Despite the fact that all men on the Bismarck were within 250 metres of each other, their activities differed remarkably. Those who had their battle stations on or above the battery deck or in gun turrets fought for their lives. Many other men remained relatively inactive during the initial phase of the battle. Their normal duties included administrative matters, cooking, laundry and other non-combat activities. Many of them assisted as, for example, stretcher-bearers and medical orderlies, but others could shelter in safer areas of the ship. As Corporal Herzog was not needed at his anti-aircraft gun, he and a few of his comrades had been ordered to their mess at the aft battery deck. The continuous noise above was depressing, as was the knowledge of the outcome. Herzog went to his closet, where he allowed himself a few nips of liqueur. Then he lay down in his hammock and listened to the battle. It was not long before he felt drowsy. Vaguely he heard the loudspeakers announce that Lütjens and Lindemann had been killed in action. Somewhat later, it was denied that Lindemann had been killed. The message was followed by a loud crash not far away, soon accompanied by the screams of the wounded. All of this happened as Herzog was half sleeping in his hammock. The battle indeed appeared unreal.
Down in the middle engine room, Lieutenant Commander Gerhard Junack heard the noises of battle diminish. He already knew what the Bismarck’s weapons sounded like. He had heard them many times during the nine-day voyage. A new element was the distant noise and vibration of enemy projectiles hitting the ship. It soon became apparent that the battle was going badly for the Bismarck. Water began to trickle down through ventilation shafts and through them the noise of shell splinters hitting metal could also be heard, sounding like a hailstorm hitting a tin roof.
In the damage-control centre, Commander Oels concluded that collecting information on damage and directing the damage-control parties was becoming pointless. The list, combined with the ship’s rolling in the rough sea, at times placed the deck armour at an angle rendering it far less effective against the British shells. Perhaps the deck armour had been penetrated, allowing shells to reach the aft turbine room and the starboard boiler room. Explosions in that area, combined with the breakdown of communications to the bridge, may have convinced Oels to make a decision. The battle was over and the Bismarck had lost. Two things remained: The Bismarck should not be allowed to fall into enemy hands and as many as possible of her crew had to be saved.
‘Prepare the ship for scuttling,’ he ordered, ‘And ensure that the entire crew leaves her.’ The order was disseminated to all compartments that could still be reached, whereupon Oels, Jahreis and the other men evacuated the damage-control centre. But when they left the cabin, Artificer Statz refused to follow them. He could hear the shells hitting the ship above them and firmly stuck to his previous decision not to leave the safety beneath the deck. That decision probably saved his life. Jahreis remained for a moments in the doorway, saluted and left Statz alone.
In the engine control station, Ordinary Seaman Herbert Blum watched as Chief engineer, Lehmann put the telephone down as ‘carefully as if it was made of glass’ and turned towards the men around him. ‘We shall abandon the ship and sink her,’ he said calmly with his usual, kind voice. ‘I will forward the order. You may go now.’
It was the last time anybody saw Lehmann. Blum and his comrades left the engine control station. They intended to reach the battery deck and then continue to the main canteen. From there they could find a way to the shelter deck.
The British battleships reduced the range, reaching as close as 3,000 metres. The Bismarck’s speed was reduced so much that the Rodney had to zigzag in order not to pass her. At such short range, the guns fired with the barrels trained more or less straight on the target. Tovey’s tactic to close the range as quickly as possible had paid off. Considering the short range, the British expected to penetrate even the Bismarck’s main belt armour and reach the vital engine rooms and the magazines, thus ensuring her rapid sinking. But the shells seem never to have reached these vital parts.
The Norfolk and Dorsetshire had closed the range too, allowing them to fire several torpedoes. Still, the German battleship refused to sink. Tovey had already reached the limits of his fuel margins. He was also well aware that the Luftwaffe might intervene at any moment, and that perhaps German submarines might also be close by. ‘Somebody get me my darts,’ he exclaimed frustrated, ‘let’s see if we can sink her with those!’
In fact, Tovey could have spared himself the concern of sinking the burning enemy battleship. Slightly before 10.00 hours, the intercom telephone rang and Junack received the last order he ever received on board the Bismarck. It was Oels’ order to sink the ship that Lehmann passed on from the engine control station: ‘Prepare her for scuttling.’
