Torpedo attack on the Bismarck

Some torpedoes were avoided by turning the ship, but as a surviving officer explained, whichever way the “Bismarck” turned to evade one torpedo, she was constantly exposed to others. Another prisoner stated that the aircraft came down to the attack at an angle of approximately 50° and darted through the barrage like flashes of lightening, and the courage displayed by the pilots in pressing home their attacks in this fashion was beyond praise. This prisoner added ruefully: “If only Germany actually had sunk the ‘Ark Royal’.”

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo
The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war. The most powerful battleship yet built was among the victims.

After sustaining damage from HMS Hood the Bismarck had reduced speed and range. Yet she had successfully shaken off the Royal Navy ships that had been tracking her on radar and was making for the French port of Brest for repairs. There seemed every prospect that if she remained undetected she could make it to the safety of port.

On the 26th May the hunt for the Bismarck involved every available ship in the Royal Navy. The British Home Fleet under Admiral Tovey led the charge from the North Atlantic ( after a detour north when the probable course of the Bismarck was miscalculated), “Force H” with HMS Ark Royal was coming up from Gibraltar and a large number of other warships had been detached from their Atlantic convoy escort duties and were making their way independently.

But it was a United States Naval Ensign who made the first crucial sighting. The United States, still being neutral at this time, were not taking an ‘active’ part in hostilities. They had attached seventeen airmen to the RAF, partly to assist with the familiarisation with the new Catalina flying boats. Ensign Leonard B. Smith was officially a ‘co-pilot and special observer’. He had taken off from Lough Erne in Northern Ireland at 0325. The long range of the Catalina meant that he was way out in the Atlantic at 1010 when he glimpsed the Bismarck through the clouds. He came round for a closer look – his report shows that he was not taking an entirely, neutral, passive role in affairs:

Upon reaching 2000′ we broke out of a cloud formation and were met by a terrific anti-aircraft barrage from our starboard quarter.

Immediately jettisoned the depth charges and started violent evasive action which consisted of full speed, climbing and “S” turns. The British officer [Dennis Briggs] went aft again to send the contact report. When making an “S” turn I could see the ship was a BB [battleship] and was the Bismarck, which had made a 90 starboard turn from its original course, (This was evident from wake made by his maneuvering), and was firing broadsides at us. The A.A. [anti-aircraft] fire lasted until we were out of range and into the clouds.

It was very intense and were it not for evasive action we would have been shot down. The barrage was so close that it shook the aircraft considerably (one man was knocked from his bunk) and the noise of the burst could be hear above the propeller and engine noise. Numerous bursts were observed at close quarters and small fragments of shrapnel could be heard hitting the plane. The fitter came forward to pilots compartment saying we were full of holes.

As soon as we were well clear of Bismarck we investigated the damage, which consisted of a hole in after port hull (about 2″ in diameter) and one in bottom hull directly below instrument panel (about 1″ in diameter). No other damage was visible at the time. I made short flight test (several turns, checked engines, etc) and finding everything satisfactory returned to area to resume shadow of Bismarck.

The Catalina flying boat that was flown by Pilot Officer Denis Briggs and Ensign Leonard Smith, lying at its base in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland

It was now only a matter of time before other aircraft could join the scene. The Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal very quickly joined the battle. Unfortunately they had not been advised that the cruiser HMS Sheffield was on the scene and in their first attack launched all their torpedoes at her. Only good fortune prevented an epic Royal Navy disaster because the magnetic torpedoes failed to explode. A second attack was soon launched, with torpedoes fitted with contact detonators, and this time found the Bismarck. John Moffat was piloting one of the Swordfish as it came round to attack:

In our briefing in the Ark we had discussed coordinating our attack, the first three flights coming in on the port beam from various bearings, with the second wave doing the same on the starboard side. This would help to confuse the anti- aircraft fire and would also make it difficult for Bismarck to manoeuvre into the torpedo tracks.

But it seemed that we had got badly separated in the high cloud; it was utter confusion. I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me. It was heading towards us, the lazily spinning tracer from scores of guns coming at us like hail. I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it: every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything – an impulse that it was hard to fight off. But I held on and we got closer and closer.

I went down, as low as I dared, though even that took an act of will to overcome my fear of hitting the rough sea. At training school I had been taught to assess the speed of the ship and lay off my aim by using a simple marked rod mounted horizontally along the top of the cockpit. But the nearer I got the larger the target became, so I decided to aim for the bow.

Then I heard Dusty Miller shouting in my ear, ‘Not yet, not yet!’ and I thought, ‘Has he gone mad? What is he doing?’ I turned and realized that he was leaning out of the cockpit, looking down at the sea, trying to prevent me from dropping the torpedo on to the crest of a wave, where it would bounce off or dive deep, either way knocked off any course that I might have fired it on.

We were getting closer and closer, the ship was getting bigger and bigger, and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, what are you waiting for?’

Then he said, ‘Let her go, Jock,’ and I pressed the button on the throttle. Dusty yelled, ‘I think we have got a runner.’

