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 a massively edited and expanded 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.
I also apologize for not publishing this yesterday as I had planned. I went a lot deeper into my research and could not complete it before I needed to go to bed.
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.
After a sleepless night in which they attempted to regain control of their ship and endured multiple attacks from destroyers before sunrise, the officers and crew of Bismarck were preparing their ship and themselves for what they all understood would be their final engagement. That sense of fatalism had been fueled by messages they received from Grand Admiral Raeder and Adolf Hitler that were broadcast to the entire crew. Raeder’s message said `All our thoughts are with you and your ship. We wish you success in your difficult fight.’ Hitler addressed the crew `All of Germany is with you. What can be done will be done. Your devotion to duty will strengthen our nation in its struggle for its existence. Adolf Hitler.’ At that point the crew knew that both Raeder and Hitler already considered them dead. Bismarck’s 4th Gunnery Officer Kapitänleutnant Burkhard von Mullenheim-Rechberg was told by another gunnery officer spoke words that Mullenheim-Rechberg would never forget: `Today, my wife will become a widow, but she doesn’t know it yet.’
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 Lütjens 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.
On that fateful morning the British ships prepared for a battle, even Admiral Tovey donned his steel helmet and put cotton in his ears as his ships closed the range with the German ship. Rodney, which was already being prepared for her overhaul in Boston had much gear stowed about her decks. Bismarck was ploughing in to force 8 winds (34-40 knots) and Bismarck struggled to maintain seven knots against the wind as the tension on her bridge mounted as the officers and watch standers knew that they would soon meet the British Battleships that would soon sink their ship. These German officers were realists who knew that their lack of maneuverability made them both a sitting duck for the British onslaught, and not be able to control their gunfire as they might have under better circumstances.
At 0833 Tovey order his ships to close with the last reported position of Bismarck. Their lookouts sighted the German ship at 0843 at a range of just over 25,000 yards. Rodney opened fire at 0847 followed by King George V a minute later. Bismarck’s forward turrets opened fire at 0849, and her first salvos straddled Rodney, something that sent shivers through British sailors who remembered the fate of the Hood, however that was the closest Bismarck got. Her inability to maintain a stable course, something necessary for accurate naval gunfire inhibited her gunnery, while Bismarck’s position amid rain squalls degraded the accuracy of the British gunfire.
For about 12 minutes an uneventful exchange of gunfire ensued, but at 0902 Rodney found the range and two of her 16” shells hit the forward part of Bismarck’s bridge, killing many senior officers and knocking out her forward fire control radar and fire direction equipment, also damaging turret Bruno, the forward 15” turret directly forward of the bridge. The hit blew the rear armor off the turret and over the side of the ship. The hydraulic lines to Anton were cut by a hit and her guns drooped down to their maximum depression, making them useless. At 0908 shells from both British Battleships, as well as the cruisers destroyed the forward gun direction radar and disabled turret Anton. Bismarck’s Fire control was shifted to the aft fire control center under Mullenheim-Rechberg. In six minutes half of Bismarck’s main battery, and her main fire director destroyed.
Under his control Bismarck’s aft turrets, Cäsar and Dora began to find the range of King George V, and on their fourth salvo straddled the British flagship, but at 0913 the director cupola was destroyed by a 14” shell from King George V. The result was that Bismarck was no longer able to control its main battery fire. Mullenheim-Rechberg wrote about his reaction to the hit:
“My aft director gave a violent shudder, and my two petty officers and I had our heads bounced hard against the eyepieces. What did that? When I tried to get my target in view again, it wasn’t there; all I could see was blue. I was looking at something one didn’t normally see, the `blue layer’ baked on the surface of the lenses and mirrors to make the picture clearer. My director had been shattered. Damn! I had just found the range of my target and now I was out of the battle.”
Mullenheim-Rechberg, ordered the turrets to continue under local control, but within fifteen minutes every turret on Bismarck was out of action. At 0921 turret Dora was put out of action when a shell misfired in the starboard gun, killing much of the turret crew and leaving the gun tube peeled back like a banana. Ten minutes later turret Cäsar was silenced. Only a few guns of her secondary armament, useless against battleships remained in action. At 0930, Captain Lindemann passed the order to prepare to scuttle and abandon ship.
With no real threat to themselves the British ships closed to point blank range, Rodney to a mere 2500 meters, where her 16” and 6” blazing away and hitting the helpless ship with almost every shot, as did King George V and the cruisers from slightly farther away. Without opposition They fired shot after shot into the helpless German ship, but she still remained afloat, though the burning of fires within, seen through holes in her upper deck. She was listing 20 degrees to port and down by the stern, yet on her mainmast her battle flag still flew. Admiral Tovey could not believe Bismarck had remained afloat despite the barrage she had been subjected. In the last minutes before he ordered that the rate of fire be increased, as he due to the smoke he could not see shots hitting hitting. He was concerned. He had remained on station close to ten hours longer than his fuel situation recommended, and he knew that the Germans would certainly send Luftwaffe bombers and U-Boats to attack any British ship the found. Every minute that he remained would make his ships return that much more hazardous.