Junack ordered his men to place charges at the sea-intake valves and sent a few men to open the hatches at the shaft tunnels. He tried to reach Lehmann again, but this time the line was dead. Junack ordered a trusted officer to go to the engine control station to find out what had happened.
The destruction of the Hood had happened very quickly, with her crew of well over a thousand men losing their lives in an unbelievably short period of time. In contrast, the Bismarck’s death struggle was long, as she continued to take hit after hit well after her crew had decided to scuttle her. Müllenheim-Rechberg had been correct when ordering his men to remain in the aft fire-control station. As long as the small turret did not receive a direct hit, they were safe from the splinters whizzing around outside. On the shelter deck, horrible scenes took place. As long as most men had been at their battle stations, with many well below the deck, they were fairly safe and casualties were limited. Once orders were issued to abandon the ship, the men moved up onto the open deck and many were simply slaughtered. Shells exploding on the ship’s superstructures sent thousands of razor-sharp splinters over the deck. Some were so small that they did not cause more than superficial bleeding, other were large enough to cut off an arm or a leg. Some men were killed instantly. Blasts hurled men through the air, crushing them against walls, decks and gunwales or sent them over board. Many men fell onto the deck, tried to stand up despite being punch-drunk, only to be cut to pieces by splinters whizzing by.
The artificer Wilhelm Generotzky had just reached the upper deck, when he saw two Luftwaffe warrant officers who could not stand the thought of drowning. They shook hands, placed the muzzles of their pistols against their temples and made their small contribution to the blood bath taking place around them. ‘If I had a gun,’ he heard a warrant engineer next to him say, ‘I would have done the same.’
Shell hits from the British ships gradually turned the Bismarck’s deck into something resembling a scrap yard. Hits higher up in the superstructures caused debris to fall down on the shelter deck. Headlights, davits and anti-aircraft guns were shot from their mounts, further increasing the shambles. In one of the secondary gun turrets, the crew had been trapped as a shell had destroyed the lock mechanism. Their screams were heard outside the turret, but all attempts to aid them were in vain. The damaged door could not be opened.
As casualties quickly mounted, the German doctors, medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers tried to help the wounded as much as possible. Debris on the deck severely hampered all movement and made the stretcher-bearer’s work impossible. There was little the doctors could do, except aid a few of the wounded where they were found. However, the British shells could not see the difference between the doctors and combatants. The doctors worked until they too became casualties.
There was no longer any possibility of carrying out an orderly evacuation of the ship. Little more than scattered remnants remained of the Bismarck’s boats. Men struggled to get the life boats and rubber rafts into the sea, but most of them had been damaged by the British gunfire and far too many were destroyed before they reached the water.
Corporal Georg Herzog, however, was lucky:
I went down the ladder to the battery deck. I observed from here that comrades tossed inflatable boats over the side and jumped in after them. I personally, [along] with several comrades, tried to toss an inflatable boat overboard. But we did not succeed because a hit struck in our vicinity and splinter effects made the inflatable boat useless. I received a splinter (flesh wound in the calf of the left leg). We then sought shelter behind turret ‘D’. There was an inflatable boat behind turret ‘D’. We untied this boat. Then we tossed the boat over the starboard side and jumped after it. I had luck on my side in immediately grabbing hold of the raft. Other comrades tried to swim to the raft. Only comrades Manthey and Höntzsch made it to the raft. All our efforts to fish out even more comrades were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the men whose battle stations were located below sea level struggled to escape being trapped. Many of them never made it out, as routes were blocked by dented hatches, damaged bulkheads or destroyed ladders. Explosions and raging fires ravaged cabins and corridors. Gas from various burning materials was an invisible but deadly danger. On the battery deck, large groups of men were delayed beneath the shelter deck, as ladders could not carry more than a limited number of men. Panic rarely broke out, but while the men waited, they urged their comrades with shouts and curses. Oels and his company arrived at the main canteen and found almost three hundred men crammed next to a door leading aft. The hatch leading to the shelter deck was destroyed, blocking the exit and it was also impossible to move forward because of the raging fires. Evil-smelling, yellowish-green fumes filled the battery deck, causing the men who lacked gas masks to cough.
