Last year, the 72nd anniversary of the sinking of the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismarck coincided with Memorial Day. I found it highly appropriate, as the battle serves as a stark reminder just how brutal war really is. This year, I discovered that merely calling the carnage inflicted 27 May 1941 brutal might be too kind a description:
“Bismarck” was taking severe punishment. According to one prisoner, one officer drew his revolver and shot down some of the crew when they refused to obey him. Another prisoner refers to officers committing suicide. Still another prisoner mentioned that members of the crew lost their nerve and jumped overboard long before action ceased.
It is known that almost the entire 400 men of the “flak” became casualties. No special protection had been arranged for these men during surface action, they merely being ordered to shelter behind the superstructure on the disengaged side, and, huddling together for protection, groups of forty or more men were wiped out at a time. With the ship listing to port and rolling and seas coming inboard, there were washed over the side scores of bodies, both the killed and of the wounded, whose grasp had weakened on whatever object they had been able to clutch. Hit after hit was now being registered on the upper deck, which was speedily reduced to a mass of twisted steel. Boats and lockers had been smashed to pieces, machinery and instruments twisted and broken. Ready use ammunition was exploding.
A direct hit on the mainmast caused it, as one prisoner described, “to spin round like a whirligig and come crashing down over the ship, creating fresh carnage.” It hung down like a “tangle of vines.” Fires had broken out amidships and aft. The forward damage control centre had been wrecked by a direct hit. Sheets of flame were issuing from the funnel. The ship’s aircraft were also burning, a direct hit having struck a hangar, where a large number of men sheltering there had been killed. Smoke was pouring from holes two yards wide, which had been torn in the upper deck by shells which had penetrated below.
Shells, according to prisoners, penetrated through the upper deck and the battery deck to the main deck. The majority of prisoners deny that the armour deck itself was pierced. Only one man, an officer, has made a statement to the contrary. He alleges this deck was penetrated in the vicinity of the W/T room and suggests that this spot was hit two or three times in succession. Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Junack has stated that one shell penetrated the port turbine room at about 0930. Another entered the boiler room – Section XIII, between 0915 and 0930, starting a fire, possibly of fuel oil. Steam pipes burst, scalding ratings.
Scenes below deck were indescribable. A direct hit in the after dressing station killed the medical staff and the wounded there. Hatches and doors in all parts of the ship had become jammed owing to distortion, resultant upon the terrific pounding the ship was receiving and also because heavy wreckage now lay across most of the hatches opening on the upper deck.
Crews in two magazines became trapped as they were unable to free exit hatches. As rescue parties worked desperately to save trapped men, fires above were raising the temperature within the magazines to a dangerously high level. Finally the probability of explosion became so acute that rescue work was abandoned. Orders were given to flood and the imprisoned men were drowned. In the forward canteen 200 men also became trapped under jammed hatches. At the very moment when a hatch to the upper deck became freed, a direct hit crashed through the deck, transforming the canteen into a charnel house. According to one prisoner, not one man of this group of 200 strong survived, and in making his own escape he was forced to pick his way between “mountains of flesh and bone.”
This prisoner also described how he passed through the W/T room, where the entire staff had been blown to pieces. Fires on the battery deck had now cut off the forward half of the ship. Lights were still burning aft, but they had gone out forward, where the air was dense with smoke, fumes and the gases generated by the bursting shells. Paint was burning off the bulkheads and many men without gas masks were suffocated. Those companion ways and hatches which still remained clear had been stove in or buckled to such an extent that they were no longer wide enough for men to pass through wearing inflated life-saving jackets.
Each exit was now blocked by a struggling mass of men, whom officers could no longer control. Those below crying that they were being stifled, fought desperately with those near the exit, who still cowered under cover, afraid to run the gauntlet of fire sweeping the decks above.
One prisoner who was caught in the middle of one of these blockages stated that behind him men were crying: “I am dying, I am dying.” He shouted: “If you do not want to get out yourselves, at least make room for others to pass.” The only answer he got was: “We are not going out, we are not going out!” He then fought his way through, waited for the next shell to fall and then dashed across the deck into the sea. Those who ran heedlessly out on a deck were nearly all blown to pieces.
Smoke lay so thickly over the deck that a number of men, groping their way to the side, fell into the interior of the ship through shell holes. This occurred to two survivors. “Bismarck” was now slowly heeling to port and water began to pour below through ventilators and shell holes on the port side.
One statement I made last year has come back to haunt me:
As for the British, I wish they would have admitted the merciless attack on the Kriegsmarine battleship continuing after the Germans’ guns fell silent was an attempt to set off Bismarck‘s 15 inch magazines, returning the favor done to HMS Hood, the Royal Navy’s pride and joy from 1920 until May 24, 1941. I am somewhat surprised the Royal Navy permitted the rescue of more than three of Bismarck‘s survivors.
