Bismarck Excerpt – Part 3

 We continue in our efforts to sink the Bismarck today.  Part 3 of the excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ fascinating historical novel.

HMS Prince of Wales

With its guns malfunctioning and having sustained no small amount of damage, the Prince of Wales, dodging the whirlpool of scrap that had been the Hood, managed to put three substantial hits into the Bismarck before turning away from the battle at 6:13 AM.  Captain Lindemann wanted to pursue it, feeling it was nearly destroyed.  Admiral Lutjens, however, had to make sense of the orders he had received, and make sense of the orders he had to give.  The Bismarck was tilting, and damage control was thus far losing their fight against the water coming in.  The British had six battleships and four aircraft carriers operating in the North Atlantic, and Lutjens now realized that all these ships, along with dozens of smaller vessels, were converging on the Bismarck.  He recognized that his mission had changed.  Convoys were now the least of his concerns.  His only responsibility, perhaps for the rest of his life, was to bring the Bismarck home.  Since this would necessarily involve fighting their way out of an encirclement, neither fuel nor ammunition could be wasted on a crippled vessel, particularly as it might be attempting to lure them into a trap.  The Prince of Wales was allowed to flee to safety.

* * *

In his novel, The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson mentions a joke that actually made the rounds after the First World War.

In 1919, aboard a transport ship of former German prisoners of war, one Fritz suddenly says to a British sailor, “Your King is an ugly, syphilitic idiot.”  The limey makes no response.  Fritz says, “Every man in the Royal Navy is no man at all, but a pansy.  Every one of you is a repugnant flaming homosexual.”  Still, the limey says nothing and does nothing.  Fritz, quite pleased with himself, leans against the rail, clears his throat, and spits into the water.  Instantly, the limey grabs Fritz by the collar and cold cocks him.  In a few minutes, Fritz, supine on the deck, recovers his consciousness.

“Every man is entitled to his opinion,” the limey then explains to him, “but no one will spit in our sea without regretting it.”

* * *

It had been unusually wet and chilly throughout the first three weeks of May, but had finally turned warm, although the rain became even more frequent in the final week.  Still, we felt that if rain were the only thing falling from the sky, it was a good day, so we set out for Marshall & Snelgrove.  It was just a little past nine that we noticed something in the air, perhaps; a feeling that swept around us.  The traces of conversation we overheard were no longer casual, and people were asking, “What?” and “Have you heard?”  Finally, we overheard someone say, quite clearly, “Jerry sunk the Hood with his new dreadnought.”

For a few moments, I was afraid Ellie would lean over and vomit on the street.  I had never seen her so shaken.

Initially, I was surprised that the loss of the Hood stirred so much emotion in London.  Yes, one thousand four hundred and fifteen men had died in a matter of minutes, but this was actually seventy-one fewer deaths than London had experienced in a single night not three weeks earlier.  There was no doubt that the men of the Hood had died courageously in the line of duty, but neither death nor duty nor the cost of one’s devotion to it had seemed particularly remarkable to me.  And although I wouldn’t have called them bloody cowards, hadn’t the crew of the Hood gotten off rather easy, after all?

I soon realized that in addition to sympathy for the sailors’ families, there was a universally held feeling, so profound it was hardly mentioned, that in sinking the Hood, the crew of the Bismarck had, in effect and for all intents and purposes, sworn out and subscribed to their own death warrants.

* * *

Admiral Raeder

At the Berghof that morning, when Adi had received a telephone call from Admiral Raeder, Eva noticed that he betrayed no emotion.  When he had rung off, he simply asked himself, “Why hasn’t he tried to get out of there?  Why hasn’t he turned around?”  She remembered what Adi had said to Admiral Lutjens upon boarding the Bismarck a few weeks earlier–”On land, I am a hero, but at sea, I am a coward.”  She saw now that although he had laughed at the time, he had not really been joking.

* * *

The hole in the port bow was too large to be plugged.  The pumps which should have alleviated the problem were themselves damaged beyond repair.  Hoses connected to other pumps were inadequate.  The crisis could only be resolved by intentionally flooding aft compartments on the starboard side, tipping the ship backwards to raise the hole in front above the waterline until canvas matting could be secured over it to slow the influx of water.

The same shot which had caused that hole had also severed a fuel line, so that 1,000 tons of fuel in the forward storage tank could not be pumped to the boilers.  This, too, was beyond repair, and attempts at an improvised solution failed.

A larger, lower fuel tank had been punctured.  That fuel, contaminated by sea water, would be useless.  Furthermore, the leaking fuel left a slick that was visible at close range in the overcast, and would be readily sighted in full sun, if the overcast cleared, at very great distances, or at any altitude, pointing directly at the Bismarck and revealing its position to any ship that crossed its path, or any aircraft that came within a few miles.

Two of the four boiler rooms had been hit, one flooding so deeply that it had to be abandoned.  The second, still functioning, could not be relied upon indefinitely.

The radar equipment had been damaged, and was now inoperable.  The Bismarck would have no advance notice that another vessel was approaching, unless they were lucky enough to intercept radio transmissions.  However, they were not yet aware that their radio was malfunctioning intermittently.

The German Naval Intelligence reports given to Admiral Lutjens had been dangerously inaccurate at best, and perhaps were nothing more than outright lies.  He now knew that any further intelligence reports he might receive were devoutly to be ignored.

