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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : 'Bismarck' Sunk

27 May 1941

Location: North Atlantic
Players: Admiral Gunther Lutjens, Admiral Sir John Tovey
Outcome: Destruction of the German navy's flagship with the loss of perhaps 2,131 men.

The German battleship Bismarck is sunk by the Royal Navy
The German battleship Bismarck is sunk by the Royal Navy©
Commissioned in August 1940, the Bismarck, at 45,000 tons, was the largest battleship in the Kriegsmarine (German navy) and contravened the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935 which limited German battleships to a maximum of 35,000 tons.

The Bismarck spent the eight months following its commission in the eastern Baltic, and in mid-May 1941, under the command of Admiral Lutjens, the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen broke out into the Atlantic. It was the ship's first operational mission.

After the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were spotted entering the North Sea, Admiral Tovey ordered the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk to engage the German battleships in the Denmark Strait. The Bismarck opened fire and the outgunned British withdrew, maintaining radar contact and awaiting the approaching battleships HMS Hood and the Prince of Wales.

The arriving British ships concentrated their fire on the Prinz Eugen, believing her to be the Bismarck, allowing the Bismarck to fire several volleys which sank HMS Hood and seriously damaged the Prince of Wales. The crippled Prince of Wales used her radar targeting apparatus to fire on the Bismarck, destroying her fuel lines and slowing her down. Forced to make a decision, Lutjens elected to make for occupied France for repairs and sent the Prinz Eugen on her way alone.

Contact with the Bismarck was lost for several hours on 26 May, until Lutjens unwisely radioed Hitler and betrayed his location. Antiquated Swordfish biplanes from HMS Ark Royal, by now part of the British flotilla, were used to prevent the Bismarck escaping, and a torpedo from one of these biplanes struck the decisive blow to the Bismarck, jamming her rudders.

Admiral Tovey arrived that evening aboard the flagship King George V and, unwilling to risk engaging the Bismarck during the hours of darkness, waited until the morning of 27 May before attacking. Unable to manoeuvre, the Bismarck stood little chance and was finally sunk by two torpedoes fired by HMS Dorsetshire, having withstood two hours of bombardment. Admiral Lutjens went down with the ship, along with 2,089 others.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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