The Bismarck.

The Bismarck. German Federal Archives.

Germans abandoning their mission to attack British shipping were intercepted, and a showdown began between the British Home Fleet and Bismarck, the German navy's most powerful warship.

For more than 20 years HMS Hood upheld the pride and traditions of the Royal Navy. The battle-cruiser was launched at the close of the First World War and in the interwar years, she became the sentimental favourite of all the navy's ships. She was designed for speed, yet her broadside firepower could match that of anything then afloat.

By the late 1930s, Hood, though still a majestic warship, began to show her age. The Royal Navy scheduled her for a refit intended to give her an even more powerful punch and to reinforce her relatively thin defensive armour - a weakness her original designers had accepted in return for higher speeds. The upgrade would have made Hood as potent a weapon as the newest battleships, but when war broke out in September 1939, the Admiralty cancelled the refit and rushed Hood immediately into wartime service.

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In contrast to Hood, HMS Ark Royal was one of the Royal Navy's most modern warships. The first British ship to be designed from the start as an aircraft carrier, she represented such an innovation that the Navy had not yet acquired high-performance aircraft capable of flying from her deck. At the start of the war, Ark Royal carried a squadron of obsolescent Fairey Swordfish bombers.

In the very year, the Second World War began, two more warships were launched, neither of which was completely outfitted and ready for action until 1941. One, HMS Prince of Wales, represented the state of the art in British battleship design. The other, the German Navy's Bismarck, became the most powerful warship afloat and represented Hitler's most potent threat to British merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

Bismarck's primary mission was to attack escorted British merchant convoys. In April 1941 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the German navy, planned to form a battlegroup of the ships Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau that would be capable of destroying even the most heavily defended convoys. But before these ships could depart for the Atlantic, all except Bismarck had been damaged by British bombs and mines.

Unwilling to delay the operation long enough to repair all of his ships, Raeder insisted on sending Bismarck into the British shipping lanes accompanied only by Prinz Eugen, whose damage was not extensive and could quickly be fixed.

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On 18th May 1941, the two warships sailed from the occupied Polish port of Gdynia, bound for Bergen, Norway. After refuelling, they continued on their way, heading north-west in order to pass into the Atlantic via the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland.

Their secretive dash for the open sea did not go unnoticed as they had hoped. While en route to Bergen, a Swedish cruiser spotted them and relayed a report to the British military attaché in Stockholm. A member of the resistance in occupied Norway also managed to radio the news to London. Guided by these reports, a British reconnaissance plane spotted the warships anchored in a Norwegian fjord on 21st May.

The British Home Fleet, however, remained uncertain which route the battleship would take on its way into the Atlantic. It could steam through the English Channel, between the coast of Scotland and the Faeroe Islands, between the Faeroes and Iceland, or through the Denmark Strait. Until the intended route became clear, the Home Fleet could not risk concentrating its strength along with any one of the possible avenues.

The British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk were already patrolling the seas between Greenland and Iceland when the crisis began. Admiral Sir John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, ordered Hood, Prince of Wales, and six destroyers to assist the cruisers. The brand-new Prince of Wales sailed with civilian construction workers still trying to iron out some problems with the ship's main guns.

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Fog hampered reconnaissance efforts on both sides. While British flyers struggled to ascertain whether the German ships had left Norway, German scout planes incorrectly reported that all the battleships of the Home Fleet still lay at anchor.

On the evening of 23rd May, Suffolk sighted Bismarck as the battleship steamed through a clearing between the patches of fog. The cruiser radioed a report to Hood and Prince of Wales, which were then about 300 miles away. They turned to close on the enemy and at dawn on the 24th, they intercepted the German warships.

When the range had closed to about 25,000 yards, Hood and Prince of Wales began firing. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen responded within a few minutes. About eight minutes into the fight, a shell from Bismarck plunged through Hood's thinly armoured deck and exploded among the ship's main ammunition stores. A huge cloud of smoke erupted and when it cleared, Hood had vanished. From the vantage point of Prince of Wales, a crewman noticed 'a great rushing sound which had ominously ceased, and then, as I looked a great spouting explosion issued from the centre of the Hood. I just did not believe what I saw--Hood had literally been blown to pieces.'

