Victory at Sea, Victory in Prayer

Epic clash yields ever-fresh surprises

By Neil Earle

“In May of 1941/The War had just begun…”

These words from a popular ballad of 1959 recalled one of the signature moments in the all-important Battle of the Atlantic which people in my home town commemorate each year. The first stanza of Johnny Horton’s lively ballad, “Sink the Bismarck,” read:

In May of 1941 the war had just begun/
The Germans had the biggest ship/That had the biggest guns;
The Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the sea/
On her decks were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees

The British battlecruiser HMS Hood

Back home in Newfoundland, a friend of mine recently died who was a gunner down in the bowels of HMS Rodney, a formidable battle-wagon chosen to open the firing that eventually sunk the German battleship Bismarck. In its turn, the hunt for the mighty Nazi ship Bismarck was an act of revenge for the sinking of Great Britain’s The battlecruiser HMS Hood (pictured, right) on May 24, 1941.

May 24 was, paradoxically, Empire Day in the then British Empire. My father, George W. Earle, well remembers coming home from a day’s trouting in London Road Pond only to be greeted with the news: “The Hood’s been sunk!”

The Mighty Hood

The Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy – gone. Impossible. Incomprehensible. There are those back home who remember hearing first-hand reports of the time the much-loved Hood came to visit for two weeks in September, 1924. It was part of the Empire Tour of that year.

Yes, the Hood was England’s pride. Her elegant and trim lines concealed the power in her eight 15-inch guns and the armor that protected her against everything except a falling shell to the middle decks, where her cover was weakest. This was precisely her fate that grey May morning off Iceland in 1941. The venerable Hood and the spanking new Prince of Wales were under orders to prevent Bismarck and Prince Eugen from breaking out into the North Atlantic shipping lanes and disrupting the all-important convoys from Halifax and St. John’s keeping Britain in the war. Even today, the events of that dramatic sea-fight make for stirring reading and not without interest for Christians and for at least three reasons.

The German battleship Bismarck

The first of course is the sheer terror, drama and unpredictability of war. “Every war will surprise you” is an adage this present generation of strategists are having to relearn in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The Hood and Prince of Wales fire power actually outmatched Bismarck (pictured, left) and Prince Eugen. British Vice Admiral Holland in the Hood wanted to close with the Bismarck fast and finish her off quickly before the German leviathan’s twelve 16-inch guns with its precision firing mechanisms could come into play. He could have waited for an ambush at sea but by turning to charge her, say two historians, “he was like a fielder in baseball opting to charge a ball hit very shallow into the outfield instead of taking the ball on the bounce.” If he made the catch and the subsequent throw he would pull off the play of the week (Bercusson and Herwig, The Destruction of the Bismarck, pages 139-140).

But this straight-on attack ran the risk of facing the German broadsides. In his irreplaceable eyewitness rendering Battleship Bismarck, Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, the Bismarck’s fourth gunnery-officer, alertly registered the German reaction: “The early morning of May 24 brought radiantly clear weather and moderate seas…we were following a southwesterly course at a speed of 28 knots…Not long after 0500 the hydrophones in the Prinz Eugen picked up ship noises to port…It must have been around 0545 when the smoke plumes of two ships, and then the tips of their masts came into view on our port beam. General quarters was sounded on the Bismarck…

“Meanwhile, the enemy ships were rapidly closing their original range of more than 30,000 meters. I estimated they were steaming at about the same speed we were, 28 knots. To approach nearly bow-on, as they were doing, appeared to me absolutely foolhardy; it reminded me of an enraged bull charging without knowing what he’s up against” (pages 135-137).

Mullenheim-Rechberg, after the war a German consul in Toronto, gave the enemy’s eye view of the Hood-Prince of Wale’s desperate lunge. The British admiral, knowing Hood’s lighter deck armor was her Achilles Heel (3 inches compared to Rodney’s 6.5) was attempting to close on Bismarck before his opponent could drop falling fire onto her decks. A supreme drama was unfolding as four mighty capital ships squared off south of the Denmark Strait.

The Fatal Salvo

Mullenheim-Rechberg’s narrative captures that surprise at the mystique of the Hood and what she symbolized to the Royal Navy.

‘Request permission to fire.’ Still no response. [German commander] Lutjens was hesitating. The tension-laden seconds stretched into minutes. The British ships were turning slightly to port, the lead ship showing an extremely long forecastle and two heavy twin turrets. On the telephone I heard Albrecht shout, ‘The Hood – it’s the Hood!;’ It was an unforgettable moment. There she was, the famous warship, once the largest in the world that had been the terror of our war games” (page 139).

