Sea Stories

The Last of the Leviathans

It is generally recognised that the German Battleship Bismarck was one of the most formidable battleships ever built.  There was simply nothing to match the Bismarck.  Despite the passage of 75-years the remarkable warship and her sister ship Tirpitz still commands awe and respect.

There were only two battleships in their class in 1940. The Tirpitz and Bismarck at 49,500 tonnes, 815 feet in length and with a beam of 18 feet were the largest battleships made by any European shipyard. On board the Bismarck were 1,962 ratings and 103 Kriegsmarine officers.  Crew members read the ship’s newspaper Die Schiffsglocke (The Ship’s Bell).

These two formidable leviathans must have appeared impressive to anyone viewing them. The Bismarck was named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.  The Iron Chancellor during the 19th Century had been pivotal in the push for German unification. 

Due to the warships’ speed and unnerving armament, nothing then or since matched the Bismarck and the Tirpitz.  Three Blohm and Voss turbines gave each ship a speed of up to 34mph.  When next using your car at that speed imagine a 50,000-ton battleship travelling at the same rate of speed.  This will give you an idea of the threat to allied shipping that these two ships presented.  

In August 1940, two months after the German armies routed the British and French armies in France; the Bismarck was ready to fulfil its purpose.  This was to destroy Allied shipping then plying the seas on Britain’s essential north Atlantic supply route.  If Britain’s lifeline with North America, to which Britain was already heavily indebted, could be cut, England would be forced to end their war against Germany. The German defensive program would soon be aided by the class addition to the fleet of similar battleships. 

Bismarck’s first engagement was in the Denmark Straits. The leviathan was confronted by the Royal Navy’s battlecruiser HMS Hood and HMS battleship, Prince of Wales.  Despite being faced down by two formidable challengers what followed was very much an unequal contest.  The HMS Hood was sent to the bottom of the sea taking 1,416 seamen with her.   The heavily mauled HMS Prince of Wales retreated.  The Bismarck had suffered only three superficial hits one of which caused an oil leak.

Britain and the most powerful naval armada in history threw all they had into the pursuit and destruction of the monster of the high seas. Dozens of British warships were sent in pursuit of the Bismarck. These included six battleships and cruisers, two aircraft carriers, thirteen cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers. This impressive armada was in hot pursuit of just one battleship, such was the threat the Reich naval behemoth presented.

The North Atlantic was the main route used by Roosevelt’s United States to guarantee the continued existence of Bolshevik Russia. The Murmansk convoys lost 101 ships and 3,000 British sailors.  Britain and the United States supplied the Bolsheviks with 14,795 aircraft, 7,056 tanks, 51,503 Jeeps, 435,457 military vehicles, 8,218 field artillery, 1,981 locomotives, 11,155 freight cars, also used to transport millions of Russians and other unfortunates to Stalin’s Gulag.

131,633 machine guns, 105 submarine hunters, 90 Cargo Ships, 7,784 ships engines, 197 torpedo boats, 4,478,000 tons of food, $1,078,965,000 Machines and Equipment. 802 tons Ferrous Metals, 2,670,000 tons Petroleum Products, 49,000 tons Leather, 3,786,000 tyres. 

The German battleships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau under repair at the French port of Brest would soon join the Bismarck and Tirpitz.  The effect the three formidable battleships with the support of the cruiser would have on allied shipping would be devastating. Much hinged on victory. Peace terms would be agreed, to include the German armed forces withdrawal to its pre-1939 border. 

The German battleship Bismarck then on course for France was discovered in the Atlantic. During the pursuit several Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers soared above the decks of their Royal Navy mother ship HMS Ark Royal.  They were soon to get lucky or so they thought for lucky also were British sailors on HMS Norfolk. The inexperienced Swordfish aviators at first mistook their warship for the Bismarck.  At the last moment, seeing their hostile intentions, they were dissuaded from carrying out their intended attack.

The Fairey Swordfish naval aircraft eventually found the correct target.  One of the aircraft’s airborne torpedo strikes damaged the Bismarck’s ship’s steering gear. There are very few vulnerable areas of warships.  Unfortunately for the Reich, the steering gear is difficult to protect and the strikes had the effect of crippling the German battleship.  

