Sinking the ‘Bismarck’

Lawrence Hogben

The map which illustrates this article is adapted from Ludovic Kennedy’s ‘Pursuit’ (1974). It is too detailed to render successfully on this website, but can be viewed as an Adobe Acrobat file [ available here ]

Sixty years ago, on Sunday, 18 May 1941, Admiral Lutjens took the battleship Bismarck, the pride of the German Navy, out to sea from Gdynia in the Gulf of Danzig, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. His mission was to sink as many ships of the vital Atlantic convoys as possible. He hoped to skirt the Norwegian coast, unseen, and filter through the Denmark Strait, north of Iceland. From there, the Atlantic and its convoys would be wide open. Lutjens had to sail without the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, both of which were being repaired at Brest, and the Bismarck’s sistership, the Tirpitz, which wasn’t yet ready. He told a friend: ‘In this unequal struggle between the British Navy and ourselves I shall sooner or later have to lose my life. But I have settled my private affairs and I shall do my best to carry out my orders with honour’ – which he did.

In April 1941 alone, Britain had lost 700,000 tons of shipping, and in Scapa Flow the Home Fleet was preparing to repel further surface raids on convoys. Admiral Tovey, in the battleship King George V, had with him a carrier, Victorious, with a team of untried pilots, and a new battleship, Prince of Wales, which still carried civilians, who were trying to sort out its slightly wonky guns, and finally the battle-cruiser Hood, the darling of the Navy, in which we all hoped to serve. Like me, she was born in 1916 and when, aged seven, I visited her in Auckland Harbour, I fell in love and swore I would join the Royal Navy (which I did) and become one of her sailors (which, luckily, I did not).

On the Tuesday night, Tovey learned via neutral Sweden that a German battleship and heavy cruiser were heading north. Lutjens, having seen the Swedish spotting cruiser, changed his plans, however, and decided to spend the daylight hours of the Wednesday under air cover, near Bergen. Although he must by then have used up 1000 of his 8000 tons of fuel, he fuelled only Prinz Eugen. By midday on Wednesday, the RAF had seen and reported the two ships in the fjord. Tovey asked for an RAF bomb strike, but in case the bombs missed, also ordered Admiral Holland in Hood, along with the Prince of Wales, to head out to sea to the west.

Two hours before the RAF arrived, Lutjens left, heading for the Denmark Strait, bypassing the tanker awaiting him and disappearing from British view till Friday night. Because bad weather made air reconnaissance impossible, Tovey didn’t find out that the birds had flown until Thursday evening. He immediately set three cruisers to keep watch between the Faeroes and Iceland, and made sure that Admiral Wake-Walker, with the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, was guarding the Denmark Straits. Tovey himself left Scapa at eight o’clock on Friday evening in King George V, accompanied by Victorious.

Force H – consisting of Admiral Somerville in Renown, the carrier Ark Royal and the cruiser Sheffield – was in Gibraltar, where on the Friday afternoon, as sports officer of Sheffield and captain of the ship’s hockey team, I was administering a drubbing to the Ark Royal pilots. But the game was stopped and we were all ordered to rejoin our ships (shades of Sir Francis Drake, we thought). At two on Saturday morning we sailed, as we were told, for troop convoy duty. We did not know that at eight the previous evening the news had started to warm up. In the freezing Icelandic fog Suffolk was startled to sight the two German ships missing since Wednesday, and then Norfolk found herself facing the Bismarck’s guns. Five salvos later, lucky to be unharmed, she slipped into the fog, waiting for the German ships to pass. Wake-Walker then followed Bismarck for hour after hour, Suffolk’s radar outwitting all the Germans’ attempts to lose their pursuers.

