What was the German battleship Bismarck

The 833 days of the "Bismarck"

Status: 02/15/2019 00:01 am | archive
by Carina Werner, NDR.de
250 meters long and 36 meters wide: the "Bismarck" was a huge ship.

Battleships are "strange, huge, graceful, mysterious creatures," writes the British marine and journalist Ludovic Kennedy. By this he means in particular the "Bismarck", the largest battleship in the world, which was launched on February 14, 1939 in Hamburg. Battleships are so impressive that they not only function as floating fighting machines, but also as objects of prestige during World War II. In view of the rapid development of the Air Force, the gray giants were actually discontinued even then.

Agreement regulates the construction of warships

June 18, 1935 was the best day of his life, proclaimed Adolf Hitler. On this day the German-British naval agreement is concluded, which allows the Germans to build real capital ships. After the First World War, Germany was bound by the Versailles Peace Treaty and was only allowed to build ships that did not exceed the upper limit of 10,000 tons of water displacement. But the new agreement also sets limits: the German fleet may in future only comprise a third of the British fleet. In addition, the size of each ship is limited to 35,000 tons so that England can maintain its position as the most important sea power. However, the National Socialists are happy to accept these restrictions, hoping for an alliance with Great Britain. For the time being.

Who was Otto von Bismarck?

Otto von Bismarck was the first Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890, and he played a key role in promoting its establishment. At first he waged bloody wars to establish a German nation-state and then kept peace for 20 years. He fought Catholics and socialists and yet introduced the most progressive social laws in the world. He was popularly known as the "Iron Chancellor". In terms of foreign policy, Bismarck relied on a balanced relationship of powers in Europe with his alliances. He was born on April 1, 1815 in Schönhausen. He died on July 30, 1898 in Friedrichsruh near Hamburg.

An old plan is being implemented

The first drafts for the battleship "F", later renamed "Bismarck", date back to 1932. Even then it was the secret goal of the Imperial Navy to build capital ships that could keep up with the fleets of great powers such as England and Japan. The order for the "Bismarck" was dated November 16, 1935. The ship will be built at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg. Although this shipyard mainly manufactures merchant ships, capital ships were built here even before the First World War. The keel laying of the "F" takes place on July 1, 1936. More than 5,000 shipbuilders are involved in the construction in the following years in order to realize the ambitious project as quickly as possible. The construction costs amount to 200 million Reichsmarks. From the beginning, a displacement of more than 40,000 tons is targeted - behind the back of England. Nobody there suspects that this ship will one day be the largest battleship in the world.

Shortly after the start of construction for the "F", the construction of another ship of the same type, the battleship "G", later the "Tirpitz", begins in Wilhelmshaven.

AUDIO: The launch of the "Bismarck" (5 min)

State act for the launch

On February 14, 1939 the time had come: the streets were decorated with flags, thousands of spectators crowd at the port of Hamburg, the whole city celebrated. Even Hitler does not miss the spectacle, travels to Hamburg and declares the launch to be a state act. He holds a ceremonial speech in which he recognizes the importance of the former Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and encourages the future crew to act in the spirit of the ex-Chancellor "in hours of the most difficult duty" - should it come to that.

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder also gave a speech in which he thanked the Fiihrer above all. Dorothea von Loewenfeld, a granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck, conducts the baptism ceremony: "On the orders of the Führer and Reich Chancellor, I will baptize you in the name of 'Bismarck'", she exclaims. The champagne bottle bursts on the bow, the name "Bismarck" is revealed on the side of the ship, the hull is let into the Elbe and swims in the water for the first time.

The war sets the schedule

The warship "Prinz Eugen" accompanies the "Bismarck" (in the background) on her voyages.

Another ceremony takes place on August 24, 1940: the "Bismarck" goes into service with the maiden voyage. The entire crew of more than 2,000 men takes part, including the commander and sea captain Ernst Lindemann and fleet chief Admiral Günther Lütjens. The ship is not quite ready at this point, but time is of the essence: the German Reich has been at war for almost a year, including with England. Only months later, on May 18, 1941, the "Bismarck" set sail for the Atlantic. It starts from the port city of Gotenhafen (today: Gdynia) in the Gdansk Bay. The warship "Prinz Eugen" sails by her side. Both ships are supposed to fight the convoys to supply England in the North Atlantic, i.e. wage a trade war. But they are soon discovered and chased by ships of the Royal Navy.

A victory against the British

On May 24, 1941, a sea battle broke out on the "Denmark Strait" between Greenland and Iceland. The "Bismarck" destroyed the ship that until then was considered by many to be the strongest combat ship in the world: the British battle cruiser "Hood", the pride of the Royal Navy. Of the 1,418 crew members, only three can be rescued. The "Bismarck" is also damaged, among other things the fuel supply is defective. The crew tries to reach the French port of St. Nazaire as quickly as possible. But in the following days the Royal Navy used all available warships in the Atlantic on the "Bismarck".

Soldiers die in the sinking of the "Bismarck"

Soldiers watch the last battle of the "Bismarck" from on board the "Prinz Eugen".

The biggest chase in naval war history ends on May 27th. The "Bismarck" is completely shot down by British ships. Burkard Freiherr von Müllenheim-Rechberg, who survived the accident and wrote down his memories, describes the chaos on board: the fire everywhere, the mountains of corpses. He and his comrades see "a picture of horror, a gruesome playground for all the unleashed forces of a highly developed war machine". The "Bismarck" sinks about 1,000 kilometers west of Brest. To this day it has not been fully clarified whether the ordered self-sinking or enemy fire was decisive for the sinking of the ship. Around 2,000 men, including the fleet chief and the commander, die. 115 soldiers are rescued from the Atlantic.

The wreck as a memorial

On June 8, 1989 the wreck of the "Bismarck" was discovered. The American research diver Robert Ballard sees it at a depth of 4,750 meters. In order to protect the rubble from possible looters, the site is kept secret. The federal government declares the wreck to be a military cemetery.

This topic in the program:

NDR 90.3 | Hamburg Harbor Concert | 02/10/2019 | 6:00 a.m.