Prince of Wales had to steer sharply to avoid hitting wrecked fragments of the battlecruiser, turning directly into the line of fire of both German warships. Greatly outgunned, the British battleship also suffered from mechanical problems with her main armament. First, her forward turret jammed, prompting Captain John Leach to turn the ship about and steam away from Bismarck, at the same time laying smoke to confound the German rangefinders. Then the aft turret also failed. By the end of the engagement, only one of Leach's main guns was functioning properly. Though fighting back doggedly, Prince of Wales took seven hits. None of them was fatal to the ship, but one struck the bridge, killing or wounding everyone there except Captain Leach and a signalman.

Despite her troublesome guns, Prince of Wales succeeded in hitting Bismarck twice in return. Neither hit was immediately serious, but each became increasingly significant as the hunt continued. The first shell to strike Bismarck flooded a generator room and one of the ship's boilers had to be shut down. The other shell went clear through the bow, flooding two forward compartments of the ship and depriving her of 1,000 tons of fuel stored in tanks forward of the damage.

Unable to remain in the fight any longer, Prince of Wales broke off the action and, with Norfolk and Suffolk, trailed the German ships at a safe distance. The battle had been a shocking German victory. In just eight minutes Bismarck had sunk the pride of the Royal Navy and given a terrible thrashing to its newest battleship. Author Ludovic Kennedy, then serving as a sub-lieutenant on the British destroyer Tartar, recalled that: 'For most Englishmen the news of the Hood's death was traumatic, as though Buckingham Palace had been laid flat or the Prime Minister assassinated, so integral a part was she of the fabric of Britain and her empire.'

On Bismarck, however, jubilation was mixed with concern. Prince of Wales' gallant resistance had damaged Bismarck where she could least afford it. With her range limited by the loss of fuel and her speed reduced by the loss of a boiler, she would soon have to steam for a friendly port.

Admiral Lutjens, the German commander, detached the undamaged Prinz Eugen to operate independently while Bismarck raced towards safety.

The remaining battleships of the Home Fleet--King George V and Repulse--were still far from Bismarck and the prospects of an immediate rematch seemed slim. In an effort to slow Bismarck even further, Admiral Tovey ordered the aircraft carrier Victorious to launch an airstrike. Then, to prevent Bismarck from escaping to the south, the Admiralty directed 'Force H', consisting of the battle-cruiser Renown, the cruiser Sheffield and the Ark Royal, to set a course north from Gibraltar.

In response to Admiral Tovey's orders, Victorious launched her planes at about 10 pm. Like Ark Royal, Victorious' squadron flew antiquated Swordfish bombers. Since the carrier was loaded with 48 crated Hurricane fighters that she had been ready to ship to North Africa when the emergency arose, there was room on board for only nine operational torpedo bombers and firefighters. This meagre force located Bismarck at about midnight and pressed home an attack. Squadron leader Eugene Esmonde scored a direct hit against Bismarck, but the torpedo caused no damage to the battleship's massive armour plate

Having shrugged off the air attack, Bismarck next succeeded in outfoxing Suffolk and breaking the radar contact that the cruiser had maintained throughout the night. Guessing that the Bismarck would head west into the Atlantic, Admiral Tovey concentrated his search in that direction. Onboard the German ship, however, Admiral Gunther Lutjens had decided to head toward occupied France for refuelling and repairs. Throughout the next day, he drew farther away from the British vessels and Tovey's hopes of finding and attacking her faded.

There followed a series of blunders on both sides. Admiral Lutjens, having finally avoided all pursuit, broadcast a 30-minute message to Berlin describing the battle against Hood. Long before the message was concluded, British radio direction-finders had pinpointed Bismarck's position. On the British side, misunderstandings and faulty plotting led to a pursuit in the wrong direction and it was late in the day before Admiral Tovey's ships actually turned in the direction of Bismarck.