The four vessels opened fire. At 15.5 miles distance it was fifty seconds from shell to target. The Hood’s impetuous forward charge meant she was more vulnerable to German broadsides from her more stable gun platform. At 0600 the Bismarck’s fourth salvo against the Hood ripped through her thin deck armor, tore through her magazine room and ignited spelling near instant doom. The Hood went down fighting with her last salvo still airborne but down she went. At 0601, after only about fifteen minutes into the battle, the Hood, the mighty Hood, broke in two. Only three survived out of a complement of 1418 men. It was a staggering British defeat. The Prince of Wales, herself heavily damaged, hastily broke off the action and skedaddled away a safe distance but not before inflicting serious damage to Bismarck’s fuel tanks. The Prinz Eugen’s crew could smell the oil mighty Bismarck was leaving in her wake.

The first round of perhaps the most important sea-fight in the Battle of the Atlantic was over.

The Chase

Sir John Tovey

The Bismarck, forced to cut speed to 27 knots, decided to head for the French port of St. Lazaire, being trailed intermittently by two British heavy cruisers and Prince of Wales. She had a punctured hull with two holes in her bow and 2000 tons of water in her focsle. The world knows what happened next. Disappearing off and on in the early hours of the 25th May she was later spotted by Force H steaming from Gibraltar. The British commander soon initiated a near-suicidal series of British attacks by Swordfish torpedo planes. A torpedo hit on the starboard side buckled the Bismarck’s floor plates a foot and a half upward. All the steering rooms had to be evacuated. Mullenheim-Rechberg feared the worst. “My heart sank.” The Bismarck listed to port in a continuous counterclockwise turn.

With the big ship’s rudders damaged and maneuverability destroyed, the Hood’s avengers from Gibraltar and the British Home Fleet closed in for the kill on May 27. Even so, as the great dreadnought steered erratically, the British commander, Admiral Sir John Tovey (pictured, right) in the powerful King George V, a religious man to the hilt, later testified of his own concerns that day: “Although damaged below water the Bismarck’s gunnery was 100% efficient, and if you had asked any experienced naval officer what would be the result of our engagement he would have said, ‘You will sink her all right, but one or both of your ships will be seriously damaged.’ Just before I took the ships [King George V and Rodney] into action I went down to my fore-bridge cabin and went down on my knees to pray for guidance and help. I suddenly felt as if all responsibility had been taken off my shoulders and I knew everything would be all right. We engaged the Bismarck and sank her and she did not score a single hit on any of our ships.”

When the Rodney turned her nine 16-inch guns – the largest in the Royal Navy – at the crippled foe the end was near.

Anomalies of War

On the doomed Bismarck German sailors were also praying. On the port side near a major gun turret, Mullenhiem-Rechberg waited with his men to abandon ship at an opportune time. Then he saw King George V and Rodney steaming away, fearful of running out of fuel and attracting German submarines. He was riveted by one thought: Was his life to end in service of a mad Fuhrer he had never supported? “God would not allow it,” he wrote in his memoir, “He would still give me a chance not to see my life as a senseless waste. He would do it. And from that moment I had no doubt that I would be saved.” (page 261). The future West German consul to Toronto never forgot that moment.

A third item links humanity and inhumanity, the grim biorhythm of war. Apparently one of the British captains silenced the excited cheers of his sailors as the Bismarck lay pulverized and dying. He then had them line up and give a last salute to the men of the Bismarck expressing that it could just as easily have been all of them facing death that day. The ignominy of inhumanity hung over the battle when a British battleship turned away from picking up German survivors in the water under the excuse that German submarines were near the area. But Pastor Christ Starkey of St. John’s, a Halifax native, had a father on one of those ships, a naval veteran who went to his grave believing that his own vessel purposely steamed on having closed its ears to the cries of German seamen.

The humanity, the inhumanity and unpredictability of war – starkly evidenced in one of the Battle of the Atlantic’s epic clashes. Such intense drama should not be quickly forgotten. It underscores that, yes, every war brings it surprises and is not to be entered upon lightly, as any veteran will tell you. It also reminds us that consulting the Almighty, either during or even decades after a battle, may not be a bad idea.

(Neil Earle is a Memphis-based Pastor and Journalist who returns home to Carbonear, Newfoundland each summer.)