The sinking of the Bismarck, and how a plane based in Fermanagh was key

Historian GORDON LUCY on the events of 80 years ago that led to the loss of the pride of the German navy

Monday, 31st May 2021, 9:00 am
The Bismarck herself was sunk on May 27, 1941 either by damage inflicted by British torpedoes or after she was scuttled by her own crew

The Bismarck, the pride of the German navy, was sunk by the Royal Navy or scuttled by her own crew on May 27 1941.

There was a local dimension to the story. On the morning of May 26 the elusive Bismarck’s oil slick was spotted by a Catalina flying-boat of RAF Coastal Command, based at Castle Archdale, Co Fermanagh. The plane’s pilot reported her position to the Admiralty.

Named after ‘the Iron Chancellor’, who was the architect of 19th-century German unification, and launched by his granddaughter in the presence of Hitler in February 1939, the Bismarck was the pride of the Kriegsmarine. She was one-sixth of a mile long, carried eight 15-inch guns and had 13-inch armour made of specially reinforced Wotan steel on her turrets and sides. Her four gun turrets weighed 1,000 tons each. She had twelve boilers and could sail at 29 knots. She had a crew of 2,065.

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In his much admired book, ‘Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck (1974)’, Ludovic Kennedy, the broadcaster and author, observed: ‘No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.’ In 1941 Kennedy was a young lieutenant in the RNVR and took part in the operation to sink her.

On May 18 1941 the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen, a heavy cruiser, slipped out of Gotenhafen (today the Polish port of Gdynia) to attack Allied Atlantic convoys. On May 20 a Norwegian, who had acquired the intelligence at a cocktail party, informed the British naval attaché in Stockholm that two large German warships had been sighted heading north through the Kattegat (between south-west Sweden and eastern Jutland). From the moment the two ships sailed through the Denmark Strait (between Iceland and Greenland) on May 23 they were shadowed by HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk, two heavy cruisers.

The next day the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were intercepted off Iceland by HMS Hood and the newly-commissioned HMS Prince of Wales. If the Bismarck was the pride of the Kriegsmarine, the Hood was the embodiment of British sea-power in the interwar period. However, the Hood suffered from a fatal weakness, which the loss of three British cruisers at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 ought to have highlighted: her deck armour was insufficiently strong to withstand the vertical trajectory of a shell fired at extreme range. It was this weakness which sealed the Hood’s fate. The Hood and the Prince of Wales exchanged fire with the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen at a range of 13 miles.

A 15-inch shell from the Bismarck crashed into the Hood’s deck. A devastating explosion took place in the Hood’s magazines and split the battlecruiser in two. She disappeared beneath the waves after only three minutes. The last sighting of her was of her bow nearly vertical in the water. Only three men survived out of a crew of over 1,400.

The Bismarck also managed to inflict some fairly serious damage on the Prince of Wales: a 15-inch shell struck the starboard side of the compass platform and killed the majority of the personnel there. The Prince of Wales had to return to Rosyth to be repaired.

However, the Bismarck did not come out of the encounter completely unscathed. One of two 14-inch shells from the Prince of Wales ruptured the Bismarck’s fuel tanks and she started leaking oil. At sunset on May 24 nine Swordfish torpedo planes from HMS Victorious attacked the Bismarck. Accounts differ as to whether they scored a direct hit or not. A senior Luftwaffe officer in Athens, using the Luftwaffe Enigma code, inquired of his son serving aboard the Bismarck where he was heading and received the reply ‘Brest.’

By breaking radio silence in a code which Bletchley had cracked, the Royal Navy should have been able to track the Bismarck fairly accurately but her bearings were incorrectly plotted. However, on the morning of May 26 the Bismarck’s oil slick was spotted by a Catalina flying-boat from 209 Squadron of RAF Coastal Command, based at Castle Archdale. Flying Officer Dennis Briggs reported her position to the Admiralty. Briggs was on a training flight, under the instruction of Ensign Leonard B Smith, a US Navy pilot. Smith’s role is all the more interesting because the United States did not enter the war for another seven months.

Force H (including the aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal, the battlecruiser HMS Renown and the cruiser HMS Sheffield), based at Gibraltar, was dispatched to sink the Bismarck and avenge the Hood. A Swordfish torpedo plane from Ark Royal put the Bismarck’s steering gear out of action, greatly diminishing her chances of reaching the French port without being intercepted by the Royal Navy. On the morning of May 27 HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, in an hour-long engagement, incapacitated the Bismarck, and an hour and a half later it was allegedly sunk by three torpedoes from the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire. However, the Germans claimed that she had been scuttled and this may be indeed the case because in June 1989, after combing an area of some 200 square miles, Dr Robert D Ballard found the Bismarck lying on the seabed some 600 miles west of Brest at a depth of 15,700 feet. Upon close examination of the wreck Dr Ballard concluded, rightly or wrongly, the direct cause of sinking was due to scuttling: sabotage of engine-room valves by her crew, as claimed by the German survivors. All but 110 of the Bismarck’s crew perished.

In his memoirs Admiral Sir John Tovey, the C-in-C of the Home Fleet at the time, observed: ‘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’. The admiral had wished to say this publicly but the Admiralty informed him: ‘For political reasons it is essential that nothing of the nature of the sentiments expressed by you should be given publicity, however much we admire a gallant fight’. Chivalry, for good or ill, does not figure prominently in modern warfare.