'Killing the Bismarck' - Slaying the Myths

Posted on Tuesday 20th May 2014

the atlantic, 27 may 1941
The smoke on the surface of the Atlantic had not long dissipated, the fire snuffed out and thunder only just faded. The wrecked Nazi battleship Bismarck was now lying on the floor of the ocean, the majority of the frail human beings who had crewed her killed aboard or drowned after abandoning ship.
The British battlewagon HMS Rodney sailed away from the scene of combat in company with the Home Fleet flagship HMS King George V. It was Rodney whose massive 16-inch guns – paint now seared off their muzzles – that did the close-up killing of Bismarck.
In a mess deck aboard Rodney a rating sat down to compose a piece of doggerel, which for him neatly summed up what had just happened: ‘Within the span of seven days, From view to chase and kill, The pride of Hitler’s Navy learned, The might of Britain’s will’
The Bismarck Action was thus summed up in a concise, nicely book-ended fashion, by an anonymous sailor who – probably feeling elated that he had lived while the enemy died – decided to neatly encapsulate what had just occurred.
Somehow, if you believed the triumphant verse, it was all pre-ordained and those impudent Germans should have known better than challenge an island nation that had ruled the Seven Seas for centuries.
In some ways HMS Rodney’s sailor wasn’t wrong. The Germans had sent out their newest, most powerful battleship along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to destroy Allied convoys. While delivering a heavy blow by sinking the battlecruiser HMS Hood on 24 May, they soon discovered the Royal Navy could soak up disaster, spring back and bring its still considerable might to bear and cruelly punish them.
Even that is too simple, too easy, a bit of a myth – the Royal Navy was no more omnipotent than Bismarck was invincible. The reality is that no warship is unsinkable, no navy can totally control the oceans, but the British had more experience of it and a bigger, better-balanced navy than Hitler had allowed his admirals to create.
However, if you are to believe today’s majority perception of the Bismarck Action the German battleship was unsinkable – in fact, she was so strong and invincible that it wasn’t the British guns and torpedoes that sank her at all, but her own scuttling charges.
Debate has raged for years around this point, making it the focus of investigations by intrepid underwater explorers who have gone down to look at Bismarck’s wreck. Some found proof that scuttling sank her; while others have offered evidence she was already sinking due to the holes caused by British shells and torpedoes.
The narrative presented in many books on the Bismarck Action makes too much of the German ship’s newness, of her 15-inch guns with their exceptional accuracy and of her awesome silhouette. The reality is that she was deeply flawed. Created in a hurry after Hitler came to power, Bismarck’s design was of First World War-origin, with an armoured deck too low and a citadel that failed to protect the vital command, control and communications organs – and also people – that made her a formidable fighting unit. Her anti-aircraft gunnery record was lamentable, failing to shoot down a single Swordfish during two attacks by aircraft from Victorious and Ark Royal. Her steering was poorly designed and when she turned over and sank her badly welded stern fell off.
But sea battles are not a game of top trumps, comparing calibres of guns and flaws in naval architecture. For what matters is the human element and in that respect Bismarck was defeated before her final battle. Her men were utterly demoralized due to being harassed across the ocean by the British. They had experienced a huge high after destroying Hood on 24 May but by 26 May were in a deep, dark depression. They regarded the admiral in charge of their raiding mission as a Jonah and recognised their chances of reaching a safe port were virtually zero. After the Swordfish attack that destroyed their vessel’s steering, many in Bismarck’s crew just gave up.
And this brings us to the key element of controversy that ‘Killing the Bismarck’ presents, namely the contention that some of her crew tried to surrender at the height of the battle. When the hardback edition was published, and the surrender angle received national newspaper coverage, this caused outrage - from the USA and UK to Poland - among the ranks of those who still believe in the ‘invincible Bismarck’ myth.
One thing I have learned over the past decade or more I have been writing naval history books is that the accepted view of how events happened collapses, or at least can sometimes prove open to question, when you go deep into the archives. People are perhaps just not looking for it, or they possibly find something but it does not agree with the line they are pursuing, so they ignore it.
With specific regard to the Bismarck Action I came across the ‘surrender’ claims in three different ways. In the case of one I found an account (by a Rodney officer) in the archives of the HMS Rodney Association. In another I wrote to the son of the man involved (a rating in Rodney) and he volunteered transcripts and sound recordings. The third account, from a sailor in the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, was in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. The signs that these men saw included a man sending a signal via semaphore, mysterious light signals and a flag raised that seemed to indicate a desire to ‘parley’.
I don’t see why these men would lie. I believe they saw some of Bismarck’s men trying desperately to surrender under a devastating weight of fire from two British battleships and a pair of heavy cruisers. In the fore part of the Bismarck, the British shell hits soon slaughtered hundreds of men and potentially killed the entire command team. The British sailors I quote were in a very good position to see what was happening. They were in actions stations with an excellent view of the enemy and certainly in Rodney’s case they had high-powered optics and could see with shocking clarity what was happening. I don’t think people realize just how close Rodney was in the final moments. The men who were best able to see what was happening in the fore part of Bismarck were sailors in British warships, not German survivors. The latter mainly came from well-protected engineering spaces deep within the citadel or served in the equally robust main armament turrets aft.
