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A Catalina flying boat sighting the 'Bismarck', 26 May 1941

BHC1604
Fine art

Object connections:

Collection Fine art, Oil paintings
ExhibitionsWar Artists at Sea
Gallery locationQH (Floor plans)
PeopleDepiction: UK: Navy
Depiction: German Navy
EventsWorld War II, 1939-1945
VesselsBismarck (1939)

Object details:

Object ID BHC1604
Description This painting forms part of Norman Wilkinson's ‘The War at Sea’ series, depicting the work of the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and RAF Coastal Command, of which 53 were exhibited under that title at the National Gallery in 1944, and the full set of 54 presented by him to the nation via the War Artists Advisory Committee (this item's WAAC number being LD 4305). For details of the slightly complex history of the acquisition see BHC1590, the start of the set by modern NMM catalogue number. When it became known that the German battleship 'Bismarck' had sailed from the North Sea for the Atlantic to attack convoys, by the northern route, the Royal Navy and Coastal Command focused on chasing her to destruction. 'Bismarck', with her escorting cruiser 'Prinz Eugen', was eventually spotted by the light cruisers 'Suffolk' and 'Norfolk' breaking south into the Atlantic via the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland: they shadowed both until the German ships were intercepted by the British battle-cruiser 'Hood' and the still barely operational new battleship 'Prince of Wales', which had sailed without being able to put ashore civilian contractors doing final work on board. In the brief action that ensued, 'Hood's' deck armour proved inadequate when a plunging 15-inch shell from 'Bismarck' went straight through into her forward magazine: 'Hood' blew up and sank in minutes with only three survivors, and 'Prince of Wales' was also damaged and sheered off. After several largely fruitless subsequent attacks by carrier-based Fairey torpedo-bombers over the next few days, a torpedo from an aircraft flying off 'Ark Royal' very luckily hit 'Bismarck' astern, jamming her rudder 15 degrees to port and making her largely unmanoeuvrable. She tried to reach occupied Brest, steering crudely by her engines, as British surface forces closed in searching for her under cloud cover. Wilkinson here shows the moment when – by sheer luck – a land-based Catalina reconnaissance flight finally spotted her on 26 May, before being driven off damaged by anti-aircraft fire. The following day the Home Fleet brought the crippled 'Bismarck' to action, and beat her into a blazing hulk by gunfire before she was sunk by torpedoes fired from the cruiser 'Dorsetshire'. This ship and the 'Maori' then picked up 110 survivors from her crew of about 2200 but many of these were abandoned in the water when a U-boat alarm was raised, though two more were rescued by a German weather ship the next day. (The most senior officer saved was a young gunnery lieutenant (Baron) Burkhard von Mullenheim-Rechburg, later a distinguished member of the (West) German diplomatic service.) Wilkinson also depicted the sinking of the Bismarck, the next day, in his ‘War at Sea’ series. [PvdM 1/14]
Date made circa 1942-44

Artist/Maker Wilkinson, Norman
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1947
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Painting: 762 mm x 1016 mm; Frame: 935 mm x 1188 mm x 85 mm x 20.2 kg
Parts
  • A Catalina flying boat sighting the 'Bismarck', 26 May 1941 (BHC1604)
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