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An Interview with Bismarck Survivor Bruno Rzonca

This interview was conducted by Carl Wesolowski and Donald Spisak during the course of several meetings with Bruno Rzonca between December 2003 and June 2004. Bruno lived in Shererville, Indiana and spoke good English although with a heavy German accent. In this interview Bruno starts introducing himself and then he continues describing his experiences in the Kriegsmarine responding to a number of questions. Remarks by the editors are placed in square brackets - [...] Bruno Rzonca passed away on 23 July 2004.

Bruno Rzonca
1941                                    2003

Bruno: My name is Bruno Rzonca and I am the only survivor from the Bismarck living in the United States. I was born on May 19, 1918 in Marienwerder, East Prussia. Now it is Poland. 

In 1938, I joined the Arbeitsdienst, the Labour Service, near Berlin in Postdam. Even the girls had to serve in the Arbeitsdienst. I was there for half year and received 25 pfennigs a day. After my service in the Arbeitsdienst, I enlisted directly into the Kriegsmarine and began my basic training for the navy, what you call bootcamp, at Eckernförde a little north to the harbour of Kiel. It started on the 1st of April 1939 and ended on the 1st of October 1939. We learnt everything in a half year, make knots, sail… Every weekend we had a sailboat race. We had to snap on the sail and raise it, then check out the wind direction and many other things. We were only 6 or 7 guys per boat and we won almost every time [he laughs]. We had a lot of fun there, but then of course, it was not easy. We had to exercise a lot. You had to do pull ups on a straight bar. At the end of it you had to run 10 kilometres, about 6 miles. Everything was tested after the half year. We had shooting too. I was pretty good at shooting as I always had an air rifle as a kid. When I finished my basic training, I was assigned to the cruiser Karlsruhe.

Interviewer: That was your first ship, right?

Bruno: That was the first ship, the light cruiser Karlsruhe. There were three cruisers Königsberg, Köln, and Karlsruhe. They called them “K” cruisers. Karlsruhe was rebuilt in Wilhelmshaven. So, we had to go there and learn everything we had to do on the cruiser. My station was in boiler room number 4.

Interviewer: Boiler room?

Bruno: Yes, boiler room. I was a machinist. When I was younger, I used to run steam engines and boilers at my father’s dairy plant. So they put me in a boiler room. We made all the tests right in the Baltic Sea, checked out all the guns and so on. There were four sets of torpedoes, two on each side. The guns, we had three 6-inch turrets, one was on the front and two in the back, and each turret had three barrels. We even had a plane, an Arado 196 sitting on the catapult.

Interviewer: How was this ship compared to the Bismarck?

Bruno: Oh! It was just a little cruiser. According to the Bismarck it was 7,000 tons and the Bismarck was 52,000 tons [he laughs].

Interviewer: Oh, OK. There is a difference there.

Bruno: Yes, it was a light cruiser.

Bruno: We finished up all the tests and on the 8th of April 1940 we got the order to invade the harbour of Kristiansand. It was a race between Britain and Germany to occupy Norway. So, on the evening of the 8th of April we went out from Wilhelmshaven to the harbour of Kristiansand in Norway, and on our way there, we picked up 200 storm-troopers. 

In the North sea we passed up the British in the fog and we had to be careful because if we put out too much smoke they would notice it. At that time I was running the boiler and I had trouble with one of my superiors. I adjusted the boiler so it would burn smokeless, but he changed that all the time and that produced lots of smoke. See, there was nothing to mark it, you had to have a feeling for the right amount of air, or the oil, water… So the officer from the control station came down to see what was going on and said: “Rzonca, from now on you are in command of the boiler room” and he got nothing to say anymore. 

On the next morning [9th] we arrived in Kristiansand. In the harbour we shot at the coast batteries for an hour, we knocked them all out. Then we put the strom-troopers on land, they invaded the town, and that was the end of it. Then, as we left Kristiansand, our ship was torpedoed by a British submarine [Truant]. One torpedo hit us right in the machinery, knocked everything out. We couldn’t drive it anymore and it killed 11 of our crew. I was on the next room to the torpedo. We had torpedo boats with us, and we went over to the them. One of our torpedo boats had to shoot three more torpedoes [at Karlsruhe] to sink it.

Next day we arrived in Kiel, the harbour of Kiel, and then, the following day the whole crew had to stay out in a parade. The Admiral came down and gave Iron Crosses away. I was surprised I heard my name and I got the Iron Cross 2nd class. So I figured out this had to do with my division officer when I drove the boiler room smokeless. 

