History’s Mysteries: The Most Magical Moment of World War II

May, 1941.

Hitler's Germany has conquered all of Europe; all except for one resolute island nation.  And, with his eye on Russia, Hitler has no immediate interest in fighting Great Britain; he simply wants to relegate it to the inconsequential.  This means stopping the supply convoys from America.  A relatively simple task, given the right equipment.

Which he had.

The terrifying armada of U-boats had already caused the American supply ships to huddle in close-knit convoys; perfect targets for the long guns of a battleship.  Even if a convoy was accompanied by a cruiser, or even a battleship, that's not much of a threat when your own battleship is so big and new that you can outgun the enemy by five miles.

It was a fairly simple plan, really, and it should have worked.

And if it had?

Britain would have sat on the edge of starvation for the year or so it would have taken Hitler to conquer Russia, since now he wouldn't have to divide his forces, then the isles would have easily fallen once he turned his full might upon them.

And that means, without a stepping stone or 'bridgehead' to gather our forces on, America never could have effectively invaded Europe.

And that means Hitler's Germany would have developed the atomic bomb long before we did.  They were already working on it by the time we invaded, and it was only our intervention, such as bombing the 'heavy water' facilities, that curtailed its development.  Without that, Germany would have had the atomic bomb within a few years.  At the time, they were considered the finest machinists in the world.

And then, after taking out Boston and Miami, the same way we took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as a small warning of what's to come — what would our government have done?

The same thing the Japanese government did when faced with certain annihilation.

That's how important this moment in history was.

So, why did this great plan fail?  It was, after all, the maiden voyage of the largest battleship ever built, the Bismarck, and with four other battleships in the fold, there was simply no way Germany could have failed to wreak havoc on the convoys, isolating Britain and effectively curtailing any further involvement from America.

How did it fail?  By a few great strokes of luck for the British and an incredible number of blunders on Germany's part.  And that's despite three major screw-ups by the Brits.

But the one major error on Germany's part, the one that signaled the end, was the one that created a situation that was perhaps the most surreal moment in the history of modern warfare.

When you picture a naval battle with Bismarck, you're imagining the pounding of the large British naval guns and the brave aviators in their fast Hellcats launching deadly torpedoes at the massive warship, right?

That's what the Germans were thinking, too.

Little did anyone know.


The 'Seconds From Disaster' video this article is based on is here.

First, just to get us in the mood, here's a nice slideshow of the big ol' girl.  With accompanying music track, no less.


had 88 large guns, the biggest with a range of over 35 miles.  She also had a new state-of-the-art automated anti-aircraft system that was guaranteed to blow the fastest enemy planes off the map.  She could do 30 knots, 5 knots faster than the fastest British ship, HMS Hood, the pride of the British NavyHer armor plating was so thick it was deemed impenetrable by shell, bomb or torpedo.

But, despite three colossal blunders on the Brit's part, the Germans still managed to out-blunder them to the point where everything hinged upon this one wonderfully surreal moment in time.

Here's how the cascade of ten errors unfolded:

1.  The original plan was to set sail with at least four battleships, if not five.  One was active and sailed with Bismarck, but the other three were in various states of repair in France.  If Hitler had merely waited a few more months, you'd probably be eating sauerkraut for dinner tonight.  But, figuring he had stealth on his side and an invincible warship, he ordered the plan to commence with only two ships.

2.  German High Command vastly underestimated the network of British spies on the mainland, and how quickly British Intelligence was being updated.  When the two battleships set sail from Norway under cover of dense fog, they thought they had escaped undetected.  In truth, British Intelligence knew about the departure within hours.  If Bismarck had known this, she would have immediately started taking evasive maneuvers and probably wouldn't have been located until she slaughtered her first convoy.

3.  Because of the sudden arrival of dense fog, it was decided to embark before the refueling had completed.  As such, when they later sustained a fuel leak in the first battle with British forces, they didn't have enough fuel to continue on the mission and thus had to decide where to make repairs and refuel, a decision which turned out to be fatal.

4.  Due to their foreknowledge, Britain sent her largest warships to engage Bismarck before she reached the Atlantic.  The admiral aboard Bismarck was under orders not to engage the British fleet, but to simply outrun them and head for open seas and the convoys.

Suddenly, two of Britain's biggest warships, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, appeared out of the fog, firing away.  The Admiral wanted to keep on going but the ship's captain, claiming his first duty was to the safety of his ship, interceded and ordered the guns to open fire.

