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Books by John Barratt

Armada 1588

The Battle of Marston Moor

The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646

The First Battle of Newbury: 1643

Cavalier Generals

The Great Siege of Chester

The Battle for York: Marston Moor 1644

Cavalier Generals

Royal Navy - Opening Moves
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

Graf 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 action. 

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 Denmark Strait.

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.

Though 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 way.

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 Brest. 

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 error.

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 circling helplessly. 

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 the U-boat.

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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 Bismarck)

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.)

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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.
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