War in the Atlantic

Sink the Bismarck!

On 24th May 1941 the Bismarck dealt a damaging blow to the Royal Navy and the British people by sinking the "mighty Hood" in the North Atlantic . The battle only lasted six minutes and there were only 3 survivors from the ships company of 1419. Churchill gave orders to "Sink the Bismarck ". On 18th May, under the command of Admiral Lutjens, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had left the Baltic port of Gotenhafen , hoping to carry out attacks on convoys of merchant ships that carried vital supplies of food, materials and arms from Canada and the U.S.A. to Britain . During the encounter with the Hood the Bismarck had been hit by HMS Prince of Wales, leaving her holed with a fuel tank leak and one engine out of action. Admiral Lutjens decided to separate from the Prince Eugen and to head for France in the Bismarck . In the early morning of 24 th May, 1941 three ships from Force H, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the cruiser Renown and the light cruiser Sheffield , were ordered to leave Gibraltar to try and intercept the Bismarck . HMS Sheffield had been assigned to Force H because of her radar (then known as RDF) facility, which was still a closely guarded secret.

BismarkRobert Watson-Watt and his team of researchers had been developing radar (RDF) since 1935. In 1938, at the Board of Admiralty's request the Commander in Chief, Home Fleet, nominated HMS Sheffield and HMS Rodney to be fitted with the first two radar systems. The onset of war gave the added impetus to the development of more accurate radar systems for detecting surface craft and low-flying aircraft. The Sheffield had been fitted with radar and the scientist John Logie Baird had visited her to see the Navy's first radar installation. At this point no radar operators had been specifically trained and all testing and calibrations had been undertaken by civil technicians and the Chief Telegraphist. In October 1939 three RNVR ratings, Ted Eves, Owen Piggott and Ron Ravenscroft, and Andrew Maciver (Anndra Beag of 26 North Tolsta) an RNR rating, were selected by the Royal Navy as the first four RDF operators and joined HMS Sheffield in Scapa Flow . Following convoy duty in the North Atlantic , Sheffield had been assigned to Force H who were on duty in the Mediterranean .

Bercuson and Herwig described the departure of Force H from Gibraltar . "As the clock struck 2.00 a.m. , Somerville 's destroyers began to move south, past Algecrais to port and the Rock of Gibraltar to starboard, to the mouth of the bay to take up station for the larger to follow. Then the Renown began to move, followed by Ark Royal and the Sheffield . One by one they exited the bay, then shaped course southwest, past the town of Tarifa , at the tip of Spain , and into the Strait of Gibraltar . Next they formed line-ahead with the Sheffield in the lead and the Renown at the end of the line and altered course northwest into the grey Atlantic . The sailors had no idea where they were headed, but they knew from the cold-weather gear that had been broken out that their days in the tropics were over for now"!. In his history of HMS Sheffield, Ronald Bassett, comments that the "Bismarck was overwhelmingly superior to the ships of Somerville's Force H, but Sheffield found herself alone in the ring with Bismarck."2

At 18.00 on 26 th May the Sheffield located the Bismarck , the first British ship to have made contact for 40 hours.

The following account was written by Andrew Maciver (Anndra Beag) and Owen Piggott on a small typewriter in the radar operators' room on HMS Sheffield following the sinking of the Bismarck . Anndra has kept these pages for over 60 years and although most of it is still legible unfortunately the first couple of pages are too faded to be read. We pick up the story at the beginning of page 3 when the Sheffield was closely shadowing the Bismarck .

An Eye Witness Account written 60 years ago by Andrew Maciver and Owen Piggott

She seemed horribly close to us and we all felt that she must have seen us and at any moment expected a salvo of fifteen inch shells about our ears, however all was well and nothing happened as we made our way round astern of her keeping about ten to twelve miles away.

The next six hours passed in a flash, every quarter of an hour or so we were making enemy reports on our wireless giving the position, course and speed to our other heavy forces who we knew were trying to concentrate; it was tense work, nobody dared to relax a moment, if we got too close and disclosed our position we should undoubtedly lay ourselves open to being sunk or at any rate badly damaged. Our nearest supporting forces were over fifty miles away so would not have a chance of coming to our assistance.

At 18.30 we got a signal from "Ark" saying that she was going to fly off a striking force of torpedo bombers, they were to contact us and we were to direct them to the target. Striking force arrived about 20.00 and we signalled to them "the enemy is twelve miles dead ahead of us". The visibility was not good at this time there was a good deal of low cloud about, with several rain squalls all around. The torpedo bombers disappeared into the clouds to attack whilst we waited for the fireworks to start. They found a certain amount of difficulty in getting into position for the attack on account of the low clouds and rain storms, but suddenly in the murk on our starboard bow we saw spurts of flame and huge red flashes in the sky and realised that the torpedo bombers were going in to attack.

