The primary objective of battleship Bismarck was to sink transporters coming from the U.S. and sailing to Europe transporting goods (oil, food). It encountered HMS Hood and sank it.

German cruiser Prinz Eugen was sailing along with the Bismarck all the time apart from the time the Royal Navy engaged heavy forces to sink it.

Why didn't the Bismarck have decent battleships, carriers and other fleet types sailing with it all the time? It was certain to German admirals that after the sinking of HMS Hood the Brits would employ forces in order to destroy the Bismarck.

Why didn't Otto Ernst Lindemann (naval captain, only commander of the Bismarck) ask for reinforcements after the HMS Hood event?

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    Welcome to the site. An interesting first question.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 17:08
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    The German Kriegsmarine never had any operational aircraft carriers. The only one they built was never finished.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 10:28
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    and having a surface action group include aircraft carriers isn't a normal practice anyway, except maybe when moving 2 groups together to a new home port.
    – jwenting
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 7:25

6 Answers 6


The Germans wanted to send more, but there were none available. Most were unsuitable to escort Bismarck. Those which were suitable were damaged.

A good warship for commerce raiding is fast, both to catch enemy ships and run from warships, fuel efficient to keep at sea for as long as possible, and carries heavy armament to rapidly sink enemy ships from long range. Bismarck could make 30 knots and cruise for 10,000 miles, there were few heavy ships in the Germany Navy which could keep up.

Her sister, Tirpitz, was still working up. The battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were both under repair in Brest on the wrong side of the North Sea. The old pre-Dreadnaught Deutschland battleships were far too slow.

Germany had build a small fleet of brand new Admiral Hipper heavy cruisers. Blücher had been sunk, Admiral Hipper was being overhauled in Kiel, Seydlitz was never completed, and Lützow had been sold to the Soviets. Prinz Eugen which was damaged but hastily repaired and ready.

This left the older and slightly slower Deutschland class "pocket battleships" designed as commerce raiders. Of the pocket battleships, Admiral Graf Spee had been famously scuttled in her own commerce raid. Lützow nee Deutschland had recently finished repairs from a British torpedo attack and was waiting to go on its own raid with Admiral Sheer. Admiral Scheer had just returned from a five month long shipping raid in the Atlantic and was undergoing repairs in Kiel.

The rest of the Germany Navy was light cruisers, destroyers and smaller ships. While they had the speed, they did not have the endurance. They also didn't have the firepower. The heavy 203mm and 380mm guns of the Prinz Eugen and Bismarck will be in range long before the 150mm guns of a German light cruiser. Since you're not planning on fighting a fleet of warships there's no need for a screen of light ships. They're just a liability.

As for carriers, Germany never had one.

Bismarck was used as a commerce raider because she could destroy most British ships before they could even get in range and run from the rest. Prinz Eugen was the only available consort. But they were caught by equally fast and powerful units of the British Navy sent to find them, the Hood and the Prince of Wales, and forced to fight.

Sending more warships risks the commander thinking they should be fighting enemy warships. This was not their mission, though the German commanders often did not agree. The diminutive German Navy had no hope of defeating the Royal Navy in a fair fight on the high seas, but it didn't stop officers from thinking they could, especially with a ship as new and powerful as the Bismarck. Captain Lindeman, commanding Bismarck, was eager for a fight to use his powerful new ship. But Admiral Lütjens strictly held them to their mission.

Then there is the problem of supply, in particular food and fuel. A successful commerce raider will be out as sea for as long as possible. Even if they fail to sink a single ship, their existence can tie up enemy naval assets hugely out of proportion.

A commerce raider can resupply from friendly overseas ports, and from friendly supply units, but mainly from scavenging from the commerce they raid. The more fuel hungry warships you have in your fleet, and their very large and hungry crews to feed, the more thinly you need to spread your supplies.

The Bismarck's mission was to raid commerce, not engage enemy warships. A good commerce raider will hide or run, only as a last resort should it fight. Why? It jeopardizes its mission of raiding commerce. Fighting a warship risks damage, damage that could force it to return to port early (thus aborting its primary mission), or make it vulnerable. The Bismarck's victory against the Hood caused both these consequences. The Admiral Graf Spee had a similar fate after its victory in the Battle of the River Plate.

Even with no damage, engaging a warship means firing a lot of precious main battery armament. Fuel can be taken from enemy ships, but ammunition cannot be replaced without returning to port or a risky at-sea resupply mission. Resupply at sea leaves you stopped and vulnerable with more ships for the enemy to track. Returning to port both cuts short its primary mission, and it leaves it open to bombing and blockade by the much more powerful British Navy, as happened to its sister Tirpitz.

If you sink a Royal Navy warship you risk the wrath of the Royal Navy, far more powerful and numerous than the German Navy. It makes it difficult to raid commerce when you're dodging an ocean full of British warships. It happened in WWI after a German victory by von Spee's powerful commerce raiding squadron at the Battle of Coronel, they were destroyed a month later by an even more powerful British task force sent to hunt them down at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Sinking the Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, and in such a spectacular fashion, signaled the death of the Bismarck, failure of her mission, and the loss of an irreplaceable German battleship.

