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Sinking Leviathan: The Death of the Bismarck

FinalBattle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack 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. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

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.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their 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. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hooddays before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s 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 by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser 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. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors 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. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander 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 along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. 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, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially 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. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

As an officer 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 often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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String Bags vs. The German Leviathan: The Crippling Of the Battleship Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

There is one other thing to mention. I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a crewman on the Bismarck, knowing that nightfall would bring them safely unter the protection of the Luftwaffe, and then discover that there was no escape from death and destruction. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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The Sinking of the Bismarck

FinalBattle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack 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. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

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.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their 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. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hooddays before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s 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 by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser 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. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors 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. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander 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 along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. 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, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially 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. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

As an officer 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 often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Swordfish Versus Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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Writing About War

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“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.” Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife 1864

Memorial Day weekend is over but I have not stopped reflecting on war and its cost. Having served in combat myself, and having stood over the wounded in field hospitals in Iraq and having seen the devastation of war up close and personal I have a hard time reducing war to the technology, the tactics and trivia that seem to satisfy the consumers of war porn. Call me whatever you want but I cannot get around the human cost of war. William Tecumseh Sherman reflected that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” 

One of my favorite historians of the Second World War, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the magnificent accounts of D-Day, The Longest Day, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, and the Battle of Berlin, The Last Battle said about his accounts: “What I write about is not war but the courage of man.” I think that writing about courage is appropriate and I do a lot of that. But I think in addition to courage that we also must write about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, especially the leaders who plan and conduct war.

When I teach or write about military history I find it important to make sure that the people who made that history are not forgotten.  After all, as the British military theorist Colin Gray says “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war. He is right of course, people are the one constant in war. Weapons and tactics may change, but people do not. 

Likewise we cannot forget that war, even wars for the most excruciatingly correct and even righteous reasons are always tragic. The cost of war, even so called “good wars” is devastating. Ernest Hemingway wrote “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” To the war porn addicts the words of Sherman or Hemingway surely are offensive, but they provide a necessary warning to the politicians, pundits and preachers who cannot get enough war to satiate their bloodlust and need for power. Sadly, most of the men and women who revel in war without end have neither served in combat or have any skin in the game regarding the wars that they support and those which they work so hard to bring about. Maybe if they did then they would not be so quick to send young men and women to war.

Those who follow me on this site know that I write about war a lot, some might say too much, but I cannot help that. My life has been forever changed by war.  If you look back through my archives you can see how my writing has evolved when it comes to dealing with war and part of that is because I do not want the sacrifices of the men and women who fought those wars to be forgotten or cheapened by a society which from the very beginning of our history has done so. Lieutenant General Hal Moore who co-authored the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young wrote: “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.” By continuing to write and teach I hope to ensure that this does not happen. Maybe I am pissing into the wind so to speak, but I cannot stand by silently.

I am a combat veteran, I have seen the devastation of war, I have lost friends in war, men and women who did not come home. I have seen other friends struggle in the aftermath of war, and I have seen some lose that struggle. Because I am a military historian as well as a priest and I have a sacred duty to ensure that people know the real cost of war.

I do this in my official capacity teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Staff College where I have the honor to serve as faculty.This itself is interesting as I am spending the final few years of a three and a half decade military career teaching the men and women who in not too long of time will be our nation’s senior military leaders. That is a responsibility that I take most seriously. Thus I always, whether it is in teaching the ethics of war, or about the Battle of Gettysburg I attempt to impress this on my students. I preach from day one to every class that their decisions in the planning process, their recommendations to senior political and military leaders, and their decisions on the battlefield impact real people, their soldiers, the people in the lands that they fight and on the home front. 

I have been writing a text for the Gettysburg Staff Ride which I believe will eventually become at least two and maybe more books. I tie a lot of biographic material in with the text, again in order to make what could be a dry and mechanical affair more real to my students and readers. That is one of the reasons that I find going to Gettysburg and walking that hallowed ground so important.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about far more more fascinating. By not denying their humanity, by understanding and appreciating their flaws, even the flaws in their character, I gain a more holistic perspective and develop a greater appreciation and empathy for them and a deeper understanding of my own flaws. As T.E. Lawrence wrote “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.” 

The complex and contradictory nature of humanity leads to a lot of confusion for people who see the world through the black and white lens of cosmic dualism where there is only good and evil and “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  Human nature shows us that things are much more complex, nuanced and blurry, there are far more than fifty shades of gray when it comes to humanity and the participation of men and women in war.

Because of this otherwise good and honorable people can find themselves for any number of reasons, fighting for an evil cause, while people who are more evil than good can end up fighting for a good cause. Now if you are one of those people who are trapped by an absolute ideological or religious certitude which cannot allow for such contradictions, that statement may confuse or even offend you. For that I do not apologize and I hope that you are offended enough to face the truth, for that is the human condition, and that my friends is what history, and especially that dealing with the most destructive and consequential issues involving humanity must deal with.

Over the weekend I did a series on this site about the tragedy of the British Battlecruiser HMS Hood and the German Battleship Bismarck which transpired over the course of a week in May 1941. In that week the two largest and most powerful warships of their day were sunk taking over 3600 of the roughly 3750 sailors aboard to a watery grave in the North Atlantic. While doing this I had the opportunity to go aboard the USS Wisconsin here in Norfolk, a ship that is roughly the same size of those two doomed warships. As I walked the passageways surrounded by massive armor plating It helped me, a sailor who has served aboard a modern Guided Missile Cruiser and other warships to appreciate the life and death of the sailors on those ships. I thought of the Hood’s who with the exception of three sailors being annihilated as the massive ship exploded, and then I thought about the crew of the Bismarck who had nearly half a day to contemplate their end before the British shells turned their ship into a funeral pyre.

So I will continue to write about war and try in the process to humanize it for my readers and to tell the stories of the tragedy that is war in such a way that even those who have not been to war, can imagine it and in doing so make wise decisions if they are to send other people’s children to fight their wars. The subject is far too important to be left to the purveyors of war porn who seek to satiate the bloodlust of others.

As for the form of my writing, I am becoming much more deliberate in trying to craft the story. Barbara Tuchman wrote something that I am now beginning to appreciate as I write my own book on Gettysburg and the Civil War: “I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.”

Anyway, that is all for tonight. Over the coming week I should be putting out my next chapter revision to my Gettysburg text and some other articles.

I wish you all the best.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Death of Leviathan: Sinking the Bismarck

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed that remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack 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. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a stringbag hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

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.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their 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. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hood days before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons pounded Bismarck, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies dangerously low, Admiral Tovey ordered the battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s 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 by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

With the great ship headed to the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser 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. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors 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. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander 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 along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. 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, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially 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. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic. 

As an officer 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 often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Stringbags vs. the Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-wright of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. The weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair the damage. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabling Tovey with King George V, Rodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

To be continued…

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