The Bismarck: Sunk of Scuttled?

The sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941 was critical to the Battle of the Atlantic. This poignant event in Britain’s war for survival is one which sparked great debate (http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forums/showthread.php?t=130538). We chose the Bismarck’s demise in order to shed further light on this controversial event. We did this in two ways, firstly through the analysis of primary sources consisting of newspaper articles, and memoirs of men who partook in the events. These were then contrasted with secondary sources such as; the 2002 documentary produced by James Cameron and the 1960 feature film Sink the Bismarck. The analysis of these sources has allowed us to assess the different views that have been expressed over the several decades and how these have changed with time.

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British newspaper The Daily Mirror carrying a front page story of the sinking of the Bismarck.

The evidence compiled traced events from the sinking of HMS Hood, to the ensuing Pan-Atlantic chase and the Royal Naval aircraft assault, before the Bismarck was eventually sunk. One of our key sources was a British newspaper report of the sinking of the Bismarck. The report is arguably an extravagant piece of propaganda, used to bolster the morale of the British people when serious defeats were being suffered on all fronts. The report sees the sinking of the Bismarck as a great blow to the German war machine dealt by the Royal Navy, describing how she was surrounded and sunk, in turn avenging HMS Hood. The press did much to publicise the news, particularly since the sinking maintained British naval supremacy, and owing to the fact that the Bismarck was the pride of the German Kriegsmarine, and was proclaimed to be unsinkable.

The newspaper report we collected was not too dissimilar to the story being told during the 1960s with the film Sink the Bismarck, which starring Kenneth More, told of the events surrounding the sinking of the Bismarck and held the typical British view of the German battleship being sunk by the Royal Navy. This was particularly interesting as the war had been over for 15 years, and propaganda telling of great victories over the enemy was unncecessary, yet the film was made using British sources to tell of the sinking of the Bismarck.

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Memoirs of Burkard Baron Von Mullenheim-Rechberg who was a crewman aboard the Bismarck.

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Memoirs of British Swordfish pilot John Moffat who partook in the action to sink the Bismarck.

We contrasted the views of a German crewman aboard the Bismarck and a British Officer claiming to be the torpedo bomber pilot who damaged the rudder to the German battleship rendering it immobile allowing for the sunbsequent Royal Navy capture and sinking of her. Our post-analysis conclusion was that the account from the German sailor,Burkard Baron Von Mullenheim-Rechberg who was the Aft Fire Control Officer, (Pictured left) is a more reliable source regarding the events surrounding the sinking of the Bismarck as he was an officer aboard the German battleship. He was thus aware of most orders that were given around the ship, including the supposed order to scuttle. By contrast, the British pilot, John Moffat, merely relays his events of the torpedo attack before describing how on May 27 he flew at a distance from the Bismarck and the British fleet and watched the events unfold. He described how he watched the British battleships and crusiers pound the Bismarck before she finally sunk after HMS Dorsetshire fired a volley of torpedos. He was not aware of what was occuring aboard the Bismarck itself and only relayed an external viewpoint. The source from the British pilot (Pictured above right) written in the 2000s, shows the typical British view of the sinking.

Our research also led to us viewing a documentary produced by American the film director James Cameron who, using Remote Operating Vehicles, dived on the wreck of the Bismarck surveying the damage that the ship had received. The documentary looked at the respective German and British perspectives of the sinking, which were similar to those mentioned in our earlier sources, and helped to form the basis of our conclusion on the subject of whether or not the Bismarck was sunk or scuttled. Cameron’s documentary contained striking images of the wreck of the German battleship and took the viewer into the bowels of the ship. The visual evidence yielded by this documentary supports the claim that the Bismarck was scuttled as the outer armourbelt was undamaged, despite the British torpedo impacts and shelling. However, the inside compartments had been severely damaged as if an internal explosion, or a series of internal explosions, which caused sufficient damage. 

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The wreck of the Bismarck as viewed by James Cameron and his expedition team.

We asked the question of whether or not the Bismarck was sunk or scuttled. We found that the evidence, particularly from newspapers and the testimony of the veterans who partook in the events are contradicting, but that visual forensic evidence does support what the German veterans have always maintained; that the Bismarck was scuttled. Arguably the Bismarck was always going to sink through the Royal Navy’s bombardment; however, the scuttling charges merely hastened the sinking. Therefore, we conclude that the Bismarck, despite the British claims, was most likely scuttled. With the sinking of the Bismarck, of her company of 2,065, only 116 men survived to become Prisoners of War.

 

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The Bismarck: Sunk or Scuttled?

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May 1941, Great Britain was in a precarious situation. German forces were marching through Greece and Crete; the British campaign for their defence was fast becoming a disaster. To make matters worse for the British, the German battleship Bismarck, the most powerful ship afloat was about to break out into the Atlantic. The British knew she had to be stopped at all costs. Things came to a head on May 27 1941, when severely crippled; the Bismarck was caught by the Royal Navy before sinking. Following the sinking, debate raged as to whether the ship was sunk or in fact scuttled.