Bruno: A month later [May 1940] I came on the Bismarck. Most of the crew on the Bismarck had lost a ship before, it was an experienced crew. The Bismarck was built in Hamburg by Blohm & Voss. When we arrived there, Bismarck didn’t even have the big guns on, so we had to stay on a nearby merchant ship for sleeping. [This must be a lapse in Bruno’s memory. The four big turrets were already in place as early as January 1940]. 

Interviewer: You had to wait until they finished the ship to get on it?

Bruno: Yes, until a month later we couldn’t move in on the Bismarck. There was a larger space on the Bismarck, it was a nice, nice ship. When we had no watch we could go on leave in the evening. We went to Hamburg, the Reeperbahn. There I met a nice girl, oh! boy I tell you [Bruno laughs]. I met her on a corner in the rain. She was a secretary at a lumber yard in Hamburg. So, I talked to her, we went dancing, have fun. This was in the Reeperbahn of course, that time was a different one than now. So far we had met almost every time I had no watch and I was on land. We got engaged on Christmas 1940. 

Interviewer: Was it love at first sight?

Bruno: Not right away, but it grew after awhile.

Bruno: In the meantime, on the Bismarck, we had to learn everything. The first time we went to the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal we had a short celebration for the first time on the ship. There was a point in the canal where it was very narrow and the Bismarck had only inches of clearance on each side. The pilot steered the ship through without touching either side. We had to stop in Kiel to load ammunition, oil and everything we needed. Then we went to the Baltic Sea, near Danzig, the harbour was Gotenhafen. We run all the tests there. One day, during exercises in the Baltic, officers decided to shoot a complete broadside, that is all four big turrets at once.

Interviewer: Was it was loud?

Bruno: Very loud and the blast knocked the lighting out from some of the hallways.

Interviewer: Did the ship roll?

Bruno: Yes, after that [blast], the ship rolled.

Interviewer: What was your work aboard the Bismarck?

Bruno: I had to maintain the Junkers 4 stage air compressors of the catapult on the starboard side. There were two, one on the left and one on the right. I used to switch compressors with my comrade Rudi Römer. These compressors ran a lot of equipment including the four big turrets. I was also in charge of maintaining the catapult, and had anti-aircraft responsibilities if needed. Planes could be launched from either side of Bismarck.

Interviewer: You witnessed many launchings of Arado 196 seaplanes then…

Bruno: Yes. During exercises, I was able to get a ride on one of the Bismarck’s seaplanes with a Luftwaffe pilot and was launched off the catapult. We only flew for a few minutes, then landed on the water.

Interviewer: Did the plane bounce on the water on landing?

Bruno: No, it was smooth. 

Interviewer: Who was your most immediate superior?

Bruno: I don’t recall this officer’s name. See, there were three work shifts. One of the shift officers had been also my immediate officer aboard the Karlsruhe. At first I was on another shift and this officer transferred me to his group. 

Interviewer: You were not the only one from cruiser Karlsruhe to be assigned to the Bismarck then…

Bruno: No. One of the officers just under Lindemann was also on the Karlsruhe.

Interviewer: Were sailors allowed to take personal photographs aboard Bismarck?

Bruno: No. No cameras were allowed by seamen on Bismarck.

Interviewer: How and when were you paid?

Bruno: We didn't get much money and were paid every 10 days.

Interviewer: Did Bismarck sailors practice any sports aboard? Gymnastics perhaps?

Bruno: We were too busy working on the ship for sports or games.

Interviewer: Did you smoke?

Bruno: I had one cigarette as a boy and that was the last one. However, in most areas in the ship smoking was allowed. We had good fans and the ventilation was very good.

Interviewer: How were the meals aboard Bismarck?

Bruno: We had three really good meals every day. The officers ate in a wardroom separated from regular seamen, and had their own bar and bartender. We could have beer on our off time too.

Interviewer: What brand?

Bruno: I don't know, but it was pretty good! In the ship we had tables 6-foot long, each table received a 2-liter bucket that was filled with beer, and each sailor had a metal cup. We would drink and the sailor who had the last cup of beer had to buy the next bucket full [beer wasn't free aboard Bismarck!]. After that the tables were folded up and the room used for sleeping. When we had a practice run in the Baltic Sea testing the guns, a plane used to fly with an [target] air bag and our AA guns shot the air bag down. Then these men had a surprise coming and were given a case of beer. [Bruno laughs]. 

