'Sink the Bismarck!'

Posted on Friday 25th May 2012

When the German battleship Bismarck was commissioned in 1940 she was one of the fastest and most powerful ships afloat. She posed an enormous threat to the Royal Navy and the security of Allied shipping in the Atlantic – she must be destroyed. When she broke out into the Atlantic in 1941, some of Britain's most powerful ships were sent to pursue and sink her. The first encounter proved disastrous for the British battlecruiser HMS Hood, which was sunk at 08.00 on 24 May during the Battle of the Denmark Strait.
On the British side the hunt for the Bismarck was handled at the highest levels of the government. Churchill fancied himself as a naval strategist and spent many hours during the hunt in conference with the Admiralty, egging on Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, and Sir Thomas Phillips, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, as they directed the chase.
While the officers of Bismarck were celebrating their victory and congratulating Schneider, the chief gunnery officer, on sinking the pride of the Royal Navy, Admiral Gunther Lutjens was coming to a crucial decision. He was not yet fully aware of the extent of the damage to Bismarck, although he knew she was leaking oil and he must have noticed her list to port and bow-down attitude. He lost no time in making up his mind. It was foolish to continue his commerce-raiding sortie now that the enemy was obviously throwing the whole weight of the Royal Navy at his two ships. He had already concluded from the performance of Suffolk's radar that the British had a system that would make commerce raiding by surface-ships difficult or impossible in the future. He must make immediately for the French ports for repairs, and join forces with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Only an hour after the battle, he signalled the Seekriegsleitung (German Naval Command) to tell them of his success against Hood and his fateful decision to abandon his mission. At midday Bismarck and Prinz Eugen changed course to south-by-east, towards the Brittany ports. Neither Lutjens nor any of his immediate staff survived the battle which was to come.
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen parted company unobserved by their watchers, aided by rapidly deteriorating weather. On board Bismarck, it became critical to eke out what fuel remained. She was still leaving behind a noticeable oil slick and speed was reduced to 22 knots to reduce consumption. A patrol of U-boats was ordered to cross her likely path towards the Bay of Biscay in the hope of trapping some of her pursuers. There could be no doubt that the British would now have a formidable force trying to intercept her. The powerful battleship Rodney had abandoned the liner which she was escorting to the USA, and was making her best speed into mid-Atlantic to join the fray.
Bismarck in trouble. This picture taken from Prinz Eugen early on 24 May shows her labouring under the effects of the water flooding into the forward compartments due to hits from Prince of Wales.
The chase continued with Bismarck desperately striving to reach the French coast and the sheltering umbrella of the Luftwaffe. A Swordfish attack launched from Victorious informed Lutjens that British battleships could not be far away, and they knew his position and continued to track his every move. He needed to find a way of evading his pursuers. He observed that Suffolk was zigzagging to avoid the danger of a U-boat attack and opening the range, and planned to make use of it. In the darkness, at 03.00 hours on 25 May, he waited until Suffolk's zigzag took her to the farthest point from her quarry, just outside radar range, and then turned Bismarck to starboard, increasing speed to 27 knots. He then turned in a large circle, eventually settling on a course of south-east – directly towards St Nazaire. The plan worked perfectly and radar contact was lost completely.
The shadowing cruisers thought it likely that their quarry had slipped away to the west or south-west and concentrated their searches in that direction, but naturally found nothing. RAF Coastal Command had concluded at an early stage that the enemy destination would be Brest or St Nazaire and acted on this assumption before their naval colleagues. Long-range Catalina aircraft – PBYs – were ordered to search the route between the enemy's last known position and the French coast. At 10.10 PBY-Z sighted a faint dark shape at the limit of visibility. It was too far away to identify, but unlike British ships it had no escorting destroyers: surely it must be German. The British now knew roughly where Bismarck was, her course and her speed. An hour later she was spotted by a Swordfish sweeping north from Somerville's Force H, and for the rest of the day she remained under observation by other Catalinas and by Ark Royal's reconnaissance patrols. Lutjens addressed the whole crew over the loudspeakers:
A Catalina flying boat. When fitted with long range tanks it had an endurance of 24 hours or more.
'... On our way [to St Nazaire] the enemy will gather and give us battle. The German people are with you and we will fight until our gun barrels glow red hot and the last shell has left the barrels. For us, seamen, the question now is victory or death.'
Sheffield had been ordered to close Bismarck at high speed and act as a beacon for the attacking aircraft. By the time the strike force of fifteen machines was ready to take off, at 14.45 hours – about four hours after the first sighting – Sheffield was well on her way towards the target. The attack crews of 820 and 810 Squadrons Fleet Air Arm were all experienced flyers and had been fully briefed on their mission.
Aboard Bismarck, the day had been full of foreboding. The crewmen were tired. They had been on alert almost continuously for three whole days. They longed for the comfort and safety of a French port. Little did they know of the horrific ordeal which awaited them that night.
The British situation was now desperate. Unless the enemy could be slowed down and caught, Tovey would have to give up the pursuit. Although nightfall was approaching, the Swordfish crews aboard Ark Royal were determined to stop Bismarck from escaping. 818 Squadron, led by Lieutenant Commander Tim Coode, was selected to carry out the attack. It had been planned that the attack should be made by five sub-flights, all approaching from different pre-arranged angles so as to divide the fire of the defenders, and make it difficult for Bismarck to dodge the torpedoes.
