The British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood fought the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, both of which were attempting to break out into the North Atlantic to destroy Allied merchant shipping.
Less than ten minutes after the British opened fire, a shell from Bismarck struck Hood near her aft ammunition magazines. The Hood exploded and sank within three minutes with the loss of all but three of her crew.
Prince of Wales continued to exchange fire with Bismarck but suffered serious malfunctions in her main armament. This, combined with the effects of the battle, left most of her main guns unusable and she broke off the engagement.
Bismarck, damaged but still very much operational, declined to chase Prince of Wales and instead headed for the Atlantic along with Prinz Eugen.
On May 18, 1941 the German Navy's new battleship Bismarck was ready, after extensive trials, for her first voyage against enemy shipping, "Operation Rheinübung". She was accompanied by Prinz Eugen, a new cruiser also on her maiden mission. Admiral Lütjens, the German fleet commander, intended to break out into the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland and attack Allied convoy traffic in the North Atlantic. Earlier raids by German capital ships such as the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had done enough damage to cause the British to use some of their older battleships such as the Revenge class as convoy escorts. Although old and slow, these ships were well armed with guns, more powerful than most of the guns of the German heavy cruisers and pocket battleships. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, though, could risk attacking a convoy escorted by one of these battleships: Bismarck could engage and attempt to destroy the escorting battleship, leaving Prinz Eugen to chase down and sink the fleeing merchant ships.
The two ships were expected to try to break westward through the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap. Royal Navy ships were watching their likely route. Aircraft scheduled to assist in the search could not do so at the time the German ships attempted their breakout because of cloud and rain. On the evening of May 23, despite the advantage of foul weather to cloak their presence, the Germans were spotted, steaming at 27 knots, by the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk. These ships were patrolling the Denmark Strait under the command of Rear-Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker. With the help of Suffolk's newly-installed radar set, the cruisers shadowed the German ships through the night, reporting on their movements.
The next morning the German ships were intercepted in the Strait between Iceland and Greenland by a force of British ships. These were the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood, along with a World War II destroyers of the United Kingdom screen under the command of Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland on Hood. Prince of Wales was a newly commissioned King George V class battleship, of much the same size and power as Bismarck. She had not yet been properly "shaken down", and her crew was green. She still had mechanical problems, especially with her main armament, and had sailed with shipyard workers still aboard working on her. Hood, from her commissioning in 1918, for 20 years had been the largest warship afloat. Between the wars, more than any other ship she had represented British naval power in the eyes of Britain and the world. But her armour was less comprehensive than a battleship's and her lower armoured deck was too light to stand against long-range plunging fire. Unfortunately the surge of WWII prevented full modernization, specifically the lower deck thickness increase from 3" to 5" and 6". Even so, Hood's firepower, guns, were the equivalent of any battleship.
Far away to the south-east, Admiral Holland's superior, Admiral Sir John Tovey debated whether to order Admiral Holland to allow Prince of Wales ahead of Hood. In this position, the better-protected Prince of Wales would draw the enemy's fire. He decided not to give this order, claiming, "I did not feel such interference with such a senior officer justified."
Holland's battle plan was to have Hood and Prince of Wales engage Bismarck while Suffolk and Norfolk engaged Prinz Eugen (which, Holland assumed, still steamed behind Bismarck and not ahead of it). He signalled this to Captain Leach but did not radio Wake-Walker for fear of disclosing his location. Instead, he observed radio silence. Holland hoped to meet the enemy at approximately 0200. Sunset in this latitude was at 0151. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen would be silhouetted against the sun's afterglow while Hood and Prince of Wales could approach rapidly, unseen in darkness, to a range close enough not to endanger Hood with plunging fire from Bismarck. The Germans would not expect an attack from this quarter, giving the British the advantage of surprise
This plan's success depended on Suffolk's continually unbroken contact with the German ships. Suffolk lost contact, however, beginning at 0028. For an hour and a half Holland neither sighted the enemy nor received any further news from Norfolk or Suffolk. Reluctantly, he ordered Hood and Prince of Wales to turn south-south-west while the destroyers would continue searching to the north.
