On May 24, 1941, Britain's HMS Hood and the newly launched German battleship Bismarck exchanged ferocious blows in one of the most epic duels in the history of maritime warfare. Look back at four days in World War II that left more than 3,000 sailors dead.
Under the cover of darkness in the early morning hours of May 19, 1941, the most formidable battleship to have ever been built slipped into the Baltic Sea on its maiden voyage. An ocean-bound castle, the thickly armored Bismarck was the first full-scale battleship constructed by the German navy since World War I.
Accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, the largest warship afloat broke out into the frigid, open waters of the North Atlantic on a top-secret mission, codenamed Operation Rheinubung, to attack the Allied convoys crossing the ocean between the United States and Great Britain with oil, food and other supplies. Nazi leaders hoped that their “unsinkable” state-of-the-art battleship would sever the Allied lifeline and starve the British into submission.
Having received reports that Bismarck was loose in the Atlantic Ocean stalking its prey, the British dispatched a fleet to track down the Nazis’ daunting battleship. Among those in pursuit were the recently commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood. Launched in 1918, Hood was Britain’s largest battle cruiser and perhaps the most famous warship afloat.
At dawn on May 24, the tandem of British ships approached at full speed toward the enemy inside the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. From 14 miles away, Hood fired the first shots. Saltwater geysers erupted around Bismarck as the shells that screamed overhead at 2,000 miles per hour narrowly missed their marks. Aboard Bismarck, Admiral Gunther Lutjens, commander in chief of the German Fleet, froze with indecision. As Hood continued to close in and fire, Bismarck Captain Ernst Lindemann finally took charge from his superior and ordered the battleship’s guns to return the salvos.
Bismarck and Hood traded thundering blows for four minutes until the Germans finally found their target. Bismarck’s shells ripped though the battle cruiser’s deck and hit close to the main tower. Then an armor-piercing shell tore deep into Hood’s ammunition magazine, unleashing a massive explosion that launched a column of fire 600 feet up into the air. The sailors aboard Prince of Wales felt the huge concussion and watched in horror as Hood buckled, broke in two and sank beneath the waves. Only three of Hood’s 1,421 crew members were pulled from the water alive. It was the Royal Navy’s largest loss of life ever from a single vessel.
Bismarck hardly escaped the nautical brawl unscathed. With his ship taking on seawater and hemorrhaging oil from a ruptured tank, Lutjens decided not to pursue the retreating Prince of Wales but to limp his wounded battleship back to the safety of port in Nazi-occupied France. Seeking revenge, British Admiral John Tovey called on all available ships in the British Home Fleet to hunt down Bismarck before it could reach land.
On May 26, time grew critical as Bismarck approached within 12 hours of the protective air cover of the Luftwaffe. Tovey ordered an attack to be launched from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which had sailed north in storm-tossed seas along the Iberian Peninsula. Torpedo-equipped British Fairey Swordfish bombers took off from the warship’s deck and were quickly swallowed by storm clouds. Through the gale, the antiquated biplanes closed in on their target and launched their torpedoes—before realizing too late that they had accidentally attacked one of their own, HMS Sheffield. Fortunately the torpedoes’ warheads failed to detonate, averting a deadly accident.
The bombers returned to Ark Royal and rearmed for a second attack into the teeth of the storm, this time against the correct target. Britain’s buzzing biplanes descended like gnats upon Germany’s fire-spitting steel dragon. The courageous pilots in the biplanes’ open cockpits flew low so Bismarck’s sailors couldn’t train their guns, and the battleship’s anti-aircraft defenses had trouble with the bombers’ slow speeds. British torpedoes from the archaic bombers managed to strike the modern metal behemoth’s weakest point—its undefended rudders. The attack tore an enormous hole in Bismarck’s hull and disabled its steering mechanism. Capable of only sailing in large circles, the helpless Bismarck spent the night surrounded by only the open ocean and the enemy.
Wanting to reduce the risk of friendly fire, Tovey waited until the morning to continue the attack. At daybreak on May 27, three British warships approached the crippled battleship and opened fire. Fierce barrages ensued over the next 90 minutes as the British ships closed in from a distance of 16 miles to 3,000 yards. With Bismarck still afloat, Tovey ordered the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire to fire her torpedoes at the enemy. The weapons hit their mark, and around 10:40 a.m. Bismarck slipped below the waves—finished off by either the last British salvo or a German decision to scuttle the mighty battleship. Hundreds of Germans sailors bobbed in the gale water, and British ships picked up 110 survivors before a U-Boat warning caused them to leave the wreckage and approximately 2,000 dead behind. Less than 10 days after its maiden voyage began, the “unsinkable” Bismarck sat upon the murky bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Earlier this week, on the 75th anniversary of Hood’s sinking, Britain’s Princess Anne unveiled the bell that had been recovered from the wreck of the British battle cruiser. Salvaged in August 2015 by an expedition funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the historic bell is now on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, England. “There are very few things that have this amount of history, it’s an amazing object when you see all the inscriptions,” Allen told Britain’s Press Association. “I think it’s great to have a tangible artifact here, that the families of the men who went down on the ship and the survivors can have an amazing artifact like this so they can come and give remembrance to the amazing sacrifice that those men made that fateful day.”