The Bismarck was a battleship built for Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, which endured only one offensive operation, lasting eight days, to break into the Atlantic Ocean and raid Allied shipping from North America to the UK. At the Battle of the Denmark Strait, HMS Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck, causing significant damage from three hits and forcing the vessel to retreat to occupied France for repairs. Bismarck was attacked by 16 obsolescent Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and in its final battle the following morning, the already-crippled ship was sent to the seabed.
The wreck was located three decades ago by retired US Navy officer Robert Ballard, but it was not until more recently that researchers made an astonishing find, National Geographic’s ‘Drain the Ocean’ series revealed.
Narrator Avery Brooks explained: “At launch, the Bismarck is Germany’s biggest-ever warship – her crew numbers over 2,000 men and eight massive 15-inch guns can fire shells weighing almost a tonne 24 miles.
“Her first mission – destroy British convoys in the Atlantic.
“May 24, 1941, HMS Hood – the pride of the Royal Navy launches an attack on the Bismarck, Western Approaches command – Britain’s secret naval centre plots the battle.
The ship was discovered decades after it sank
Bismarck caused havoc for British ships
“But Hood’s crew of 1,418 men are all killed but three.
“The loss of the Royal Navy’s iconic warship reaches Prime Minister Churchill – his orders go out – sink the Bismarck.
“Over 50 British warships race after the Bismarck and the ship finishes almost 16,000 feet down, she was hit many, many times.”
The series went on to reveal how a breakthrough in technology helped to unearth new details about the ship’s final battle.
Mr Brooks added: “If we could drain the ocean, would we see what finally sank the ship that was meant to be unsinkable?
RAF planes were deployed to search for Bismarck
“Today state-of-the-art underwater surveys allow us to pull the plug on the oceans and drain the Atlantic.
“Trillions of gallons of seawater disappear to reveal the long-hidden secrets, exposing Bismarck lying three miles down for the first time.
“Seeing her in this unique light uncovers an astonishing question – was it the British that sunk her, or did the Germans sink their own ship?”
Mr Brooks detailed Bismarck’s final moments.
He explained: “May 26, 1941, the British have been desperately searching for Bismarck when finally planes from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal get her in their sight and attack with torpedoes.
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New technology revealed the state of the ship
Analysis suggests the Germans sunk their own ship
“One makes a lucky strike, hitting the stern – a weak point.
“Now Bismarck’s wreck is plain to see, we can examine in detail the torpedoes crippling blow.
“One of Bismarck’s two rudders is buckled, damaging the steering gear, the other blown off altogether.
“Unable to steer, there was no escape as the British fleet moved in.”
But, the breakthrough in technology brought a twist to the story.
Mr Brooks continued in 2016: “In the clear light of day, for the first time in over 70 years, Bismarck’s damage can be seen by all.
“Relentless British shelling destroys her guns and crew, more torpedoes tear into the hull parts – filling the ship with water.
“After constant attack from dusk till dawn, Bismarck went down.
“But if Bismarck was sunk solely by British shells, water would flood only the areas they hit, undamaged sections full of air would collapse under pressure and the hull would crush.
“But the data-based visualisation shows Bismarck isn’t crushed and careful examination shows torpedoes damage weakened some hull plates, but her crew deliberately let in water.”
The revelation suggests the ship’s crew scuttled the Bismarck to prevent it being boarded by the British, and to allow the ship to be abandoned so as to limit further casualties.
But most experts agree that the battle damage would have caused her to sink eventually.