John Moffat makes it very clear that he did not sink the Bismarck alone – but the title that the publishers gave his memoir has attracted comment. Nevertheless John Moffat: I Sank The Bismarck is a very good account of the operation.

Whilst he did not think they were making a very co-ordinated attack, the Bismarck crew thought otherwise. The German view of the attack was obtained by subsequent interrogation of survivors:

A first air striking force had been flown off “Ark Royal” at 1500, but had failed to achieve any result. At 1850 a second force of aircraft was despatched for the attack which settled the fate of “Bismarck” and ensured her final destruction.

This attack was made by 15 Swordfish aircraft, armed with torpedoes set to 22 ft., and lasted from 2055 to 2125. It was first reported that the aircraft had scored no hits and it seemed that the remaining chance for the British forces had gone; but at 2130 “Bismarck” suddenly turned north and soon after came the welcome news that one hit, and possibly two, had after all been scored. In point of fact at least two, and possibly three hits were made. One torpedo had struck amidships on the port side, one on the starboard quarter, and possibly a third on the port quarter. The torpedo which struck to port amidships, according to prisoners, exploded without doing damage, against Sections VII and VIII, but that on the starboard quarter wrecked the steering gear jamming the rudders at an angle variously estimated at between 10 and 15 degrees and causing “Bismarck to turn slowly in circles to starboard. This hit was stated by one prisoner to have been outside an unarmoured trimming compartment, below the steering motor compartment on the starboard side, and resulted in Section II being flooded to the main deck.

Throughout this attack a furious anti-aircraft barrage was kept up by the 400 men of the “Flak” first with the 10.5 cm., then with the 3.7 cm., and finally with the 2 cm. guns. This fire was supported by “Bismarck’s” secondary armament, but not on this occasion by the main armament.

This time, however, the defence of the ship proved far less effective. The north-westerly wind had been increasing all day and was now blowing at Force 8; a considerable sea was running, with a heavy north-westerly swell, and the ship had begun to roll making gunlaying difficult. In addition the guns crews, who had been on almost continuous watch since “Bismarck” left Bergen, were becoming exhausted.

It has been stated by one prisoner, that one gun-layer operating a 10.5 cm. A/A gun suffered a sudden nervous collapse and temporarily lost his mind. Practically all remaining A/A ammunition was used up during this action. The method of attack employed by the aircraft in approaching simultaneously from a number of points was most deadly.

Some torpedoes were avoided by turning the ship, but as a surviving officer explained, whichever way the “Bismarck” turned to evade one torpedo, she was constantly exposed to others. Another prisoner stated that the aircraft came down to the attack at an angle of approximately 50° and darted through the barrage like flashes of lightening, and the courage displayed by the pilots in pressing home their attacks in this fashion was beyond praise. This prisoner added ruefully: “If only Germany actually had sunk the ‘Ark Royal’.”

Extravagant claims were again made in “Bismarck” as regards the number of aircraft allegedly destroyed. It was announced that at least seven were shot down. In point of fact no aircraft was lost and only one pilot and one air gunner were wounded. “Ark Royal” reported A/A fire to have been heavy and accurate and was experienced even when the aircraft were in cloud at a height of 3,000 ft. As soon as this attack was over it was recognised in “Bismarck” that the plight of the ship was most desperate.

Attack and counter-attack on Crete

I said to Kippenberger that I’d like first of all to go through the village on my own, so that I could go through at full speed and without infantry with me. And I drove through the village very fast firing on each side of the street and it was just chock-a-block full of Germans – and in coming out my second tank was hit and two of the crew members were wounded, but the tank was still serviceable.

German paratroopers go forward over the rocky terrain in the blazing heat, Crete 1941
British soldiers are forced to surrender their position .

On Crete [permalink id=11467 text=”Brigadier Kippenburger”] was organising the defence of the village of Galatas. The Germans had been ejected from the village by a bayonet charge from New Zealand Maori troops accompanied by Cretan villagers. Some of the villagers had attached old knives onto their hunting rifles and shotguns before they joined in the assault. Now the the Germans were attempting to retake the village. Roy Farran was a tank commander with just two remaining tanks able to assist with defence of the village:

I said to Kippenberger that I’d like first of all to go through the village on my own, so that I could go through at full speed and without infantry with me. And I drove through the village very fast firing on each side of the street and it was just chock-a-block full of Germans – and in coming out my second tank was hit and two of the crew members were wounded, but the tank was still serviceable.

So I called for volunteers for the second go, when I had to go in with the infantry, and some New Zealanders who’d never fired machine guns or operated tanks before volunteered. So we went in then again with, I think, Sandy Thomas’s battalion and I tried to drive slowly so that I didn’t get too far ahead of them. But I got about a hundred yards ahead nevertheless and my tank was suddenly knocked out in the village square, my gunner was badly wounded, I was badly hit. My driver was hit in the shoulder. He pulled the tiller too hard and the tank swayed broadside.

