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Feature Extract: BATTLE OF THE GIANTS

Photo: A UK-bound Atlantic convoy as seen from the decks of HMS King George V during March 1941. The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS California is in the centre. (NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US NAVY)

 

BATTLE OF THE GIANTS

(Feature extract from the October issue of Britain at War.)

In May 1941, two of the greatest battleships ever constructed clashed in the North Atlantic. HMS King George V and the Kriegsmarine’s Bismarck fought a bitter duel across miles of grey ocean – it was a fight to the death.

She was the pride of the British fleet. Displacing 42,200 tons and capable of a top speed of 28 knots, HMS King George V mounted ten 14in guns each of which threw a 1,590lb shell 38,600 yards (nearly 22 miles). Commissioned into the Royal Navy on December 11, 1940, King George V, along with her sister ship Prince of Wales, were Britain’s most modern and powerful battleships.

When it was known that the German battleship Bismarck, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, had been spotted heading through the Denmark Strait (between Greenland and Iceland) with the obvious intention of attacking allied shipping in the North Atlantic, every effort was made to intercept them. This would culminate in Bismarck’s final battle – against HMS King George V.

“This would culminate in Bismarck’s final battle – against HMS King George V”

In the early hours of May 21, 1941 the British Admiralty received a message indicating the movement of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen through the Kattegat (off Denmark) the previous day. Dispositions were immediately made to intercept the two German warships before they could slip out into the vast waters of the Atlantic and disappear into the world’s second largest ocean. Four separate battle squadrons were assembled and instructed to set course to cover the likely routes the Kriegsmarine ships might take.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were located on the evening of May 23, by one of these forces – led by HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the latter having only recently relinquished its status of being the mightiest warship in the world. They were accompanied by two heavy cruisers (HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk) and six destroyers. Contact, though, was lost during the night, only to be re-established at daybreak.

At this stage, Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, in command of the squadron in Hood, had the choice of engaging Bismarck or of continuing to follow and report on the Germans’ location while other warships, including King George V, raced hard to join Hood and Prince of Wales. Holland decided to attack. It would be the last important decision he would make.

First Blood

The British ships closed on their German counterparts and claimed the first strikes, Prince of Wales hitting Bismarck three times. As the warships manoeuvred at high speed, a salvo of shells from Bismarck straddled Hood. Moments later, a catastrophic explosion tore Hood apart. There were 1,418 men on board. Only three survived.

Bismarck engages HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales on May 24. Shells from the latter are falling short of Bismarck, which had been hit previously and is slightly down by the bow. (USNHHC)

Prince of Wales was forced to disengage, having been hit a number of times and suffering mechanical failures in her guns and turrets. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were allowed to break off the action. Admiral Günther Lütjens could justifiably claim victory, but the Germans had not escaped as Prince of Wales, Suffolk and Norfolk kept within sight of the enemy warships and approaching fast was a host of other British ships, among them HMS King George V and the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious.

It was a Swordfish aircraft from Victorious’ 825 Naval Air Squadron that struck the next blow, when a torpedo hit Bismarck. This, though, caused only superficial damage and the battleship was once again able to shake off her pursuers during the early hours of the 25th.

It was not until the morning of May 26, as the German ships sped towards the safety of the French coast, that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were located again. That evening, Swordfish flew from the carrier Ark Royal. John Moffat was the pilot of one of the aircraft, with his observer ‘Dusty’ Miller and his air gunner Albert Hayman. He explained: “In our briefing we had discussed coordinating our attacks… But it seemed that we had got badly separated in the high cloud; it was utter confusion. I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me. It was heading towards us, the lazily spinning tracer from scores of guns coming at us like hail. I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it. Every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything – an impulse that it was hard to fight off. But I held on and we got closer and closer.

“I went down, as low as I dared, though even that took an act of will to overcome my fear of hitting the rough sea. At training I had been taught to assess the speed of the ship and lay off my aim by using a simple marked rod mounted horizontally along the top of the cockpit. But the nearer I got the larger the target became, so I decided to aim for the bow.

“Then I heard Dusty Miller shouting in my ear, ‘Not yet, not yet!’ and I thought, ‘Has he gone mad? What is he doing?’ I turned and realised that he was leaning out of the cockpit, looking down at the sea, trying to prevent me from dropping the torpedo on to the crest of a wave, where it would bounce off or dive deep, either way knocked off any course that I might have fired it on.

“We were getting closer and closer, the ship was getting bigger and bigger, and I thought ‘What are you waiting for?’ Then he said, ‘Let her go, Jock,’ and I pressed the button on the throttle. Dusty yelled, ‘I think we have got a runner.’”

King George V Closes In

Just one of the torpedoes launched by the Swordfish found its target, but that was enough, as it damaged Bismarck’s rudder and steering gear. There was no longer any chance of Bismarck reaching France. With King George V and another more elderly battleship, Rodney, and the cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire bearing down on the German battleship, Admiral Lütjens delivered his final signal to his command base: “Ship unmanoeuvrable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

The Bismarck was every bit as powerful as King George V. Indeed, they were very evenly matched. Bismarck displaced 41,700 tons and her top speed just exceeded 30 knots. Her eight 15in guns could fire a 1,800lb shell 36,532 yards. Those guns could deliver a broadside of 14,400lb. The weight of King George V’s broadside was, by comparison, a little greater at 15,900lb. If both ships had been in perfect condition, it would have been a fair fight, but Bismarck was fatally crippled, which allowed Admiral Sir John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, who was orchestrating the operation against Bismarck in King George V, to choose the direction of attack.

“But Bismarck was fatally crippled, which allowed Admiral Sir John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, who was orchestrating the operation against Bismarck in King George V, to choose the direction of attack”

A UK-bound Atlantic convoy as seen from the decks of HMS King George V during March 1941. The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS California is in the centre. (NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US NAVY)

You can read the dramatic conclusion to this feature in the October issue of Britain at War – which is in the shop now. Or you can purchase a digital copy – details can be found on our home webpage.

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