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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.
Below; Signalling to Bismarck from Prinz Eugen, May 1941.
Found at KBismarck.com, a superb site detailing much about the ship’s crew.
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.
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.
Survivors from Bismarck being picked up by HMS Dorsetshire.
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.
Below is a record of evidence given by my dad at the Inquiry into the sinking of the Hood.
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?
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.
*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.