The Sinking of the Bismarck

The Sinking of the Bismarck

by William L. Shirer

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The famous war correspondent delivers an edge-of-your seat account of the naval chase and battle to take out one of Hitler’s most powerful warships.
The Bismarck wasn’t just any warship. Its guns were much stronger and more accurate than any others in its day—meaning it could easily sink enemy ships without getting in range of their fire. It was one of Hitler’s most powerful weapons, and the Allied forces had to put it out of commission—before they lost the war. With the fate of the world in the balance, Allied forces chased the Bismarck across the stormy North Atlantic—culminating in a thrilling sea battle that changed the course of World War II.
Unfolding with the taut suspense of a blockbuster movie, this book brings the excitement and danger of World War II to younger audiences—and demonstrates William L. Shirer’s mastery as a writer of history and a spinner of tales.
“A book one reads with sustained excitement.” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780795342462
Publisher: RosettaBooks
Publication date: 10/22/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 158
Sales rank: 122,068
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

William Shirer (1904–1993) was originally a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and was the first journalist hired by Edward R. Murrow for what would become a team of journalists for CBS radio. Shirer distinguished himself and quickly became known for his broadcasts from Berlin during the rise of the Nazi dictatorship through the first year of World War II. Shirer was the first of "Edward R. Murrow's Boys"--broadcast journalists--who provided news coverage during World War II and afterward. It was Shirer who broadcast the first uncensored eyewitness account of the annexation of Austria. Shirer is best known for his books The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which won the National Book Award, and Berlin Diary.

Read an Excerpt


The Mighty Bismarck Goes to Sea

It was a dark and perilous time for Great Britain.

The second spring of World War II had come, and the British stood alone against the seemingly invincible might of the German armed forces.

Germany, which had provoked the war on September 1, 1939, by attacking Poland, had conquered most of Europe. In 1940, led by the ruthless Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, the Germans had overrun Norway and Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. And they had chased the remains of the British Expeditionary Force across the English Channel. After the fall of France, in late June, 1940, Italy had come into the war on the side of Germany. Under another fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, Italy was threatening the British position in the Mediterranean Sea and in Egypt.

At the beginning of April, 1941, the victorious German army had advanced into Yugoslavia and Greece in the Balkans and quickly occupied them. The British, who had come to the aid of the gallant but small Greek forces, were pushed out of the mainland of Greece. They were trying to make a stand on the Greek island of Crete.

At home, England was taking a severe battering from German bombers. All that winter of 1940–41 the Nazi planes had come over night and day, dropping their lethal loads. Large areas of London and other cities lay in ruins.

At sea, the British, whose navy had ruled the waves for centuries, were in a desperate situation. And it was getting worse.

Since their summer conquests of 1940, the Germans had been able to utilize the harbors and airfields along the coast of western Europe. These stretched from northern Norway to southern France. From their new bases German submarines, warships and bombers had ranged out to sea and taken a fearful toll of British shipping, on which the very existence of Britain depended. By the spring of 1941 British shipping losses had become so great that there was a grave question whether the island nation could hold out.

In February and March of that year, the powerful new German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, broke out into the Atlantic and sank twenty-two British merchant ships. They then managed to get back to the French port of Brest.

Early in May the British Admiralty learned that the new German battleship Bismarck, the most powerful warship afloat in the world, had completed her trials in the Baltic. Any day now she might put out to sea to prey on British shipping.

Many of Britain's battleships and aircraft carriers were not available for use against the Bismarck in the Atlantic. They were on duty in the Mediterranean trying to check Italy, which had a large navy of her own. They were also busy helping the British armies fighting the Germans in Greece and the Italians in North Africa.

On the morning of May 20, 1941, the Germans launched the greatest air-borne attack in the annals of warfare on the British positions in Crete. A large part of the British Mediterranean fleet rushed to the scene to help the army, which faced another defeat. There was gloom in London as news of the German air-borne onslaught came in. But deeper gloom was to come from other news the next day.

