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.]

Only 3 men out of 1,418 survived the Sinking of HMS Hood

 

Battlescruiser HMS Hood 1932

The HMS Hood sunk by the KMS Bismarck and KMS Prinz Eugen in the Battle of the Denmark Strait 24 May 1941. Of the 1418 crew serving aboard the Hood when she sank, only three men survived and they were rescued 2.5 hours after the sinking by the destroyer HMS Electra.

 

 

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British destroyer HMS Electra underway, at sea circa 1940. Members of the crew are on parade on deck.

(photo in the public domain and courtesy of the Imperial War Museum) 

What was the deal with the Bismarck and the Hood?

On 19 May 1941 the German battleship Bismarck (below left), then the largest and most powerful battleship in the world, put to sea on a commerce raiding cruise accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (below right). The movement of the two ships was quickly discovered by the British and on 20 May 1941 an RAF Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft spotted the two ships in a fjord in Norway.

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The battlecruiser HMS Hood (below left) was ordered to sea to intercept the Bismarck. She was accompanied by the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (below right). There is critical importance here in the nomenclature of “battlecruiser” vs “battleship.”

HMS Hood was based on a design for a “battlecruiser” created before the First World War. This turned out not to work well in practice. The major naval clash in World War One was between the British Royal Naval and the Imperial German Navy. The British refer to this contest as the ‘Battle of Jutland’,  named after the nearby Jutland Peninsular of Denmark and the Germans refer to it as the ‘Battle of the Skagerrak’ named after the body of water in which most of the battle was fought.

This is a massively complex naval engagement but suffice it to say that Admiral David Beatty, commanding the Royal Navy battlecruiser squadron, came upon the German line of battle before the Royal Navy battleships were in a position to support him. Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion, was hit repeatedly.

Three other of Beatty’s battlecruisers were hit hard by the Germans and those three ships exploded (due to a faulty magazine design) leaving Beatty to utter his famous quote, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today…”

A battlecruiser had the armament of a battleship but not the heavy armor. Therefore, a battlecruiser was faster than a battleship of that era. The theory was they could outfight any ship they could sink and out run any ship that could sink them. Hence, battlecruisers were not designed to engage battleships of that era.

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Hood wasn’t actually commissioned until 1919 when World War One was over. Although her design was changed as she was being built, she had two major defects which the Royal Navy knew about even before she was  launched: her deck armor over her main magazines was totally inadequate – less than three inches vs more than five inches on the battleship Prince of Wales.

Second, HMS Hood‘s main powder rooms were badly designed and susceptible to flashbacks – that is if the ship was hit in a certain place, the explosion would follow the path of the powder hoist, hit the powder magazine, and the entire ship would explode. This is exactly what happened to the HMS Hood when she encountered the Bismarck and was hit by Bismarck‘s highly accurate gunnery.

The Battle of the Denmark Strait, which is what is described below, is one of the few duels between capital ships in history. Also, no aircraft were involved.

So desperate were the British to sink the Bismarck that the Prince of Wales was ordered to sea before she was fully worked up and before the defects noted during her work up were repaired. Captain Leach put to sea with more than forty civilian workers from the Vickers-Armstrong Company aboard the ship (they volunteered to stay aboard) working on serious teething problems being experienced by the main batteries. The flotilla was commanded by Admiral Lancelot Holland.

0545 24 May 1941 – Bismarck and Prinz Eugen encounter the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the Battle of the Denmark Strait begins. At 0552, HMS Hood fires the first shots of the battle. Prinz Eugen and Bismarck respond in kind. Eight minutes later, at 0600, a shell from the Bismarck hits HMS Hood in her aft powder magazine.

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The Germans see a brilliant flash then watch open-mouthed as HMS Hood literally detonates before their eyes. The huge ship vanishes in less than two minutes leaving three survivors from her crew of fourteen hundred. What Royal Navy experts had feared could happen to the Hood had happened. Prior to the Bismarck being launched, the HMS Hood was the largest warship in the world and the symbol of British Imperial power. Plans had been made many times to take her out of service for a number of months and fix the glaring problems of the ship. This never happened.

The Germans then pounded the Prince of Wales which sustained seven hits. At the same time, the four three turrets holding the ten fourteen inch guns of the main battery began to malfunction one by one.

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Prince of Wales made smoke and turned away. Shortly afterwards all four three of her main battery turrets stopped functioning and the guns would not traverse. Prince of Wales was able to escape.

The German squadron was commanded by Admiral Lutjens. Why he did not pursue and sink the Prince of Wales, which he certainly could have done, remains a mystery.

Japanese aircraft sank the Prince of Wales on 10 December 1941 while she was patrolling off Singapore.

The last of HMS Hood‘s survivors died in 2008.

The Daily Telegraph
October 5th, 2008As an 18-year-old Flag-Lieutenant’s messenger, Briggs was on Hood‘s compass platform when a shell from Bismarck hit the ship between centre and stern, penetrated the deck, exploded and touched off the ammunition in the four-inch and 15-inch magazines. According to one witness, the column of flame generated was “four times the height of the mainmast”.

Ted Briggs himself recalled that he was lifted off his feet and dumped headfirst on the deck: “Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back.” There was no time, or need, for an order to abandon ship. Hood sank within three minutes…

…Briggs was sucked down beneath the sea. He later wrote: “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.”

Briggs swam clear of the stricken ship and, when he looked back, she had gone.
Only two other men – Midshipman William Dundas and Able-Seaman Bob Tilburn – survived. All three clung to small rafts for nearly four hours, singing Roll Out the Barrel to stay awake; even so, they were close to death from hypothermia when they were picked up by the destroyer Electra. Their rescuers could not believe that there was no sign of anyone else from Hood, alive or dead…

Johnny Horton wrote a ballad about the clash between the Bismarck and the Hood in 1960.

[UPDATEHT to the reader who saw the story cross-posted in the Military History Digest for identifying the turrets slip.]