It was now almost 09.15. On Rodney, Bismarck’s slow northerly progress had blocked the arc of fire of ‘X’ turret. Dalrymple-Hamilton therefore turned his battleship to starboard, until she headed south, on a course roughly parallel to that of Bismarck, at a range of 5 miles. Just before she turned, Rodney fired off a spread of torpedoes from her submerged torpedo tubes, mounted in the battleship’s bow. Three of them were launched from the starboard side of the bow, but they all missed, confounded by the constant turning of their target. She did the same from her port tubes, again without hitting her target. Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Frank Pollard began reloading the empty launchers, until a near miss from Bismarck jammed the external door of the starboard launcher and he gave up the attempt.
Next, Rodney began slamming full salvos into the enemy battleship, achieving one or more hits every time. At 09.21, ‘Dora’ turret was put out of action when a shell exploded in the turret’s right-hand barrel. The blast ripped out the breech end of the gun, killing or maiming most of the turret crew. It might even have flashed down the magazine hoist, killing yet more. Soon after, the order was given to flood the turret’s magazine, whether the men down there were alive or not. Anything else would have risked the very survival of the ship. Bismarck could have been ripped apart as Hood was. Instead, the seemingly callous order of Fregattenkapitän Oels might well have saved some of the battleship’s crew. Nevertheless, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. Up near the bow, ‘Bruno’ turret was completely destroyed, with the back of the turret ripped open and one of its guns left pointing towards the sky.
In ‘Anton’ turret, though, the crew had survived the blow that temporarily put them out of action.20 It had severed the turret hydraulics, leaving the guns ‘drooping like dead flowers’, but after much effort the turret crew managed to get their guns working again, and at 09.27 ‘Anton’ turret fired its final salvo. Seconds later, another hit by a heavy-calibre shell put it out of action for good. Now it looked as if Bismarck was on fire in several places and her superstructure had taken a real pounding. Bismarck’s armour was concentrated around her turrets, magazines and engines, but a lot of the compartments above her armoured citadel were only lightly protected; while they might be proof against shell fragments, they couldn’t stop a 14in. or 16in. shell, fired at relatively short range. So, both above and below decks, Bismarck was being pounded into a scrap.
At 09.16, Tovey ordered King George V to make a turn to port, and reversed course. Soon, she was heading north again, with Bismarck lying off her starboard beam. Unfortunately for Tovey and Captain Patterson, the flagship’s guns had been taking turns to malfunction throughout the battle. It was the same problem faced by Prince of Wales three days before – the four-gun turret was a new design and it still had teething problems. As a result, the crew had barely repaired one gun when another would become defective, with the mechanism jamming or the hoist system refusing to work. At one point, King George V was reduced to just two operable 14in. gun barrels. At least by now, though, her secondary 5.25in. guns had joined in, and were peppering the upper works of the enemy battleship.
The German battleship was barely moving, and with all but ‘Caesar’ turret out of action her firing had become intermittent. Her secondary turrets were still firing if they could bear, but one by one they were being silenced too. Their armour wasn’t able to protect the crews from such large shells, striking them at ranges of less than 4 miles. Then, at 09.26 one of the gun barrels in ‘Caesar’ turret was knocked out of action by a direct hit. With the turret optics shattered, the remaining gun couldn’t even fire back with any chance of hitting. So, effectively, all of Bismarck’s main guns had now been silenced. Yet those British shells kept on pounding her, as Bismarck was still afloat, and this was a fight to the death.
So, in just under three-quarters of an hour, Bismarck had become a floating wreck. Surprisingly, while her superstructure was a tangled shambles of steel and her decks were on fire, her armoured belt still protected her from the worst of the enemy fire. She could no longer fight, but she was still afloat. It looked as if the British shells could batter Bismarck, but they couldn’t sink her. Still the shells kept hitting her – several striking her every minute. So, the slaughter continued. On Tartar, just about to head for home due to lack of fuel, Sub Lt George Whalley saw Bismarck burning, and thought: ‘What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of … her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt.’ This sentiment was shared by many British sailors that morning. Hugh Guernsey on King George V felt the same. Afterwards, he wrote, ‘Pray God I may never know what those shells did as they exploded in the hull.’
