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World War II: Battle of the Denmark Strait

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World War II: Battle of the Denmark Strait

Bismarck shortly after the Battle of the Denmark Strait

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of the Denmark Strait: Conflict & Date:

The Battle of the Denmark Strait was fought May 24, 1941, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders

Kriegsmarine

  • Admiral Gunther Lutjens
  • Captain Ernst Lindemann
  • Bismarck, Prinz Eugen

    Royal Navy

  • Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland
  • Captain John Leach
  • HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales

  • Battle of the Denmark Strait: Background:

    On May 18, 1941, Admiral Gunther Lutjens of the German Kriegsmarine began Operation Rheinubung. Sailing from Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland) with the new battleship Bismarck and new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen he had orders to break out into the Atlantic to attack Allied convoys. Three days later, the British Admiralty was alerted by sources in Sweden that the two ships had been spotted in the Kattegat heading for the North Sea. While the British reacted to this news, Lutjen's force took temporary refuge near Bergen, Norway.

    Preparing to sortie, Lutjens intended to sail northwest before descending into the Atlantic via the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Taking advantage of foul weather, the German ships departed undetected early on the evening of May 21. At Scapa Flow, the commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey began making preparations to intercept Lutjens. Ordering the cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk, under Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker, to patrol the Denmark Strait, he dispatched the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, along with six destroyers, to the area.

    Pride of the Fleet:

    Launched in 1918, HMS Hood had long been the pride of the Royal Navy and a symbol of British power. The flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, Hood possessed an armament comparable to a battleship but not the armor. In particular, the ship was vulnerable to plunging fire as its deck armor was relatively thin. Holland's consort, Prince of Wales, was a newly completed King George V-class battleship, but had not been fully shaken down as well as possessed a green crew. Due to issues with the ships mechanical systems, it departed Scapa Flow with workers still aboard.

    Bismarck Detected:

    To support Holland, Tovey sortied from Scapa Flow late on May 22 with HMS King George V, the carrier HMS Victorious, four cruisers, and seven destroyers. Pushing through foul weather that hid them from Allied aircraft, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen succeeded in entering the Denmark Strait. On the evening of May 23, Suffolk spotted the two German ships through the fog. Alerting Norfolk, the two cruisers moved into position to shadow Lutjen's force. In the course of doing so, Norfolk strayed too close to Bismarck and was straddled by a German salvo before it was able to withdraw into the fog (Map).

    The British Plan:

    Maintaining contact, Wake-Walker relayed the enemy's position to the approaching Holland. As he sailed towards the strait, Holland devised his plan for the upcoming fight. He intended intercept the Germans from the east around 2:00 AM on May 24 (sunset at that latitude was 1:51 AM) to silhouette them against the setting sun while his own ships were hidden in the darkness. While Hood and Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck, he wished Suffolk and Norfolk to attack Prinz Eugen.

    As the battle progressed, he planned to close quickly with Hood to reduce the threat of plunging fire. While Holland signaled this plan to Captain John C. Leach of Prince of Wales, he did not send to it Wake-Walker for fear of revealing his location. Key to this plan was Suffolk maintaining contact with Bismarck until the battle began. This aspect of the plan began to unravel shortly after midnight on May 24 when Suffolk lost touch with the German ships. Operating blind for thirty minutes, Holland released his destroyers to search to the north while he turned his capital ships southwest.

    The Battle of the Denmark Strait:

    Around 3:00 AM, Suffolk was able to re-establish contact with Bismarck. Learning that the Germans were 35 miles away, Holland increased speed and moved to intercept. Further course changes on the part of Lutjens placed the approaching British in a worsening tactical situation as it would be more difficult to close on Bismarck quickly. At 5:35 AM, lookouts on Prince of Wales spotted the Germans at a range of 17 miles. Though the two British cruisers were too far away to play a role in the battle, Holland elected to engage rather than wait for Tovey to arrive with reinforcements.

    Hood opened fire at 5:52 AM and initially targeted Prinz Eugen thinking it was Bismarck. This was quickly corrected and Prince of Wales joined in engaging the German battleship. Though plagued by mechanical issues with its guns, Prince of Wales succeeded in hitting Bismarck three times putting is catapult out of action, damaging its forward fuel tanks, and causing moderate flooding. Lutjens' held his fire until 5:55 when both ships began firing on Hood. At 6:00, Holland turned slightly to port to bring more guns into action (Map).

    As the ships turned, Hood was straddled by German shells. This was followed by a pillar of flames erupting from near the ship's mainmast which culminated in a massive explosion tearing the ship in two. This appears to have been caused by shell from Bismarck penetrating Hood's deck armor and detonating in a magazine. All but three of the battlecruiser's crew was lost. With his consort destroyed, Leach was left to face the two German ships alone. Executing an emergency turn to avoid the wreckage of Hood, Prince of Wales was hit four times by Bismarck and three times by Prinz Eugen. Having sustained damage and with his ship continuing to experience serious mechanical problems, Leach elected to break off the action and withdraw.

    Aftermath of the Battle of Denmark Strait

    Aboard Bismarck, the ship's commander Captain Ernst Lindemann requested permission to pursue Prince of Wales. This was refused by Lutjens whose orders stipulated that his force was to avoid unnecessary combat and focus on destroying Allied shipping. With Holland's death, Wake-Walker became the senior officer in the area and elected to return to shadowing the German ships. At 7:57 he informed the approaching Tovey that Bismarck had slowed and appeared damaged. Having lost the element of surprise, and with Bismarck bleeding fuel, Lutjens detached Prinz Eugen and elected to attempt to make port in France for repairs. Stunned by the loss of Hood, the British concentrated their naval forces against Bismarck and succeeded in sinking it on May 27. In the fighting at Denmark Strait, the British lost 1,428 killed (1,415 aboard Hood) and nine wounded.

    Selected Sources

  • US Navy History & Heritage Command: Battle of the Denmark Strait
  • World War II Database: Battle of the Denmarck Strait
  • HMS Hood Association

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