The Failed Pledge That Sank the Bismarck

The U-boat’s captain was in an impish frame of mind as he put his brand new U-556 through its trials in the Baltic. It was winter 1941 and from his point of view it had been a good war. The convoys crossing the Atlantic were sitting targets for Germany’s U-boat packs. Lt. Commander ‘Parsifal’ Wohlfarth’s latest command was the most recent addition to the twenty-five submarines being produced by German shipyards each month.

Across the darkening windswept waves of the Baltic Sea he could clearly make out the superstructure of the Bismarck. At 40,000 tons it was the latest and largest battleship in the world. It too was carrying out exercises when it received a signal from the minuscule 500-ton U-556: ‘personal from captain to captain. A fine ship you have there!’

Wohlfarth’s impertinence did not go down too well with the commander of the Bismarck, who signalled back: ‘from commander to captain, report name of commanding officer.’

“Oh, Lord!” exclaimed Captain Wohlfarth. “Now I’ve done it.” He promptly signalled back to the Bismarck. ‘From Captain to Captain – you try doing this!’ Within moments the cheeky skipper submerged his U-boat below the waves.

THE GODFATHER U-BOAT The weeks passed and Lt. Commander Wohlfarth, wishing to make amends for his cockiness, had drawn up a magnificent ‘Certificate of Godfatherhood’. It was expressed in terms of friendly admiration in which U-556 pledged itself to act as ‘godfather’ to the Bismarck.

He then called on the battleship’s commander where amidst laughter the document was received with good grace. The special relationship between the world’s most formidable battleship and the diminutive submarine was born. Weeks later, when the U-556 started out on its first patrol, Captain ‘Parsifal’ Wohlfarth signalled again to the Bismarck: ‘personal from captain to captain. When you follow me, don’t worry. I will see that you come to no harm.’

It was a pledge that the U-556’s captain would bitterly regret when months later circumstances caused him to fail as a ‘godparent’ to the German battleship.

U-556 was one of a U-boat pack patrolling the treacherous and near frozen waters lying between Iceland and South Greenland. Between them their ‘West Group’ had so far sunk eighteen allied ships. A further three had been damaged but now Lt. Commander Wohlfarth’s command was low on both torpedoes and fuel.

It was time to return to Germany and at the same time pick up his Knight’s Cross from Admiral Karl Doenitz. Making his leisurely way back across the north Atlantic the U-556’s captain attacked yet another convoy and loosed the last of his torpedoes. It one of those unfathomable quirks of fate that this comparatively small action in the greater theatre of war may have snatched victory from Germany’s jaws.

Far to the west the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen broke through the British blockade and sailed out into the Atlantic on a raiding mission.

Aware of the threat they posed all available British forces were ordered to intercept and destroy the two marauders. If the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, then being repaired in the French port of Brest, ever joined these formidable warships the effect the three battleships and the cruiser would have on allied shipping would be devastating. Britain could possibly be starved into giving up its struggle with Germany. Located by HMS Suffolk, a squadron composed of HMS Hood and the HMS Prince of Wales made contact with the two German raiders. This brief and bloody encounter resulted in the sinking of the HMS Hood with the loss of 95 officers and 1,324 seamen. The Bismarck however had not emerged unscathed and was now headed for the ship repair yards at St. Nazaire leaving the Prinz Eugen to continue its patrol.

Hoping to lure the pursuing Royal Navy into a trap, the German battleship’s commanding officer, Admiral Lutjens, called for a line of U-boats to be stationed across his own line of approach, ready to pick off his Royal Navy tormentors.

Of the six U-boats able to answer his call two had no torpedoes and very little fuel. One of them was Lt. Commander Wohlfarth’s U-556, the ‘godfather’ submarine that had pledged to protect the Bismarck. The German U-boat raced through towering seas towards the damaged battleship.

Aboard the pursuing Royal Navy hunters, Admiral Sir John Tovey realising he couldn’t close with the German battleship unless its speed was reduced, called up the Gibraltar squadron. The squadron consisted of the battle cruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the Cruisers HMS Sheffield and HMS Dorsetshire.

Everything however depended on the Ark Royal’s own aircraft for they alone could reach the Bismarck in time to strike with their airborne torpedoes. If anything could prevent the HMS Ark Royal closing with its target the crippled German raider would make it to St. Nazaire and safety.

During the evening of 26th May 1941 the U-556’s watch reported the approach of warships. Lt. Commander Wohlfarth crash-dived, then raised his periscope to see what must have been every U-boat commander’s dream. The HMS Renown and the HMS Ark Royal were streaming directly towards him, their massive grey hulls plunging repeatedly into mountainous seas.