I then pushed everybody out through the driver’s seat from the front and crawled out myself, and I was hit in both legs and my arm and hid behind a stone wall praying for the New Zealanders who were behind me to come up, and they were having tough fighting as they came through.

They came in with fixed bayonets into the square. I remember shouting to them ‘Come on New Zealand, clean them out’, and Sandy Thomas, who eventually became a General, was wounded just at the entrance to the square on the other side of the street from me and we shouted at each other and he brought the German I think who probably got my tank, down from the roof with an incredible shot with a pistol, because it was dark. And then having taken the village, suddenly the orders came to withdraw. I was left behind and so were a lot of the other wounded.

See Crete 1941 Eyewitnessed.

HMS Hood sunk

As the AA shells continued to rocket around, Captain Kerr ordered the four-inch gun crews to take shelter and the fire and damage control parties to keep away from the area until all the ready-use ammunition had been expended. But the bursting projectiles were making a charnel-house of positions above the upper deck. The screams of the maimed kept up a strident chorus through the voice-pipes and from the flag deck.

The 'Mighty Hood' was the pride of the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy had been following the Bismarck and the Prince Eugen almost [permalink id=11577 text=”since they had left Norway”]. The relatively old battlecruiser HMS Hood and the very new battleship HMS Prince of Wales intercepted them as they emerged from the gap between Greenland and Iceland. The Battle of the Denmark Strait began with the first sighting at 0535, the Hood opened fire at 0553. It was all over in a matter of minutes.

The crew of HMS Hood that had [permalink id=9758 text=”celebrated the New Year together”] now faced mortal danger. A remarkable account of the action was written by Ted Briggs who had a grandstand view of the action, being posted on the Compass Platform of HMS Hood alongside Admiral Holland, the commander of the British force:

The menacing thunder of our guns snapped the tension. All my traces of anxiety and fright left me momentarily. I was riveted with fascination as I counted off the seconds for our shells to land -20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25…then tiny spouts of water, two extremely close to the pinpoints on the horizon. Suddenly a report from the spotting-top made Holland realize he had blundered. ‘We’re shooting at the wrong ship. The Bismarck’s on the right, not the left.’ Our shells had been falling near the Prinz Eugen, which many hours earlier had begun to lead the German raiding force when the Bismarck’s forward radar failed. Holland seemed hardly perturbed and in the same monotonous voice said: ‘Shift target to the right.’

Within the next two minutes the Hood’s foremost turrets managed to ram in six salvoes each at the Bismarck. I counted each time, expecting to see a hit registered. The first salvo pockmarked the sea around her, and the third appeared to spark off a dull glow. I thought we had got in the first blow, but I was wrong. Suddenly it intrigued me to see four star-like golden flashes, with red centres, spangle along the side of the Bismarck. But I had no time to admire them. Those first pretty pyrotechnics were four fifteen-inch shells coming our way, and deep, clammy, numbing fear returned. That express train, which I had last heard when the French fired on us at Oran, was increasing in crescendo. It passed overhead. Where it landed I was not sure.

My eyes were on the two ships rapidly becoming more visible on the starboard bow. They were still winking at us threateningly. But the next salvo was not just a threat. Not far from our starboard beam there were two, no three, no four high splashes of foam, tinted with an erupting dirty brown fringe. Then I was flung off my feet. My ears were ringing as if I had been in the striking-chamber of Big Ben. I picked myself up, thinking I had made a complete fool of myself, but everyone else on the compass platform was also scrambling to his feet. ‘Tiny’ Gregson walked almost sedately out to the starboard wing of the platform to find out what had happened. ‘We’ve been hit at the base of the mainmast, sir, and we’re on fire,’ he reported, almost as if we were on manoeuvres.

Then came a crazy cacophony of wild cries of ‘Fire’ through the voice-pipes and telephones. On the amidships boat deck a fierce blaze flared. This was punctuated by loud explosions. The torpedo officer reported by phone: ‘The four-inch ready-use ammunition is exploding.’ I could hear the UP rockets going up, just as they had roared off accidentally in Gibraltar a year earlier. Fear gripped my intestines again as agonized screams of the wounded and dying emitted from the voice-pipes. The screeching turned my blood almost to ice. Yet strangely I also began to feel anger at the enemy for the first time. ‘Who the hell do they think they are, hitting our super ship?’ I thought ridiculously.’

As the AA shells continued to rocket around, Captain Kerr ordered the four-inch gun crews to take shelter and the fire and damage control parties to keep away from the area until all the ready-use ammunition had been expended. But the bursting projectiles were making a charnel-house of positions above the upper deck. The screams of the maimed kept up a strident chorus through the voice-pipes and from the flag deck. I was certain I heard my’ oppo’ Ron Bell shouting for help. These agonizing moments did not appear to trouble Holland, Kerr or Gregson. Their binoculars were still focused on the enemy. I wondered how they could be so detached, with chaos and havoc around them. This, I supposed, was the calmness of command, and some of it transferred to me like a form of mental telepathy.

