Bismarck & Tirpitz

The History

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The Final Battle

27 May 1941 / 0808
King George V makes contact with Norfolk located 14 miles dead ahead. Norfolk signalled: ‘Enemy 130°, 16 miles.’

27 May 1941 / 0833
King George V and Rodney change course to 110°, speed 19 knots. Reports state that the wind from the northwest is force 8 (34-40 knots), seas high.

27 May 1941 / 0843
A lookout on King George V spotted Bismarck at a distance of 25,150 yards (23,000 m): ‘Enemy in sight.’ Bismarck was heading towards them. The two British battleships were sighted in line-abreast at a range of 24,000 yards (21,450 m).

27 May 1941 / 0847
Rodney’s two forward 16” (40.6 cm) turrets opened fire, joined shortly after by the main guns of King George V. The distance was 21,870 yards (20,000 m).

27 May 1941 / 0848
Shells fall in front of the Bismarck causing vast columns of water to be thrown into the air.

27 May 1941 / 0849
Bismarck opened fire with her 15” (38 cm) forward main turrets. Lütjens ordered that fire be concentrated first against Rodney and then King George V, but the battleship’s after turrets could not be brought to bear on the targets. Lindemann could turn his ship northward towards the enemy only by engaging his port engine. The adversaries were closing at a combined speed of 25 knots and range quickly fell to 20,000 yards (18,288 m). One shell from Bismarck’s second salvo landed a mere 60’ from the bridge of HMS Rodney showering the decks with seawater.

At first, Rodney’s 16” (40.6 cm) guns caused extensive damage to itself. The concussion of the powerful guns prompted water pipes to burst, cast-iron fittings and beams to crack and tile decking to shatter. Hundreds of water leaks sprang up, bolts and rivets popped loose, furniture overturned, lockers and wires were torn loose, light bulbs and ceramic toilets were smashed, and urinals were blown off bulkheads.

The guns on King George V suffered from the same issues that plagued Prince of Wales on the morning of 24 May. At one point, A turret ceased firing for 30 minutes due to a mechanical malfunction – all four guns in the turret were therefore out of action. Y turret was out of action for several minutes. In addition, individual guns were inoperative when a shell rammer failed, flash doors jammed or a shell hoist seized up. Parts fractured and others were found to be missing altogether. Breech mechanisms jammed and a cordite bag failed to explode, putting its gun out of action for half an hour.

27 May 1941 / 0854
Norfolk opened fire from ten miles with her 8” (20.3 cm) guns. King George V turned south and Rodney approached Bismarck due east at right angles, closing the range even further as she hammered away. Rodney then turned to starboard, swinging south before heading eastwards, crossing the Bismarck’s track and coming up alongside the German battleship’s starboard beam, firing continuously.

27 May 1941 / 0858
Rodney’s secondary battery joined the action and Tovey ordered King George V to move in closer.

Unable to manoeuvre, Bismarck offered an easy target. Lindemann could neither steer a course or evade hostile fire. Schneider and Albrecht fired as best they could with the battleship’s main and secondary armament, hoping to score a lucky hit. Shells were landing all around the Bismarck causing fountains of water to rise as high as Schneider’s post in the foretop and showering the ship with splinters.

27 May 1941 / 0902
A 16” (40.6 cm) shell from Rodney slammed into Bismarck’s upper deck forward. Sheets of fire engulfed her superstructure and hundreds of men died at their battlestations. Round after round slammed into the Bismarck, mostly amidships. White smoke rose from her funnel. The officers’ quarters were engulfed by flames. According to Bismarck survivors, Rodney’s lethal salvo most likely killed Admiral Günther Lütjens and Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann.

27 May 1941 / 0904
Dorsetshire approached from southwest and opened fire.

27 May 1941 / 0908
Bismarck’s forward rangefinder and turrets A and B were out of action. Fire control was shifted to the after command post. It was from here that four salvos against King George V were directed.