German intelligence had told Lutjens that the Home Fleet was still at Scapa and that the British as yet had no radar, so he was annoyed at being shadowed by what shouldn’t have been there. Holland in Hood, followed closely by Prince of Wales, was by now getting close and, given Bismarck’s course, speed and position by Wake-Walker, went for an interception. At midnight on Friday, well placed on his westerly intercepting course, Holland made an inexplicable two-hour deviation, going north for an hour and then back south for an hour. This meant that he had to approach the enemy from behind, with only his front guns firing, instead of, as planned, from ahead with a full broadside. At half-past five on the Saturday morning the two admirals sighted one another. The surprised Germans turned away immediately, their standing orders being to avoid capital ships, but Holland turned also to close on them. About fifteen minutes later, still a long way off, he ordered his front guns, the only ones usable from where he was, to open fire on the Prinz Eugen, which he mistook for the Bismarck. Prince of Wales ignored orders and went for the main enemy, which she thought she straddled without hitting. The Bismarck turned left to bring its full broadside with deadly accuracy on to Hood. Hood’s own shells fell nowhere near, but after about four minutes the fifth German salvo penetrated her flimsy top armour amidships and exploded a huge ammunition store. Hood broke directly in two and sank quickly, with only four survivors out of a crew of 1500. Horrified, Prince of Wales dodged round the floating wreckage and was engaged by an on-target enemy, who temporarily stunned her captain, on a shell-damaged bridge. Recovering quickly, he made a lot of smoke to cover a retreat. He then set the crew and the civilian artificers still aboard to repair the not too extensive damage, and linked up with Wake-Walker, who, too far away to join in the unexpected five-minute battle, was still shadowing.

Head on to a north-westerly gale, we in Force H heard the Hood news, wept and swore revenge. The Admiralty told us to forget our troop convoy and head for the Bismarck. Meanwhile, Lutjens, proud of this first big German victory, was licking the wounds inflicted on him by an unknowing Prince of Wales, who had only claimed a straddle. Two big holes had set Bismarck down in the bow and reduced her speed, while one boiler-room wasn’t working. Moreover, oil had leaked and was going to run short. Though port repairs would be easy, Lutjens couldn’t now carry on his mission. Which port for repairs, then? Trondheim, via the Denmark Strait? Bergen, via the Faeroes? France, via the wide Atlantic? He decided to send the undamaged Prinz Eugen off to continue the mission alone, and to make for France. He therefore turned about and opened fire on his pursuers, and had a minor spat with Prince of Wales, while Prinz Eugen made off fast and unseen towards two German tankers to the south.

Bismarck now had to get rid of her British shadowers, who had detailed her renewed southerly course to Tovey a hundred miles away, aiming for interception. At about midnight, still on the Saturday, a flight of torpedo-carrying Stringbags (our affectionate name for the Fairey Swordfish) took off from Victorious. Taken completely by surprise, the German gunners reacted violently, but ineffectively, against what they regarded as old-fashioned biplanes. One only of the torpedoes hit the Bismarck, and it bounced off the armour – a fact which our pilots never knew, fortunately, until years after the event. At this point Lutjens observed that his three shadowers were together in close formation (Wake-Walker had refused to separate for better shadowing) and that, to avoid possible submarines, were zigzagging right and left in unison, and behind him on his left. So at about three on Sunday morning, when they zigged left he turned sharp right, out of radar range, and continued turning in a full circle until he was travelling east round behind his shadowers. He was also now behind Tovey, who would soon have intercepted him if he had stuck to his earlier course. Baffled, Tovey sent searchers everywhere but east, where the enemy actually was – one of his hypotheses was that there was a Bismarck tanker near Greenland. Now back at square one, the Royal Navy was wildly looking for Bismarck, which was heading happily at her most economical speed towards France, and for Prinz Eugen, contentedly oiling.

At nine o’clock on Sunday morning, Lutjens broke radio silence to report his victory, his intention to head for France and his British radar problems. The source of this broadcast was checked for direction all over the UK and the results were sent to Tovey; Tovey’s navigator got his sums wrong, however, and placed Bismarck about a hundred miles north of the correct latitude. Tovey, thinking this meant she was heading for an Iceland-Faeroes passage, went north-east, while the Admiralty was too gentlemanly to accuse the navigator of an error. At around the same time, the battleship Rodney, going for an American refit with a mid-Atlantic convoy, was told to assume that Bismarck was heading for Iceland/Scotland. Tovey was confused by the instruction given to the Rodney (and it was wisely ignored by its recipient). He signalled the Admiralty: ‘Is Bismarck making for the Faeroes?’ Hours passed without any reply and, at six that evening, Tovey turned in desperation towards Brest, without great hopes of making up the hundred miles which he reckoned the enemy had gained through this confusion.

By now it was clear to everyone that only we, in Force H, had any chance of preventing the Germans from reaching shelter off the French coast, where the Luftwaffe could cover them. My chart on Sheffield showed that if we were to intercept her, Bismarck would have to have slowed down, to save fuel. Luckily she had, and Sunday night passed with Bismarck going slowly ahead, Tovey following, also rather short on fuel, more than a hundred miles behind, and us in Force H, facing a gale and closing in. At ten on Monday morning, a searching RAF Catalina saw a battleship, which imprudently fired on the plane. This made it clear that it was the enemy, and so the first Bismarck report for more than 24 hours went out, with an approximate position, even if the Cat failed to find her again.

