Operation Rheinübung: Hypothetical Scenarios

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Operation Rheinübung: Hypothetical Scenarios

Postby José M. Rico » Wed Apr 13, 2005 1:11 am

I wrote this a couple of years ago (see http://www.kbismarck.com/hypothetical.html)

Operation Rheinübung: Hypothetical Scenarios

Many readers enjoy thinking of questions such as: What would have happened if Bismarck had arrived in Brest? or would having the Tirpitz along have changed anything? I too find some of these "what if" questions/scenarios interesting, even though I personally don't like to speculate too much, as every opinion can be argued and it's impossible to reach definitive conclusions. Anyway, I have tried to display a few of the most common scenarios carefully.

1. Bismarck escapes the British net and reaches Brest on 28 May 1941.

Let's say that the fatal torpedo hit in the rudders did not occur, and the Bismarck entered in Brest on the following day. After sinking the Mighty Hood and four days of continuous chase, Bismarck's crew would have been received as heroes. Possibly even a welcome greater than that Prien and the men of U-47 received after sinking the Royal Oak in October 1939. The victory would have gone without any doubt to the Germans, although their primary objective (sink British merchant shipping) wouldn't have been accomplished. Therefore, despite of damaging the prestige of the Royal Navy and angering Mr. Churchill (who probably would have fired a few of his Admirals), from the operational point of view, Bismarck's sortie would still be somewhat of a failure. Moreover, due to the damage received in the Denmark Strait and the following torpedo hits, the Bismarck would have had to enter dry dock for repairs. This would frustrate her prompt return to the Atlantic as the battleship could not be utilized again for at least the next two months.

Assuming the RAF would not damage the Bismarck again at Brest, the ship could resume its operations in the autumn, and maybe try to join the Tirpitz sailing from Germany. Otherwise, it is likely that Bismarck, together with Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen would retreat to Germany through the English Channel early in 1942. With all the battleships back at home, the Bismarck could be then sent to Norway and operate together with the Tirpitz against the Allied Arctic convoys in 1942-1943. That would have tied down even more Allied warships in Scapa Flow, but that is another story and I won't go any further on that.

2. Bismarck escapes undamaged and gets lost in the Atlantic after sinking the Hood.

Now let's say Bismarck and Prinz Eugen receive little or no damage during the Battle of the Denmark Strait. They then reach the Atlantic and break contact with the pursuing British forces. The German ships could then concentrate on the British convoys. The use of a powerful ship such as the Bismarck for merchant raiding offered great promises of success indeed, as she could tie down the British battleship escorting a convoy therefore allowing the Prinz Eugen to attack with impunity. Both German warships could have managed to sink 20-30 ships (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank 22 in two months) and then return home in August. That of course wouldn't have changed the course of the war, but as the British were already suffering heavy losses to the U-boats, a "few more tons" of valuable shipping lost to surface ships could make the difference and force the Admiralty to take further measures in this regard.

3. Operation Rheinübung: Bismarck and Tirpitz sail together in the spring of 1941.

As we already know, the battleship Tirpitz had been commissioned on February 1941, and was not ready for combat operations in the spring of 1941. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the British battleship Prince of Wales had been commissioned in late March 1941, and spent only a couple of weeks of trials when she engaged Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. This ship was far from being 100% battle ready and even had dockyard workers on board. Nevertheless, she managed to score three hits on Bismarck. So, it is quite reasonable to believe that Tirpitz would have added a far greater punch than Prinz Eugen, whether she was fully ready for combat or not. Moreover, Bismarck and Tirpitz would have formed a more homogeneous pair such as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and, if one Bismarck caused such a fuss, it is not hard to imagine what two Bismarcks could have done operating together in the Atlantic. The Royal Navy would still have more warships available, but the balance changes a bit as the British heavy units now have to face sixteen 38 cm guns installed in armoured floating platforms that can move at 30 knots. In fact, the real problem for the Royal Navy wouldn't have been the numbers, but the capability to concentrate a strong, and above all, fast enough battleship force in the right place at the right time to face the German warships. The famous motto often applied on Bismarck: "faster than anything stronger and stronger than anything faster", perfectly illustrates what the Royal Navy has to deal with here.

Let's assume things had developed as originally planned for with Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in May 1941. In order to have a chance of a victorious outcome, Admiral Tovey would have most likely changed the disposition of his force and would have reinforced Vice Admiral Holland's battle group with an additional warship (Repulse?), while he himself stayed on King George V which would join the slow Rodney later. So, Bismarck and Tirpitz would have fought against Hood, Prince of Wales, and Repulse in the Denmark Strait. Interesting engagement, isn't it? Whatever the outcome of that battle could be, if the German battleships managed to reach the Atlantic, then Tovey would have to rely on carrier air strikes to damage or slow down at least one them. This wouldn't have been an easy task either as the Swordfish now have to face the AA artillery of two warships, and as one can imagine a lucky torpedo hit in a rudder does not occur every day.