The trouble was, the Admiralty’s orders were clear. Bismarck had to be sunk. Prime Minister Churchill had been adamant. So, the salvos kept being fired, and the German battleship continued to burn. Afterwards, Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton of the Rodney, whose shells did most of the damage, wrote: ‘I can’t say I enjoyed that part of the business much, but didn’t see what else I could do.’ Tovey was determined to finish the job. He knew that by 10.00 at the very latest, King George V and Rodney would have to break off the action, or run out of fuel on the way home. By then, though, it was becoming clear that shells alone wouldn’t do the job. Bismarck would have to be finished off with torpedoes. In fact, at 09.56 Rodney tried to do just that, launching her last two torpedoes out of the submerged launcher on her port side. The range was less than 3,000 yards (1.5 miles), and the battleship claimed one hit – perhaps the only torpedo hit ever on one battleship from another.
The destroyers had all fired their torpedoes, as had Norfolk, which had fired hers off and missed just before 10.00. That left Devonshire, which carried two quadruple 21in. torpedo launchers, one on each beam. The only other source was Ark Royal, and her Swordfish. In fact, that morning, V. Adm. Somerville had ordered Ark Royal to launch another air strike, and at 09.20, 12 Swordfish began taking off. After forming up they headed towards the Bismarck. When they arrived, though, the gun battle was in full spate. To make a torpedo attack in those circumstances would have been to invite being hit by friendly fire, so the attack was called off. The aircraft kept their distance, circled, and waited. In fact, they were fired on from King George V, until someone identified them as British biplanes. Thus, the air crews merely enjoyed their grandstand view for a few minutes and then headed home.
Tovey, too, was heading home to Scapa Flow, with a desperately needed fuel stop on the way at Loch Ewe. He had left it longer than he should, but his two battleships now had to break off. There was no other option. So, at 10.16 the admiral ordered King George V and Rodney to cease fire and break off the action. Until then, the guns had continued to pound the stricken battleship. In total, King George V fired 339 14in. shells that morning, and Rodney 380 16in. ones. Then there were the hundreds of 8in. shells fired by the cruisers, and the 6in. and 5.25in. ones from the battleship’s secondary guns. Bismarck had been utterly pounded into submission. Her guns silent now, the German battleship was just wallowing there, her decks blazing fiercely, but with her German naval ensign still flying. By then, the order had been given to scuttle her, open her sea cocks, and then abandon ship.
Fregattenkapitän Oels gave the scuttling order, and charges were set. (?) Meanwhile, he passed through the ship, ordering men to head towards the upper deck and save themselves. However, he and hundreds of others were killed by the British shells before they made it. Meanwhile, as Tovey steamed away, he ordered Captain Martin of Dorsetshire to finish Bismarck off with torpedoes. She drew closer to the burning wreck and fired two torpedoes from a range of 3,300 yards (1.6 miles). Both of them struck Bismarck’s starboard side. By now, hundreds of men could be seen jumping into the water, mostly from the battleship’s stern, as forward of the bridge she was a raging inferno of flame. Next, Martin circled round Bismarck and at 10.36 he fired a third torpedo, which struck the battleship’s port side. Almost immediately, Bismarck began listing to port. Whether this was the torpedo hits or the scuttling charges was immaterial. Bismarck was now starting to sink.
Tovey looked back at Bismarck as the two battleships steamed off towards the northern horizon. He saw her list and, as he watched, the battleship leaned over even further, until her superstructure was parallel to the water. Pieces of her superstructure began to break away. Then she slowly rolled over and capsized. Her gun turrets, held in place by gravity, preceded her on the long voyage towards the seabed. It was now 10.39. Men were still perched on her upturned hull as she went under. The stern sank next, and gradually the upturned battleship slipped from view, her passing marked by huge bubbles of escaping air. Her bows were the last to go, but by 10.40 these disappeared too, gurgling and hissing beneath the waters of the Atlantic. Now all that was left of the once-proud battleship was a scattering of floating debris, a large oil slick, and hundreds of men, left floating in the ice-cold water.
They were the lucky ones – the sailors who hadn’t been trapped as the ship sank, or dragged under by the suction. Many of them were badly burned or injured. After almost an hour, Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori inched towards the edge of the floating detritus of men and wreckage and began picking up survivors. The men in the water were no longer the enemy – they had become sailors in distress. So, ropes and rope ladders were thrown over the side and British sailors began pulling the survivors to safety. Müllenheim-Rechberg was one of these, having been hauled up on a rope and pulled on board. Then, a lookout on Dorsetshire spotted a puff of exhaust smoke in the water, 2 miles off the cruiser’s starboard beam. The Home Fleet had expected U-boats to be converging, and this could well have been one of them. So, Captain Martin reluctantly ordered his ship to get underway.
