After Bismarck II

By MSW Add a Comment 19 Min Read


Dorsetshire at anchor in Scapa Flow in August 1941.

Dorsetshire and Cornwall under heavy air attack by Japanese carrier dive bombers on 5 April 1942. Photographed from a Japanese aircraft.

The plucky Piorun – the English translation of her name means Thunderbolt – saw plenty of action after her encounter with Bismarck, participating in the escort force for the big Operation Halberd convoy run to Malta of autumn 1941, which also involved Prince of Wales. After further service in the Mediterranean, by 1944 Piorun was part of the Home Fleet, coming through the remainder of the war unscathed. Having originally been commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Nerissa, the Piorun was handed back to Britain in 1946, becoming HMS Noble, and was sent for scrap nine years later. The most immediate casualty in the aftermath of the Bismarck Action among the British warships that took part was the Tribal Class destroyer Mashona, sunk by German aircraft west of Ireland on 28 May 1941. Returning to the UK to refuel, having withdrawn as escort for Rodney in the closing stages of the chase, forty-six of her ship’s company went down with her, but the remaining 184 were rescued by destroyers Tartar and St Croix, the latter a Canadian ship. Her own side delivered the final blows that sent Mashona to the bottom, for even though she had capsized, the destroyer still wouldn’t sink. Tartar therefore put a torpedo into Mashona and, finally, St Croix and the destroyer Sherwood shelled her. Another of Rodneís escorts, Somali, fell victim to U-703 off Bear Island on 20 September 1942, the destroyer’s middle blown out by a torpedo explosion. Forty-seven of her men died with their ship. Achates, which had escorted Hood on her fateful foray, was sunk by enemy guns during the Battle of the Barents Sea, on 31 December 1942, while three members of King George V’s destroyer screen were also lost due to enemy action: the Australian-manned Nestor, scuttled after receiving severe damage during air attack, off Crete, 16 June 1942; Intrepid, sunk by air attack, at Leros harbour, 27 September 1943 and Inglefield, sunk by German air attack, off Anzio, 25 February 1944. At least fifty men died in those destroyers. Punjabi, another member of the Home Fleet flagship’s screen for much of the pursuit of Bismarck, was the most bitter loss among these ships, for she was sunk north of Iceland on 1 May 1942 as the result of a high speed collision in mist with King George V. The Punjabi’s depth charges detonated as she was cut in two and her aft end pushed under by the battleship, explosions inflicting additional damage to the flagship’s bows and taking lives. Forty-nine of the destroyer’s men were killed, but somehow 205 survived, most due to the fact that her forward section stayed afloat for a short time, while some were plucked from the water by other units of the fleet. King George V needed two months of repairs at Liverpool before she could resume duties as Home Fleet flagship. She survived the war, seeing action against the Japanese in the closing stages of the Pacific War and ultimately being scrapped in the late 1950s. Rodney recorded one of the most illustrious combat records of any British warship during the Second World War, seeing action on the Pedestal convoy run to Malta, duelling with Vichy French shore batteries during the Allied invasion of North Africa, and supporting the thrust up through Italy before conducting a number of key bombardments in support of British and Canadian troops fighting hard to break out of the D-Day beachhead in Normandy. Following a bombardment mission against the German occupiers of Alderney, Rodney’s last mission was to deter Tirpitz from attacking a convoy to Russia in late 1944. Serving for a time as Home Fleet Flagship, she was decommissioned in late 1945 and sent to the breakers before the end of the decade. The battlecruiser Renown, Somerville’s Force H flagship, saw out her war in the East Indies Fleet, using her guns to bombard the Japanese. Her last high profile assignment was at anchor in Plymouth Sound, in early August 1945, when she hosted a meeting between King George VI and President Harry S Truman, who had become the American leader after President Roosevelt’s death that April. Renown was scrapped in 1948.

