What If the Bismarck Had Escaped Destruction?

By Mark Grimsley
11/5/2012 • Battle Films, World War II

On May 19, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck, accompanied by the cruiser Prinz Eugen and several escort vessels, made its way through the Kattegat Strait separating Nazi-occupied Denmark from neutral Sweden. The 50,000-ton warship’s objective was to reach British convoy routes in the North Atlantic and do as much damage as possible. From the outset the Bismarck had no hope of reaching those routes in secrecy. Swedish aircraft identified the vessels in the German formation, news that made its way quickly and clandestinely to the British military attaché in Stockholm.

The Bismarck reached port at Bergen, Norway, the next day. On May 21 a British reconnaissance aircraft snapped a photo of the battleship at anchor. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen put out to sea on May 22; the following day two British cruisers spotted the enemy ships in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Hood arrived on the scene early on May 24. In the ensuing fight, the Hood blew up spectacularly, with the loss of all but three seamen. The Prince of Wales suffered significant damage. The Bismarck was also damaged and now had a 9-degree list to port and a 3-degree trim to bow, the result of damage to fuel bunkers and efforts to transfer fuel to intact bunkers.

The German admiral in charge of the operation, Günther Lütjens, decided to defer the planned strike at the convoy lanes and instead make for France to effect repairs. He detached the Prinz Eugen; the Bismarck, now operating alone, briefly eluded the British before a Catalina PBY pilot spied the enormous warship. Dozens of British vessels were also hunting the Bismarck, for if the super-battleship ever did break out into the Atlantic, the result could be catastrophic. The Bismarck was nearing shelter at Brest, France, when a fluke of luck caused a torpedo from a carrier-based Swordfish biplane to jam the battleship’s rudder. The Bismarck steamed helplessly in a circle until a British flotilla closed in and, on the morning of May 27, sank the Bismarck, killing all but 114 of the ship’s 2,200-man crew.

So ended the Bismarck’s first and only combat voyage—a saga that immediately gained worldwide fame. But what if the German battleship had successfully broken out into the Atlantic? For this to have happened, any of three alterations to the historical events would need to have occurred.

First, the Bismarck would have had to elude detection—an unlikely possibility. Second, the warship would have had to escape damage in the Battle of the Denmark Strait—a possibility, since historically the Bismarck had damage minor enough that Admiral Lütjens could have continued the mission. Third, and most likely, the Bismarck would have had to reach safety at Brest, where it would have joined two smaller battleships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, that had just completed a successful though limited raid against British shipping. Within weeks of Bismarck arriving, all three battleships would have been able to put out to sea in another strike against the Atlantic convoy lanes.

What would have been the result? Historically, the chief of the German navy, Admiral Erich Raeder, chose to use his limited number of capital ships as surface raiders. His intention was to force the Royal Navy to dilute its strength by diverting warships to convoy escort duty and, in combination with Admiral Karl Dönitz’s U-boats, to sever Britain’s maritime lifelines. Prior to the Bismarck’s sortie this strategy enjoyed some success. Between November 1940 and March 1941 the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer sank 17 merchant vessels totaling over 113,000 tons of shipping. During the same period the cruiser Admiral Hipper accounted for another 53,000 tons. In February 1941 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau—under the joint command of Lütjens—had reached the Atlantic undetected. The battleships encountered four convoys, but British battleships were escorting two of the groups, and Lütjens’s orders prohibited him from engaging enemy capital ships if at all possible. He therefore withdrew, inflicting little or no damage. Lütjens’s luck was similarly bad with the other two convoys, in large measure because of the proximity of other British battleships. As a result, Lütjens did scant damage, destroying only about 27,000 tons of British shipping.

Lütjens’s caution, however, was driven by the fact that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (like Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper) were lightly armored and less powerful than their British rivals. In contrast, the heavily armored Bismarck could outgun and outrun virtually any of Britain’s
capital ships.

