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Who sank the Bismarck?

The 800 feet (240 metres) long Bismarck had the biggest guns mounted on any German warship
The 800 feet (240 metres) long Bismarck had the biggest guns mounted on any German warship

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A retired U.S. Navy captain has carried out research that casts doubt on one of the most glorious chapters in British military history -- the sinking of the German battleship the Bismarck in 1941.

History records that the British sank the Bismarck off the coast of Ireland through military guile and sheer force.

But over the past few years, a handful of explorations have examined the wreck of the German vessel on the ocean floor, and some have revealed less damage from British fire than previously believed.

Fred McLaren, former commander of the U.S.S. Queenfish, who in June 2001 initiated the first human dive to examine the sunken ship, believes that the crew may have sabotaged the Bismarck.

After a fortuitous torpedo hit and a swift battle during which the Bismarck was surrounded on May 27, 1941, the Germans abandoned ship and scuttled it in the process, McLaren said.

Only about 115 of nearly 2,200 sailors aboard survived.

McLaren, 70, took part in a second round of dives in July and August, recording several rolls of film that he said confirmed his views on why the ship sank nearly 16,000 feet (4,900 metres) to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

"In my strong opinion, having been on two dives, it was the Germans scuttling the ship that caused her to sink," McLaren said. He is not alone.

Several other expeditions, including the original discovery of the Bismarck by Robert Ballard in 1989 and one led by "Titanic" director James Cameron, who made a documentary about the ship, have found the Bismarck in decent condition at the ocean floor, suggesting British shelling did not deliver the death blow.

And testimony from some survivors confirms that German engineers in the ship helped set off explosives intended to prevent its capture.

The controversy over the Bismarck has become a battleground itself, with historians and explorers lining up to defend or debunk the accepted interpretation.

The sinking was a particular point of pride for the British because of the size of the ship.

The Bismarck was more than 800 feet (240 metres) long, nearly 120 feet (37 metres) wide and had the biggest guns mounted on any German warship.

The wreck of the Bismarck as filmed by Hollywood director James Cameron
The wreck of the Bismarck as filmed by Hollywood director James Cameron

Defeating the Bismarck became a rallying cry after May 23, 1941, when it snapped the famous British ship H.M.S. Hood in two, killing all but three of the more than 1,400 sailors aboard.

Some British explorers, such as David Mearns in collaboration with a British television network, have examined the Bismarck and arrived at different conclusions than McLaren and his team -- including the notion that the German scuttling may have simply hastened the submersion of a ship under intense fire from four British ships.

They said they found several gashes in the ship's hull, although other explorers have said those holes were created by the ship's crashing into the ocean floor.

McLaren said the vessel might have even survived the barrage if the Germans had not set off explosives inside it.

"She could have been hauled back to port," he said.

"Every Navy in the world prepares for the eventuality of scuttling," said McLaren. "It would have been embarrassing, especially for Hitler, to have their pride and joy taken under tow by the enemy."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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