Only a couple of minutes later the Hood blew up in a spectacular explosion. Ted Briggs was one of only three survivors out of the entire crew of 1,418. His full account can be read at the HMS Hood Association, which has amassed an extraordinary collection of material relating to the Hood and the action in the Denmark Straight.

The famous image of the Bismarck firing on Hood, the battle took place in daylight, the darkness of the image is due to its exposure.
The subsequent Board of Enquiry examined in great detail the exact cause of the explosion.

The German view of events was obtained when the Royal Navy subsequently interviewed the survivors of the Bismarck:

Kapitänleutnant Burkhardt von Müllenheim-Rechberg, 3rd Gunnery Officer in “Bismarck,” stated during interrogation, that no officer recognised “Hood” at first, and did not do so until “Hood” turned to port, disclosing the long, low sweep of her decks. They had not bargained with coming into contact with “Hood” and for a time they were extremely anxious about the outcome.

The Germans, however, fired with great accuracy, and “Norfolk,” who was in a position to witness the duel, states that the first salvo was 100 yards short, but that the second salvo straddled and hit. The third salvo again straddled and hit and a fire broke out in “Hood’s” port battery, which spread rapidly to the mainmast. At 0600, just after “Hood” and “Prince of Wales” had turned together to open “A” arcs, “Hood” was straddled again. There was a huge explosion between the after funnel and the mainmast and the ship sank in three or four minutes.

The Prince of Wales was also hit, a shell killing everyone on the bridge apart from the Captain and she soon broke off the action. But the Bismarck had not escaped unscathed.

One of the very last photographs of Bismarck, seen from Prince Eugen, after she had been hit by the Hood (but see comments below about who hit Bismarck). There was significant flooding, which slowed her down, and also contaminated fuel, reducing her range.

Hunt the Bismarck – First sighting by HMS Suffolk

23 May 1941: Hunt the Bismarck – First sighting by HMS Suffolk
At 1922, while on a southerly course, Suffolk sighted Bismarck and Prinz Eugen seven miles off her starboard quarter on a parallel course. She immediately increased speed to full and made a 150° turn to the north in order to come around to the rear of the two Germans, to be in a position to shadow. The initial sighting from Suffolk was not received by the C-in-C in the King George V for several minutes.

ON BOARD HMS SUFFOLK ON ARCTIC PATROL. JUNE 1941, ON BOARD THE CRUISER HMS SUFFOLK WHICH PLAYED A CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE SHADOWING OF THE BISMARCK ALONG WITH HMS NORFOLK. Aerial view of HMS SUFFOLK as she patrolled the Denmark Straits.
The bows of HMS SUFFOLK cut a parallel path to the edge of the ice.

The greater part of the British Home Fleet was now at sea hunting for the the German battleship Bismarck. The strategy was to make an informed guess on her likely passage and then keep ships with a good lookout on the route. But the Royal Navy had one technological innovation to assist.

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

23 May 1941

In the AM, atmospheric conditions in the Denmark Strait were unusual in that visibility was clear over and close to the ice field. Suffolk took advantage of these conditions, patrolling along a line more to the east across the top of the minefield than would normally have been safe, and to be close to the edge of the mist, in order to be able to take cover quickly if the Bismarck appeared. Norfolk was stationed about 15 miles abeam of Suffolk.

At 1922, while on a southerly course, Suffolk sighted Bismarck and Prinz Eugen seven miles off her starboard quarter on a parallel course. She immediately increased speed to full and made a 150° turn to the north in order to come around to the rear of the two Germans, to be in a position to shadow. The initial sighting from Suffolk was not received by the C-in-C in the King George V for several minutes.

Soon after sighting, Suffolk switched on her Type 284 gunnery radar and began tracking the enemy ships. At first sighting. Bismarck’s speed was 20 knots; by 1954 this had increased to 28 knots. By 2000, Suffolk was in her shadowing position off Bismarck’s port quarter, which was unseen in the mist.

Suffolk was transmitting position reports frequently. From 1922 to 2026, six position reports were sent by radio, none of which were received by Tovey in the battleship.

Suffolk re-sighted Bismarck at 2028 at a distance of 10 miles; she immediately turned away to the north-east to open the range and get back into the mist.

2031. Bismarck opened fire with 15in guns on Suffolk, and Prinz Eugen opened fire on the Norfolk. Neither of the two British cruisers took damage. The range was 10,000 to 12,000 yards.

2033. The two cruisers began to shadow from fine on the quarter. Speed was 28 knots.

2154. The Bismarck entered a rainstorm and passed out of sight. Suffolk maintained contact by radar.

At 2254 the enemy was re-sighted and four minutes later Bismarck fired on a British reconnaissance aircraft. Norfolk was sighted 10 miles to port of Suffolk at 2352.

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.