* * *

At 8:00 A.M. on May 21, a coded message arrived at the Admiralty in London from a British agent in Sweden. On the previous afternoon he had seen from the Swedish shore two large German warships steaming north through the strait between Sweden and Denmark. The ships were obviously en route to German-held Norway, from whose many harbors and fiords German warships in recent months had broken out into the Atlantic.

The ominous report was flashed at once to Sir John Tovey, commander in chief of the Home Fleet. He was on his flagship, King George V, at Scapa Flow, the great naval base in the Orkney Islands at the northern tip of the British Isles. Sir John was a wiry little man of quiet temperament, who remained calm in emergencies. He had a reputation in the navy for spreading confidence, and even optimism, among his officers and men.

The news he received on the morning of May 21 did not surprise or shake him. But he realized its importance. He immediately summoned his staff officers to discuss it. Their task was to ascertain which German warships were putting to sea, what they were up to, and where. Then they could take appropriate counteraction.

Admiral Tovey was quite sure that the reported German warships were the battleship Bismarck and a heavy cruiser of the Hipper class. From naval intelligence he knew their fighting qualities.

I myself had seen the Bismarck and the cruiser Admiral Hipper in the naval yard at Hamburg on Christmas Day the year before. There I had had an opportunity to learn something about these ships. In their respective classes, they were more powerful than any British or American ships then afloat. I knew that the German government had lied in officially listing their size.

At this time the British and American navies were still abiding by a disarmament treaty which limited battleships to 35,000 tons and heavy cruisers to 10,000 tons, but the Germans, while listing their warships at approximately those figures, were actually building them bigger. The Bismarck displaced 42,800 tons; the Hipper-class cruisers, 14,000 tons. (The German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, though registered as 26,000-ton ships, were in reality 31,300-ton vessels.)

The Bismarck was easily the most powerful battleship afloat. It had eight 15-inch guns in four turrets, two fore and two aft. It had eighty-one smaller guns, mostly anti-aircraft. It had a speed of twenty-eight knots which could be increased to thirty-one knots at extreme pressure. The most heavily armored ship yet built, it had the additional protection of a special anti-torpedo belt of nickel-chrome-steel. No torpedo then in use by the British — or so the Germans believed — could penetrate this belt. The Germans were convinced that the Bismarck was practically unsinkable. And so it turned out to be, as we shall see.

What the German battleship was up to, Admiral Tovey could easily guess. It would be gunning for British shipping in the Atlantic. At that moment ten precious convoys were at sea. An eleventh convoy was scheduled to sail the next day for the Middle East. This was the most precious of all. It had 20,000 British troops aboard. Not one of these convoys had sufficient naval protection to stand up to the mighty Bismarck.

What did the British navy have in fighting ships to match the Bismarck? And, more important to Sir John, what did they have to catch and sink her?

No single capital ship in the British fleet could match the Bismarck with the possible exception of the 42,000-ton battle cruiser Hood, the largest vessel in the British navy and its great pride. But the Hood, like all battle cruisers, had sacrificed armor protection for speed.

Admiral Tovey knew that he was superior in numbers. He had in his Home Fleet at Scapa Flow two new 35,000-ton battleships, King George V, his flagship, and her sister ship, Prince of Wales. He also had the Hood. A brand-new aircraft carrier, Victorious, was at Scapa taking on planes. But she was due to sail the next day with the battle cruiser Repulse to escort the convoy of 20,000 troops for Egypt, Did he dare detach these two big ships from the convoy and risk losing 20,000 soldiers at sea? It was an agonizing question. But there were others.

First, was it really the Bismarck that a British spy in Sweden had seen putting out to sea? And second, where was she now, twenty-four hours after being sighted off the Swedish shore? He had to find answers to these questions at once.

Two Spitfire reconnaissance planes were sent out shortly before noon on May 21 to comb the Norwegian ports and fiords. One of them sighted two German warships in Grimstad Fiord just south of Bergen and dived in to take photographs.

