70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Denmark Strait and sinking the Bismarck

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Battle of the Denmark Strait and sinking the Bismarck

Above; The Atlantic Star. Medal awarded to my Father for his service in the Royal Navy during WWII. He was operating the forward 4 inch (AA) guns on HMS Norfolk during the events described below which took place in May 1941.

The Norfolk was the only ship present at the sinking of both HMS Hood and the Bismarck.

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Below; Signalling to Bismarck from Prinz Eugen, May 1941.
Found at KBismarck.com, a superb site detailing much about the ship’s crew.

bis

The battleship Bismarck was Germany’s biggest threat to shipping in the North Atlantic. If the Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic, the shipping of goods and oil from North America to Britain could have ceased.

Spys in Norway reported that the Bismarck had set sail on her maiden operational voyage along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen under the command of Admiral Lütjens. The two ships sailed through the Denmark Strait, which is nowhere near Denmark but between Iceland and Greenland.

Here they were spotted by two Royal Navy heavy cruisers, HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk which had been on the lookout for the Bismarck. The Norfolk was the first ship ever to be fired upon by the Bismarck’s 15 inch guns. Outgunned, they made smoke and tailed the German ships, waiting for the firepower of HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales to arrive.

Below; HMS Hood – not sinking but obscured by the heavy seas of the North Atlantic. Colourised photo taken in 1941 by the father of Flickr member Bill9651. Bill notes the photo was taken from HMS Elizabeth, which places this in the Atlantic between the Faroe Islands and the Orkneys, sometime between 19th and 23rd March 1941.

The Cruel Sea

At ten to six on the morning of Saturday 24 May 1941, battlecruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the British Fleet, opened fire on Bismarck and Prinz Eugen from a range of 12.5 miles. As the 4 capital ships exchanged salvoes, Norfolk and Suffolk raced to the scene to join the battle. At 0600 however, a one ton shell from Bismarck struck HMS Hood, exploding in the armament magazine beneath. A jet of fire soared skyward as an explosion tore the ship in two.

It is impossible to imagine the panic and terror of those still alive as the stern and the bow lifted up and out of the water, before sinking after just 3 minutes, taking 1,415 souls to Davy Jones’ Locker. Only three men survived.

20 minutes after the Hood opened fire the battle was over and Bismarck escaped. She and the Prince of Wales were damaged, and Bismarck steamed towards Occupied France for repairs.

The blow to morale caused by the loss of Hood was enormous. My Dad described the numbness he felt as being similar to that of personal grief. This quickly gave way to anger. The Royal Navy wanted revenge for the Hood and Churchill had ordered; “The Bismarck must be sunk at all costs”.

Contact with the Bismarck was lost on May 25 but the day after an RAF Coastal Command Catalina spotted the Bismarck 300 miles west of France. The Fleet moved in. Swordfish bi-planes with torpedoes slung beneath attacked Bismarck from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. One torpedo damaged Bismarck’s rudder, forcing her to steer in a circle and towards the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V.

Once Admiral Lütjens realised the Bismarck could not be steered, he signalled to Berlin;
“Ship unmanoeuvrable. We fight to our last shell. Long live the Führer”

The morning of May 27th 1941 saw battleships Rodney and King George V open fire from a range of 21 miles. Shells from Rodney’s 16 inch guns screamed down as the disabled German battleship fired back. 300-400 shells struck the Bismarck but she would not sink.

When they could get an angle, my father and his mates fired their 4 inch guns on Bismarck, though he said these were anti-aircraft guns and were pretty much useless against the battleship. But they fired them anyway. The Fleet simply threw everything it had at Bismarck.

After 45 minutes’ battle, Bismarck was motionless in the water, a floating wreck with all guns silenced. The Fleet had mostly used up their fuel and had to head for home. HMS Norfolk, Dorsetshire and Maori remained. Dorsetshire fired torpedoes into both sides of Bismarck’s hull and she finally went down 3 miles to the seabed as HMS Norfolk sailed away.