On the morning of May 24th, the Bismarck was already in serious trouble, although with any bit of luck, it could make St. Nazaire, on the West coast of France, where repairs could be made, and the decision to venture back into the Atlantic would not be Admiral Lutjens’ responsibility.  He remembered what Hitler had said to him the day of the inspection, that the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy could not be disregarded, and he vowed that he would never again lightly dismiss any opinion of the Fuehrer.

The crew, emotional youngsters ecstatic with their first success–and that an achievement beyond anything they would have hoped for–had the mistaken impression that they were still under way toward the Atlantic convoy routes.  This misconception was good for their morale, so the Admiral allowed them to linger in it, delaying the necessary course change until almost two o’clock that afternoon.  At 6:00 PM, he ordered the Prinz Eugen, which hadn’t taken any damage, to continue the original mission as well as it could without the assistance of the Bismarck, which turned and fired at the British cruisers shadowing them, allowing the Prinz Eugen to depart unobserved.

* * *

USS New York

At that same moment, the USS New York, one of the two oldest battleships still in use by any navy, was steaming toward the Bismarck.  This was not by coincidence.  Nominally on a training exercise in the North Atlantic, Captain J. G. Ware, in command of the New York, had received written orders requiring him to observe all protocols appropriate to vessels of a neutral country.  Verbally, and in the utmost confidence, he had been instructed to render all possible assistance to the British, and to afford the Bismarck every opportunity to fire on his ship.  The sinking of an American battleship, or the loss of any of its crew, could prompt a formerly reluctant congress to declare war on Germany, perhaps without President Roosevelt requesting it.  At that point, not even Charles Lindbergh could have talked them out of it, nor did it seem likely that he would wish to.

Hitler had given specific instructions that no German vessel was to fire on an American vessel under any circumstances.  He had no desire to undermine the efforts of America First.  Admiral Raeder, however, had made it clear to all officers of the Kriegsmarine that American nonsense was not to be tolerated.

Although neither Adolf Hitler nor the United States Congress would acknowledge it, the two nations had been at war since April 9th, 1941[1], when President Roosevelt authorized the occupation of Greenland by United States forces, in order to preclude the installation of U-boat bases and the construction of airfields in what was, with the surrender of Denmark a year earlier, German territory.  Viewed in retrospect, it seems unlikely, but had Germany retaliated, Roosevelt might have faced impeachment for involving the United States in a war without the consent of Congress.  He considered it a risk worth taking.  Operating from Greenland, the Nazis could have struck at New York City.

Officially, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Modoc was patrolling the coast of Greenland to enforce the neutrality unilaterally imposed by the United States, and would leave the coast to search for survivors of merchant ships attacked by U-boats.  At 6:37 PM on May 24th, the ship’s log noted that a squadron of Swordfish biplanes circled overhead before flying toward a “large unidentified man-of-war.”  Crewmen on the Modoc saw the leading aircraft flash a recognition signal, and saw their own signal operator flash a message back to the British flyers.  Surreptitiously, the Modoc had been shadowing the Bismarck.

* * *

Approximately one half hour after the Prinz Eugen had left them, the men of the Bismarck saw aircraft approaching in the narrow layer of sky between the sea and the heavy clouds just above it.  Except for the torpedoes each of them carried, these aircraft appeared comical[2].  They moved so slowly that one wondered how they stayed aloft.  In contrast to a Messerschmitt, they seemed not to move at all.  Still more astonishing was the fact that the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft gunners were unable to hit these laughable anachronisms[3] which hung in the air like baubles suspended over an infant’s crib.

A crewman of the Bismarck later said that he believed it was the last torpedo launched which struck the ship, and it appeared to him that the ship had actually steered into that torpedo’s path while dodging another.  The ship itself was not damaged by the torpedo, although one crew member was killed and five others injured.  The zig-zagging undertaken to avoid the torpedos, however, had loosened the material covering the hole in the port bow, and ruptured the previously damaged bulkhead of a boiler room, so that it, too, flooded, and had to be abandoned.

Assisted by a ridiculously small American ship, a squadron of equally ridiculous aircraft flown by men on their first combat mission had utterly failed.  And yet the Bismarck was now seriously crippled.  Still, Admiral Lutjens felt that he could bring the ship safely to St. Nazaire, if there were no worse run of luck awaiting them.

For the sake of morale, he said nothing about the number of British ships he was sure must now be seeking the Bismarck; not even to Captain Lindemann.  The Captain, also for the sake of morale, told the crew that five of the attacking aircraft had been shot down.  No one questioned this.  Not even the anti-aircraft gunners, who had seen for themselves that not a single plane had been hit.

The crew of the Bismarck was young and naive.  A more experienced crew, such as that on a U-boat, would have known that so much bullshit portended no good for them.


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[1] Two days later, the USS Niblack released depth charges against a sonar contact which they believed to be a U-boat.  The Niblack was en route to pick up the 63 crewmen of a Dutch freighter which had been sunk a few hours earlier by U-52.

[2] Although the Swordfish  torpedo plane looked nothing like a doghouse, it is the sort of aircraft one would imagine Snoopy flying in pursuit of the Red Baron.

[3] Other than divine intervention, three explanations have been put forward to account for this odd fact.  One argument contends that the Bismarck’s AA guns were automated to track moving aircraft, and that this automation caused them to fire ahead of the slow-moving Swordfish.  Another argument is that they flew below the lowest angle the guns could reach.  The third possibility is that the Bismarck’s zig-zagging made the gunners’ task impossible. 




    1. You would!

      Yes, I think Stacy nailed which parts to leave in, and which to ignore. That dialogue is a winner!


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