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The Last Hours of the Bismarck

(By Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Gerhard Junack)

This article was originally published in Purnell's History of the Second World War, Vol.2, No. 5, 1967.

After the sinking of HMS Hood and the withdrawal of HMS Prince of Wales, the atmosphere aboard the Bismarck was jubilant. The successful defence against the aircraft from the Victorious, and the shaking-off of the shadowing cruisers, further increased this feeling. Admiral Lütjens, however, felt that this exaggerated air of victory should be moderated, and as it was his birthday that Sunday [the 25th of May], he addressed the crew shortly before midday. In precise military language he thanked the crew for their good wishes, and then proceeded to speak his mind. He praised the crew's magnificent discipline and fulfilment of duty which had already accomplished so much, but said the worst still stood before them - for the whole of the British fleet had now been commanded to sink the killer of the Hood. Now it was 'win or die' - but before the Bismarck went down she would meet and send many of the enemy before her.

The Admiral wished with these words to rid the crew of their over-exuberance and bring them into a more realistic frame of mind; but in fact he overdid it, and there was a feeling of depression among the crew which spread through all ranks from the highest to the lowest. The deeper they looked into the reality of their situation, the deeper became the general distress of the officers, the older ones speaking openly in the company of their younger comrades, saying that they no longer believed in a 'way out'. Junior officers appeared in life-jackets when going to their duty stations, despite the fact that to wear them with normal uniform was forbidden. The crew began to brood and neglected their duties.

Faced with this deterioration in behaviour, the senior officers then took a firm stand. They spoke to their men, and succeeded in building up their morale again somewhat by showing them the difference between pride in the victory and the ability to estimate their opportunities - but the high fighting-morale and the strong self-confidence that the crew had previously shown seemed to be lost.

Whether the Admiral had merely chosen his words badly, or whether he had passed on his own hopeless estimate of their tactical situation must remain unknown, for we have neither the text of the speech nor the reports on it in the ship's log. But the idea must not be rejected that the Admiral, with deep insight into the political situation in Germany, more or less knew that the end of Germany was certain, and that the life of the Bismarck would be even shorter. The atmosphere on the Bismarck therefore remained tense.

For the next 30 hours the Bismarck sailed at full speed towards the French coast, without the Royal Navy being aware of her position or intentions; but at 1030 hours on Monday morning [the 26th] the Bismarck sighted a British flying-boat in a cloudless patch of sky and opened tire. The flying-boat vanished into cloud cover, but the Bismarck - which might have escaped recognition because of her second funnel and knowledge of British recognition signals - had given away her identity by shooting at the aircraft.

It was now obvious that the enemy would bring attack-planes against the Bismarck, and these planes could only come from the Ark Royal, which was stationed at Gibraltar. The day passed in anxious calculation of Ark Royal's probable position - and then at last the air-raid warning came at 2045 hours. The Ark Royal's planes made two strikes with their torpedoes, diving down on us from all angles out of low cloud. One torpedo which hit amidships caused no damage, but the second affected the rudders disastrously, jamming the port-side rudder at a 15-degree angle. Immediately, the Bismarck became no longer manoeuvrable.

The torpedo-hit on the rudder shook the ship so badly that even in my zone of action in the [center] turbine-room [Section VIII], the deck-plates were thrown into the air, and the hull vibrated violently. Shortly after the blow, water flooded through the port-side gangways into the turbine-room, and clouds of gas and smoke filled the room until the forced ventilation cleared it.

The stern compartments of the ship were now flooding, but the men who had been stationed there could still be saved, and soon the carpenters and repair-crew came through, making their way aft. But the ship pitched so violently in the strong sea swell that it was impossible to keep a foothold in the turbulent water surging through the companion-way.

All possibilities were now being considered to restore the ship's manoeuvrability - even if only temporarily. The Commander, Kapitän zur See Lindemann, considered reports from Chief Engineer Lehmann, who was in continual contact with the repair and rescue teams. There was much gesticulation, and at one point the Chief Engineer stepped out of the circle, walked away, turned about, and made a sign of complete refusal. What this was about I am not certain, but eventually it was found possible to connect the hand rudder. But the old rudder would not budge, and to attempt to cut it away with underwater saws was quite impossible because of the heavy swell. A proposal to force the rudder out from below with the help of explosives was rejected, because of the proximity to the propellers. Thus all experiments with the auxiliary rudder were given up as completely hopeless, with the old one immovable.

Despite all attempts to steer with the propellers, the ship could no longer be kept on a south-easterly course; it was therefore necessary to turn head-on to the sea - towards the north-west - at a slow speed, and into the face of the enemy.

One cannot help wondering whether everything humanly possible was really done in order to try and save the Bismarck on this critical night. The ship had gone to sea well constructed and it is possible that the damaged rudder might have been blown out of the stern of the ship without damage to the propellers. But this risk was not attempted - nor was there any attempt to improvise a sea-anchor to stabilise the course. With three propellers capable of driving Bismarck at 28 knots, it is difficult to accept that there was no alternative but to head straight for the enemy at a slow speed.