Sailors from the British battleship that tore apart the Bismarck certainly understood their task was to extract revenge for Hood:
Tommy Byers, a sailor on the British battleship Rodney, maintained until he died that the ship, which was sunk hundreds of miles off the coast of Brittany, France, hoisted a black flag – the naval sign calling for parley.
He and a second seaman also saw a Morse code flash, which they interpreted as surrender, along with a man waving semaphore flags conveying the same message.
Royal Navy officers were made aware of the signs but were determined to follow Winston Churchill’s order to ‘sink the Bismarck’. The Prime Minister wanted to avenge the Hood, on which all but three of its 1,418 crew had died.
Had the Bismarck been captured, the lives of hundreds of Germans could have been saved. The ship would also have been a prized catch, giving Navy engineers an insight into the design of Bismarck’s mighty sistership, Tirpitz.
Mighty? Bismarck’s design afforded scant protection for her own crew, and Tirpitz never saw action at sea. From a cold, calculating standpoint, it seems that the battles between British battleships and Bismarck demonstrated that bigger guns always win. Bismarck’s 15-inch shells on 24 May 1941 mauled the Prince of Wales whose sister ship King George V’s 14-inch shells had a hard time penetrating Bismarck’s armor on 27 May 1941 while 16-inch armed Rodney’s 2,000-lb shells had frightful penetrating power and blasted Bismarck into silence quite rapidly.
Hood’s main guns were the same caliber as Bismarck’s, but the British flagship was a battlecruiser whose armor deficiencies led to results eerily similar to the explosion that killed Rear Admiral Horace Hood and sank Hood’s flagship HMS Invincible at Jutland. Six of Invincible’s 1,032 crewmembers survived the horror of 31 May 1916.
In an attempt to maintain “balance,” the Daily Mail advances a quite specious argument:
WHY WE COULDN’T ACCEPT THE SURRENDER
There are strong arguments to support the Royal Navy’s decision to ignore the attempt by some on Bismarck to surrender.
According to Navy accounts, the Bismarck never stopped returning fire, so they were faced with little choice but to destroy it.
Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, said: ‘The Bismarck’s admiral was a fairly fanatical believer in Hitler and the telegrams he sent were along the lines of “we will fight to the end”.
‘It would have been very dangerous to take the surrender.
Admiral Gunter Lutjens almost certainly was killed when a 14-inch shell plowed into the bridge, devastating Bismarck’s superstructure in the vicinity of the detonation and taking with it most of the senior officers (apparently the lack of protection for Bismarck’s crew extended all the way through the Kriegsmarine’s ranks). What else have you?
‘HMS Devonshire picked up 200 survivors but had to leave a lot of men behind because there was U-boat activity in the area.’
First of all, Devonshire was operating off South Africa in May 1941, hunting commerce raiders. Her sister ship HMS Dorsetshire participated in Bismarck’s final battle, and the arguments rage on whether Dorsetshire’s torpedoes or scuttling charges set by Bismarck’s crew sank the German battleship. One year later, I still feel this too was horrific:
The fact that German survivors advanced the scuttling argument with pride shows the effects of sick minds, because hundreds of their fellow sailors were still trapped below decks when Bismarck went down.
Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori rescued 110 of Bismarck’s crew, not 200, out of an estimated 715 German sailors that went into the water alive. Was this more callous disregard for human life?
HMS Dorsetshire was ordered to pick up Bismarck survivors, so the heavy cruiser slowly sailed into the mass of humanity in the water where the Bismarck went down. Ropes were thrown over the side for the survivors to climb up, with the assistance of the British seamen. The Dorsetshire had taken on board 86 German sailors, and the destroyer Maori had picked up another 25 sailors when suddenly there was a submarine alert. The Dorsetshire immediately got underway followed by the Maori, leaving hundreds of survivors behind, some still clinging to the ropes along her side before they dropped off. The reasonableness of leaving the area depends most likely on the eyes that sees it, but the abrupt departure of the British ships sounded the death knell for nearly all of the several hundred German survivors left behind in the water.
HMS Dorsetshire’s captain certainly appears capricious:
One particular story of bravery is well worthy of note. A Bismarck crew member, whose arms had been blown off, somehow managed to reach Dorsetshire and tried to grab a line in his teeth. On Dorsetshire, Midshipman Joe Brooks climbed over the side in an attempt to get a bowline around him. But the ship began to move forward and Brooks lost him, only barely managing to climb back on board himself. The Captain on Dorsetshire, Benjamin Martin, promptly put Brooks under arrest for leaving the ship without permission and had him confined to his cabin.
