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March 2003

22nd Edition

Who Sank the Bismarck?


Bismarck, Explorers Revise The Story


he Bismarck was the world's most feared warship, a Nazi superweapon meant to sever the convoy lifeline that kept Britain alive in World War II. Its guns could fire one-ton shells 24 miles. So upon its debut in 1941, the British responded with everything they had. Resolve grew steely after the Bismarck destroyed the Hood, considered Britain's finest ship, killing all but 3 of its 1,415 men. "Sink the Bismarck!" became the battle cry.

After being pursued by a fleet of British ships and aircraft, and constant pounding by shells and torpedoes, the Bismarck went down in 3 miles of water, 600 miles off the coast of France, on May 27, 1941. It was the eighth day of the warship's first mission. The victory became a monument of British pride and, in time, a hit film, a popular song and a small industry of Bismarck books and television shows.

There is just one problem. New evidence, detailed in interviews, videotapes and photographs, suggests that the story is wrong.

"We conclusively proved there was no way the British sank that ship," said Dr. Alfred S. McLaren, a naval expert who studied the wreck on two expeditions, this year and last. "It was scuttled."

This conclusion is still hotly contested by British researchers. But five expeditions have reconnoitered the site, and three independent teams of American explorers, including Dr. McLaren, a retired submariner and emeritus president of the Explorers Club in New York, have concluded that the famous ship is in surprisingly good shape.

No major damage from enemy fire is visible on the sides of its hull, the American explorers say. That fact alone, they add, suggests that the Bismarck was in fact scuttled as German survivors have claimed all along, saying that their naval tradition was to deliberately sink ships in danger of falling into enemy hands.


The American conclusions have infuriated the British, who denounce them as revisionist claptrap.

"I just don't buy it," said David L. Mearns, who last year led a British expedition to the wreck. "Bismarck was destroyed by British gunnery and sunk by torpedoes." Anything else, he added, is ridiculous.

The newest assault is by James Cameron, director of the 1997 movie "Titanic." His television documentary  shown on the Discovery Channel is based on an expedition last spring in which Mr. Cameron explored the Bismarck with robots and piloted submersibles. The expedition was able to probe the wreckage more deeply than earlier investigations.

Would the wounded Bismarck have sunk without the scuttling? "Sure," Mr. Cameron said in an interview. "But it might have taken half a day."

The new observations are challenging ideas about the Bismarck's end that once seemed self-evident, at least initially. In 1941, the British got a lucky break when an aircraft fired a torpedo that crippled the battleship's rudders. British ships then moved in, relentlessly firing rounds of shells and torpedoes.

Waves of German sailors abandoned the Bismarck as it sank, the men bobbing in the oily waters. The British picked up some survivors, but soon fled the area upon reports of U-boat activity. Of nearly 2,200 men on board the Bismarck, just 115 survived.

The German sailors told of setting off scuttling charges - explosives most military ships carry that shatter water intakes and other weak areas near the ship's keel. They said that those charges - exploded about 30 minutes before the sinking, and before the last torpedoes hit - were the real cause of the Bismarck's demise.

A British Admiralty report during the war concluded that German explosives might have hastened the ship's end, even if they were not the exclusive cause. But British patriots dismissed that idea.

(Continued on page 4)

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The Rolling Stone is a Quarterly publication of the USS Whetstone LSD-27
Association, INC. The
Association is a non profit, historical and educational    organization dedicated to promoting fraternal, civic, patriotic and historical memories of those who served aboard.

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