The Sinking of the Bismarck: An Eye-Witness Report

[This is the original headnote printed with the article: George Whalley writes about his experience at the sinking of the Bismarck: "I was twenty-five, a sub-lieutenant serving with the Royal Navy; it was less than a year since I had joined the service. My point of view was therefore not that of anybody taking a controlling part in the action, but my letter stands as a private record of the sensation of actual warfare."]

It wasn't much like farm boys hunting rats in a barn with pitchforks. The German battleship Bismarck, at about 42,500 tons, with a main armament of eight fifteen-inch guns, was the most powerful battleship in the world when she completed working up in the Baltic in March, 1941. On 18 May she sailed from Gdynia with the new eight-inch gun cruiser Prinz Eugen in company and refueled in Korsfjord just south of Bergen: it was clear than that she intended to break through the British blockage into the Atlantic. The commander in chief, home fleet, Sir John Tovey, had already made cruiser dispositions to cover the variants on that probability; he now sailed the battle cruiser Hood and battleship Prince of Wales and waited for final developments. On the evening of 21 May, air reconnaissance found the anchorage at Korsfjord empty, and at 10:45 that night the main British fleet sailed from Scapa Flow - King George V, five cruisers, and five destroyers.

This prompt action was soon rewarded. At 7:22 on the evening of 23 May, the patrolling cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk sighted the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen passing through the Denmark Straits. The cruisers, shadowing with great skill in extremely difficult conditions, delivered Bismarck for destruction into the hands of Hood and Prince of Wales in the early morning of 24 May. But Hood did not survive the accurate savagery of Bismarck's shooting, and Prince of Wales, damaged, was obliged to break off the engagement. Bismarck continued to the south, and the shadowing continued to the south, and the shadowing continued with the object of delivering her to C.I.C.'s fleet. And so, steaming farther to the south on other matters, the battleship Rodney was drawn into the pursuit and finally into the kill.

The Rodney was long overdue for a refit; she had sailed from the Clyde for Boston at one P.M. on 22 May, escorting the liner Britannic and escorted by four tribal destroyers of the 6th Flotilla - Somali, Tartar, Mashona, and Eskimo. According to more than one printed account of the Bismarck action, Tartar was not in at the end and could not have seen what happened. But we were and did. In evidence: this letter written on 11 June, 1941, by myself as a twenty-five-year-old sublieutenant of the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve, appointed ten weeks earlier to Tartar additional and for training as a watchkeeping officer.

In wartime, Prime Ministers and Presidents can perhaps allow themselves the luxury of large public indiscretions; junior people, though less likely to possess crucial information, were enjoined to a strict secrecy, were forbidden to keep diaries or to write in letters any factual detail of places, times, events, units, ships, targets. No doubt the enemy thereby were kept in ignorance of much that would neither have profited them nor amused them; surely it has deprived us altogether of many vivid and strange records that otherwise would have been set down.

In 1941, when all things were desperate, most of us, impressed by the importunity if not the example of our seniors, were for the most part silent, not sure that a piece of writing would be worth another man's life. But every now and then an event would occur so notorious that even the enemy said he knew about it or politically so praiseworthy that reticence would have been superhuman, and some more or less accurate information was made public. Then journalists would come on board and drink our gin with an engaging enough grace. I hope we weren't discourteous, but I don't think we ever welcomed them in the manner customary to wardrooms. We would answer their questions, but with a clumsy and suspicious evasiveness, perhaps not because they were journalists but because they were outsiders and because they had not taken part in the experience and so could, not be expected to understand it. As a result, their accounts, with the best will in the world, were often unfocused and awry; the central facts were often right enough, but not the color and tone.

Yet, as long as the papers published some information - names of some ships, losses, positions, times - these could harmlessly be repeated to provide a not entirely ghost matrix within which a personal account could take shape. The impulse was neither to record not to express but to release into the hard crystals of words the mordant and impacted sense of horror and awe and beauty, to make the human token of a few gale-tormented sea-weary days and nights and the terrible spectacle of a major naval gun action.


