Who Really Sank the Bismarck?

You are 16,000 feet below the North Atlantic, peering out the window of a tiny submersible. The wreck you see was once the most feared warship in the world.

Even now — 60 years after it went to the bottom — the Nazi battleship Bismarck is still a fearsome sight.

"This is a beautiful, formidable thing, with a very definite malevolence about it," says Capt. Alfred McLaren, a longtime U.S. submarine captain who has seen the wreck.

McLaren is one of a small group of explorers who have ventured down to the sea floor, found the Bismarck, and are trying to revise its story.

The Terror of the Seas

For one horrible week in 1941, the Bismarck dominated the seas. On its very first mission, it sank the HMS Hood, the pride of Britain's Royal Navy. Only three sailors survived; 1,415 died. The battle lasted only eight minutes.

"I don't care how you do it," said Winston Churchill. "You must sink the Bismarck."

Sixteen British warships joined the chase. The British Admiralty ordered them to hunt the Bismarck down, even if they risked running out of fuel. Finally, three of them cornered their enemy 300 miles off the Irish coast.

"By the time we finished we left her burning stem to stern," said a sailor from the HMS Rodney, "and she was sinking."

But maybe not. With the remarkable technology that lets them probe so deep in the ocean, McLaren and others have come to believe that while the Bismarck was disabled, the battleship only sank because the Nazis scuttled it.

"Before my first dive I was prepared to say it had been sunk by the British," says McLaren. But after scanning the wreck thoroughly, he says, "There isn't any evidence of shells or torpedoes near the water line, much less below it."

The Debate Goes On

Not everyone is convinced.

"I have a real problem with that," says David Mearns, an explorer and author who has also examined the Bismarck wreck.

Mearns says the damage is there if one looks closely enough, and more may be hidden by the mud on the sea floor. He adds that sailors' accounts from the time — both British and German — agree that the British got the revenge they sought.

"It is only when you start getting closer and closer," he says, "that you see that this beautiful hull is actually peppered with torpedo holes and large-caliber shell holes, that she was actually sort of beaten to death by all this British gunnery."

McLaren stands his ground. If the crew had not scuttled the Bismarck, he says, the ship would have remained afloat and might have been captured by the British.

Perhaps, says Mearns, the debate goes on because the Bismarck has such a fearsome aura. If it had not been destroyed, it might have ended the historic British dominance of the seas, and perhaps affected the outcome of World War II.

"It's a ghost ship, in a way," he says, "and when you know also that so many lives have been lost, that really does have an impact on you."

On that point, McLaren certainly agrees. "It's an intimidating ship, absolutely," he says.

"Even at the bottom of the sea?" we asked.

"Very definitely."