Bismarck: The Reckoning

The Bismarck was estimated to be 52 miles distant. With a strong crosswind, the Swordfish struggled to maintain course and keep speed at 80 knots. 45 They calculated they’d be onto the Bismarck in about forty-five minutes. The first aircraft in the No. 4 subflight, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant M. J. Lithgow, was equipped with an ASV (air search) radar watched intently by observer Sub-Lieutenant N. C. Cooper. As they droned through clouds and mist, Cooper spotted something on his screen. Against the roar of the engine he shouted the contact course and speed through the voice tube connecting him to Lithgow. Then he stood up into the slipstream and signaled the rest of the squadron that he had picked up a radar contact about 20 miles to starboard. He swung his arm to indicate the direction. The squadron banked sharply to settle on the new course. In the second aircraft of Lithgow’s subflight, the officer commanding the squadron, Lieutenant Commander J. A. Stewart-Moore, thought that the contact did not correspond with the position of the Bismarck as given to the pilots in the carrier ready room. But, “as there were said to be no British ships in the area, it had to be German.” Then they saw a dark gray shape on the sea sliding by gaps in the clouds. It looked more like a cruiser than a battleship. Was it the Prinz Eugen? The Royal Navy pilots took up attack position, dove through the clouds, lost sight of each other as they descended, then poked through the cloud bottoms. Stewart-Moore’s pilot, Lieutenant H. de G. Hunter, yelled through the voice tube, “It’s the Sheffield!”

With her twin funnels, the Sheffield looked nothing like the Bismarck, but the adrenaline was flowing and the blood was up. Hunter pulled up and waggled his wings. Neither his Swordfish, nor any of the others were equipped with radios to talk to each other; they could speak only to the Ark Royal. One by one the other aircraft executed their attacks in textbook fashion as Hunter and Stewart-Moore looked on in horror. The Swordfish dove toward the British cruiser, flattened out near the water, held their speed and altitude, then dropped. One by one the torpedoes entered the water as the men aboard HMS Sheffield watched, transfixed by the terrible fate about to overwhelm them. A cool customer on the outside, Captain Larcom was sorely tempted to order his antiaircraft gunners to open fire. But the immediate job was to save the Sheffield. He tensed and waited for the torpedoes to hit the water, ready to bark out orders to the coxswain to turn this way and that to comb the tracks and avoid the deadly fish.

Then, a miracle. One by one all the torpedoes except one or two exploded within a minute of hitting the water. The Sheffield easily avoided the rest. The duplex pistols had malfunctioned. Perhaps this was due to a quirk in the earth’s magnetic field, or to tired, seasick men in the Ark Royal’s hangar deck who had failed to set them properly. Maybe the extreme turbulence on the sea had tossed the torpedoes about, upsetting the delicate firing mechanism. But whatever it was that gave a hint of divine intervention, it saved the Sheffield. The aircraft maintenance crews on the Ark Royal quickly exchanged duplex pistols for contact detonators when the next flight went out to attack the Bismarck.

The first strike force returned to the Ark Royal at 5:20 P. M., flying over four of Captain Vian’s destroyers and reporting their presence. Immediately every available torpedo bomber was scraped together for a second attack. Maund and Somerville hoped against hope that they might get a third attack in before darkness and weather closed flying operations, but neither one was really optimistic about it. One by one the aircraft were laboriously refueled, rearmed, and checked for damage, all on the open, sea-swept flight deck. Again, fifteen aircraft were to be sent out. The weather had not improved from earlier in the day, when the first strike had been launched, but at 7:10 P. M. the first of the aircraft lifted ponderously off the flight deck, directly into the spray thrown up by the Ark Royal’s bow, and climbed to the cloud base. Fourteen other aircraft followed. They formed up, flew over the Renown at 7:25, and headed under the cloud layer for the Sheffield-this time not to attack her, but to use her as a reference point from which to attack the Bismarck. At 7:55 they spotted the Sheffield, calculated their direction and distance from the Bismarck, then climbed into the cloud layer for the run to the German battleship. At 8:47P. M. the squadron began to lower through the clouds.

“Aircraft! Alarm! “The cry cut short Admiral Lütjens’ musings about his precarious situation and the Luftwaffe’s failure to start from their Biscay bases. Spotters on the Bismarck saw fifteen Swordfish torpedo bombers overhead, swooping down through the violent rain squalls and heavy clouds. But then, once more, they were gone as quickly as they had appeared.

“Aircraft! Alarm!” Time: 8:30 P. M. Another wave of Swordfish torpedo bombers dove out of the clouds, singly and in pairs, recklessly coming at the Bismarck from all angles. Once more, the battleship became a mountain of fire. First Gunnery Officer Schneider ordered his main as well as secondary armament to fire at the bubbling tracks approaching the Bismarck just below the surface of the sea, hoping to explode some of the incoming torpedoes. At the same time, the four hundred men of the flak sprang into action with their heavy 4-inchers, as well as lighter 1.5-inch and 75-inch “pom-pom” guns. Soon the barrels became red-hot and what little paint remained blistered. The Swordfish were so close, Seaman Georg Herzog remembered, that he was ordered to send up barrage fire rather than to target single craft. Suddenly the Bismarck began to heel violently from side to side. Next she lost speed. On the captain’s bridge, Lindemann once more was barking out furious commands: “All ahead full!” “All stop!” “Hard a-port!” “Hard a-starboard!” On and on, the staccato commands went, for fully fifteen minutes. One after another, the Bismarck evaded the deadly torpedoes.

Seaman Herzog, manning his port third 1.5-inch flak gun, saw three Swordfish approach the Bismarck from astern, at 270 degrees, then bank hard right, to 180 degrees. They were flying too low to allow accurate antiaircraft fire. Most of the planes were concentrating on the battleship’s port side. Then Herzog saw two other torpedo bombers on the port beam. They also banked right to come at the ship from starboard, and at 875 yards off the Bismarck’s stern they released their torpedoes. Two of the “fish,” only 13 to 20 feet apart, were headed to cross the battleship’s projected course. Captain Lindemann, afraid that a torpedo might hit his bow, thus seriously impairing the Bismarck’s maneuverability, screamed at his coxswain: “Hard a-port!” Perhaps he could cut in front of the expected track of the torpedoes. From the captain’s bridge, Lindemann anxiously watched as the Bismarck and the bubble tracks closed on each other second by second.

At that moment the Bismarck’s great 15-inch guns spewed out their deadly fire-at HMS Sheffield. Commander Adalbert Schneider’s first salvo splashed into the Atlantic short of the light cruiser. His second salvo straddled the ship; four further salvos fell close. Lethal shell fragments caused a dozen casualties, three of them fatal. The Sheffield at once began to lay down dense smoke and to flee the scene at flank speed.

The last group of Swordfish were met with immediate and intense antiaircraft fire. The No. 1 subflight went in first. They dropped. No hits. They scampered away, fishtailing, yawing, and corkscrewing over the seascape to get away from the intense antiaircraft fire. Then the No. 3 subflight went in, against the battleship’s port beam, scoring a hit about one-third the length from the stern. The three Swordfish escaped. Next the No. 2 subflight, down from 9,000 feet, went against the Bismarck’s starboard beam. Two misses and another hit amidships. The No. 4 subflight, joined by another aircraft, attacked on the port side. One Swordfish took a hundred flak hits but managed to limp home to the carrier. The No. 5 subflight got separated from the other attackers and from each other. One of the aircraft saw a torpedo hit the Bismarck on the starboard side, but no one was quite sure where, or who had launched it. In a half hour it was over. Torpedoes expended, the exhausted and sorely tried crews struggled back to the Ark Royal, where all landed safely. Some of the aircraft were so badly shot up they would never fly again. It was too late in the day for another strike, but Captain Maund reported “one and probably two hits.”