Of the cruisers that came into conflict with Bismarck in May 1941, only Dorsetshire was lost to enemy action for the other three – Sheffield, Suffolk and Norfolk – all survived the war to be sent for scrap after hostilities ceased, the last of them (Sheffield) not disposed of until the late 1960s. In Dorsetshire’s case, the end came on 5 April 1942, in the Indian Ocean, under a hail of bombs from Japanese carrier aircraft. She sank stern first after sustaining ten hits and near misses that created catastrophic damage and great slaughter. The first wave of Japanese aircraft approached from dead ahead – knowing this was the blind spot for the cruiser’s anti-aircraft armament. The fate for many of Dorsetshire’s 234 dead was every bit as horrific as that suffered by Bismarck’s men. The ship was on fire almost from stem to stern, mangled anti-aircraft guns drooped over the cruiser’s side, while eviscerated corpses hung from the rigging. The upper deck was slick with blood. There were bodies piled up by the same guardrails over which Bismarck’s men had been helped just under a year earlier. With bombers having dealt the death blows to the ship, Zero fighters swept up and down, machine-gunning anyone who dared to move on the upper deck. Hatches and steel doors were jammed shut through distortion caused by the shock of the bomb hits, ensuring a dreadful death for many. A Dorsetshire survivor recorded: ‘Men could be heard banging on the steelwork and shouting frantically. It must have been especially frightening for those unfortunate to realize that their chances of survival were nil. They would be entombed in a communal steel coffin. Others below who found that ladders to exits had been blown away, scrambled up pipes and other fixtures to get out onto the upper deck.’ The survivors spent thirty hours in the water before being rescued by Royal Navy destroyers. Some of the men lost in Dorsetshire19 had been drafted to her from Prince of Wales. One Dorsetshire survivor was particularly traumatized by seeing some of these young sailors, a number badly wounded, just give up and lie down on the cruiser’s upper deck, waiting for the ocean to end their pain.

When it came to those other workhorses that participated in the broader pursuit of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, there were heavy casualties. Of the cruisers that rode shotgun on King George V and Victorious, the Galatea was sunk by an enemy submarine, west of Alexandria, on 14 December 1941, while Hermione also fell victim to a U-boat, south of Crete on 16 June 1942. Neptune was lost in a minefield, off Tripoli, on 19 December 1941. The cruiser Edinburgh, which was pulled away from convoy escort duty to join the hunt, ended up sunk by German destroyers and a submarine attack in the Barents Sea on 2 May 1942. Manchester, which patrolled between Iceland and the Faroes, just in case the German raiders tried to break out that way, was scuttled after being damaged by torpedoes off Kelibia on 13 August 1942. The loss of life in those five cruisers totalled 1,470, more than were killed in Hood. Only one man survived out of Neptune’s complement of 764.

It was the carrier Victorious that had the longest active service life of all the British warships involved in the Bismarck action. After seeing service on the Russian convoys, including a vain attempt by her Albacore torpedo-bombers to sink Tirpitz, when the latter made a rare deployment to sea in spring 1942, Victorious spent time in action with American naval forces in the Pacific. She returned home to take part in further, equally unsuccessful, strikes against Tirpitz, which was by spring 1944 holed up in a Norwegian fjord. By May 1945, Victorious was with the British Pacific Fleet, weathering Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa, being struck more than once but thanks to her armoured flight-deck able, after several hours’ successful damage control, to resume strike and fleet protection missions. Extensively reconstructed post-war, Victorious made it into the jet age, in the early 1960s entering the Arabian Gulf in a display of power that deterred an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. For the Labour government of the late 1960s, keen to divest Britain of its big carriers to save money in order to buttress the Welfare State, the serious fire that struck Victorious in the early hours of 11 November 1967, as she completed a major refit at Portsmouth Dockyard, was most opportune. One sailor lost his life fighting the blaze but, absorbing this blow, the ship’s company set to work with the dockyard to ensure Victorious would be ready to re-commission into the front line fleet on 24 November. However, it was then revealed by the captain that the veteran carrier would instead be paid off to save money. In the midst of a Fleet manpower shortage, such a move enabled her sailors to be drafted to other ships. A ceremony went ahead, but took the form of a wake, in celebration of the long life of a ship that had first tasted action against Bismarck, more than twenty-six years earlier.

