Destroyers in the Night

“Sink The Bismarck!” (1960) – HMS Ark Royal and Fairey Swordfish scenes. These are scenes of the HMS Ark Royal and her Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. In reality, none of the Swordfish were lost
Sink the Bismarck! (1960 movie clip) Destroyers attack Bismarck

ONE IN A HUNDRED THOUSAND

During the air attack, Lt von Müllenheim-Rechberg was at his post in Bismarck’s after gun director tower. Later, he recalled the moment: ‘The attack must have been almost over when it came, an explosion aft. My heart sank. I glanced at the rudder indicator. It showed “Left 12°”. Did that just happen to be our correct heading at that moment? No. It did not change. It stayed at “Left 12°”. Our increasing list to starboard soon told us that we were in a continuous turn.’ Then, Müllenheim-Rechberg was distracted, as the order came to fire on the light cruiser Sheffield. She was roughly 9 miles away, and the battleship fired six salvos at her. The first was a miss, but the second straddled the target. The cruiser immediately turned away, making smoke, and the next four salvos all fell short. Although no serious damage was done, shrapnel thrown up as the 15in. shells exploded next to the ship killed one crewman and injured seven more. Later, one of these would die from his wounds. All the time, though, Bismarck kept turning to port.

Müllenheim-Rechberg looked back at the rudder indicator. It still said ‘Left 12°’. As he put it: ‘At one stroke, the world seemed to be irrevocably altered. Or was it? Perhaps the damage could be repaired? I broke the anxious silence that enveloped my station by remarking: “We’ll just have to wait. The men below will do everything they can.”’ In fact, Bismarck had been hit twice. The first was from a torpedo that ran shallow and struck the battleship amidships on her port side, where it exploded against her armoured belt just below the waterline, but did no real damage. The second though – the one launched by Sub Lt Moffat – hit the battleship’s stern, on her port side. The blow shook the whole stern of the ship. At the time, Bismarck’s damage control teams thought the damage was done to her steering compartment, protected by a watertight bulkhead that was just 45mm thick. In fact, the damage was far more serious than that.

According to Müllenheim-Rechberg: ‘The torpedo hit had shaken the ship so violently that the safety valve in the starboard engine room closed, and the engines shut down. Slowly the vibration of the ship ceased.’ Then: ‘The control station re-opened the safety valve and we had steam again. The floor plates of the engine room buckled upwards about half a metre, and water rushed in through the port shaft well.’ He added: ‘It would not take long, however, to seal off the room and pump it out.’ This proved to be over-optimistic. The damage control parties inspected the stern compartments and found that the steering rooms were flooded, and the men working there had been forced to evacuate them. Attempts to pump out the compartment were delayed due to an electrical fault, no doubt caused by shorting caused by flooding. Then they discovered that the pumps were damaged.

The plan now was to shore up the after bulkhead, to stop the flood spreading. Next, divers could enter the flooded compartments, seal them and pump out the water. All this took time, however, and meanwhile Bismarck was still steaming in a long, lazy circle to port. The rudders simply weren’t responding. Kapitän Lindemann tried to counteract this by steering with his propellers, but this proved difficult, as for some reason, while Bismarck had three propellers, the centre one wasn’t responding. In consequence, he had to juggle the port and starboard propellers, with one running at full speed and the other at half speed. It wasn’t really a workable solution. The only sensible course was to fix the steering gear if it was damaged, or the rudder. In the end, though, it became clear that nothing could be done in the steering compartment. So, the ship continued on her erratic course.

Lindemann tried everything he could – varying the speed, and trying to rig some form of emergency steering. However, as the night drew on it was clear that Bismarck had been irrevocably damaged. During the training period in the Baltic, one machinist remembered how he had played dead during a damage control exercise, to simulate a hit on the steering compartment. They had been told then that the odds of being damaged there were extremely low – one in a hundred thousand.6 Now those words came back to him.

In fact, the steering gear was the least of Bismarck’s problems; the torpedo explosion had all but sheared off the port rudder, so it didn’t respond at all. At the same time the starboard one had been blown forwards and had jammed against the central propeller, so that now both rudder and propeller were locked in place. It was the sort of damage that could only be repaired in a dry dock, like the one in St Nazaire. Now, the chances of Bismarck reaching it had become non-existent.

The torpedo hit took place at around 21.20. Just over two hours later, at 23.30, a rudimentary form of emergency steering was rigged, a hand-operated rudder, dropped over the side and attached to the port rudder yoke. The crew of the 6in. gun turret were called on to operate it, but it proved unmanageable and the attempt was abandoned. So too was the notion of demolishing the aircraft hangar door and dropping it over the side as a makeshift rudder. All attempts by divers to uncouple the starboard rudder failed, too, as it was jammed too tightly and the coupling wouldn’t budge. The bad weather made it an impossible task.