Finally, had Admiral Lütjens managed to shake off his pursuers and reach the Atlantic in condition to wage war on the British merchant shipping, the situation would be quite different than his earlier sortie with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Bismarck and Tirpitz could attack any British convoy, even those escorted by a battleship. The Royal Navy simply didn't have enough warships to protect every convoy against two battleships of this kind.

4. The German Naval High Command mounts a combined operation with the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, and the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin in the Spring of 1941.

This is one of the most frequently asked questions among the public: What if Bismarck had sailed with the Tirpitz and the Graf Zeppelin? The answer is simple, if Bismarck and Tirpitz together already offer more than a threat to the Royal Navy, the addition of the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin definitely inclines the balance to the German side. It is not crazy to think about it. Launched on 8 December 1938, the Graf Zeppelin could have been ready for service long before the spring of 1941 if its construction hadn't been suspended in April 1940. Unfortunately for the Germans this carrier was never commissioned.

Now, let's assume the Kriegsmarine sends the Bismarck together with Tirpitz and Graf Zeppelin to the Atlantic in the spring of 1941 to sink enemy shipping. The Graf Zeppelin, equipped with more than 40 aircraft (Bf 109T and Ju 87C Stuka), would not only have provided adequate air cover to the battle group, it would also have been able to launch air strikes on enemy merchantmen and warships if needed. The German carrier-based aircraft were far superior to their contemporary British counterparts, and the Bf 109 wouldn't have had any problem at all dealing with the old Swordfish and Fulmars, not to mention the big Catalinas. In addition, the Stuka dive bombers (with up to 1,000 kg/2,200 lbs. in bombs) could attack and inflict heavy damage on any British battleship force attempting to intercept the German battleships long before it could reach ballistic range. An embarked air wing permanently in the air, would have also helped with the reconnaissance, thus permitting to signal surface contacts to the battleships and U-boats, and a greater cooperation of all arms. This would have presented a big problem to the Royal Navy which most likely would have been unable to deal with such a powerful task force.

The Graf Zeppelin was the best opportunity the Kriegsmarine had to turn the balance in its favour (especially in 1941), and not to put this ship in service was a great mistake. The lack of air support sealed the fate of excellent warships that were already difficult to sink without air cover, and that otherwise could hardly have been defeated.

Image
The Graf Zeppelin almost completed. This carrier could have changed the fate of the Bismarck.

5. Operation Rheinübung postponed until the autumn of 1941.

This possibility was actually considered by the German Naval High Command, although ultimately Grand Admiral Raeder opted not to do so. In the autumn of 1941, the Tirpitz would have been finally ready to sail with Bismarck. Now, we have the possibility of Bismarck and Tirpitz operating together (as in item 3 above), although this is not exactly the same case since the Royal Navy, too, would have strengthened its forces in the mean time. Still, the presence of Bismarck and Tirpitz in the autumn would have been a big threat with many chances of success, especially if we think that the war in the Pacific was about to begin and the Royal Navy would soon be forced to split its units. Although the best choice would have been to send Bismarck and Tirpitz in the spring, this possibility must also be taken into consideration.
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Hypotheticals involving Tirpitz

Postby Dave Saxton » Tue Apr 19, 2005 6:49 am

While it's fun to speculate the possibilties had Tirpitz sailed, the most realistic involvement of Tirpitz, would have been if the operation had been postponed until the fall. Tirpitz was actually much less battle ready than Prince Of Wales was. Tirpitz didn't really start sea trials until March 1941, having been released by the builders on Feb 25th, and then travelling through the Kiaser kanal. Tirpitz didn't conduct any gunnery trials until June 1941. At the time Tirpitz's aft fire control station was not functional and the directers and the range finder had not been fitted. Nor were two of the stablized flak directers fitted. In those early shoots several technical problems came up. As the result, Tirpitz spent most of July and August in harbor. Tirpitz didn't resume practice shoots until Sept. On Sept 20th Tirpitz completed the final gunnery trial, and was finally deemed proficient enough for combat.

Had Bismarck and Prinz Eugen's sorti been postponed, then most likely Tirpitz, Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, and Hipper would have attempted an Atlantic raid that fall. The SKL proposed a repeat of Operation Rhine in early Sept, using only Hipper and Tirpitz. This was even after the loss of Bismarck, and the invasion of the USSR. Hitler rejected the idea out right. Additionaly, Admiral Otto Ciliax feared a repeat performance of Operation Rhine would give a repeat result. But just the fact that the SKL planned another operation signifies how comitted to an Atlantic offensive they were. Without the sting from a loss like the Bismarck diasaster, they would have undoubtably tryed it. The German task force would have been twice as powerful, but the British would have a more battle ready POW, (and Victorious) and DOY as well. They would also have still had Hood. That's an interesting potential scenario though....
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Postby DesertFox 1943 » Tue May 03, 2005 1:29 am

The German Naval High Command mounts a combined operation with the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, and the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin in the Spring of 1941.

