I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Sir Ludovic Kennedy, who served as an officer on the HMS Tartar, a battleship in the Royal Navy. The Tartar was one of the ships that chased and sank the Bismark, the most powerful German battleship in WWII. Kennedy later wrote a book about this experience, titled The Chase and Sinking of the “Bismarck”
We depended entirely on our supplies and our food, quite a lot of our food, ammunition, petrol, guns, that kind of thing, on a lot of it from America. And that lifeline between us and America had to be kept open at all costs. Now in the First World War, the U-boats had nearly defeated us. Until we got the convoy system, they'd nearly sunk so many ships we couldn't have gone on. And the same thing happened with U-boats in the second war. And that's what the Bismarck and the other ships that went into the Atlantic were trying to do, cut that lifeline, which kept us going between America and Britain.
Up to this time, the U-boats were fairly effective, but they weren't as effective as they became a year or two later, the crucial time of the U-boats was 1943. In 1941, the idea was for the Bismarck, and the Scharnhorst, and the Gneisenau all to meet together and go out into the Atlantic and destroy our convoys. The Tirpitz, which was the Bismarck's sister ship, unfortunately for the Germans, wasn't ready in time. Hitler went and inspected the Bismarck and the Tirpitz both together at Gotenhafen, Gdansk, but the Tirpitz wasn't ready to sail. So the Bismarck went out with the cruiser, Prinz Eugen, and their objective was to stay in the Atlantic for about three months. And they had supply ships, oilers stationed at various places all around the Atlantic to keep them supplied for that time. If it had succeeded, they could have caused tremendous damage.
Oh the Navy was the thing I think we were probably proudest of most. And one of the charming things that used to happen before the war, that big warships used to go to all the main British ports and entertain the local people. And the children were given rides on chutes, and sticky buns, and all this kind of thing. And then they'd go out to sea later, and then people would hear them exercising, hear their guns in practice, and then they felt, "That's all right. The Navy's there." The Navy played a tremendous part in the psyche of the British people, and always had done. I mean, Drake and Nelson and all these people were embedded in the national consciousness. So, the Navy was much loved by everybody. And of course the Hood was the epitome of the Navy. The Hood was probably the best known British ship in the British Navy. And she used to go around the world, sometimes taking royalty, and quite often on goodwill visits to the empire, as it was then, the Commonwealth, and American cities, and South American cities, and all over the place. And she was a goodwill ambassador, and she was felt to be indestructible.
Well they looked on battleships as the chief source of their strength because what the war showed in the end, and it started in a way with the Bismarck, was air power had made the battleship obsolete. When I say it started with the Bismarck, there was also an attack by the Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean on the Italian fleet at Taranto, in which we sunk several of their battleships. And the Japanese made a note of this. And so when Pearl Harbor came, the same thing happened. And these, the Bismarck, Taranto, and Pearl Harbor all made it absolutely clear that the battleship was a thing of the past. But of course it had been a tremendous force for Naval power. I mean, you go back to Nelson's day, they called them a line of battleships. They were sailing ships, but they had broadsides, sometimes 50 guns, 70 gunners, one or two ships had 80 guns, 90 guns broadside. And then, the ironclads were built towards the end of the 19th century. The dreadnoughts were built. And then of course, it was the great battle between battleships and battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland. And everybody thought, when the last war broke out, it would be the same kind of thing. Well, not of course quite the same kind of thing, because the Germans didn't have a great battle fleet like we did.
The German Navy was modeled on the British Navy, and it was the idea of the Kaiser leading up to the First World War to build a Navy as good as ours, indeed, possibly better. And with the possibility of defeating us at sea. And so we had to match that, every battleship they bought, we had to buy another one. But the German Navy had very good discipline and had also built beautiful ships, particularly in the Second World War. And all the ships had the same basic look about them. So quite often our ships mistook one of theirs for another of theirs, which was very muddling. They all had these flared bows and very elegant lines. And their gunnery was wonderful. And at the Battle of Jutland, they actually did far more damage to us than we did to them. That was the problem. And their shells were better than ours. And their gunnery, they had a different system of gunnery, but it was very effective at close range. And this, we saw later in the Bismarck action.
