Bismarck" (with Horton's famous song playing in the background).

Media Credits

Clip from "Dogfights:  Hunt for the Bismarck" - online, courtesy the History Channel via YouTube.  Copyright, History Channel, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for education purposes.


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"Sinking of the Bismarck" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jun 05, 2020.
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