London, England May 21, 1941

On this date in 1941 the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the German 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 combat voyage of Nazi Germany’s mon­strous battle­ship, the most lethal wea­pon in any navy’s arsenal, and had been the focus of the Royal Navy’s atten­tion since the battleship was commissioned nearly two years earlier.

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 trans­oceanic routes to and from North Amer­ica almost since the out­break of Euro­pean hosti­lities in Septem­ber 1939. 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 (click Battle of the Atlantic).

The Royal Navy, continuously seeking out and destroying con­voy-prowling German U‑boats, now set out to destroy the 50,000‑ton pride of the Kriegs­marine in the most famous sea chase in history. (U.S. long-range naval patrol air­craft from Ice­land and the Ber­mudas were also active in the search for the German battle­ship.) 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, respec­tively, 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 enlisted men (including the entire German fleet staff) perished; only 114 survived the sinking.

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 freighter 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. (The U.S. still formally con­sid­ered itself a neu­tral party in the Euro­pean con­flict.) Roose­velt vowed that America’s so-called “Neu­trality Patrol” operating up and down the U.S. 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 escort services for mer­chant ships flying flags of any nation sailing between U.S. and Cana­dian waters and the North Atlantic island nation of Ice­land provided that one ship in the convoy was Amer­i­can or Ice­landic. King instructed U.S. escort vessels to attack any “hostile forces which threaten such shipping” in what Roosevelt declared was “our defensive waters.” The escorting job was made easier when Ice­land permitted U.S. forces to be stationed on the island seven days later.

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 German battleship Bismarck, May 1941

Above: Map of the Royal Navy’s operations against the mammoth German battle­ship Bis­marck and the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, with approx­i­mate move­ments of ship groups (red German, black 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.

German battleship Bismarck, Hamburg, 1940British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal

Left: The 823-ft-long Bismarck on the River Elbe in Blankenese near the North German city of Ham­burg. Protected by 13 inches of armor and armed with eight massive 15‑inch cannons in four turrets and a dozen 5.9‑inch rifles in six turrets, the world’s newest, most-advanced battle­ship was never­the­less sunk nine days into her maiden voyage. The voy­age began auspi­ciously enough with the Bis­marck quickly and neatly destroying the 20‑year-old, heavily armed but thinly armored British battle­cruiser HMS Hood, with a loss of 1,415 offi­cers and sea­man (the single-worst dis­aster inflicted on the Royal Navy in its four cen­turies of exis­tence), and severely damaging the newly com­mis­sioned battle­ship, HMS Prince of Wales, in the ship-to-ship Battle of the Den­mark Strait, May 24, 1941. (The Denmark Strait is a wide chan­nel sepa­rating Green­land from Ice­land; see map above.) In all, six British battle­ships and battle­cruisers, two air­craft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers—in other words, all avail­able war­ships—were committed to the search-and-destroy chase. Thrown into the mix were dozens of patrol air­craft, making this the largest force ever tasked with the destruction of a single ship.

Right: British aircraft carrier Ark Royal with a flight of Fairey Sword­fish canvas-covered 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. At least in the North Atlantic, Germany’s floating gun plat­forms like the Bis­marck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen would no longer decide naval engagements in their favor.

German battleship 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, bringing to an end a chase that had lasted five days and covered more than 1,700 sea miles. Four British war­ships fired more than 2,800 shells at the Bis­marck, scoring more than 400 hits, which reduced the battle­ship to a shambles, and avenging the Hood. The photo was taken on May 27, 1941, from one of the Royal Navy war­ships chasing her. German demo­li­tion (scuttling) charges were the direct cause of the Bismarck’s sinking, the stern sliding under the surface first as the ship capsized to port.

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.

Combat Footage of British Air and Naval Forces Sinking the German Battleship Bismarck, May 27, 1941