Bismarck, the Fatally Flawed Battleship
All too often, one reads or hears the description of the Bismarck as “the most powerful battleship in the world”.
This assessment by the uninitiated must refer to the encounter in the Denmark Strait, when HMS Hood, herself a badly flawed design, blew up and sank early in the action, presumably following a hit by a single shell from Bismarck. On that basis Derfflinger, which sank HMS Queen Mary at Jutland with a well-placed shell, would also qualify as “the most powerful capital ship in the world”!
For the Bismarck herself was far from “the most powerful battleship”. For one thing, this statement completely ignores the existence of her sister ship, the Tirpitz, which therefore must also have been “the most powerful battleship in the world”. And Tirpitz even had torpedo tubes, which Bismarck lacked.
Enough of this superlative over-description.
Bismarck was a large, well-armoured and powerful ship, but she suffered from several major flaws, some of which actually threatened her survivability in a capital ship action.
Firstly, as an updated version of the old Baden Class of the Great War, she carried her main armament of 15-inch guns in four twin turrets, a major waste of tonnage and an unnecessary elongation of the ship’s structure and armour protection, compared with two quadruple turrets of her major rivals, the French Richelieu Class ships.
This waste of tonnage was compounded by fitting a single purpose secondary armament, which in turn required a tertiary anti-aircraft armament, all wasteful in space and tonnage compared to contemporary dual-purpose secondary armament being fitted by the Royal Navy and the US Navy.
Finally, the fitting of two twin turrets forward and two twin turrets aft meant that to deploy her full main armament she would have to turn broadside on, thus exposing her full hull length as a target, when facing ships armed with quadruple turrets forward, which would engage her head-on, with a much reduced silhouette.
Because the Kriegsmarine designers had not been able to profit from post-war live firing experiences, such as the British had used against the captured Baden, they had not taken on two crucial lessons:
– firstly, it was essential to provide one single main armour deck of considerable thickness, in place of the previous multiple layer of thin decks;
– secondly, it was paramount to ensure that all control and power lines ran below and were thus protected by the thick main armour deck. On Bismarck too many of these crucial control systems ran above the main armour deck and were thus susceptible to being knocked out by medium-calibre shell hits.
Finally, the Bismarck shared one common design weakness with contemporary German armoured ships of the Kriegsmarine: the weak stern section. On 11th April 1940 the submarine Spearfish hit the pocket battleship / panzerschiffe Lutzow with a torpedo which caused the stern to practically break away from the ship. On 23rd February 1942 the submarine Trident hit the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen with a torpedo which so severely damaged the stern that it had to be completely removed in order to enable the ship to return to Germany for repairs. The single hit by an 18-inch aerial torpedo which crippled Bismarck’s steering gear was probably also the cause of the complete damaged stern breaking away from the ship as she capsized.