Being Fired on by the Bismarck Was “Disconcerting” Said Vian – Part 2

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Vice Admiral Sir Philip Louis Vian, RN. Photograph taken  10 November 1944 Bassano Studio in London now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Bassano
One of Great Britain’s best fighting admirals in World War Two. Vice Admiral Sir Philip Louis Vian, RN. Photograph taken 10 November 1944 by Bassano Studio in London. Photograph now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Bassano.

 

 

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+Scottish trawler F/V Harvester in heavy weather in the North Atlantic.

This would have been the type of weather Vian and his destroyers were battling through. In Royal Navy warships, the navigating bridge was open to the elements, if you can imagine. The bridge crew would not only have trouble hearing anyone over the roaring of the waves but would have been completely soaked and very cold. Most likely they would have relieved the lookouts once an hour and give them an hour to get warm before relieving their relief lookout and repeat this.

The weather was atrocious on that night in May 1941 when Vian decided to steam after the Bismarck. Because of a heavy following sea, his destroyers could barely stay on course, sometimes yawing as much as 140 degrees from their base course. In a lighter ship such as a destroyer, a heavy following sea made forward progress difficult. Wind and waves would be pounding the ship from astern or hitting the sides of the ship aft, either side known as a quarter, being the site of the quarterdeck.

 

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F/V Harvester plunging into a trough in the winter North Atlantic.
This ship is built to take the pounding seas of the very rough weather of the North Atlantic and is deeper in the water than she looks. She is much easier to control than a WW Two RN destroyer would have been in a similar situation. Still, were you on the bridge of the F/V Harvester at this moment, you would have the sensation that the ship was practically standing on its bow.Scottish fishing trawler, F/V Harvester, in a heavy following sea. A bulbous bow is giving the ship more stability than an RN destroyer would have had.

 

Danish built Scottish fishing vessel F/V Harvesting in harsh North Atlantic weather.
Danish built Scottish fishing vessel F/V Harvesting in harsh North Atlantic weather. Her forefoot or bulbous bow can be seen slicing through the waves. 
While naval architects have found that this design does all sorts of good things, they disagree on all the sorts of good things it does and why. The general consensus is a bulbous bow gives the ship greater stability, reduces the bow waves the ship itself makes which is the major cause of drag on a ship, keeps the ship from yawing as it goes down the front of the wave, and keeps the stern from squatting too low in the water which can cause the ship to be “pooped”. That is, take heavy water or heavy waves over the stern which is a prime cause of a ship’s sinking. You don’t want the stern too high out of the water, or else the rudder won’t “bite” but you don’t want it too low in the water for fear that a massive wave will break onto the after deck and sink the ship. That’s the theory anyway.You can see the bulbous bow, as it is called, of the F/V Harvester in this photo.

Royal Navy destroyers were not built for sustained operations in this kind of very rough North Atlantic weather. Before the war, the Admiralty didn’t give much thought to the possibility that their destroyers would be employed as convoy escorts in the North Atlantic. They were built for speed. The famous Tribal Class destroyers, which were the ships in Vian’s Flotilla which was chasing the Bismarck, could make in excess of thirty-six knots. This class had a draught of only nine feet, which meant it wasn’t very deep in the water and the ships rolled badly. Destroyers were supposed to glide over the waves not blast through them. But in the North Atlantic they had no choice. Every memoir I have read from anyone who served on a Royal Navy destroyer in the North Atlantic in World War Two mentions the constant twisting and sagging of the hull and the amount of noise it made.

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The design of Tribal Class destroyer HMS Eskimo with a traditional bow.

Since Vian’s ships were in a following sea, they would be taking the weather on either the port or starboard quarter as well as partially astern. Large waves would lift the stern of the ships almost out of the water which would negate the action of their rudders because they could not “bite” or get traction since they were barely in the water. As the wave lifts the ships aft, and the rudder won’t “bite,” the ships would slide down the front of the wave and be pushed to port or starboard by the force of the wind and the waves. Hence in nautical parlance, the ships would “yaw,” that is, go way off the course she had been steering.

an inopportune gale was rising as we set course to intercept, accompanied by rain storms and poor visibility… Reports reached me of men being hurt, and in one case of being washed overboard, but there was nothing to be done.

Given the state of the weather and of the damage being done to his ships by that weather, it is a wonder that Vian and his other four destroyers finally came into contact with the Bismarck. But Philip Vian was a “driver.” Excuses were not something he ever wanted to hear. Once on the scene, Vian realized the atrocious weather made a coordinated attack by his flotilla impossible so the captains were told to attack as the opportunity arose.

Their primary weapon at this point were their torpedoes. In the several hours after midnight of 22 May 1941, all of Vian’s destroyers ran-in as close as they could to the Bismarck to launch their torpedoes. Each ship made two attacks. Vian believed that both HMS Cossack and HMS Maori had each hit the Bismarck with a torpedo.

Post-war records did not confirm this belief. Writes Vian:

In a German record recently published, no hits are conceded: if this was really true it is a dolorous thought…

Bismarck spotted them quickly. The huge German ship began to fire her four main batteries at the British destroyers. Her four main battery turrets mounted 15 inch guns, — Anton and Bruno forward and Caesar and Dora aft.

A disconcerting aspect of being under fire of such big guns, which we were experiencing for the first time, was that the shells could be seen on our radar screen, as they raced toward us, thus inducing some unpleasant moments until the shells plunged into the sea, exploding with a violent concussion and throwing up huge pillars of water which seemed to tower above us.

“Inducing some unpleasant moments” has to rank as one of the great understatements of the war.

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Fairey Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal returns at low level over the sea after making a torpedo attack on the German battleship Bismarck.

It certainly is one of these ungainly and ancient looking planes which hit the Bismarck’s rudder compartment and jammed the ship’s rudder hard over to port. That sealed her fate.

However, I believe the official caption under the photo to be incorrect and I am certain this photo was taken at a completely different date and place. Based on the time of the attacks, very late afternoon, this picture could only have been taken after the first strike by the torpedo bombers when they mistakenly attacked HMS Sheffield which was shadowing the Bismarck. The sun was sinking into the western horizon by the time the aircraft returned to the carrier to be re-loaded with torpedoes since each plane only carried one. They made their second strike, this time on the Bismarck just before dusk.

However, the appalling state of the weather is not discernible in the photo above which makes me think it was taken at a completely different time and place. The Swordfish torpedo bombers were operating far outside of their design limits when they attacked the Bismarck. Heavy seas pounded the carrier and the flight deck of HMS Ark Royal was dropping then rising as much as forty feet as the Swordfish took off.

[Sources: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian, Diesel Duck, and Wikipedia. Images courtesy of OceanLines, OceanLines, OceanLines, The Blueprints, and the UK Imperial War Museums.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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