This week is the nineteenth anniversary of the great naval action which involved the sinking of the mighty H.M.S. Hood and the subsequent hunt and destruction of the "unsinkable" Bismarck.
To mark the occasion, here are the two prize winning letters in the Evening Chronicle competition which was run in connection with "Sink the Bismarck," the filmed story of the great battle now showing at the Odeon Theatre, Newcastle.
The winning letter came from MR. J. RUSSELL, of 43, Runhead Estate, Ryton, Co. Durham.
I was serving as a telegraphist air gunner with 820 Squadron aboard the Ark Royal. I joined her a few months before with A.S.V. [Air-to-Surface Vessel radar] equipped Swordfish and when, with the rest of Force H, we headed out into the Atlantic instead of up the "Med" I thought it would be a change from escorting Malta convoys. However, we soon knew our objective, and I began to have doubts about the change being nice. On the morning of May 26 the news of Hood being sunk was broadcast and as a Regular it shook me rather more than the Hostilities Only lads.
"I COULD SEE HER"
On the morning of May 26 our Recco aircraft reported sighting Bismarck and immediately everyone made to get a striking force ready. About 3 p.m. we set off and I was in the leading sub-flight [Swordfish 4B], the attack being led by Lt. Cdr. Stewart-Moore [in Swordfish 4A]. The weather was bad and the cloud thick and low but there was a clear "blip" on the A.S.V. screen as we headed for the Bismarck's reported position. Nearly there, and suddenly a break in the clouds - and I could see her wake. Then came the signal to attack and off we peeled. Suddenly in my mind, there was something wrong - there wasn't anything coming up at us, and as we broke cloud base and started to level out, I recognised the Sheffield. She was flashing with everything she had, searchlights and all. None of our sub-flight dropped their torpedoes, but we had to sit and watch the others dropping and I think it was my worst experience of the war. Thank the Lord she wasn't hit - then it was back to the Ark Royal. We had to ditch our torpedo before landing and it was a bit tricky with the weather.
DOWN IN THE DUMPS
Everyone was down in the dumps about our effort although we cheered up a bit when there was a broadcast from Admiral Somerville explaining that the striking force had not been informed that the Sheffield had been detached to try and shadow Bismarck by radar. The weather seemed to be worsening but about 1900 hours we ranged up again and eventually got off about 2000. Cloud was worse and several a/c lost touch with the main force. After about an hour's flying the enemy was sighted and at that time I thought I could see both Bismarck and Sheffield. The order to attack was given, though Bismarck had opened fire before that. In we went attacking to her port quarter, and looking at the amount of tracer coming up, I remember wondering if we should get through it or not. Then we had dropped and turned away but I could not see the result of our own drop. I thought I saw one hit though.
'THUMBS UP' SIGN
Racing away at wave-top height with another Swordfish to port. I had just given him the thumbs up sign when - whoosh! something whacked beneath us. I thought she was using shrapnel with her big guns. Back again to the Ark where we landed on at 11:05 and all I had lost was part of my A.S.V. receiving aerial. The ships were still some hours away to the north, and Admiral Somerville in the Renown on the one hand, and the Air Arm in the Ark Royal on the other, were both convinced that they could finish the job as soon as possible. But it is not to be. Back to Gibraltar with Force H where we had a wonderful welcome.
P.S. The Victorious came into Gibraltar too and I transferred from my squadron and brought home the Bismarck survivors.
This letter came from Mr. A. L. Robson (ex-Petty Officer R.N.), 25, Athol Gardens, West Monkseaton. He writes:
Wednesday afternoon at Scapa Flow always found a soccer match, a drink in the naval canteen, a sly game of crown and anchor, a sing-song, and back on board by 6.30 p.m. On board H.M.S. Hood, lying at anchorage, activity was not hard to see. She was preparing for sea. Later in the evening [21 May] she sailed on what proved to be her last and most tragic trip. I was a member of the crew of H.M.S. King George V. We sailed the following day [22 May] in company with H.M.S. Victorious and destroyer escorts. Not until we were at sea and working up to a steady 20 knots, were we told that Bismarck, with a cruiser believed to be Prince Eugen, were attempting a break out into the North Atlantic. By now Hood and Prince of Wales had joined forces. The hunt was on. Friday [23 May] found H.M.S. Repulse, (another old ship of mine as was H.M.S. Hood), now in company with K.G.V., Victorious and escort, steaming steadily N.W., towards the Denmark Strait. A broadcast over the ship's Tannoy system informed us that Norfolk and Suffolk had made a radar contact with what was presumed an enemy force and were shadowing. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen tried desperately to shake the shadowing cruisers off but grimly they hung on to their task until heavy units of the R.N. closed, bearing in mind great distances were separating our forces. We slowly drew to a close, we on board K.G.V. were kept right up to date with whatever information could be passed over the Tannoy system by Captain Patterson.
HOOD HAD BEEN SUNK
Saturday approached (all naval personnel will remember dawn and dusk action stations). We closed up as usual, but on falling out from action stations, rumours were ripe, "buzz's" as the sailors called them. The buzz we were hearing was that Hood had been sunk, Prince of Wales damaged and our fears were confirmed later when we were told officially by the captain. Not only had Bismarck struck a major blow to the Royal Navy, but what was most disturbing was the fact she had given us the slip. She must be found. Oil supplies in the capital ships were now rapidly decreasing. The shock of losing the Hood was a great blow. After all, wasn't the Hood "unsinkable"? She was a great ship - I know I served on her during the first months of the war. Sunday [25 May] passed uneventfully. Monday dawned. Force H, Renown, Ark Royal and Sheffield had joined the hunt.
North, east, south and west, forces gathered. Captains of battleships, battle cruisers, carriers, and cruisers, and destroyers must have had only one thought: "SINK THE BISMARCK." By now an extensive search was going on, a Catalina aircraft piloted by a North-East pilot (I believe he was from Whitley Bay) spotted Bismarck. Signals flashed, the search had changed once again to the chase. Ark Royal, ready with torpedo aircraft, made an attack. Two hits were believed to have been scored. Evening approached and as gathered destroyers prepared to make a night torpedo attack, the destroyers though pressed very hard, made a successful attack, and a hit, I believe, damaged her steering gear.
Dawn breaks on Tuesday morning [27 May] ... The weather is deteriorating. K.G.V. has joined up with H.M.S. Rodney. (Repulse has had to leave because of shortage of oil.) Bismarck, now 400 miles from Brest alters course towards K.G.V. and Rodney, not of choice, but of fate. Her damaged steering gear gives her no other option. For the first time guns bear on Bismarck. K.G.V. and Rodney open up at extreme range, naval traditon is borne out again: "Close the range." Hits are scored, Bismarck replies, near misses are registered. Bismarck is now being repeatedly hit. Her flag still proudly flies at her mast head, now she is silent and listing.
H.M.S. Dorsetshire is ordered by C.-in-C. on board K.G.V. to go in and finish her with torpedoes.
A great ship sinks, a sad sight, or is it a proud moment for all those who have taken part in the chase and destruction of the Bismarck.
Ninety-eight officers and men are picked up by British ships.
British forces disperse and make for port: messages from C.-in-C. Home Fleet to Admiralty