By then a fuel shortage was becoming critical in the British fleet. Repulse, Prince of Wales, and several smaller ships had to give up the chase in order to refuel. To partially offset these losses, the battleship Rodney was released from convoy duty to join in the hunt for Bismarck.

On the morning of 26th May, long-range patrol planes sighted Bismarck 130 miles ahead of Admiral Tovey's battleships. The distance was too far to cover before the German ship would reach safety. Only Force H stood between Bismarck and France.

Force H did not appear to be a formidable obstacle. Renown was a sister-ship of Hood, with the same fatally weak armour, and Tovey ordered her captain not to close within range of Bismarck. The cruiser Sheffield was fast and agile enough to shadow the enemy and keep Tovey appraised of Bismarck's location, but was no match for the battleship. The third ship of Force H, Ark Royal, offered the only hope of engaging the enemy successfully.

Though Ark Royal was capable of operating 60 aircraft, she, like Victorious, had an incomplete complement of Swordfish bombers. On the more promising side, these planes were flown by some of the most experienced airmen in the Royal Navy. At 2.30 pm, 14 planes took off after Bismarck. The attack was nearly disastrous, for the aircrews were unaware that Sheffield was near the intended target and when the pilots spotted the cruiser first they attacked her by mistake. Sheffield successfully avoided 11 torpedoes and escaped the 'battle' unscathed.

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By shortly after 7 pm, crews had rearmed the Swordfish and readied them for another mission. The bombers, 15 this time, were guided to the target by signals from Sheffield. It was nearly 9 pm before the Swordfish finally located Bismarck and launched an attack. Heavy anti-aircraft fire shredded the bombers' canvas skins but failed to bring down any of the attackers, who enjoyed somewhat better results than they had against Sheffield, hitting the battleship twice. The first hit demonstrated once again the apparent inability of the British torpedoes to inflict any serious damage against Bismarck's armour. The next torpedo, however, hit the ship's stern, and while it too failed to penetrate the armour, it jammed her rudder.

The battleship slowed to a crawl and, unable to alter course, headed straight toward the British Home Fleet. Admiral Tovey initially dismissed reports from observation planes that Bismarck had turned away from France, believing the inexperienced pilots were confusing the bow of the German vessel with the stern. But as time went by and the reports went uncorrected, he began to realize that a showdown between the Home Fleet and Bismarck would be fought after all.

The next morning, King George V and Rodney came within sight, followed soon after by the cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire. Rodney began firing first, followed within a minute by King George V, and finally by Bismarck. The third salvo from Rodney destroyed two of Bismarck's main gun turrets. The German vessel fired in reply, but her shells straddled Rodney without hitting her. Another hit wrecked Bismarck's gunnery control system and thereafter her shots went wild. Admiral Tovey's battleships steamed even closer, knocking out one after another of Bismarck's guns. In a little over an hour, all of them had been wrecked. In all, the Royal Navy fired 2,876 shells at Bismarck during the battle, hitting her as many as 400 times. While the deck of the battleship was a shambles, however, her hull was still relatively intact and she refused to sink.

On the British side, Tovey's ships did not take a single hit, but the firing was so heavy that the battleships, the ageing Rodney in particular, were beginning to come apart under the recoil of their own guns. An American observer on the British battleship noticed that: 'Longitudinal beams were broken and cracked in many parts of the ship having to be shored. The overhead decking ruptured and many bad leaks were caused by bolts and rivets coming loose.'

After an hour and a half, Tovey ordered his gun crews to cease firing. The British Admiral set a course for home and ordered Dorsetshire to sink Bismarck with torpedoes. The cruiser fired a torpedo into each side of the burning target, which finally sank minutes later. Bismarck's defeat at the hands of the Royal Navy was doubly crippling to the German fleet, for after the British victory on 26th May the Bismarck's equally formidable sister-ship, Tirpitz, rarely dared to venture out of port, spending most of the war hiding in a Norwegian fjord.

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* Originally published in Sept 1998.