Battle of Denmark Strait
World War 2 is one of the few subjects about which I have read a lot. From Hitler’s War (David Irving) to Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (William Shirer), in addition to numerous documentaries and movies on the same. It has colors and facets and it has stories. It is like a huge web which contains smaller intricate patterns which as a whole it becomes something far more horrible and at the same time far more beautiful than the individual. World war is a story of individuals and masses. It is a story of the worst and the best in a man. It is a story of cowardice and courage, of Quislings and of Ultra. Each little battle can on its own become as glorious as the Battle of Waterloo. Both side of the conflict exhibited courage, strategic initiative and spunk. I will try to take a look at some of those conflicts and look at how some of the battles proceeded. It is foolish to cover all the aspects and hence I would only go into the details superficially. Readers are requested to go through the Wiki articles which are at present the main source for these blog posts. I will try to include details from other sources as much as I can.
The first battle that I will talk about is the Battle of Denmark Strait between the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine. A Little Background first, starting with the German command structure.
Kriegsmarine or the German Navy was one of the three branches of German unified armed force, The Wehrmacht. The German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) was organized into Heer (Army), Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe (Air Force). Waffen-SS (Armed SS), though a part of the Nazi party was under operational command of either the OKW (Oberkommando Der Wehrmacht – High command of Wehrmacht) or the OKH (Oberkommando Der Heer – High command of the Army).
Naval ships are generally divided on the basis of how big they are and how powerful they are. Battleships were the most powerful, most heavily armored ships of the Navy. They were generally the flagships of the navy with much reputation associated with them. In current Navy parlance, only American Aircraft Carriers come close to the status associated with the Battleships of World War 2. Battleship armor were based on the standard that the guns similar to the ones on board would not be able to punch a hole through it. Thus engaging a battleship in battle was not something that other ships would consider a prudent idea. Also, the prestige that goes with a battleship made it difficult for them to operate far away from their home bases as sinking of a battleship would cause a huge hit on the morale. Thus even though they were almost invincible, they were rarely used in battles but whenever they did enter in one, it would become defining moment. Battlecruisers were warships less armored and less powerful than the battleships but were faster and thus were suitable to provide convoy protection and chases. Cruisers, Destroyers, corvettes and frigates were other varietes of ships that were smaller in size and less powerfully equipped.
Washington naval treaty and the London Naval Treaties put a limit on the size and tonnage of the warships that could be built, but eventually as the world descended into chaos in the 30s, the terms of these treaties were broken.
Battle of Denmark Strait:::
The belligerents: Home fleet of the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine
Kriegsmarine: Bismarck class Battleship – Bismarck, Admiral Hipper class heavy cruiser – Prinz Eugen
Home Fleet: King George V class Battleship – Prince of Wales, Admiral Class Battlecruiser – HMS Hood (Flagship of the Home Fleet)
Commanders : Bismarck – Admiral Gunther Lutjens, HMS Hood – Vide Admiral Lancelot Holland
For the German Navy, destroying the convoys headed UK was one of the primary objectives. To reach the North Atlantic where they could target the convoys, the German ships have to either navigate the heavily defended and narrow English Channel or go North and through the sea lanes between either the Greenland and Iceland or between iceland and UK. This sea lanes, the so called GUIK lane, has huge importance in Northern European Naval strategy as they provide access to North Atlantic. During the Cold War, preventing a breakthrough by the Soviet Navy through these chokepoints into the North Atlantic was one of the primary objectives of the Royal Navy.
The lead up to the battle:
On the night of 18-19 May 1941, Bismarck and Priz Eugen left the port of Gotenhafen on their fateful journey through the Denmark strait. British Ultra intercepts had given them advanced information on the possible attempt by the German ships to escape to the Atlantic.
On the 23rd of May, British Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk spotted the German ships but had to soon retire to safe distance after being outgunned by Bismarck. The cruisers continued to follow the ships. In the meantime, the Home Fleet had dispatched HMS Hood and Prince of Wales from their home base in the Scapa Flow towards Iceland on 21st May in order to intercept the German ships.
The situation came to a head on the morning of 24th May, (69 years to the date) at 0530 hours. Prinz Eugen’s hydrophones detected the two British ships and they were sighted at 0545 hours. At 0549, Holland ordered both the British ships to attack the lead German ship (Prinz Eugen) assuming it to be the battleship Bismarck. Holland soon realized his mistake and the orders were ammended. After the first salvo, the German ships opened fire on the lead British ship (Hood). At 05:59:30, HMS Hood fired its fifth salvo and began a 20 degree turn to port (left side). At 06:00, HMS Hood was stuck by a shell from Bismarck. This was followed by a huge jet of fire and an explosion of the ship’s magazine. Within three minutes, the pride and the flagship of the Home Fleet sank with 1,415 men on board including Admiral Holland. Only three men survived.
Thus within 11 minutes of commencement, the battle of Denmark Strait was over. The remaining British ship, Prince of Wales was struck multiple times by the German ships and had to retreat due to various malfunctions. The German ships, did not give chase to Prince of Wales as they were also having various technical difficulties, in addition to having standing orders to avoid direct confrontation with the British Navy whenever possible.
British public were stunned by this defeat and the Admiralty mobilized all available warships to search and destroy Bismarck.
Prinz Eugen had moved on towards the Atlantic while Bismarck started towards one of the German bases on the French coast for repairs and refuelling.
On 27th May, Bismarck was scuttled by the Germans after getting pounded by the British force consisting of Battleships Rodney and King George V, cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire and other destroyers and frigates. Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal, had earlier disabled the rudder of the Bismarck using its outmoded biplane, Swordfish, thus making it unmanoeuverable. At 1039, Bismarck sank. 1995 of the crew of 2200 died with the ship including Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann.