It is the 80th anniversary of the Bismarck Action this May and, despite the passing of the decades, the myth of an invincible German battleship holding off the British who cannot sink her remains in some quarters. The sinking of the Bismarck was not down to statistics.
Dubbed ‘the world’s most powerful battleship’ when commissioned, the persistent claim is that Royal Navy guns and torpedoes found Bismarck too tough on 27 May 1941. It was supposedly only when the German sailors abandoned ship, detonating scuttling charges as they departed, that she succumbed.
Such a perspective overlooks the brutal reality that within a short time Bismarck was a floating charnel house. Shell holes in Bismarck’s hull and torpedo hits below the waterline had done the job, she was letting in lots of water – the scuttling charges were merely an accelerant and, thank God, ended the horror story.
When it comes to the human beings who made Bismarck an effective fighting vessel and who suffered so much, I have come across suggestions of a quite extraordinary proposition likely to rile fans of the ‘invincible Bismarck’ myth (some of whom seem to favour a bloodless battle of the statistics perspective on naval warfare).
Namely, some of Bismarck’s men attempted to surrender at the height of the battle, which, for me is no surprise but only in my own work has its ever been published.
In reality the final battle was decidedly one-sided with the British pummeling and ripping the Bismarck to pieces, so the carnage was extreme. With two British battleships and a pair of heavy cruisers hurling hundreds of shells, some of them the size of a small car and weighing a ton, at a helpless vessel it was bound to be a brutal, bloody business.
Paradoxically, many of survivors from Bismarck were the least well placed to convey the sheer scale of the horror taking place at the height of the battle. They were closed up in such well protected parts of the ship that some of them – those in the engine rooms, for example – only realized how terrible it was when they made their way up through the decks to abandon ship.
For a clearer perspective you must turn to people in the ships doing the killing, and especially in the battleship Rodney.
In the archives of the HMS Rodney Association I found an account by Lt Donald Campbell, that battleship’s air defence officer, who spotted a potential surrender plea from his action station perched on top of the ship’s huge control tower.
The son of Tommy Byers, a rating in Rodney’s main gunnery control position – just below Campbell’s position – also kindly sent me transcripts and sound recordings of his father discussing what he believed were attempts by some of Bismarck’s men to surrender.
The signs someone aboard Bismarck was trying to communicate with Rodney in the heat of the action included a man sending a message via semaphore, mysterious light signals and a black flag raised that possibly indicated a desire to ‘parley’.
In a crew of more than a thousand in Rodney not many were in actions stations with clear a view of the enemy. Campbell and Byers were and had also high-powered optics, so could see with shocking clarity what was happening. Rodney was very close anyway – point-blank in battleship combat terms.
Whoever aboard Bismarck was using semaphore was soon killed amid the maelstrom. The mast flashing the light signal was decapitated and dropped over the side, while the Bismarck’s colours flew throughout the battle and were not struck. And so, who would gamble on a mysterious black flag flying from a halyard?
If someone was trying to capitulate was it even possible for the British to take Bismarck’s surrender? No. Some sailors may have been trying to surrender in the for’ard part of the ship, but their shipmates elsewhere continued to fire on the British.
Was it an attempt to surrender on authorization of the Bismarck’s surviving officers, or just an initiative by some sailors who understandably wanted the killing to cease? Nobody will ever know for sure. At the Battle of Tsushima exactly 36 years earlier Russian battleships did surrender to a Japanese fleet but offered no resistance, struck their colours by order of the commanding admiral and displayed the white flag. They also ran up the enemy flag above their own national flag.
With the Luftwaffe expected to send hundreds of bombers over the horizon at any moment, U-boats lurking in the area, and with the Royal Navy’s ships running out of fuel – never mind the technical difficulty of putting a boarding party and tow across – to have attempted to take the surrender (if it could be proved genuine) would have been a reckless act.
The battleships Rodney and King George V were two very important capital ships and could not be risked in such a tricky venture without endangering Britain’s security. The British didn’t have that many modern battleships and the Royal Navy was in late May 1941 taking a hammering in the Mediterranean during the Battle of Crete. Bismarck’s sister battleship, Tirpitz, was expected to set sail from the Baltic soon while there were other German high seas raiders lurking in Brest, waiting to come out and savage Allied merchant shipping.
After the guns ceased firing on both sides it was a different matter. The brotherhood of the sea saw the hand of mercy extended to those German survivors that made it into the water, though due to a U-boat scare only 110 were saved by the British ships.
As for those who had tried to surrender while shipmates elsewhere in the ship fought on, their desperate attempts to escape Hell show the final battle between the Royal Navy and the sinking of the Bismarck was no ‘battle of the stats’. It was a desperate struggle in which fathers, sons and brothers paid the price for the Nazi regime’s folly of using armed force against its neighbours.
Iain Ballantyne is a journalist, editor, and author who has written several military history books, including those on the Second World War and the Cold War. Most recently, his Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom has been re-released with new material in time for the 80th Anniversary of the sinking of the Bismarck. It is available in both eBook and Paperback.