When the first word of the sighting of Bismarck [by Suffolk] came through, we were already at sea with Rodney. Already it had been a disgusting trip as regards weather. We were rolling through a great angle and pitching as well. After the second day we did not bother to stand up the wardroom chairs unless we wanted to sit in them.

The news of the sighting of Bismarck came not long before we were due to turn back. [At noon, 24 May, Eskimo was detached with Britannic and our] speed was at once increased to Rodney's maximum, which, although not a great increase, made the discomfort even greater. At that time, with the fleet dispositions as they were, it seemed most unlikely that we should be any more than also-ran. We plugged on.

It seemed to me always to be night. I was only standing night watches [on the bridge]; for the rest of the time on cypher watch in the W/T office. There it was like watching a gigantic chess game with the whole North Atlantic as board and each unit with the freedom of movement of a queen but without her devastating disregard for distance. The problem resolved itself into the question whether the shadowing cruisers could keep contact until dawn on Sunday morning [25 May]. Already the Fleet Air Arm [actually Coastal Command], Prince of Wales, and Hood had had a crack at Bismarck. The enemy was damaged and her speed slightly reduced. Hood had suddenly disappeared. [The signal sent out at six A.M. on the twenty-fourth simply said, "Hood has blown up."] It still does not seem possible that such a big ship, with beauty and speed in her lines, should suddenly have gone, that our ship's company taking their ease on deck will no more eye her satisfaction and delight. A new grimness and determination entered the pursuit. If before it had been important to engage Bismarck, it was now a necessity. It was up to the cruisers, who so far had survived great danger in shadowing her through the diabolical visibility of the Greenland Sea.

I had the first watch on the Saturday night in the W/T office, also the middle. We thought we were going into action the next day. The seas were mountainous, so that we rolled down with a slow wounded motion, once or twice to fifty degrees in the morning watch, and on the bridge it felt as if she would never come back. Unpleasant weather for high-speed maneuvering for torpedo attack.

The sighting signals [from the cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk] came through rapidly, checked, improved again. Our spirits rose and fell according to the contents of those signals. The dawn would be early; only two or three more hours of successful shadowing by the cruisers, and Bismarck would be trapped and brought to action. At 3:06 A.M., 25 May, the cruisers lost contact and failed to regain it. We hoped to find her in the first light, but as the day wore on and no report came, a lethargy of disappointment spread through the ship. The storm had been easing. There was little to cheer the men on mess decks flooded with water and rearing like a horse with an unpredictable motion. There was time for sleep for some, and sleep brought fresh hope.

I have lost track of the days. It seems, in looking back, like one long twilit day punctuated by meals that would scarcely stay on the table long enough to be eaten. There was an added anxiety, in that we had already steamed a good distance: if the action did not materialize soon, we should have to turn for home, ignominiously. The chase was now eastward, the right direction for us. It was at this time that one of the petty officers remarked how lucky we were to get the port anchor secured the first night out. It had walked back on its slip and was banging badly. There had been a period of five minutes while altering course [as soon as we left harbor] when the forecastle was fairly dry. A party rushed forward and secured the anchor. It was very wet; at any other time up till the time of battle no man could have even attempted to reach the anchor.

Then the sighting reports came in again [at 10:30 A.M. 26 May]. The correct estimation had been made of the enemy's movements; he was actually on the suggested track our captain had drawn the night contact was lost. We started again to think in terms of hours of darkness. All disappointment was forgotten now. The net was closing rapidly. The Fleet Air Arm [aircraft for the carrier Ark Royal] were attacking; their torpedoes slowed her down. There was no escape for Bismarck. But it was an anxious afternoon while we waited for the air reports.

[Since early afternoon, King George V had been approaching us on a converging course; we joined her at six P.M. Somali, late in the afternoon, had to return to harbor to fuel. Tartar and Mashona, though very short of fuel, were given permission to remain as the only escort to the two battleships, King George V and Rodney.]