Now in the Second World War they started to build, before the war, three pocket battleships. Under the terms of the Anglo German Naval Treaty, they couldn't build ships more than 10,000 tons. And they built these, they're called pocket battleships, the Graf Spee, the Deutschland, and the Admiral Scheer. And they were sent off on raiding forays into the Atlantic and elsewhere. And the Graf Spee was sunk in Montevideo Harbor, you probably remember. And the rest of them all failed. But see, the trouble with the German Navy was Hitler wasn't interested in it. Hitler said, "I know nothing about sea pile. I'm a land animal." And he didn't know anything about it at all. And the one thing they should have built was an aircraft carrier because it was clearly going to be a- the sea war was also going to be an air war. And they started to build a thing called the Graf Zeppelin, which was to be an aircraft carrier. And then they gave up building it in the middle of the war because it didn't look as if it was going to be possible to succeed. And no doubt, if they had built it, we would have done everything we could to sink it as soon as possible.
The head of the German Navy was a man called Admiral Raeder. And he was an old fashioned, honest, decent sort of man, and he wouldn't allow politics to come into the Navy. There were a number of Jewish officers in the Navy and he wouldn't- They tried to get him to get rid of them, but he refused. He said, "No, they're good men, these. They're doing a good job. And we're not going to have politics." And he strenuously resisted Gestapo type figures coming and being on board the ships. And so they were a very highly disciplined body of men. They really were, both the officers and the seaman, and they were brave, they were courageous, they were technically excellent.
Then there was Admiral Dönitz, who was the U-boat chief. And he was in charge of all the U-boats really from the beginning of the war until almost the end of it. And he started off very spectacularly by sending a U-boat into Scapa Flow, which was the British home fleet base and sinking a battleship called the Royal Oak with the loss of 800 men, and then managed to slip back to Germany. He came into a little small tidal inlet, where there was a block ship, but he managed to get past the block ship, because a U-boats, of course, is a very narrow vessel. And that was a great achievement of his.
The Bismarck was the most powerful battleship in the world when it was in service. I think one or two Japanese ones became even bigger, but that was later. But the Bismarck was tremendously powerful and also very fast. It could go at 30 knots. And we had almost nothing to equal it. All our battleships were much slower than that until we started building new ones, like the King George V, and the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of York. And so the Bismarck was a tremendous menace to us. And the Germans knew this, and they knew that if the Atlantic War was to be a war in which a battleship could take part, then the Bismarck must go into the Atlantic with the other, with the battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and if necessary, the Tirpitz when she was ready, and destroy our shipping. That was the only way that they could win the war. Winston Churchill once said of the British Fleet in the First World War that Admiral Jellicoe, who was the commander of the British Fleet, said, "He's the only man on either side who can lose the war in an afternoon." And he meant by that, that if the German battleships destroyed the British Fleet, then the war was over, which it was because we depended so much on seaborne trade and our Navy.
In the Navy, we were all given, officers were all given, every month, a thing called the- Or was it every week? I can't remember. It was called- Yes. It was every week: A thing called The Weekly Intelligence Report, WIR, and from neutral sources, and from intelligence, and from spies, and that kind of thing, we had a report in every issue of what the German ships were doing, where they were located, what they were doing. And the Bismarck, we had reports coming in the whole time about completing her building and then having trials, and then going to the Baltic to exercise. So we knew that it was a matter of time before she came out. The British people really hardly knew it. They'd heard about it, but they didn't really know anything about it.
Well, it was difficult for them to break out without being observed. This was the whole point. And we were very lucky in that we had two sources of intelligence, which told us what she was doing. And the first one was the Norwegian Resistance, who noticed her going past the Norwegian coast. And the second one was a Swedish cruiser, which also noticed her going by. And the Swedish cruiser sent a report to Stockholm, which luckily got into the hands of the Naval attache in Norway, our Naval attache. And he sent a signal to London saying, I think it was, "One large ship and several smaller ones observed at such-and-such a place, such-and-such a time. Course, so-and-so, speed so-and-so." And that was the first news we had that she was on her way. And then what happened was, she went up the Norwegian coast, and went into Bergen Harbor. And we sent over a reconnaissance plane, which photographed her and the Prinz Eugen in Bergen Harbor. And we didn't know how long they were going to be there, but we sent another plane later that day which was attacked. It was a very old plane and it was attacked by the German anti-aircraft and the fighters of Bergen. And it found the anchorage was empty. So they knew then the Bismarck had gone.
