The German battleship Bismarck has been described in superlative terms ever since she sank the “Pride of the Royal Navy,” the venerable battle cruiser HMS Hood at the 24 May 1941 Battle of the Denmark Strait and drove the new British battleship Prince of Wales from the scene of the fight. At the time, the Bismarck was widely viewed as the most powerful vessel afloat, as well as the largest, fastest, and most protected warship in the world. However, how do those claims hold up under closer examination?
Size, Speed, Protection
The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty imposed a 35,000-ton limit for capital ships, a restriction that was continued under the 1930 and 1936 London naval treaties. The Bismarck and her sister, the Tirpitz, were larger than any modern warship built under the 35,000-ton restriction. While Germany was not a signatory of the treaties, it was committed to the 35,000-ton limit under terms of the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement, a fact it chose to ignore. The Bismarck’s standard displacement was 41,700 tons. The Hood, completed in 1920, had a standard displacement of 42,037 tons, making her comparable in size to the Bismarck. Built under treaty terms, the later King George V–class of British battleships had a standard displacement of 36,727 tons.
U.S. treaty-era warships included two ships of the North Carolina–class, which had a standard displacement of 35,000 tons, and four ships of the South Dakota–class, which had the same displacement. Of the other treaty battleships, the two French battleships of the Richelieu-class had a standard displacement of 37,832 tons, and the three Italian battleships of the Vittorio Veneto–class displaced 40,516 tons, Benito Mussolini’s fascist government having ignored the 35,000-ton limit.
The only warships that would exceed the Bismarck in size were the non-treaty U.S. Iowa-class battleships, which were built in 1943 and had a standard displacement of 48,425 tons, and the two even larger Japanese battleships of the Yamato class. They were laid down in 1937 and 1938, after Japan’s withdrawal from the treaty system, and had a standard displacement of 65,027 tons.
With a maximum sustained speed of 30 knots, the Bismarck was faster than most of her contemporary warships, but the Richelieu and Vittorio Veneto battleships equaled her in speed. Most if not all of the 35,000-ton battleships built after 1937 had about the same level of armor protection. But based on the Bismarck’s size and the difficulty in finally sinking her by shell fire and torpedoes, it may be assumed that she had superior protection, possibly as a result of greater compartmentalization of her hull.
A Different Story
Firepower is a complex issue involving such factors as fire-control instrumentation, gun length, muzzle velocity, rate of fire, depth of armor penetration, and explosive power. But a simple comparison of the firepower of different ships is often based just on the total weight of steel and explosives that can be delivered to an enemy ship with each broadside fired. This is calculated by multiplying the weight of the gun’s primary armor-piercing projectile by the maximum number of main armament guns that can bear on an enemy ship at any one time.
With her relatively light armor-piercing projectile weight of 1,764 pounds (800 kg), the Bismarck could deliver only 14,112 pounds (6,400 kg) of steel and explosives to the enemy with each salvo from her eight 15-inch/47-caliber guns. In contrast, seven much older U.S. battleships of World War I vintage could deliver 15,300 to 16,800 pounds to the enemy with broadsides fired by their smaller caliber but greater number of 14-inch guns.
Four Japanese battleships built during World War I carried 12 14-inch/45-caliber guns that could fire an even greater broadside weight of 17,820 pounds. The newer King George V-class, including the Prince of Wales, carried only ten 14-inch/45 guns, but they could still outgun the Bismarck.
Comparing just gun numbers and caliber, 11 older British warships, including the battle cruiser Hood and the Richelieu, each had eight 15-inch guns, the same as the Bismarck. To be sure, their guns were 45 calibers (56 feet, 3 inches) long while those of the Bismarck were 47 calibers (58 feet, 9 inches) long, but the total broadside weight of their projectiles exceeded that of the Bismarck by 1,248 to 1,480 pounds. Any of the 16 battleships that fought in World War II and mounted 16-inch guns could deliver a greater broadside weight than the Bismarck.
The largest and most powerful battleships ever built, Japan’s Yamato and Musashi, were constructed secretly. These behemoths carried nine 18-inch/45 guns, the largest caliber guns ever mounted on a battleship, and their broadside weight was more than twice that of the Bismarck’s guns.
