Today, 72 years ago, the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet pounded the living hell out of the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismarck. The British were out for blood. Three days earlier, Bismarck was intercepted by HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales and engaged in the battle of the Denmark Strait. The battle turned badly against the Royal Navy where the penetration of a single shell from the German battleship’s 15 inch main guns detonated Hood‘s magazines for her 15 inch shells, setting off a gigantic explosion that split the Hood in two and killed all but three of the British battlecruiser’s 1,400 crew.
On May 27, 1941, HMS Rodney’s 16 inch guns tore Bismarck apart, causing the majority of the damage and casualties as HMS King George V’s main armament employedfar less powerful 14 inch shells. The more powerful British battleship took no quarter, closing to point-blank range after destroying all eight of Bismarck‘s 15 inch guns before blasting the Kriegsmarine warship with hundreds of massive 16 inch shells until she was burning from stem to stern in a rout that would take the lives of over 2,000 of Bismarck‘s sailors. To add insult to horrific injury, Rodney also earned a distinction when she hit the hapless German battleship with a 24.5 inch torpedo, the only time in history one battleship managed to torpedo another. Perhaps owing to this engagement, the U.S. Navy took note and all subsequent American battleships mounted 16 inch guns.
As this also happens to be Memorial Day, I cannot help think about the dichotomy between honoring those who die in battle and how they die in battle. To state that this engagement, which unlike most naval battles between capital ships has no formal name, was a simple act of revenge probably isn’t hyperbolic considering Bismarck‘s rudder had been jammed on May 26 by a torpedo hit to the stern from a Swordfish biplane from HMS Ark Royal. Bismarck was crippled, unable to maneuver–essentially a sitting duck. Bismarck‘s main guns were all destroyed by Rodney less 30 minutes into the battle, yet the British continued pounding the dying hulk for more than an hour after the German warship’s weaponry fell silent, resulting in the deaths of all but 118 of Bismarck‘s crew.
The horrors of that battle lived on long after May 27, 1941. Arguments still arise seven decades later if it was torpedoes from the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire or German sailors scuttling their ship that sank the Bismarck. The fact that German survivors advanced the scuttling argument with pride shows the effects of sick minds, because hundreds of their fellow sailors were still trapped below decks when Bismarck went down. As for the British, I wish they would have admitted the merciless attack on the Kriegsmarine battleship continuing after the Germans’ guns fell silent was an attempt to set off Bismarck‘s 15 inch magazines, returning the favor done to HMS Hood, the Royal Navy’s pride and joy from 1920 until May 24, 1941. I am somewhat surprised the Royal Navy permitted the rescue of more than three of Bismarck‘s survivors.
Honor the dead but not war, for war cannot escape the fact that it is nothing more than merciless killing, no matter the perspective.