On the other hand the Axis land powers were on the up and the campaign against British merchant shipping in the Atlantic went quite successfully. Britain desperately needed almost everything in raw materials and finished war goods, all of which had to come by sea, compelling the Germans to sink as many ships as possible carrying war supplies.
In order to protect their merchant ships against the newly formed U-Boat wolf packs, the British introduced a convoy system whereby ships sailed in groups, defended, albeit insufficiently, by their own guns or a destroyer or two. These were U-Boats' happy times.
Air cover for these convoys was sketchy at first, and strike aircraft sent against the U-Boats at sea or in harbour were also lacking. Carriers only arrived on the scene in 1942/43.
Apart from their U-Boat successes, the Germans had some luck with Luftwaffe aircraft, but even more with surface raiders in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. However, the battleships had only made a few casual sorties so far, but it was easy to imagine what damage such force could inflict on big convoys escorted by a few outdated corvettes.
Graf Spee had scuttled herself in South America in 1940. The Deutschland, renamed Luetzow, had been unsuccessful: but on the plus side, Scheer had sunk AMC Jervis Bay and 16 ships, Hipper 7 ships, and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, under command of Admiral Luetjens, 22 ships altogether.
The German Navy had been ordered to attack convoys but not to tangle with heavy ships in case they suffered damage which could not be repaired at sea. Did this directive come from Hitler, who was a master at land-based warfare but totally unfamiliar with naval strategy?
In 1941, the Royal Navy set up Home Fleet, based at Scapa Flow, consisting of King George V, Hood, Nelson, Rodney and Repulse, and later on Prince of Wales, and there were a number of other warships, most of them old and requiring an update. The Germans had five modern, powerful ships, plus Tirpitz nearing completion.
But we now turn to the Bismarck. Commissioned in August 1940, her captain was Ernst Lindemann, a gunnery expert. She was the largest and most powerful warship in the world, fast, and very well armed. She had 8 x 380 mm guns with a range of 36 km.
The German Seekriegsleitung under Adm Raeder decided to strike a powerful blow against allied convoys by executing operation Rhein using Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen. They were to break into the North Atlantic to attack convoys.
Bismarck sailed on 19 May 1941 from its base at Gotunhafun with Prinz Eugen and was spotted by Swedish observers and next day a shadowing Swedish cruiser reported their course. This report was sent on to London. The ships turned into Skaggerak, passed the Norwegian coast, and on 21 May arrived just south of Bergen.
In the meantime V.Adm Holland with Hood and Prince of Wales prepared to sail to engage the German ships, with Adm Tovey and the rest of Home Fleet following.
While Prinz Eugen topped up her fuel tanks, Bismarck did not, a serious error of judgement. There was an oiler one day's steaming to the north, but in a critical situation one day can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
There were five access passages from the North Sea into the Atlantic, and on 22/23 May, Luetjens headed for the Denmark Straits and struck heavy seas and thick fog. At 1900 a lookout from the cruiser Suffolk, patrolling the Straits, spotted the big ships and reported. Consequently Tovey and Holland sailed on a converging course, and on 24 May battle commenced.
The first victim was Hood which was straddled by Bismarck's guns, with one hit setting off the magazines, blowing her up. Next was Prince of Wales which received hits from both German ships and was forced to retire.
But Bismarck itself had not escaped unscathed. She had received a number of hits, was down at the bow and listed to port, but she had also lost precious oil, and so Luetjens decided to head for western France. Followed by her pursuers, the German ship became the target of Victorious and her 8 Swordfish, one of which scored a torpedo hit without serious damage.
On 25 May Bismarck limped for the Bay of Biscay, the enemy in pursuit, and on 26 May her fate was sealed. Ark Royal sent two strikes of Swordfish causing more damage, the ship's steering jammed, and next day, when Rodney and King George hammered away with guns and torpedoes, the scuttling order was given.
She sunk at 1936, either by scuttling or by the weight of explosives received. Of her crew of 2 400 only 115 were saved. The Captain and the Admiral went down with their ship.
With Bismarck gone, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau damaged by bombs and under repair, Luetzow torpedoed on 12 June, and Tirpitz still working up, the threat of heavy ships attacking convoys had receded, and Home fleet, with its five battleships, could turn to other duties.
Bob's well researched and expertly presented talk was greatly appreciated, and the applause well deserved. He gave special thanks to Johan v.d.Berg, who once again supplied outstanding overheads and Mac Bissett for his extensive literary support.
The complete text of Bob's talk can be borrowed from the scribe.
WE WISH ALL OUR MEMBERS AND FRIENDS A HAPPY, HEALTHY, PEACEFUL AND PROSPEROUS 2002.
Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797 5167