The aircraft began to dive willy-nilly into the attack. At about 300 feet they suddenly burst out of the cloud into the twilight. Bismarck's gunners had seen the aircraft a few seconds earlier and had a hot reception ready. Some of the aircraft spotted their target immediately and went into the attack, some faltered and some saw nothing as they burst out of the cloud cover. The most important blow was struck by one of two aircraft that attacked from aft on the port side. As the plane approached to about 500 yards from the target, the observer watched the waves underneath the plane. 'Now!' he yelled, and the torpedo streaked away, running true towards the target. As it did so it seemed that the ship turned to starboard, thrusting its stern towards the incoming missile. The observer of a second Swordfish flying directly behind thought he saw a massive explosion towards the stern of the ship. The crews thought they had made one or to hits, but it did not seem that Bismarck had been damaged severely.
Sheffield signalled that the target had slowed right down. This was confirmed by the last of the shadowing aircraft: 'Enemy stopped. Enemy heading north.' They had seen Bismarck make two complete circles and then stop dead in the water. She assumed an unsteady course, moving slowly northwards. Here was hard evidence that Bismarck had been severely damaged, and Tovey might yet catch her.
Swordfish 5G of the Ark Royal’s 818 Naval Air Squadron, which took part in the strike on the Bismarck.
The Swordfish attack had lasted only fifteen or twenty minutes, but Bismarck was in a dire situation. The torpedo had struck her at her weakest point, about 20 feet under water, close to the twin rudders. The shock had caused the safety valves on the main engine controls to cut off steam, and the engines had stopped dead. Water surged up the distorted port propeller shaft and partly flooded the engine-room, and worst of all the aft steering-room with the steering-gear and motors was open to the sea, with the rudders jammed 12 degrees to port. Engineers took only a few minutes to reseal the propeller shaft and pump out the engine rooms so that power was restored and the engines could be restarted, but the ship was still unmanageable.
Bismarck could do nothing but wallow slowly through the huge waves directly towards her pursuers, and away from her destination and from any help that might be rendered by friendly ships or aircraft. Even the greenest young seaman must have realized that there was now little hope. Lutjens himself had no doubts at all. At 21.40 hours he radioed his HQ in Paris: 'Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last round, long live the Führer!'
The attackers worked into position at four corners of a square of which Bismarck was the centre point, with one destroyer directly astern of her. It soon became clear that there was nothing wrong with the enemy's guns or his shooting. German night-sights were far better than British, and the officers in Bismarck's director towers could see the destroyers quite well as they fought through the seas. It was a ghastly night for Bismarck's crew. Under the conditions the skill and resolve of the German seamen on their doomed ship deserves the highest praise.
As daylight dawned on 27 May, the British prepared for their final attack. As Tovey closed in for the finale and the battleships approached Bismarck they realized that, wounded as she was, their task might not be entirely simple. Deprived of most of their destroyer escort, the British ships were dangerously close to enemy U-boat bases, and had to keep steaming fast and changing course often to guard against submarine attack. Bismarck's slow erratic progress meant that they would have to keep weaving and turning around to remain in a position to use their armament effectively while still maintaining high speed. Also, they were in danger from the air. Worst of all there was a fuel situation; unless Bismarck was sunk well before midday, nether King George V nor Rodney would have a chance of getting home at a safe speed, as they would simply run out of fuel.
At 08.45 on 27 May, both British battleships sighted Bismarck at a range of about twelve miles, and Rodney's massive 16-inch guns opened fire a few minutes later. Less than a minute afterwards King George V fired her first salvo. Bismarck replied almost immediately. Another barrage opened up from Bismarck's dogged opponent Norfolk. She had been in the hunt longer than any other British ship, and she was determined to help finish the job. Rodney was now closing rapidly, and was able to bring her secondary armament to bear. Under a concentrated barrage from three ships, fire from Bismarck's remaining turrets, 'Casar' and 'Dora', started to become erratic but continued for a few minutes. By 09.02 she was being hit hard from all directions and was little but a wreck. Soon Bismarck's resistance virtually ceased. As a fighting machine the great ship was finished.
Internal communications had mostly broken down, but Oels, the executive officer, attempted to get men to carry the wounded on deck, and finally gave the order to abandon ship. Now for Tovey it was only a question of finally sinking her.
The two British battleships continued firing at very close range, only about 1,500 yards. This did terrible damage to the enemy's upper works and killed hundreds of her crew. A great fire raged below decks and the engine-room crews abandoned their stations. Men huddled together wherever they found a place that seemed to be a refuge from the shells. No one seems to have thought of surrendering the ship, which might have saved many lives, and Tovey had no alternative to destroying Bismarck utterly.
Like many old battleships, Rodney had an underwater torpedo flat, and in an attempt to finish the unequal battle she fired a series of torpedoes at Bismarck. At least one scored a hit – the only occasion in history of one battleship torpedoing another – but to no avail. By 10.00 hours the battered hulk still refused to sink, and the British battleships had to depart for home. At this point HMS Dorsetshire took a hand; she closed the defenceless hulk and fired two torpedoes, one into each side. The gallant battleship rolled over and sank.
Almost every heavy ship in the north Atlantic was converging on the German intruders. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the order to 'Sink the Bismarck!' and what followed was a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy.