At this time we were crossing the Germans’ path, ahead of them, while 125 miles back, Rodney was joining Tovey. We then got a message from Renown to find and shadow the Bismarck, so off we went, while Ark Royal prepared a torpedo strike force. My radar gave a big blip, and the bridge sighted her. The navigator dictated to me our first Bismarck report on the voice-pipe, I added our accurate position and then sent it. With unlimited (if not wholly justified) faith in the Ark Royal’s torpedoes, I thought this was the beginning of the end.

At about three o’clock, the captain came down from the bridge to glance at my chart. The navigator called down the pipe: ‘Stringbags in sight’. I looked out the scuttle, which should have been closed, and shouted: ‘My God, they’re dropping!’ Back on the bridge within five seconds, the captain ordered the engines ‘Full ahead port, full astern starboard.’ The surprised engineers did the exact opposite and the ship swung convulsively to port. Some of the torpedoes exploded on hitting the water. Others came at us but missed – all but one, which horrified Sheffield eyes saw go right under us, we supposed at Bismarck depth, without exploding. One of our Friday hockey opponents machine-gunned us as he passed but another, more observant, flashed: ‘Sorry for the kipper.’ The captain growled: ‘Does he mean sorry he missed us?’ Tovey was discouraged by the report: ‘Striking force scored no hits and leaves again at 18.30.’ No one dared say that it meant there had been no hits on Sheffield, of whose presence Somerville had failed to tell Ark Royal.

Having seen us, the Germans were surprised at not being attacked. We shadowed her and my radar plot showed and we reported her steady 18-knot progress. Meanwhile, another Catalina was shadowing us, and reporting that it had spotted the Bismarck (though with an error of ten degrees of longitude). Remembering what had just happened, we told one another that neither Navy nor RAF pilots could count to two (we had two funnels to the Bismarck’s one). Meanwhile, although the Ark Royal’s deck was swaying up and down fifty feet in heavy seas, all its planes landed safely – the pilots downhearted by failure, but thankful to have missed us. They had found out that their new magnetic torpedo fuses didn’t work in high seas and needed to be replaced by the old type, which only exploded on impact with the target. Preparations for a new strike went on desperately, but it wasn’t till eight that Monday evening that the crew of Sheffield, still shadowing the enemy and reporting her position, saw the Stringbag strike pass over, this time directed at the correct target.

We saw and heard all hell break loose as the Bismarck fired everything at the Stringbags, which were coming in recklessly from every direction. Two torpedoes scored hits, but bounced off the armour without damaging it. No planes were shot down – afterwards a German gunner said they were too low and too slow for him. But one Stringbag placed himself ahead of Bismarck, on the right, about eight hundred metres from its line. He aimed his torpedo two lengths ahead of the ship. It would have made a midships hit and bounced off, but a lookout reported its tell-tale trail in the water, and the helmsman accelerated and turned sharp left to avoid it. He thereby exposed his unarmoured and wide rear end to the torpedo, which holed the ship, and, vitally, jammed the left-turning rudder – a one-in-a million success that saved the Navy from the shame of failure. The helmsman found that his engines could not steer the ship against the jammed rudder and the course for France was no longer possible.

We had seen the explosion, which the Ark Royal pilots hesitated to claim, and I was now plotting the Bismarck from our radar. She wiggled and turned, and finally seemed to be going slowly north-west. We reported this, but weren’t believed by Tovey, who was resigned to the idea that he had lost an unharmed Lutjens, who must now be on his way south-east towards France. He uttered the deadly insult, ‘Sheffield has joined the reciprocal club’ – meaning of ships that have steered a course 180° off true. But she hadn’t.

Sheffield, meantime, had ventured too close to a Bismarck with all guns intact and blazing away. Her first salvo missed. We made smoke and retreated, but her second salvo straddled us, killing or wounding 13, and smashing our radar aerials, so ending our shadowing. Happily, we were replaced by Captain Vian, a well-known and successful small-ship buccaneer, who swept up to us, out of nowhere, asked ‘Where is she?’ then rushed on with his five destroyers, to shadow, harass and if possible torpedo the enemy. Our own captain was exhausted, but still very belligerent. He had got through a gale to make the first ship contact with the lost Bismarck, only to be nearly sunk by his friends, to shadow the enemy for hours, to put our Stringbags on their target, to be insulted by his admiral and finally to be nearly gunned down by the Bismarck herself. But what to do next? In the intelligence centre below the bridge he declaimed: ‘Cruisers shadow by day, torpedo by night.’ ‘But sir,’ the navigator and I said, ‘Vian and his destroyers are there for just that.’ He repeated: ‘Cruisers shadow by day, torpedo by night.’ ‘But sir, if Sheffield closes up to torpedo range, Bismarck’s guns wouldn’t miss us again.’ The argument went on till elderly fatigue gave way to youthful prudence. He voice-piped parking orders to the bridge, drank a very large slug of port and went to sleep.