ON BOARD HMS SUFFOLK ON ARCTIC PATROL. JUNE 1941, ON BOARD THE CRUISER WHICH PLAYED A CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE SHADOWING OF THE BISMARCK ALONG WITH HMS NORFOLK. On the look-out platform of HMS SUFFOLK. The man on the right warms a hand on the hot pipe specially installed to keep the men warm. This post battle publicity shot made no mention of the ship’s radar.
HMS Norfolk assisted with the tracking of the Bismarck but did not have the same radar as Suffolk.

Mountbatten’s HMS Kelly sunk

As we entered Canea Bay a large caique was sighted loaded with German troops steering towards Crete. Both ships opened fire and sank her very quickly, the wretched Germans jumping into the water in full marching order. In any other circumstances we would have stopped to pick them up, but even at 30 knots it was doubtful if I could get into position to carry out the bombardment in time, so I had to push on.

After their losses in Greece the RAF were unable to maintain a presence on Crete. The Germans had total air superiority and inflicted much damage on the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy suffered significant losses in the battle for Crete but also managed to sink large numbers of German troop ships bringing re-inforcements to the airborne invaders. The destroyers HMS Kelly, HMS Kipling and HMS Kashmir were under the command of Lord Louis Mountbatten. He had [permalink id=5369 text=”saved HMS Kelly from near certain sinking”] during the invasion of Norway just a year earlier.

On 23rd May Mountbatten was directed to Crete where they were to bombard Maleme airfield, which had just been captured by German airborne troops, in support of a counter-attack by British forces. HMS Kipling developed steering problems and was detached. Mountbatten’s account comes from a letter to his sister Louise, Queen of Sweden:

As we entered Canea Bay a large caique was sighted loaded with German troops steering towards Crete. Both ships opened fire and sank her very quickly, the wretched Germans jumping into the water in full marching order. In any other circumstances we would have stopped to pick them up, but even at 30 knots it was doubtful if I could get into position to carry out the bombardment in time, so I had to push on.

We hadn’t got the exact position of the aerodrome, but worked out from a contour map where the airstrip must be. After having completed our bombardment we withdrew at high speed and came across another caique carrying ammunition. Shortly after we started firing at her she blew up in a very spectacular way.

Dawn broke as we rounded the North-Eastern Cape and we steamed at 30 knots down the Kithera Channel to rejoin Rawlings’ force. As the sun rose a German Dornier 215 appeared out of the east and was engaged before she dropped five bombs which missed Kelly astern; forty minutes later three more Do. 215s made a high-level bombing attack on Kelly and Kashmir in the face of good 4.7-inch controlled fire. Both ships avoided the bombs. I sent for my breakfast on the bridge and I continued reading C. S. Forester’s book about my favourite hero Hornblower called Ship of the Line.

Just before 8 am we sighted a mast above the horizon and I hoped it belonged to the Kipling though I couldn’t think why she had waited for us.

By now the sun was well up, the sea was calm and it was a lovely Mediterranean day. Just about 8 a.m. we suddenly saw 24 ominous black objects. Their distinctive shape soon revealed them as the dreaded Stukas, the Ju. 87s. They had a reputation for diving almost vertically on ships and only releasing their bombs when they were so low that they couldn’t miss. They were hard to distinguish against the rising sun, but presently we could see that they broke up into two parties of about 12 in each.

I pressed the alarm rattlers, for this required full action stations, and I hoisted the signal to the Kashmir to ‘act independently’.The first party made for the Kashmir and they started diving in waves of three. I could see the bombs dropping round her and all her guns were firing. Then a wave of three peeled off from our lot and started to dive. I put the telegraphs at ‘full ahead’. I gave the order ‘hard-a-starboard’ to bring the ship under the dive bomber to force it to dive ever steeper in the hopes they would finally be pushed beyond the vertical and lose control. This happened and the bomber hit the sea close by sending up an enormous splash.

I reversed the wheel ‘hard-a-port’. The next dive bomber was also forced to dive steeper and this one we actually shot down, into the sea. The next one also missed.

But now to my horror I saw that the third or fourth wave had hit the Kashmir somewhere amidships and she was finished. I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, even if we are not hit now we shall have to stay and pick up the survivors and they will get us then!’

I think it was about the fourth wave of the three, where one of the Stukas suddenly came lower than the others and although I had the wheel over to ‘hard-a-starboard’ and we were turning at over 30 knots under full helm the bomb was released so close to the ship that it couldn’t miss. It hit square on X gun-deck and killed the crew of the twin 4.7-inch gun mounting, including that nice young boy Michael Sturdee, who was in command.

The next wave were coming and I gave the order to the navigator ‘midships’ and then ‘hard-a-port’, but we only listed over more heavily to port. All ships list outwards under full helm at full speed, but this list was getting worse. I gave the order ’stop engines’ and then heard the coxswain shout up the voice-pipe, ‘Ship won’t answer the helm. No reply to the engine-room telegraphs!’ Then I realised we were for it. The next wave of Stukas had started their dive towards us and I remember shouting out, ‘Keep all guns firing’, an unnecessary order, for all guns continued to fire until the guns’ crews were actually washed away from their guns. I realised the bomb must have torn a gaping hole down near X magazine, as we had lost our stability and were rolling right over. I suddenly saw the water rise on our port side in a raging torrent of over 30 knots and thinking, ‘Whatever happens I must stay with the ship as long as I can. I must be the last to leave her alive.’