Just as Victorious had evolved from being a ship that embodied Britain’s need to defend itself against the menace of German and Japanese fascism, to one that policed the withdrawal from empire and was fit to fight the day the Cold War turned hot, so former foes from the Second World War had by the late 1960s become allies. Common cause against the Soviet threat helped Britain and West Germany to forget about the old enmity, and veterans of both sides in the Bismarck episode forged friendships. In May 1974 a combined group of Dorsetshire-Maori veterans travelled to Germany to take their place at events to mark the thirty-third anniversary of the battle. Bill Braddon, who had seen action in Dorsetshire, felt moved enough to record the event on paper. He described the pilgrimage aboard a North Sea Ferry to Hamburg as an opportunity for British sailors ‘to meet their old enemies and pay homage to the crew of the Bismarck.’ On 25 May, some of the Bismarck veterans met their former enemies at the ferry terminal, escorting them to the Hotel Wagner. Dropping their bags in their rooms, the British veterans had a wash, shave and changed. That afternoon they went to the main railway station to get a train to the Bismarck memorial, located at nearby Friedrichsruh, on the family estate of the statesman the ship was named after. Braddon wrote: ‘At our destination we walked off the station with our German hosts, over the cobbles and a level crossing, down a leafy lane of spruce, pine and aromatic shrubs, past the Bismarck estate entrance to the lodge gatehouse at the Memorial site where the wreaths with their long purple streamers were awaiting us.’ Pinning war medals on their blazers, veterans from both nations picked up the wreaths and ‘proceeded to the shrine’. Braddon continued: ‘Our progress was comparatively noiseless over the dark brown, almost black, loam and eventually we turned a sharp bend and into a square of hard rolled earth and stone slabs bounded by chains on posts. In the centre was a large stone four feet high, one end embedded in a floral border, with the BISMARCK crest on the front.’ The assembly of relatives, old shipmates, onlookers and invited guests listened in respectful silence to a brief German-language service, which was translated into English as it progressed. Braddon, who was carrying the Dorsetshire-Maori wreath, felt it ‘a privilege to be able to pay homage to the brave in that simple and hallowed spot.’ He believed veterans of both countries formed ‘an understanding’. They posed together for photographs and then began the walk back to the railway station where something quite extraordinary happened. ‘Whilst waiting to return to Hamburg we had a glimpse of Admiral Doenitz standing on the edge of the platform. Now eighty-three years old he appears in the background on these occasions and then glides away again into the shadow of the trees. They call him the Grey Ghost.’ Doenitz, who had succeeded Hitler as the leader of the Third Reich for a few days in May 1945, before capitulating to the Allies, had been the commander of the U-boat arm prior to heading the Kriegsmarine from January 1943. What did he reflect on during such occasions? That the surface raiders were a wasteful diversion from the U-boat arm, which in the wake of Bismarck’s loss was the main weapon against Britain? Or did he just mourn the loss of so many young lives, regretting the whole adventure? Back in Hamburg the British and German veterans, together with their invited guests, sat down to break bread together and bury the past in comradeship. At nine the following morning, possibly nursing some spectacular hangovers reminiscent of their younger days, the veterans went by coach to Kiel and later to the main German naval war memorial where more wreaths were laid. Braddon recorded the moment: ‘A bosun’s pipe shrilled out the “still” and a muted trumpet played ‘Ich hatt einen Kamarade (‘I had a Comrade’). Very reminiscent of thirty-three years ago when I heard it played on a mouth organ on the quarterdeck of Dorsetshire as we buried a German sailor at sea.’ The veterans adjourned for lunch at Kiel Naval Base, where they were guests of the West German Navy, honoured with a tour of the guided-missile destroyer Lütjens, named in honour of the admiral who died in Bismarck. Returning to Hamburg, the veterans sat down to another evening of memory-swapping, tall stories, dinner and drinks. They no doubt recalled the same night more than three decades earlier when destroyer Maori had been locked in battle with battleship Bismarck in the wake of the key torpedo hit on the German battleship’s steering. The following morning – the actual anniversary of the battle – sailors from Dorsetshire and Maori stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the men they had pulled from the sea, paying their respects to the dead of both sides at the main war memorial in Hamburg itself. At 1.00 pm, as Prins Hamlet – the ferry on the Hamburg-Harwich run – pulled away from the jetty, the last survivors of Bismarck gathered en bloc on the jetty, despite the pouring rain, to wave adieu to men who had saved them from a watery grave on 27 May 1941.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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