‘Everybody must leave the ship!’ Oels shouted. ‘She will be sunk. You can not go ahead. It is all burning!’
These were his last words. A direct hit sent splinters raining through the compartment. Within a fraction of a second, the crammed room was turned into a slaughter house. More than a hundred men were mutilated or killed. Corporal Zimmermann had just arrived and saw how Oels and another officer were cut to pieces by the explosion.
Ordinary Seaman Blum had reached the main canteen just before the shell exploded. The blast threw him down, but dazed he got on his feet again. Around him he saw fallen comrades and men with missing limbs tottering around. The blood floated around dead bodies, cut-off arms and legs and intestines, until it threatened to cover the entire floor. This nightmare, as close to a vision of hell as he could imagine, gave Blum strength. He climbed to the damaged hatch and managed to squeeze himself through the small opening and onto the shelter deck. The whistling and crashing from British shells replaced the sounds from the wounded.
Corporal Zimmermann followed Blum. He too had managed to squeeze through the damaged hatch. ‘I came out on the starboard side,’ he recalled, ‘and the first I saw was a heap of butchery. It was no longer possible to see what it had been. It was horrible.’
During the Bismarck’s last moments, many painful farewells took place. Close friends were separated. Corporal Bruno Zickelbein was on the battery deck together with Seaman Hans Silberling, when the latter was ordered to report to the engine control station. The slightly older Silberling had been a kind of father figure to the 19 year old corporal and their friendship had been very strong. Silberling understood the implications of the order. He held out his hand to the corporal. ‘This is the end,’ he said. ‘We will never see each other again. Give the people at home my kindest regards.’ They shook hands; both men had tears in their eyes. Then Silberling disappeared and left Zickelbein alone.
‘When I came up into the open I saw things I never thought possible,’ K-A Schuldt remembered. He had successfully struggled to reach the shelter deck. ‘Everything was on fire; explosions could be heard or seen all over the ship. There were a hundred dead at least. Some without legs, arms, their heads.’
Schuldt ran across the officer in command of his station, sitting with his back against a wall. Both his legs had been shot off at the knees. He looked up at Schuldt and implored: ‘Do you have a cigarette?’
Schuldt kneeled beside the officer. With trembling hands, he lit the cigarette. ‘It was so sad I can hardly describe it,’ he told. ‘I gave him the cigarette and promised to take a message to his family if I myself was to survive.’
Artificer Josef Statz had finally decided to abandon the ship, a decision strongly influenced by two of his comrades from the training period, Seifert and Moritz, who had appeared in the damage-control centre and urged him to follow. They made a demanding climb up the communications shaft, which was only 75cm wide and blocked with electrical cables that limited the space available to the crawling men. Finally they reached the mouth of the shaft, only to see that the fore fire control turret had been shot away. Statz found several of the men who had left the damage-control centre a few minutes before him. One of them was Lieutenant Jahreis, Müllenheim-Rechberg’s friend. They were all dead.
At this moment, a shell struck not far away and threw the three men to the floor. A splinter hit Statz’s shoulder, but he was not seriously wounded. Moritz seemed to be dead.
‘Were you hit?’ Statz heard a voice saying and discovered that Lieutenant Cardinal was on the bridge too, the same man that had claimed that the risk of a torpedo hit on the rudders was virtually nil. Statz had not seen him when emerging from the culvert. ‘Just a minor bruise,’ he said, ‘but we must immediately get down on the deck.’
They were just about to leave the bridge they found that Moritz was still alive, but his chest had been split open by a splinter. Carefully they pulled the dying man into cover by the armoured gunwale. Statz had no idea how to help Moritz. He just rubbed Moritz’s head, like a father trying to comfort his child. Moritz stared at Statz, forced a smile and said. ‘Send my greetings to Cologne.’ Shortly afterwards his eyes went glassy in death.
Several shells hit alarmingly close. Seifert panicked. He tried to jump directly from the bridge into the water, but the distance was too great. He landed on some debris on the deck and was killed. However, Statz and Cardinal managed to reach the deck without further mishaps.
