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What If the Bismarck Had Escaped Destruction?

By Mark Grimsley 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: November 05, 2012 
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On May 19, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck, accompanied by the cruiser Prinz Eugen and several escort vessels, made its way through the Kattegat Strait separating Nazi-occupied Denmark from neutral Sweden. The 50,000-ton warship's objective was to reach British convoy routes in the North Atlantic and do as much damage as possible. From the outset the Bismarck had no hope of reaching those routes in secrecy. Swedish aircraft identified the vessels in the German formation, news that made its way quickly and clandestinely to the British military attaché in Stockholm.

The Bismarck reached port at Bergen, Norway, the next day. On May 21 a British reconnaissance aircraft snapped a photo of the battleship at anchor. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen put out to sea on May 22; the following day two British cruisers spotted the enemy ships in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Hood arrived on the scene early on May 24. In the ensuing fight, the Hood blew up spectacularly, with the loss of all but three seamen. The Prince of Wales suffered significant damage. The Bismarck was also damaged and now had a 9-degree list to port and a 3-degree trim to bow, the result of damage to fuel bunkers and efforts to transfer fuel to intact bunkers.

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The German admiral in charge of the operation, Günther Lütjens, decided to defer the planned strike at the convoy lanes and instead make for France to effect repairs. He detached the Prinz Eugen; the Bismarck, now operating alone, briefly eluded the British before a Catalina PBY pilot spied the enormous warship. Dozens of British vessels were also hunting the Bismarck, for if the super-battleship ever did break out into the Atlantic, the result could be catastrophic. The Bismarck was nearing shelter at Brest, France, when a fluke of luck caused a torpedo from a carrier-based Swordfish biplane to jam the battleship's rudder. The Bismarck steamed helplessly in a circle until a British flotilla closed in and, on the morning of May 27, sank the Bismarck, killing all but 114 of the ship's 2,200-man crew.

So ended the Bismarck's first and only combat voyage—a saga that immediately gained worldwide fame. But what if the German battleship had successfully broken out into the Atlantic? For this to have happened, any of three alterations to the historical events would need to have occurred.

First, the Bismarck would have had to elude detection—an unlikely possibility. Second, the warship would have had to escape damage in the Battle of the Denmark Strait—a possibility, since historically the Bismarck had damage minor enough that Admiral Lütjens could have continued the mission. Third, and most likely, the Bismarck would have had to reach safety at Brest, where it would have joined two smaller battleships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, that had just completed a successful though limited raid against British shipping. Within weeks of Bismarck arriving, all three battleships would have been able to put out to sea in another strike against the Atlantic convoy lanes.

What would have been the result? Historically, the chief of the German navy, Admiral Erich Raeder, chose to use his limited number of capital ships as surface raiders. His intention was to force the Royal Navy to dilute its strength by diverting warships to convoy escort duty and, in combination with Admiral Karl Dönitz's U-boats, to sever Britain's maritime lifelines. Prior to the Bismarck's sortie this strategy enjoyed some success. Between November 1940 and March 1941 the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer sank 17 merchant vessels totaling over 113,000 tons of shipping. During the same period the cruiser Admiral Hipper accounted for another 53,000 tons. In February 1941 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau—under the joint command of Lütjens—had reached the Atlantic undetected. The battleships encountered four convoys, but British battleships were escorting two of the groups, and Lütjens's orders prohibited him from engaging enemy capital ships if at all possible. He therefore withdrew, inflicting little or no damage. Lütjens's luck was similarly bad with the other two convoys, in large measure because of the proximity of other British battleships. As a result, Lütjens did scant damage, destroying only about 27,000 tons of British shipping.

Lütjens's caution, however, was driven by the fact that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (like Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper) were lightly armored and less powerful than their British rivals. In contrast, the heavily armored Bismarck could outgun and outrun virtually any of Britain's
capital ships.

Had Bismarck encountered a convoy, the battleship could have successfully engaged the escort vessels and picked off most of the freighters before they could escape, and in the open Atlantic the Bismarck would have been very difficult to locate. Further, the Kriegsmarine had stationed more than a dozen German support vessels ready to resupply and refuel the Bismarck, which would have allowed the battleship to remain at sea as long as three months. United under these conditions with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the Bismarck could have done a formidable amount of damage indeed.

Ironically, the original concept for the Bismarck's historical operation, Rhine Exercise, contemplated just such a raid by Bismarck and the two smaller battleships. Bismarck set out alone in mid-May because the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were not ready to go to sea. Events proved this course of action unwise, but had the Bismarck sprinted successfully to Brest—which certainly would have occurred but for the fortuitous damage to the Bismarck's rudder—Rhine Exercise could have proceeded in its original form.