In summary, 35 battleships involved in World War II fired armor-piercing shells heavier than those fired by the Bismarck, and 51 battleships could fire a broadside heavier than that of the German battleship. Just about any of the armor-piercing shells of 14 inches or more in caliber could have sunk the Hood and caused nearly as much damage to the Prince of Wales as the Bismarck’s 15-inch projectiles.
Bismarck vs. U.S. Battleships
The North Carolina– and South Dakota–class battleships were about 18 percent smaller than the Bismarck, based on their displacements, but had 72 percent greater firepower than the German battleship. In a one-on-one contest, any of these U.S. ships theoretically should have been able to defeat a Bismarck-class battleship.
While the Zeiss optics used in German naval rangefinders and other naval fire-control instruments were unexcelled in quality, U.S. naval rangefinders and other optical equipment produced by Bausch & Lomb were considered to be of comparable quality. Since both navies used stereoscopic rangefinders instead of the split-image type favored by the British, the optical systems used would not be a discriminatory factor in comparing the firepower of U.S. and German battleships.
It is indeed puzzling why the Germans decided to go with eight 15-inch guns in four twin mountings for their Bismarck-class battleships when other countries’ smaller battleships were far more heavily armed. The Bismarck apparently could have been better armed with nine 16-inch guns in three triple gun mounts, as was used in the North Carolinas and South Dakotas.
The Prince under Fire
Completed in 1920, the battle cruiser Hood had a speed of 32 knots, far greater than that of contemporary battleships, but her belt armor was at most only 12 inches thick, which should have been enough to stop the 12-inch projectiles fired by early World War I battleships. In contrast, the Prince of Wales and other King George V–class battleships had a 15-inch armor belt.
During the Battle of the Denmark Strait, four 15-inch projectiles fired by the Bismarck struck the Prince of Wales, only one of which exploded. The first shell hit the starboard side of the ship underwater without exploding and caused some minor flooding. Two shells struck the upper works of the ship without exploding. One went through the compass platform, killing or wounding nearly everyone in the area and destroying much of the equipment there, and the other hit the support for the forward high-angle fire-control directors, putting them out of action.
The fourth shell that struck the Prince of Wales first hit the starboard crane, putting it out of service, and then detonated on the boat deck, causing widespread splinter damage to the after funnel, nearby boats, and various electrical leads in the surrounding area. The Bismarck’s four hits on the Prince of Wales, however, had no effect on the firing of her main guns. They maintained a continuous rate of fire despite weathering the fire of the German battleship as well as her consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.
Two underwater hits by 8-inch shells from the Prinz Eugen caused some additional flooding in the Prince of Wales, and her overall speed was reduced by one or two knots. The continuous eruption of shell splashes from both German warships interfered with the Prince of Wales’ gunnery, and the combination of circumstances of being hit by both vessels and apparently not being able to inflict any damage to the enemy caused the British battleship to finally turn away from the scene of action.
Although the Prince of Wales scored three hits on the Bismarck, two were underwater strikes and one was through the bow of the ship, and therefore went unobserved by British gunners. With her main armament and machinery still intact, the Prince of Wales was soon able to reverse course and join the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk following the German squadron into the Atlantic Ocean.
After a couple of hours of cleaning up the damage done by the Bismarck’s shells and restoring some of her functions to service, the Prince of Wales reported that she was operational again. The battleship continued pursuing the Bismarck and even engaged in an exchange of gunfire with the German battleship. When the Bismarck eluded her pursuers during the night, the Prince of Wales participated in the initial search effort, but finally headed for the Rosyth, Scotland, dockyard for permanent repairs.
James, C. Fahey, The Ships and Aircraft of the United States Fleet (New York: Ships and Aircraft, 1945).
William H. Garzke Jr. and Robert O. Dulin Jr., Allied Battleships in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980).
William H. Garzke Jr. and Robert O. Dulin Jr., Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985).
William H. Garzke Jr. and Robert O. Dulin Jr., United States Battleships, 1935–1992 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976).
Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II (New York: Military Press, 1989).
Hansgeorg Jentschura, Dieter Jung, and Peter Mickel, Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1970).
Alan Raven and John Roberts, British Battleships of World War Two (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976).