Before contact was reestablished, the two squadrons missed each other by a hairsbreadth. Had the German ships not altered course to the west at 0141 to follow the line of the Greenland icepack, the British would have intercepted them much earlier than they did. The British destroyers were just 10 miles to the south-east when the Germans made this course change. Had visibility not been reduced to between three and five miles, the German ships would likely have been spotted.
Just before 0300, Suffolk regained contact with Bismarck. Hood and Prince of Wales were 35 miles away, slightly ahead of the Germans. Holland signaled to steer toward the Germans and increased speed to 28 knots. Suffolk's loss of contact had placed the British at a disadvantage. Instead of the swiftly closing head-on approach Holland had envisioned, he would have to converge at a wider angle, much more slowly. This would leave Hood vulnerable to Bismarck's plunging shells for a much longer period. The situation worsened further when, at 0320, Suffolk reported that the Germans had made a further course alteration to the west, placing the German and British squadrons almost abeam of each other.
At 0535, lookouts on Prince of Wales spotted the German ships, 28 kilometres (17 miles) away. The Germans, already alerted to the British presence through their hydrophonic equipment, picked up the smoke and masts of the British ships 10 minutes later. Holland at this point had the option of joining Suffolk in shadowing Bismarck and waiting for Tovey to arrive with King George V and other ships to attack or to order his squadron into action, which he did at 0537. The rough seas in the Strait kept the destroyers' role to a minimum. The cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk would be too far behind the German force to reach the battle.
Hood opened fire at 0552 at a distance of approximately , about . Holland had ordered firing on the leading ship, Prinz Eugen, believing from her position that she was Bismarck. Holland soon amended his order and directed both ships to engage the rear ship, Bismarck. Prince of Wales had already correctly identified and targeted Bismarck, whereas Hood is believed to have continued to fire at Prinz Eugen for some time.
Holland, himself a gunnery expert, was well aware of the danger posed by Hood's weak horizontal protection. Therefore, he wanted to reduce the range as quickly as possible. At a shorter range the trajectory of Bismarck's shells would be flatter and they would be more likely to hit the sides of the ship rather than the decking, or to glance off the top deck. However, he closed the range at an angle that placed the German ships too far forward of the beam. This meant he could use only 10 of his capital ships' 18 heavy guns while presenting the Germans more at which to aim than necessary. Those 10 guns became nine when a defect in one of Prince of Wales' forward guns rendered it inoperative after the first salvo.
Also, while the British fire was divided between two targets, all the German fire was concentrated on Hood. Had Norfolk and Suffolk been ordered to close on Bismarck and worry her from the rear, that might have distracted the German ship enough to draw fire from the aft turrets toward them. This might have been one possibility Holland had considered. Orders sent to Bismarck's after fire control room to keep an eye on the two cruisers show that Lütjens expected such a move. Since Holland had failed to give such an order to Wake-Walker, this opportunity was lost.
The Germans also had the weather gauge, meaning the British ships were steaming into the wind, spray drenching the lenses of the forward turrets' two-foot range finders. This necessitated using smaller range finders in the control towers instead. In addition, Admiral Holland had Prince of Wales stay close to Hood, conforming to Hood's movements instead of varying course and speed. This made it easier for the Germans to find the range to the British ships, as well as harder for the British ships to observe each other's fall of shot.
Prince of Wales struck her target first. She would ultimately hit Bismarck three times. One shot struck the commander's boat and put the seaplane catapult amidships out of action. The second shell passed through the bow from one side to another. The third struck the hull underwater. These last two caused minor damage and medium flooding. More importantly, the damage to the bow cut access to the forward fuel tanks' 1,000 tons of fuel oil. It also caused Bismarck to trail a visible oil slick and reduced her speed a little.
Lutjens held fire until 0555, when both German ships targeted Hood. A shell hit Hood's boat deck, starting a sizable fire in the ready-use 4 inch ammunition stored there, but this fire did not spread to other areas of the ship or cause the later explosion. Although unconfirmed, it is possible that Hood was struck again at the base of her bridge and in her foretop radar director. It is a matter of contention over which German vessel struck Hood at this time. It has been claimed Prinz Eugen was targeting Prince of Wales and could not have been responsible. However Prinz Eugen's Gunnery Officer, Paul Schmallenbach (and later principal Historian), rejects this, confirming Eugen's target was also Hood.