One of the first things the British Navy did in the war when its ships came into harbor was to send every ship that came in alongside an oiler to top up with oil, because nobody knew when they might be called on again. And so you had to be absolutely ready to go to sea immediately. Now this was a lesson which the Germans hadn't learned, and Admiral Lütjens had the possibility of stepping up to the Arctic and oiling from a tanker called the Weissenberg which was up there. But he didn't do so. Why he didn't do so, I couldn't tell you, but it's possible that the meteorological people told him that it was misty over the Denmark Strait, and he hoped that by going that way immediately, he would get the mist to cover him and the British wouldn't know he'd gone out. But it was a fatal mistake because it meant that he was short of oil. When the battle happened with the Prince of Wales, one of his oil tanks was hit and he lost 1,000 tons of oil, which was quite a lot. If he'd oiled before going through the Denmark Strait, he'd have had that oil, which would have possibly enabled him to go a bit faster to Brest, and therefore shake off the shadowing British battleships. So he made a tactical mistake there.
Admiral Tovey, the British commander in chief, had his ships waiting in Scapa Flow, and he brought... He formed them into two squadrons. The Prince of Wales and the old Hood, the Hood being built in 1916 and the Prince of Wales was a brand new battleship. And that was going to be one squadron. And the other squadron was going to be himself and an aircraft carrier, the Victorious and another battle cruiser. I can't remember what it was called. But he didn't want to sail from Scapa Flow to engage the Germans until he really had firm intelligence as to where they were, because he'd have been charging around the ocean using our precious fuel, which he might need later on urgently. So he waited, and waited, and waited. And it wasn't really until he knew that they'd left Bergen and were on their way that he ordered the Hood and the Prince of Wales to go to the south of Iceland and be in position to get the Bismarck, engage the Bismarck, either it was coming through the Denmark Strait, north of Iceland, or through the Iceland Faroe's Channel south of Iceland, and just hang about that until they had more news. And meanwhile, he went a bit further south in order to get the- Whatever happened, he would engage the Bismarck at a later stage.
Yes. Well, as far as I was concerned, I was on watch in the Tartar that night. I had the watch. And it must've been about 9:00, 9:15, that sort of time that we heard the signal from the wireless office down below saying that a signal had been received and they were going to send it up. Well, actually the signalman, it was a Signalman Pearson he was called, a great big fellow who was always eating nutty chocolate. And he was quite a character. Anyway, I said, "Oh, you better bring that signal up, Pearson." So he pulled the rope, which went down to the wireless office, which had a container to it, which they put the signal in. And he pulled it up and neither of us paid any attention to it because we were used to getting signals of all kinds. And the most frequent one, which I thought it was, was the Admiralty U-boat disposition report, which used to come in every night. But it could have been about Wren's clothing, or it could have been a light vessel where the light was extinguished or something boring like that. And I remember he pulled it up and he opened it. He looked at it like that for a moment. And he just said, "Christ, sir. Look at this." And on the signal was written, "From Norfolk to Admiralty, one BS, one CS," which was one battleship, one cruiser, "My position, course, and speed." So and so, and so, and so, and so. And this was the first indication that we had that the Bismarck was out and had been sighted in the Denmark Strait. And of course we were all very excited. As far as we were concerned, it didn't really have an immediate impact because we were about seven or 800 miles away. But we knew that the Bismarck was in fact coming our way and that we might have to engage her. Indeed, we might be one of the first to engage her with torpedoes. And so we were quite, I don't say apprehensive, but we were quite excited about the whole thing, and wondered how we would get on, and we'd perform, whether we could manage to do any damage to her.
Well, what happened was Admiral Tovey had positioned two cruisers, the Norfolk and the Suffolk in the Denmark Strait. And when Admiral Lütjens brought the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen through it, the Norfolk and the Suffolk sighted them and sent off an enemy report.
So anyway, that was that. Then the next thing that happened was, of course, the Hood and the Prince of Wales engagement with the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen as they came out to the Denmark Strait.
You see, it's a bit difficult, but the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were hugging the ice on a course like that. And the Hood and the Prince of Wales were coming in at an angle, and they had to... It's difficult to explain this, but he had to, what's called, open the A arcs, which means he had to turn a bit away from the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in order to get his broadsides to bear on them. As long as he went at them like that, although there wasn't much of a target for them, there wasn't also much of a possibility of him having a broadside at them. So he had this rather difficult task of deciding at what moment he should turn so that all his broadsides could bear, all his guns could bear.
There was some talk about which order the Hood and the Prince of Wales should go in. And Tovey had in his mind, Admiral Tovey had in his mind the possibility of sending a signal to Admiral Holland, suggesting that the Prince of Wales, as the better armored ship, should take the van, should take the lead, and the Hood should come behind. But in the end he decided not to, because he thought, "Admiral Holland is a very senior officer. He'll know what to do himself." And the result was that Holland didn't pay any attention to the idea that he might lead the line of battle. And he put Hood first, and he was behind, he was the stern. And of course, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen lined up on the leading ship, which was the Hood. And within five or six minutes of the Bismarck opening fire, there was this... The Hood was a long way away. And so there was this very high trajectory shell, which went up like that, and then went down like that, and just went through the poorly armored deck of the Hood. And we think what happened, that it went into the four inch magazine and exploded. And then that set off a 15 inch magazine.
