London, England May 21, 1941

On this date in 1941 the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battle­ship Bismarck set out from German-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 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 42,000‑ton pride of the Kriegs­marine in the most famous sea chase in history. 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 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. (The U.S. still formally con­sid­ered itself a neu­tral party in the Euro­pean con­flict.) FDR 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 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.

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 mammoth battle­ship Bis­marck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, with approx­i­mate move­ments of ship groups (red German, dark green 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, 1940 Aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal

Left: The 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 huge battle­cruiser HMS Hood, with a loss of 1,500 Royal Navy sai­lors, and severely damaging the newly com­mis­sioned battle­ship, HMS Prince of Wales, in the ship-to-ship Battle of the Den­mark Strait, May 24, 1941 (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.

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. 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.

Bismarck burning and sinking, May 27, 1941 HMS 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 and avenging the Hood. The photo was taken on May 27, 1941, from one of the Royal Navy 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.

History Channel’s “Hunt for the Bismarck”: The Last Hours of the HMS Hood and the Bismarck

WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on The ebook contains a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site. Featuring inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to different dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.