The captain of the submarine was in a rogue frame of mind as he put his new U-556 to the tests in the Baltic. It was winter 1941 and from his point of view it had been a good war. Convoys crossing the Atlantic were sitting targets for German submarine packages. The last command of Lieutenant Commander ‘Parsifal’ Wohlfarth was the most recent addition to the 25 submarines produced by the German shipyards each month.
Through the dark windswept waves of the Baltic Sea, he could clearly make out the superstructure of the Bismarck. At 40,000 tons, it was the last and largest battleship in the world. He was also conducting exercises when he received a signal from the tiny 500-ton U-556: ‘personnel from captain to captain’. He has a nice boat there!
Wohlfarth’s impertinence did not sit well with the Bismarck commander, who responded with a signal: “From commander to captain, report name of commanding officer.”
“Oh Lord!” exclaimed Captain Wohlfarth. “Now I have.” He quickly signaled back to the Bismarck. ‘From Captain to Captain, try doing this!’ Within moments, the cheeky skipper plunged his sub under the waves.
THE U-BOAT GODFATHER Weeks passed and Lieutenant Commander Wohlfarth, wanting to make amends for his arrogance, had drawn up a magnificent “Godfather Certificate.” It was expressed in terms of friendly admiration in which U-556 pledged to act as Bismarck’s ‘godfather’.
Then he called the commander of the battleship where, laughing, the document was received with great grace. The special relationship between the world’s most formidable battleship and the tiny submarine was born. Weeks later, when U-556 began its first patrol, Captain ‘Parsifal’ Wohlfarth again pointed to Bismarck: ‘Staff from captain to captain. When you follow me, don’t worry. I’ll see to it that you don’t suffer any harm.
It was a promise that the captain of U-556 would bitterly regret when circumstances led him months later to fail as ‘godfather’ of the German battleship.
U-556 was part of a group of submarines patrolling the treacherous, near-icy waters between Iceland and southern Greenland. Between them, his “West Group” had so far sunk eighteen Allied ships. Three more had been damaged, but now Lieutenant Commander Wohlfarth’s command was low on fuel and torpedoes.
THE CROSS OF KNIGHT BECKONS
It was time to go back to Germany and at the same time collect his Knight’s Cross from Admiral Karl Doenitz. Making his smooth way back across the North Atlantic, the captain of U-556 attacked another convoy and released the last of his torpedoes. One of those unfathomable vagaries of fate is that this comparatively small action in the great theater of war may have snatched victory from the jaws of Germany.
Far to the west, the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen broke the British blockade and entered the Atlantic on an assault 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, which were being repaired in the French port of Brest, were ever to join these formidable warships, the effect that the three battleships and the cruiser would have on Allied navigation would be devastating. Britain may starve to abandon its fight with Germany. Tracked down by HMS Suffolk, a squad consisting of HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales contacted the two German assailants. This short and bloody encounter resulted in the sinking of HMS Hood with the loss of 95 officers and 1,324 sailors. However, the Bismarck had not escaped unscathed and was now heading to the ship repair yards in St. Nazaire, leaving the Prinz Eugen to continue her patrol.
THE RACE TO THE RESCUE
Hoping to lure the pursuing Royal Navy into a trap, the commanding officer of the German battleship, Admiral Lutjens, called for a line of submarines to be placed on his own line of approach, ready to eliminate his torturers from the Royal Navy.
Of the six submarines that were able to answer his call, two had no torpedoes and were very low on fuel. One of them was Lieutenant Commander Wohlfarth’s U-556, the “godfather” submarine that had pledged to protect Bismarck. The German submarine raced through towering seas towards the damaged battleship.
Aboard the pursuing Royal Navy hunters, Admiral Sir John Tovey realized that he could not approach the German battleship unless its speed was reduced, and called out the Gibraltar squad. The squadron consisted of the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and the cruisers HMS Sheffield and HMS Dorsetshire.
However, it all depended on the Ark Royal’s own aircraft, as only they could reach the Bismarck in time to attack with their torpedoes in the air. If anything could prevent HMS Ark Royal from approaching its target, the crippled German raider would reach St. Nazaire and be safe.
During the night of May 26, 1941, the U-556 guard reported the approach of warships. Lieutenant Commander Wohlfarth plummeted, then raised his periscope to see what every submarine commander’s dream must have been. HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal were heading straight for him, their huge gray hulls repeatedly sinking into mountainous seas.