The blowing up of the Hood was something tremendously dramatic. The Germans were staggered by it. They couldn't believe it. Commander Schneider, who was a gunnery officer of The Bismarck, shouted in a terribly overexcited voice that, "She was blowing uuuuuuuuup," like that. And then, in the Prinz Eugen, the gunnery officer said there was heard to mutter, "Poor devils, poor devils," because no sailor likes to see any ship blow up or sink. It doesn't matter whose ship it is, even if it's necessary.
And the people who saw the British side, somebody said it was just like an enormous Chinese cracker explosion. And people simply couldn't believe what they were looking at. And not only that, when a signal was received at the Admiralty, and elsewhere, from the captain of the Prince of Wales, "Hood has blown up," they thought it must be a corrupt message. They thought it must've been, "Hood has altered course," or, "Hood has been hit," or something like that. But the idea that Hood, of all the ships in the Navy, the idea that Hood could actually blow up, was incredible. And people wept openly in Britain at that time. There was a Maltese, a seaman who had often visited Hood when she was in Malta, and he was not a seaman, he was a Maltese laundryman, and had often been on board Hood when she was in Malta to collect their laundry. And he said, "When I hear the Hood is blown up, I say to myself, 'The world has come to an end.' We cannot win this war now. It is finished." I mean, that was the effect it had, this wonderful, wonderful, beautiful ship, just disappearing. And there were only, of 1,400 men, officers and men, there were three survivors. Only three survivors. So that was a great disaster. And for the Germans, a great triumph.
When we heard it, we were as shattered as everybody. And we have found it hard to believe too. But in wartime, you just have to take whatever information you received. And of course, our thought was the future, the next few days, how are we going to get the Bismarck? So our grief, and disappointment, and worry at the Hood blowing up was tempered really by the fact that we had to think of the future of how we were going to pursue the Bismarck.
The Navy was so important to Britain that, in the Articles of War, written three or 400 years ago, the Articles all read, "It is upon the Navy, under the good providence of God, that the health, wealth, and safety of this kingdom do chiefly depend." And that ran through the whole of our history. And what happened at this point, when the Hood, and the Bismarck, and the Prinz Eugen, and the Prince of Wales were all fighting each other, the Admiralty sent out signals to ships to head for the direction the Bismarck was going from all over the Atlantic. I can't remember them all now, but there was, from the West Indies came, I think, one battleship, and from Gibraltar, Admiral Somerville with Force H, which was an aircraft carrier, a battle cruiser and a cruiser. And from other places all over the world, there was a great convergence of ships to join in the fight. And destroyers came in and it was an extraordinary example of the power, the waning power for the last time almost of British sea power.
After she had sunk the Hood, Bismarck carried on south with the Prinz Eugen. She'd been damaged. Oil tanks had been pierced, a boat had been smashed. She wasn't as healthy as she had been, and it was quite obvious she had to call off going into the Atlantic. And it was equally obvious that she had to get to a port for repairs. Now Lütjens, Admiral Lütjens, could have done one of two things. He could have turned around and gone back to Germany the way he had come, knowing that it was unlikely that there was anything in his way, but he couldn't be certain. There could have been another battleship in Scapa Flow, which would come out and attack him. And so he decided to go on to Brest, which at that time, of course the French port was occupied by the Germans. He decided to do that, but then he wanted to do it to release Prinz Eugen for ocean warfare.
So what he did, we were zigzagging behind the- when I say we, I mean the Prince of Wales and the Norfolk. I think the Prince of Wales, and the Norfolk, and Suffolk were zigzagging behind the German ships. And so the way he did it was, when the British ships were as far away from him as he could, he put the wheel... Well, Captain Lindemann put the wheel of the Bismarck right over to starboard, as far as it would go. And of course, the middle of the night now, this was in the middle of the night, and made a huge circuit like that, crossed her own wake, and resumed her course for Brest. And at that moment, we lost her. And Prinz Eugen went off to the west. So we'd lost the British ships. We didn't know where they were or where they were going.
And then there was a lot of difficulty in finding her because Bismarck sent a signal to Berlin saying what she was intending to do and we picked this up. We didn't, at that time, decode the message. But we picked up the point of origin on the map, and it was pretty clear from that, that she was going to Brest. There was some confusion in the Admiralty. In the flagship, the plotting was done wrongly, and it was thought that she was going back the way she'd come to Scapa Flow, tha t way, would pass Scapa Flow. So there was a bit of, "We don't quite know where we are." And then finally, the Admiralty decided she was going for Brest.
