On the 75th anniversary of WWll’s greatest sea-battle of the North Atlantic, PAT POLAND outlines the events after an incensed Winston Churchill ordered his naval officers to ‘Sink the Bismarck’
On the side of an underwater volcano 380 miles south-west of the Cork coast (less than the distance from Mizen Head to Malin Head) lies a poignant reminder of the greatest sea-battle of the North Atlantic fought during the Second World War.
It is a German sailor’s leather boot.
Reminiscent of a flag planted on the Moon, it is unmoving, unperturbed, oblivious to – and untouched by – its surroundings. At the great depth of three miles, it may remain like that for hundreds of years. And nobody knows whether the Kriegsmariner survived or was among those lost to the sea.
Further down into the abyss – where only special submersibles can reach – on the bottom of the ocean lies the wreck of one of the greatest, and most graceful, battleships of all time. It is in surprisingly good condition. Chillingly, the ghostly outline of the large swastika painted on its wooden deck is still discernible through the abysmal gloom.
But how did the Bismarck – pride of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine – come to such an ignoble end?
On 14 February 1939, the granddaughter of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck launched the most impressive battleship Germany had ever seen at a Hamburg shipyard. Just short of one sixth of a mile in length from her flared bows to her stern, and 120 feet at the beam, she was designed to carry eight 15in guns and six aircraft.
On August 1940, the ship was commissioned and handed over to her commander, Captain Lindemann. Bismarck was ready to play her part in the war, now almost twelve months old.
Vice-Admiral Lutjens, the German Task Force commander, had taken his ships, under cover of stormy weather, far north and was making his way down the west coast of Iceland in the Denmark Strait when, on the evening of 24 May 1941, they were discovered by the Royal Navy.
In the British ships, crews went to their cabins and changed into clean socks and underwear, a time-old ritual to help protect against infection if wounded.
Then, at exactly 05.52 a.m. the following morning came the order: ‘Execute!’ The ageing battleship HMS Hood’s guns spoke with a terrible roar, her shells weighing a ton each rocketing towards the Germans at 1,600 mph.
Within seconds, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen replied with their opening salvoes. As salvo followed salvo, what happened next was graphically recorded by Lieut Esmond Knight on board HMS Prince of Wales:
“A great spouting explosion issued from the centre of the Hood, enormous reaching tongues of pale-red flame shot into the air, while dense clouds of whitish-yellow smoke burst upwards, gigantic pieces of brightly burning debris being hurled hundreds of feet in the air. I just did not believe what I saw – Hood had been literally blown to pieces.”
Of 1,419 men on board Hood, only three survived.