At reduced speed the German battleship continued its course for Brest.  For a while, the battleship successfully eluded its pursuers as they desperately searched for their adversary.  All contact was lost but the following day a Catalina aircraft from 209 Squadron spotted the Bismarck. Bismarck’s fate was sealed.  From HMS Ark Royal fifteen Swordfish were immediately launched.

Admiral Somerville then ordered a second strike to be carried out from HMS Ark Royal. At the time the weather conditions in the North Atlantic were appalling. The Royal Navy pilots were identified as RN flying officer Lieutenant-Commander Jim Coode, who led Sub-Lieutenant Ken Pattison and Sub-Lieutenant Joey Beal. 

On encountering their adversary the pilots launched their torpedoes, one of which was to strike the Bismarck’s port boiler room.  Jim Coode’s ‘tin fish’ air-launched torpedo struck the battleship’s rudder.  This had the effect of leaving the giant battleship circling helplessly in the notorious Bay of Biscay. A Royal Navy pilot, who was later to be killed on a training flight in North Africa, thus sealed Bismarck’s fate.

As dawn broke on May 27 1941 HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire closed in on their prey.  Positioning themselves the Royal Navy warships began to fire salvoes into the stricken German marauder.  

For three hours the Royal Navy pounded broadside after broadside into the crippled battleship. In just 90 minutes an incredible 2,876 heavy calibre shells were fired at the helpless battleship. 

German ratings, Adolf Eich, Heinz Jucknat and Franz Halke who survived later described the lower decks as absolute carnage. Fires raged everywhere as magazines repeatedly exploded. Circling the wounded Bismarck, HMS Rodney then released two torpedoes into the Bismarck’s hull yet the warship remained afloat.  

At 10.15 am the British Commander-in-Chief ordered the German battleship to be torpedoed again. HMS Dorsetshire against released a salvo of torpedoes, which sped into both starboard and port hulls of the Bismarck’s now burning shell.

The battle now was very much an uneven one with one crippled battleship being at the mercy of the Royal Navy wolf pack. The burning and disabled Bismarck was now a sitting duck.  

Kriegsmarine Fleet Commander Lutjens and Captain Otto Ernst Lindemann were by now almost certainly dead.  Leaderless, Hans Oels, the Bismarck’s First Officer took command of the stricken German warship and ordered her to be scuttled.

Whether this order was given and carried out has since been a matter of considerable dispute.  In a scene straight from hell many hundreds of German seamen found themselves tossed helplessly by the seas. 

Swimming vainly in their attempts to remain afloat the distressed sailors floundered and many drowned. High above them were the heaving grey superstructures of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori. 

The ships scrambling nets were cascading down their sides in compliance with the law of the sea.  As with much else, climbing up such scrambling nets, even in calm waters, is beyond the strength of all but the fittest men.  For the exhausted still in heavy winter uniforms, some wounded, the scrambling nets would be no use whatsoever.

Eager hands reached out to offer assistance.  Few of the stricken men were able to make it as far as the warships’ sea swept decks.  Of a crew of 2,221 men only 110 of the Bismarck’s crew were picked from the waters. 

These fortunate sailors were saved by HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori. At 10.40 am the great battleship rolled silently on her side.  She then began her descent to the bottom of the seas, her war flag still saluting the grey skies of the North-West Atlantic.  The great battleship was to settle into the silt at the foot of the North Atlantic’s only undersea volcano after slithering down one of the undersea mountain’s precipices.

On both sides of this tragic sea conflict there were singular acts of great heroism.  Notably, a young 17-year old British sailor, Midshipman Brookes, courageously climbed over his warship’s heaving side. Descending by scrambling nets to the heaving waterline he manfully attempted to rescue a young German sailor.   The Kriegsmarine marine, whose name will never be known, had lost both his arms.  He was desperately trying to hold on to the rope with his teeth. 

Sadly, by this time approaching naval activity had it was claimed been spotted.  The rescuing warships were ordered underway.  The young British midshipman, who had attempted to save the life of the young German sailor, was placed under arrest.  He was charged with an act of defiance for refusing to give up his rescue attempt and was threatened with execution.

Several of the German sailors were to later die aboard the HMS Dorsetshire and were committed to the sea with full military honours.  Each was sent to their watery grave as a bugler played the last post. 

As these poignant ceremonies took place both German and British sailors stood solemnly to attention.  The German survivors were given permission to salute their fallen comrades with the oldest salute in the history of mankind. Their raised arms and open hands hold an ancient noble symbolism.  ‘I do not carry a weapon; I wish only peace with you.’

