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Sinking of the Bismarck

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Unit/ Formation: HM Ships

Location: Atlantic

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1941

Date/s: 27th May 1941

The last battle of the German battleship Bismarck took place in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 300 nmi (350 mi; 560 km) west of Brest, France, on 26–27 May 1941.


On 24 May, before the final action, Bismarck's fuel tanks were damaged and several machinery compartments, including a boiler room, were flooded in the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Her captain's intention was to reach the port of Brest for repair.

Late in the day Bismarck briefly turned on her pursuers (Prince of Wales and the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk) to cover the escape of her companion, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to continue further into the Atlantic.

Early on 25 May the British forces lost contact with Bismarck, which headed ESE towards France while the British searched NE, presuming she was returning to Norway. Later on 25 May Admiral Lütjens, apparently unaware that he had lost his pursuers, broke radio silence to send a coded message to Germany. This allowed the British to triangulate the approximate position of Bismarck and aircraft were dispatched to hunt for the German battleship.

Map of the Operation "Rheinübung" and Royal Navy operations against the German battleship Bismarck, with approximate movements of ship groups and places of aerial attacks. [Wikipedia]

She was rediscovered in the late morning of 26 May by a Catalina flying boat from No. 209 Squadron RAF and subsequently shadowed by aircraft from Force H steaming north from Gibraltar.

The final action consisted of four main phases.

The first phase late on the 26th consisted of air strikes by torpedo bombers from the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal, which disabled Bismarck's steering gear, jammed her rudders in a turning position and prevented her escape.

The second phase was the shadowing and harassment of Bismarck during the night of 26/27 May by British destroyers, with no serious damage to any ship.

A still from Newsreel footage shot from HMS Renown showed Bismarck‘s last moments as it burned and sank. [YouTube]

The third phase on the morning of 27 May was an attack by the British battleships King George V and Rodney supported by cruisers. After about 100 minutes of fighting, Bismarck was sunk by the combined effects of shellfire, torpedo hits and deliberate scuttling. On the British side, Rodney was lightly damaged by near-misses and by the blast effects of her own guns.

Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire. More than 2,100 members of her crew died.

British warships rescued 111 survivors from Bismarck before being obliged to withdraw because of an apparent U-boat sighting, leaving several hundred men to their fate.

The following morning, a U-boat and a German weathership rescued five more survivors. In the final phase the withdrawing British ships were attacked the next day on 28 May by aircraft of the Luftwaffe, resulting in the loss of the destroyer HMS Mashona.

Royal Marines served on all RN Capital ships during WW2 and were present at this action in many capacities including manning main guns, providing fire control, manning magazines and other ships weapons systems, and aviators.

Rodney firing on Bismarck, which can be seen burning in the distance

The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying Admiral John Tovey

Related Royal Marines 'Dits':

References/ Further reading:

  1. Killing the Bismarck: Destroying the Pride of Hitler's Fleet by Iain Ballantyne (Paperback and Audiobook)

  2. Wikipedia - Last battle of Bismarck

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