For most of that night, we watched the star-shells and listened to Vian’s battle, in which the combination of heavy seas and fierce German resistance prevented any hits. Closing up on a stranded enemy was easy for Tovey, by now convinced that Bismarck was not going to repair and skedaddle. He therefore decided to wait till daylight, when he could distinguish friend from foe, leaving Vian to harass at night. Somerville wanted to sink the enemy with a third morning Stringbag strike, before Tovey could get at the Bismarck. But rough seas and the risk of hitting the British ships clustered around caused a cancellation.

Just before nine on Tuesday 27 May, Admiral Tovey arrived, his target visible in the morning light. Avoiding Holland and Wake-Walker’s error of maintaining too close formation, he gave the enemy two different targets to think about by separating King George V from Rodney, which opened fire against the sitting duck. Although Bismarck’s initial gunnery was the more accurate, skilful and continuous, course variations kept the British ships from damage, until both were firing heavily and accurately, with only occasional hiccups from King George V’s guns. The two British ships went closer and closer, pouring in tons of shells. Norfolk turned up from the west, and Dorsetshire from the south-east, to add their eight-inch salvos to the rest. One can only imagine the conditions inside Bismarck; her top was a total shambles. After an hour and a half, a flood of Germans was jumping into the sea from the quarter-deck and scuttling orders had been given to her engineers.

Tovey’s fuel was running out, however, and to Somerville’s surprise and the Admiralty’s wrath, he signalled: ‘Have had to discontinue for fuel. Any ships with torpedoes are to use them on Bismarck. Cannot sink her with guns.’ Only Dorsetshire had any torpedoes left, three of which she used. At 10.36 Bismarck heeled over and sank – whether scuttled or Dorsetshired we never knew. Churchill hastened to tell Parliament and the country, still shocked by the loss of Hood, applauded.

Sheffield was by now standing sterile anti-aircraft guard over Ark Royal, both ships rather indignant that our torpedoes had not been asked to sink the Bismarck. Subsequently, guided by Bletchley decoders, we had the minor satisfaction of sinking the Frederich Breme, one of her waiting tankers.

This successful pursuit was vital because it ended German surface raids on convoys. Hitler, who once said, ‘On land I am a hero but at sea I am a coward,’ withdrew all his large surface ships to home waters. To find, and to fight them again, Sheffield, as part of the Home Fleet, had to sail to Arctic and Norwegian waters.

In retrospect, after such actions, junior naval officers always award marks to their responsible admirals. So here goes.

Lutjens failed to fuel when he could, which is probably the main reason he was caught. He sank Hood and then brilliantly fooled his pursuers. But he failed to let his armour-plating protect him from the fatal torpedo. Six out of ten.

Holland intercepted and damaged the Bismarck but his tactics were weird and he failed in battle to use his two-to-one advantage in heavy and light ships. Five out of ten.

Wake-Walker intercepted and clung to Bismarck for days, but lost her by not separating his resources for maximum efficiency in shadowing. But he magnificently caught up, to be in at the death. Seven out of ten.

Somerville intercepted to save the game, nearly sank his own Sheffield and ended Bismarck’s flight, crippling her thanks to a large slice of admiral’s luck. Eight out of ten.

Tovey orchestrated the whole chase with great vision and above all a willingness to modify his own mistaken assessments as things developed. He had two successful interceptions out of three, an unsuccessful search, but a skilful if lucky ending. Eight out of ten.

The Admiralty, always criticised by any seagoing man, was first to see that Bismarck was making for France and finally put Rodney, Somerville and Vian on the trail. But it failed to correct Tovey’s mistake, misled him and failed to answer a vital query from him. Both during and long after the successful pursuit it niggled, criticised and even tried to court-martial Wake-Walker for cowardice. Five out of ten.

The funny thing is that if, 60 years ago, a single one of the British or German mistakes had not been made during these ten days, the enemy might have got away and thus changed the history of the war at sea.