Wohlfarth didn’t even need to manoeuvre; it was as though they were steaming straight into his torpedo tubes. All he had to do was press the firing button to send the Ark Royal and HMS Renown to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. The loss would have been calamitous for Britain at war. Had he done so, and had the Bismarck made it to safety the odds would have been stacked against Britain’s victory. But he had no torpedoes left. The last of them had been used on a relatively unimportant merchant ship.

Such an opportunity would never again present itself; an enemy battleship and aircraft carrier, without escorting destroyers, passing directly in the line of fire of a U-boat’s torpedo tubes; tubes that were empty. Bismarck’s fate was sealed. Her ‘godfather’ protector that had so recently signalled its pledge of protection was in no position to protect the pride of the German navy. The HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown, unaware of their good fortune, blithely continued their course of destiny.

The British aircraft carrier closed on the Bismarck before launching an airborne attack on her. In poor weather conditions nine Swordfish aircraft led by Lieutenant Eugene Esmond found the crippled Bismarck and launched torpedo attacks, which resulted in dented plates, loosened bulkheads and punctured her fuel tanks. The battleship was now taking in water slowing her progress.

Contact was then lost but a Catalina from 209 squadron spotted her the next day and from HMS Ark Royal fifteen Swordfish were launched which soon chanced upon HMS Sheffield. Mistaking their own ‘pride o’ the fleet’ for the German battleship HMS Ark Royal’s aircraft launched twelve torpedoes, which the British warship managed to avoid.

Admiral Somerville then ordered a second strike from HMS Ark Royal and in appalling weather conditions Royal Navy flying officer Lieutenant-Commander Jim Coode led Sub-Lieutenant Ken Pattison and Sub-Lieutenant Joey Beal to find the elusive Bismarck. On finally encountering the German battleship they launched their torpedoes, one of which hit the port boiler room again.

Jim Coode’s ‘tin fish’ then fatally hit the Bismarck’s rudder leaving the giant battleship circling helpless in the Bay of Biscay. A Royal Navy pilot who was later to be killed on a training flight in North Africa had sealed Bismarck’s fate.

As dawn broke on the 27th May, the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire, positioned themselves and began to fire salvoes into the stricken German marauder. For three hours the Royal Navy pounded broadside after broadside into the crippled battleship.

Circling, HMS Rodney fired two torpedoes into the Bismarck’s hull but still the formidable behemoth remained afloat.

At 10.15 a.m. the British Commander-in-Chief ordered the German battleship to be torpedoed again. HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes into both the starboard and the port hulls of the Bismarck’s burning shell, and at 10.40am the great battleship rolled silently on her side and began her descent to the bottom of the seas, her war flag saluting the grey skies.

THE SEA OF MISERY In a scene straight from hell many hundreds of German seamen found themselves tossed helplessly by the seas, swimming vainly in their attempts to remain afloat. High above them the heaving grey superstructure of the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori, their scrambling nets cascading down its sides in compliance with the law of the sea.

Eager hands reached out to offer assistance but helpless by a combination of exhaustion and the action of the waves few of the stricken men were able to make it as far as the warship’s sea swept decks. On both sides of the tragic conflict there were acts of great heroism. A 17-year old British sailor, Midshipman Brookes, courageously climbed over the warship’s heaving side. Descending to the heaving waterline he manfully attempted to rescue a young German sailor who had lost both his arms and was trying to hold on to the rope with his teeth. Sadly by this time naval activity was said to have been spotted’ in the distance and the rescuing warships were ordered to get under way; to abandon many hundreds of stricken sailors thus condemned to a watery grave. The young British midshipman was placed under arrest for defiantly refusing to give up his rescue attempt and threatened with execution.

Only 115 of the Bismarck’s crew of 2,206 men survived. Several of those who later died aboard the HMS Dorsetshire were committed to the sea with full military honours. Typically each were sent to their watery grave as a bugler played the last post and both German and British sailors stood solemnly to attention. The German survivors were given permission to salute their fallen comrades with the raised arm and the open hand. In the background could be heard the plaintive strains of a borrowed harmonica playing the lament: ‘Ich hatt einen kamaraden.’ (I once had a comrade). As each body was committed to the waves both German and British sailors wept openly.

Of the controversies surrounding the sinking of the Bismarck one has been resolved. The Germans always held that the Bismarck was never sunk, it was scuttled to prevent it falling into the hands of the Royal Navy. Subsequent investigation has found for the German account. The German battleship was never sunk but died at the hands of its own officers. With all but one gun destroyed it was imperative that the British should never learn of its unsinkable structure. British ships subsequently built to its design would gain an advantage much to the detriment of their German foe. The great sub-marine explorer Commander Ballard who discovered the wreck of the Bismarck on the seabed has confirmed that it was indeed scuttled.©

Source by Michael Walsh

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