The sinking of the Bismarck.

On board Bismarck, it became critical to eke out what fuel remained. She was still leaving behind a noticeable oil slick...

Killing the Bismarck.

The British situation was now desperate. Unless the enemy could be slowed down and caught, Tovey would have to give up the pursuit.

Ark Royal seems to have been an especially happy ship. She was a large carrier of 28,000 tons with a complement of up to sixty aircraft and a top speed of 31 knots. She was in fact the first British ship to be designed from scratch as an aircraft carrier. Earlier carriers had been conversions of half-built cruisers or battle cruisers. Her design had been compromised by treaty limitations and she did not have an armoured deck, unlike later British fleet carriers. By May 1941 she had steamed over 100,000 miles since her last refit and was experiencing some problems with her propulsion gear, but these did not compromise her operational efficiency. Her captain, Maund, was a popular and excellent leader, and worked well with Somerville, his chief. One of the peculiarities of serving on the Ark was that flyers, including senior pilots, were required to operate the ship's defensive armament when they were not flying. That meant that aircrews not detailed to fly would be trying to shoot down attacking enemy aircraft. They were keen to have a crack at Bismarck.
Desperate survivors from the Bismarck cluster below HMS Dorsetshire.

Further Reading

Bismarck: The Epic Chase
(Hardback - 176 pages)
ISBN: 9781848842502

by James Crossley
Only £19.99

When the German Battleship Bismarck was commissioned in 1940 she was one of the fastest and most powerful ships afloat. To the Royal Navy and the security of Allied shipping in the Atlantic she posed an enormous threat – she must be destroyed. When she broke out into the Atlantic in 1941, some of Britain’s most powerful ships were sent to pursue and sink her. The first encounter proved disastrous for the British Battleship HMS Hood, which was sunk at 0800 on 24 May. Bismarck had sustained several hits from…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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