Was Bismarck Sunk Or Scuttled? An endless battleship debate that has both sides passionately defending their beliefs. Germany’s legendary 823-foot battleship Bismarck went down at 10:40am on May 27th, 1941, of a 2,221-man crew, only 115 survived.
Bismarck would suffer a barrage of torpedoes from the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire at her end. In addition, to 90+ minutes of shells from the HMS King George V and HMS Rodney as well. Furthermore, the Royal Navy ships fired over 700 shells at Bismarck that morning.
At her end Bismarck was just a floating target. One by one her guns were blown apart and taken out of action. Bismarck’s highest ranking survivor, Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg wrote of her end:
“My aft director gave a violent shudder, and my two petty officers and I had our heads bounced hard against the eyepieces. What did that? When I tried to get my target in view again, it wasn’t there; all I could see was blue. I was looking at something one didn’t normally see, the `blue layer’ baked on the surface of the lenses and mirrors to make the picture clearer. My director had been shattered. Damn! I had just found the range of my target and now I was out of the battle.”
But, did she actually sink because of the Royal Navy torpedoes and shelling or was it due to a German order to scuttle the ship?
Firstly, we have a Bismarck survivor Bruno Rzonca who recounted the following in 2003:
“So the last order came through: Abandon ship and leave the doors open.”
“When the skipper gave the order to abandon the ship, we looked for an exit. I was looking around and saw men sitting on a bench and I asked, ‘Don’t you want to save yourselves?’ They said, ‘There is no ship coming. The water is too cold. The waves too high. We are going down with the ship.’”
Furthermore, Bismarck survivor Executive Officer Hans Oels claims to have given an order to scuttle ship. In addition, Gerhard Junack, the chief engineering officer, clainms to have ordered scuttling charges to be set in the engine room.
But, even if this is true, could a runner really have made it through a burning battleship?
Unlike aircraft carriers, battleships are built like a maze. With tons of watertight compartments in an attempt to make the ships unsinkable. The US Navy’s USS Nevada survived two atomic blasts before sinking. Furthermore, with Bismarck’s guns disabled. The Royal Navy was taking shots at her within a point blank range of 2,500 meters. British Admiral of the Fleet John Cronyn Tovey remarked about Bismarck at the end, “What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of.”
Furthermore, let’s take a look at Bismarck’s sister ship Tirpitz. She was incredibly hard to sink. British inventor, Sir Barnes Wallis, built a special bomb used for Tirpitz. A 12,000 pound “Tall Boy.”
In fact, the British had to drop 3 of these 12,000 pound behemoths on Tirpirtz, before she would eventually sink.
Furthermore, all of the Bismarck’s commanding officers were dead by the sinking. HMS Rodney landed a large 406-millimeter shell on the Bismarck’s superstructure at about 9:02, as a result, most likely had probably killed many of the ship’s officers. Including, the chief commanders on board who were Admiral Günther Lütjens and Captain Ernst Lindemann.
Mullenheim-Rechberg admits in his own words in ‘Battleship Bismarck’ that there was no order on the ship at her end. And the idea that there was some coordinated effort involving runners going from one part of the ship to another seems unlikely.
“Unable to leave our station because an inferno was raging outside, we knew little about what was going on elsewhere. Was the ship’s command still in the forward command post? Was Lindemann still in charge there? No reports came down to us nor were we asked what was happening in our area. We had not heard a single word from the forward part of the ship since the action began but, considering the large number of hits we had felt, there must have been some drastic changes.”
In conclusion, Mullenheim-Rechberg also admits that no scuttling order ever even reached him.
“The order was given to scuttle and abandon the ship, although I did not know it then. In fact, no such order ever reached me.”
And this is despite the fact that a large portion of the surviving Bismarck crew came to his station. As a result of it being one of the few standing and safe areas for sailors.
“Men who had had to abandon their own stations or protected rooms began arriving to take refuge in my station.”
So at the minimum, if there was a “scuttle” order given by Oels it was not received by much of the ship. But, did Gerhard Junack set charges that made the difference in Bismarck’s sinking?
Junack published in 1967 the following:
“Somewhere about 1015 hours, I received an order over the telephone from the Chief Engineer [Korvettenkapitän (Ing.) Walter Lehmann]: ‘Prepare the ship for sinking.’ That was the last order I received on the Bismarck. Soon after that, all transmission of orders collapsed.
As it became quieter up above, I sent my best petty officer to the engine-room to ask for further instructions, but the man apparently perished on his way, for he never returned. I felt compelled therefore to get an answer myself. One last look round to check that all the bulkheads were unfastened, then I sent the crew to the centre deck, giving my chief turbine-engineer orders to connect the explosive charges. Eventually I left with the turbines still moving slowly in compliance with the Engineer’s orders.
The lower decks were brilliantly lit up; a peaceful mood prevailed, such as that on a Sunday afternoon in port – the silence broken only by the explosion of our own demolition-charges below. I myself saw the result of the battle on the battery-deck. There was no electric light, only the red glow from numerous fires; smoke fumes billowed everywhere; crushed doors and hatches littered the decks, and men were running here and there, apparently aimlessly: it seemed highly unlikely that one would survive.”
But this account is contradicted by Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg. Müllenheim-Rechberg writes that he called all over the ship without reaching Lehmann and this is before 1000. Well before the 1015 when this supposed call arrived
“I was using all the telephone circuits and calling all over the place in an effort to find out as much as possible about the condition of the ship.”