Prince of Wales, named after the prince who became Edward VIII before abdicating in late 1936, was laid down the same day and went into the water in May 1939. Duke of York, named in honour of the prince who became King George VI following Edward’s abdication, was laid down in May 1937 and would not be launched until February 1940. Two other ships of the class, Jellicoe and Beatty, were also ordered. Named after the feuding admirals who commanded the British fleets at the unsatisfactory Battle of Jutland during the First World War, their names were subsequently changed, possibly to avoid reminding a country on the brink of war that the Royal Navy’s magnificent battleships could sometimes fail to utterly defeat an enemy. Jellicoe became Anson, named after Admiral of the Fleet Lord Anson, an eighteenth century swashbuckler, who circumnavigated the world on a raiding expedition and reformed the Navy, introducing standard uniforms for officers and improving its fighting efficiency. Beatty became Howe, to celebrate another legendary Admiral of the Fleet, who, before Nelson, was the Royal Navy’s greatest hero in the interminable wars against the French of the eighteenth century. Anson and Howe would not be completed until 1942. By late 1940 only King George V had been commissioned, with Prince of Wales racing towards completion. So, while five British battleships were ordered, by the time Bismarck and Tirpitz were close to commissioning only two of them were anywhere near readiness, with Rodney and Nelson the most modern fully operational battlewagons the UK possessed on the outbreak of war. The rest of the Royal Navy’s capital ships were a mixture of reconstructed First World War-era or, worse, vessels hardly changed at all since that conflict. The RN’s ships were also spread across the globe trying to safeguard the Empire, while Germany could concentrate its smaller, but more modern, surface fleet in home waters, ready to send out on raiding missions. The likelihood of the Royal Navy having its capital ships, and enough of them, in the right place at the right time to intercept German raiders was slim. Therein lay the folly of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. The Kriegsmarine had been allowed thirty-five per cent of the British navy’s strength when in war it was no easy matter for the Royal Navy to concentrate even that percentage of its power in home waters to counter Germany. The situation was of course made worse by the fact that Bismarck was potentially worth at least two British battleships. Had they instead worked to enforce Versailles and the various treaties restricting naval construction the British might have prevented, or at least delayed further, the advent of Bismarck and her sister. They might have, therefore, have bought time to rebuild old ships like Hood.
In spring 1941, contemplating how the Royal Navy might contain Bismarck and Tirpitz, Churchill, who had become Prime Minister in May 1940 after a second stint as First Lord of the Admiralty, continued to view the King George V Class battleships with dismay. They were ‘gravely undergunned’.10 Churchill, who was also Defence Minister, applied himself to considering how the Admiralty’s pressing need to construct more warships, including a new class of battleship armed with 16-inch guns, could be prioritized, bearing in mind the competing demands for steel to build tanks for the Army. The first two ships of the Lion Class – Lion and Temeraire – had been laid down just prior to the war, but in October 1939 construction was halted. It was not likely to resume, nor in the end would the final two ships of the class, Conqueror and Thunderer, even be laid down. All that could be managed in the short-term was completion of Duke of York, Anson and Howe; but work would begin by the end of 1941 on the one-off Vanguard, armed with second-hand 15-inch guns, some of which had previously been mounted in the modernized First World War-era fast battleships Warspite and Queen Elizabeth. The turrets themselves came from the light battlecruisers Glorious and Courageous, having been in storage since the early 1920s when these ships were converted to aircraft carriers. With no new battleships realistically possible beyond the KGVs, the fact that Britain at least possessed two 16-inch gun battleships must have been a source of comfort, but also of anxiety. Comfort, in that the Royal Navy at least had something to outmatch Bismarck’s main fire power, but anxiety because the formidably armoured Nelson and Rodney were so old and comparatively slow, with a top speed of only around 22 knots. It is a poor state of affairs when your most heavily armed battleships were first commissioned nearly two decades earlier. Due to their age they needed constant dockyard attention to keep running. In early May 1941, Nelson was in the South Atlantic, having just undergone maintenance in the dockyard at Durban, South Africa, while Rodney was due to leave Scotland for Boston in the USA and a major refit.
The man in command of the main striking force expected to intercept and kill Bismarck or Tirpitz if, and when, they attempted to break out into the Atlantic was fifty-six-year-old Admiral John Tovey. As Commanding Officer of Rodney in the early 1930s he knew full well the power of her 16-inch guns and also the vulnerability of her worn-out boilers. With King George V as his flagship, Tovey was also aware of the new battleship’s flawed main armament. ‘Jack’ Tovey was no stranger to combat at sea. Having joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet at the age of fourteen, by the outbreak of the First World War he had command of his own destroyer, winning the Distinguished Service Order and a mention in dispatches for his tenacious command of HMS Onslow during the Battle of Jutland.
Tovey commanded the cruisers and destroyers of the Mediterranean Fleet during clashes with the Italians in the early part of the Second World War. Promoted to command the Home Fleet in November 1940, he would have a prickly relationship with Churchill, whom he felt was full of ‘bright ideas’ but was ‘most dangerous’ when he dabbled in matters of strategy and tactics. For his part, Churchill regarded Tovey as ‘stubborn and obstinate’.