Wohlfarth didn’t even need to maneuver; it was as if they went straight into their torpedo tubes. All he had to do was press the fire button to send the Ark Royal and HMS Renown to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. The loss would have been dire for Britain in the war. Had it done so, and if Bismarck had come to safety, the odds would have been against Britain’s victory. But he had no torpedoes left. The last of these had been used on a relatively minor merchant ship.
Never again would such an opportunity present itself; an enemy battleship and an aircraft carrier, without escorting the destroyers, passing directly into the line of fire from the torpedo tubes of a submarine; tubes that were empty. Bismarck’s fate was sealed. His “godfather” protector, who had so recently signaled his promise of protection, was in no position to protect the pride of the German army. HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown, unaware of their good fortune, happily continued on their destination course.
The British aircraft carrier approached the Bismarck before launching an airstrike against it. In poor weather conditions, nine Swordfish jets led by Lt. Eugene Esmond encountered the paralyzed Bismarck and launched torpedo attacks, resulting in dented plates, loose bulkheads and perforations in its fuel tanks. The battleship was now taking in water, slowing its advance.
THE OLD BISMARCK
Contact was then lost, but a Catalina from Squad 209 spotted her the next day and fifteen Swordfish were launched from HMS Ark Royal which soon ran into HMS Sheffield. Confusing his own “pride of the fleet” with the aircraft of the German battleship HMS Ark Royal, he launched twelve torpedoes, which the British warship managed to avoid.
Then Admiral Somerville ordered a second attack from HMS Ark Royal and, in dire weather conditions, Royal Navy Flight Officer Lt. Commander Jim Coode directed 2nd Lt. Ken Pattison and 2nd Lt. Joey Beal to find the elusive Bismarck. . Finally meeting the German battleship, they launched their torpedoes, one of which struck the port’s boiler room again.
Jim Coode’s ‘tin fish’ fatally struck the helm of the Bismarck, leaving the giant battleship circling helplessly in the Bay of Biscay. A Royal Navy pilot who would later die on a training flight over North Africa had sealed Bismarck’s fate.
As dawn broke on May 27, HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire positioned themselves and began firing salutes at the wounded German marauder. For three hours, the Royal Navy rammed the paralyzed battleship side after side.
Circling, HMS Rodney fired two torpedoes at the Bismarck’s hull, but the formidable giant remained afloat.
At 10.15 am, the British Commander-in-Chief ordered the German battleship to be torpedoed again. HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes both to starboard and to port side of the burning projectile of the Bismarck, and at 10:40 a.m. the great battleship rolled silently onto its side and began its descent to the bottom of the seas, its war flag saluting the gray skies. .
THE SEA OF MISERY In a scene straight from hell, many hundreds of German sailors found themselves thrown helplessly across the seas, swimming in vain in their attempts to stay afloat. High above them, the churning gray superstructure of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori, their jumbled nets cascading down their sides in accordance with the law of the sea.
Eager hands reached out to offer help, but powerless from a combination of exhaustion and wave action, few of the affected men were able to reach the deck of the battleship. On both sides of the tragic conflict there were acts of great heroism. A 17-year-old British sailor, Midshipman Brookes, bravely clambered up the rough side of the warship. Descending to the waterline, he bravely tried to rescue a young German sailor who had lost both arms and was trying to hold onto the rope with his teeth. Unfortunately, at that time it was said that naval activity had been seen “in the distance and rescue warships were ordered to move on; abandon many hundreds of wounded sailors, thus condemned to a water grave. The young British midshipman was arrested for defiantly refusing to give up his rescue attempt and threatened to execute him.
FULL MILITARY HONORS AND TEARS
Only 115 of the 2,206 men in the Bismarck’s crew survived. Several of those who later died aboard HMS Dorsetshire were sent to sea with full military honors. Usually each was sent to his water grave while a bugle played the last pole and the German and British sailors stood solemnly at attention. The German survivors were given permission to greet their fallen comrades with raised arms and open hands. In the background were the plaintive chords of a borrowed harmonica playing the lament: “Ich hatt einen kamaraden.” (I once had a comrade). As each body was engaged with the waves, both the German and British sailors wept openly.
Of the controversies surrounding the sinking of the Bismarck, one has been resolved. The Germans always maintained that the Bismarck never sank, it sank to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Royal Navy. Subsequent research has found for the German account. The German battleship never sank, but was killed by its own officers. With all but one of the guns destroyed, it was imperative that the British never found out about its unsinkable structure. British ships later built to his design would gain an advantage to the detriment of their German enemy. The great submarine explorer Commander Ballard who discovered the remains of the Bismarck at the bottom of the sea has confirmed that it was indeed sunk. ©