The end of the Bismarck

Out of a total complement of 2,200 men on Bismarck, around 800 are believed to have made it into the sea. 115 were saved by HMS Dorsetshire before a U-boat scare ended the rescue.

After her steering was disabled by a torpedo hit to the stern the Bismarck was a crippled ship, slowly turning in circles. Desperate attempts were made to free the the rudder to no avail. It gradually became more and more apparent that she was helpless, simply waiting for the arrival of a combination of overwhelmingly more powerful Royal Navy ships who would finish her off. Morale plummeted as the inevitable end drew closer. During the night of the 26th a Destroyer flotilla made successive attempts to torpedo her but she was saved by the rough seas.

It was not until morning on the 27th that the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V arrived on the scene, and at 0847 opened fire. Bismarck fired back and came very close to hitting HMS Rodney but her inability to control her steering meant her fire became increasingly inaccurate. Within ten minutes she was taking regular hits from the British warships and although she continued to fire, it was no longer effective.

Subsequent interviews with survivors paint a grim picture of what it was like on the Bismarck during this bombardment:

“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.

This report was made by Royal Navy Intelligence based on interviews with the survivors. The original is no longer available online.

For a good analysis of the battle see the 2019 book British Cruiser Warfare: The Lessons of the Early War 1939–1941.

In particular Alan Raven highlights the innovative use of radar, recently installed on the cruiser Suffolk:

The Bismarck episode was the first instance in history where extended tracking of surface targets was made by radar, and not by a dedicated surface-warning set, but by a gunnery set fitted on the Suffolk. This ship had very recently become operational after a ten-month repair, at the end of which, she was fitted with a Type 279 air-warning set, and a Type 284 gunnery set. The aerials for Type 284 were attached to the roof of the main director, which had to sweep to allow the radar set to perform a search. Although not designed to operate in a search mode to allow radar coverage, this could be done, but in a judicious manner, because constant training of the director would have a negative effect on its mechanism.

On the 23rd, before making contact with the Bismarck, the Type 284 set was being used as a navigational aid, allowing a patrol distance to be maintained within 24,000 yards off the ice shelf, when visibility ranges were less than eight miles. Although the first sighting was at 1922, it was not until 1934 that radar contact was made. Of the six initial sighting reports sent to Admiralty, five were based upon data from the Type 284 radar.

From 2043 to 2154, Bismarck was within visual range that varied from 15 to 18 miles. At 2154 Bismarck entered a rainstorm at a speed of 28 knots and was tracked and held by the 284 until visual touch was regained at 2258.

The above will give the reader an idea of how effective Type 284 radar was for tracking targets in very poor weather, in spite of not having automatic all-round sweep ability, as many later surface-warning sets had. When the Bismarck was in visual contact, the radar was not used for tracking in order to reduce the wear on the training mechanism of the director. Shadowing by a combination of visual and radar continued until about 0326 on the 25th, when radar contact was lost. From the time of first sighting at 1922 on the 23rd to 0326 on the 25th when contact was lost, the Bismarck was at no greater a distance from Suffolk than 18 miles.

The use of Suffolks radar was not only the first time that radar had been used for an extended period of time for tracking surface targets, but also the longest ever recorded! Throughout, the set performed well, without any breakdowns, and was a superb example of tactical use made without any prior training or written procedure laid down.

The use of Type 284 in its designed function was mixed, but when Bismarck tried to ambush the Suffolk between 1805 and 1855 on the 24th, Suffolk made use of her Type 284, first to avoid, and then when firing her 8in guns in return fire, she obtained a straddle at a range of 20,700 yards using radar ranges.

The successful use of this set highlights well the somewhat poor performance of Type 286m radar as was fitted in Norfolk. This had been installed in the ship at the end ofthe first week of May. There had been problems in getting Type 286m to properly perform; all the spare valves had been used and as a consequence, when the ship sailed from Scapa Flow to patrol the Denmark Strait, this set had to be ‘nursed’, meaning that it had to be shut down periodically.

In addition to being nursed, the range on a large ship was only about 14,000 yards, compared to the 26,000 yards of Type 284, but its greatest deficiency was the fixed aerial array that was fitted at the masthead. In order to track a target the ship itself had to be steered in the direction of same, so that when Bismarck made turns, especially toward the ship, contact would of course be lost when the tracking vessel had to turn away. Also, its poor resolution made it unsuitable for gunnery purposes.

See British Cruiser Warfare: The Lessons of the Early War 1939–1941 for a day by day history of the individual actions of cruisers during this period, and much additional material on naval warfare at this time.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Einar Markussen June 10, 2016 at 4:24 am

Hard to fathom the terror these young sailors went through. War is a terrible

Pierre Lagacé May 27, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Horrible description.

Jim Burton May 27, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Love this sight growing up hearing about the war from uncles, aunts. My dad got drafted late in the war because of having 4 children but still went.

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