Interviewer: Where did you sleep aboard?

Bruno: We slept in hammocks but higher ranking sailors had benches with mats. Those mats could float and be used in emergency.

Interviewer: Could you hear the ship’s engines running?

Bruno: The main engines were two decks below my station and I couldn't hear the engines running anywhere on the ship. However my duty station, compressors, was very loud. 

Interviewer: Did you have hearing protection? 

Bruno: No.

Interviewer: Did you ever enter in Lindemann’s cabin?

Bruno: No.

Interviewer: Did you ever have the opportunity to talk directly to Captain Lindemann?

Bruno: No, but I did see him a few times.

Interviewer: Did you ever meet with survivor Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg?

Bruno: I think I remember him on Bismarck, but Müllenheim was a “blue blood” [referring to his nobility status] and had little contact with ordinary sailors.

Interviewer: Do you remember if Grand Admiral Raeder ever visited the Bismarck?

Bruno: No. I never saw Admiral Raeder.

Interviewer: Did you see Hitler on 5 May 1941? 

Bruno: Yes. The Bismarck was in Gotenhafen when we had a surprise visit from Hitler. Our duty officer lined us up on parade. Because I had previously been awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, I was positioned in the front line for Hitler's inspection with other decorated sailors. Hitler passed within six feet of me.

Interviewer: Do you still keep your Iron Cross?
[At this time Bruno reaches down in a box he has by his table and brings up a smaller box. It has his original Iron Cross! and he hands it to me! The ribbon is pretty worn, but here I am with the Iron Cross that Bruno wore when Hitler visited the Bismarck. The reason Bruno still has it is because he sent it to his mother before Bismarck sailed. Other times he wore a ribbon (a black-white-red ribbon worn in the button hole) that signified that he had the award. DS.].

Interviewer: How tall was Hitler?

Bruno: He was a couple of inches taller than me. [That would make Hitler approximately 5’ 9" tall].

Interviewer: What about Admiral Lütjens? Did you see him?

Bruno: I never saw him.

Interviewer: He was however with Hitler on 5 May 1941.

Bruno: I don’t recall seeing Lütjens on inspection with Hitler. [maybe Bruno didn’t realize at that time that one of the accompanying officers was Lütjens].

Interviewer: Were there any mascots aboard the ship?

Bruno: "Nothing".

Interviewer: When did Bismarck leave Gotenhafen for the Atlantic?

Bruno: It was on my birthday the 19th of May, 1941. We couldn’t celebrate. We left at 2 o’clock in the morning. So I guess I couldn't tell the bride I turned 23 [he laughs]. In the Skagerrak there was a Swedish boat and it gave signals to the British. We had the Prinz Eugen with us. Bismarck sent notice to Swedish boat that any more transmissions sent would result in its sinking! I found out about this episode from crewmates. Later we had an alarm. There were some mines and we took care of them. Then, we went over to Bergen to refuel, but the tanker came too late and we went out without refueling. In the meantime a British plane came over the fjord and made some pictures, but before we could shoot, it ran away in a couple of seconds.

Interviewer:  How much fuel could you put on the ship?

Bruno: I have no idea [Bruno laughs]… I don’t know. It was a lot.

Bruno: So we went out in the evening [the 21st]. It was dark. For security we had a couple of destroyers with us, and after a couple of hours they went back to harbour. We also had air protection, Messerschmitts flying over. They flew back and then we continued on our own, Prinz Eugen in front and we were in the back. After one of my work shifts I went topside for fresh air, it was mid-night the sun was out and I saw icebergs. Next day we arrived in the Denmark Strait. There we sighted a couple of cruisers. We started shooting and they vanished. A couple of hours later we met the Hood and the Prince of Wales

Interviewer:  Where were you standing during the battle with the Hood?

Bruno: I was at my duty station and once the alarm sounded no one could go topside.

Interviewer:  How far away were they?

Bruno: It was, I think 15 miles. They started shooting, and the shells came closer and closer, and we were wondering in the ship, why we don’t shoot back?

Interviewer: Weren’t you firing back?

Bruno: No.

Interviewer: Why?

Bruno: I don’t know. This crazy Admiral Lütjens, he wouldn’t give order to shoot back. Until we had already received three hits, then the Skipper [Captain Lindemann] got mad and said: “I won’t have my ship be shot from under my ass! That’s what he said in words, and we were ordered to shoot back. It took us five minutes to sink the Hood. Distance of 15 miles. We could reload the big guns in 20 seconds.

