Bismarck: Did she try to surrender? Controversial claim in new wartime naval book

5:36pm Monday 30th August 2010

By Harris Dee

A FORMER Somerset journalist claims for the first time that the ill-fated German battleship Bismarck was trying to surrender when she was destroyed by the Royal Navy in 1941.

The controversial claim is made in his new book just published - ‘Killing the Bismarck: Destroying the Pride of Hitler’s Fleet’ – by Iain Ballantyne, who was a reporter for the Somerset County Gazette, Chard and Ilminster News and Yeovil Express.

It is a story that hasn’t been told before – this is not another history book about Bismarck the ship; this is the first hand story of the men of our Royal Navy and their relentless but short term quest to ‘kill the Bismarck’. It is a colourful and exciting story, gripping and grim, told through the recollections of the men involved for the first time.

While the Bismarck is one of the most recognisable names in Second Word War maritime history, its story also proves a bit of an eyeopener. The German battleship was one of the most famous warships of the war, named after the 19th Century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The lead ship of her class, she was the pride of Hitler’s fleet and was the largest warship then commissioned.

But the surprise for me was that when she was sunk Bismarck was on her maiden operation; from being lauded as the ship that would help crush the Allies, within days of the start of her first exercise – just nine days in fact - she was at the bottom of the sea.

The Bismarck’s brief career started on the morning of May 19, 1941, when the battleship and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen left Gotenhafen on an operation to intercept and destroy convoys making their way with supplies from North America to the UK.

But as they were about to break out into the Atlantic, the two ships were spotted by the Royal Navy and a battle ensued in the Denmark Strait.

In the RN fleet was HMS Hood – launched at the end of the First World War, an ageing battle cruiser which was the flagship and pride of the RN. Within minutes of the encounter with the Germans, Hood was sunk. Both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had concentrated their firing power on Hood from over ten miles away; she sank in eight minutes with just three survivors from a crew of 1,418.

There was an immediate response from the British as Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the order to "Sink the Bismarck" and this spurred a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy. The German giant had been hit three times in the 20 minute encounter with the British, slowing her down considerably, and she planned to pull into the French port of Saint Nazaire for repairs.

For two days the British shadowed the Bismarck and sent Fairey Swordfish aircraft armed with torpedoes from the carriers Ark Royal and Victorious to attack her, causing some damage. One attack jammed Bismarck’s rudder and steering gear and she could only steam in a large circle. The heavier British ships – every possible vessel was sent to hunt down the Bismarck – were able to catch up and on the morning of May 27, the Royal Navy’s Rodney, King George V, Norfolk and Dorsetshire fired nearly 3,000 shells at the Bismarck in two hours, before she finally sank beneath the waves.

Nearly 70 years on, the author has collected an amazing amount of detail about the battle from many eyewitness accounts by British sailors, being published for the first time to provide a compelling read. It is also a grim and at times harrowing story of one navy’s determination to wreak revenge on another.

It takes us on a journey which few of us will ever experience but can now read, of how it affected those brave and often fearful souls fighting for their country with still a further four years of war to go. One Royal Navy cruiser veteran describes the Denmark Straits where the action takes place as a ‘water spout full of violent seas in which a ship did not just roll with the blows, but was twisted in the ocean’s savage grip’.

It is very detailed and colourful portrayal of life on the seas in wartime: ‘for many days cooking was all but impossible; bully beef sandwiches, soup and ship’s biscuits were all that could be managed … most British warships had open bridges assailed by the full fury of the weather against which frail humans wrapped themselves in several layers .. they often survived only due to regular deliveries of steaming hot cocoa and of course the daily tot of rum….’ recalls one sailor.

We go on the cat and mouse chase which saw the shadowing of the Bismarck after the sinking of the Hood had sent a shockwave through the Royal Navy, which became hell bent set on revenge.

Now we’re on board a Swordfish sent to attack the Bismarck, and the Germans have not yet spotted her – three aviators and one torpedo ‘against the might of the German Navy – they couldn’t possibly survive’. The back flier of the three in the aircraft stands up, as the plane flies six feet above the water, seeing the huge bulk of the battleship getting bigger and bigger. After it drops its torpedo and then high tails it away, a shell passes close and rips another hole in the fabric of the biplane. “It’s bloody draughty back here” recalls the crew member.

