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Posted on May 20, 2008 in Carlo D'Este, Stuff We Like

The Not So Merry Month of May

By Carlo D'Este

May is usually thought of as a time of year when nature reasserts her beauty after a long winter, and the weather turns warm with a promise of summer. In short, May is the month when the baseball season begins to heat up, the Derby is run, and Cinco de Mayo, graduations, and Mother’s Day celebrated.

Battleship Bismarck, photographed from astern. U.S. Naval Historical Center. May 1941, however, was a month of hell for Prime Minister Winston Churchill – a time when Britain suffered one military disaster after another. From the time of the German invasion of the West in May 1940, Churchill’s only strategy to reverse the tide of German aggression was to somehow bring the United States into the war as an ally. However, Pearl Harbor was months off in May 1941 and Britain fought alone.

At sea, the British were losing shipping at an astounding rate as German U-boats feasted on merchant shipping in the North Atlantic, while in the Mediterranean the war had turned disastrous. Rommel was on the loose in North Africa and had recaptured Cyrenaica, Greece had been invaded by the Germans and quickly lost after an ill-timed and unwise decision by Britain to send an expeditionary force – and now Crete was under siege and would likewise soon be lost. All that was left to show for each of these ventures were two more humiliating and bloody evacuations that rivaled Dunkirk. Nerves were stretched near the breaking point. Despite his defiant speeches and public optimism, Churchill could not entirely escape occasionally revealing the enormous weight that rested upon his shoulders. May 1941 was such a time.

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The Royal Navy sustained heavy losses evacuating Greece and in the deadly battle for Crete. In Scandinavia, another threat lurked. Churchill and the Admiralty dreaded the prospect of the menace posed to convoys in the Atlantic not only by the U-boats but also from capital ships.

Bismarck firing at Hood, photographed from the Prinz Eugen. U.S. Naval Historical Center.In May 1941 that threat became a reality when the world’s largest and deadliest warship, the new 42,000-ton battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen secretly sailed from the Baltic on May 18 and were sighted refueling in Bergen, Norway, three days later by an RAF reconnaissance aircraft before slipping away toward Iceland. A Royal Navy battle group that included the battleships HMS Hood and the recently commissioned HMS Prince of Wales was hastily dispatched from Scapa Flow to intercept the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen before they entered the North Atlantic and menaced British convoys.

On May 24, the two combatants found one another in the frigid waters of the Denmark Strait, some fifty-five miles off the western tip of Iceland. Already damaged by a shell fired by the Prinz Eugen, as the Hood turned to bring its main armament to bear on the Bismarck, it exploded, broke in two, and sank within minutes with only three survivors from its crew of 1,418. Although damaged, the Bismarck escaped and made a dash for sanctuary in the French port of Brest.

Churchill’s exhaustion and increasing testiness often left him unreasonable, particularly when it came to the Royal Navy. He was incensed that the Prince of Wales allegedly failed to press hard enough in the Denmark Strait, unaware that it had been badly damaged and most of its armament knocked out of commission. He turned his fury and his frustration on the hapless Admiralty.

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1 Comment

  1. Good article. Also, I am requesting permission to use the two JPEG images that appeared in Mr. Carlo D’Este’s May 20 2008 article in one that I am writing on the Bismarck.

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