See Also

  • 2
    Bismark was doomed regardless of the Hood's fate; she would be hounded to death.
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 13:51
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    @TonyEnnis I don't agree. The British navy in spring 1941 was spread very thin. Many German capital ships had previously been used as commerce raiders, the results were mixed, but they usually got away with it. Bismarck would have escaped but for a very lucky torpedo strike at just the right spot. That said, German light cruisers and armed merchantmen were far more successful and economical as commerce raiders.
    – Schwern
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 21:15
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    @Angew Right. I wish they'd remove that restriction.
    – Schwern
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 9:39
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    I'd note also three more things: 1) The plan was to meet up with other ships in the Atlantic as and when needed. This was not the entire plan for Bismarck, it was just the movement to get it into position. 2) It's a lot easier to find a fleet than it is to find two ships sailing in close support and at high speed (it literally took a British entire fleet to find the Bismarck) and 3) An entire fleet sailing together would have forced a fleet engagement with the more powerful Royal Navy. This wasn't in the interests of the Kriegsmarine, who could gain far more from commerce raidinig.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 14:51
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    @TonyEnnis The Bismarck would have been hunted, but probably not in the same "Drop everything and Sink the Bismarck" way as it was: the Hood sinking was a huge propaganda victory that couldn't be left unanswered, and the Royal Navy took a big risk assigning so many assets to hunt the Bismarck after that event. Fortunately for Britain the Kriegsmarine wasn't in a position to answer what could have been a costly decision.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 14:54

As identified in the first paragraph of the question, the purpose of Operation Rheinübung was a continuation of the commerce raids on allied shipping in the Atlantic. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had previously performed a similar exercise with great success.

Commerce raiding was a common tactic used against a superior (or simply numerically larger) naval force. It allowed the smaller force to do disproportionate damage against the enemy shipping while avoiding the risk of putting all of their warships at risk at once. By keeping their own ships dispersed, the Germans would force the British to spread their own forces to find and attack them. In that situation, there was the possibility that the German battleship would be able to out-fight the force it encountered (or simply out-run, as was the case when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered a couple of British battleships).

Had the Germans committed a larger flotilla (or even fleet) to the operation, it would have allowed the British to concentrate their forces too. In a fleet action the Germans would have, almost certainly, been outnumbered and outgunned. In which, case they would have been at risk of losing a considerable part of their surface fleet in a single action.

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    Does this mean that Bismarck was sentenced to death immediately after it's launch on 14 February 1939? Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 19:36
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    I'm not quite sure what you mean by that question. Bismark certainly stood a better chance of survival in the open waters of the Atlantic than it did sitting in port (or in a fjord). However, in a naval war against the British (and American) fleets, she was always likely to be on the losing side.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 19:53
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    @eugensunic - no, not really. The Kriegsmarine wasn't intended to group up and go toe-to-toe with the Royal Navy: Germany simply couldn't build ships fast enough to match the Royal Navy for an all out engagement... German strategy was to instead force the Royal Navy to spread out and chase "ghosts" - small but powerful forces that the Royal Navy would have no option but to chase after in smaller groups.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 15:00
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    @eugensunic - Yes, it means that. A capital ship like that is designed for fleet actions, but the Germans couldn't (or at least didn't) build enough of a fleet to stand up to the British fleet to use it that way. So once the war started their choices were basically either not to use it, or to send it and all their other ships out raiding until they got caught and sunk.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 15:16

As far as "battleships" go, the Germans only had the Bismarck. The Tirpitz had just completed construction and wasn't quite "ready" for major duty, and the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were undergoing repairs.

A more interesting question is why didn't Germany send out cruisers and destroyers with the Bismarck to protect it from "cheap shots." Apparently, no one felt that they were needed. The Bismarck originally had a cruiser escort, the Prinz Eugen, that did a great job of shielding the Bismarck against the opening fire of the Hood. But Bismarck's Admiral Luetgens apparently didn't feel the need for such an escort, and detached the Prinz Eugen for "independent" duty. The idea was that the Prinz Eugen could do more damage by itself than by accompanying a Bismarck that was damaged, and needed to head to port for repairs.

With benefit of hindsight, the Prinz Eugen's anti-aircraft fire might have helped save the Bismarck from air attack by the bombers of Britain's Ark Royal. But that's with hindsight, because no one thought in those terms at the time.