However, the submarine alert was genuine:
U.74 now found herself in the immediate vicinity of the action.
Shadowy forms could be discerned through the periscope, with the unmistakable outline of battleships and cruisers.
To hold the ship at periscope depth was quite impossible. On the surface the seething, shimmering, greens seas thundered and raged like mountains in torment. Whole worlds of water rose in the air and swept onwards leaving in their wake twisting whirlpools that swirled down far beyond periscope depth. U.74 had the most powerful ships in the British Fleet in her sights, and yet…
For the men in the U-Boat it was a hard and testing time. Try as he would, Kentrat failed to get into a position from which he could fire. Not a single torpedo he could launch.
A U-boat was in the area. Though I think Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat, U-74’s CO and a man that survived World War II who lived until 1974, was being disingenuous:
The last signal from Lutjens, at 0710 (German Time), was “Send U-Boat to Save War Diary.”
Donitz ordered Wohlfarth in U-556, who appeared to be closest to Bismarck, to carry out the risky mission of picking up the war diary. But Wohlfarth responded he was so low on fuel that he had to abort to Lorient then and there.
Unmentioned is the fact that U-556 was out of torpedoes as well. Donitz had dispatched a wolf pack to assist and protect the crippled Bismarck, never mind that the submarines in question were low on fuel and out of ordnance.
The next nearest boat, Kentrat’s heavily damaged U-74 drew the assignment.
So, low-fuel and unarmed aren’t enough—send a crippled submarine to a crippled battleship…to retrieve a book.
British ships moved in to rescue Bismarck’s survivors. They fished out 110, but further rescues were broken off when one of the ships radioed a U-boat alarm, forcing all British vessels to evacuate the area, leaving behind hundreds of German survivors in the sea.
Not quite. The British warships were running low on fuel after the long chase, especially the screening destroyers. The scene could have turned far more blood-filled had Maori and the other sub-hunters been fully topped off and begun depth-charging U-74, blowing the bodies of the swimming Germans high into the air:
Later that evening, Kentrat in U-74 found three survivors and hauled them aboard, prompting Donitz to mount an organized search by six boats over the next four days. Herman Schultze in U-48 reported finding wreckage and “a number of floating corpses,” but no survivors. A German weather-reporting trawler, Sachsenwald, found two other survivors, making a total of five recovered by German forces before Admiral Raeder canceled the search on May 31.
So, after sending a crippled U-boat to retrieve a diary (which still went down with the Bismarck if it hadn’t been blasted and scorched into smithereens when the King George V’s heavy shell obliterated Lutjens’ bridge), Donitz finally considers trying to rescue the Bismarck’s 600 survivors in the ocean. Given the sea state Kentrat reported and the fact that the North Atlantic is normally icy cold, the probability of finding the hundreds still alive were very low. Improper priorities, if you ask me. Not to mention Donitz took a massive (and needless) gamble with choosing Kentrat’s crippled U-boat in the first place:
Kentrat in the severely damaged U-74 had a very difficult time returning to Lorient with the Bismarck’s survivors. By the time he arrived off the coast, saltwater had leaked into the battery, creating chlorine gas. He was thus unable to dive and make the customary submerged approach to Lorient. An unidentified British submarine spotted U-74 and fired torpedoes from dead astern, but the bridge watch was keenly alert and managed to “comb” the torpedoes. The necessary repairs kept the boat out of action until late July.
Kentrat claimed he had trouble getting into firing position? I’ll bet. It was probably very dangerous for the sub to fire anything under the circumstances, and should the U-boat be subjected to depth charging…
There was no glory to be had on 27 May 1941. Bismarck’s was a severely flawed design—rudders extremely vulnerable to damage (she was crippled by a torpedo dropped by one of these):
…had little to no protection for her own crew and performed well only against green, unready and untested vessels like Prince of Wales or the likewise severely flawed “protection” afforded to British battlecruisers that killed Hood and Hood.
Scuttling Bismarck was an act of severe barbarism—condemning close to a thousand of their fellow German sailors over the misguided belief that the British capturing the blasted hulk would be an ignoble defeat. This was the ignoble defeat:
Wreckage now started to flash past the periscope’s eye. Kentrat saw corpses. German or British? He didn’t know. The lurid yellow of their inflated life-jackets shimmered in sinister contrast to the pallid faces they framed. More corpses—drowned, or torn to shreds by gunfire?
Slowly the British units vanished from his sight. Kentrat could now surface. The sea was covered with corpses—they were German seamen.