It was now 11.40. Hundreds of survivors were still in the water, and most had been floating there for over an hour. A few lucky ones clung to ropes and were hauled aboard, but as the cruiser made off, followed by Maori, the remainder were left to fend for themselves. This, however, was a necessary and unavoidable decision by Captain Martin. He couldn’t risk the lives of the 850 British sailors on the two ships. Between them, the two British ships had managed to rescue 111 survivors .33 Bismarck carried a crew of just over 2,000 men. While most of these went down with their ship, hundreds of others had abandoned ship and were now in the water. Of these, only five were still alive the next day when they were rescued by U-74 and the German weather ship Sachsenwald, which had arrived on the scene, along with a Spanish cruiser. The rest succumbed to the numbing cold, and quietly slipped away.
For many on board Bismarck, the end didn’t come gradually. Instead, it involved a shattering explosion, a fireball, crushing from falling pieces of wreckage, dismemberment by shell splinters or simply entrapment, entombed by sealed hatches or blocked passageways, and having to wait for the water to claim them. The survivors – 86 on Dorsetshire and 25 on Maori – told a harrowing tale. The decks were littered with broken bodies, and slick with blood and gore. The dead sailors lay everywhere, while parts of the upper deck were an inferno of flame. Shells still exploded on the ship, several each minute, until the final order came to cease fire. Bismarck had become a floating charnel house of the dead and injured, while those still alive struggled to save themselves. Some had to clamber over badly injured shipmates, unable to help themselves, and doomed to go down with the ship.
Everywhere the noise of fires and explosions was punctuated by the cries of the wounded and the dying. Survivors recalled how many of the dead and wounded on the upper deck were washed into the sea when Bismarck started to list. Waves then threw their broken bodies back against the sinking ship, where most were sucked under. Hundreds of men were trapped inside the ship by jammed hatches, while others stayed at their posts, as if resigned to their fate. Some crewmen were driven mad, while some took their own lives.
Müllenheim-Rechberg was the only officer to escape from the sinking ship. When his after guns were silenced, he stepped out of his director tower and saw the real extent of the carnage: ‘Everything up to the bridge bulwarks had been destroyed. The hatches leading to the main deck were jammed shut … flames cut off the whole forward part of the ship. Hundreds of crewmen lay where they had been hit, in the foretop, on the bridge, in the control stations, at the guns, on the upper deck, and on the main and battery decks.’ He eventually jumped into the sea from the quarterdeck and swam away before the ship capsized.
By then, the shelling had stopped. Still, the dying continued. Men were seen blinded by the smoke, running along the upper deck, only to fall through a hole ripped in the deck by a shell and tumble into a fiery pit below. Others were seen trying to squeeze through jammed hatches, while yet others were overcome by the thick smoke that clung to the ship like a blanket. The ship had begun listing when, according to Müllenheim-Rechberg, ‘Two powerful explosions rolled over the sea, as torpedoes from the Dorsetshire hit the doomed ship on the starboard side. They were followed by a third explosion on the port side a few minutes later.’ Some of those who had jumped into the sea were knocked unconscious when the waves threw them against the hull, while others simply sank, too wounded or exhausted to swim. Those who made it faced the long ordeal of freezing to death in the Atlantic swell.
The crew of one of Ark Royal’s Swordfish flew over Bismarck as it sank, and they later spoke of seeing hundreds of heads bobbing in the water. One by one the cold or their injuries overtook them, and the heads disappeared. The lucky few made it to the Dorsetshire and Maori, but even then many were too cold, injured or inexperienced to climb the ropes to safety. Others simply gave up at the final hurdle. Then the British warships got underway, while hundreds of heads still bobbed in the water. By then, the King George V was over the horizon, and heading for home.
On board her, Admiral Tovey was framing the words of Bismarck’s epitaph. When finished, it read: ‘The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds, worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying.’ As he wrote it, he must have recalled the day a quarter of a century before, when as a lieutenant commander, and the commander of the destroyer Onslow, he had seen the same scene – the capsizing of the German cruiser Wiesbaden at the Battle of Jutland. That time nobody stopped to rescue the survivors, and by the next morning only one of them was left alive. War at sea could be a heartbreakingly cruel business.