The pilot thought the ships were cruisers. But when his photographs were developed and scanned by expert naval eyes back in Britain, they revealed that one of the ships was undoubtedly the Bismarck. The other was a heavy cruiser of the Hipper class, though which one the British did not know.

So the mighty Bismarck was found!

At once orders were given to the Coastal Command to send over bombers that night to try to hit the German battleship while she lay at anchor. In the first daylight of the morrow, other planes would attack with torpedoes.

Then the weather, which was to play a commanding role in the ensuing drama, intervened. It grew worse and worse. Low clouds and fog brought the visibility down nearly to zero. The British sent out their bombers, but they could not find the target. Perhaps it was no longer there. Perhaps the Bismarck and her cruiser escort had already put out for the Atlantic.

On the chance that they might have, Admiral Tovey moved that night to intercept them. At midnight he dispatched a battle squadron from Scapa Flow under Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland. This consisted of Holland's flagship, the Hood, the brand- new battleship Prince of Wales and six destroyers. The Prince of Wales was in fact so new that several parties of civilian mechanics were still working on her. They put out to sea with the ship, continuing their labors, especially on the big 14-inch gun turrets. These were not working very well. The squadron steered a course for Iceland, where it was to cover the Atlantic exits north and south of the island.

There were, in fact, four passages through which the Germans might break out into the North Atlantic. One was the Fair Island channel, sixty miles wide, between the Shetland and Orkney islands.

North of this was a wider channel of 150 miles between the Shetlands and the Faroes Islands. Still farther north was the 240-mile-wide channel between the Faroes and Iceland. And between Iceland and Greenland was the Denmark Strait.

The Germans had previously always used the Denmark Strait. Its low clouds and frequent snowstorms provided good cover. And it was farthest from the British naval and air bases. But it had one disadvantage. Though the Strait was some 200 miles wide, an ice pack stretched out from the coast of Greenland toward Iceland. The ice pack narrowed the passage to about sixty miles of navigable water at this time of year. And at the Strait's northeastern end, the British had sown a mine field stretching out for about fifty miles from Iceland's northwest coast.

Admiral Tovey believed the Bismarck would probably head for the Denmark Strait. But he could not be sure. He had to guard the other three channels as well. As the morning of May 22 dawned, he did not even know whether the Bismarck was still at Bergen or not. Because of the weather, British reconnaissance planes could not find out.

As the day passed, Tovey's anxieties grew. By afternoon, twenty-four hours had gone by since the German battleship was last spotted in Grimstad Fiord. By this time, for all Sir John knew, the enemy might be approaching the Denmark Strait or slipping through one of the more southerly passages, hidden from sight in the foul weather.

Or the Bismarck might be still at Bergen. In this case the British warships already searching for her around Iceland would be wasting their fuel. The problem of conserving fuel oil, as we shall see, was to be a vital one for both sides.

Finally, at 4:30 P.M., with the Coastal Command planes of the Royal Air Force still grounded by bad weather, the navy got off one of its own aircraft in a desperate search for the Bismarck. This was an American Maryland bomber which had been used by the fleet for target towing. It had no proper navigation instruments or facilities for taking photographs. Nevertheless it made its way through the clouds to the Norwegian coast, and at twilight swept down through an opening over Grimstad Fiord.

The German ships were no longer there! Just to make sure, the plane flew low over the nearby port of Bergen through a hail of German anti-aircraft fire. It found no trace of the Bismarck and her cruiser there either. Fearing that he might be shot down any moment, the pilot got off an urgent radio message to Scapa:

"Battleship and cruiser have left!"

On receipt of this message Admiral Tovey lost no time. His Home Fleet weighed anchor at Scapa at ten o'clock that night — as soon as the ships could get up steam. Tovey's flagship, the King George V, sailed out in the van, followed by the aircraft carrier Victorious. This also was a new ship whose planes had been taken on only the day before. None of her pilots had in fact ever landed on a carrier deck before. They had intended to practice while escorting the convoy of troops to Egypt.