During the night the British destroyers appeared once more, coming in close to deliver their torpedoes again and again, but the Bismarck's gunnery was so effective that none of them was able to score a hit. But around 0845 hours [on the 27th] a strongly united attack opened, and the last fight of the Bismarck began. Two minutes later, Bismarck replied, and her third volley straddled the Rodney, but this accuracy could not be maintained: because of the continual battle against the sea, and attack now from three sides, the Bismarck's fire was soon to deteriorate. Shortly after the battle commenced a shell hit the combat mast, and the fire-control post in the fore-mast broke away. At 0902 hours both forward heavy-gun turrets were put out of action. A further hit wrecked the forward control-post, the rear control-post was wrecked soon after - and that was the end of the fighting instruments. For some time the rear turrets fired singly, but by about 1000 hours all the guns of the Bismarck were silent.

Shortly after the beginning of the battle I realised, from my station in the middle of the turbine room, that water was pouring down through the ventilation shafts; obviously the enemy's shells were landing very close to the ship and flooding the decks with water. Perhaps it was lucky that we below could not differentiate between the enemy's hits and our own firing; but after a time the ventilator emitted a reddish-yellow smoke and I stopped to put on my gas-mask. Obviously a serious fire was raging somewhere.

Gradually the noise of combat became more irregular until it sank, to become nothing more than a series of sporadic crashes; even the control bells from the bridge stopped ringing. All three turbine-rooms were filled with smoke from the boiler-room; fortunately no shells had yet come through the plating protecting the engine-room or the electric generators (though the electric plant on the port side had been hit on the Saturday morning by a shell from the Prince of Wales).

Somewhere about 1015 hours, I received an order over the telephone from the Chief Engineer [Korvettenkapitän (Ing.) Walter Lehmann]: 'Prepare the ship for sinking.' That was the last order I received on the Bismarck. Soon after that, all transmission of orders collapsed.

As it became quieter up above, I sent my best petty officer to the engine-room to ask for further instructions, but the man apparently perished on his way, for he never returned. I felt compelled therefore to get an answer myself. One last look round to check that all the bulkheads were unfastened, then I sent the crew to the centre deck, giving my chief turbine-engineer orders to connect the explosive charges. Eventually I left with the turbines still moving slowly in compliance with the Engineer's orders.

The lower decks were brilliantly lit up; a peaceful mood prevailed, such as that on a Sunday afternoon in port - the silence broken only by the explosion of our own demolition-charges below. I myself saw the result of the battle on the battery-deck. There was no electric light, only the red glow from numerous fires; smoke fumes billowed everywhere; crushed doors and hatches littered the decks, and men were running here and there, apparently aimlessly: it seemed highly unlikely that one would survive.

Astern, I carne across a large and seemingly purposeless crowd who obviously had no instructions or any idea what to do. I worked my way through them and signalled for order and quiet; it then appeared that the metal hatch leading to the upper decks was jammed half-open, with men in their gasmasks and inflated life-jackets squeezing through slowly and with great difficulty. After I had thrown away all the unnecessary combat equipment and deflated the life-jackets, the men got through far more quickly.

Cadet officers and more than 100 petty officers and men were collecting between the rear turrets, but amidships there was a smoke-screen which prevented us from seeing what was happening forward; only the combat mast stood out from the dense black smoke. The flag was still waving from the rear mast, and the barreIs of the rear turrets stood out starkly against the sky; one barrel had been split by a tremendous explosion. Only occasionally did I see dead or wounded comrades.

Meanwhile the ship sank deeper, and we knew that it would eventually capsize. As senior officer I told the men to make the last preparations and then gave a few simple orders - stay together in the water, keep calm, don't give up hope, and be careful when interrogated by the enemy. After a triple 'Sieg heil!', I ordered 'abandon ship’.

Hardly were we free of the ship when it keeled over to port, rolling the deck-rail under and bringing the bilge-keel out of the water. A pause - then the Bismarck turned keel-up, and we could see that its hull had not been damaged by torpedoes. Then, slowly, the bows rose in the air, and, stern first, Bismarck slid down to the bottom.

While still on deck, we had seen an English cruiser coming towards us. She was the Dorsetshire, and she approached the wreckage and stopped to pick us up. Some 85 of the 400 who were in the water were saved - but then a look-out reported a U-boat periscope, and the Dorsetshire left at full speed, leaving our comrades in the water. Unfortunately for us the look-out had been wrong, for there were no German U-boats in the area. Later, HMS Maori saved another 25 men. A German U-boat saved another three 10 hours later, and a German weather ship picked up two more crew-members 40 hours later.

From the original complement of almost 2,400 men, 115 men of the Bismarck survived; of the officers only two out of 100 were saved.

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