Maund underestimated the impact of the attack. The first explosion, near Section VII amidships, did little more than raise a giant waterspout into the air. But another blast, this one near Section II at the Bismarck’s stern, lifted the ship up by the stern and rocked her from side to side. A number of survivors recalled their fears that the Bismarck might actually capsize. But after what seemed an eternity, she righted herself on the water.

Down in the battleship’s engine rooms, near-panic ensued. Men were knocked down. Floor plates in the center engine room buckled upward a foot and a half. Welds split. Cable protectors stripped. Water poured in through the port shaft well. The safety valve in the starboard engine room closed and the engines shut down. The big ship was temporarily without power. The first damage-control team, consisting of men released from the Bismarck’s antiaircraft and secondary batteries, rushed aft and informed Captain Lindemann that the hole blasted in the Bismarck’s hull by the torpedo was so large that all the steering rooms were flooded and had to be evacuated. Seamen near the after armored hatch over the steering mechanism gazed down onto the open sea.

Seaman Herzog returned to his station; he recalled the sheer terror of the next few announcements over the ship’s loudspeakers. “Rudder system fouled. Rudder jammed hard a-starboard. Ship slows to 19 knots.” Then, “Ship steaming in a circle. Ship slows to 17 knots.” And finally, “Ship slows to 13 knots.” The Bismarck’s fourth gunnery officer, Lieutenant Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, on duty in the after firing-control station, sat almost on top of the torpedo hit. He heard the blast of the explosion and then got what he remembered as a “sickening feeling.” He knew the Bismarck had been hit; “My heart sank.” Müllenheim-Rechberg stared at the rudder indicator: “Left 12 degrees.” Seconds went by. Still the same: “Left 12 degrees.” The Bismarck increasingly began to list to starboard. She was in a continuous turn. “Left 12 degrees.” The rudder indicator was frozen at that setting. Speed had fallen to 13 knots. The howling nor’wester whipped the crests of the gigantic Atlantic breakers over the ship’s deck. “Left 12 degrees.” The rudder indicator was like a magnet, with all eyes aft riveted to it.

And then the full reality hit: the Bismarck’s twin parallel rudders were jammed. The battleship was turning wide circles in the middle of the Atlantic. St. Nazaire seemed an eternity away. Admiral Lütjens, laconic as always, signaled Paris at 9:05 P. M.: “Quadrant BE 6192; torpedo hit in stern!” And then at 9:15 P. M.: “Ship no longer maneuverable!”

On the Bismarck’s stern Captain Ernst Lindemann rushed down from the bridge to supervise repairs. Two engineers, Lieutenants Gerhard Junack and Hermann Giese, along with a master carpenter’s team, shored up the transverse bulkhead and sealed the broken valves and tubes. Next Lindemann sent men from the starboard gun turrets to the quarterdeck to try to place collision matting over the hole in the ship’s hull, but the torrents of incoming seawater could not be stemmed. From the command center, First Officer Hans Oels repeatedly called Giese for up-to-the-minute damage assessment reports. When would the Bismarck resume way? Oels demanded to know. On the admiral’s bridge, Fleet Chief Günther Lütjens anxiously paced up and down, demanding instant damage reports from Lindemann.

The main problem, of course, was with the jammed parallel rudders. Junack and Giese and a master’s mate came up with a plan: They would don diving gear, make their way through an armored hatch to the upper platform deck, and disengage the rudder-motor coupling. But each time they opened the armored hatch over the steering gear, the seawater blew them back-and then threatened to suck them down as the ship rose on the crest of a giant Atlantic breaker. Over and over, the same pattern: a torrent of water as the Bismarck plunged into a trough, then a sucking down as she rode the next wave crest. There was nothing to do but to close the hatch.

