Bismarck & Tirpitz

The History

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The Design, Construction and Sea Trials
Photo: The birthday of Bismarck 1 July 1936.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed 28 June 1919, ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied powers, but it also put strong limitations on the size of a future German Navy. Article 181 stated that the German naval forces in commission must not exceed six battleships, six light cruisers, 12 destroyers and 12 torpedo boats. Article 190 stated that the displacement shall not exceed the following: armoured ships 10,000 tons, light cruisers 6,000 tons, destroyers 800 tons and torpedo boats 200 tons standard displacement. (All figures in long tons which is equal to 1,016 metric tons.)

On 6 February 1922, the five major naval powers – the British Empire, United States, Empire of Japan, French Third Republic and the Kingdom of Italy – signed The Washington Naval Treaty. It was an attempt to prevent a naval arms race that began after the First World War. The five naval powers agreed to limit the standard displacement of their capital ships to 35,000 long tons (35,560 metric tons) and put a limit on the calibre of the heavy guns to 16” (40.6 cm). The treaty limited the total capital ship tonnage of each of the five powers to the following values:

British Empire: 525,000 long tons (533,400 mt)
United States: 525,000 long tons (533,400 mt)
Japan: 315,000 long tons (320,040 mt)
France: 175,000 long tons (177,800 mt)
Italy: 175,000 long tons (177,800 mt)

The terms of the treaty were later modified by the London Naval Treaty of 1930; however, this treaty was not ratified by France or Italy.

On 18 June 1935, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (A.G.N.A.) was signed as a bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and the German Reich. It was to regulate the size of the Kriegsmarine in relation to the Royal Navy. The ratio was to be 35 per cent total tonnage of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet and 45 per cent in the case of submarines. The A.G.N.A. was highly controversial both at the time and since due to the 35:100 tonnage ratio agreed to allow Germany the right to build a navy beyond the limits set by the Treaty of Versailles. Also, the British had made the agreement without consulting France or Italy. As a result, Germany was able to build up to 184,000 long tons of battleships or five 35,000 long tons battleships. Consequently, the Scharnhorst and her sister ship Gneisenau were built. Their standard displacement was 32,100 long tons and therefore within the limit.

On 25 March 1936, the Second London Naval Treaty was signed by the United Kingdom, United States and France. Japan did not sign the treaty and Italy withheld its signature until an additional protocol of 1938 was signed. Capital ships were restricted to 35,000 long tons (35,560 mt) standard displacement and 14” (35.6 cm) guns, but since Japan and Italy refused to sign the treaty, a so-called ‘escalator clause’ was included. It allowed the signatory countries of the Second London Naval Treaty (United Kingdom, United States and France) to build battleships of up to 45,000 long tons in case a non--signatory power was suspected of building ships outside the treaty limits. Therefore, the standard displacement of 45,000 long tons was understood to be acceptable by other powers, including the German Reich. Likewise, it was allowed to increase gun size from 14” (35.6 cm) to 16” (40.6 cm) if Japan and Italy refused to sign the treaty after 1 April 1937. As Japan and Italy had yet to sign the treaty by that date, the result was that all battleships born of the Second London Naval Treaty exceeded the 35,000 long ton limit.

These were the French Richelieu, German Bismarck, British King George V, Italian Vittorio Veneto and American North Carolina class battleships.

In 1933, the first of three armoured ships (Panzerschiffe), the Deutschland, was commissioned. Its design was severely limited by the Treaty of Versailles. Officially, her displacement was announced to be 10,000 tons to meet the treaty restrictions. However, she was more than 2,000 tons heavier, as were her sister ships, Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee.

Photo: The launching ceremony on 14 February 1939.

In 1934, the Construction Office of the German Navy began preliminary and contract design work on the battleships ‘F’ (Bismarck) and ‘G’ (Tirpitz). They were designed by Dr. Hermann Burkhardt. After Germany signed the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Treaty, they were allowed to build a 35,000 long ton battleship armed with 14” (35.6 cm) main guns. As a result of the escalator clause in the 1936 Second London Naval Treaty, they were then permitted 45,000 long tons and 16” (40.6 cm) guns. Therefore, it was legal for Germany to construct battleships with a standard displacement of 45,000 long tons by 1940-1941, as was the case for the Bismarck and Tirpitz.