So after the battle with the Hood, Bismarck went on south. Meanwhile, Admiral Tovey, in the King George V, with an aircraft carrier called the Victorious, was converging on him at a point, in the direction in which he was going. And the Victorious made a torpedo attack on the Bismarck, which wasn't very successful. One torpedo hit, but above the waterline on the armored belt. So it didn't do much damage. It killed one man. I think another. But it wasn't very successful. The amazing thing was that the Bismarck never shot any of these old planes down. These were Swordfish airplanes, two wings, they were biplanes. And one of the German survivors told me he thought they hadn't been able to shoot them down because they couldn't believe any plane was going so slowly. And therefore their deflection, the aim off wasn't anything like as... They were missing ahead the whole time, you see. So that was that. And all those plans got back. And then after that, Bismarck, Admiral Lütjens realized he must go onto Brest. And so in order to release Prinz Eugen for ocean warfare, he told the captain to make an enormous circuit to the starboard and come right around, across his own wake, and then continue like that. And the Prinz Eugen, meanwhile, went away to the west. So that was that.
Now the next thing that happened was, where is Bismarck? And we sent airplanes all over the place to look for her. And there was one sector which one of the planning officers to the Admiralty said must be covered. And in the end, that was the sector in which she was found, much further south than we thought. And it was found by Catalina flying boat. And the interesting thing about that is that it was piloted by an American, Ensign. Now Roosevelt, as part of helping Britain, had allowed, I think, 20 or 30 American Naval officers to come over and teach our people how to fly these Catalinas. And this man, Ensign Smith, was actually flying the Catalina at the time when he appeared over the Bismarck and all hell was loosed at him, but he managed to get out of the way and sent off a report, or the British co-pilot sent off a report saying he'd found the Bismarck.
Of course people today would wonder why we couldn't find the Bismarck sooner than we did. But of course, in those days, there were no satellites. There was not that kind of thing. The ocean was huge, and one ship in it was tiny. And you could have radar to pick up a ship if it was within 20 or 30 miles of you. And you could have underwater listening gear. The Germans had that. But that, again, had a range of about 20 miles. Otherwise, you couldn't- and you see, the airplanes couldn't- You only had so many airplanes to cover a huge amount of ocean, and they could only cover a small part of it. They could only actually investigate a small part of it. So to today's generation, it may sound extraordinary that Bismarck was missing for so long, but that's how it was in those days.
In my ship, the Tartar, with another ship in our flotilla, called the Mishona, they were known as tribal destroyers, and they were the most modern destroyers in the Navy. We joined forces with Admiral Tovey in the King George V, and also the battleship Rodney, which we'd started this operation with, if you remember, five days earlier, or four days earlier. And we were 150 miles north of Bismarck, and it didn't seem possible we could possibly catch her up before she escaped into Brest. And I remember a lovely signal, when Admiral Tovey signaled to the captain of the Rodney. He signaled, "Speed of the fleet 22 knots." And Rodney had dropped behind and kept on dropping behind and signaled to Tovey, "I'm afraid my 22 knots is rather slower than yours." And so he had to wait until she caught up. But it looked as though we couldn't possibly catch up.
Well, then the next thing that happened was, I told you that a thing called Force H, consisting, under Admiral Somerville, of the aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, the cruiser, Sheffield, and the battle cruiser, Renown, were stationed at Gibraltar. And they were coming up from Gibraltar to intercept Bismarck if they possibly could on her way to Brest. And when they got within range and discovered where she was, they sent off one flight of airplanes to torpedo her. Unfortunately, they sighted the Sheffield, which is unfortunate. The Sheffield was supposed to be 20 miles ahead, and they made a torpedo attack on her. And luckily they missed. And then they went to send another torpedo attack on the Bismarck and it didn't look very good. The weather was very, very bad. And the aircraft carrier was heaving about like this in the very, very rough sea. And they managed to get them all off though.
And by the grace of God, one of the torpedoes, one hit the side, didn't do much damage. The other one hit the rudder of the Bismarck, and jammed the rudder at 15 degrees. And this meant that the Bismarck couldn't steer properly and headed, not towards Brest, but with the 15 degrees of rudder, headed north towards us. And I remember we got a signal saying, "Course of Bismarck now north, due north." And Admiral Tovey, when he saw this, said, "Poor old Larcom," who was the captain of the Sheffield, who was from Sheffield, "Poor old Larcom has joined the Reciprocal Club." And by that he meant that the Bismarck was actually going from right to left when he thought she was going from left to right, which is quite an easy thing to do in bad weather. And so that's what he said.
