Why did the Germans scuttle the Bismarck?

Sep 2013
Chattanooga, TN
Preface to thread: Yesterday I created a thread in which the topic of the thread is the question of how the 686 men from the Bismarck died in the water. The topic how did the 686 men from the Bismarck in the water die" is a totally distinct topic from the question of why the Germans scuttled the Bismarck. I created this thread instead of asking about why the Germans scuttled the Bismarck on the "How did the 686 men die in the water" thread because I did not want to hijack the topic of the "How did the 686 men die in the water" thread. If one wants to discuss an off-topic, tangential issue, the proper protocol is to create a new thread rather than hijack the topic of a previous thread.

Most historians agree that the Bismarck would have sunk within 24 hours if the Germans had not scuttled the Bismarck. According to Wikipedia, when the Bismarck was scuttled, there were approximately 800 men still alive on the Bismarck. After the Bismarck was scuttled, the British ships Dorsetshire and Maori picked up 114 survivors from the Bismarck. The other approximately 686 men died in the water.

The British ships Dorsetshire and Maori were willing to rescue survivors from the Bismarck. When the Bismarck was scuttled, the Bismarck's rudder had already been damaged to the point that the Bismarck was unmaneauverable.

Probably a lot of the crew of the Bismarck did not know how to swim. On the other thread, another poster told me that the water in the North Atlantic in the month of May would have likely been in the mid-50s, which a person could only survive in from 1-6 hours.

If the Bismarck had raised the white flag on their flagpole and surrendered, many of these 686 men who died in the water would have been rescued by the British ships and survived.

Why didn't the crew of the Bismarck try raising the white flag up their flagpole and letting the British ships in the vicinity rescue their men instead of scuttling the ship? Or, if the Bismarck's crew wanted to fight to the end, why not keep shooting shells at the British ships until the Bismarck was sunk instead of scuttling the Bismarck? I don't see any sense in the Bismarck's crew scuttling the Bismarck. The Bismarck was severely damaged and was not repairable. It's not like the German sailors had to worry about the British sailors capturing the Bismarck and repairing the Bismarck to use against the Germans.

Why did the crew of the Bismarck scuttle the Bismarck?


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
Bismarck probably did continue shooting as long as her guns were operational, however, one by one, her guns were all disabled during the battle.

I'm not so certain many men would have been taken off the floating hulk of the Bismarck. The British stopped pulling men out of the water because there was a U-boat in the area. They would have also stopped rescuing men off the still-floating Bismarck.

It was very rare in the 20th century for a warship to be captured. It would be a great disgrace to be one of the few exceptions. It was fairly common in WW2 for a severely damaged ship to be scuttled to avoid the disgrace of capture. Besides disgrace, there was also the desire to keep classified technology, like enigma machines for one example, out of enemy hands. Also classified documents.

It is something of a mystery why humans, who normally have a strong survival instinct, would or could confront death so easily. In the case of the Bismarck, the crew had known for about twelve hours that they were doomed - ever since the fateful torpedo hit the night before. Given time to confront the inevitable, death became easier to accept. We should not assume the entire crew agreed or participated in the scuttling decision. The scuttling was carried out by only a handful of personnel, most of who were following orders - having been long conditioned to do so without thinking about the consequences like suicide. It was not a case of 800 men deciding to commit mass suicide. The decision to scuttle was made by one man or a small group of men. There's always one fanatic in a crowd, or if not a fanatic, then one man with an exceptional sense of duty. Once the scuttling process was initiated there were no longer any choices about life and death. It was out of every German's hands. From that point on, life and death was determined only by the British willingness to pick up survivors.
Jul 2017
Scuttling is standard because they are trained not to turn over the ship to the enemy. If they raised the white flag, they would be doing just that.
The Bismarck crew obviously did not want to fight to the very end because they scuttled the ship and ordered abandonment. The British however did not stop the shelling at that point.
Apr 2014
Istanbul Turkey
All crews of Kriegsmarine ships had strict orders to scuttle their ships if there is any danger of enemy capturing their vessels. By the time HMS Rodney and HMS King George V finished with her , Bismark was a floating smashed hulk on fire with a severe list to port side and both HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori was on field ready to finish her. For German crew the greater danger was capture of demolished hulk of Bismark , towing it to a British port and reveal of German technical secrets

This is not the first or last time Axis naval personnel did that. German pocket battleship Graf Spee was also scuttled when she was cornered at Uruguay coast in December 1939. At the end of Battle of Midway two of the four Japanese carriers bombed and smashed by US Navy , were actually scuttled (both by torpedoes from an escorting Japanese destroyer) At naval battles of Guadalcanal in November 1942 , two Japanese battleships Hiei and Kirishima were actually scuttled by their crews whe they were damaged beyond repair.
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
Kirkcaldy, Scotland
That old chesnut about the Bismarck being 'scuttled' oh no not again!.
British naval historian Ludovic Kennedy- who was there when Bismarck was sunk finally by torpedoes from Fleet Air Arm torpedo planes'Kennedy was an officer on one of the destroyers involved in the action-was in tears on one retropsective programme about the sinking as his ship and others had begun to lift German survivors from Bismark from the sea but were ordered to stop due o a U boat being reported in the area..
If the German crew did 'scuttle' the hip they made a bloody poor job of it as it was RN torpedoes which dealt the coup de grace to the ship..
To me there is something desperately curmudgeonly about the Bismark was n''t sunk by the RN but scuttled brigade.


Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
Stockport Cheshire UK
The scuttling charges on the Bismarck were set off because the battle was lost, it was nothing more than an admission of defeat.
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Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
Pride. The ship was going to go down, there is no argument about that. But in the mind of the German sailors, they can say they scutteled their ship, it wasn't sunk.
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