World War II: Bismarck

German Battleship Bismarck
Bismarck. Public Domain

Bismarck was the first of two Bismarck-class battleships that were ordered for the Kriegsmarine in the years prior to World War II. Built by Blohm and Voss, the battleship mounted a main battery of eight 15" guns and was capable of a top speed of over 30 knots. Quickly identified as a threat by the Royal Navy, efforts to track Bismarck were underway after its commissioning in August 1940. Ordered on its first mission into the Atlantic the following year, Bismarck won a victory over HMS Hood at the Battle of the Denmark Strait, but soon came under a combined attack by British ships and aircraft. Damaged by an aerial torpedo, Bismarck was sunk by British surface ships on May 27, 1941.


In 1932, German naval leaders requested a series of battleship designs intended to fit within the 35,000 ton limit imposed on leading maritime nations by the Washington Naval Treaty. Initial work began on what became the Bismarck-class the following year and initially centered around an armament of eight 13" guns and a top speed of 30 knots. In 1935, the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement accelerated German efforts as it allowed the Kriegsmarine to build up to 35% of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy. Additionally, it bound the Kriegsmarine to the Washington Naval Treaty tonnage restrictions.

Increasingly concerned about France's naval expansion, German designers sought to create a new type of battleship that would out-class the newer French vessels. Design work moved forward with debates ensuing over the caliber of the main battery, type of propulsion system, and thickness of the armor. These were further complicated in 1937 with the departure of Japan from the treaty system and implementation of an escalator clause that increased the tonnage limit to 45,000 tons.

When German designers learned that the new French Richelieu-class would mount 15" guns, the decision was made use similar weapons in four two-gun turrets. This battery was supplemented by a secondary battery of twelve 5.9" (150 mm) guns. Several means of propulsion were considered including turbo-electric, diesel geared, and steam drives. After assessing each, turbo-electric drive was initially favored as it had proven effective aboard the American Lexington-class aircraft carriers.


As construction moved forward, the new class' propulsion came to be geared turbine engines turning three propellers. For protection, the new class mounted an armor belt ranging in thickness from 8.7" to 12.6". This area of the ship was further protected by 8.7" armored, transverse bulkheads. Elsewhere, armor for the conning tower was 14" on the sides and 7.9" on the roof. The armor scheme reflected the German approach of maximizing protection while maintaining stability.

Ordered under the name Ersatz Hannover, the lead ship of the new class, Bismarck, was laid down at Blohm & Voss in Hamburg on July 1, 1936. The first name served as an indication that the new vessel was replacing the old pre-dreadnought Hannover. Sliding down the ways on February 14, 1939, the new battleship was sponsored by Dorothee von Löwenfeld, granddaughter of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck would be followed a second battleship of its class, Tirpitz, in 1941.

Fast Facts: Battleship Bismarck


  • Nation: Nazi Germany
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Blohm & Voss, Hamburg
  • Laid Down: July 1, 1936
  • Launched: February 14, 1939
  • Commissioned: August 24, 1940
  • Fate: Sunk in action, May 27, 1941


  • Displacement: 45,451 tonnes
  • Length: 450.5m
  • Beam (Width): 36m
  • Draft:: 9.3-10.2m
  • Propulsion: 12 High-pressure Wagner boilers powering 3 Blohm & Voss geared turbines at 150,170 horsepower
  • Speed: 30.8 knots
  • Range: 8,525 nautical miles at 19 knots, 4,500 nautical miles at 28 knots
  • Complement: 2,092: 103 officers, 1,989 enlisted



  • 8×380 mm/L48.5 SK-C/34 (4 turrets with 2 guns each)
  • 12×150 mm/L55 SK-C/28
  • 16×105 mm/L65 SK-C/37 / SK-C/33
  • 16×37 mm/L83 SK-C/30
  • 12×20 mm/L65 MG C/30 (Single)
  • 8×20 mm/L65 MG C/38 (Quadruple)


  • 4× Arado Ar 196 A-3 seaplanes, using 1 double-ended catapult

Early Career

Commissioned in August 1940, with Captain Ernst Lindemann in command, Bismarck departed Hamburg to conduct sea trials in Kiel Bay. Testing of the ship's armament, power plant, and seakeeping abilities continued through the fall in the relative safety of the Baltic Sea. Arriving at Hamburg in December, the battleship entered the yard for repairs and alterations. Though scheduled to return to Kiel in January, a wreck in the Kiel Canal prevented this from occurring until March.

Finally reaching the Baltic, Bismarck resumed training operations. With World War II underway, the German Kriegsmarine envisioned using Bismarck as a raider to attack British convoys in the North Atlantic. With its 15" guns, the battleship would be able to strike from a distance, inflicting maximum damage while placing itself at minimal risk.

Bismarck in the Baltic Sea, 1941
Bismarck, photographed from Prinz Eugen, in the Baltic at the outset of Operation Rheinübung, May 1941. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1989-012-03 / Lagemann / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The battleship's first mission in this role was dubbed Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine) and proceeded under the command of Vice Admiral Günter Lütjens. Sailing in tandem with the cruiser Prinz Eugen, Bismarck departed Norway on May 22, 1941, and headed towards the shipping lanes. Aware of Bismarck's departure, the Royal Navy had begun moving ships to intercept. Steering north and west, Bismarck headed for the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland.

Battle of the Denmark Straight

Entering the strait, Bismarck was detected by the cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk which called for reinforcements. Responding were the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood. The two intercepted the Germans at the south end of the strait on the morning of May 24. Less than 10 minutes after the ships opened fire, Hood was struck in one of its magazines causing an explosion that blew the ship in half. Unable to take on both German ships alone, Prince of Wales broke off the fight. During the battle, Bismarck was hit in a fuel tank, causing a leak and forcing a reduction in speed (Map).

Bismarck fires on HMS Prince of Wales during the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1984-055-13

Sink the Bismarck!

Unable to continue with his mission, Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to continue on while he turned the leaking Bismarck toward France. On the night of May 24, aircraft from the carrier HMS Victorious attacked with little effect. Two days later aircraft from HMS Ark Royal scored a hit, jamming Bismarck's rudder. Unable to maneuver, the ship was forced to steam in a slow circle while awaiting the arrival of the British battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney. They were sighted the following morning and Bismarck's final battle commenced.

HMS Rodney fires on Bismarck, 1941
Bismarck burning in the distance as HMS Rodney (right) fires, May 27, 1941. Public Domain

Assisted by the heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and Norfolk, the two British battleships pummeled the stricken Bismarck, knocking its guns out of action and killing most of the senior officers on board. After 30 minutes, the cruisers attacked with torpedoes. Unable to resist further, Bismarck's crew scuttled the ship to prevent its capture. British ships raced in to pick up the survivors and rescued 110 before a U-boat alarm forced them to leave the area. Close to 2,000 German sailors were lost.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Bismarck." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Bismarck. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Bismarck." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).