The dusk came, and the darkness. We went to action stations in a ship moving wildly through a heavy sea. The mess decks were wet and slippery. The various crews and supply parties stood to their stations, deriving what comfort they could from wet duffle coats. It was in the early dark of that night that the other tribals [of the 4th Flotilla, from Gibraltar under Captain Viaw] delivered their torpedo attacks under heavy fire. Bismarck was hit, slowed down, stopped once. [From nine P.M. on she was steering erratic and illogical courses - north northeast, northeast, north - away from her harbor at Brest.] We were closing her rapidly, and the dawn would see the action.

In the first light we maneuvered for position. The course took us to the westward. Our fuel problem was acute. [Shortly before sunrise and] before Bismarck was sighted, we left the battleships and shaped away, our hearts in our boots. [The commander in chief, since midnight, had been steering north northeast to north and working around to the westward to get Bismarck against the eastern sky at dawn. The destroyers could not possibly any longer steam away from harbor.] To have come so far, the only destroyers to engage in the hunt from start to finish, and then to have to turn back within an hour or less of the battle...The battleships were only six or seven miles astern when we saw them turn toward us again. We met and spoke a cruiser [Norfolk] who gave us a sighting report: In a rain squall to the southward was Bismarck, about ten miles away.

All this I saw from the bridge. The others were below in the wardroom (all who were not on watch), most of them asleep in the chairs, although it was not ten minutes since they had come below. I ran below to give them the news, came on deck at once just as Rodney opened fire. The rain squall had cleared. When I reached the bridge, Bismarck's upper works could be seen against the sky; also the flash of her guns and the white columns of water growing near her.

With insignificant gun range we lay off near the cruiser [Norfolk], maneuvering with her to keep the battle in sight [and serve as flank markers]. If we could do nothing at the moment, we might be able to torpedo her when her heavy guns were out of action or pick up survivors. It is impossible to imagine our sense of detachment, watching a battle between capital ships as one watches a tennis match or a film. There was now a bright sun in a sky only partly filled with white cumulus. The wind, still fresh, made a great play of blue and green on the water, stippling it, marbling it, whipping the tops from the short high seas, sending a lacelike drive of spray fingering its way over forecastle, guns and bridge.

Against this dazzle of color and light the whole pageant, itself brightly colored, moved. For it seemed a pageant, majestic, wild, but surely not involving thousands of lives it looked too clean for such a grim purpose, the daylight too clear. Against the sky we saw the enemy, now in full view, her almost-white, massive upper works, her long forecastle plunging, water flipping and creaming each time she lifted her head. By contrast, our ships, a darker blue-gray, their funnels white with salt from the heavy weather, the battle ensigns startlingly conspicuous. [Bismarck was sighted at 8:43; Rodney opened fire at 8:47; King George V immediately after; and Bismarck at 8:50.]

We watched the vivid orange-red flame shoot from the guns, saw the clouds of yellow smoke disperse in the wind, heard the silky sounds of the shells occasionally down the wind. The shell splashed mounted up, white, monstrously high, hung, and slowly drifted away like a clinging mist. Bismarck's gunnery was at first good, but although she already straddled Rodney, Rodney was closing her rapidly, and the enemy could not hold the range. King George V (being father from us) we could not see clearly, but the flash of her guns was always on or near the horizon. Rodney soon had the range and was hitting hard. A dull red glow showed for an instant where a shell had hit. Soon Bismarck could no longer manage controlled firing and, judging from the spasmodic shooting, went into local control. She was engaging both Rodney and K.G.V. and using her secondary armament for smaller fry.

How long the firing had been going on, one could not say. After she had gone into local control she fought on, but not with persistent fierceness or accuracy. The silences between her salvos became longer. There was a heavy hit aft. A light smoke trailed out astern. She was hit again aft. There was a great sheet of flame, after which the whole ship abaft the bridge was hidden in a cloud of black smoke. At times she turned directly toward us, and when she brought her beam to us again the smoke cleared for a moment, so that we could see that her afterpart now had a far different silhouette than earlier.