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    They had built their navy "recently" (basically in the 50 years before World War II), and lacked "experience."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 17:14
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    The Tirpitz completed her sea trials and commissioned in February 1941. So your first paragraph is technically incorrect. Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 17:32
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    @eugensunic The threat of air power was not appreciated at this point in the war. The Battle Of Taranto, the first major air victory over heavy warships, had only happened six months earlier. Pearl Harbor was six months in the future. Surface captains told themselves that planes bombing ships at harbor was one thing, but attacking maneuvering ones was another thing entirely. When you look at the Swordfish bomber you can hardly blame them.
    – Schwern
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 19:58
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    @Schwern: I incorporated your comment into a revised answer (new last sentence), even though your comment was technically addressed to eugensunic.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 20:08
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    @TomAu: One, while I certainly enjoy a good game from time to time, games are only a very poor image of reality. (Somehow I knew your answer was at least partially inspired by gaming experience.) Two, you're really comparing apples and oranges there.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:13

The Kriegsmarine had been following Plan Z with the outbreak of war predicted as 1945 not 1939 and at least 2 aircraft carriers were considered but only one the Graf Zeppelin was built and this was heavily damaged by an RAF air attack and not completed, 2 battleships and 2 battle-cruisers were also due to be constructed after the Tirpitz but the materials and men were turned over to U-Boat construction instead. Escorting the Bismarck with light cruisers and/or destroyers was not possible due to their short range, the Royal Navy had bases in the UK, Iceland, Canada, Gibraltar etc. and their ships were designed to protect the empire so range was a major consideration in their design.

Air power at sea was still unproven in May 1941 indeed the Prince of Wales was the first battleship to be sunk at sea by aircraft when the Japanese sank her in December 1941. Before then aircraft were considered as a means to find the enemy and guide ships to them, destroying them was not considered.

The operation that the Bismarck undertook was meant to include a meeting with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau but the Scharnhorst was suffering from faulty boilers and her sister ship had been bombed and torpedoed in the harbor at Brest in France, Lutjens wanted to postpone the mission and wait for Tirpitz to complete her working up but was over ruled by Raeder the C-in-C of the German Navy.

As for the Prinz Eugen adding her Anti-aircraft armament as an escort it is interesting to note that none of the attacking Swordfish bi-planes were shot down in either attack despite the crew of the Bismarck receiving plenty of notice of the impending attacks but later examination of the German anti aircraft systems shows that they were calibrated to allow for a much faster aircraft, the Swordfish at top speed could officially manage 140 mph but due to the weather conditions encountered 85 mph was probably more accurate (I had the honor of knowing the pilot of one of the Swordfish that flew from HMS Victorious against the Bismarck and own a copy of his book). The German gunners allowed to much deflection!

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    Welcome to the Stack Exchange History! I'm curious what your sources for this information are. Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 2:51

The German navy was the weakest part in Germany and Hitler decided to built it as last chance to defeat the Royal Navy. The biggest battleship ever built by Germany was escorted by the largest available "second" ship, a new heavy cruiser. Once was ready its mission was to destroy the British merchant fleet. A UK admiral was advised about German plans so he decided to make a duel of battleships in the Straits of Denmark.

The Bismark battleship was enough to win that duel because was only two ships against two. However, the Royal Navy was far from accept the defeat and decided to persecute with a small fleet (1 aircraft carrier and several battleships, a cruiser and destroyers). So, in that moment the Bismarck was totally surplused and its defeat was normal.

It was a great try by Germany but was a great mistake because the Royal Navy was the biggest of Europe. Only finishing the Z plan was able to defy the UK, a plan that hitler decided not to complete.

  • The Z plan was really ambitious and needed 7 years to complete the plan. However, Hitler prefer the total effort in the army. Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 14:43
  • As written, this doesn't add anything relevant that isn't already covered in other answers.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 19:06

The Bismark's limited escorts was not uncommon for surface raiders. It was common since the Age of Sail for large combatants to sail independently without escorts who would require logistics support along the way. In some ways, traveling alone was an advantage, especially in waters like the south Atlantic where the Bismark was unlikely to see enemy submarines. But the reality was that the big ships were vulnerable to naval air power and submarines. The quick sinking of the HMS Hood came as a great shock to the British people and gave root to the fear that the UK might lose the war. Churchill, therefore, made sinking the Bismark a priority, sending a massive force to defeat it. A few destroyers or cruiser escorts probably would not have made much difference at that point.

Bismark's lack of escort ships had much to do with the German Navy's shift in strategy that emphasized submarines over big surface ships.

In many ways, the shift to submarines -- made after a spending spree on battleships and cruisers during the 1930s -- made sense if the mission of the Navy was to be denial of access to British merchant ships, the same strategy Germany used in World War I. As an anti-access weapon, the submarine is ideal. It can be built quickly and cheaply and were deadly against unescorted merchant vessels. So through 1943, the German Navy's large submarine service and battleships like the Bismark, forced allied forces to assign destroyers and battleships (and later small aircraft carriers) to protect convoys.

Production of submarines, almost exclusively by the end of the war, also made sense because it demanded less steel from German industry than the Army and Air Force.

The shift to submarine construction, however, deprived the Navy of the ability to support an amphibious assault against the United Kingdom. Navy chief, Admiral Erich Raeder, had never considered that invasion would be Germany's goal and had not constructed the Navy with that goal. Moreover, the UK's breaking of Germany's submarine codes, the development of sonar, airborne radar, and radio detection techniques ("Huff-Duff"), turned the tables on the submarines, too.

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