27 May 1941 / 0913
Bismarck’s aft director was destroyed by a 14” (35.6 cm) shell from HMS King George V. Therefore, C and D turrets proceeded under local control to fire at Rodney. At the same time, Rodney fired six torpedoes against Bismarck with no hits.

27 May 1941 / 0921
D turret on the Bismarck was out of action when a shell exploded inside the right barrel.

27 May 1941 / 0927
Bismarck’s A and B turrets fired their final salvo.

27 May 1941 / 0931
Bismarck’s C turret fired its last salvo. The doomed battleship’s main guns were out of action. A number of secondary guns were still in action, but not for long. The Bismarck had lost her fighting capability.

Rodney closed in on the German battleship. From distances between 2,730 yards (2,500 m) and 4,370 yards (4,000 m), she continued to fire at the Bismarck with all nine 16” (40.6 cm) guns.

27 May 1941 / 0956
Rodney launched two torpedoes from 2,950 yards (2,700 m) with one possible hit on Bismarck’s port side. This was the first time in naval history that a battleship had torpedoed another battleship. As shell after shell plunged into the Bismarck’s battered superstructure and a great pall of black smoke rose from her flaming decks, British seamen watched as the mighty ship they had feared and hunted for six days was blown apart. Shells blasted the superstructure, anti-aircraft and secondary guns, antennas, masts, boats, floats and deck fittings. They knew that men like them were dying horrible, painful deaths inside the flaming, smoking hulk, but Lütjens’s flag still flew, as did the naval insignia with the swastika. The battle would continue as long as her colours flew from their mast.


Photo: Rodney (to the right) after her 180° turn to keep clear of King George V's field of fire. Bismarck is to the left of the photograph. Photo: One of the last photographs of the Bismarck, taken from the Dorsetshire.

27 May 1941 / 1000
The Bismarck was a floating wreck with decks and superstructure destroyed, fires raging throughout the ship and hundreds of casualties scattered throughout. According to survivors, the horror of seeing wounded and dying friends and comrades amongst mutilated body parts could not be described with words. Rodney had fired 380 16” (40.6 cm) shells and 716 6” (15.2 cm) shells at her. King George V fired 339 rounds of 14” (35.6 cm) and 660 rounds of 5.5” (14 cm) ammunition. Norfolk and Sheffield had pumped 780 rounds of 8” (20.3 cm) shells at her. Shortly after 1000, Norfolk launched four torpedoes from around 3,940 yards (3,600 m), one possibly hitting the starboard side.

Bismarck’s first officer, Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels, made his way to Section XIII on the battery deck where he ordered his sailors to take care of themselves. ‘Comrades, we can no longer fire our guns and anyway we have no more ammunition. Our hour has come. We must abandon ship. She will be scuttled. All hands to the upper deck.’

In the engine room, Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Junack assumed command. He ordered all bulkhead doors to the shaft alleys opened and nine minute fuses set for the scuttling charges. ‘Prepare ship for scuttling!’ Junack then ordered his men up to the main deck.

Then came the order: ‘Abandon ship! Ship is to be sunk!’ Elsewhere, survivors also recalled hearing, ‘Clear ship for scuttling. Apply explosive charges.’ Those who heard the abandon ship order gathered in small groups, hurled lifeboats off the upper deck into the ocean and then jumped off the quarterdeck.

27 May 1941 / 1015
Twelve Swordfish from Ark Royal arrived on the scene to attack the Bismarck. They had departed the aircraft carrier at 0920, but due to heavy fire from the British warships, they were unable to approach and observed Bismarck’s battering from a distance. Anti-aircraft gunners on King George V mistook them as German aircraft and opened fire, but fortunately no planes were hit.

