Royal Navy - Opening Moves
by John Barratt
On the outbreak of hostilities, Grand-Admiral Raeder, knowing that the German
surface fleet was no match for the Royal Navy in a general action, sought other
means to challenge his stronger opponent. During World War I, the
Kaiser's Navy had made a number of attempts at commerce raiding, notably by von
Spee's squadron in the opening months of the war, and with converted merchant
vessels of various kinds. Although their success had been limited, Raeder
resolved to repeat the strategy in the new conflict.
He did not anticipate sinkings of merchant shipping by surface raiders would be
on such a scale as seriously to threaten Britain's lifelines, but he hoped to
draw off and wear down a large part of Allied naval strength through the need
to escort convoys and form task groups in an attempt to hunt down elusive
raiders. With hostilities imminent, in August 1939 the pocket battleships Deutschland
and Admiral Graf Spee were ordered to sea. Hitler's reluctance to make
the first hostile move against Britain meant that they were not authorised to
begin operations until 26 September.
Raeder's ships quickly fulfilled his initial expectations. By late
October a combined Anglo-French total of three carriers, three battleships, and
fifteen cruisers were either operating in task groups or providing strengthened
convoy escorts in the North Atlantic against a threat which amounted at the
moment to only two ships.
Deutschland slipped safely back to Germany in mid-November, and the
Royal Navy suffered a further setback on 23 November, when the armed merchant
cruiser H.M.S. Rawalpindi was sunk after a gallant fight with the Scharnhorst
and Gneisenau in a brief North Atlantic foray.
The Battle of the River Plate
Spee, commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, was still at large in the
South Atlantic. Though her haul of merchant shipping was fairly small, she
remained a serious drain on Allied naval resources, and evaded detection into
early December. It was largely intuition and intelligent deduction which
convinced Commodore Harwood, commanding a British squadron off the South
American coast, that Langsdorff might next move against the Allied Merchant
shipping operating in the River Plate area. Harwood had under his command the
8" gun cruiser HMS Exeter, and two 6" ships, HMS Ajax and the
New Zealand HMNZS Achilles. A contest with the 11" gunned Graf Spee
was likely to be a closely matched affair.
Early on 13 December Harwood's hunch proved right when Graf Spee was
sighted off the estuary of the River Plate. Langsdorff initially seemed eager
to fight a decisive action, deluging the British force with accurate fire, and
inflicting serious damage on Exeter, whilst suffering no significant
hits in return. After twenty minutes Graf Spee was still severely
punishing Exeter , and by 7:30 am had forced her to break off the
Langsdorff seemed on the brink of a notable victory, and though he failed to
take the opportunity to finish off Exeter, he now turned his attention
to the light cruisers, hitting Ajax. But at 7:38 am, Langsdorff's
hard-pressed opponents were surprised and relieved to see Graf Spee turn
on to a westerly course and head for the refuge of Montevideo. Though his ship
had received several hits, she was not seriously damaged, and it may be that
Langsdorff suffered a momentary loss of nerve as a result of a slight head
injury he had suffered during the battle.
Whatever his reasoning, her Captain's decision proved fatal for the Graf Spee.
Harwood, the damaged Exeter replaced by the 8" gunned Cumberland
prowled off the mouth of the estuary, and every effort was made to convince the
Germans that further reinforcements were arriving.
Langsdorff unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Uraguayan authorities to extend
the period by which under neutrality laws, he was allowed to remain in port. He
had been given a free hand by the German High Command to act as he thought
best, and claiming that battle damage had made Graf Spee unfit for the
long voyage home, on 17 December, Langsdorff took Graf Spee out into
the Plate Estuary and scuttled her, later shooting himself.
The Campaign Continues
From 1940 onwards the German surface raiders were reinforced by an eventual
total of six armed merchant raiders, powerfully armed ships, which operated
mainly in distant waters where many unescorted merchant vessels were still to
be found. They proved to be elusive and difficult to deal with, and by the end
of 1940 had accounted for 54 Allied vessels, totaling 366,644 tons, and caused
a further diversion of British naval efforts. Among other activities the pocket
battleship Admiral Scheer carried out a long and successful operation
in the South Atlantic.
The Voyage of the Bismarck
By the spring of 1941, further successful raids by the Scharnhorst and
Gneisenau, convinced Raeder to employ the newly completed 15"
35,000-ton battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz as part of a
major operation designed to strike a mortal blow at the British convoy system
in the North Atlantic. The original intention was to employ both the new ships
in conjunction with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, so creating a
powerful battle squadron which would be superior to any force which the Royal
Navy could easily bring to bear against it. But both the latter two ships were
still undergoing refits in the French port of Brest, and the Tirpitz still
on sea trials in the Baltic.
