“Sink the Bismarck!”
– Prime Minister Winston Churchill, after learning of the demise of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, May 1941
Earlier this month, we began examining some of the reworked warships due out shortly from Forces of Valor. Many have been reworked, repainted and repackaged, all in an effort to bring the series up to speed and attract new collectors into the fold. Our second warship spotlight focuses on the German Kriegsmarines infamous battleship, DKM Bismarck, pride of the German fleet and one of its earliest victims in the Battle of the Atlantic (FOV861006A).
Operation Rheinubung (“Rhine Exercise”) was the sortie into the Atlantic by the new German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from May 18th-27th, 1941, during World War II. This operation culminated in the sinking of the Bismarck.
During both World Wars, the island of Britain was dependent upon huge numbers of merchant ships to bring in food and essential raw materials, and protecting this lifeline was one of the highest priorities for British forces. Likewise, Germany recognized that, if this lifeline could be severed, Britain would be defeated, regardless of any other factor.
Operation Rheinubung was the latest in a series of raids on Allied shipping carried out by surface units of the Kriegsmarine. It was preceded by Operation Berlin, a highly successful sortie by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which ended in March 1941.
By May 1941, the Kriegsmarine warships, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Admiral Hipper were at Brest, on the western coast of France, posing a serious threat to the Atlantic convoys. Two new warships now became available to the Germans: the battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, both initially stationed in the Baltic Sea.
The aim of the operation was for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to break into the Atlantic and attack Allied shipping. Raeder’s orders to Lutjens were that “the objective of the Bismarck is not to defeat enemies of equal strength, but to tie them down in a delaying action, while preserving her combat capacity as much as possible, so as to allow Prinz Eugen to get at the merchant ships in the convoy” and “The primary target in this operation is the enemy’s merchant shipping; enemy warships will be engaged only when that objective makes it necessary and it can be done without excessive risk.”
To support and provide facilities for the capital ships to refuel and rearm, German Naval Command (OKM) established a network of tankers and supply ships in the Rheinubung operational area. 7 tankers and 2 supply ships were sent as far afield as Labrador in the west to Cape Verde islands in the south.
Lutjens had requested that Grand Admiral Erich Raeder delay Rheinubung long enough either for Scharnhorst to rendezvous at sea with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen or for Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz to accompany them. Raeder had refused. The crew of the newly-completed Tirpitz was not yet fully trained, and Raeder cited the coming German invasion of Crete as a reason for disrupting Allied supply lines and diverting strength from the Mediterranean.
To meet the threat from German surface ships, the British had stationed at Scapa Flow the new battleships HMS King George V (sometimes referred to as KGV) and HMS Prince of Wales (PoW) as well as the elderly battlecruiser HMS Hood. Elsewhere, at Gibraltar, at Halifax, Nova Scotia and at sea in the Atlantic were the battleships Revenge, Rodney and Ramillies, the battlecruisers Repulse and Renown, and aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and Victorious. Cruisers and air patrols provided the fleet’s ‘eyes’. At sea, or due to sail shortly, were 11 convoys, including a troop convoy.
OKM did not take into account the Royal Navy’s determination to destroy the German surface fleet. To make sure Bismarck was sunk, the Royal Navy would ruthlessly strip other theatres of action. This would include denuding valuable convoys of their escorts. The British would ultimately deploy six battleships, three battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, 16 cruisers, 33 destroyers and eight submarines, along with patrol aircraft. It would become the largest naval force assigned to a single operation up to that point in the war.