Admiral Lütjens and the “Bismarck”

First of all, I do not know whether this thread would be more suited for General Questions or for Great Debates — Mods, change this thread’s home if you deem it necessary.

I have been reading about the German battleship “Bismarck” and operation “Rheinübung”, which ended with its sinking. Honestly, I cannot fathom Admiral Lütjens actions during the same.

He looks to me as somebody who undertook his task while in the throes of a strong depression. He seemed apathetic throughout, and displayed (in my opinion) great passivity. After the annihilation of the British battleship “Hood” during the battle of Denmark’s Strait, why didn’t Lütjens press on with his great advantage in firepower and pursue the “Prince of Wales”, which had been seriously damaged in the battle? Why did he break the engagement and let it go away?

Why send a huge radio message to HQ that he must have known would have allowed the British to locate him by radio triangulation? OK, he possibly didn’t know that the British had lost track of the “Bismarck” at that point, but, why make things easier for them? Why not do as much as possible to shake the enemy boats that he thought were still shadowing him?

Why this passivity? It seems to me as if Lütjens considered himself a dead man as soon as he was told to sail with “Bismarck”, and thought that everything he might do was futile in the face of his enemy. That is not the frame of mind that I would want an admiral to have while sailing against the enemy!

Why was Lütjens so… I don’t know, fatalistic, or seemingly depressed? Why did they give him command of the biggest and best battleship of the German navy?

Just musing about this. I find his behavior very strange.

One of the other oddities was that he didn’t fully fuel Bismarck when in port in Norway. That lack of full fuel also played a part. But if you’re going on a lengthy cruise, you want full supplies, including fuel.

Since this requires speculation, let’s move it to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

From this site, it suggests the Bismark was quite damaged by the Prince of Wales and in no condition to continue further operations. He may have known that the Bismarks fate was sealed.

I’m still totally impressed by the gunnery, German and British, of the time. Throwing the equivalent of a small car a couple miles and hitting your target?

The Hood (commissioned in 1920) had 15-inch guns of a type used extensively in WWI, hitting targets at nearly a four-mile range at Jutland.

Bismarck was about 9 miles (14 km) away when she destroyed Hood. Luck played a role.

Read his wikipedia entry.

He was in a no win situation and heavily outnumbered. With the damage to his ship he could not catch the POW and felt that if he tried, it would just lead him into a trap

  1. The Bismarck had already been seriously injured.
  2. He knew that the British were sending every nearby ship toward that location; he didn’t want to wait around for them to arrive.
  3. He was aware that their hit on the Hood was mostly a lucky shot, and didn’t want the Prince of Wales to have an equally lucky shot. (They had already hit him twice.)
  4. His orders were specifically to destroy Allied convoys, and avoid battles with capital ships. He followed orders.

As you said, he thought they already knew where he was, so why not report to headquarters. He also asked for air protection to be sent from France, and a docking/repair station at Brest that he needed.

The German propensity for micromanaging their naval officers at sea was a serious detriment to them all through the war. For example, submarines, on sighting a convoy, were supposed to surface and send a radio message to call in other nearby subs, and wait for them, so they could attack as a ‘wolf pack’. Convoy escorts soon learned to listen for these sighting messages, and then go after that submarine, while the convoy made major changes in their course & speed. The Allied code breaking was so effective all through the war because the Germans were constantly sending messages back to headquarters giving details of their plans.

One also has to consider the perspective of the time.

It was May 1941 (just before the Germans invaded Russia) and Lutjens would of had knowledge the German war plans.

He would also have a good idea of the strength of the British Navy and realized that he was outnumbered 15 to 1 in battleships,

Even adding in the damaged S + G battlecruisers and the Tirpitz, they were still outnumbered 15 to 4. There was no way they could take on the Brits and have any chance at succeeding.

Also, the Bismarck (although heavily hyped as a Nazi supership) wasn’t much more than an improved and faster WW1 battleship.

It’s only real advantage was its speed (at the cost of heavy fuel usage)

He knew that if he delayed their mission, the Bismarck would be used against the Russians somehow.

He undertook the only possible mission (a convoy raid) he could envision but also knew that from earlier raids with S & G, that is was only a matter of time before he would get trapped by the British navy.

Before leaving on the mission, he told his wife that he didn’t think he would return but as a good German Naval Admiral (even though he detested the Nazis), he would try his best which is why he tried to run away from the British and only fired when he was caught by Hood and POW.

Part of the radio transmission was a request for help and the other part was a message to his bosses Raeder and Hitler that this was a bad mission to attempt but he would try the best he could. (I suspect that if he did survive the mission, he would have retired and refused to go on any more missions).

Even if the Bismarck escaped and made it back to France it would have been bombed repeatedly and unlikely to under take on any more further sorties.

Look what happened to its sister ship, Tirpitz. It was moved out of bombing range (temporarily) and used to threaten the Russian convoys until, the Brits used their big Lancaster Bombers with their 12 ton Tallboy bombs used it for target practise

The “wolf pack” tactics were Germany’s solution to the search problem. Convoys were very hard to find, and when you did, it made a lot of sense to concentrate all available submarines at that convoy, rather than have them go on (probably fruitlessly) searching for their own convoy to attack. The Germans had great success with wolf pack tactics before the Brits cracked their code, and during the intervals when, after a German key change, the Brits needed some time to crack the new encryption keys.

Also, Lutjens was considered their most capable and highly dedicated admiral.

(One doesn’t get to be the top surface fleet admiral without being highly competent.)

He went on this mission primarily because he could command it better by being with the ships rather than trying to command from Berlin.

Similarly, on the British side, Fleet Admiral Tovey also commanded from his flagship King George V.

This is in contrast to the US Navy where Nimitz had overall command from his office.

He actually cared about his crew and ship which is why he stayed conservative. Put any other commander in the same situation and the results would likely be similar.

The best that could have been hoped for was a return to Germany with minimal damage after sinking Hood. Then, at least most of the crew would not have perished at sea the way that they did. One thing that many people overlook is that these ships are crewed by 1500 to 3000 crew members and they are NOT easily replaced.

Just ask the current US Navy with their recent destroyer collision problems. In the past, crewing these ships was a lot easier. Now, the US Navy has to offer major incentives to keep their ships crewed as they are highly under-staffed.

Those would be 5 ton Tallboys

The 10 tonner was the Grand Slam

Thanks. I was remembered 12 000 lbs and mistakenly said 12 tons.

Excellent documentary interviewing the surviving bombers and tirpitz crew. (Jump to the 29 minute mark for the killer hits detailed)

Sorry for the hijack but how were they able to do that? Could they even have seen the other ship that far away?

Yes, given the tall masts where the rangefinders and directors were located would compensate for the curvature of the earth.

Note the long range meant the shells would arrive plunging down at rather steep angles, which is what did in the Hood (with her meager 3 inch maximum deck armor).

Yes, but very difficult to ID the ship. They initially thought they were cruisers.

Look at the picture from Prinz Eugen

Also, at that range, it would be 3%-5% chance of a hit. Given enough shells they woyld eventually get some hits

(Which they did on their on their 3 rd salvo and the killer shot on their 5th). Still it was a lucky shot

Murphy’s Law.

The Bismarck took 1,515 days to build. Her actual military cruise lasted only 5-2/3 days (135 hours 20 minutes). During that, 2,017 trained German sailors were killed. But she sank one old (vintage 1916) British battlecruiser, HMS Hood.

She wasn’t worth the time & effort spent on her, IMO.