Did Bismarck sink in a sea of coloured water?

The answer is NO, but what’s interesting is that if she had made her ill-fated breakout into the Atlantic a year later, she might have been. By then, if the same ships had intercepted her they would have been carrying red (HMS Rodney) and yellow (HMS King George V) dyed shells.

The French had developed naval shells with dyes after the First World War. The idea was that in a multi-ship engagement their ships could each identify their own fall of shot from the coloured splashes.

In 1939 their ‘Dispositif K’ dyed shell technology was passed to the British and ‘K shells’ were introduced to the Royal Navy from late 1942.¹

Meanwhile the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had also introduced dyed shells and the US Navy started developing their own dyed shells.

Coloured diagram of 8" shell with dye packages
A British 8″ AP K-shell with dye packs
(Image: War Office, public domain)

It appears dyed shells were mostly large calibre and generally used only by capital ships. They wouldn’t be used at night, obviously, and were only needed when more than one capital ship was firing. Later, radar tracking made dyed shell technology obsolete.

So, where and when were they actually used?

The best known event was the engagement off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in Oct 44, when the IJN ‘Centre Force’ comprising 4 x battleships (Yamato, Haruna, Nagato and Kongō), 6 x heavy cruisers, 2 x light cruisers and 11 x destroyers, caught the US 7th Fleet’s three escort carrier groups entirely by surprise and unprotected. In a heroic YOLO* charge, the destroyer USS Johnston took on the heavy cruisers with her torpedoes & guns and was bracketed by multi-coloured fire from them and the nearby battleships. The same happened to the other US destroyers who followed her example.

Returning to the Bismarck, there is some suggestion¹ Bismarck’s victim, HMS Hood, saw dyed shells being used when she attacked the Vichy French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir (Oran) in July 1940. The 7.6″ guns of the French battery on the heights at Djebel Santon started shelling Hood’s destroyer escorts with coloured shells.

Since nearly all the old photos & film footage from WW2 are in B&W, there is no photographic evidence of dyed shells in use, but there are reports of ships and crew under fire, being covered in red & green dye from near misses.

You can see the K shells in the feature image at the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s ‘Explosion’ museum of naval firepower at Priddy’s Hard, Gosport.

If you have any extra intel on this subject, please add it in the comments. In particular, two unanswered questions: Did the Kriegsmarine, or the Regia Marina, ever use coloured shells?


* Dyed shell allocations (as at, or before, the end of the war in 1946)

Royal Navy
HMS King George V 14″ Yellow
HMS Duke of York 14″ Green
HMS Anson 14″ White (IE no dye)
HMS Howe 14″ Red
HMS Queen Elizabeth 15″ Red
HMS Valiant 15″ Green
HMS Vanguard 15″ Yellow
HMS Renown 15″ No dye
HMS Rodney 16″ Red
HMS Nelson 16″ No dye
Imperial Japanese Navy
Yamoto 18″ Red
Hiei 14″ Black
Kirishima 14″ Blue
Haruna 14″ Green
Kongō 14″ Yellow
Nagato 16″ Orange
US Navy
USS New Mexico (BB-40) 14″ Green
USS Mississippi (BB-41) 14″ Orange
USS Idaho (BB-42) 14″ Blue
USS Tennessee (BB-43) 14″ No Dye
USS California (BB-44) 14″ No Dye
USS Nevada (BB-36) 14″ Orange
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) 14″ Red
USS Colorado (BB-45) 16″ Orange
USS Maryland (BB-46) 16″ Blue
USS West Virginia (BB-48) 16″ No dye
USS North Carolina (BB-52) 16″ Green
USS Washington (BB-47) 16″ Orange
USS South Dakota (BB-59) 16″ Blue
USS Iowa (BB-61) 16″ Orange
USS New Jersey (BB-62) 16″ Blue
USS Missouri (BB-63) 16″ Red
USS Wisconsin (BB-64) 16″ Green
French Navy
Richelieu 15″ (380mm) Yellow
Jean Bart 15″ (380mm) Orange

** YOLO – You Only Live Once

¹ https://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=162349

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