Who Sank the Bismarck?

By Chuck Hawks

RM Bismarck. Photo by Blohm and Voss Shipyard.

Every so often I receive an e-mail raising the question of whether the German battleship Bismarck was sunk by the British or scuttled by her crew on that fateful day in May 1941. I have promised that one day I would write a short piece about the subject, and I guess that day has finally come.

Frankly, I am mystified by the interest in this question, as the answer is obvious: it doesn't matter. The Bismarck's crew set the scuttling charges and opened the sea cocks (as per protocol) on the sinking Bismarck because she had been completely defeated, was no longer seaworthy, was beyond repair, and was being abandoned.

So the question of whether the Dorsetshire's torpedoes got to her before the actions of her own crew is irrelevant. The battle was over either way, and the Bismarck was going down. She absolutely was not going to make it to any safe haven. She had been utterly defeated, destroyed by a superior force.

The indisputable cause of these events? The British fleet commanded by Admiral Tovey. The Royal Navy properly deserves credit for sinking the Bismarck.

In conclusion, let quote a passage from Ludovic Kennedy's excellent book Pursuit - The Chase and Sinking of the Battleship Bismarck describing the actual sinking of the Bismarck as observed by the British (Mr. Kennedy was there in person):

"And as he left he [Adm. Tovey] made a general signal to ships in company: 'Any ship with torpedoes to close Bismarck and torpedo her.' "

"Only one ship, Dorsetshire, still had torpedoes, and when Tovey's signal reached her, Captain Martin had already anticipated it. Closing to a mile and a half on Bismarck's starboard beam, she fired two torpedoes, both of which hit. She then went round the other side, at just over a mile fired another, which also hit."

"Far off now in King George V, half-way to the horizon, Tovey saw through his glasses the great ship slowly heel over to port until her funnel was level with the water, go on turning until she was completely upside down. The stern dipped below the surface of the water, then the main keel: the great flared bows were the last to go . . .."

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Copyright 2004 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.