Was it possible for the British to take Bismarck’s surrender? No. Some sailors may have been trying to surrender in the fore part of the ship, but their shipmates elsewhere continued to fire on the British. Was it an attempt to surrender on authorization of the Bismarck’s commanders, or just an initiative by some sailors who understandably wanted the killing to stop? Nobody will ever know for sure. No battleship deep in the heat of action has taken the surrender of another, at least not since the end of the wooden walls.
Yes, there was an incident of Russian battleships surrendering at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 – but a radically different set of circumstances, so different as to be incomparable. With the Luftwaffe expected to send 200 bombers over the horizon at any moment, U-boats lurking in the area, with the Royal Navy’s ships running out of fuel – never mind the technical impossibility of putting a tow across – to have attempted to take the surrender would have been insanity.
The Rodney and King George V were two very important capital ships. The British didn’t have many and the Royal Navy was in May 1941 taking a hammering in the Mediterranean during the Battle of Crete. Bismarck’s sister battleship, Tirpitz, was expected to set sail from the Baltic at any moment while there were other German high seas raiders lurking in Brest, waiting to come out and savage Allied shipping.
To risk King George V and Rodney in such a mad move would have been a gigantic strategic error, putting Britain at risk. Bismarck’s ensign continued to fly, she was still firing and for the sake of Britain’s security she had to be destroyed as a fighting entity. After the guns ceased firing on both sides – and it’s worth pointing out the Bismarck’s guns did not fall silent until the British put them out of action - it was a different matter.
The brotherhood of the sea saw the hand of mercy extended. This is something reflected on by some of HMS Dorsetshire’s sailors in the paperback edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ as their vessel rescued the majority of the 115 Bismarck men plucked from the sea.
‘When we went to pick up survivors, we did so because they were seamen doing their job of work, just like us,’ said George Bell, who was a teenage sailor aboard the British cruiser. ‘We had done our job, which was to sink the Bismarck and so now we offered them mercy.’
The most controversial element of the fresh material in the paperback edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ is, though, an account by an aviator who took part in the May 26, 1941 attack on the German battleship that fatally damaged her steering. Terry Goddard was a young Observer in a Swordfish of 818 Naval Air Squadron. Until he got in touch with me I thought John Moffat was the only living veteran of that crucial episode.
Terry, who is now in his mid-nineties, read the hardback edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ and then e-mailed me. Subsequently, over a period of about two years, we had a to and fro discussion. He offered me an account he had written of his part in that mission against Bismarck, which he and I then tweaked and polished in order to present it as the headline element of new material in the paperback.
It makes for a fascinating, sometimes justly acerbic but never less than passionate, analysis of what Terry feels really happened. It does contradict some recent claims about whose Swordfish torpedo did the fatal damage to the German battleship. History is organic, and ever evolving, with fresh perspectives to be discovered even now more than 70 years on from the Bismarck Action.
I was also pleased to be able to present fresh material from another surviving veteran, who back in May 1941 made a transatlantic passage in Rodney as a 17-year-old midshipman. The new material in the paperback also contains a blow-by-blow account freshly rediscovered by the son of a Royal Marine officer who served in the gunnery director position of the cruiser Norfolk.
Of course as the years go by the opportunity to encounter veterans of the Second World War is diminishing rapidly, so I doubt very much there will be another edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ that presents fresh eyewitness material on top of that already discovered. However, even as the paperback rolled off the presses, I heard of another veteran who may have a story worth telling and who is still with us. I will be getting in touch and look forward to his version of events providing yet another tweak in the accepted narrative.
In this illustration HMS Rodney fires her main 16-inch guns during the final battle with Bismarck on 27 May 1941. These were the weapons that destroyed the German battleship © Dennis Andrews.

The Bismarck documentary film.

'The Royal Navy was no more omnipotent than Bismarck was invincible.'

Battle map showing the scope of the Bismarck Action from 23 May 1941, when Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were shadowed by British cruisers, through the Battle of the Denmark Strait, on 24 May, to the final clash on 27 May. © Dennis Andrews.
'Within the span of seven days
From view to chase and kill
The pride of Hitler's Navy learned
The might of Britain's will.'

The mighty 16-inch guns of HMS Rodney - the weapons that destroyed Bismarck. Photo: US Naval Heritage and History Command.

Further Reading

Killing the Bismarck
(Paperback - 320 pages)
ISBN: 9781783462650

by Iain Ballantyne
Only £14.99

In May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck, accompanied by heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, broke out into the Atlantic, to attack Allied shipping. The Royal Navy's pursuit and subsequent destruction of Bismarck was an epic of naval warfare. In this new account of those dramatic events at the height of the Second World War, Iain Ballantyne draws extensively on the graphic eye-witness testimony of veterans, to construct a thrilling story, mainly from the point of view of the British battleships, cruisers and destroyers involved.

He describes the tense…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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