In the background of the rain-swept warships’ decks could be heard the mournful laments of a borrowed harmonica playing the fallen German serviceman’s lament:   Ich hatt einen kamaraden.   As each sailor’s body was committed to the waves both German and British sailors openly wept.

Of the two controversies surrounding the sinking of the Bismarck, one has been resolved.  The German side always held that the Bismarck was never sunk but was scuttled to prevent it falling into the hands of the Royal Navy.  Subsequent investigation has found in favour of the German account. The great German battleship was not sunk by the British but scuttled by its own officers.  With all but one gun destroyed it was imperative that the British should never learn of its unsinkable structure.  

British ships subsequently built to its design would almost certainly lead to the deaths of thousands of German sailors.  The great sub-marine explorer Commander Ballard, who has since discovered the wreck of the Bismarck, confirmed that Bismarck had been scuttled. The remaining great controversy centres on the Royal Navy’s abandonment of nearly 2,000 distressed German sailors. 

In defiance of international law and the laws of the sea these unfortunates were left to their fate.  This abandonment has never been properly explained, and nor has there been shown evidence of a threat in the area at the time.  One therefore can only question the deliberate smokescreen. 

One cannot however question the pathos of the scene that the retreating ships left in their wake. One British sailor described how, as the rescuing ships turned stern on; there was the most tragic wailing of despair from the multitude of men left floundering in the water.  

May God look after the souls? The Captain of the Bismarck was posthumously awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross  (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes) is an honour that recognises extreme bravery and selflessness, individual acts of heroism on the battlefield or outstanding military leadership.  The medal was presented to the captain’s widow, Hildegard, on January 6, 1942.

Footnote: Spanish Leader General Francisco Franco, on hearing of the tragedy, immediately despatched the Spanish cruiser Canarias to the scene. By the time the warship reached the scene of the disaster, the Spanish warship was to find the seas barren of survivors.

Related books: THE ALL LIES INVASION, WITNESS TO HISTORYTESTIGO DE LA HISTORIA: HISTORIA SIN CENSURA (SPANISH EDITION),  FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAKMEGACAUST, THE RED BRIGANDSRANSACKING THE REICH, and DEATH OF A CITY

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MICHAEL WALSH is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of RISE OF THE SUN WHEELEUROPE ARISE TROTSKY’S WHITE NEGROESMEGACAUST,  DEATH OF A CITYWITNESS TO HISTORY, THE BUSINESS BOOSTERTHE FIFTH COLUMN VOLUME I and IIFOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAKIMMORTAL BELOVEDTHE ALL LIES INVASIONINSPIRE A NATION Volume IINSPIRE A NATION Volume II , SLAUGHTER OF A DYNASTY , REICH AND WRONG,  THE RED BRIGANDSRANSACKING THE REICH ,    SCULPTURES OF THE THIRD RIECH: ARNO BREKER AND REICH SCULPTORS  SCULPTURES OF THE THIRD RIECH:  JOSEF THORAK AND REICH SCULPTORS ,   The Exiled Duke Romanov Who Turned Desert Into Paradise , THE DOVETAILS , SEX FEST AT TIFFANY’S  and other book titles. These illustrated best-selling books are essential for the libraries of informed readers.

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MICHAEL WALSH is an Irish British-born journalist. His 64 books include best-selling historical books  THE ALL LIES INVASION, WITNESS TO HISTORYTESTIGO DE LA HISTORIA: HISTORIA SIN CENSURA (SPANISH EDITION),  REICH AND WRONG,  HEROES HANG WHEN TRAITORS TRIUMPH , HEROES OF THE REICH,  THE FUHRER’S PROCLAMATION TO THE GERMAN PEOPLE ,  FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAKMEGACAUST, THE RED BRIGANDSRANSACKING THE REICH,  and  DEATH OF A CITY

MICHAEL WALSH is a journalist, author, and broadcaster. His 64 books include best-selling RHODESIA’S DEATH EUROPE’S FUNERAL, AFRICA’S KILLING FIELDS,  THE LAST GLADIATORS, A Leopard in Liverpool, RISE OF THE SUN WHEELEUROPE ARISE, FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAK, THE ALL LIES INVASIONINSPIRE A NATION Volume IINSPIRE A NATION Volume II, and many other book titles. These illustrated best-selling books are essential for the libraries of informed readers.

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