As the British continued to fire, the situation aboard Bismarck became ever more desperate. Lütjens had been killed. Lindemann was trapped on the forecastle of the ship and made no attempt to escape the sinking ship.
Reluctantly, Tovey ordered the British Battleships to cease fire and withdrew do to a lack of fuel and the real threats of air and submarine attacks. Whether Bismarck remained afloat or sank, Tovey had no doubt the great German ship would never make port. But there was much sympathy for crew of Bismarck. One British officer thought “Pray God I may never know. Another thought “What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt.” For 45 minutes the British ships had rained a hail of steel at Bismarck without threat to themselves. Rodney’s Captain, F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton said “I can’t say I enjoyed this part of the business much, but I didn’t see what else I could do.” Likewise, King George V’s Captain, W.R. Patterson remarked that he would have stopped firing earlier if he had been able to see what was going on aboard Bismarck.
Observers on the British ships could see flames shooting out of the many holes in her superstructure and little knots of men scurrying about the decks, some climbing over rails and jumping into the sea. Aboard Bismarck Mullenheim-Rechberg saw Rodney just 2500 meters away, her now silent guns still trained warily on Bismarck and he wrote “I could look down their muzzles. If that was her range at the end of the battle, I thought, not a single round could have missed.”
As the King George V and Rodney withdrew from the action Bismarck all that remained was death and destruction. All senior officers except First Officer Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels were dead. Oels ordered that the ship be abandoned and scuttled before he was killed trying to direct some 300 members of the crew to safety, and telling them that the ship had been scuttled and they needed to abandoned ship when a shell hit the crowed space, killing him and over 100 crewmen. Since scuttling cocks and watertight doors has already The senior remaining engineering officer Gerhardt Junack ordered the scuttling charges fired, just as HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedos which hit the German ship. The hits stuck the armored belt of Bismarck, and one hit her superstructure as she began to capsize. None would have sunk the Bismarck.
Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney
Bismarck from Dorsetshire
The end of the Bismarck
The British battleships and cruisers fired 2,876 shells at Bismarck, of which an estimated 300-400 hit Bismarck. This doesn’t mention her previous damage; the three 14” hits scored by Prince of Wales, the three aerial torpedoes from the Swordfish from Victorious and Ark Royal, including the one in a million hit on the night of 26 May which crippled her, and another 3-5 torpedo hits from Rodney and Dorsetshire.
The shells fired included 380 of 40.6 cm (16”) from Rodney, 339 of 35.6 cm (14”) from King George V, 527 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Norfolk, 254 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Dorsetshire, 716 of 15.2 cm (6”) from Rodney, and 660 of 13.3 cm (5.25”) from King George V.
Though the British had 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.
Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire
Following the scuttling order, the ships watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams. Likewise, pumps which were being used to pump water out of flooded spaces were reversed. Likewise engineers had the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. At 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 torpedos fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship still argue. 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.
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. It was estimated that about 800 men successfully abandoned ship. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser believed that they spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations to avoid attack. Aboard King George V, Admiral Tovey mused of the words that he would finish his operational report.
Their withdraw left 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, the U-558 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 Junack, Mullenheim-Rechberg and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck. Combined with the three men who survived the sinking of Hood, those lost on Prince of Wales, and other ships, nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished during Operation Rheinübung. Junack entered the West German Navy when it was established and in 1958 was the first commander of the Bundesmarine damage control and survival school. Mullenheim-Rechberg became a diplomat and later wrote Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story. Admiral Tovey retired in 1946 became a member of the House of Lords. He died in 1971. Captain F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton retired as an Admiral in 1950 and served in a number of minor civil service positions until 1983. He died in 1984. Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1943 and was appointed Third Sea Lord and Controller where his primary mission was the creation of the vast amphibious armada used from Operation Torch to D-Day. In May of 1945 he was promoted to Admiral and Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet. He died unexpectedly at his home at the age of 57 in September 1945. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder resigned following Hitler’s Tirade against the surface Navy following the Battle of the Barents Sea in January 1943. After the war he was tried for major war crimes by the International Military Tribunal and was found guilty on all four counts and sentenced to life in prison. He was release for health reasons in 1955 and died in 1960. Captain Patterson was Knighted and promoted to Admiral. He retired in 1950 and died in 1954.
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. In fact only two of Rodney’s 16” shells penetrated Bismarck’s armored belt out of the hundreds of shells that hit her. 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.