Had Bismarck encountered a convoy, the battleship could have successfully engaged the escort vessels and picked off most of the freighters before they could escape, and in the open Atlantic the Bismarck would have been very difficult to locate. Further, the Kriegsmarine had stationed more than a dozen German support vessels ready to resupply and refuel the Bismarck, which would have allowed the battleship to remain at sea as long as three months. United under these conditions with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the Bismarck could have done a formidable amount of damage indeed.

Ironically, the original concept for the Bismarck’s historical operation, Rhine Exercise, contemplated just such a raid by Bismarck and the two smaller battleships. Bismarck set out alone in mid-May because the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were not ready to go to sea. Events proved this course of action unwise, but had the Bismarck sprinted successfully to Brest—which certainly would have occurred but for the fortuitous damage to the Bismarck’s rudder—Rhine Exercise could have proceeded in its original form.

In any counterfactual it is tempting to make extravagant claims—in this case that Bismarck and consorts could have won the Battle of the Atlantic. That is unlikely. However, the Bismarck’s presence in the Atlantic would have forced the Royal Navy to guard each convoy heavily while at the same time maintaining an extensive fleet dedicated to finding and destroying the battleship. That, in turn, would have sapped British strength in other vital sectors, particularly the Mediterranean, where Major General Erwin Rommel’s North African offensive was just getting underway. And the heightened threat of destruction to any given convoy would likely have resulted in larger, more easily protected convoys—which would have taken more time to assemble, thereby reducing the flow of vital war supplies to Britain. When combined with the German U-boat offensive, the damage and disruption to the British convoy system would have been even worse. The Bismarck would not have won the Battle of the Atlantic, but it would have severely harried the British war effort at a time when that nation could least afford it.

30 Responses to What If the Bismarck Had Escaped Destruction?

  1. Gerald says:

    If Bismarck was not damaged after her battle with Hood and Prince of Wales, I believe if she carried on with her original mission she would have destroyed the British convoy system for the year 1941


  2. Roman says:

    Despite the morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims, the fact remains that Countries exist because of wars fought against their neighbours or rivals. Independence is largely secured through the employment of armed forces and the willingness to fight if threatened, this alone prepares us all for such an eventuality.

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  3. Roberto Danilov says:

    These What if series are excelent, we all know who won WW2. I love your magazines and always read them, just that i think it would be interesting and necesary to write more about the losing sides hardships, experiences, methods, how and why they lost the battles, always a heart felt interview of the guys who fought is welcome, although we are reaching a point where these vets are dying of, just as there are no more left from WW1. Always weapons used, tactics, training is expect. Something intersting, and i havent seen yet(dont know if i missed it) is various articles of the gigantic clean up europe had to go through after the war, corpses,tank and airplane hulks, city ruble and displaced people, etc. Would be highly appreciated a comment on this regard. Keep it up.

  4. Henrik Hilskov says:

    Bismarck would had continued to follow it main task. To destroy english convoy system.
    However she would had meet the same challenge that actual got her down. Aircrafts!!
    Next it would be a measurement of resources to build her and in partical what the germans had to suffer to build her. For excample the german Hanger ship Grafspee that was never completed did consumes so much rubber that the germans could had buil 19.000 planes or 10.000 tanks instead.
    But Bismarck would not ever had been able to do any return of investment in ration of sunked merchan ships when you know what the germans could had gone instead and what goals those tanks and airplains could had achieved.
    Please have in mind how Graf Spee enden. I was almost as pathetic as Bismarck.

    • Kevin Gup says:

      Bismarck would’ve made it to Brest successfuly had it not turned while the torpedo from that swordfish bomber was launched, but the loss of the Bismarck really would possibly mean Nazis would never realise the full potential of submarines and aircraft, therefore they would move on to their plan Z, to build the H series battleships (rendered obsolete by CVNs) so therefore, the German empire would’ve lost had it not lost the Bismarck (it was a lesson)