Thus, with all other options exhausted, Lindemann was forced to continue trying to steer some sort of eastward course using his engines alone, but even that proved too much and the ship’s general direction that evening was towards the north-west – away from the safety of the French coast. Effectively, Bismarck was doomed.

While Bismarck was steering erratically, Admiral Tovey was gathering his forces. At 15.36 that afternoon, Rodney came within sight of Tovey’s flagship, King George V. This meant that the admiral now had the combined firepower to sink the Bismarck, if he could only catch her up during the night. At the time, the chances of doing so seemed very slim indeed, yet the Home Fleet were continuing the chase, more for form’s sake than anything else. A little later, using signal lamps, Tovey and Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton discussed their fuel states. While Rodney still had enough fuel in her tanks for a few more days at sea, she was approaching the limit of what she’d need if she resumed her journey to the USA, where she was going to undergo a much-needed refit. The King George V, however, was now running perilously low, and Captain Patterson had already warned Tovey that if they were to make it back to Scapa Flow then they would have to break off pursuit by midnight.

This calculation was made on the basis that they continued to steam at full speed. However, now that the lumbering Rodney had joined her, both battleships were making just 22 knots – the fastest that Rodney’s aged engines could manage. Patterson therefore recalculated his fuel stocks and extended the deadline to 09.00 the following morning. Still, Tovey insisted that the two battleships continue to head towards the south-east, on a course roughly parallel to that of Bismarck. He was pinning his last hopes on the air attack from Ark Royal. Then, later that evening came the news that the air attack had failed. Bismarck was now unstoppable. A sense of gloom hung over the bridge of the flagship, but this dissipated slightly with the news from Sheffield that Bismarck was heading towards the north-west. Only when this was confirmed by the shadowing aircraft did Tovey allow himself to believe he might still have a chance of bringing Bismarck to battle.

Now, after a slight change of course, the two British battleships and their German adversary were heading towards each other, and the distance between them was dropping fast. At 23.00, the last of the strike aircraft had returned to Ark Royal. Then, gradually, as the air crews were debriefed, it became apparent that instead of not being hit at all, as Coode had reported, the battleship had been struck by two torpedoes, possibly more. Only damage to her rudder or steering gear would cause her to circle to port and abandon her ruler-straight course towards France. Thus, Tovey now had reason to hope he could bring the Bismarck to battle the following morning. Besides, he now had one more small but deadly naval force at his disposal: Cdr Vian’s destroyers could now harry the German battleship, while King George V and Rodney steamed on through the night.

ATTACK WITH TORPEDOES

That night, the conditions were grim. All of the warships in that part of the North Atlantic were steaming through very rough seas. The Sea States was 5, going on 6, which meant it was just short of being a full-blown gale. The waves were capped with angry white crests, and were between 10 and 15ft high, which meant that all of the ships were pitching and rolling through the sea, their decks slick with spray. The smaller ones, like Vian’s destroyers, were ‘shipping it green’, with their focsles awash with the waves and spray as the small ships punched through the seas. The wind was blowing hard from the north-west, at 25 knots, but with gusts of more than 40mph. Streaks of white foam were splattering the decks of these smaller ships, too. All in all, especially for those standing on open bridges or upper decks, it was a dirty night. Vian’s destroyers were taking a real pounding from the weather, but their crews hardly noticed. They were steaming into action.

Shortly before 22.00, Captain Vian’s destroyers had come upon Sheffield, which was still gamely trying to shadow the Bismarck. After nearly being hit by large German shells, Captain Larcom was keeping a respectful distance from the enemy battleship. The cruiser’s radar had been put out of action by shell splinters, so it was the cruiser’s lookouts that first spotted the lean black shapes. Larcom was certain they were friendly – they were still too far from the French coast for German destroyers to be at sea. In fact, these were the same ones spotted by Ark Royal’s returning first strike, after it had mistakenly targeted the Sheffield. Vian approached the cruiser from the north-west, and Larcom used lamp signals to tell him where the Bismarck lay. Then the destroyers filed past and disappeared into the gloom.

There were five of them. Four – Cossack, Maori, Sikh and Zulu – were Tribal class destroyers of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, all of which had been commissioned shortly before the start of the war. Captain Philip Vian had taken command of the flotilla in early 1940, with Cossack acting as the flotilla leader. These were powerful modern destroyers, armed with eight 4.7in. guns in four twin turrets, and carrying four 21in. torpedoes in a quadruple launcher mounted amidships. In theory, they could reach 36 knots, but that night, given the rough seas, they were lucky to make half that. This didn’t deter Vian though. As he knew the Ark Royal had recalled her shadowing aircraft for the night, and Sheffield had lost visual contact, he decided to press ahead, make contact with Bismarck and then see what he could do to slow her down even further.

