London, England · May 21, 1941

On this date in 1941 the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battle­ship Bismarck set out from occu­pied Nor­way into the main Atlan­tic shipping lanes, there to act as long-distance com­merce raiders. It was the maiden voyage of Ger­many’s mon­strous battle­ship, the most lethal wea­pon in any navy’s arse­nal. Ger­many’s major sur­face war­ships, com­bined with its fleets of sub­marines and armed mer­chant raiders, had caused exten­sive damage and dis­ruption to Brit­ain’s vital supply routes to and from North Amer­ica almost since the out­break of hosti­lities in Septem­ber 1939 (click Battle of the Atlantic). As well as sinking mer­chant ships belonging to bellig­erent and neu­tral nations alike, the Ger­man Navy forced Brit­ish-bound con­voys carrying food and war mate­rials to be diverted or halted, there­by imperiling the very sur­vival of the is­land nation. The Royal Navy, con­tin­uously seeking out and destroying con­voy-prowling Ger­man U‑boats, now set out to destroy the 42,000-ton pride of the Kriegs­marine. On May 27, 1941, off the south­west coast of Ireland, the HMS King George V and the HMS Rodney pul­verized the Bismarck with their 14- and 16‑inch guns, finishing off the job the Prince of Wales and carrier air­craft from the Ark Royal had begun hours earlier. More than 2,100 offi­cers and men (including the entire Ger­man fleet staff) perished. Much further south, this off the coast of Brazil and also on this date, German U‑boat U‑69 tor­pe­doed and sank the un­armed Amer­i­can cargo ship SS Robin Moor. Though pas­sen­gers and crew were per­mitted to disem­bark, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt declared an un­limited state of national emer­gency a week later in response to the U.S. quasi-war with German U‑boats. FDR vowed that the so-called “Neu­trality Patrol” operating up and down the Amer­i­can east coast, begun on Sep­tem­ber 6, 1939, with the aim of dis­couraging Ger­man war­ships from threat­ening ship­ping inside U.S. and Cana­dian waters, would be extended deeper into the Atlantic. On July 1, 1941, Adm. Ernest J. King, Com­mander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, estab­lished task forces to escort con­voys between U.S. and Cana­dian waters and the North Atlantic island nation of Ice­land, a job made easier when that coun­try per­mitted U.S. forces to be sta­tioned on the island seven days later.

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Sink the Bismarck: The Royal Navy’s Operations Between May 21 and May 27, 1941, that Destroyed the Pride of the Kriegsmarine

Royal Navy’s operations against Bismarck, May 1941

Above: Map of the Royal Navy’s operations against the battle­ship Bis­marck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, with approx­i­mate move­ments of ship groups (red Ger­man, yellow Brit­ish), places of aerial attacks on the two Ger­man war­ships, and the Bis­marck’s final resting place. The wrecked battle­ship was dis­covered about 400 miles west of Brest, France, on June 8, 1989, by Robert Bal­lard, the oceano­grapher respon­sible for finding the RMS Titanic.

Bismarck, Hamburg, 1940Aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal

Left: The Bismarck on the River Elbe in Blankenese near the North Ger­man city of Ham­burg. The mam­moth battle­ship was sunk nine days into her maiden voyage, a voy­age that began auspi­ciously enough with the Bis­marck quickly and neatly de­stroying the battle­cruiser HMS Hood, with a loss of 1,500 Royal Navy sai­lors, and severely damaging the newly com­mis­sioned battle­ship, the Prince of Wales, in the Battle of the Den­mark Strait, May 24, 1941 (see map above). In all, six battle­ships and battle­cruisers, two air­craft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one de­stroyers were com­mitted to the search-and-destroy chase.

Right: British aircraft carrier Ark Royal with a flight of Fairey Sword­fish bi­plane tor­pe­do bombers over­head, circa 1939. One of these obso­lete planes scored a hit that ren­dered the Bis­marck’s steering gear inoper­able, making the battle­ship’s de­struc­tion the next morning all but inevitable.

Bismarck burning and sinking, May 27, 1941HMS Dorsetshire plucking Bismarck survivors from the Atlantic, May 1941

Left: Surrounded by shell splashes, the Bismarck burns on the hori­zon. Four Brit­ish war­ships fired more than 2,800 shells at the Bis­marck, scoring more than 400 hits. The photo was taken on May 27, 1941, from one of the Royal Navy’s war­ships chasing her.

Right: Two British warships attempted to res­cue the Bis­marck’s sur­vivors after the HMS Dorset­shire (shown here) managed to in­flict a coup de grâce by firing two tor­pe­does into the badly listing battle­ship. A U‑boat alarm, how­ever, caused the ships to leave the scene after having res­cued only 110 out of some 400 sai­lors in the water. Later a Ger­man U‑boat and a Ger­man trawler picked up five survivors.

Hunting the Bismarck: The Last Hours of the HMS Hood and the Bismarck