yes i find this very intriguing and interesting to daydream about... if im not mistaken, the Kreigsmarine High Command also wanted to send Scharnhorst and her sis along with both of the Bismarck class right? try imagine that.... a powerful battle fleet, covered by GZ with Norfolk and Suffolk didn't see them.... haha..... i don't think the Japs would get a chance to sink Prince of Wales of Malaysia... yea i do know that the odds of a cruiser-battleship engagement is against the battlecruisers but guess with the help of the naval luftwaffe frm the GZ... odds could be WAY against V. Adm Holland's force... right.... yea.... 2 for the Kreigsmarine and 0 for the RN..... haha....

but than... kreigsmarine has 1 carrier and the RN several (is it 8 and how many carriers for the home fleet at that time?) the RN could easily muster a powerful strike force (eventhough their plane capacity may be miserable compared to the IJN's) and send GZ to the depths... right? 1 Kreigsmarine carrier against several RN carriers..... this is possible if RN scout planes spot the germans 1st and not the oth way round.... if that were to happen..... possible out come is that maybe the Germans would hold of long enuf cos their Me 109 r superior and can swat the RN fliers like flies and also their divers give a terrible "spanking" for the RN which will make uncle churchill even more pissed off and the Admiralty panicking.... maybe long enough to enter within range of land based luftwaffe and give enough time for the High Command to send in U-boats and add destroyers to screen and welcome the raiders and let the U-boats do what they do best against fleets... scare the hell out of the chasing RN fleet
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Postby RF » Tue Oct 31, 2006 2:40 pm

Have you considered a variation of the Graf Zeppelin option, in which Flugzeugtrager B is also involved?

If two carriers operate in tandem, then presumably only one of Bismarck or Tirpitz would be required, or even only Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to provide the gunpower?

Would double the airpower make Rheinubung virtually unassailable?
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Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Oct 31, 2006 8:25 pm

I never liked the scenarios in which ships that never sailed are considered. It´s like to put WWII ships with Aegis destroyers: a mind bender.
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Postby RF » Sat Nov 04, 2006 3:08 am

Karl Heidenreich wrote:I never liked the scenarios in which ships that never sailed are considered. It´s like to put WWII ships with Aegis destroyers: a mind bender.


If on this forum we can move the dates of, and alter the whole course of entire wars, considering a few extra ship situations are small fry.
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Postby Karl Heidenreich » Sat Nov 04, 2006 3:43 am

RF:

If on this forum we can move the dates of, and alter the whole course of entire wars, considering a few extra ship situations are small fry.


Yeah, but with more or less "realistic" elements taken into account, if not we can go Sci Fi any moment. Specially with our wild ideas about how ships must be design and built.
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if bismarck made it home....

Postby glen » Thu Nov 23, 2006 8:58 am

if bismarck would have made it home to one of its captured french ports, then yes, they (bismarcks crew) would have been seen as heros of the fatherland. it might even forced the u.s. navy to change their minds about supporting england and ask the president to suspend convoy operations to england until further notice. u.s. admiral king (who did not want to work with the royal navy )would have went along 100% on that until the british leadership was able to show proof to the u.s. navy command that they(the royal navy and or royal flying corps) have either crippled the bismarck (or the scharnhorst and gniesenau) to such of a degree that bismarck would not be able to sail again for some time and or destroyed the 1)drydock or 2)bismarck in drydock with lancaster and wellington bomber night time raids. a large sum of the german airforce already over streched and being transferred to the east for operation redbeard )would be almost hard pressed to cover and protect the bismarck in its drydock effectivly. the u.s. navy (knowing that the three warships bismarck, scharnhorst and gniesenau would be ready for action that summer of 1941 would have also taken into account the u-boat attacks that was proving to be a growing problem as well. i do not think the graff zepplen would have been operational due to the oil and water attitudes of the navy and airforce constant unwillingness to work together. the british would have to( in my opinion) overwhelm the ship or ships with airattacks and use its carrier and battleship forces to blockade any attempt of the tirpitz trying to venture out from the north in late 41 early 42. the war in afrika might have went differnently for the british ships in the med would know doubt be needed to deal with the blockade. the blockade with aircraft to look for uboats. but the war was over when the redbeard operation started in june of 41. barbarrosa. england needed to be taken next for anychance of taken russia. i belive the royal aircorps would have turned the bismarck into a wreck and along with the drydock. a bismarck survivior told me he thought the bismarck not being able to cruise the high sees for three months like was planned was a british victory and the russia invasion gave up anychance of germany to force england to make peace. he said convoys would have been stopped (canceled) had bismarck been able to continue its mission. the convoys was everything to the british war effort. so to wrap it up. 1)bismarck makes it to port and failed its mission and convoys continue to make sail to england.2)graff zepplen was made mute due to the navy and airforce not working together on how the planes was to be used and who controled their missions. 3) the u.s. navy would have not helped the royal navy by working together as a team in dealing with the u-boat problem. 4)thanks to the russia invasion, bismarck and her drydock would have been bombed each night around the clock while the germans would have to scrape together every fighter that could go in and protect bismarck. i just dont see how the germans could have won the atlantic with the russia envasion starting in june 41. the objective was always the convoys being sunk wasnt it? :stubborn:
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