Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched in February 1939 by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1909-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.”
On 24 May 1941, the Bismarck, on its first operation, had helped sink the HMS Hood. But in return, it had been damaged, and had set a course for northern France to attend to its wounds and repair the leaking fuel tanks. “The Hood was the pride of England,” said the German Fleet Commander, Admiral Günter Lutjens (pictured), over the ship’s loudspeakers, “the enemy will now attempt to concentrate his forces against us. The German nation is with you.”
But then Lutjens made a fatal error – he broke radio silence. He radioed back to Germany announcing his intentions. The signal was picked up by the British and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did their work and roughly located the Bismarck’s position. Then, a RAF reconnaissance plane spotted the trailing oil leak.
26 May 1941 – the British closed in. The aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, launched 15 bombers, known as Swordfish planes, to attack the Bismarck, swooping in low, firing torpedoes. To their annoyance every torpedo missed and, equally, to their surprise the Bismarck failed to fire back. They soon learnt why – it was not the Bismarck they were attacking, but one of their own fleet, the HMS Sheffield. Fortunately for the commanders responsible, there were no casualties.
A second batch of Swordfish was dispatched and this time they located the Bismarck – 600 miles from its intended destination, Saint-Nazaire in northern France. Again the planes flew in low – and twice hit their target. The damage was significant – a torpedo had jammed the ship’s rudder. The ship was no longer steering and could do nothing but move around in giant circles.
The Germans dispatched a number of U-boats to assist the flailing ship but Lutjens knew they were too far away to be of any use. The ship was doomed.
“All of Germany is with you.”
As night fell, the crew upon the stricken ship knew that for most it would be their last night. Captain Lindemann allowed his men a free hand to whatever food and drink they could consume. For others he set the task of building a fake funnel, with the idea that when planted on top of the ship it would alter its silhouette and trick the British into thinking that the ship was not the Bismarck but another vessel. His men must have realised the absurdity of the captain’s plan but, nonetheless, thankful for the distraction, threw themselves into the task with gusto.
As dawn broke on 27 May, the battle resumed. The Bismarck, battered, impotent and alone, stood little chance. The British fleet pounded her while all the time closing in. At first, the Germans fired back but to no avail. Fires erupted throughout the ship, shells destroyed every lifeboat, and men jumped into the sea to avoid the rising flames as the ship began to capsize.
And still the British closed in. The HMS Rodney fired from a distance of less than two miles – in effect shooting from point blank range.
Finally, at 10.39 am, the Bismarck sank. She may have been scuttled. Men in water swan frantically away, trying to avoid the suction as the ship went under.
Survivors recalled looking back and seeing a heroic and poignant sight – there, on the deck, his hand raised to his white cap, Captain Lindemann saluting as the once mighty ship went down.
Two of the British ships were close enough to pick up survivors. But as they went about their noble work, the captain of one of them, the HMS Dorsetshire, thought he spied in the distance the telltale puff of smoke from a U-boat. Being stationary, his ship presented a sitting target to a U-boat attack and he had no choice but to make a hasty exit. 110 men had been plucked out of the water (pictured), but many, many more were left stranded, screaming for the Dorsetshire to come back.
The following morning a German U-boat and a weather ship did appear on the scene but by then all but five of the remaining men had succumbed and died.
1,995 of the Bismarck’s crew of 2,200 had lost their lives.
Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during the First World War, is now available.