World War II which raged from 1939 to 1945, had many classic battles fought over sea, land and air…battles which were like a game of Chess…each opponent waiting for the other to falter and then pounce for the checkmate. One of most famous of such battles is the one fought in May of 1941 in the Northern Atlantic…the Hunt for Bismarck.
Bismarck was a battleship…one of the biggest ever built. In those days aircraft carrier battle-groups had not gained prominence like they did after this war. It was still the time of mighty Battleships…citadels of iron and steel…covered with armor more than two feet thick…with heavy guns which could blow to smithereens, any unfortunate merchant ship with just one salvo of its 3 ton shells from more than 30 kilometres away.
And Bismarck was a legend…feared and admired by its enemies…displacement 42000 tons (in comparison, Indian Navy’s biggest ship today- INS Vikramaditya- 40000 tons). But despite being a heavyweight…Bismarck could run… cruising at 30 knots (56 kmph) she was faster than any of her counterparts in the enemy camp. She had twelve radar-directed, 15″ guns (Bofors guns are 5″)…highly accurate and deadly, capable of delivering three tonnes of steel and TNT in a radius of close to 40 kilometers. Epitome of German engineering.
All these traits made her a primary threat for the enemy…the Royal Navy. Royal Navy was the most powerful Navy in the world in those times…it was a powerful Navy which had allowed the British Empire to become what it had. Now, The Royal Navy had to tackle this fresh German threat…a threat which if let loose in the Atlantic, could have wreaked havoc on the thin supply line from the USA/Canada which was keeping Britain afloat. Remember, this is May 1941…Most of Europe is now part of the Third Reich…ruled by the charlie chaplin look-alike. Britain was getting its succor from north america through large convoys which were frequently attacked by German submarines or U-boats. Now, to have a capital ship with twelve big guns, prowling these waters was a nightmarish scenario.
Royal Navy had been tracking the Bismarck since she was commissioned in 1940. For a long time, the ship stayed in German waters doing trials…working out her steam turbines which could churn out ‘one Lakh Thirty thousand’ horsepower (most of our cars have hundred horsepower). To break into the Atlantic, she had three options…one was through the English channel (which was not advisable as Royal Navy would be waiting to welcome her with open Gun-barrels)..second was between Iceland and northern coast of scotland…third was the Denmark Strait. between Greenland and Iceland. Ship’s commander chose the third option. Bismarck and her sister ship Prinz Eugen, sailed from Norway and were immediately shadowed by two Royal Navy ships, which reported their latest position to the British Naval Command. The game of chess had started.
As the first course of action, Royal Navy sent one of her oldest and adored battleships, the ‘Hood’ and one of her newest the ‘Prince of Wales’ to challenge and defeat the Germans. Early morning on 24 May, the ships met…like gun-slingers in a cowboy movies…the British fired first…both ships on the ‘Prinz Eugen’ mistaking her for Bismarck. After a few exchanges and hits, one of Bismarck’s shells penetrated a weak-spot in the Hood’s armor and entered the ammunition storage dump. The explosion which followed virtually lifted the Hood out of water…and broke the huge ship into two, like a twig. There were only four survivors out of more than a thousand crew. Royal Navy was dumb-struck…in a short engagement of about ten minutes…the Bismarck had annihilated the pride of Royal Navy and damaged the Prince of Wales. The Hood evoked same emotions among the British as the ‘INS Vikrant’ does for Indians.
After this debacle, Royal Navy went into an overdrive. Bismark had to be sunk…come what may. They ordered battle-groups from as far south as Gibraltar..more than 4000 kilometers away to join the hunt. In all this milee, Bismarck using her amazing speed and an intelligent commander, slipped through the cracks and was untraceable for a long time. She was making a break for the port on French west coast to come under the cover of German Air support. Royal Navy was now totally aghast…no contact with Bismarck…most of the ships running low on fuel. Then, the unthinkable happened.
Bismarck’s commander for reasons unknown, decided to send a lengthy radio transmission to German Naval Command. This transmission allowed Royal Navy to get the exact location and bearing of her prey. The Hunt was on again. But, still the British surface ships were too far to catch up with Bismarck, before she would be able to get under protective cover from the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). A decision was taken to use aircrafts to slow her down in the evening of May 26.
It was one of those paradigm shifting occasions in military history when torpedo planes from a British Aircraft Carrier, attacked the Bismarck. This was the moment when air-power gained the upper-hand and aircraft carriers were no more a mere supporting ship in a battle group. one of the torpedoes stuck the Bismarck and damaged her enough to reduce her speed. Second, hit her in the rudder and jammed it. This was the end of Bismarck…she couldn’t maneuver herself…all she could do was go around in a large circle.
British forces slowly arrived at the location where Bismarck was playing merry-go-round in the early hours of May 27. They surrounded her and attacked her in a manner similar to the way the kauravas attacked Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. Bismarck fought hard and with her flags still flying( she didn’t surrender), she sank after getting bombarded and torpedoed, multiple times.
Royal Navy breathed a sigh of relief. Many military historians believe that this was the turning point of the great war. Till, this point of time, Allies had only suffered setbacks after setbacks at the hands of the Nazis. This was the first time, they had won a big battle…they had dealt a watery grave to one of mightiest battle ships ever built….The Bismarck.