On Monday, 19 May 1941, Bismarck weighed anchor in the bay at Gotenhafen, her sailors imbued with supreme confidence. Despite never having been beyond the Baltic, the new Nazi battlewagon had already earned the sobriquet ‘most powerful warship afloat’ and was now to attempt a breakout into the Atlantic to prey on British shipping. In addition to Bismarck’s usual complement of 2,065, there were eighty-two men belonging to the staff of Admiral Lütjens aboard, plus 218 Luftwaffe aircrew and maintenance personnel for the battleship’s four aircraft. When it came to the command team for the imminent Rhine Exercise sortie, there was a stark division between the two principal players: Captain Lindemann, Bismarck’s Commanding Officer, and Lütjens. They had clashing personalities, described as ‘following orders’ (Lütjens) versus ‘obeying common sense’ (Lindemann). Lütjens was not capable of much empathy for those under his command – something he would later prove more than once – and was also a fatalist, perhaps because he knew he could only manage so many lucky escapes from the Royal Navy. In March 1941, Lütjens saw Rodney’s menacing silhouette emerge out of the darkness as Gneisenau was sinking a merchant ship in the northern Atlantic. The German battlecruiser showed Rodney a clean pair of heels. Was fatalism born of such close shaves really the right attitude for a man entrusted with the most important ship in the German fleet, a symbol of the power of the Nazi armed forces essential to the high morale of the nation? And was it right for him to expect the same mindset from Bismarcks eager, raw crew? Lütjens let them know from the outset they would either succeed or die. With little collective experience of naval warfare, Bismarck’s sailors probably did not comprehend how horrific the sacrifice might be, at least not on board their brand new battleship, which seemed invulnerable. The presence of Lütjens at the head of the mission already filled some men in Bismarck with pessimism. They recognized he had achieved some notable successes, but ‘his reputation on the lower deck was by no means enviable’. Furthermore, ‘His command in Gneisenau was marked by a chain of misfortunes and the superstitious had come to regard him as a Jonah. This reputation had followed him to Bismarck, producing, in consequence, a depressing atmosphere.’ When she left Gotenhafen, Bismarck’s newly commissioned sister ship, Tirpitz, took her place in port, an attempt to fool British reconnaissance flights into thinking the former had not yet sailed. However, Bismarck was spotted leaving the Baltic by the Swedish cruiser Gotland, and this information swiftly leaked to Captain Henry Denham, the British Naval Attaché in Stockholm.
Had Gneisenau suffered at the hands of Rodney during Lütjens’ previous raiding sortie it might well have persuaded Adolf Hitler to ban any further such adventures by his capital ships. Notwithstanding the brush with Rodney, the success of the sortie by Gneisenau and Scharnhorst contributed to the German fleet’s decision to send out Bismarck just over two months later. Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were by May 1941 lurking at Brest, alongside the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. Exercise Rhine originally involved the two battlecruisers making a foray from Brest at the same time as Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, the operation due to start at the end of April. However, the refit of Scharnhorst would take longer than thought, while Gneisenau was torpedoed during a daring RAF raid on the Brest Roads and then damaged during British bombing of the port’s dry docks. Further misfortune struck when Prinz Eugen suffered mechanical problems. The Prinz Eugen was one of three German heavy cruisers that were far superior to any British ship armed with the same guns – 8-inch main armament – with the exception of the recently reconstructed cruiser London. Completed at Kiel in August 1940, Prinz Eugen was named after the Austro-Hungarian Prince Eugene of Savoy, who defeated the Ottoman Turks at several battles in the eighteenth century. Hitler was another Austrian with hopes of victories in the East. The name was also intended to carry on the spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had ceased to exist with the end of the empire that used to rule the Adriatic from landlocked Vienna via control of the Dalmatian coast. The previous ship to carry the name had been a 20,000-ton battleship of the Austrian fleet, which, following defeat of the Central Powers in the First World War, was awarded to France. She was used as a target ship, the combined fire of four French battleships eventually sinking her off Toulon in the summer of 1922. Well-designed, the Kriegsmarine’s Prinz Eugen gracefully cut her way through heavy seas, keeping her forecastle clean. Possessing similar lines to Bismarck, except of course on a smaller scale, her vulnerability was a high-pressure steam propulsion system that was prone to break down. Like Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen’s design was a cheat – meant to displace 10,000 tons, her actual deep load displacement was 18,700 tons. A lot of this went into her impressive protection, with more than an inch of upper deck armour and an armoured deck inside the ship that was two inches thick. Despite this she had a top speed of more than 32 knots. With a standard complement of 1,600, which was more men than it took to run a British battleship, Prinz Eugen in May 1941 was commanded by Captain Helmuth Brinkman. He told his sailors at the commissioning of Prinz Eugen the previous summer: ‘We are a happy ship and we are a lucky ship – but in the long run luck comes only to those who deserve it.’ Luck was an essential element of high-seas raider warfare, for the longer a German warship could avoid the tentacles of the Royal Navy, the better to cause distress and damage to the British war effort. As the exploits of the Admiral Graf Spee had shown in 1939, even the mere possibility of a singleton high-seas raider on the loose in the Atlantic and Indian oceans was enough to sow confusion and chaos in shipping lanes across the globe. Sailing times for convoys were disrupted and the Royal Navy found its resources stretched to the limit in both protecting merchant shipping and forming hunting groups. The success of Graf Spee and her sister ship Admiral Scheer in picking off merchant ships and the success of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst later, combined with the depredations of U-boats, were real threats to the Atlantic lifeline that sustained Britain. With America and Russia still neutral, Britain fought a lonely, losing battle against the Germans, who were triumphant on land everywhere, if not always at sea or in the air. The Kriegsmarine hoped that if it was able successfully to stage a surface raider breakout into the Atlantic, then the British might realize their domination of the seven seas was over. Their national morale would be dealt a fatal blow, the population at large would be under threat of starvation, and those who favoured a negotiated peace with Germany might win the argument. The rest of the world not under Nazi dominion might well write Britain off and accommodate Hitler’s desires for economic and territorial domination of Europe.
The war would be over.