Bismarck Excerpt – Part 4

So, will we finally sink the Bismarck today?  Read on to find out, in another exciting episode of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ amazing historical novel.

Frederic Wake Walker

Whether Admiral Lutjens’ report had been decrypted[1] or Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker (above), now in command of the British task force, simply guessed that Lutjens hoped to reach St. Nazaire, the Suffolk, Norfolk, and Prince of Wales remained to port and slightly astern of the Bismarck, zig-zigging as they followed.  Shortly after three AM on the 26th, Admiral Lutjens ordered an increase in speed, and brought the Bismarck around in a clockwise circle, placing it almost directly into the path of three ships diverted from convoy escort to assist in hunting it down.  This would not be the only assistance Lutjens would inadvertently render to his enemies.

The Norfolk, Suffolk and Prince of Wales spread out to search for the Bismarck, assuming it had turned southwest, away from the coast of France, but it was now behind its pursuers, and moving further away, having effectively given them the slip.  However, Lutjens failed to realize that his trick had actually worked.  Precisely why is unclear, but bearing in mind that the ship’s radar detection apparatus had previously malfunctioned, one can assume that it was either giving false readings, or wasn’t working at all.  At 7 AM, Lutjens radioed to report that he had failed to escape the Task Force dogging him.  Confused by this message, Naval High Command evaluated the British radio traffic intercepted that morning, and concluded that he was mistaken.  At 8:46 AM, they radioed to inform him of this.  Twenty minutes later, Admiral Lutjens radioed a full report to Naval High Command.  That he should do this makes no sense at all, unless one recalls that the Bismarck had previously experienced radio malfunctions, or unless one remembers that by this time, Lutjens knew that he had been lied to more than once.  He either had not received that transmission, or did not believe it.

Whatever his reasons for sending his rather lengthy report at that moment, it disabused the British–for the most part–of their earlier misapprehensions.  It was obvious to everyone but Churchill, in England, and Admiral Tovey, on board the King George V, that Lutjens was still heading for St. Nazaire, and the ships which had spread out to search for the Bismarck now began to converge on an area to the southwest of Ireland, intending to intercept the Bismarck by the 27th, hopefully before it came within range of Luftwaffe bases in France.

At noon, Admiral Lutjens addressed the crew, first commending them for having destroyed the Hood, then reminding them that the enemy was now seeking revenge.  He either told them or led them to believe that he had received orders to proceed to a French port[2], and concluded with the admonition that they faced either “victory or death!”  This was perhaps an ill-advised remark, but it was an accurate paraphrase of the orders he had received.  Since battle could not be avoided, it was to be conclusive, regardless of the outcome.  Throughout the afternoon and evening, morale deteriorated as the crew’s youthful optimism gave way to a sullen, almost childish, gloom.  Although it was neither the Battleship Potemkin nor an Otto Dix painting, there was a growing realization of ultimate despair.


* * *


On Monday morning (the 26th), the foul weather, which had been of considerable help to the Bismarck up to that point, became a detriment by remaining foul.  At 1025, the Bismarck was informed that support from the Luftwaffe would be delayed until meteorological conditions improved.  At 1030, an American reconnaissance aircraft[3] sighted them.  By noon, a carrier aircraft was following them, just beyond range of their anti-aircraft guns.  Shortly after six PM, a cruiser, HMS Sheffield–which had survived a misguided torpedo attack[4] conducted by aircraft from the Ark Royal that afternoon–began shadowing them.  An hour later, Lutjens radioed–perhaps pointlessly–that the Bismarck’s fuel situation was urgent.

Shortly after 8:30 PM, fifteen Swordfish torpedo planes flew over and beyond the Bismarck, then returned a few minutes later, having at first been misdirected by the Sheffield.  Reports of how many torpedos struck the Bismarck and where they struck vary from one account to another, but all accounts agree that in addition to a variety of damage throughout the vessel, at least one torpedo struck and disabled the rudder.  Subsequent efforts to repair, remove, or disconnect[5] the rudder all failed.  After completing several circles, the Bismarck helplessly settled into a northwesterly course, and Admiral Lutjens slowed to 6 knots, just speed enough to prevent the ship bobbing like a shingle in the rough, stormy waters.