  5. Thorsten says:

    There were so many mistakes maken by the so wise Admiral Lütjens that it is hard to name them all. But to me the most significant was to operate in such a small group – why no escorts , destroyers,U-Boats in position etc. And why would he , as the \Bismarck\ was damaged already order the \Prinz Eugen\ to leave? She sure could have helped out at least a bit. When the \Bismarck\ got near to Brest, why no support by naval units or even the Luftwaffe (another nice job,Herr Meier!) could have been sent out to attack the Royal Navy ships. Looking at it so many years one could think that Lütjens did everything to lead the \Bismarck\ into destruction , Lindemann did make other and wiser suggestions – but Lütjens won’t listen – the result is well known.It is still a shame because the \Bismarck\ was an extraordinary masterpiece of engineering and would have been worth to \survive\ the war and being preserved in a museum later.

  6. Henrik Hil says:

    @ Thorsten; The question was: What would have happened if the ship had escaped?
    Not what fait you will like it to have after the war.
    As I says. The fait of Bismarck would have been the same because of aircrafts. Just as it happende with all of the orther battle ships of Germany and Japan.

  7. Roamingthenet says:

    @Thorsten: you have a point on that one. Lutjens job was to destroy convoys but eagerly he risk and rolls the dice and badluck strucked on Bismarck. While on the other hand, Lindemann was just know what to do including marking while Hood and PoW fires ” I will not have my ship shot out from under my arse \. But before that when Lutjens aboards the Bismarck from what ive seen in other documentaries and interviews of the other survivors it was said that they dont like him and prefer to Lindemann as a good commander. That could change the course of Bismarck.

    On the topic.. Hitler would’nt be scared of throwing ships on the atlantic and it may have sent Tirpitz and the Schran-twins to massacre any other ships. And with that Plan Z may have exist, building and sending the planned carriers and the monstrous H-class..

  8. Lyndon says:

    After the torpedo hit the Bismarck’s rudder and left it turning in circles, why did the Navy waste all this effort by sinking it.
    The way I see it, the Bismarck could have been left helplessly to turn this way or that way until the end of the war.
    It wasn’t going anywhere.
    Have a life you guys with all your far- fetched delusions.

  9. Cameron L. says:

    So… If the Bismarck made it past iceland to its destination unscathed then it would have been an unstoppable nusance in the central Atlantic where the Allies called it the “Gap”; the place where bombers cant go basically from land… But torp planes via aircraft could… So, even if it’s sailing undetected for the most part, the torp planes would have found it eventually.
    I wonder what if the Turpitz and Bismarck were BOTH fitted with additional AA (like the Turpitz was after the sinking of the Bismarck) and both sailed to central Atlantic during OTL (let’s say that the Turpitz was finished too). So, two heavy capital classes team tagging it… that would be hard to compete with.

  10. Cameron L. says:

    where did my comment go? i wrote a lengthy comment… hope it shows up….=/

  11. Benjamin Sæves says:

    Really good article. Biting my nails untill they bleed. Always wondered why the Bismark went alone. Thanks for the article.

  12. J.B. Stahl says:

    Lütjens knew he was on a suicide mission. Had the Germans combined all their best capital ships in a single sortie to strangle Britain’s convoy-supply system—the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, the battlecruisers Scharnhost and Genisenau, and the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper, Admiral Scheer, Blücher, Prinz Eugen and Seydlitz, as well as a destroyer screen and a pack of Admiral Dönitz’s U-boats—they might have had a chance of success. But for Lütjens to set out onto what amounted to a British lake with only Bismarck and Prinz Eugen was folly in the extreme. Exercise Rhine was doomed from the start. Even had the Swordfish torpedo plane not scored a hit on Bismarck that fouled its rudder and made steering impossible, Bismarck was faced with a hugely superior British task force from which it would never have escaped.

    • spencer says:

      How so? Multiple times, the British Admiral thought he had lost the Bismarck. Sir John knew he had lost the Bismarck when the last Swordfish came back reporting no hits, and he was already turning the fleet back to home, when the Cruiser Sheffelds commander reported that the Bismarck turned a 180 and tried to engage her, than another recon plane reported that the Bismarck was moving erratically. If that torpedo doesn’t hit, Sir John had already decided to go back to port. That “superior” force lost in that instance. And he wasn’t going to run a suicide mission into enemy u-boats and bombers that were just waiting to bite if he did run the folly of chasing the Bismarck all the way to Brest.

