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HMS Rodney 1937. Strathdee Collection

Veterans

 

A story of humans plunged into combat. A famous tale told by those who were there

This is a story of vast scale and in my ‘Bismarck trilogy’ it is above all delivered by the men who were there. They witnessed the opening clash that sank Hood and took part in the Bismarck Action’s terrible finale.

As they pursued Bismarck the sailors, marines and aviators of the Royal Navy felt anxiety that they may meet the same fate as their shipmates in Hood but also a determination to even the score.

The crew of Bismarck had rejoiced at sinking Hood. Until Bismarck was commissioned, Hood was the biggest and most admired capital ship afloat. She was an icon of British naval supremacy for two decades. However, as the Germans reveal, with the grip of the Royal Navy tightening their jubilation changed to a feeling of doom.

Many of those who tell their stories in my Bismarck trilogy were in the thick of the action: in the cockpits of Swordfish torpedo-bombers dodging enemy flak; taking on the hydra-like British navy; aboard the RN battleship that was Bismarck’s persecutor; serving in the British cruiser that delivered the coup de grace; striving to stay alive in the icy sea; in tiny destroyers that dared to take on the giant German warship; aboard a U-boat that strove to protect the pride of the Kriegsmarine.

From ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’:

‘The ship was taking green water. The bow was going up 60ft and down. It was raining, windy, and the ship was rolling and pitching, but there was no problem in take-off.’
Terry Goddard, a Swordfish aviator on departing HMS Ark Royal to attack Bismarck.

So, down we went. Ice was peeling off the wings, couldn’t see a bloody thing. The altimeter is spinning, spinning, spinning and then we break into the clear about 600ft and there’s Bismarck on our starboard bow. She was a fire-spitting monster.’
Terry Goddard, on his aircraft’s torpedo run against Bismarck on 26 May 1941.

‘Number One, I think we will finish the Bismarck off ourselves.’ 
The captain of the destroyer HMS Maori to his second in command.

‘I wasn’t married at the time, but I had a girl in Hamburg, and I thought: “I must see her again! I must see her again! I won’t go down!” That was going on in my head while I was in the water.’
Bismarck sailor Otto Peters on what kept him alive after he abandoned ship.

From ‘HMS Rodney’:

‘We were glad to think, of all the British ships, that we would get the opportunity to avenge the Hood.’ Frank Summers, a sailor in the battleship HMS Rodney.

‘I counted up to ten broadsides, wondering whether they were outgoing shells or incoming.’ Jack Austin, a Royal Marine in the battleship HMS Rodney.

‘Someone during the Great War coined the phrase: “There is no hate in the front line, unless for those who put us there.” We were all young and lashed to the same bitter wheel with only two ways for getting off. Some of us were lucky… ‘
Donald Campbell, an officer in the battleship HMS Rodney.

From ‘Killing the Bismarck’:

‘Now, finally, he could give orders for the guns to fix on their target. Barely had eight minutes of action thundered when the inside of Prince of Wales’ gunnery control position was brightly illuminated, as if by a brilliant sunset. Lt Cdr McMullen was too busy using his optics to get the measure of the enemy to tear his eyes away and see what had happened.’
Extract from ‘Killing the Bismarck’. 

‘I was covered in dirt and blood, my head throbbing like mad. One of my shoes was missing. My uniform was in tatters and a strange sensation in my confused mind was telling me I should not have let the Hood go down, that I should have reached out and grabbed the bows as they were disappearing into the depths of the ocean.
Sam Wood, a rating in the battleship HMS Prince of Wales.

‘Admiral Lütjens hesitated to give his assent for his ships to hit back. His orders were to avoid engaging capital ships if he could. While he had envisaged tackling perhaps one British battleship, here were two. Standing beside the admiral on the bridge, Kapitän Lindemann angrily watched seconds of hesitation turn into minutes. “I will not let my ship be shot out from under my ass,” he muttered, before using the internal telephone system to advise his Gunnery Officer: “Permission to fire”.’
Extract from ‘Killing the Bismarck’.

…gradually we saw the Bismarck heel over on her side. Some of her guns fire and then, with a sudden lurch, she turns uppermost, her hull being red hot as it appears upon the surface, some raging inferno within burning out the heart of the ship… “The pride of Hitler’s Fleet” sank stern first and the waves covering her after a glorious fight against odds…“The Hood” has been avenged.’
A.E. Franklin, a sailor in the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire.

‘We noted that our shells, which were one ton in weight and the biggest in the world at sea, were making quite a number of hits on Bismarck.’
Yves Dias, a young officer in the battleship HMS Rodney.

‘Once airborne, thoughts of toppling or flying into the ocean were soon displaced by how to best carry out the search. Decided it was best to get above the muck. At about 5,000 feet, we found a window between top of muck and bottom of towering cumulus. Agreed to stay there. I always took care to get the homing beacon fine-tuned. Thoughts now turned to Bismarck and what she might look like.’

Fleet Air Arm aviator Terry Goddard aboard a Royal Navy carrier during the Second World War. (Photo: Goddard Collection.)

‘We tried a few times – going head on into the sea and then turning – and we fired the four torpedoes… We would be straddled with 15-inch shells, then it was up smoke [screen] and out as fast as we could go.

Ken Robinson, a sailor in the destroyer HMS Cossack (Photo: Robinson Collection)