Sink the Bismarck! (1960) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • The World War II story of the Royal Navy's effort to defeat Nazi Germany's most powerful warship.

  • Chronicles the breakout of the Bismarck during the early days of World War II. Seen from the point of view of the many Naval vessels on both sides and from the central headquarters of the British where the search for the super battleship was controlled.

  • In 1941, Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) takes over as Director of Operations at Naval Headquarters in London just as they receive reports that the Bismarck, the pride of the German Navy, is going out to sea in the North Atlantic. Shepard argues in favor of moving as many ships as possible to the area to find her. In their first encounter with the Bismarck, the Royal Navy loses H.M.S. Hood, the largest ship in the fleet, while H.M.S. Prince of Wales is severely damaged. Shepard then transfers ships from the Mediterranean fleet to go after the Bismarck. They include the aircraft carrier Ark Royal on which his son Tom (John Stride) is serving as an aircraft gunner. Damaged in a second encounter, the Bismarck heads for Brest on the French coast and the safety of German coastal defenses and air cover. The only ship in range is the Ark Royal, but in their first air sortie, they inadvertently attack H.M.S. Sheffield when they mistake it for the Bismarck. In the second air sortie, they damage the Bismarck sufficiently to allow the surface fleet to catch up to her and sink her.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The movie opens with actual German newsreel footage of the battleship Bismarck's launching in September 1939. Adolf Hitler looks on rapturously as the hull of the gigantic, modern ship glides down the launch ramp into the sea, awaiting completion.

    The action shifts to London in May 1941. Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow delivers a grim radio message about Germany's surging fortunes on land, at sea, and in the air. The Third Reich is at high tide, and gallant Britain is holding on by her fingernails. Hitler controls most of the European continent, German bombers are still pounding British cities, and both U-boats and surface raiders are sinking enormous tonnages of British shipping.

    At the Admiralty, Royal Navy Captain Shephard (Kenneth More) reports to his new command as Director of Operations in the underground War Room. He is soon introduced to WREN (Women's Royal Naval Service) officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter). It quickly becomes obvious that Captain Shephard is a stern, no-nonsense disciplinarian, and he is shocked at the informal atmosphere within the War Room. Shephard's previous command was at sea, and he makes it known that he would prefer to be in command of a ship again.

    Shephard is just settling in when an urgent message arrives stating that two large German warships have been sighted passing through the Baltic Sea, en route for the open waters of the North Atlantic. The prospect that it could be a breakout attempt by the Bismarck alarms the British Admiralty. Once in the Atlantic, the powerful Bismarck and her escort vessel could wreak havoc on British convoys at sea.

    A British agent in southern Norway is alerted to take up watch along the coast, and he soon observes Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen steaming westward. He returns to his cabin and gets off a partial telegraph message before a German patrol traces his signal and shoots him. But he has sent enough to confirm the worst British fears. A Spitfire reconaissance plane is dispatched to find the ships and manages to photograph them in a Norwegian fjord, but the German vessels sneak out unseen under the cover of foul weather.

    Now the British must further spread their thin naval forces in order to block all three major passages into the Atlantic. In the end, the Germans steer for the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. The famous battle cruiser HMS Hood and the brand new battleship Prince of Wales lie in wait. Prince of Wales has been pressed into service so quickly that civilian shipyard workers are still aboard.

    Early in the morning, the two German ships emerge out of a swirling mist and are surprised to find the heavy British naval units awaiting. Hood opens fire, followed by Prince of Wales. The German ships respond and several salvoes are exchanged. Suddenly, the Hood explodes in a gigantic fireball, breaking in two and sinking in a matter of seconds. A well-aimed German salvo had plunged down through the Hood's thin deck armor and ignited a magazine. The stunned men aboard Prince of Wales have only a few seconds to absorb the unspeakable tragedy before both German ships shift their fire to her. Prince of Wales is quickly mauled and forced to withdraw from the battle. But Prince of Wales has also hit the Bismarck, inflicting damage that reduces her ability to continue on with commerce raiding. The Bismarck's captain, Lindemann, wants to pursue the crippled Price of Wales and finish her, but he is overuled by Fleet Admiral Gunther Lutjens, who is aboard as overall commander of the mission. Lutjens doesn't want to further jeopardize his ships in a costly engagement with British naval units.

    Only three British sailors survive from the Hood's complement of 1,500 men. It is a great victory for Nazi Germany, one that must be avenged. Prime Minister Winston Churchill orders that the Bismarck be hunted down and sunk at all costs. Captain Shephard's son is serving as an aerial gunner aboard the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, based at Gibraltar. The ship is immediately ordered into the fight. Meanwhile, Prinz Eugen is successfully detached from the Bismarck to proceed independently.

    A torpedo strike is launched from another aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious, but it fails to seriously damage the Bismarck. Bismarck maintains her speed and soon slips away from the British ships shadowing her. An air search is initiated from the Ark Royal, with Captain Shephard's son aboard one of the Swordfish torpedo bombers involved. Back at the Admiralty, Captain Shephard receives a telephone call with the heartbreaking news that his son's plane ran out of fuel and failed to return to the ship. Devastated, the emotionally remote Captain opens up and tells Anne that his wife had been killed when a German bomb destroyed their home. Their son is all that he has left.

    It is determined that Bismarck is now on a course for the French port of Brest, where she can make repairs and perhaps join up with the twin German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to form a devastating armada. The mighty German battleship is now only hours away from the protective cover of German U-boats and land-based aircraft from France. The British must slow her down somehow, and their big ships can't catch up in time. A torpedo strike from the aircraft of Ark Royal represents their last opportunity.

    The frail, aging Swordfish biplanes take off from Ark Royal and manage to locate Bismarck. Despite intense anti-aircraft fire, the determined pilots press the attack. One torpedo strikes the stern of the Bismarck and permanently jams her rudder. It is a stroke of luck for the British. Bismarck is now unable to steer, allowing her desperate pursuers to close the distance.

    At the Admiralty, Captain Shephard receives wonderful news. His son has been rescued from a life raft and is safely aboard a destroyer. Alone in his office, Shephard loses control and breaks down in tears. Anne allows him a moment of privacy before entering to inform him that the pursuing British battleships have come within range of the Bismarck. The final act is about to begin.

    HMS King George V and HMS Rodney open the battle with their 14- and 16-inch guns, pounding the German ship. Admiral Lutjens is determined to fight to the last shell, and the Bismarck is soon a raging inferno. One by one, her gun turrets are put out of action. Another big shell destroys the bridge, killing Lutjens and Lindemann.

    The British battleships, now critically low on fuel and ammunition, break off the engagement and head for home. Destroyers are left to fire torpedos into the battered hulk. Only a relative handful of survivors are rescued. Hood is avenged.

    Back in London, Shephard is congratulated on a job well done. He looks at his watch and asks Anne to join him for dinner, believing it to be nine o'clock in the evening. She accepts, and as they emerge from the depths of the Admiralty building, they are greeted by morning sunlight. Their dinner plans are changed to breakfast plans as they stroll across Trafalgar Square.

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