      Hell, Lutjens didn’t even know that Sir John had lost him multiple times throughout the hunt, and reported his position to the British multiple times by responding to birthday wishes. If he hadn’t responded to those birthdays, or a twist of fate where his birthday was a day later even, the Bismarck would have managed to escape in that instance as well.

      A lucky hit on the Bismarck that damaged and took out one of her engines also slowed her down from her max speed, and caused her to leak oil. If that hit doesn’t happen, the Bismarck could have cruised at an even faster speed, allowed her to happily steam to Brest at full speed with the British having no hope of catching up to her.

      I agree the mission itself was idiotic, if the Germans weren’t so impatient to get her to sea, she could have caused far more damage, especially if the Tirpitz was allowed to set to sea with her. But either way, the Bismarck had easily evaded the British force, despite multiple set-backs and human errors by the German commanders.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        My dear Spencer, are you a font of misinformation to all your friends too?

      • LongStickMan says:

        I’ve heard it the same way as Spencer has as well, so either your source is wrong, or visa versa.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        If you think vice-versa is “visa versa,” it doesn’t make any difference what you’ve heard, The whole thing that Spencer wrote is so stupid and contains so much wrong information that it isn’t even worth contradicting in detail.

      • LongStickMan says:

        well you did get me on my spelling, however I seriously doubt it matters half as much as you would like to think it does.
        If you want to show how ignorant we are, than I think a source would be helpful.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        Of course you doubt that spelling matters—because you don’t know how to. If you’ve lived long enough to grow up without learning how to write your own language, then there will be serious deficiencies in the rest of your mental functioning. Your spelling indicates that opening a book is not an activity that has been frequent in your life and that, if it has, paying attention to what’s in it has also not been a specialty of yours either. Such a gigantic pile of ignorance and idiocy resides in Spencer’s first paragraph that correcting it is like cleaning the Augean Stables. Basically what his first paragraph boils down to is that just because British Admiral Sir John Tovey didn’t know that Bismarck’s rudder had been hit by a torpedo of a Swordfish biplane, the whole Royal Navy that was then at sea in the Atlantic chasing Bismarck would have turned tail and run home. How stupid. Spencer apparently is unaware that it was not only Tovey’s Home Fleet from Scapa Flow that was on the chase of Bismarck but also Force H, the entire British Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Cunningham, which had been called up from Gibraltar and had joined Tovey. Get a book and read how many warships and planes that amounted to, like Robert Ballard’s account or even the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s or Wikipedia’s accounts. Spencer then invents the nonsense that Bismarck had already reached the air-cover range of the Luftwaffe or was about to. It had not and was nowhere near it, and even if it had been, it would also have been within the range of the Royal Air Force in Britain besides the range of Tovey’s and Cunningham’s carrier planes. Churchill and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound in London would never have given Tovey and Cunningham permission to give up that chase! Another ridiculous item in the rest of Spencer’s fairytale version of events is that Tovey lost Bismarck “multiple times.” No, no, only once: when Lütjens had given cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, chasing him, the slip by doing a 270-degree turn to starboard across his own and their wakes. Once the Catalina flying boat from British Coastal Command spotted Bismarck after that, a day or so later, Bismarck was never again lost to the British. But Spencer’s most ridiculous perversion of the facts to support his pipe-dream whimsy is that one of Bismarck’s engines had been hit. As in never: Bismarck’s oil leak was not from a hit on either of its engines—neither engine was ever hit. A bow shot from Prince of Wales had ruptured an oil line. There is more, but that is enough. Now go learn your ABCs. Class dismissed.