During the night Admiral Tovey's squadron picked up the battle cruiser Repulse, which had also been detached from the convoy. The Commander in Chief sent out new orders to the Hood's squadron, already approaching Iceland. He also radioed the cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk, under the command of Rear Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker, to increase their vigil in the icy Denmark Strait, where they were already on patrol.

A powerful British armada was now at sea. The search for the Bismarck had begun!


The Shadowing of the Bismarck

The Germans had a secret code expression for the mission of the Bismarck. They called it the "Rhine Exercise," after the river Rhine.

The confidential German naval records, captured at the end of the war, reveal the Bismarck's sailing orders. She was to destroy British merchant shipping in the Atlantic and to avoid, if possible, engagements with a strong enemy fleet. But if cornered by British battleships, the Bismarck was to fight with all she had.

The German naval command did not believe the Bismarck would be caught. She was too fast for the British battleships. There was some danger, of course, that the big warship might be observed breaking out into the Atlantic north or south of Iceland. But the chances of that, it was believed in Berlin, were slim. The top command of the German navy was convinced that the British warships did not yet have radar as the Bismarck had.

This was a costly mistake. Radar enables a ship or plane to see through fog or clouds. It bounces an electric impulse against a distant object and retrieves it. A screen reveals the location of the object, its distance, speed and direction. Some of the British warships hunting for the Bismarck had radar too, and it was to play a key role in what now ensued.

The mighty Bismarck, as we know from the secret German records, sailed from the Baltic port of Gdynia on the evening of May 18, 1941. She was accompanied by the new heavy cruiser (14,000 tons, 8-inch guns) Prinz Eugen. They were supposed to have sailed a month earlier. This would have given them the advantage of having dark nights in which to slip past Iceland into the North Atlantic. But the Prinz Eugen had hit a British magnetic mine in the Baltic, and been slightly damaged. The repairs had delayed the venture by nearly a month. Now in the arctic waters, close to the midnight sun, there would be no completely dark nights. The delay was to prove costly.

Still, Admiral Guenther Luetjens on his flagship Bismarck was confident as he put out to sea. He was a hard-bitten, stern, somewhat sour naval officer. The crews nicknamed him the "Black Devil." He had already enjoyed dizzy success. It was he who had commanded the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau a few months earlier when they had sunk twenty-two British merchant ships. With the more powerful Bismarck, Luetjens was confident that he would be even more successful.

Two German supply ships and five tankers had put out to sea many days before. If Admiral Luetjens needed to refuel at sea or replenish his ammunition stocks, he could depend on them. All of them had slipped through the British and were now at a secret rendezvous in mid-Atlantic. Four submarines were also gathering there to aid him if necessary.

The German admiral put into Grimstad Fiord just south of Bergen, Norway, at 9:00 A.M. on May 21. He refueled his two ships. There, taking advantage of the low cloud cover, he put out to sea at eleven o'clock that evening. He did not know that a speedy enemy Spitfire reconnaissance plane had spotted and photographed his ship shortly after noon. The plane had not been seen by the ships' lookouts.

But that night, as his squadron sailed north for the Iceland passage, he was informed by Berlin that the British had discovered his leaving the Baltic. The German naval command did not believe the British knew more than that. German reconnaissance planes flew over Scapa Flow on the afternoon of May 22 and reported that the British Home Fleet had not budged from its base. This was good news to the German admiral aboard the Bismarck. It meant that the enemy's Home Fleet could not catch up with him now.


Excerpted from "The Sinking of the Bismarck"
by .
Copyright © 2014 William L. Shirer.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps,
1. The Mighty Bismarck Goes to Sea,
2. The Shadowing of the Bismarck,
3. First Battle: The Bismarck Sinks the Hood,
4. "Avenge the Hood!",
5. The Bismarck Is Lost,
6. Where Is the Bismarck?,
7. The Bismarck Is Found Again,
8. The British Attack the Wrong Ship!,
9. An Eleventh Hour Turn of Fortune,
10. A Desperate Night on the Bismarck,
11. Final Battle: The Sinking of the Bismarck,
A Note on Sources,

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