* * *


Admiral Tovey had hoped to attack the Bismarck at dawn, and set his Task Force on a course which would put them west of the Bismarck at sunrise.  During the night, the Bismarck, still tossed by the wind and waves, moved erratically, and fired on any ship that approached.  Tovey decided it would be more prudent to approach directly from the North.  This would allow them only a few hours of engagement before they would have to withdraw to refuel.


* * *


At the Berghof, shortly after three in the morning, Eva heard Major von Below answer the phone.  He listened for a moment, then repeated something slowly as he wrote it down.

“We will fight…  to the last…  believing in you, my…  Fuehrer and with…  unshakeable–yes, got it.  The Fuehrer’s reply?  One moment.”

She heard him set the phone down and wait, as if he were leaving the room to speak with Adi.  After a minute or so, he picked it up again.

“To Admiral Lutjens, I thank you in the name of the entire German nationality.”  He waited briefly.  “To the crew, all of Germany is with you…  what can still be done will be done…  your performance of duty will…  strengthen our nationality in its struggle…”

Eva fell asleep before the call was concluded.  It was not until morning, when she woke, that she grasped the implications of what the Major had said.


* * *


At 3:51 AM, Admiral Raeder radioed confirmation that Hitler had agreed to award The Knight’s Cross to Commander Schneider[6], in recognition for his part in the sinking of HMS Hood, as Admiral Lutjens had requested.  At dawn, High Command radioed to the Admiral that fifty-one bombers sent to assist the Bismarck had taken off between 5:20 and 6:45 that morning.  He doubted they would be of much help in the face of the fifty mile per hour winds surrounding the ship, but asked Captain Lindemann to inform the crew that eighty-one bombers were on their way.  Whether he misspoke, or exaggerated in the interest of morale, is not clear, but the crew was happy to hear of it.  They were under the impression that the Luftwaffe would destroy the British ships approaching, and somehow bring the Bismarck safely into a French port.  Admiral Lutjens was under no such illusion.  Neither was Captain Lindemann.  No longer cheerfully chain-smoking, he had already put on a life jacket and was simply waiting for his ship to be shot out from under his ass.


* * *

Roosevelt Broadcast

On the morning of the 27th, The London Times reported that President Roosevelt’s speech to the Pan-American Union, to be broadcast from the East Room of The White House, would be undergoing substantial last-minute revisions due to “rapidly changing conditions abroad.”  At the moment that report was filed, Roosevelt didn’t know if he would be informing the nation that the USS New York had been sunk, or fired upon, or if Congress might be on the verge of declaring war because it had.

As it happened, none of these dramatic eventualities unfolded.  Even so, in his speech of May 27th, the President announced an unlimited national emergency.  This was the next logical progression in his series of speeches preparing the United States for entry into a war most Americans still did not wish to be involved in at all, let alone to the extent that they already were involved in it.

Without mentioning the Bismarck by name, Roosevelt referred to the Axis Powers’ “desperate attempts to break through to the command of the ocean.”  And without mentioning Charles Lindbergh by name, or America First, he referred to “a small group of sincere, patriotic men and women whose real passion for peace has shut their eyes to the ugly realities of international banditry and to the need to resist it at all costs.”[7]


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[1] German codes used during the war were machine cyphers, all of which could be decrypted by Bletchley Park.  However, the encrypting machines on a ship were much larger than those on an airplane, and so Kriegsmarine messages used a more complex encryption pattern, requiring a greater length of time to be spent decoding them.  Consequently, German naval transmissions were only decrypted when there were no concurrent Luftwaffe transmissions from which the naval message could be inferred.  This has led to a widespread and erroneous belief that the German Naval Code had not been broken.

[2] Lutjens had received no such orders.

[3] Also nominally on a training mission.

[4] The magnetic detonators had failed.  Consequently, contact detonators were used  in the later attack on the Bismarck.

[5] Had the rudder been blown off, the Bismarck could have turned by reversing the spin of one propeller.

[6] Raeder was lying.  He didn’t expect Schneider or Lutjens to be alive by the time the Fuehrer woke, but guessed that he would approve giving the medal posthumously.

[7] Roosevelt’s statements should not be construed as hyperbole.  He was not ignorant of what was already being done to Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.  Furthermore, he had been fully advised of Germany’s atomic research program, and had every reason to believe that Hitler would have atomic weapons by 1950, or perhaps as early as 1945.

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