It was dull not being able to see clearly, but suddenly we saw first one and then another two of our Swordfish flying towards us. They came past us very low on a level with our bridge and everyone took off their caps and gave them a terrific cheer. We saw that their torpedoes had gone and as one crew flew past we could see their faces wreathed in smiles and they all had their 'thumbs up' as they flashed to us 'hit'. Just after this the rain squall passed and we suddenly saw the second wave of Swordfish going in to attack. It was a never to be forgotten sight, there was the Bismarck one spurting sheet of flame with all her guns firing. We could see the aircraft coming down low over the water and the splash where their torpedoes entered, then all of a sudden there was a huge spurt of blue flame and a gigantic column of spray alongside the stern of the Bismarck . We realised that it must have been a hit or a very near miss.

We watched the last few aircraft attacking when suddenly we saw their fifteen inch guns open fire, we all thought it was at the aircraft as we thought we were still unseen. The shells fell in the water about three miles away from us so we did not worry. Another salvo was fired by the Bismarck and about three quarters of a minute later there was a most deafening crack as four of her fifteen inch H.E. shells fell either side of us and exploded on impact with the water, two of them fell about forty yards on our starboard beam, the others about fifteen yards off our port quarter. The air was filled with flying splinters and fragments of shell.

We immediately went on to full speed ahead and the Captain gave the order to make smoke but before it could be effective four more salvos fell uncomfortably close, two of them falling just ahead and the other two just astern. Everyone was extremely thankful when the smoke screen became effective and hid us from the Bismarck .

By this time it was after 21.00 and to our great relief we saw five destroyers, Cossack, Maori, Zulu and two others coming at high speed. Our job had been accomplished as we had maintained touch with the enemy till these fellows had arrived to take over the very difficult and dangerous job of shadowing the Bismarck throughout the night.

All this had not happened without us having to pay a price. Unfortunately some of the splinters had wounded twelve of our A.A. personnel, three poor fellows have since died and two others are seriously wounded. The wardroom was the most damaged spot, several huge fragments of shell came through the ships side and went ricocheting around, piercing three bulkheads before coming to rest. Nobody was there, thank goodness, and only superficial damage was done.

Having turned over the job to the destroyers, we cleared out to the westward to keep clear of the King George V and Rodney who we knew were coming down from the North in addition the Renown was to the Southward and the Norfolk to the East. It was thrilling as the destroyers enemy reports started come through: "Bismarck is doing twelve knots" (she had been doing twenty to twenty two knots all the time we had been shadowing her); "Enemy had altered course to 340 0" followed very shortly by "Enemy has altered course to 260 0" . Her course seemed to vary with each report, slowly it was being borne on us that her steering gear or rudder must have been affected by the hit that we had observed on her stern.

About 02.00, it was now being very dark with no moon and an overcast sky, a signal from Cossack; "I'm going in to attack" followed five minutes later with "Attack completed, claim one hit" (with torpedo). At 02.30 approximately from Maori; "Have carried out attack, one hit definite, enemy forecastle is on fire". The enemy's speed after this was reduced, 7- 8 knots, and this news was broadcast to our guns' crews who are still standing to at action stations.

The C-in-C Home Fleet in the "K.G.V." made a signal saying "Intend to engage the enemy at dawn from the Westward with the Rodney. We then realised the end was very near. Our reports combined with those of the destroyers had led these two ships straight to the enemy.

The sun rose at 07.15 but the light and visibility was very poor due to the constant rain squalls and low clouds and it was not until 08.30, by which time we had closed in to fifteen miles, that the C-in-C decided conditions were good enough. We heard "K.G.V." and Rodney open fire and the answering fire from the Bismarck . We were all hoping that we should be allowed to close to finish her off with torpedoes, what a spectacle that must have been. Unfortunately it was not to be and the Dorsetshire was ordered to sink her with torpedoes. Thus ended a very gallant ship and a brave ships company, they had fought until there was not a gun in action and their ship nothing but a battered hulk.

After the action the following signal was received from Vice Admiral Somerville:

"Much regret to hear of your casualties while shadowing Bismarck . I wish to express my sympathy in the loss of your shipmates. I trust the wounded are progressing favourably. I consider your tenacity and your shadowing was in a large degree responsible for the striking force and destroyers making contact, which fixed the Bismarck and led to her eventual destruction."