We were over beyond ninety degrees now and I climbed up on to the distance correction indicator of my station-keeping gear, which I had invented and was fitted in the flotilla. With my arms I clung round the gyro compass pedestal. And then the sea came in a roaring maelstrom. I saw officers and men struggling to get out of the bridge and then I took an enormously deep breath as the water closed over my head. The awful part was that even after we were upside down we continued to race through the water, though, of course, at a rapidly decreasing rate. Somehow I managed to flounder and work my way across the upside-down bridge until I got to the bullet-proof bridge screens. Here I had to pull myself under them and up to this moment it was horribly dark.

A faint glimmer of daylight appeared on the other side of the bridge screens, but the water was churning round and I could distinguish nothing.

I suddenly felt my lungs were going to burst and that I would have to open my mouth unless I could somehow keep it shut. With my right hand I gripped my mouth in a vice-like grip and with my left hand I held my nostrils shut. It was a fight of willpower. Would my hands obey me and keep my mouth and nose shut longer than the reflex action which would force me to open them and swallow a lot of seawater?

I had my Gieve waistcoat on, but had not blown up the rubber ring which is fitted in the waistcoat. This was lucky because it had made it easier to get out from under the bridge, but now I had to kick hard to fight my way to the surface. Slowly, infinitely slowly, the water got brighter and lighter and then suddenly with lungs bursting I broke surface. I gasped for breath, but the next moment I saw the stern of the ship approaching us with both our great propellers still revolving in the air. They looked as though they were going to come right over us and hit us. I saw the navigator, Lieutenant Maurice Butler-Bowden, with his back to the ship. I yelled to him to ’swim like hell’ because I was afraid that the propellers would hit him. We both managed to get clear, but only by a matter of six or seven yards.

At this moment up bobbed one of our stoker petty officers, a great character and a bit of a humorist. He looked at the ‘pilot’ and then at me and then produced a typically cheery crack. ‘Extraordinary how the scum always comes to the top, isn’t it, sir?’ I looked round, I could only see one Carley raft, which someone must have had time to release before the ship turned over. I saw men all round me in the water and yelled out, ‘Everybody swim to the raft.’

I suddenly noticed I still had my steel helmet on, and this seemed ridiculous in the water, so I took it off and threw it away. I pulled the mouthpiece and tube out of my waistcoat and blew up the rubber ring. That made it easier to stay afloat. Then at that moment, suddenly and unexpectedly, a row of splashes appeared between us and the Carley raft, then with a roar one of the Stukas shot overhead with her machine-guns firing at us. I bitterly regretted throwing away my tin hat; you have no idea how naked one feels in the water without one when one is being machine-gunned.

For the full account see Naval Historical Society of Australia.

An alternative account of the action above Crete with the pictures and videos of Stuka pilot Heinz Migeod, used to be available at http://www.heinzmigeod.com/crete-1941.php. now at
https://web.archive.org/web/20130722071230/http://www.heinzmigeod.yolasite.com/ (may be slow loading).

Hunt the Bismarck – Royal Navy Home Fleet sets sail


22 May 1941:22 May 1941: Hunt the Bismarck – Royal Navy Home Fleet sets sail
In the evening of the 22nd, a locally-authorised reconnaissance flight had ascertained that the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen had definitely departed Bergen. This report reached Admiral Tovey at 2000 on the 22nd. Tovey postulated the possible German alternatives: (a) To cover a convoy to Northern Norway. (b) A raiding force for an attack on Iceland. (c) Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to break out into the Atlantic, with the Denmark Strait being the most likely route.

The main armament of HMS KING GEORGE V.
HMS KING GEORGE V BACK FROM THE USA. 1941, AT A BRITISH PORT ON THE BATTLESHIP’S RETURN. Paintwork shows marks left by the rough weather she encountered during the voyage. First job on her return was to repaint the whole ship using about five tons of paint for the outside and superstructure.

The possibility that the powerful German battleship Bismarck might make a breakout had long been contemplated by the Royal Navy. However when the time came there were many factors to be taken into account. The precise location of the Bismarck was uncertain and her intentions even more so.

THE C-IN-C OF THE BRITISH HOME FLEET, ADMIRAL SIR JOHN TOVEY, KCB, KBE, DSO, ON BOARD.
ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS KING GEORGE V. MARCH 1941. A look-out aloft in the battleship. Because of cold and eye strain his watch never lasts for more than an hour. His post is over 100 ft above the sea.

Admiral Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, had to make fine judgement as to how he disposed of the ships available to him. First he had to decide how best to locate and then track the Bismarck. Naval radar was at a very early stage of development. For the most part he expected to have to rely on a visual sighting. Only after that could he consider how he was going to concentrate his force for an attack.