In any counterfactual it is tempting to make extravagant claims—in this case that Bismarck and consorts could have won the Battle of the Atlantic. That is unlikely. However, the Bismarck's presence in the Atlantic would have forced the Royal Navy to guard each convoy heavily while at the same time maintaining an extensive fleet dedicated to finding and destroying the battleship. That, in turn, would have sapped British strength in other vital sectors, particularly the Mediterranean, where Major General Erwin Rommel's North African offensive was just getting underway. And the heightened threat of destruction to any given convoy would likely have resulted in larger, more easily protected convoys—which would have taken more time to assemble, thereby reducing the flow of vital war supplies to Britain. When combined with the German U-boat offensive, the damage and disruption to the British convoy system would have been even worse. The Bismarck would not have won the Battle of the Atlantic, but it would have severely harried the British war effort at a time when that nation could least afford it.

9 Responses to “What If the Bismarck Had Escaped Destruction?”

  1. 1
    Gerald says:

    If Bismarck was not damaged after her battle with Hood and Prince of Wales, I believe if she carried on with her original mission she would have destroyed the British convoy system for the year 1941

  2. 2
    Roman says:

    Despite the morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims, the fact remains that Countries exist because of wars fought against their neighbours or rivals. Independence is largely secured through the employment of armed forces and the willingness to fight if threatened, this alone prepares us all for such an eventuality.

    I commend you on your site it contains a lot of quality information and is well done.

  3. 3
    Roberto Danilov says:

    These What if series are excelent, we all know who won WW2. I love your magazines and always read them, just that i think it would be interesting and necesary to write more about the losing sides hardships, experiences, methods, how and why they lost the battles, always a heart felt interview of the guys who fought is welcome, although we are reaching a point where these vets are dying of, just as there are no more left from WW1. Always weapons used, tactics, training is expect. Something intersting, and i havent seen yet(dont know if i missed it) is various articles of the gigantic clean up europe had to go through after the war, corpses,tank and airplane hulks, city ruble and displaced people, etc. Would be highly appreciated a comment on this regard. Keep it up.

  4. 4
    Henrik Hilskov says:

    Bismarck would had continued to follow it main task. To destroy english convoy system.
    However she would had meet the same challenge that actual got her down. Aircrafts!!
    Next it would be a measurement of resources to build her and in partical what the germans had to suffer to build her. For excample the german Hanger ship Grafspee that was never completed did consumes so much rubber that the germans could had buil 19.000 planes or 10.000 tanks instead.
    But Bismarck would not ever had been able to do any return of investment in ration of sunked merchan ships when you know what the germans could had gone instead and what goals those tanks and airplains could had achieved.
    Please have in mind how Graf Spee enden. I was almost as pathetic as Bismarck.

    • 4.1
      Kevin Gup says:

      Bismarck would've made it to Brest successfuly had it not turned while the torpedo from that swordfish bomber was launched, but the loss of the Bismarck really would possibly mean Nazis would never realise the full potential of submarines and aircraft, therefore they would move on to their plan Z, to build the H series battleships (rendered obsolete by CVNs) so therefore, the German empire would've lost had it not lost the Bismarck (it was a lesson)

  5. 5
    Thorsten says:

    There were so many mistakes maken by the so wise Admiral Lütjens that it is hard to name them all. But to me the most significant was to operate in such a small group – why no escorts , destroyers,U-Boats in position etc. And why would he , as the \Bismarck\ was damaged already order the \Prinz Eugen\ to leave? She sure could have helped out at least a bit. When the \Bismarck\ got near to Brest, why no support by naval units or even the Luftwaffe (another nice job,Herr Meier!) could have been sent out to attack the Royal Navy ships. Looking at it so many years one could think that Lütjens did everything to lead the \Bismarck\ into destruction , Lindemann did make other and wiser suggestions – but Lütjens won't listen – the result is well known.It is still a shame because the \Bismarck\ was an extraordinary masterpiece of engineering and would have been worth to \survive\ the war and being preserved in a museum later.

  6. 6
    Henrik Hil says:

    @ Thorsten; The question was: What would have happened if the ship had escaped?
    Not what fait you will like it to have after the war.
    As I says. The fait of Bismarck would have been the same because of aircrafts. Just as it happende with all of the orther battle ships of Germany and Japan.

  7. 7
    Roamingthenet says:

    @Thorsten: you have a point on that one. Lutjens job was to destroy convoys but eagerly he risk and rolls the dice and badluck strucked on Bismarck. While on the other hand, Lindemann was just know what to do including marking while Hood and PoW fires " I will not have my ship shot out from under my arse \. But before that when Lutjens aboards the Bismarck from what ive seen in other documentaries and interviews of the other survivors it was said that they dont like him and prefer to Lindemann as a good commander. That could change the course of Bismarck.

    On the topic.. Hitler would'nt be scared of throwing ships on the atlantic and it may have sent Tirpitz and the Schran-twins to massacre any other ships. And with that Plan Z may have exist, building and sending the planned carriers and the monstrous H-class..

  8. 8
    Lyndon says:

    After the torpedo hit the Bismarck's rudder and left it turning in circles, why did the Navy waste all this effort by sinking it.
    The way I see it, the Bismarck could have been left helplessly to turn this way or that way until the end of the war.
    It wasn't going anywhere.
    Have a life you guys with all your far- fetched delusions.

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