The Bismarck was now wallowing on an erratic course, roughly northwest, into 40-to- 50-mile-per-hour winds and toward the enemy. Back on the bridge, Captain Lindemann, practically, tried to use the three main engines to steer the ship. “Port engines half ahead, center and starboard engines stop!” “Port and center engines half ahead, starboard engines back slow!” “Port engines full ahead, starboard engines stop!” No combination of ahead and astern power worked. When Lindemann ordered the starboard engine to run at a higher speed than the port engine, for example, he could force the Bismarck to turn to port. But as soon as some speed was attained, the twin rudders, each with an area of 24 square yards, would bite into the sea and drive the ship back to starboard. Moreover, Lindemann’s repeated “Stop!” and “Full Power!” commands raised boiler pressure past prescribed limits. Temperature in the engine room climbed to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, as neither doors nor ventilators could be opened since the ship was still in a cleared-foraction state of readiness. The great ship’s hull vibrated noticeably throughout the ordeal.

A plan to send divers down to cut off the Bismarck’s rudders or to set charges to sever them was abandoned, as the violent seas were too high and the alternating pressure and suction of incoming and outgoing water allowed no one to get to the steering gear on the upper platform deck. Another plan, to weld the Arado floatplane’s hangar door to the starboard side of the stern at a 15-degree angle-which would correspond to a rudder position of 12 degrees-likewise had to be abandoned due to the high seas and roaring gale. And a third proposal, to send divers down to uncouple the starboard rudder, failed when the divers discovered that the coupling was so badly damaged that it could not be budged. Hourly damage-control teams struggled to clear the Bismarck’s fouled electric steering gear and rudders. Some even put forward the idea that a U-boat could be taken in tow as a steering drag, but Lindemann realized that a 700-ton submarine would be like a cork on the ocean.

Lütjens remained on the admiral’s bridge, alone with his thoughts. His cold, analytical mind allowed only one conclusion: The great ship was doomed. Neither the Scharnhorst nor the Gneisenau at Brest was seaworthy. Destroyers could make little headway in the heavy seas and against such a strong headwind. Tugs could not possibly reach the Bismarck for forty hours. U-boats could barely stay afloat on the raging sea. The British most likely would wait until dawn to move in for the kill. There was no need to pretend otherwise. The admiral’s staff-composed of experienced officers who had served with the pocket battleship Graf Spee off Montevideo in 1939 and with the battleship Gneisenau, as well as the heavy cruiser Blücher, during the Norway operation in 1940- most likely shared the task force commander’s assessment of his dire predicament.

A veteran of World War I, Lütjens was too painfully aware of the High Sea Fleet’s inglorious rebellion in 1917, revolution in 1918, and scuttling in 1919. And then there was December 1939, when Captain Hans Langsdorff had scuttled the Graf Spee off the River Plate rather than sortie against three British cruisers. For the stiff, duty-bound Lütjens, there could be no talk of scuttling or of surrendering his ship. If 2,220 officers and men had to be sacrificed, then that was the price the task force commander was willing to pay. In April 1941 Lütjens had discussed Rhine Exercise with several colleagues and a former fleet chief. Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, his predecessor, had warned Lütjens not to stick too closely to Raeder’s rigid orders but rather to improvise as conditions warranted. Lütjens, aware that Raeder had already fired two fleet chiefs for alleged “temerity,” vowed that he would not be the third. When Admiral Conrad Patzig, Lütjens’ mate from the Naval Academy Crew of 1907, had urged caution, Lütjens replied: “I am of the opinion that I should have to sacrifice myself sooner or later. I have closed out my private life.” His flagship now was not capable of maneuver, but her machinery, armaments, and crew were intact. The time had come for Lütjens to sacrifice himself. At 9:40 P. M.-just half an hour after the fatal torpedo strike-he informed Naval Group Command West of the inevitable: “Ship unable to maneuver. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.” The suddenness and the finality of the signal stunned both his fleet staff and the radiomen. There is no indication that Lütjens discussed this signal with Captain Lindemann.