Fire had apparently broken out forward. A line of flame ran along her fo'c'sle and disappeared, but shortly afterwards, two forward magazines went up with a burst of flame that seemed to move quite slowly as high as the bridge. First one magazine went, then the other immediately afterwards. By then her guns had almost ceased. Only her secondary armament was firing, and now that stopped. She appeared no longer to be making way through the water. Her long fo'c'sle rose and fell heavily in the seas, but little white water was breaking over her. If she was moving at all, it was only very slowly. Her foremost turrets were awry and derelict. No detailed damage could be seen - except that she looked different. Her upper works looked unusually massive when first we sighted her; now she looked a very large ship, although she was half enveloped in the smoke of her own burning. All the time more ships were opening fire. The splashes of the sixteen-inch guns were about twice Bismarck's height.

With that sort of detachment, we watched through our glasses, calling the fall of shot as an announcer calls the strokes of a cricket match. But all the time there was running through my mind a vivid picture of the people in that ship. It made the sunlight and color unearthly and nightmarish. I could see men, dazed with lack of sleep, rolling out of their hammocks, running along the decks to action stations; or had the gray dawn and the early rain found them, as it had us, sleepless and cold at their guns and ammunition hoists? For days they had been driven and harried by ships and aircraft. The respite of thirty hours would give him little peace of mind or confidence. An afternoon of aerial torpedoing, and then, when the darkness came, it brought with it, throughout the night, the wolfish attacked by destroyed that brought her speed down, smashed her rudder, and for a time made her unmanageable.

After what her men had come through, these intermittent attacks must have left them with raw nerves. But they did their best to beat off each attack. If they were lucky, they did not know how close we were to her that night, that we were only waiting for the light, that there was no possible escape. When they saw Rodney and King George V that morning, they must have known; that was soon enough. I don't know what men think or do or look like when they know what those men knew. But I fancy they opened fire as one sees our chaps in action. They look the same men, they do their jobs automatically, they curse fluently and joke and laugh in the lulls, and two of a supply party will be talking quietly to each other. But these men would be tired, and shortly they would be dazed and numb with the concussion. What that ship was like inside after an hour and a half of shelling does not bear thinking of: her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when they are hurt. It was a great relief that we were not sent in to torpedo, a dirty job.

We stood by for half an hour or so after our ships had ceased firing. The cruisers and destroyers were closing her when we turned away and shaped for home. The black cloud of smoke grew indistinct and disappeared beyond the horizon. The sea had moderated, but it was bad weather for picking up survivors. We did not see the end. It was 10:30 when we turned away [and started for home independently, at economical speed of 15 knots: it seemed unlikely that our fuel would last to get us around the north of Ireland]. Shortly after 11:00 we heard that it was all over. [Bismarck sank at 10:36, after being torpedoed by a cruiser.] Those who could, slept - anywhere; for myself, under a table in the wardroom beside the radio, and was not wakened until three P.M. for the first Dog.

Looking back over those twenty-four hours, I remember coming down to the wardroom flat, at about 3:00 on the morning of the battle, to fetch something from my cabin. The supply party were asleep there, waiting for a call. It was almost impossible to walk through them without treading on someone. They were all in duffle coats, sleeping, as only a sailor can, in any attitude, wherever he happens to be. There was a complete silence, a sense of no soul about; only the sound of the ship in a seaway, the creaking sounds, the wash, the drumming of the screws. There was no light except that coming through the slats of the pantry door. It fell across the still shapes in bars and moved across the duffle coats and outflung arms as the light swung to the ship's motion. It was strangely still and beautiful and ominous.

When I turned in at one A.M. the night after the action, it was said that the weather was moderating. I am no authority, being busy at the time with sleep. But scarcely, it seemed, had I rolled into my bunk than I found myself pulling on my sea boots and reaching for my cap. There was a sound of urgent ringing. It slowly dawned on me that it was [the alarm gongs for an] aircraft attack. As I dodged forward against the gun crews who were running aft, I noticed that the sea was still considerable, that the wind still gave us a list to starboard, and that there were four aircraft in sight.