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

A report was received by the C-in-C Home Fleet that two large German warships with several escort ships had passed through the Kattegat, and later that day they were spotted by British air reconnaissance at anchor near Bergen. ln the light of this news, Admiral Tovey, with his flag in the battleship King George V, made the Following dispositions of his forces:

– Battlecruiser Hood, battleship Prince of Wales, with five destroyers sailed from Scapa Flow to Hvalfiord, Iceland.

– Cruiser Suffolk ordered to join cruiser Norfolk, which was already on patrol in the Denmark Strait.

– Cruiser Arethusa ordered to remain at Hvalfiord to be at the disposal of Admiral Commanding 1st CS.

– Battleship King George V, cruisers Galatea, Aurora, Kenya, Neptune with three destroyers at Scapa Flow, were brought to short notice for steam. Joined on the same day by cruiser Hermione and two destroyers.

– The carrier Victorious was held at Scapa Flow, and the battlecruiser Repulse sailed from the Clyde to join the force at Scapa Flow.

In anticipation of making a torpedo attack on the German ships at Bergen, the Admiralty had transferred Albacore aircraft of 828 Squadron to Sumburgh. Admiral Tovey had wished to embark these on the Victorious, but this proved abortive, because the news that the Bismarck had left Bergen was received too late. At this time (May 1941) there was no regular air reconnaissance patrol line in place between the coast of Norway, the Iceland/Faroes passage and the Denmark Strait, extending northwards on an arc that would reach Jan Mayen Island.

In the evening of the 22nd, a locally-authorised reconnaissance flight had ascertained that the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen had definitely departed Bergen. This report reached Admiral Tovey at 2000 on the 22nd. Tovey postulated the possible German alternatives: (a) To cover a convoy to Northern Norway. (b) A raiding force for an attack on Iceland. (c) Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to break out into the Atlantic, with the Denmark Strait being the most likely route.

The third possibility appeared to Tovey to be the one most likely, and on this basis he immediately disposed his forces so as to forestall any possible attack or landing at Iceland, and to intercept, if in fact the Denmark Strait passage scenario was the correct one.

Suffolk departed Havalfiord to join Norfolk already on patrol in the Denmark Strait. Arethusa sailed to join Manchester and Birmingham already on patrol in the Iceland/Faroes passage. Hood and Prince of Wales to cover the patrols in the Denmark Strait and to operate north of 62° N, so as to be able to support 1st CS (Norfolk and Suffolk).

At 2245, King George V, Victorious, Galatea, Aurora, Kenya, Hermione with seven destroyers departed Scapa Flow, to be joined by Repulse and three destroyers north-west of the Butt of Lewis in the AM of the 23rd.

At the same time that orders for the above dispositions were made, Tovey requested extending the air reconnaissance from the coast of Norway to the east coast of Greenland. Instructions For Norfolk and Suffolk were to patrol within distance of the ice edge on a north-west/south-west line.

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.

HMS HOOD seen from HMS REPULSE.
ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS PRINCE OF WALES. 20 APRIL 1941. Bow view of HMS PRINCE OF WALES. One of her aircraft is being hoisted on to the catapult deck.

Charles Upham wins his first V.C.

He was then sent to bring in a company which had become isolated. With a Corporal he went through enemy territory over 600 yards, killing two Germans on the way, found the company, and brought it back to the Battalion’s new position. But for this action it would have been completely cut off.

A German aerial view of the airfield at Maleme, Crete littered with the wrecks of Ju-52 troop carrying planes.

Two days into the airborne invasion of Crete fierce battles were raging. If the Germans could be denied possession of the airfields they would be unable to bring in the re-inforcements they needed to consolidate their positions. New Zealand troops [permalink id=11467 text=”under the command of Brigadier Howard Kippenburger”] were to distinguish themselves in many different actions. The extraordinary story of Second Lieutenant Charles Upham was just one of these. He first came to notice on the 22nd May:

During the operations in Crete this officer performed a series of remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger.

He commanded a forward platoon in the attack on MALEME on 22nd May and fought his way forward for over 3,000 yards unsupported by any other arms and against a defence strongly organised in depth. During this operation his platoon destroyed numerous enemy posts but on three occasions sections were temporarily held up.

In the first case, under a heavy fire from a machine gun nest he advanced to close quarters with pistol and grenades, so demoralizing the occupants that his section was able to “mop up” with ease.

Another of his sections was then held up by two machine guns in a house. He went in and placed a grenade through a window, destroying the crew of one machine gun and several others, the other machine gun being silenced by the fire of his sections.
In the third case he crawled to within 15 yards of an M.G. post and killed the gunners with a grenade.

When his Company withdrew from MALEME he helped to carry a wounded man out under fire, and together with another officer rallied more men together to carry other wounded men out.

He was then sent to bring in a company which had become isolated. With a Corporal he went through enemy territory over 600 yards, killing two Germans on the way, found the company, and brought it back to the Battalion’s new position. But for this action it would have been completely cut off.