The Royal Navy’s finest now survive atrocious conditions and mountainous seas for the final showdown to destroy Hitler’s pride and it is this battle’s ending which has provided most discussion over the 70 years since the incident. Ballantyne analyses the theories and the myths surrounding the sinking. Yes, there is no doubt that the Royal Navy destroyed the Bismarck – but did they sink her? German survivors – there were 205 out of 2,200 - would later claim they had received orders to scuttle the ship and they say “this is what finally put Bismarck out of her misery” rather than HMS Dorsetshire’s torpedoes. It is a point that has been hotly contested ever since.

Not so if you read these firsthand accounts of how Bismarck was being ‘shot to pieces’, with close range broadsides from HMS Rodney’s 16inch shells hitting the German ship with such force that she heeled to port before slowly rolling back to starboard. There are accounts of Rodney’s Lieutenant Campbell seeing a white light sending a Morse code signal and he wondered: “Was it surrender?”, before it was cut short by another big hit. Another sailor with powerful optics also saw the signal while junior rating Tommy Byers spotted a black flag flying – a means of calling for ‘parley’, the black flag is used to signify a plea for surrender. Byers also noticed a man waving semaphore flags.

The Bismarck was still returning fire but nothing to touch the onslaught by the Royal Navy.

The harrowing story of how the British continued to bombard the Bismarck is vividly portrayed by the recollection of one of the chaplain’s on HMS Rodney: so appalled by the slaughter that was being inflicted, he begged the battleship’s captain to stop. In a coldy furious response Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton ordered him below decks with the admonition to “mind his own business”.

After a hit from one of Rodney’s torpedoes, Bismarck was said to be ‘clearly finished but had no means of surrendering - she had to be sunk!’ Another broadside from all nine of her 16inch guns.

With Lieutenant Campbell praying for it all to stop, the Captain himself, equally sickened by the slaughter, finally declared: “We’ve had enough, cease fire.”

Bismarck heeled over on her side, before turning uppermost, her hull being red hot as it appeared upon the surface, sinking stern first before the waves covered her; in 15 seconds there was no sign of her.

Bismarck had outlived the Hood by just three days.

On that final fateful day, Bismarck was, according to the eyewitnesses: ‘already a burning, smoking cauldron wallowing in the heavy seas .. a mass of wreckage … it was a sorry sight to see Germans racing along the deck to jump over the stern, they would sooner be in the open sea than a floating hell ship’.

But she could not be just left there floating, and it was felt by the RN ‘entirely necessary’ to sink the Bismarck, to avenge the Hood. It was a brutal job that had to be done.

Even Lieutenant Campbell, who had been appalled at the sheer horror of the battle’s final stages, believed the Royal Navy had shown the sort of fighting steel Britain would need to survive. “There was little honour or glory in the battle; we dealt mercilessly with a pirate who would have been equally ruthless with helpless merchant ships had her mission been successful.”

All the terror and horror of war can be experienced in the words of those British sailors who watched the destruction of the Bismarck, how armour piercing shells went straight through the symbol of Hitler’s might and out the other side, how time and time again she took hit after hit but refused to go down, and yes, we learn of the bravery – perhaps foolhardiness – of the German sailors on board who refused to give up until the very end. It is a story of one navy and its aim, not to kill the German sailors on board, but to kill the ship, the Bismarck, and the Nazi ideology that went with it - to revenge the Hood.

Claims that she was scuttled by her crew rather than sunk have been dismissed by some; German policy was that they would rather their prestigious ships go down by their own hand, into legend, than as a result of enemy action and be used in propaganda. They wanted to reduce the scale of victory.

Wreck hunter and undersea explorer David Mearns tells Ballantyne in the book: “The British gunnery and torpedoes dealt the telling blows that made the ship sink. If you look at the timing between when the scuttling charges went off and when the ship sank it is clear this could only have advanced the sinking by a few minutes at most. It is like a boxer who is already falling to the canvas but is hit once more as he is going down.”

Make your own minds up by reading this story of courage told with an expert hand by Ballantyne (who has also written books on HMS Victory, Warspite, Rodney and London) with the help of those brave men who were there at the end in this amazing recollection. His knowledge of the subject and research into every facet is also shown in the 50 pages at the end of the book which provide expansive notes to the story, busting the myths, the story of the Hood and also maps of the conflict. There is a series of photos including one previously unpublished one said to have been taken on the fateful day. And there is a foreword by Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff.

This outstanding book keeps the author as one of the leaders of story telling on naval history and is recommended both as an important and historical record and also as an excellent and absorbing read whether interested in naval history or not.

‘Killing the Bismarck’, by Iain Ballantyne, published by Pen and Sword Maritime, £25.

Iain Ballantyne is editor of WARSHIPS International and Fleet Review magazine and lives in Plymouth.

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