They blew Hood completely out of the water.  One of the first shells hit the magazine and cracked her right in half.  Prince of Wales, badly damaged, turned tail and ran as Bismarck plowed on.  While a seeming victory, this was actually a tremendously critical psychological error, because — as we'll see — there's an immense gulf between chasing after some enemy warship because that's what the war book calls for, and doing it out of enraged revenge.

5.  The one shot the Brits landed on Bismark was up near the bow, opening a fuel tank, which demanded a decision be made.  The admiral wanted to continue to France for repairs but the captain, always thinking of the safety of his ship, wanted to turn around and return to Norway.  Ahead of them might lie trouble, behind them was safe journey back to port.  The admiral had the final say so they continued south to France, the next in a series of fatal decisions.

6.  But this isn't to say that Britain didn't do its part in screwing up.  Although you'd think keeping radar contact with the largest goddamned battleship on the planet would be easy enough, the Brits managed to lose her.  Not knowing Bismarck was leaking fuel, they assumed she was still heading for the open Atlantic and thus misdirected all their search efforts.  It wasn't anything but blind luck that a scout plane spotted her heading toward France and the hunt was back on.

7.  Except they initially got their bearings wrong and thought Bismarck was headed north back to Norway.  After blazing north and away from Bismarck for half a day, they realized their error, but by now it was too late to catch the massive dreadnaught with the best of Britain's fleet.

8.  But a small convoy composed of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and a few cruisers was coming up from Africa to help with the hunt, and they had time to intercept Bismarck before it reached the French coast.

Because it had been relegated to a lesser theater of the war, Ark Royal was equipped with what was effectively a holdover from World War I:


With a top speed of only 80 knots and sporting open cockpits, the lightweight Swordfish biplanes took off into the teeth of a storm, vengeance in the pilots' eyes, determined to hunt down Bismarck and sink her.

Suddenly, a warship was spotted!  The brave Swordfish pilots attacked the vessel — which strangely didn't return fire — because it was HMS Sheffield.  Before the pilots could sort things out, a few of them had already dropped their torps, enough to sink the big ship.

Not one of the torpedoes, armed with a new magnetic detonation device, rather than the trusty old impact device, exploded.  They were all duds.

So, incredible blunder that this was, if it hadn't happened with Sheffield, it would have happened with Bismarck, and there would have flown Britain's only chance to stop her.  The quite-relieved Swordfish pilots hustled back to Ark Royal, hurriedly rearmed with the older style torpedoes, went back on the hunt and this time found Bismarck.

9.  And then came what was perhaps the greatest error of all, yet it's such a touchingly poignant human error on the designers' part that it's hard to fault them.

At this point of the attack, given normal British aircraft, Bismarck's slick new anti-aircraft system probably would have blown most of them out of the sky.  A torp or two might have gotten through, but would have been rendered more or less ineffective by the immense steel armor plating.

But the state-of-the-art anti-aircraft system had been designed to repel standard war planes.

Standard war planes from World War II.

Because of the Swordfish's ultra-slow speed, the automatic anti-aircraft tracking devices couldn't get a lock on them and not one of the fifteen Swordfish was shot down.

Bismarck also deployed the latest anti-torpedo devices, so an actual hit was expected to be somewhat rare.  Of the one torpedo that made it through, it struck her in the one and only spot that was vulnerable; the rudders, which froze Bismarck in the middle of a turn.

At this point, all the mighty battleship could do was turn in circles and await her fate.

A biplane took down the mightiest battleship ever built.

10.  But Britain didn't know this and thought Bismarck was still heading toward France.  They searched high and low for her, beaming out their most powerful radar signals.  The last error on Germany's part was that they didn't understand the limitations of radar and thought the British knew where they were.  Because of this, in desperation the admiral broke radio silence and called German High Command, demanding immediate naval and air support.

The British picked up on the signal, zeroed in on the location and, while puzzled at Bismarck's actions, didn't hesitate to send every warship they had after her.  One of the first batteries knocked out the bridge, and then it was just a matter of putting enough torpedoes in her to put her on the bottom.

A handful of shaky old World War I biplanes had thwarted Hitler's master plan, beaten the greatest battleship ever put to sea, and saved the world as we know it today.

So here's to you, Swordfish pilots, and to your mighty craft.  Your moment in the storm shall not be forgot.