Below, in the engine room, Junack still waited impatiently for the messenger to return with the instructions for the demolition, but the minutes ticked away. Finally, Junack had to abandon any hopes that the messenger would come back. Either he was dead or something else had prevented him from returning. What should he do? The angle of the list increased. Thick smoke oozed forth from the boiler rooms, forcing the men to wear gas masks while working. Junack made the decision himself. He urged his men to discontinue their work and try to reach the deck. Then he instructed the Warrant Engineer to light the fuses. These two men were the last to leave the engine room.
At 10.15 hours, a shell fired by the King George V hit the base of the Bismarck’s superstructure. It created a huge flame that swept all the way up to the bridge and set fire to a store of signal flares. They burst in a cascade of bright colours. On board the Rodney, Campbell saw how the a chain of explosions was set off throughout the enemy ship, throwing debris high up in the air and setting living as well as already dead men ablaze. He had already seen small groups of men jump into the sea and disappear. Now more and more men jumped overboard, trying to escape the hell on the Bismarck. ‘Good God,’ he exclaimed, loud enough for the men around him to hear. ‘Why don’t we stop?’
Almost simultaneously, the bells gave the signal for cease fire. Campbell looked at his watch. It showed 10.21 hours. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Tovey had decided that the Bismarck was so damaged that she would never again be of any use to the Germans, despite the fact that she still remained afloat. A German Condor reconnaissance aircraft had already been sighted and the British commander believed a Luftwaffe attack could occur at any moment. Also, he had to break off the action, or else the remaining fuel might not be sufficient to take his ships back to the British bases. He ordered that the other ships should follow the flagship, which surprised the commanders of the respective ships. Would the action be broken off while the Bismarck remained afloat? Somerville had finally launched a group of 12 Swordfish aircraft which soon reached the scene of battle, but stayed at a respectful distance. They could see innumerable men swimming in the water abaft the enemy ship. ‘The gun duel between the ships was almost over,’ one of the airmen recalled. He gazed at the scene from his observer seat. ‘The Bismarck had turned to a smoking cauldron, rolling in the waves. She was still making headway with a few knots.’
The airmen saw the Rodney and King George V turn north and four minutes after Tovey had broken off the action, Somerville inquired what was going on. He was told that Tovey was low on fuel and returning to harbour. Bismarck was still afloat. The ships that had torpedoes left should try to sink her with those. ‘Can’t sink her with gunfire,’ the Admiral concluded.
Only the Dorsetshire still had any torpedoes. Commander Martin had awaited the order to torpedo the burning wreck. He soon received it, from Wake-Walker on board the Norfolk. The Dorsetshire closed the range to the Bismarck to deliver the coup de grâce.
In the starboard boiler room, Chief engine room artificer Schmidt reversed the pumps and opened all water-tight hatches nearby. He could hear Junack’s charges detonating at the engine control station not far away. Obviously, he urgently had to reach the deck. A seaman arrived and shouted ‘Everyone on deck!’
Meanwhile Junack and his subordinate worked their way upwards in the ship. As they passed the middle and upper platform decks, they expected to see frantic activity, but these spaces were deserted and the noise from the British firing had disappeared. ‘The lower decks were brilliantly lit up,’ he recalled, ‘A peaceful mood prevailed, such as that of a Sunday afternoon in port, – the silence only broken by the explosions of our demolition-charges below.’
The scenes became much worse when they reached battery deck, where most of the lights were out and groups of panic stricken men tried to find a way up through the smoke filled corridors. Junack was lucky. He encountered a group of seamen trying to get through a partially blocked hatch leading to the shelter deck. By persuading the men to take off their life vests, they managed to squeeze through the opening and one by one reach the deck.
At this stage, the ship was listing considerably, so much so that parts of the deck were below water. Men trying to leave the doomed ship crammed the deck. Junack could hear cries of distress, screams of pain, the sough from the flames and rumble from inrushing water, but for a moment was consumed by the irrelevant discovery that the cloud cover had broken up. He had not felt the sun on his face for many days.
Two powerful detonations rolled over the sea, as torpedoes from the Dorsetshire hit the doomed ship on the starboard side. These were followed by a third explosion on the port side a few minutes later. Junack joined a large group of people near the aft batteries. Several other officers were there too, among them Müllenheim-Rechberg, as well as hundreds of seamen and non-commissioned officers. Thick smoke obstructed visibility, but Junack could still see the ensign at the aft mast blowing in the wind.