Of the 2,200 German crew, only 116 survived. They were mostly picked up by Dorsetshire and Maori but a report of U-Boat activity in the area caused Dorsetshire to break off and many were left to drown in the Atlantic.

Below;
Survivors from Bismarck being picked up by HMS Dorsetshire.

dorset

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Below is a record of evidence given by my dad at the Inquiry into the sinking of the Hood.
source

The witness was cautioned in accordance with K.R. chapter II.


396. Where were you at the time of the action?

I was at P.1 port side of the 4″ gun deck.

397. Were you using glasses?

No, sir.

398. Tell us in detail what you saw of the Hood?

The Bismarck was firing and as far as I could make out there was a lot of flashes coming from the Hood, but I do not know whether these flashes were gunfire of whether she had been hit, but eventually a fire broke out somewhere amidships towards the after part somewhere about the after funnel and after that it only lasted a few seconds and there was a big flash and a lot of smoke and then there was nothing.

399. What was the colour of the fire and the shape of it?

It was dark red, (Witness indicated No. 6 on Exhibit 2.) and semicircular in shape.

400. Did the explosion seem to come from the middle of the fire?

It was all spread out.

401. Did the flash come from the same place as the fire?

I should think so.

402. Did you see any fall of shot round Hood?

I was very far away and could not see.

403. You told us at the start that you saw some flashes but you could not tell if they were shells bursting, did you see any of those flashes after the fire and before she blew up?

No, the explosion was immediately after the fire flared up and seemed to die down a little and then the explosion came immediately after.

Very clear and no inventions.

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Notes;

*In 1941, my Father, an Able Seaman was paid 6s and 3d, plus a 3d a day (Gunnery rating), which would be worth £9.34 in today’s money. In addition he received a daily grog issue made up of an eighth of a pint of very strong rum and two parts water.

*The debate goes on, did Bismarck sink or was she scuttled? Expeditions to the wrecks have proved inconclusive. Unless and until there is clear evidence to the contrary, I’ll stick with what my Dad saw, which was Dorsetshire firing torpedoes at Bismarck followed by the Bismarck sinking.

*According to wikipedia, the pilot of the Swordfish whose torpedo sealed Bismarck’s died 11 December 2016. John Moffat had “celebrated his 90th birthday in June 2009 by performing aerobatics in a light aircraft.”

*I am grateful for the advice kindly given by Mr Stephen Courtney of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

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43 comments on “70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Denmark Strait and sinking the Bismarck
  1. P.A.B. says:

    Nicely shot (love the background), and great detail in your description as always! Nice work Ian.

  2. rob of rochdale says:

    Cracking composition on this Ian!

  3. pasujoba says:

    Superb , top drawer work Ian . The lead photo is both thoughtful and beautifully presented .
    The following accounts and photographs are extremely well researched . They read very easily and are packed full of facts . An excellent piece of work .

  4. nondesigner59 says:

    Great tribute.Well composed..

  5. Reflective Kiwi %-) says:

    Beautiful photo of the Atlantic Star… and a wonderful series of photos. I love that old one of the guy waving from the shore too. Fantastic shot! Yet again you have done so well with bringing us such a wonderful and interesting story… Even the more so in that it is about your Dad this time! My Dad had the Pacific Star Medal amongst his. I love the way you have composed the shot, with the lovely rich blue background. I’ve not got the time to read all the info just now as i’m off to work shortly… But I’ll be back!!! %-)

  6. Ian D B says:

    Thanks guys, much appreciated.

    I don’t expect most people will read all this, there’s an awful lot to get through!

    Recorded it here as my little tribute to the men of both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/32955908@N04]
    Interesting about the Pacific Star, Cindy. The RNZN saw some severe action.