At 0600, Holland ordered his force to turn once again to port to ensure that the after main guns on both Hood and Prince of Wales could bear on the enemy. During the execution of that turn, a salvo from Bismarck, fired at a range of about , was seen by men aboard Prince of Wales to straddle Hood abreast her mainmast. It is likely that one 380 mm (15 inch) shell struck somewhere between Hood's mainmast and "X" turret aft of the mast.
This was immediately followed by a huge pillar of flame that shot upward like a giant blowtorch, in the vicinity of the mainmast. This was followed by an explosion that destroyed a large portion of the ship from amidships clear to the rear of "Y" turret. The ship broke into two. The stern broke away and sank. The bow, pointed upward and pivoting about, followed shortly thereafter. Its forward turret did manage to fire one last salvo, possibly from the doomed gun crew, just before the bow section sank.
It has been claimed that at least one shell of this last salvo penetrated the Bismarck's fuel tanks, and emerged on the other side without detonation, but leaving a large hole in the tank, leaving the Bismarck losing fuel fast, and subsequently leaving her unable to escape the Allied pursuers in time to get to France. However, this hit is normally said to have been by a 14-inch shell from Prince of Wales (one of the three hits described above).
Splinters rained down on Prince of Wales half a mile away. Hood sank in about three minutes, taking 1,415 men, including Vice-Admiral Holland, with her. Only three of her crew (Ted Briggs, Bob Tilburn and Bill Dundas) survived to be rescued two hours later by the destroyer Electra.
The British Admiralty later concluded that the most likely explanation for the loss of the Hood was a penetration of her magazines by a single 380 mm shell from Bismarck, causing the subsequent catastrophic explosion. Recent research by submersible craft suggests that the initial explosion was in the after 4-inch magazine and that it spread to the 15-inch magazines via the ammunition trunks.
It has been suggested from examination of the wreckage, found in 2001, that the magazine explosion in the 4-inch armament near the mainmast caused the vertical blast of flame seen there, and this in turn ignited the magazines of the aft guns that caused the explosion that wrecked the stern. This explosion might have traveled through the starboard fuel tanks, igniting the fuel oil there, setting off the forward magazines and completing the destruction of the ship. The wreck of Hood revealed the bow section bereft of any structure and a huge section of its side is missing, from the 'A' barbette to the foredeck. The midship section had its plates curled outward. Moreover the main parts of the forward structure including the 600 ton conning tower were found over a mile away from the main wreckage. This gives substance to the theory that the 15 inch forward magazines did explode as a result of the force, flames and pressure, caused by the detonation of the aft magazines.
Prince of Wales found herself steering towards the sinking Hood. Her commanding officer, Captain John C. Leach, ordered an emergency avoidance turn away from Hood's wreckage. This violent change of course disrupted her aim and put her in a position that made it easier for the Germans to target her. She resumed her previous course, but was now under the concentrated fire of both German ships.
Prince of Wales was struck four times by Bismarck and three times by Prinz Eugen. One shell passed through her upper superstructure, killing or wounding several crewmen in the Compass Platform and Air Defense Platform. Pieces of another shell struck her radar office aft killing crewmen within. A 203 mm shell from Prinz Eugen found its way to the propelling charge/round manipulation chamber below the aft 5.25" gun turrets, and a 380 mm shell from Bismarck hit underwater below the armour belt, and penetrated about into the ship's hull, about below the waterline, but was stopped by the armoured, anti-torpedo, bulkhead. Fortunately for Prince of Wales, neither shell exploded, but she still suffered minor flooding and the loss of some fuel oil. Contrary to some mistaken opinion, the 380 mm shell that struck Prince of Wales below the waterline did not endanger her magazines, as it came to rest abreast an auxiliary machinery room.
By this time, serious gunnery malfunctions had put most of the main guns out of action. Captain Leach realized that continuing the action would risk losing Prince of Wales without inflicting further damage on the enemy. He therefore ordered the ship to make smoke and withdraw. Prince of Wales turned away just after 0604, firing from her rear turret under local control until the turret (with a total revolving weight of 1500 tons) jammed on its ring, making the guns inoperable. Despite efforts by crew members and civilian technicians to free the turret, its guns were not back in service until 0825. The salvos were ragged and are believed to have fallen short. She retired from the battle around 0610. Thirteen of her crew were killed, nine wounded. The timing of Prince of Wales' withdrawal was fortuitous, as she had come into torpedo range of Prinz Eugen and turned away as the German cruiser was about to fire.