During the following two days his platoon occupied an exposed position on forward slopes and was continuously under fire. Second Lieutenant Upham was blown over by one mortar shell, and painfully wounded by a piece of shrapnel behind the left shoulder, by another. He disregarded this wound and remained on duty. He also received a bullet in the foot which he later removed in Egypt.

At GALATAS on 25th May his platoon was heavily engaged and came under severe mortar and machine-gun fire. While his platoon stopped under cover of a ridge Second-Lieutenant Upham went forward, observed the enemy and brought the platoon forward when the Germans advanced. They killed over 40 with fire and grenades and forced the remainder to fall back.

When his platoon was ordered to retire he sent it back under the platoon Serjeant and he went back to warn other troops that they were being cut off. When he came out himself he was fired on by two Germans. He fell and shammed dead, then crawled into a position and having the use of only one arm rested his rifle in the fork of a tree and as the Germans came forward he killed them both. The second to fall actually hit the muzzle of the rifle as he fell.

On 30th May at SPHAKIA his platoon was ordered to deal with a party of the enemy which had advanced down a ravine to near Force Headquarters. Though in an exhausted condition he climbed the steep hill to the west of the ravine, placed his men in positions on the slope overlooking the ravine and himself went to the top with a Bren Gun and two riflemen. By clever tactics he induced the enemy party to expose itself and then at a range of 500 yards shot 22 and caused the remainder to disperse in panic.

During the whole of the operations he suffered from dysentery and was able to eat very little, in addition to being wounded and bruised.

He showed superb coolness, great skill and dash and complete disregard of danger. His conduct and leadership inspired his whole platoon to fight magnificently throughout, and in fact was an inspiration to the Battalion.

London Gazette, 14 October 1941

The hunt for the Bismarck is on

It was a secret radio message from B-Dienst headquarters in German, according to which early that morning a British radio transmission had instructed the Royal Air Force to be on the lookout for two German battleships and three destroyers that been reported proceeding on a northerly course.

The confirmation that Bismarck was trying to break out into the open seas. Taken by Flying Officer Michael Suckling from No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, in a unarmed, high altitude, long range Spitfire, on 21st May

There were a number of indications that the Bismarck would be attempting a breakout, including recent increased German reconnaissance of the Royal Navy base in Scapa Flow. The German [permalink id=11444 text=”plan to break out into the Atlantic in secret”], so as to mount surprise raids on convoy merchant shipping, never seemed to stand a chance. The move into the North Sea had been spotted from Sweden and reported to the British Naval attache, who informed London. By the time Suckling took his picture from around 8,000 metres just after 1pm, triggering a brief anti aircraft alarm, members of the Norwegian resistance had also radioed London and even taken photographs.

Furthermore Admiral Lutjens, in command of Operation Rhine, knew that the Royal Navy knew, because the Germans were reading British radio traffic:

At 1930 the Bismarck weighed anchor and headed north to join the Prinz Eugen and the destroyers outside Kalvanes Bay. The formation then continued on its way. As we slid past the rocky promontories at moderate speed, I was in a small group of the younger officers on the quarterdeck. We wanted to enjoy the Norwegian scenery at close range before we put out into the Atlantic.

While we were standing there, the chief of the fleet staff’s B-Dienst team, Korvettenkapitan Kurt-Werner Reichard, passed by, a piece of paper in his hand. Eager for news from his interesting duty station, we asked him what he had and he readily told us.

It was a secret radio message from B-Dienst headquarters in German, according to which early that morning a British radio transmission had instructed the Royal Air Force to be on the lookout for two German battleships and three destroyers that been reported proceeding on a northerly course. Reichard said that he was taking the message straight to Lutjens.

I must admit that I found this news somewhat of a damper because we junior officers had no idea that the British were aware of Exercise Rhine. Now we knew that we had been “discovered,” and that was something of a shock.

See The Battleship “Bismarck”: A Survivor’s Story

Confidence remained high on the Bismarck, where the news was confined to a small group of officers. The Bismarck was the most powerful battleship yet built “Faster than anything stronger and stronger than anything faster”.

The Royal Navy was now primed for action. When a later reconnaissance confirmed that the Bismarck had left Norway, the hunt was on. Churchill went so far to invite the United States to join in the hunt- he cabled Roosevelt the next day:

Yesterday, twenty-first, Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, and eight merchant ships located in Bergen. Low clouds prevented air attack. Tonight [we find] they have sailed. We have reason to believe a formidable Atlantic raid is intended. Should we fail to catch them going out, your Navy should be able to mark them down for us. King George V, Prince of Wales, Hood, Repulse, and aircraft-carrier Victorious, with ancillary vessels, will be on their track. Give us the news and we will finish the job.

As it turned out, the United States was to play an unexpected role in finding the Bismarck.

An earlier view of the Bismarck - the new battleship was 251 metres long and 36 metres wide. She was capable of at least 31 knots.