Müllenheim-Rechberg ordered the men to inflate their life vests and prepare to jump into the sea. He and his men had remained in the fire control turret until the British fire ceased, but little time remained if they were not to sink with the ship. The list increased further. After a final salute to the ensign the men jumped into the sea.
Junack tried to instill some confidence into the men around him. ‘Don’t worry, comrades,’ he shouted to them. ‘I will be taking a Hamburg girl in my arms again!’ Then they jumped into the cold water, but many did not jump far enough. The waves threw them back against the hull and knocked them unconscious.
Junack never saw the fate of Lindemann, but some sailors in the water had a glimpse of two figures gradually working their way forward along the shelter deck. It was Lindemann, closely followed by his orderly. While the ship sank deeper and deeper, and the bow gradually raised, the Captain gesticulated to the younger man that he should save himself by jumping into the sea, but he refused and dutifully followed his commander. When both of them reached the stem, Lindemann stood at attention and moved his hand towards his white cap. The scene engraved itself on the memory of the men who witnessed it – ‘as if taken from a book, but I saw it with my own eyes’ – and then the ship rolled over and began to sink.
Müllenheim-Rechberg swam until he was far enough from it not to be sucked down when it sank. He checked himself and turned around to see the Bismarck capsize:
The whole starboard side of her hull, all the way to the keel, was out of the water. I scrutinized it for signs of battle damage and was surprised to see no sign s of any. Her port side had borne the brunt of the battle, and that side of her hull may have told a different story.
Before the eyes of the German seamen who had abandoned the ship, the Bismarck sank stern first. Small geysers of water pouring out left her hull and large bubbles of water developed in the oily water. A loud gurgling sound filled the air.
Then she was gone, as completely as if she had never existed. She took with her Lütjens, Lindemann, and perhaps as many as 1,400 seamen and officers, as well as all plans and dreams of successful cruiser warfare against British merchant shipping. No life remained on the Bismarck when she finally hit a volcano on the bottom of the ocean, almost five kilometres below the place where she had fought her last battle. She slid along the mountain slope before she settled in the sludge where she was to remain indefinitely.
For the men who had escaped sinking, another danger loomed large. The rough, cold and oily water was anything but benevolent. They struggled hard to keep their heads above the surface. The wounded suffered badly and their strength was rapidly sapped as they lost blood. The ice cold water first made their feet and hands numb, then legs and arms. Head after head disappeared below the waves, never to be seen again. Statz had jumped into the water together with Lieutenant Cardinal. For a moment they became separated, but somewhat later, Statz saw Cardinal again. However, the Lieutenant floated with his head at a strange angle, almost as if he was asleep. When the artificer swam closer, he realized Cardinal had shot himself in the head to avoid dying from drowning.
For a while, Statz believed he was the only one remaining, because he could not see any of his comrades in the waves. He tried to keep from swallowing the oily water and found some consolation in the fact that air contained by his leather jacket helped keeping him afloat. He wondered how many of the men had obeyed the general advice not to take off clothes before jumping into the water.
He did not know how long he had been swimming, when he saw the stem of a warship heading straight towards him. It was the cruiser Dorsetshire and behind her the destroyer Maori followed. They stopped, evidently to rescue survivors: A race against time began, as it was impossible to predict how long they would stay for fear of German submarines.
It took quite some time for the German seamen to swim near the cruiser, where the British crew had prepared scrambling nets, ropes and lifebuoys. Walter Fudge was one of the seamen who tried to help the distressed in the water. The County-class cruisers had a good reputation for stability, but only at speed. When immobile, they rolled violently. Merely to remain standing on the deck was very difficult and of course it was even more difficult to help the survivors in the water.
Fudge had been at his battle station, so he had not seen anything of the Bismarck. He was not permitted to go out on deck until the Bismarck had already sunk. However, when he saw hundreds of men swimming towards the Dorsetshire, a thought crossed his mind. ‘It was only with the blessings of fate that it wasn’t me there in the water, swimming for my life. In that moment I couldn’t feel but pity for those men, and I can speak for the entire crew in saying we all felt the same. There was nothing of the usual ‘you-shouldn’t-have-messed-with-the-Royal-Navy’-attitude, only genuine compassion.’