So eventually, despite misgivings from Hitler, Raeder decided to mount a
smaller scale mission, "Operation Rheinubung", employing only Bismarck
and the newly completed 8" heavy cruiser Prinze Eugen . The squadron
commander, Vice-Admiral Gunther Lutjens, also wanted to wait until the other
ships were available, but was overruled by Raeder. Lutjen's orders were to
concentrate on attacking enemy merchant shipping in the North Atlantic, and
avoid engagements with the Royal Navy unless no excessive risk was involved. He
seems to have remained pessimistic about the mission, and adopted a fatalistic
outlook which would have serious consequences.
The German squadron set sail from the Baltic port of Gotenhafen on 18 May, and
their passage into the North Sea was quickly reported by the Swedish Navy to
the British naval attaché in Stockholm.
The commander in chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, at
once ordered increased patrolling of the main exits into the North Atlantic via
the Denmark and Greenland Straits, and put on alert his heavy ships, Most
significantly for ensuing events, Vice Admiral Wake-Walker with the 1st Cruiser
Squadron, consisting of the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk,
supported by Vice-Admiral Holland with the new battleship Prince of Wales
the battlecruiser Hood and five destroyers were ordered to guard the
Lutjens meanwhile arrived on 22 May in the Norwegian port of Bergen,
inexplicably failing to take the opportunity to top up Bismarck's fuel
tanks. Spotted here by a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire of the RAF, Luitjens
must have realised that secrecy was at an end, but apparently was not greatly
alarmed. The German squadron left Bergen on the evening of 22 May, heading for
the Denmark Strait north of Iceland. The German commander ignored advice from
Naval Group North that he should take the shorter route into the North Atlantic
between Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, for, although he was aware that an air
search for him was continuing, Luitjens had no idea that Hood and Prince
of Wales were at sea.
For his part, Admiral Tovey was convinced from the start that Bismarck
and Eugen were heading for the North Atlantic. At 22:45 hrs on 22 May
Tovey sailed from the Home Fleet base of Scapa Flow with the battleship King
George V, the aircraft carrier Victorious four cruisers and
six destroyers, heading westwards. At 19.22 hrs on 23 May confirmation of
German intentions was received when Suffolk of Wake-Walker's squadron
sighted Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. Together with Norfolk
the British ship continued to shadow the German squadron, whilst Vice Admiral
Holland, with Hood and Prince of Wales, steamed to their
support. At the same time the British Admiralty ordered "Force H", the
squadron, including the carrier Victorious based on Gibraltar, to sea
to steer west in order to intercept Bismarck" if she got past Holland and to
provide additional protection for the vulnerable convoys.
the first British tentacles were beginning to curl towards him, Lutjens had
plenty of opportunities still open, and he quickly demonstrated the German
squadron's mettle. At 5-30 hrs on 24 May, Holland's heavy ships sighted Bismarck.
Although the British commander's faulty deployment made it impossible for him
immediately to bring all of his guns to bear, this was compensated for to some
extent by heavy seas which impeded Bismarck's range-finders . At 05-52
hrs. Holland's flagship, the battlecruiser Hood, opened fire. However,
first blood went to the Germans when a shell from Prinz Eugen ignited
a pile of rocket projectiles which had been left on Hood's deck,
starting a troublesome, though not fatal, fire amidships. But Hood's fate was
sealed shortly afterwards, with the fifth salvo of 15" shells to be fired by Bismarck.
One or more of them penetrated Hood's thinly armoured deck, and
penetrated a magazine. "With a tremendous explosion, Hood blew up,
only three of her 1419 - man crew surviving.
Prince of Wales had also been hit four or five times, and one of her
main turrets jammed., and her captain broke off the action, though continuing
to shadow the Germans.
But Bismarck had not escaped unscathed. A shell from Prince of Wales
had hit forward and ruptured a fuel tank, causing an oil leak and depriving the
ship of access to 1,000 tons of fuel oil stored in her forward tanks. His
endurance severely reduced, at 9.00 hours Lutjens decided to modify his
mission. Prinz Eugen was detached to continue operations in the
Atlantic, whilst Bismarck would head for Brest.
Wake-Walker, with his cruisers and Prince of Wales, continued to
shadow the Germans, whilst in London, the Admiralty, stunned by the loss of Hood
but determined to avenge her, ordered all available ships to head for the area
of the action. By 18:00 hours, a total of four battleships, two battlecruisers,
two carriers twelve cruisers and a large number of destroyers were on their
At 22:08 hours, in foul weather, carrier Victorious launched an
airstrike at extreme range. Coming under intense AA fire, the antiquated
British Swordfish torpedo bombers failed to score any hits. Gloom
deepened when, at 3.00 hours on 25 May, Wake-Walker's squadron lost contact
with the enemy. For most of the day, the British had no idea of Bismarck's
whereabouts or course. It was not until 18:10 hours that an intercepted Enigma
signal from Bismarck to the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, whose son was on
board Bismarck , confirmed that the ship's destination was
Even so, there seemed little chance of making a successful interception, for
Admiral Tovey, with the main force of the Home Fleet, had mistakenly assumed
Lutjens to have turned back through the Denmark Strait, and was heading in that
direction. He was now about 150 miles from Bismarck , and in
continuing foul weather, with the fuel of his heavy ships running low, there
seemed little chance of his catching up with the enemy.
