The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the mighty Bismarck in her stern and jammed her rudders doomed that ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events. The Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.
Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Then a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “stringbag” hit the Bismarck in perhaps the only place that could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory.
As darkness fell on May 26th, Bismarck, unable to steer towards Brest due to her damage and the following seas steered toward the oncoming British armada at a reduced speed. Her crew, now exhausted from countless hours on watch and at their battle stations knew that they were doomed.
Swordfish returning from attacking Bismarck
Despite this they still labored trying in vain for a way to repair their ship. As Bismarck’s engineers and damage control personnel sought at way to repair the damage on that dark night Royal Navy destroyers under the command of Captain Phillip Vian harassed her, closing to fire torpedoes and keep the exhausted crew of the mighty German ship engaged at their battle stations throughout the long night.
Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney
As light broke on the morning of the 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk which had been part of the pursuit since the first day and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill.
Bismarck from Dorsetshire
At 0847 the British Battleships opened fire on Bismarck, which replied with accurate salvos straddled Rodney. However British shells hammered the Bismarck, 16” shells from Rodney destroying the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns which had sunk the Hood were silent and the British ships pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.
The British ships scored at least 400 hits but though they had silenced Bismarck the ship was still afloat, burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. Finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies dangerously low Admiral Tovey ordered the battleships to break off the action even as the cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes.
Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire
Even so the Bismarck’s senior surviving officer, her First Officer Fregattenkapitan (Commander) Hans Oels ordered her Chief Engineer Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Gerhard Junack to prepare the ship for scuttling and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The watertight doors were opened and scuttling charges fired. At 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves.
HMS Dorsetshire 1941
Hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts spotted the periscope of a U-Boat and the British ships broke off their rescue operations leaving hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. A few more were rescued later by German ships or U-boats but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck.
Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck
Subsequent investigations would show that all the British shells and torpedoes could not have sunk the Bismarck and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent her to the bottom of the Atlantic. Even so, she was doomed and the damage would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Oels not order Junack to scuttle the ship. Within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942 and Ark Royal by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.
The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world, the Hood and the Bismarck died in battles that though now legendary did not alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service and German capital ships, harassed and damaged by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed and the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The Mighty Hood
As one who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have wondered what would happen in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors that perished aboard both the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 22-27 1941.
In hopes that no more brave sailors will have to die this way.