  7. pasujoba says:

    PS
    The Hood was WW1 technology , and the Battle of Jutland proved that Royal Naval ship design was wrong then but they kept faith with the Hood only for history to repeat itself.
    The weakest part of the ship was the most exposed in a long range big gunfight .
    The Admiralty was still following Nelsons ethos of cannot do wrong by drawing close and engaging with the enemy, unfortunately close range broadsides required heavy plate side armour and for this they sacrificed the heavy deckplates.
    That little stringbag that stopped the mighty Bismark in its tracks was ,of course, a sign of things to come and the harbinger of the demise of capital ships.

  8. pasujoba says:

    You can tell a lot of effort has gone in here Ian . it really is a good read . Have read it twice already and will probaly read it again 🙂

  9. P_H_I_L_L says:

    Wow. Very nicely done shot, lovely detail and lighting and a well written article to boot.

  10. unfairytale208 says:

    After The Hood’s re-fit between the wars, most of her secondary armament ended-up down my way, Kent, and used at coastal artillery gun sites. Here’s one at Pegwell Bay. Being inspected by Churchill.
    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/unfairytale/4414589695/]

  11. Mustang Koji says:

    Ian, your authorship is exceptional. One cannot help himself from reading it. Your father’s medal – now a family treasure – is perhaps but a bit of cloth and metal to some, but to others, its the world’s biggest honorarium to a man – paid with blood and sacrifice.

    May he rest in peace.

  12. Nate Parker Photography says:

    wow, your Dad was right in it! that always makes me shiver to consider. my grandfather served in the american coast guard in the north africa campaign and then the pacific, we never really got his stories on tape, to much regret. i think it would be a great mission for you to photograph the pilot whom you mentioned who is still alive, that would be priceless!

  13. SolarScot. says:

    i have sat enthralled reading all this Ian,its a story that our children should be taught because for sure they wont know it and these brave souls should be remembered.good work and nice to see your Dads medal

  14. Tech Owl says:

    Such a treasure trove of information!! Great images Ian together with an encyclopedic write up

  15. mick cooke says:

    great story Ian, some of these young ones want to read this and see what sacrifices where made by these brave people might wake em up , great research

  16. gastephen says:

    Fascinating!

    ~ Graham ~
    Drop by my photostream!

  17. amyrey says:

    Absolutely fascinating and hugely important history and series of images.

  18. Ian D B says:

    My Dad would be very happy at the response.

    It never occurred to me when he was alive that he was one of the few people on the planet (being on the deck of the Norfolk) to see both Hood and Bismarck go down.

    Many thanks for your views, thoughts, suggestions, comments, faves, additional info and pictures!

  19. P_H_I_L_L says:

    Wondered if you contact the Imperial War Museum North Ian? Last year their features exhibition was the war on sea. I’m sure they would have shown some interest. Stories like this, and all your usual air crash sites should be more widely known; especially to children. There is a generation of children that think WWII only happened on xbox. They don’t teach it in schools like they used to, I know from asking my own children.

  20. C J Paul (chris) says:

    ian this is a brilliant portflio of history of your dad and the hms hood along with the bismarck.
    I would like to thank you and people like you who keep the memory alive just as i will never forget what my grandad and many a brave men and women did for us all.
    you know i love all your work Ian. so for your dad thanks mate….chris.

  21. Lo Scorpione says:

    Read the entire course of events on the sinking of both the Hood and the Bismarck anout a year ago. Impressive story, but the added accounts of your dad’s presence at both sinkings make this even more stunning! Thanks for sharing all of this Ian!

  22. andyholmfirth says:

    Lovely photo Ian and what an account ! Incredible what your Dad was involved in and witnessed.

  23. Pleasureprinciple2012 says:

    Excellent, excellent excellent!
    I have sat and read through this at my work and then read it again. Great narrative and instantly takes me back to the films and documentaries that hve been made on this particular action.
    I’m glad you went ahead and did it, the replies to the story must make it all worth while for you, even better that your father could tell it to you and for you to appreciate what he was talking to you about at the time. Well impressed.