      • LongStickMan says:

        As far as spelling goes, I seriously doubt you are as perfect as you say you are. But the rest of what you said was rather helpful, so thanks for the lesson.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        Glad to be helpful. I never said I was perfect at spelling or anything else. Proof that I’m not is the following corrected and expanded version of what I originally wrote:

        You demanded that I provide sources. I didn’t notice that you or Spencer provided a single source besides your own cockeyed imaginations. But I’ll give you sources. Keep reading.

        Such a gigantic pile of ignorance and idiocy resides in Spencer’s first paragraph that correcting it is like cleaning the Augean Stables. Basically what his first paragraph boils down to is that just because British Admiral Sir John Tovey didn’t
        know that Bismarck’s rudder had been fouled by a torpedo hit from a Swordfish biplane, the whole Royal Navy that was then at sea in the Atlantic chasing Bismarck would have turned tail and run home. How stupid. If that were
        true it would mean that Tovey would never have set out to catch a
        believed-to-be-undamaged Bismarck in the first place. And Spencer is apparently
        unaware that it was not only Tovey’s Home Fleet from Scapa Flow that was on the chase of Bismarck but also Force H, the British Mediterranean Fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, which had been called up from Gibraltar and had joined the chase in the Atlantic. Get a book and read how many warships
        and planes that amounted to, like Robert Ballard’s The Discovery of the Bismarck (Hodder Stoughton, 1990), which contains a thoroughly detailed account of the battle, or even the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s or Wikipedia’s accounts of Bismarck’s sinking: three battleships, Prince of Wales, King
        George V and Rodney; one battle cruiser, Renown; two aircraft carriers,
        Victorious and Ark Royal; five cruisers, Norfolk, Suffolk, Ramillies, Sheffield
        and Dorsetshire; and a pack of destroyers—all against a lone German battleship.
        Bismarck, alone, was so overwhelmingly outgunned by British surface and
        naval-air might that the idea of the Royal Navy’s then running away from Bismarck just because she was believed to have not yet been damaged is absurd in the extreme, for it would mean that all Bismarck had to do was put to sea for the Royal Navy to then run and go into terrified hiding.

        In any case, Tovey never believed the preliminary report from the
        carrier Ark Royal’s torpedo planes that they had scored no hits on Bismarck,
        and even if he had, Churchill and First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Admiral Sir
        Dudley Pound, in London ordered Tovey at that point to continue the chase even
        if he ran the risk of running out of fuel himself, in which case, they said,
        they would have King George V towed back to port. That is how insistent Churchill and Pound were on Tovey’s staying on the hunt at all costs. There was never any British option of giving up.

        Still in that fairytale firstparagraph of his, Spencer then invents the nonsense that Bismarck had already reached the air-cover range of the Luftwaffe or was about to. It had not and was not yet near it, and even if it had been, it would also have been within the range of the Royal Air Force in Britain besides the range of Tovey’s and Somerville’s carrier planes. There again, Spencer posits that British planes would have been scared to death of German planes, a comical idea that got shamed by what happened in the Battle of Britain several months later.

        Another ridiculous item, in the rest of Spencer’s kindergarten
        version of events after his first paragraph, is that Tovey lost Bismarck “multiple times.” No, no, only once, namely, when Lütjens had given British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk and British battleship Prince of Wales, chasing him, the slip by doing a 270° starboard turn that brought him across his own and their wakes behind them. Once the Catalina flying boat from British Coastal Command spotted Bismarck 30 hours after that, Bismarck was never again lost sight of by the British; from then on they always knew where it was and its heading because they sent relays of planes that kept relentlessly following Bismarck, namely, a second Catalina and then one Swordfish biplane after another in sequence.

        But Spencer’s most ridiculous perversion of the facts to support his pipe-dream whimsy is that one of Bismarck’s engines had been hit. As in never: Bismarck’s oil leak was not from a hit on either of its engines—neither engine was ever
        hit. A bow hit from Prince of Wales in the battle of the Denmark
        Strait had ruptured an oil line.

