The Sinking of the 'Bismarck', 27 May 1941

(Updated, June 2024) The culmination of a famous episode during the Second World War, 1939-45, when the battleship 'Bismarck' was running for shelter in the occupied French port of Brest. She and the heavy cruiser 'Prinz Eugen' had sailed from Kiel in the Baltic on 18 May 1941, aiming to break out into the Atlantic and threaten British convoys. However, an air sighting as they refuelled near Bergen led to a massive naval and air operation to prevent this.

They were next spotted in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, and were engaged there on 24 May by the battle-cruiser 'Hood' and the untried battleship 'Prince of Wales', so new that she still had civilian workmen on board. The former blew up with the loss of all but three men when a shell from 'Bismarck' penetrated a forward magazine: the latter was damaged. 'Bismarck' herself was hit and, critically, lost access to 1000 tons of fuel oil stored in a forward tank. That evening an air strike from the carrier 'Victorious' - the first-ever by carrier-borne aircraft against a capital ship in mid-ocean - scored one torpedo hit amidships on her but did no damage.

On the 25th the German ships separated, 'Prinz Eugen' temporarily vanishing in the Atlantic while 'Bismarck' ran for the shelter of Brest to remedy her fuel problem. Resighted by the British early on the 26th she was attacked that evening by Swordfish from the carrier 'Ark Royal' (of Force H, sent up from Gibraltar). Fifteen aircraft took off at 7.10 p.m. in atrocious weather. Three torpedoes hit, with one jamming 'Bismarck's' rudders over and condemning her to circle at no more than seven knots. About 8.45 am on the 27th, Admiral Sir John Tovey, commanding elements of the Home Fleet from the flagship 'King George V', and joined by the battleship 'Rodney', sighted the 'Bismarck' and opened fire. Despite being unmanoeuvrable 'Bismarck's' armament was unimpaired. Her first salvoes fell close to the 'Rodney' but neither British ship was hit. By 9.31 'Bismarck' was no longer firing and and by 10.15 she was a burning wreck. Short of fuel, Tovey then turned for home, ordering the cruiser 'Dorsetshire' to finish her off with torpedoes. A false U-boat sighting after 'Bismarck' sank at 10.39 curtailed the rescue of survivors in the water: only 110 plus the ship's cat were saved, a junior gunnery officer being the senior man (Burkhard von Mullenheim-Rechburg, much later an eminent diplomat and author of a fine survivor's account).

In the painting 'Bismarck' is shown wallowing in the sea, in starboard-bow view, listing to port. There is a huge hole in her fo'c'sle from which flames and smoke are pouring. 'Dorsetshire' is in the right background in port-broadside view, about to launch torpedos.

Charles Turner (1883-1965) worked for the 'Illustrated London News' and 'The Sphere', and did much other commercial illustrative work as well as being a more general marine and aviation artist. During the Second World War he painted naval actions with a closely observed and highly detailed finish, presenting a heightened sense of the drama of events such as this, and these appeared as double-page spreads. This is an interesting example in that it was commissioned and presented to the Museum in 1945 by Captain Sir Bruce Ingram, the managing editor and proprietor of the 'Illustrated London News' apparently as an oil copy of another illustration version by Turner reproduced as a doube-page spread in the issue of 7 June 1941 under the headline, 'The Last of the "Bismarck": Shelled, Bombed and on Fire the Nazi Mammoth is Torpedoed by H.M.S."Dorsetshire"'. Ingram was one of the Museum's early supporters up to his death in 1963. His generosity was not usually in the form of specially commissioning works for it but he appears to have done so in this case and another by Turner of the sinking of the 'Scharnhorst' (BHC2250).

This one is signed 'C E Turner'. 'E' was certainly for Edward (though he frequently omitted it): references that misread it for 'Eddowes' are wrong and probably based on a mistaken link with the Nottingham-born animal painter William Eddowes Turner (1836-1904). How this started is unclear but official records for Charles (baptism at Manchester Cathedral in October 1883 and probate on death) include Edward. The NMM also has a model of the ‘Bismarck’ by the model maker H. G. Sitford (SLR0159).

Object Details

ID: BHC0679
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Turner, Charles Edward
Events: World War II, 1939-1945
Vessels: Bismarck (1939)
Date made: circa 1941; 1941-45
People: Royal Navy; German Navy
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.
Measurements: Painting: 635 mm x 762 mm; Frame: 825 mm x 955 mm x 90 mm

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