And then five minutes later, we got another signal from Sheffield saying, "Course of Bismarck now 340," which is nearly north. And finally, we all realized that, in fact, what had happened. We realized that the Bismarck couldn't steer. And so on board the Bismarck, they tried every kind of wheel order and propeller order they could in order to get back towards Brest. But every time they did it, the wind and the rudder shoved her back towards the north. So then Tovey realized that, by the grace of God, the Bismarck had been delivered into his hands. And it must've been a great temptation for him to attack her that night because he was, by this time, he was catching up the whole time. He didn't attack her that night because he didn't know, fully know, where all the other British ships were, and he distrusted the visibility.
But it was a brave thing to do because he didn't know that the Germans couldn't repair the damage during the night and then slip away home. But in fact, they weren't able to, because in the sea, it was going up and down like that, you couldn't have got a diver down, and you couldn't have put an explosive charge down without blowing off the propellers as well. So they were absolutely stuck. But it was a gallant thing to do.
Oh, in the middle of the night, there was a destroyer attack, not our destroyers, but five other destroyers made an attack. But they didn't have any hits at all. And one or two of the destroyers were slightly hit by the Bismarck. As a friend of mine, who was in a destroyer, called the Zulu, had his arm cut off there by a flying bit of shell.
So that was an unsuccessful attack, but in the morning we finally came across her. I think it was the most marvelous looking ship I've ever seen. Massive, 50,000 tons, but also beautiful. And that's an extraordinary mixture with this high flat bow, and the symmetry of the two guns forward, the two main guns forward. Then the main ones, and then the superstructure, and then the two main turrets aft. And she was beautiful. And we realized that she had to be destroyed, beautiful as she may have been. And we hoped we would be sent into torpedo her, but we were terribly short of fuel, and Admiral Tovey sent us a signal because we were so short of fuel. He said, "Proceed as convenient to Londonderry to top up with fuel." And the captain said, "Well, I'm going to decide what's convenient." And he said, "We'll stick around for a bit." So we had a ringside seat at the battle. And it was an extraordinary day. I'll never forget it. It was the color contrast, really, I remember. The gray of the British ships, the blackness, she was a great black ship, the Bismarck, in the middle, dwarfing everybody else. Little bits of blue in the sky, which we hadn't seen for the whole past five days. It had been a gray misty time. And then the brown puffs of the cordite smoke coming from the guns of the Bismarck and the British ships. And then the orange flashes of the guns, and this green sea all around. It was a wonderful mixture of colors.
And then they started hitting the Bismarck. She didn't hit our ships. She was near on one occasion, but she didn't hit. And they just started hitting the Bismarck. And that was a dreadful sight. I mean, it was a dreadful sight, because she was such a marvelous looking ship. And then after a bit- The battle didn't last very long, only about an hour. And then after a bit, you saw flames in various parts of the ship, and you could see them through cracks in the side and in the deck, and smoke coming out too. One of the forward turrets had one gun pointing up towards the sky, and the other one drooping down. And then one of the aft guns, something had exploded, and it looked like a peel banana because some explosion had somehow twisted it and warped it. And then, we saw the foremast fall, the top of the foremast fall.
And then, as we sat and watched, we saw something. You see, the thing about a Naval battle, a modern Naval battle, it's a battle between ships and not between men. You never see the enemy. And then we did. Towards the end of the battle, we saw this little trickle of men run down, across the forequarter deck and jump into the sea. And that was a very eerie sight, because suddenly the human side had entered into it. And we realized what an appalling carnage we were causing on board. The captain of the Rodney said, "I didn't really want to go on firing shells into it, but there was nothing else I could do." And he did something which was quite interesting. He turned out of the line. He and the King George V were in the line of battle, and did something which no British captain had done since the Battle of Capes St. Vincent in 1797. He turned out of the line on his own accord because he wanted to get a clear vision of fire. And that's what he did.