  24. Richard Tierney says:

    Unable to add much to what said above Ian, other than repeat what has been said about a superb bit of reaserch and compilation of the facts gleaned from many sources, they all come together beautifully. I bet you had some great times talking to your Dad whilst he was alive about his war service. He was one of thousands who took part and saw history in the making…

    I read a book recently about he Swordfish crews who attacked Bismark… they were true heroes as well.

    Excellent Ian.. as always:-)

  25. Hotpix [LRPS] Hanx for 1.5M Views says:

    Very cool, cracking job Ian.

    Seen in my contacts photostream……

    Tone
    Hotpix http://www.hotpix.org.uk

    Billy & Suzy

    Walk a year in my shoes, see whats up my street or see my world in selective Colour.

  26. Mark McKie says:

    My mother inlaws uncle went down with the Hood.

  27. Billy Currie says:

    as always, fantastic info and great to see the medal

  28. het broertje van.. says:

    This is brilliant Ian……………such superb colors in your first picture man…………fasinating story and comments too here man!!

    Janwillem

  29. Ian D B says:

    Many thanks again everyone.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/25464991@N04]
    Uncle of a friend at work also went down with the Hood. One of those events that hurt a lot of families in one hit.

  30. Mike J Chapman says:

    A very nicely composed image which does justice to the subject.

  31. Anonymous says:

    love the blues 🙂

  32. Anonymous says:

    love the blues 🙂

  33. Mustang Koji says:

    Ian, today it is Memorial Day here in America and I just wished to say I had warm thoughts of your father today…

  34. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/p47koji/]
    Thanks Koji, very thoughtful of you.

  35. CORDAN says:

    Really like how you framed this Ian. This is a real tribute to the men who did what they had to do to fight for freedom. What an honor to see and read this. Thanks for sharing. I never tire of hearing of these men and really respect your Dad for his service. Thanks for sharing this.

  36. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/20025881@N00]
    Thanks Dan.

  37. Evergreen2005 says:

    The Bismarck seems to have embarked on an essentially suicidal mission, against impossible odds. She was a superb ship, beautifully engineered, but sadly the tool of a bad regime.

  38. Reflective Kiwi %-) says:

    Great presentation Ian and so lovely to revisit these again! %-)

  39. bazylek100 says:

    I feel pity towards Lütjens. What a ridiculous thing to to go down in history pages with your last words "Long live the Führer" 😉

    Very interesting narrative, Ian, and your Father’s eye-witness account is striking as well: such horrifying tragedy in such brief report – because indeed it happened so quickly that there was nothing more to say.
    It sounds almost unbelievable that only 3 of 1418 men survived, having other warships of their Task Force in close vicinity.

  40. Ian D B says:

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/evergreen2005] Belated thanks Roy, I am only a year late! Yes it seems that her fate was to be attacked with everything the RN had. If Lütjens had decided to head south into the Atlantic after destroying Hood, then Bismarck would have been into the convoy routes and would have raised hell.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/32955908@N04] Thank you Cindy. I know you have similar respect and admiration for your Dad.

    [http://www.flickr.com/photos/bazylek] Hi Robin, I think it hit them very hard, rather like the loss of the Titanic, it was inconceivable that Hood could be destroyed and, as you say, to go down so quickly.

    Re; my Dad’s account, I never mentioned it here but the inquiry report praised him for giving clear evidence with no fabrication.

    But 3 men only surviving…. There was an interview with Ted Briggs, one of the 3 survivors in which he said that just as he was trying to get off the bridge, an officer stepped aside at the door and gestured for Briggs to step through ahead of him, an action which saved Briggs’ life and cost the officer his….

    Re; Admiral Lütjens, yes good point. I am sure he meant it though.

  41. Steve Cansfield says:

    This was the shot that inspired me to post this, not sure you had seen it!

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/53745098@N04/9862507763/in/photolist-g2vVXi-drKHGJ-dqZfny

    Keep up the good work!

    • Ian D B says:

      Hi Steve, I hadn’t seen it. But it’s good to see it now, and to see you! Thank you very much, that’s a great compliment.

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