This clash between the two senior German officers reflected their disparate and distinct command functions. As commander of Bismarck, Lindemann operated first and foremost as a tactician. As such, he had no question about his ship's immediate objective to destroy Prince of Wales, and he had pressed his case as far and hard as he should. Lütjens, as fleet chief and task force commander, operated at the strategic and operational levels. To some degree, his orders were clear—attacking convoys was his priority, not risking "a major engagement for limited, and perhaps uncertain, goals." Nevertheless, Raeder had also ordered Lütjens to be bold and imaginitive, to accept battle if unavoidable and conduct it vigorously to the finish.
The bottom line was that Lütjens' orders did not cover a spectactular success like the one just achieved. His priority therefore was to stick to his instructions, focus on sinking merchant shipping and avoid encounters with enemy warships whenever possible. Moreover, before leaving Germany, Lütjens had told Admirals Conrad Patzig and Wilhelm Marschall, that he would adhere to Raeder's directives. This meant he did not intend to become the third fleet chief to be relieved for contradicting Raeder's orders; Marschall had been one of his two predecessors. Nor was he predisposed to discuss his command decisions with a subordinate officer.
Even if he had known it was the untried Prince of Wales he was fighting and not King Geoorge V, Lütjens would not likely not altered his decision. Following her would have meant exposing the squadron to further gunfire as well as to torpedo attacks from Norfolk and Suffolk. He would have risked his ships and crews on an expressly forbidden opportunity.
Between 0619 and 0625, Suffolk fired six salvoes in the direction of Bismarck, having mistaken Bismarck for a radar contact with an aircraft. She was actually out of gun range of both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen at the time.
Since Bismarck's receiving the first hit in the forecastle, all six of the ship's 26-man damage control teams had worked ceaslessly to repair the damage. When it was reported that the tips of the starboard propeller could be seen above water, Lindemann had ordered counterflooding two compartments aft to restore the ship's trim. He then ordered divers into the forecastle to connect the forward fuel tanks, containing a much-needed 1,000 tons of fuel, first to the tanks near the forward boiler then to the rear fuel tank by way of a provisional line running over the upper deck. Both these maneuvers failed. Lindemann then requested permission to slow Bismarck and heel the ship first to one side then the other to weld patches from the inside to the holes in the forward hull. Lütjens refused, again without comment. Eventually, the admiral had to agree to slow the ship to 22 knots to allow hammocks and collision matting to be stuffed in the holes of the No. 2 boiler room and the auxiliary boiler room to stop the growing ingress of seawater. This attempt also failed. Boiler Room No. 2 was shut down, with a loss of speed to 28 knots.
Along with seawater pouring in was fuel oil leaking out. Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to drop back and see how much of a wake it was leaving astern. The carpet of oil was broad enough to cover both sides of the ship's wake, was all colors of the rainbow and smelled strongly—a tell-tale marker leading to Bismarck.
The damage to Bismarck's forward fuel tanks, combined with a missed opportunity to refuel at Bergen earlier in the voyage, left less than 3,000 tons of fuel remaining, not enough to operate effectively against the Atlantic convoys. Also, the element of surprise, which was considered essential for the operation's success, had most definitely been lost, and the squadron continued to be shadowed by Suffolk, Norfolk and eventually also Prince of Wales. Lütjens concluded that he needed to abort Bismarck's mission and head toward a convenient dockyard for repairs.
The question became which dockyard to head for. The nearest friendly ports were Bergen and Trondheim, a little over 1,000 miles away. Steaming in that direction meant a return passage north or south of Iceland, with the enemy's air forces now fully alerted to their presence and the possibility of other heavy units between them and Scapa Flow. Lütjens also knew his intelligence was unreliable. Hood' had been reported by Group North in West Africa and there had been no reports of a King George V class battleship in the vicinity.
