Battleship Bismarck & Her Ghosts
Even though being the largest battleship that the Germans had ever built in their history, the eventual sinking of Bismarck is not incredible since it is well known that the British navy had dominated power over the German navy during World War II. However, if we analyze the situation that Bismarck was facing, we could still find some internal reason within the Germans themselves that led to the failure of the famous battleship.
Why did the German Battleship eventually sink?
First of all, the Germans had already made mistakes when designing Bismarck. Since the German battleship designers lacked experience, they continued to follow a lot of design philosophies that were used in battleships in World War I. This made the design of Bismarck outdated, especially for the defensive part.
For example, its main belt armor was too large and too thin and it was installed vertically, which decreased its horizontal defensive ability. Besides, Bismarck’s upper and main armored decks were not strong enough, either. Moreover, Bismarck did not provide enough protection for its turrets and its defensive ability against air force was also very weak. Therefore, even with an advanced manufacturing process, the Germans were not able to produce a battleship that was powerful enough with their outdated design.
In addition to the outdated design of Bismarck, the Germans did not realize that a battleship was not the most powerful weapon to win naval battles anymore. The importance of the air force increased exponentially during World War II. When we take a look at the battle that Bismarck was fighting, we can see that on May 22nd 1941, it was British air force that first found that German battleships had left the harbor.
Then, on May 26th, it was again aircrafts that tracked the escaping Bismarck. Moreover, during the final battle, the deadly damage which finally led to the sinking of Bismarck was still dealt by aircrafts. Therefore, we can see that the ocean air force played an important role in naval battles. As a result, instead of battleships, aircraft carriers would become the overlord of the sea. Indeed, the British navy that Bismarck was fighting against included two aircraft carriers. So, I think the decision of producing more powerful battleships instead of developing aircraft carriers was also a mistake made by the Germans.
Another serious mistake made by the Germans was that the German military did not emphasize the importance of information. Prior to the sinking of Bismarck, during the Rhine Exercise, the British military had already deciphered German military’s code and destroyed several German replenishment oilers. This had ruined Germans’ Rhine Exercise. Then, on May 25th 1941, after Bismarck was damaged and on its way back to the harbor, a German admiral on the ship, Johann Günther Lütjens, sent a telegram out from the ship to the military command.
Even though Johann Günther Lütjens’ tactics in fighting the British navy were successful and created opportunities for Bismarck to retreat, however, to me, his decision to send this telegram was the most serious mistake he had ever made. It was so deadly that it finally led to Bismarck’s sinking and his own death. When the admiral sent out the telegram, he was too confident that Bismarck had already escaped from the British navy. However, the British navy captured this telegram and then successfully located Bismarck based on it. If he had never sent out such a telegram, it would be much more difficult for British military to find Bismarck since they would only be able to search blindly on the sea by navy and air force. Then, I believe that it would be more likely that Bismarck could retreat safely.
One more important mistake that the Germans made was about the fuel. At that time, Bismarck was designed with a maximum speed faster than most of the British ships. In addition, Bismarck’s fuel capacity was designed for an eight-day sailing while maintaining its maximum speed. Therefore, even if Bismarck lost in the battle, it still had the ability to retreat safely.
However, while anchoring at Bergen, Norway, Bismarck did not replenish its fuel stores. And later at Denmark Strait, it again failed to have its fuel stores replenished as originally planned. To make matters worse, Bismarck lost tons of fuel since one of its fuel stores was damaged by British battleship HMS Prince of Wales during the battle. Moreover, after deciding to retreat, Bismarck had been sailing at high speed for three days. As a result, when it was found by the British navy again at last, there was not much left in its fuel stores so that maintaining high-speed sailing was not possible. Therefore, I think Johann Günther Lütjens’ negligence of logistics was also an important reason that led to the failure of Bismarck.