27 May 1941 / 1016
Rodney ceased fire. From just two miles (3.2 km) away, Tovey watched the Bismarck in her death throes. At point blank range, his ships had turned the German warship into a bloody slaughterhouse. Still, the metal hulk refused to sink beneath the waves. Tovey had stayed on the scene many hours longer than he originally intended and now had to leave for home to refuel. Dorsetshire closed in and fired two torpedoes against the Bismarck’s starboard side from a distance of 3,280 yards (3,000 m). Both hit but no significant effects were observed.

27 May 1941 / 1020
On the Bismarck, men who survived the fusillade began to make their way off the ship. Awaiting them was the oil-covered waters of the North Atlantic, the final refuge for Bismarck’s crew. As survivors leapt overboard, some were thrown against the ship’s side and perished. Others hit the water only to be killed when hitting the bilge keel or a jagged torpedo blister that was lurking beneath the surface. Scuttling charges had been set and Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels made his way through the ship instructing those he found to jump over the side. Watertight doors, seacocks and flooding valves were opened as Bismarck was prepared for scuttling. In Section XIII of the battery deck, Oels discovered around 300 men surging toward the ladders. He screamed at them to maintain order, but a huge explosion ripped through the crowd killing many including Oels.

27 May 1941 / 1036
Dorsetshire circled the Bismarck and launched a third torpedo from a distance of 2,400 yards (2,200 m) hitting the port side.

27 May 1941 / 1039
Colours still flying, Bismarck took a heavy list to port. The port secondary guns were almost submerged. At 1039, Bismarck capsized to port and sank in position 48º 10' north, 16º 12' west taking Günther Lütjens, Ernst Lindemann and hundreds more down with her.

A number of Bismarck’s crew managed to abandon ship before she sank. Many were injured, badly burned and all were covered with fuel oil. The lucky ones were exposed to the bitter 55°F (13°C) water until Dorsetshire reached them an hour later. Her skipper ordered that ropes be lowered off the ship’s sides, but most survivors were too weak or could not climb the oil-soaked ropes. Captain Martin eventually lowered rope ladders as well. Maori also began rescue operations. At 1140, Martin ordered Dorsetshire to make way, leaving hundreds of men in the water. A lookout had reported sighting a periscope and Martin could not risk a torpedo attack against his ship. The British knew, through radio decrypts, that U-boats had been dispatched to the area. U-74 was in the area, but she was most likely too far away to make a successful attack. What was seen in the water remains a mystery and might have been debris from Bismarck. In all, Dorsetshire recovered 86 men. Maschinengefreiter Gerhard Lüttich, was rescued, but died from his wounds the day after. Maori collected 25 survivors.

When the British had left the scene, Kapitänleutnant Kentrat in U-74 and Leutnant zur See Wilhelm Schütte of the weather ship Sachsenwald went through the field of debris where Bismarck had sunk. Sometime between 1930 and 2020, U-74 discovered three men in a rubber dinghy. They were Matrosengefreiter Georg Herzog, Matrosengefreiter Herbert Manthey and Matrosengefreiter Otto Höntzsch. The rescue was dangerous and time consuming and the sudden appearance of a hostile aircraft forced U-74 to break off the search.

Around noon on 28 May, U-74, having resurfaced in quadrant BE 6152, crossed paths with the Sachsenwald. Both continued to search the debris-littered sea sighting many corpses. At 2230, Sachsenwald came upon a rubber raft with two occupants. These were Matrosengefreiter Otto Maus and Maschinengefreiter Walter Lorenzen, the last two men rescued. Out of a complement of more than 2,200 officers and men, only 115 crewmembers from the Bismarck survived.

Survivors were brought to the United Kingdom as prisoners of war. Some were selected for further interrogation. In 1942, they were transferred to Canadian POW camps where they remained until 1946. They were then released, shipped to the United Kingdom and repatriated to their homes in Germany.

Photo: The huge Normandy dry dock at the French port of St Nazaire (which had been built for the great French liner Normandie) which Bismarck headed for, after the battle of the Denmark Strait. But the Bismarck failed in her attempt to reach St. Nazaire.

© John Asmussen, 2000 - 2014. All rights reserved.