Seventeen-year-old George Bell, who served as Captain Martin’s orderly, was of the same opinion. ‘To be perfectly honest, there should have been a feeling of bitterness after the sinking of the Hood,’ he recalled, ‘but as soon as the rescue was begun, this was all forgotten. We were simply saving shipwrecked sailors.’
Loops were tied at the lower end of the ropes and let down to the water to help the Germans. Some still had the strength to place the loop around their waist or feet, enabling the British to haul them on board. Others were exhausted by the swimming, their wounds and the cold water robbing them of energy. The reached the British cruiser in such dazed condition that they drowned, despite being able to touch the cruiser with numb fingers.
Müllenheim-Rechberg was among those who managed to reach the Dorsetshire. After several attempts, he grasped one of the ropes and put his foot into the loop. But he was so exhausted that he slid when he had reached the gunwale and fell back into the sea. By a stroke of fortune, he got hold of the same rope again and the same British seamen pulled him up once more. This time, Müllenheim-Rechberg did not try to get over the gunwale by himself. Rather he allowed himself to be dragged onto the deck. His immediate instinct was to assist the British seamen working to save the survivors, but he was quickly brought below deck.
Statz too was hauled on board. When he glanced at the water, he realized how many of his comrades had actually been swimming out there, not far from him. If Cardinal had not shot himself, he thought as a British seaman showed him where to go, he too would have been saved.
Generotzky had made several attempts to get hold of the ropes hanging down from the Dorsetshire, but every time the ship rolled and his hands had to carry all his body weight, he lost the grip and fell back into the sea. In the tumult someone stepped on his head and pushed him down, below the surface of the sea. A surge threw him onto the hull of the Dorsetshire and his leg was injured by the impact.
Generotzky almost gave in, but when he saw that the British lowered further ropes abaft, he swam to them and grasped a rope with a loop. He managed to attach it and was pulled on board by two British seamen.
By then, about 80 German seamen had been hauled up on the Dorsetshire, among them Müllenheim-Rechberg, Junack, Schmidt, Blum, Statz and Generotzky, but hundreds still waited when the navigation officer on the Dorsetshire suddenly saw a small smoke puff emerge from the water about two nautical miles from the cruiser, on her starboard side. He immediately notified Captain Martin. After briefly considering the observation, it was agreed that the smoke probably came from a submarine. Although all the officers on the bridge were unanimous, it was Martin who had to take responsibility for the terrible decision. While the survivors near the hull of the British cruiser screamed loud enough to be heard on the bridge, and the officers around Martin watched their commander, he hesitated briefly. He weighed the risk of his ship being torpedoed against the knowledge that hundreds of seamen would drown. He had to give the highest priority to the security of his own ship. ‘We have no choice,’ he said to the officer on duty: ‘Full speed ahead.’
The engine-room telegraph rang, the ship began to vibrate and the Germans in the sea saw how the water began to bubble as the propellers began to revolve. Terrified they raised their arms to the seamen working at the gunwale, shouted and pleaded to the men who a few hours earlier had been their enemies not to abandon them. British seamen beneath the deck could hear dull thuds as the Germans struck the hull with their fists. When the Dorsetshire gained speed, some of the Germans clung to the ropes, until their frozen hands were no longer capable of maintaining the grip. A few more Germans, who already were on the nets or about to be pulled up in the ropes, were saved, one of them after a British seaman climbed down the side of the hull and helped the exhausted man over the gunwale. Almost all the rest were lost.
In the cabin he had been taken to, the exhausted Müllenheim-Rechberg was exchanging his soaked clothes for the British clothes he had received, when he felt the vibrations from machines picking up speed and realized what was about to happen. He understood that the ship was about to sail, but could not understand why, as so many men remained in the water. He was quite convinced that no submarines were in the area and he ought to have heard the air raid alarm if Luftwaffe units closed in. ‘I racked my brain,’ he recalled, ‘but the only thing that registered was horror that our men in the water, hundreds of them, before whose eyes the Dorsetshire was moving away, were being sentenced to death just when safety seemed within reach. My God, what a narrow escape I had.’
‘This dreadful situation,’ Walter Fudge said, ‘wasn’t any fault of ours; neither was it the Germans.’ It was the war!’