So then, we didn't stay to see the final end. But there's an interesting thing there, and that's this: Tovey sent a signal saying, "Any destroyer with torpedoes, go in and Torpedo the Bismarck." But he'd already told us to go home, so we couldn't do it. But the cruiser, Dorsetshire, had a few torpedoes. And she closed in, and she fired two from one side, and one from the other side, and they were said to have hit. But I spoke to two survivors of the Bismarck after the battle, when I made a film about it. And I heard from them how the Bismarck had actually scuttled herself before the end. It wasn't the British shells or the British torpedoes, which had been the coup de grâce. She'd have sunk anyway, I have no doubt. But in fact, the commander of the ship, Commander Ernst, sent a signal to the engineer in charge of scuttling, "Measure five." Measure five meant open the seacocks and scuttle. And then the other survivor I interviewed was one of the people who actually did this. Of course, the British on a whole, don't like to be reminded of this. They think that the British Navy and the whole like to think that the Bismarck was sunk entirely by the British Navy, but it wasn't so.,
There were a lot of survivors swimming in the water, and of course, a lot of them had been badly wounded, and a lot of them died on the way to the British ship. The Dorsetshire was going to pick up survivors, and another ship, another destroyer, called the Maury. And the Dorsetshire had picked up a number of survivors, I can't remember how many, when an officer on the bridge drew the captain's attention to what looked like a smoke float a mile or so away on the surface. Well, the captain didn't know what it was. Nobody knew what it was. But we did know that there had been U-boats in the area. In fact, the U-556 had had an opportunity the day before of torpedoing, the Ark Royal and the Renown, which went right over the top. But she was on her way back to Brest and had run out of torpedoes. So we knew that there were U-boats in the area. In that case, the captain of the Dorsetshire simply couldn't risk hazarding his ship, if there was a U-boat there. So reluctantly, he ordered the engine room to go full speed ahead. And these wretched Germans hanging onto the ropes, which were pulling them up, had to be left behind. I think seven of them were picked up by a German weather ship two or three days later. But of the ship's company, the Bismarck ship's company of 2,200 men, something like that, we only rescued just over 100. So the majority of them were killed or drowned.
The reaction was relief, tremendous relief tinged with, I don't know what. For me anyway, tinged with, I wouldn't call it sadness, but tinged with a sense of pity and a sense of awe at having been present at this tragedy. In a way it was a tragedy. It was a tragedy in human terms, but it was vitally necessary that she was sunk because as I said earlier, she could have caused havoc amongst the Atlantic convoys. So she had to be sunk. But Winston Churchill interrupted some proceedings in the House of Commons, and he waved a paper, and he said, "Mr. Speaker." He said, "I have some news I would like to give to the House. The Bismarck has been sunk." And so everybody cheered.
I mean, that torpedo hitting that rudder at that time and place determined the result of the battle. It was an incredible piece of luck. I mean, if it hadn't been for that and Bismarck got into Brest, she'd have been bombed there every night and she might've found it difficult to get out. I mean, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were in Brest for a long period before they finally came through the channel, got back to Germany. And they were bombed pretty regularly. The Bismarck would have been bombed even more heavily. So she might never have been able to get out. This, we don't know.
Warships don't surrender. My father's ship was an old passenger liner called the Rawalpindi. And it was, in these same waters, discovered by the German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in 1939. And it was the most one-sided fight you could imagine. He had a lot of old six inch guns going from the First World War. The Germans had the 11 inch guns in the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Rawalpindi was made of wood, but there was no question of surrender. She was flying the White Ensign, and so she had to do the best she could. And she did score one hit on the Gneisenau. It didn't do any harm, didn't do any damage. But she was then sunk within about 15 minutes, and set on fire. Similarly, the Germans couldn't have scuttled then. Of course the Graf Spee did scuttle itself in Montevideo, also in 1939, but that was rather different. I mean, she wasn't at sea, she hadn't actually left harbor, but the captain there realized it was going to be too difficult to get past the British cordon, which was hemming him in. But the Bismarck couldn't have surrendered. Would have been impossible.
I mean, we were present at something so much bigger than ourselves, at a great moment in history, a determining moment in history, which in human terms was something you could only respect and wonder at.
I told you, with this U-boat, U-556, which was in the area of the battle a day or two before, and actually was in a position where the Ark Royal, and the Sheffield, and the Renown were heading up for where the Bismarck was. And these British ships came right over U-556's head. The captain was called Wohlfarth, and he wrote in his report, "I could have torpedoed the Ark Royal without any difficulties. She was there, two or 300 yards away from me, but I'd run out of torpedoes. I'd used all my last torpedoes." And he'd used his very last torpedo on a little tiny merchant ship, which, well, it was hardly worth a torpedo. And somebody in the crew had said, "No, you mustn't do that. You must keep it in case something else crops up." And he didn't. And so that was that.