The size of the hull had to conform to the limita¬tions of the existing locks, docks and harbour facilities. This included the Jade estuary at Wilhelmshaven and the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, which averages just 36’ (11 m) deep. The maximum draft therefore was restricted to 32’ 8” (10 m). The beam was limited to a maximum of 124’ 7” (38 m) and the length to a maximum of 820’ (250 m) to permit the construction and docking of the ship at the Kriegsmarine Werft (naval shipyard) in Wilhelmshaven. The final hull dimensions were a 118’ (36 m) beam and 791’ (241.6 m) waterline length.

The result of the wide beam meant that the Bismarck class had a very high degree of stability as a gun platform. The hull was divided into 22 watertight compartments numbered I-XXII from stern to stem. Seventeen of the 22 compartments (III-XIX) were within the citadel. Seventy per cent of the waterline length was protected by heavy armour. This amount of armoured protection provided superb capability to absorb battle damage. The ship comprised 17 decks from the keel to the foretop.

More than 90 per cent of the hull was electrically welded that significantly saved weight compared to the use of rivets, the weight savings allowing for more armour protection. The lower main belt of the Bismarck had a thickness of 12.6” (320 mm). A 12.6” (320 mm) belt backed by a 4.3-4.7” (110-120 mm) sloped armour deck was considered sufficient to absorb a projectile at any distance. Such armour protection made the battleship practically immune to damage and penetration at close range engagements. The upper belt had a thickness of 5.71” (145 mm) with no portholes. The thickness of the torpedo bulkhead was 1.77” (45 mm) and the distance between the torpedo bulkhead and outer hull was 17’ 9” (5.4 m) amidships.

Various types of propulsion systems were considered for the new Bismarck class battleships. Speed and range were vital as Germany was numerically inferior in ships and did not possess overseas bases. They also required a speed of 30 knots. Diesel geared drive was preferred for its superior fuel economy, but there was no engine yet available with the necessary horsepower to achieve 30 knots. A turbo-electric drive was therefore the primary choice as it appeared to have a greater reliability than other types of propulsion. Its disadvantage, however, was that it required a heavier propulsion plant. By June 1936, the Construction Office decided against turbo-electric drive and geared steam turbine drive was adopted instead. The weight savings allowed an increase of the main armour belt from 11.8” (300 mm) to 12.6” (320 mm).

It was originally planned that the main armament should consist of eight 13” (33 cm) or 14” (35.6 cm) guns. However, France and Italy were constructing warships armed with 14.96” (38 cm) guns and the Germans did not want to equip the Bismarck class battleships with an inferior main armament. In 1934, the German Navy had ordered the design, construction and testing of both 14.96” (38 cm) and 15.98” (40.6 cm) guns. Although 15.98” (40.6 cm) guns could have been used, their manufacture would have taken far longer than that of the 14.96” (38 cm) guns. Also, as gun size increases, so does displacement, draft, construction cost and magazine size. A larger calibre gun would have also increased the weight and diminished underwater protection since definite limits had been established for the displacement. It was concluded that the 14.96” (38 cm) gun met the requirements for optimum ship size and protection. It was also decided that the main armament should feature a four twin-turret arrangement that would provide equal firepower forward and aft and simplify fire control requirements.

Secondary armament was to be 12 5.9” (15 cm) SK C/28 guns in twin turrets, three starboard and three port. These were similar guns used on the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. As a heavy anti-aircraft weapon, 16 4.1” (10.5 cm) in eight double mounts (four starboard and four port) were fitted. Light flak comprised of 16 1.46” (3.7 cm) SK C/30 guns in eight LC/30 twin mounts grouped on the fore and aft super¬structure and 12 0.79” (2 cm) MG C/30 single weapons.

Bismarck was officially ordered on 16 November 1935, five months after the Germans had signed the Anglo-German Naval Treaty. The building contract was placed with the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg as New Construction ‘F’, yard number BV 509, replacing the old pre-dreadnought battleship Hannover. On 1 July 1936, the keel was laid and construction took place on slipway 9.

Photo: Captain Ernst Lindemann inspects the honor guard at 24 August 1940. The day Bismarck was commisioned.

On 13 February 1939, Adolf Hitler travelled to Hamburg to preside over the launching of battleship ‘F’. His first engagement was to visit the Bismarck estate at Friedrichsruh, east of Hamburg, to lay a wreath at the grave of Otto von Bismarck. Hitler stayed overnight at the Hotel Atlantic.

At 1300 on Tuesday 14 February 1939, the launching ceremony took place, attended by more than 60,000 people including government officials, military personalities and yard workers. The heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, light cruiser Nürnberg, state yacht of Germany, Aviso Grille, and three boats of the 4th Torpedo Flotilla gathered in the harbour.