Interviewer: How many inches was this?

Bruno: 15 inch. 1,600 pounds for shell.

Bruno: One broadside was too far, the other too short, and the third was a direct hit. It [Hood] blew up, broke apart in the middle and went down. We couldn’t save nobody. We were in battle with Prince of Wales and we almost knocked her down. We didn’t know how many dead ones they had.

Interviewer: Were you looking at the Hood at the time she blew up? Did you see the Hood blow up with your own eyes?

Bruno: No, but I did get reports from those who did see the Hood go down with field glasses.

Bruno: Later on the same evening [the 24th] we had a torpedo fly attack. They dropped 19 torpedoes. We zig-zaged them all out except one. One hit us right under the starboard side, on the right side, a little bit below my station. I was sitting on a tool box and from the pressure I got up. Then we checked it out and alarm came from the boiler room; we had to shut it off because the fire came back out. But 10 minutes later we checked it out again and nothing happened, it was just from the air pressure. We had our first casualty. It was in the rank of a sergeant; he was standing there on the railing where the torpedo struck, and from the air pressure he was flung over to the other side on the railing and broke his neck.

Interviewer: How was the armour on the hull of the ship?

Bruno: The biggest part of the armour was 15 inches. No torpedo came through the whole day. 

Interviewer: What kind of steel was that?

Bruno: I don’t know.

Interviewer: Nickel-chromium steel?

Bruno: Yeah, something like that.

Interviewer: 15 inches?

Bruno: 15 inches on the thickest part. Over the machinery there were even two [decks?] of them, 8 inches. Not one shell came through the machinery.

Interviewer: How many tons was the ship again?

Bruno: 52,000 tons. 

Interviewer: How long and how wide was it?

Bruno: 120 feet across, and over 800 feet in length. 

Interviewer: Do you remember if the top of Bismarck’s battery turrets were ever painted yellow? Red?

Bruno: No. They were always painted grey.

Interviewer: You see, people that build models of Bismarck want to keep their model as accurate as possible… 

Bruno: The turret tops were always grey.

Interviewer: On the evening of 26 May, the Bismarck was attacked by Swordfish torpedo planes that hit and jammed the rudder. Did you witness this attack? 

Bruno: Helmut Behnke and I were both on deck and saw the Swordfish planes coming. They looked like “seagulls" because they were so slow. The torpedo that hit the rudder didn't make a big explosion. It was more of a "thud", but it did kick up "dirt" [debris]. The sky was full of small explosions from Bismarck's anti-aircraft fire.

Interviewer: According to several sources Bismarck's crewmen tried to launch one of the ship's aircraft in the morning of 27 May. What happened?

Bruno: The Arado was loaded and ready to take off, but the catapult wouldn't work. We were called to investigate and found that the pressure gauge had no reading for the catapult. We then checked the pressure lines and found some major damage that couldn’t be repaired. We later pushed the Arado plane overboard.

Interviewer: Could the plane have been lowered with the crane into the water and then take off from there?

Bruno: No. The waves were 30 feet high. Too rough for that.

Interviewer: What happened during the final battle?

Bruno: During the final battle I stayed at my station to the end. Then I heard the command to abandon ship on the intercom. We knew we had half an hour to get off the ship once that order was given as all internal doors were opened. They opened the bottom valves first in the boiler and turbine room and blew it up so the water came in.

Interviewer: Did you recognize the voice on the intercom?

Bruno: No.

Interviewer: Were you afraid?

Bruno: Very afraid. When the shooting started a big shell came right into me, on the left [port] side. I used to change shifts with my comrade Rudi Römer. I had just talked to him five minutes before and then he disappeared. I thought he died.  

So, the last order came through, abandon ship and leave the doors open. When the skipper [Lindemann] gave the order to abandon the ship, we looked for an exit. I was looking around and saw men sitting on a bench and I asked: “don’t you want to save yourselves?” they said: “There is no ship coming, the water is too cold, the waves too high, we are going down with the ship.” A little bit further there was a wounded guy, he lost his heels I said: “come on I am going to help you out first and then find me an exit” he replied: “leave me alone and don’t step on my feet, I going down with the ship.” I couldn’t believe that. A little later we found a stairway. 