When the U-556 was commissioning in Hamburg, the Bismarck was at the next jetty. And so he sent a drawing because he was quite a good cartoonist to Captain Lindemann of the Bismarck saying, "Could I borrow your band for my commissioning ceremony?" Because the Bismarck had a wonderful band. And he drew a little picture of the U-556 towing the Bismarck and he wrote a little thing underneath it saying, "If ever the Bismarck is in difficulty, I will be there to tow her to safety." And he sent this over, and Lindemann was delighted and sent over the band, and they had a very good commission. But it was an extraordinary coincidence that just a little bit later, a few months later, that he should be in that position of being able to help the Bismarck, and yet was not able to.
The Prince of Wales, although a very modern ship, was not fully worked up. And she had on board some of the civilian workmen from the builders who were there to ease out the difficulties. And at one point in the battle, she had only at something like 20% of her guns firing because they just got jammed. They hadn't been fired in anchor before. They had been fired on trials, but obviously not enough. And so there was this problem too. And so somebody once said, "Well, thank God she didn't meet the Bismarck alone because she would have been overwhelmed." As it was, she was hit several times. And there was one shell landed just by the bridge and killed most of the people on the bridge, except the captain, and blinded the actor, Esmond Knight, who was an RNVR officer, and a great bird watcher, and a delightful man. And he did actually, it blinded him completely. And he did, after the war, go back to the stage and had a lot of successful parts, including The Red Shoes, which my wife was in. And he was a delightful man. So the Prince of Wales was quite lucky in some ways.
Yes. As we were chasing the Bismarck towards Brest and 150 miles a stern, we knew we'd never catch up with her. And so there was nothing we could do except press on, hoping for the miracle to happen. And a miracle did happen. And Winston Churchill was so concerned about the Bismark getting away, that he sent a signal or he got Admiral Pound, the admiral, to send a signal to Tovey, saying, "Whatever happens, the Bismarck must not be allowed to get away. And you are to pursue her up to the shores of France if necessary, when you will be towed back." Well, this was the most ludicrous signal, and Tovey was very angry when he got this signal, he was to sacrifice his ship, and the only ship who could still catch the Bismarck. To sacrifice in that way was mad. And so they just laughed and threw the signal in the wastepaper basket.
I told you that Ensign Smith, who you've seen, was piloting this Catalina aircraft and spotted the Bismarck. Now, after the battle was over, we had quite a famous journalist in Britain at that time, called Godfrey Winn, a very popular journalist, who earned a lot of money. And he went up to interview the crew of this Catalina aircraft. And of course, he had the most wonderful scoop in his hands because he discovered this was not being piloted by a British pilot, but by an American. And that was a tremendous story. But of course, he couldn't use it because the US Neutrality Act was in force. And if the word had leaked out that had been broken by this man piloting this airplane, Hitler would've got very angry. It might've started the war with America even earlier.
We didn't know, of course, why at that time. We didn't know what had happened to Bismarck. All we knew is that she was steering in our direction, and there was a feeling of tremendous exaltation that actually we were getting to meet her at last, that she had been delivered into our hands. It was an extraordinary feeling. I remember the night before the battle, it was a very windy, wet night, and a bit of a gale running, and that kind of thing. And I was at my action station, which was the pom-pom gun. And although the Bismarck wasn't very near us, the captain very wisely said, "We shall all go to our action stations." And one hand, conflicting thoughts at the time. ‘Was the Bismarck going to get away?’ Because we didn't know what had happened to her, you see. All we knew was that we were getting nearer and nearer to her.
And the rain lashed, and the water came down one's oilskins, and one was pretty miserable, hungry, and cold, and could have done with a few drinks, which we couldn't have. And we had- The army officer was a friend of one of my officers, and he'd come on board for what he thought was a nice four day trip, not realizing how it was going to end up. And he got a bit tight after dinner as the captain realized this. And I think he sent him down to his cabin, and told him he was not to move from there
It was a milestone in my life, but it was one- It was probably the most traumatic six days of my life. I remember it vividly, and more clearly than almost anything else. And so it's lasted. It's always in my mind there, that week of pursuit and chase. It had something of the elements of a Greek tragedy about it, pursuit and finding, and losing, and finding again, and death and disaster, and victory and defeat. It had all those things in it. And it was wonderful in that way. And so I'm always quite happy when people like yourselves want me to refresh my memory and talk about it again, because it's something that's very much part of me.
That was Sir Ludovic Kennedy.
To learn more about Kennedy’s knighthood, and his successful career in journalism and broadcasting, click the link in the show notes.
Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear from Fred Wellman, who served in the Army for 22 years as an aviator and public affairs officer. Fred was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, and completed four tours during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
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