The fifth destroyer was the Piorun. She began life as a new British J, K and N class destroyer, laid down in Clydeside, and launched in May 1940 as the Nerissa. However, that October she was transferred to the Polish Navy. She was duly commissioned as the ORP Piorun, a ship of the Polish Republic – a government in exile. Piorun (or ‘Thunderbolt’) was crewed by Polish volunteer sailors, and after a period of working up with other Polish warships she joined Vian’s flotilla. Although she only carried six 4.7in. guns, in three twin turrets, she was usually armed with ten 21in. torpedoes, in two quadruple launchers. Unfortunately, that evening her tubes were empty. That meant that for what was about to follow, she was the worst-equipped destroyer for the job. So, the five destroyers pounded on, following the bearing given to them by Captain Larcom. Meanwhile, as the light faded, on the open bridge of Cossack, Vian worked out his plan of attack.

He really had three objectives. The first was to sight Bismarck, so that he could send a series of contact reports to Tovey. This would help the British battleships make contact with the enemy at dawn the following morning. The second was, if the chance arose, to attack her with torpedoes, in the hope of crippling the battleship or at least slowing her down. While between them the Swordfish had carried 15 18in. torpedoes, Vian’s destroyers had a total of 16 of them, all 21in. torpedoes, with a greater range and a more powerful explosive warhead. Then, even if the torpedo attack didn’t achieve anything, he could harry Bismarck and her crew and keep them at Action Stations. This should mean that when Tovey engaged her the following morning, the battleship’s crew would be exhausted.

He had already strung his destroyers out into a line, 2,000 yards (1 mile) apart, to increase the chances of making contact in the dark. They were making 15 knots through the rough cross-seas. The destroyers were heading on a south-easterly course, with Cossack in the centre, Sikh and then Zulu to port of her, and Maori and Piorun to port. Visibility was poor – little more than a couple of miles, as rain squalls lashed the little warships. It was 22.38 when the Bismarck first appeared out of the darkness, during a break in the rain. She was 8 or 9 miles away, heading almost due north, and making about 12 knots. It was Maori and Piorun who spotted her first. Vian’s plan was for the five destroyers to spread out, so that two destroyers were each side of the battleship, on her bow and stern quarters. Cossack would shadow her from dead astern. Then, as the destroyers moved in to take up their positions, Bismarck opened fire.

Müllenheim-Rechberg was one of the gunnery team that evening. Salvos of both 15in. and 6in. shells were fired at Piorun, although at the time the Bismarck’s crew didn’t know which destroyer was which. He remembered the fight:

Our rangefinders worked to perfection. From 8,000m down to 3,000 we tracked the destroyers. Tension in my station rose as the incoming ranges went down, 7,000m … 6,500 … 4,000… In spite of the darkness I could see through my director the shadowy attackers come nearer and nearer, twisting to attack – each time I thought ‘the torpedoes are hissing out of the tubes’ – then drawing off. They dared not stay near us for long, because of the speed with which our gunnery found its targets.

This was despite the continual turning of the battleship, as Lindemann struggled to maintain a steady course. In fact, she kept circling throughout the action. By now she had increased speed too, and was making between 15 and 20 knots.

Bismarck began firing at Piorun within a minute or so of the destroyer first spotting the German battleship. The range was just under 7 miles, but it was dropping fast. Although Piorun fired back with her puny 4.7in. guns, they wouldn’t have been able to do much damage even if they’d been able to hit her. In those rough seas, accurate aiming was all but impossible. It was easier to take aim from the larger and more stable battleship, but what probably saved the Polish destroyer was the erratic course being steered by her adversary. This threw the German gunners off slightly, and while the third 15in. salvo landed dangerously close to the destroyer, she emerged unscathed. Sensibly, Komandor Eugeniusz Pławski decided he’d done enough for now, and turned away under cover of a smoke screen. As a result, Piorun lost contact, not just with Bismarck but also with the other destroyers. Just before he broke contact, Pławski flashed a lamp signal to Bismarck that read, ‘I am a Pole’ – just so the Germans knew who they were dealing with.

By now, Maori was somewhere off Bismarck’s starboard bow, Sikh and Zulu off her port beam, and Cossack behind her. It was now up to these four Tribal class destroyers. So, at 23.24, Vian ordered them to launch a synchronised torpedo attack. As she moved in, Zulu was spotted by Bismarck and a curtain of 15in. and 6in. shells fell in front of her. The destroyer hurriedly turned away, her puny gun turrets barking in reply. On the gun director tower, Sub Lt James Galbraith thought Bismarck looked enormous. Huge columns of water fell around Zulu, as two salvos landed dangerously close to her. Then a third salvo from the battleship’s 6in. guns straddled the destroyer as she bore away. A shell splinter scythed through Galbraith’s left wrist, and wounded two seamen working next to him. Still, Cdr Harry Graham, a charismatic Australian, managed to launch a spread of four torpedoes before he broke contact. However, Bismarck kept turning, and they all missed their target.