As the survivors went into the water the Bismarck began to sink by the stern as she began to capsize. Some crew member attempted to dive headfirst over the port side only it break their necks on the bilge keel. Others decided to slide feet first as the ship began to capsize. When Bismarck sank some 800 of her crew were adrift in the open Atlantic. The Dorsetshire and the last of Vian’s destroyers went to rescue of the survivors. The sea conditions and their injuries made rescue hard, but then a lookout sighted a periscope, and the rescuing ships took up their lines and steamed away, leaving hundred to die of exposure or drown. A few others would be rescued by German and Spanish ships, but of over 2200, officers, crew, and the admiral’s staff, only 115 survived.
At 1100, Winston Churchill informed the House of Commons of the battle: “This morning shortly after day-break, the Bismarck virtually immobilized, without help, was attacked by British battleships that pursued her. I don’t know the result of this action. It seems however, that Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and now will be sunk by torpedoes. It is believed that this is happening right now. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful enemy battleship, as she is the newest enemy battleship and the striking of her from the German Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining effective mastery of the Northern sea and maintenance of the Northern blockade.” Churchill had just sat down following the announcement when he was handed a note. He rose again From his seat and said: “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.” After so much bad news the members loudly and lonely cheered and clapped at the news.
The German High command issued their statement in the evening.
“Berlin, May 27, 1941. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces announces: The battleship Bismarck, which in her first battle against superior British forces sank the Hood and damaged the King George V, had her speed reduced by a hit forward. A torpedo from an aircraft attack that took place on the 24th of May, again affected her speed. On May 26, when 400 miles west of Brest, towards 21 hours, the ship was again hit by two aerial torpedoes from aircraft, destroying one steering gear and propellers, and the ship was unable to steer. During the night, the Chief of Fleet, Admiral Lütjens sent the following report to the High Command of the Navy: ‘Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer. Chief of Fleet.’ Contending with enemy naval forces which were gradually being reinforced, the battleship Bismarck went on fighting in her incapacitated state, until finally, on the morning of May 27, she fell victim of the superior strength of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, several cruisers and destroyers. The British formation itself has been attacked early today by German bombers. The thoughts of the entire German people are full of pride and sorrow towards the victorious fleet commander, Admiral Lütjens, during his naval battle in Iceland, towards the battleship Bismarck, her commander, Captain Lindemann, and his brave crew.”
Bismarck was now at the bottom of the seas, and 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. While the 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 surviving 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.
Bismarck’s Survivors in England
But from the perspective of the survivability of a battleship against overwhelming odds and against a massive number of hits by shells and torpedoes. Bismarck was not sunk by the fusillade of British shells and torpedoes, but by the actions of her crew, ordered by Captain Lindemann and carried out by Commander Junack and his engineering and damage control teams. The expedition which discovered her wreck and subsequent explorations of the her by multiple teams have determined damage sustained by Bismarck by the British gunfire and torpedoes was not the cause of her sinking, at least of when she sank. Of all the hits on her main armored belt, only two of the 16” shells of Rodney pierced them. None of the torpedoes, except the last ditch strike launched by Ark Royal’s Swordfish which disabled her steering gear and ended her chance of a safe escape to France, did any appreciable damage.
The one weakness were not appreciated at the time was the structural weakness of the stern of Bismarck, a design flaw found in the Scharnhorst Class, and the Admiral Hipper Class Heavy cruisers. After Bismarck was lost, Tirpitz and other ships with the same weakness were corrected. The last 35 feet of the stern collapsed either shortly before her sinking or afterward. In 1942 Prinz Eugen had her stern collapse from a single torpedo hit.
However, even today there are many controversies about what was the cause of the sinking of Bismarck, however, there are no ships that were designed and built after the Washington and London Naval Treaties, even those built in defiance of them, that ever survived the amount of damage that Bismarck sustained in her short career. Prince of Wales was sunk by just four aerial torpedoes, Roma of the Vittorio Veneto Class, was sunk by one hit by a German guided rocket, Jean Bart of the French Richelieu Class, put out of action by a few 16” shell hits from USS Massachusetts, and last but not least the massive Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi. Both ships were far larger than Bismarck and had much heavier armored belts, decks, and turrets, yet they were sunk by much less ordnance. Yamato was by 11-13 Mk 13 Aerial torpedoes and 6-8 550-1000 pound bombs. Her sister, Musashi was hit by an estimated 19 torpedos and 17 bombs. Their weakness was their torpedo protection. Though on paper their torpedo protection appeared strong there were three major weaknesses. First the voids between the triple underwater armored belts were left empty, rather than filling them with reserve water or fuel. Second, the upper main belt was not joined well to the lower torpedo belt, which created a vulnerable seam just below the waterline, and finally, their bow sections, which were very long were poorly protected, resulting in massive flooding when hit by torpedos. The only modern battleship to survive a large number of hits from 14”, 8”, and 6” shells, was USS South Dakota which was struck by at least 26 shells, but only one was 14”. It is it is doubtful if she or any other ship could have survived the damage inflicted on Bismarck.
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.