But all was not well aboard Bismarck. A pessimistic signal from
Lutjens to Berlin, promising that Bismarck, faced by overwhelming
numbers, would fight to the last shell, caused a slump in morale among the
crew, which Lindemann was unable to restore. At 10:30 hours on 26 May, Bismarck's
location was once again discovered by the British, when she was sighted by a Catalina
(with an American co-pilot), operating from Northern Ireland. But she was now
only 690 miles west of Brest, and would soon be within range of German air
support. It seemed that only the Swordfish of carrier Ark Royal were
close enough to have a chance of catching her. Their first strike failed to
find the German ship, almost attacking the British cruiser Sheffield in
At 19:15 hours, in gathering darkness, a second desperate strike was launched.
As the fifteen Swordfish sighted the dark shape of Bismarck they came
once more under intense AA fire. Despite this, two torpedo hits were obtained.
Of these one was absorbed with little damage by the battleship's armoured belt.
But the other penetrated Bismarck's starboard aft side. The explosion
penetrated and flooded the steering room housing the mechanism which operated
the Bismar ck's rudders and left them jammed and the great battleship
During the next few hours German engineers examined various desperate schemes
for either repairing the damage or even blowing off the rudders and attempting
to steer by engines and propellers alone. High seas and flooding made all
efforts impracticable. Ironically, if Prinz Eugen had still been
present, she might have been able to assist Bismarck limp within range
of air support either by providing a tow or acting as a great sea anchor,
enabling limited steering. But now the pride of the Kriegsmarine was alone and
awaiting her fate.
During the night a renewed torpedo attack by British destroyers failed to
obtain any further hits, but this temporary success afforded little comfort to
the German crew, who awaited dawn with varying degrees of fatalism or despair.
At daylight, Tovey, with the battleships King George V and Rodney
, closed in for the kill. "Bismarck" was now following an erratic course
roughly back the way she had come, and struggled to turn into a position to
bring her full broadside to bear. Though she put up the gallant fight which
Lutjens had promised, the German battleship failed to obtain a single direct
hit on the British ships which methodically closed the range and battered her
into a shattered, burning, silent hulk.
But, with Tovey's heavy ships by now desperately short of fuel, Bismarck
stubbornly remained afloat. The heavy cruiser Dorsetshire was ordered
to finish her with three torpedoes, but in fact it was probably the scuttling
charges fired by her own engineers which finally sent Bismarck to the
bottom at 10:36 hours on 27 May. With her went all but 110 of her 2,200 crew.
Amazingly also rescued was Bismarck's ship's cat "Oskar". British
rescue attempts were cut short by fears of U-boat attack, causing the loss of
hundreds who might otherwise have been saved.
The Royal Navy had survived the greatest surface threat in the Atlantic of the
entire war. It is interesting to speculate on the results if the original
"Rheinblung" plan had been followed. In the event, the loss of Bismarck
finally turned Hitler against further long range surface raiding by his capital
ships. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen (which
had reached Brest safely) were recalled to Germany in February 1942.
Henceforward the main threat to the Allies' Atlantic lifeline would come from
Ballard, Robert D. The Discovery of the Bismarck. London, 1990.
Baron von Mullenheim-Reichburg, Burkhard. Battleship Bismarck: a Survivor's
Story. Annapolis, 1980 (The author was senior surviving officer of the
Garzke, William H. and Robert O. Dulin. Battleships: Allied Battleships in
World War II, Annapolis, 1980.
Garzke, William H. and Robert O. Dulin. Battleships: Neutral and Axis
Battleships in World War II , Annapolis, 1986.
Kennedy, Ludovic. Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck, London 1974.
Roskill, S. W. The War at Sea 3 volumes, London 1954-61. (The
British "official" history, which despite security restrictions preventing
disclosure of such subjects as "Enigma" remains one of the best general
histories of Atlantic naval operations.)
Copyright © 2002 John Barratt.
Written by John Barratt. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact John Barratt at:
About the author:
John Barratt has authored many books to include: Armada 1588, The
Battle of Marston Moor, The Civil War in South-West
England 1642-1646, and Cavalier Generals.
Published online: 12/15/2002.