We were soon no strangers to the rising whistle of bombs and the crunching gurgle of their entry into the water. The close ones made a pronounced ping against the ship's side. You will have heard how Mashona was lost and how a providential lull in the bombing made it possible to pick up most of her people. It was sad that it should be the ship with whom we were especially friendly, from the mess decks up; yet we also felt that, if it had to happen, we should prefer that we were there rather than any other ship.
In an air raid on land, one feels that the attack is objective and of diffused purpose. Air attack on a ship is very different. There is an unpleasant strain of personal malice in it. You know that the enemy is trying to get you and nobody else. They attacked methodically and with determination. Our fire kept them high, but even so, there must have been someone looking after us. The captain's avoiding action saved us on several occasions. The nearest stick, about fifteen to twenty yards off our stern, failed to explode.

So the day went on. When the planes were overhead, we were busy; and when there was a lull, I wandered aft to yarn with the gunner on the torpedo tubes. We had aboard then nearly 150 survivors crowded onto the mess decks, dressed in the most extraordinary clothes imaginable, or blankets only [and the wardroom and sick bay full of sounded]. It seemed that if there were any justice, the bombs would not get us with our precious cargo. But each cry of "Aircraft port quarter" became more like cold air on an exposed nerve and made the survivors thoughtful. At about ten in the evening we managed to get some food - since dinner the night before, two cups of tea. We were still drowsing over the finished meal when the last alarm sounded at 11:30 P.M. The enemy's bombs fell wide, and one of our aircraft drove him away.

I stayed up for what was left of the night and from the bridge saw the dawn come cold and gray over the land. How solid and comfortable the land looked - and how unconcerned. Everybody asleep ashore; and if they had been awake, they could never have guessed what incoherent prayers of thanksgiving had risen that day from a salt-weathered little ship with proud lines. Nor could they have guessed how others were waking to find no comfort in the dawn, hoping that they would wake again from a dream within a dream. There were many who never came aboard Tartar, and there were others who did who never reached the land. Late in the afternoon, after a rain squall had been hiding the ship for half an hour, tired men shambled aft in blankets and borrowed clothes. They passed me at the torpedo tubes; a long line of men who walked in silence and did not look up.


I think the horrors that normally confront an infantry man in action must be very terrible and take perhaps a long time to live down. A ship heavily hit in action is not pretty, certainly; neither are her people, particularly if you see them in the sea, where shock and the cold quickly reduce them to infantile helplessness. But, for the most part, naval fighting is relatively clean; killing - if one must - at a distance. But the bodies of drowned men, whether killed outright and with intent by an enemy, or by some futile error of judgment like breaking one's neck with a life jacket, or at length after a very long struggle with cold and the darkness, or caught in a squall in a mishandled sailing boat, whether crusted with burst oil scum in the bitter Atlantic water or lolling idle as seaweed under a Mediterranean sun; the bodies of the drowned men eventually lie face down in the sea, humped up in a posture of uniform and poignant ungainliness, suggesting no image of life. Of Hood's ninety officers and more than twelve hundred men, there were three men only who survived; over a hundred of Bismarck's people lived, but her complement was near two thousand, and many men had to be left in the water when the U-boat warnings came.

The engineer officer of Tartar got his brass hat soon after the Bismarck action, and his ship was torpedoed on the Murmansk run soon after: he would have lasted only a few minutes in that water. The first lieutenant of Tartar in 1944 was given command of Icarus, one of the destroyed that hunted for Hood's survivors. I am told that on one of those restless, still summer nights off the Normandy coast, flank guarding and patrolling to the northward of the assault anchorage, Icarus was lost without a trace. It was at night, so nobody saw the breaking of the ship or the breaking of the bodies; and no man turned from his plow furrow to remark with placid wonder so meteoric and mundane a disaster.


[Note: This essay was published in Atlantic Monthly 206 (1960): 60-4.]