      • LongStickMan says:

        Thank you for taking your time to explain this whole thing to me. It makes more sense now that you’ve explained it. I think Ill look at the sources you recommended to get more details on the events. Sorry for bothering you with my ignorance, I just thought this was something that I would like to know more about, I really appreciate you writing this for me.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        LongStickMan, thou art but too good a fellow for saying these kind things. There is much else to the story. Not mentioned in Grimsley’s account is why Lütjens obeyed Hitler’s orders not to engage British warships in combat unless forced to. Certainly his instincts were to follow and finish off Prince of Wales, which he knew he had damaged, when it turned away and withdrew from the battle. The Bismarck’s Captain, Ernst Lindemann, was furious with Lütjens for not pursuing and destroying it. But Lütjens was under great compulsion to obey Hitler and was in effect a hostage to his orders: Lütjens’s wife was half-Jewish and his two children with her were therefore one-quarter Jewish, and what is more, Lütjens had had a Jewish grandmother—and Hitler knew all this. Lütjens therefore feared that if he antagonized Hitler by flouting his orders, his wife and children would suffer by being interned and even exterminated. Much else: Baron von Müllenheim-Rechberg, a Fourth Artillery Officer on Bismarck, had, until he died in 2003 at the age of 92, a reunion every year at his castle in Germany of all the living British and German survivors of the Hood and the Bismarck, which were occasions for the healing of old war wounds and for comradeship of old sailors.

      • LongStickMan says:

        Thanks for the information again, I wouldn’t have ever guessed that he was Jewish, but Hitler was a strange folk himself, so it sort of makes sense that he would try to take advantage of someone who was good at their trade, even if they were Jewish. It is always nice to be knowledgeable and I thank you again.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        No, my good man, Lütjens was not “Jewish,” he had part-Jewish ancestry and a half-Jewish wife, did not practice Judaïsm, and was a baptized Christian. You’re right that Hitler chose subordinates of whose vulnerabilities he could take advantage, which is why he personally approved of the military service during WWII of thousands Jews and part-Jews (see Rigg, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers [2002]). Of the three German military services, the navy was the least committed to Nazi ideology, the least loyal to Hitler and had the highest percentage of Jews, which is why Grimsley wrote that Lütjens served out of loyalty to Germany, not to Hitler.

      • LongStickMan says:

        I’ll check out that movie while I’m at it as well. I find it interesting that the navy would be the least committed to the ideology, but you would think so based off of what you’ve told me so far. It sounds like the navy had less restrictions because he was either too fed up with the rest of the war, or he didn’t have the luxury of getting rid of politically frictional characters because he knew how outclassed Germany was. It is a rather strange thing, but it seems plausible to me. What do you think?

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        Movie? What movie? Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers by Bryan Mark Rigg is a book. It is an amazing revelation. I’m not sure why the German navy was so lukewarm on Hitler and the Nazi party line. It may have been because Hitler treated the navy as the red-headed orphan child or ugly duckling of the armed services, never allocating to it the funds and resources needed to enable it to build a fleet that could compete on the high seas with the Royal Navy. Strangely, however, Admiral Dönitz, the head of the U-boat command, though bitterly disappointed at Hitler’s failure to give him as many U-boats as he needed, remained fanatically loyal to Hitler, which is why Hitler named him his successor.

      • LongStickMan says:

        Sorry, the title of the book just for some reason made me think it was a movie for some reason. There is so much in history that can often seem baffling in my opinion, but your right, Hitler probably didn’t think the navy was half as important as the rest of the military, which would also might have been why he didn’t care whether it had Jews or not.

      • Calvinius says:

        Bismarck certainly had not reached the range of Luftwaffe bombers, and was still quite from away from getting there.

        But prior to the rudder being jammed, it did have a substantial lead on the British battleships. King George V was slightly slower than Bismarck, and Rodney was a lot slower. Had the air attack failed, there’s no way Tovey could’ve caught up unless something else happened to force Bismarck to slow down. Obviously Ark Royal’s Swordfish would’ve been refueled and rearmed and sent to attack again, but at that point its purely up to luck whether they score any debilitating hit.

      • J.B. Stahl says:

        I agree entirely.

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