Hitler left Hotel Atlantic at 1215 and boarded the yacht Hamburg. Accompanied by a 21-gun salute from the Admiral Scheer, Hitler and his party crossed the Elbe River and arrived at the Blohm & Voss shipyard. Hitler delivered the pre-launch speech from the christening rostrum where he formally named the vessel in honour of Germany’s founder and greatest statesman, Otto von Bismarck.

Dorothee von Löwenfeld-Bismarck, daughter of Wilhelm Otto Albrecht von Bismarck-Schönhausen, Otto von Bismarck’s second son, then smashed a cham¬pagne bottle against the ship’s bow: ‘On the order of the Führer, I christen you with the name Bismarck.’ At 1334, to the sound of the German national anthem (Deutschland über alles), Bismarck began to slide down the slipway. However, the battleship was stuck fast for a further three minutes before she was finally freed.

Photo: 15 September 1940 the Bismarck leaves the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg for the first time. She's heading for the Baltic Sea for sea trials and battle exercise.

After being launched, the Bismarck was moved to the equipping pier by tugs. It was here that machinery and weapon systems were fitted as well as the completion of the superstructure and interior. Bismarck was launched with a straight stem. However, during the fitting-out period, it was replaced with a so-called Atlantic stem and a different arrangement for the anchors. (A feature also incorporated into other vessels of the German Navy to improve their sea-keeping capabilities.) The KC n/A plates of the armoured belt were also secured to the hull’s sides.

The first crew members assembled in Hamburg in April 1940. During this time, they were not able to live aboard the Bismarck and lodged in the barrack ships Oceana and General Artigas. They started training to become familiarised with machinery, weapon systems, etc. The Bismarck entered floating dry dock No. V-VI on 23 June to have her keel repainted as well as the fitting of propellers and magnetic self-protection system (MES). The Bismarck stayed in the dry dock for three weeks until 14 July. On 21 July, the battleship underwent an inclination test (Krängungsversuch). A metacentric height (GM) of 12’ 9” (3.9 m) was recorded in the 42,500 ton ‘empty ship as completed’ condition. The Bismarck was now only a month short of being commissioned.

Photo: 8 December 1940, the Bismarck returns up the Elbe to complete her yardwork at Blohm & Voss in Hamburg.

On 5 May 1941, Adolf Hitler arrived in Gotenhafen to visit Bismarck and Tirpitz. Since the harbour was not large enough to accommodate both battleships at the same time, Tirpitz was moored at the Seebahnhof pier and Bismarck anchored in the roadstead.

Following Hitler’s visit, exercises continued in the Bay of Danzig. On 13 May 1941,
Admiral Lütjens and the Fleet Staff embarked the Bismarck, the same day Prinz Eugen arrived at Gotenhafen after completing repairs in Kiel. Lindeman immediately practiced refuelling the heavy cruiser from his own ship at sea and then had the Prinz Eugen tow the Bismarck in a mock battle exercise.

Photo: Bismarck during trials together with Prinz Eugen in April 1941.

On 14 May 1941, Bismarck’s 12-ton port side crane and catapults broke during exercises with the light cruiser Leipzig. Operation Rheinübung was again delayed until the crane was repaired. Lindemann brought ashore the Bis¬marck’s war diary for the work-up period. Lütjens and Lindemann received the code date for Operation Rheinübung: ‘Marburg 5724’. By combining the first and last digits and dividing that number (54) by three, Lütjens and Lindemann learned that they were to pass through the Great Belt on the night of 18 May. Lütjens, however, refused to sortie without Bismarck’s port cranes and catapults in working order. ‘Marburg’ was postponed for at least three days.

Photo: From the surprise visit made of Hitler to inspect Bismarck (and Tirpitz) on 5 May 1941.

Finally, at 2233 on 16 May, Lindemann reported that repairs were complete. Lütjens informed High Command that the ships were operational. Thereupon, Group North wired ‘Marburg 5297’, meaning that the task force was to pass through the Great Belt on 19 May. The date for the beginning of Operation Rheinübung was set to be 18 May.

Overall control of Operation Rheinübung rested with Raeder and his staff in Berlin. Generaladmiral Rolf Carls (Ritterkreuz), heading Group North in Wilhelmshaven, would guide Operation Rheinübung until the task force passed the line running between southern Greenland and northwestern Scotland, after which Generaladmiral Alfred Saalwächter (Ritterkreuz), commanding Group West in Paris, would take over. Lütjens had a free hand to direct tactical operations and all battle action from aboard Bismarck.

Photo: By early May 1941, the Bismarck was ready for combat operations.

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