At 23.40, Vian in Cossack had a clear view of his prey, some 4 miles away, her hull lit up by the flashes of her guns. Unfortunately for him, the guns were firing at Cossack. While the larger guns missed, 6in. shell splashes surrounded the ship – a perfect straddle. Vian could actually see the 15in. shells heading towards him, as they were picked up by Cossack’s radar. It was, as he said later, a rather alarming image. Bismarck was also firing starshells now, and these lit up Cossack as she made her torpedo run, an almost impossible move in those tempestuous seas. Still, Cossack surged forwards into her attack, ignoring the heavy fire. Signalman Eric Farmer remembered the moment: ‘The first salvo was 50 yards short. The next one burst over the bridge, causing everyone to duck. The range was less than a mile now.’ That was when Vian turned the destroyer about, and fired his torpedoes.

Some of Cossack’s crew thought they’d hit the battleship, since they saw a bright flash through the murk. In fact, it was a flare landing on Bismarck’s focsle, which her crew hurriedly extinguished. Gunner Ken Robinson described what happened next: ‘After the attack we turned away, and with the sea up our stern, at what seemed to be the fastest we ever went, with the stern sea throwing us all over the place.’ Then, Vian discovered that one of her torpedoes hadn’t launched. So, the destroyer went in again. They sped in, launched the torpedo and made off under the cover of a smoke screen. Again, they saw flashes on Bismarck, which might be a torpedo hit, or merely the battleship’s guns firing. In any case, Cossack’s captain didn’t hang around to find out.

By now, all of Vian’s destroyers had lost touch with Bismarck. They almost lost contact with each other too, but after midnight Cossack came across Piorun, and then Zulu. Of Sikh and Maori there was no sign. Both had been ahead of the others, one on each bow of Bismarck, and both had made torpedo runs during the night. Maori was driven off by accurate gunfire, but a little after 01.00 she went in again. Cdr Harry Armstrong, known as ‘Beaky’ to his men, was wary enough to zigzag as he approached Bismarck from her port beam. However, the battleship was continually turning, so when she was 5,000 yards (2.5 miles) off her port quarter he fired off two torpedoes. At the time, Bismarck was heading towards the north-east, but at that range the chances of hitting were slim and the torpedo spread ran astern of her target. Bismarck fired at her, allowing Captain Graham of Zulu to see Bismarck, clearly lit up by her gun flashes. Again, Maori escaped into the darkness.

Finally, Cdr Gary Stokes of Sikh had lost touch with both her quarry and her own consorts, but when Zulu saw the battleship, Captain Graham gave a sighting report that allowed Sikh to intercept Bismarck, approaching her from her starboard beam. She fired her torpedoes at 7,000 yards (3.5 miles), but again, all of them missed. So, apart from Maori, all of the destroyers had used up their torpedoes, without achieving a single hit. This was hardly surprising, given the mountainous seas and the pitch-black night. Then there were the actions of the Bismarck, continually turning and whose speed was fluctuating wildly. Then, however, there was something of a lull. Bismarck stopped for an hour, as one of her turbines had been shut down to allow repairs to be attempted to the shaft and rudder. When this failed, at around 02.20, Bismarck got under way again and resumed her erratic course.

By then, Vian was content with maintaining contact with the enemy battleship and sending up starshells to mark her position. This was actually done on the orders of Admiral Tovey. Now that the admiral knew Bismarck wasn’t getting away, he reduced the speed of his two battleships to 19 knots, to conserve fuel. He’d taken a gamble by not pressing on to attack Bismarck at the first opportunity. However, he knew that Rodney lacked the modern fire control radar that would allow her to fight effectively in the dark. So, he was content to wait until dawn. Of course, there was the risk that Bismarck might repair whatever damage she’d suffered and speed off towards France, but as the night wore on, this became increasingly unlikely.

Vian stopped firing starshells at around 15.30, as all it seemed to do was to draw German fire on to his ships. His destroyers lost contact with Bismarck at 16.00, but she was boxed in by them, and unlikely to escape under cover of the filthy night. At 05.50, contact was regained as Maori sighted her, steering erratically towards the north-west – and straight towards Tovey’s battleships. Cdr Armstrong signalled the other destroyers, and once again they took station all around the enemy battleship. Rain squalls were still lashing the ocean and the night’s storm showed no real sign of wearing itself out. Just before 07.00, Maori fired off her last two torpedoes, at a range of 9,000 yards (4.4 miles), but they didn’t hit their target. At 05.00, Vian ordered Piorun to return to Plymouth since she was running desperately low on fuel. The Poles were hugely disappointed not to be in at the finish, but they’d played their part. Now it was up to the capital ships to play theirs.

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