When I came out I couldn’t believe it. The British were still shooting, and we looked for cover behind one of the 6-inch turrets. Bodies were piled around the turrets, they were all dead. The whole deck was full of blood and body parts. There were a couple of guys sitting there and said: “help me to get in the water, we can’t walk anymore” so we help them out into the water. Now the ship started turning over more and more to the left [port] side and I stayed on the starboard side. I took off my heavy leather suit and jumped into the water. I thought this should be the end. I was only 23 years old starting living, I was engaged, and there was no chance to save myself. You just have to jump into the water and swim as long as you can. That’s what I did. It was at least 50 or more feet to jump into the water. I was 100 feet away when the ship started to turn over to the left side all the way, and then a couple of guys that didn’t went over on time, jumped and slided down the hull [starboard] side until they hit the stabilizer [bilge trace] and they never came out again. They drownned. Then, we had to swim for almost an hour, the water was 15º C. and the waves 30 feet high. 

Interviewer: You know Bruno, a lot of people think the ship was sunk. Was it scuttled?

Bruno: Otherwise I wouldn’t be alive. I was there to the last moment you know, and even so when I was swimming in the water, I was 100 feet away there was not a hole in the hull from all the torpedoes. They shot 71 torpedoes and 12 hits. Not one came through. Dorsetshire shot the torpedoes during the last part I was on the ship and I didn’t notice these torpedoes.

Interviewer: How many guys were in the water?

Bruno: I would say about 1,000. Half the crew were already dead from the shooting.

Interviewer: Did you have any thoughts for history?

Bruno: I was praying. I didn't think I was going to make it. Being shelled and losing the Bismarck that was the worst part of my life.

Bruno: First I was swimming and I could see nothing, then a guy came by me and hold on to my neck and I said "I can’t help you". I was looking and I saw a mast coming up. I couldn’t distinguish the ship, and then a while later I saw the flag on it. It was a British flag. I told the guy that was swimming besides me “there is a British ship coming there” he said “I don’t want to do anything with the British they want to shoot”. I didn’t see him anymore. I was however happy to see a ship. So, we came closer, it had all the ropes hanging out, and I thought it was a chance to save my life. I started to climb the rope but I couldn’t make at first until they finally pulled me up.

They took my clothing off, dried me up, and gave me a blanket. They brought us downstairs, offered us whiskey. I had swallowed some of the oil in the water and the whiskey was better. There, I had a surprise, I saw my friend Rudi Römer who I thought he was dead. I said “you should be dead”, “no” he said, “I was lucky, I helped a wounded guy to the sickbay, before the shell landed so I was safe.” 

Then we were prisoners of war. First half year in England, then they shipped us over to Canada where we stayed four more years, and in 1946 they brought us back to England. During that time I had contact with my wife, and I arranged a marriage by proxy. 

Interviewer: How long did she wait for you?

Bruno: She waited for me 6 years.

Then I had to come back to Germany and I lived there for five years. In November 1947 my son was born and we couldn’t make a living there, so I tried to get over to the United States. In 1952 we came on a troop ship. It took us 2-3 weeks to New Orleans and then they put us on a train to St. Louis. I lived there for a couple of years and in 1953 my daughter was born in St. Louis. 

Interviewer: What was your job there is St. Louis?

Bruno: I was a machinist working on a machine shop. Then, that company went out of business. Its owner was German and wrote a letter of recommendation. I looked for another job and found one at Blaw Knox Co. in Gary, Indiana. I worked at Blaw Know for 27 years. In 1972 my daughter got married, my son too. My wife died in October 1995, and I since then live on my own. I see my son and daughter on holydays, so I keep on going. One of my grandsons is a sailor in the US Navy stationed in Japan.

Interviewer: Are you proud of that?

Bruno: Yes.

Interviewer: When was the last time you were in Germany?

Bruno: 1952.

Interviewer: Have you seen the 1960 British movie Sink the Bismarck? 

Bruno: I didn't want to see it. However I did see James Cameron's "Expedition: Bismarck".

Interviewer: So Bruno, when someone calls you up to talk on the phone about when the Bismarck got sunk what would you tell him?

Bruno: I can’t think about the Bismarck on a phone. [he laughs].

Interviewer: I think it is time for a beer after all this.

Bruno: Yeah! OK. [he laughs again].

Bruno Rzonca
Bruno Rzonca at the Lake County Fairgrounds military show in Crown Point, Indiana, on 4 October 2003.
Photo courtesy of Donald Spisak.


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