Disregarding Lindemann's recommendation to return to Bergen, Lütjens ordered Bismarck to head for the French port of Saint-Nazaire. Though the French coast was 600 miles further away than Bergen, Saint-Nazaire held the potential of longer nights and wider seas in which to shake off Bismarck's shadowers, plus the possibilities of luring them across a line of U-boats. It would also leave Bismarck poised on the edge of the British trade routes once damages were repaired, and with the potential support of the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, as well. Both ships had been stationed at Brest, France since the end of Operation Berlin earlier that year but had been kept in port for repairs and overhaul. While Brest was closer than Saint-Nazaire, it was also within range of Royal Air Force bombers.
Lütjens detached the undamaged Prinz Eugen to commence commerce raiding alone. The cruiser went further south into the Atlantic where she refueled from a tanker at sea. She suffered engine troubles, abandoned her commerce raiding mission without having sunk any merchant ships, and returned to Brest.
Raeder was again issuing a recal himself, telling Schniewind they did not know enough about the situation at hand and that the person who would best know would be Lütjens. He then telephoned Hitler, who was at the Obersalzberg in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler received the news of the Hood's sinking stoically, exhibiting neither joy nor any other triumphant behavior. After hearing Raeder's report, he turned to those who were with him and expressed his personal thoughts:
If now these British cruisers are maintaining contact and Lütjens has sunk the Hood and nearly crippled the other, which was brand new and having trouble with her guns during the action, why didn't he sink her too? Why hasn't he tried to get out of there or why hasn't he turned around?
News of the Hood's destruction was seized upon more enthusiastically by Dr. Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. That evening it was broadcast to the nation, accompanied by "We march against England" and other martial airs. The German public, already enjoying the news of Luftwaffe victories over the Royal Navy off Crete, took the Hood's sinking euphorically.
Later, moves were made to court-martial Wake-Walker and Captain John Leach of Prince of Wales. The view was taken that they were wrong not to have continued the battle with Bismarck after Hood had sunk. John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, was appalled at this criticism. A row ensued between Tovey and his superior, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound. Tovey stated that the two officers had acted correctly, not endangering their ships needlessly and ensuring that the German ships were tracked. Furthermore, Prince of Wales's main guns had repeatedly malfunctioned and she could not have matched Bismarck. Tovey threatened to resign his position and appear at any court-martial as 'defendant's friend' and defense witness. No more was heard of the proposal.
A British board of enquiry quickly investigated the cause of Hood's explosion and produced a report. After criticism that the initial enquiry did not record all the available evidence, a second board of enquiry more extensively investigated Hood's loss, and examined the vulnerabilities of other large British warships still in service in light of the probable causes of the explosion. It, like the first enquiry, concluded that a 380 mm shell from Bismarck caused the explosion of Hood's aft ammunition magazines. This led to refitting some older British warships with increased protection for their ammunition magazines and some other related improvements.
Many naval historians and writers have analyzed the Bismarck engagement and weighed the participants' decisions. One of the most debated is Admiral Lütjens' choice to proceed into the Atlantic rather than continue the battle. Intensely private, Lütjens never explained his orders not to pursue the Prince of Wales.
A number of parallels could be drawn from Vice-Admiral Holland's actions in this battle and those of Admiral David Beatty in the opening stages of the Battle of Jutland. From his actions, it seems clear that Holland felt he had to engage Bismarck immediately, rather than support Wake-Walker in shadowing until Force H could arrive. Beatty, likewise, felt he needed to engage German Admiral Franz von Hipper's battlecruisers with his own forces instead of drawing the Germans toward Admiral John Jellicoe and the British Grand Fleet.
Holland, like Beatty, possessed superiority in the number of heavy ships he possessed yet was encumbered by inferiority in fighting effectiveness of those units. Moreover, Holland's deployment of his units compared to Beatty's deployment at Jutland. Beatty and Holland both attacked while German units were well before the beam. as a result, the midships and after turrets of Beatty's ships could barely fire on the enemy; Holland's ships could not use their after turrets until the final turn to port just before Hood was sunk. Beatty placed his lighter-armoured battlecruisers at the head of his line, leaving the more powerful and better-armoured Queen Elizabeths in the rear. Likewise, Holland placed the old and vulnerable Hood ahead of the strongly armoured (albeit new and untested) Prince of Wales. Both admirals exercised tight tactical control over their units from their flagships. This prevented Captain Leach from manoeuvering Prince of Wales independently and possibly taking a different line of approach that could have confused the enemy.