Exploring the wreck of the Bismarck – and it is in remarkable condition

Bismarck/Painting by Ken Marschall

Some years ago I was lucky enough to spend some time with a rear gunner of a Swordfish (“stringbag”) that was one of the planes that attacked the Bismarck with torpedoes.

This video footage of a dive to the wreck is pretty addictive. The wreck looks like it wouldn’t take a lot to make it war ready again. The level of preservation is incredible. The wreck of Bismarck was discovered on 8 June 1989 by Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer responsible for finding RMS Titanic. Bismarck was found to be resting upright at a depth of approximately 15,719 ft about 400 miles west of Brest.

February 14, 1939, the 823-foot Bismarck was launched at Hamburg.

The ship struck an extinct underwater volcano, which rose some 3,300 ft above the surrounding abyssal plain, triggering a 1.2 miles landslide. Bismarck slid down the mountain, coming to a stop two-thirds down.

The hull rests upright embedded in mud that covers the keel to about the level of the ship’s designed waterline. Despite of the heavy shell and torpedo damage that the British inflicted on the battleship and the obvious effects of the sinking itself, the wreck is in surprisingly good condition.

Few other shipwrecks are as well preserved as the Bismarck, and, except for the last 35 feet of the stern  that broke away, the hull is intact. The main battery turrets dropped off the hull due to their own weight as the ship rolled over and sank, and they are now upside-down on the bottom.

On May 27, 1941, the British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic near France.

But the secondary battery turrets and most anti-aircraft guns are still there in their proper location. Both the forward and after conning tower, and the bridge, though heavily damaged, are with the hull, too, and the propellers are clearly visible. In the debris field that surrounds the hull, other parts of the battleship can be found such as the foremast, the mainmast, the funnel, rangefinders, etc.

Considering the fact that on most parts of the decks the wooden teak planking is still conserved, and even the paint, it is most likely that the wreck will resist the effects of the corrosion for at least a few hundred years if not more.

Ballard’s survey found no underwater penetrations of the ship’s fully armoured citadel. Eight holes were found in the hull, one on the starboard side and seven on the port side, all above the waterline. One of the holes is in the deck, on the bow’s starboard side. The angle and shape indicates the shell that created the hole was fired from Bismarck ‘ s port side and struck the starboard anchor chain. The anchor chain has disappeared down this hole.

Six holes are amidships, three shell fragments pierced the upper splinter belt, and one made a hole in the main armour belt. Further aft a huge hole is visible, parallel to the aircraft catapult, on the deck. The submersibles recorded no sign of a shell penetration through the main or side armour here, and it is likely that the shell penetrated the deck armour only. Huge dents showed that many of the 14 inch shells fired by King George V bounced off the German belt armour.

The German death toll was more than 2,000.

Ballard noted that he found no evidence of the internal implosions that occur when a hull that is not fully flooded sinks. The surrounding water, which has much greater pressure than the air in the hull, would crush the ship. Instead, Ballard points out that the hull is in relatively good condition; he states simply that “Bismarck did not implode.”

This suggests that Bismarck ‘ s compartments were flooded when the ship sank, supporting the scuttling theory. Ballard added “we found a hull that appears whole and relatively undamaged by the descent and impact”. They concluded that the direct cause of sinking was scuttling: sabotage of engine-room valves by her crew, as claimed by German survivors. Ballard kept the wreck’s exact location a secret to prevent other divers from taking artefacts from the ship, a practice he considered a form of grave robbing.

The whole stern had broken away; as it was not near the main wreckage and as of 2015 had not been found, it can be assumed this did not occur on impact with the sea floor. The missing section came away roughly where the torpedo had hit, raising questions of possible structural failure. The stern area had also received several hits, increasing the torpedo damage.

This, coupled with the fact the ship sank “stern first” and had no structural support to hold it in place, suggests the stern detached at the surface. In 1942 Prinz Eugen was also torpedoed in the stern, which subsequently collapsed. This prompted a strengthening of the stern structures on all German capital ships