Someone suggested a diver going over the stern, reaching the rudders that way. But there was nothing for a diver to cling to, and in those tumultuous seas he would be sucked right down or smashed to pieces against the side. Others volunteered to blow off the rudders with explosives—and to give their lives in the process. But even if a man could get near them, he would almost certainly damage the propellers as well, leaving the ship completely impotent.
Could the ship be steered by propellers alone? On the bridge, where it was almost dark, Lindemann tried every combination of telegraph orders he could imagine : half ahead port, stop centre and starboard; half ahead port and centre, slow astern starboard; full ahead port, half ahead centre, stop starboard. The result was the same; for a while the ship’s head pointed more or less in the direction he wanted, then the jammed rudders brought the bows slowly back towards the north-west and danger, away from safety and home. There was nothing wrong with the engines or main armament, but this absurd 15 degrees of port rudder made the ship helpless as a babe.
“To the Fuhrer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler,” Lütjens signalled before midnight. “We fight to the last in our belief in you, my Führer, and in the firm faith in Germany’s victory.” Hitler replied from the Berghof two hours later, “I thank you in the name of the German people.”
From Group West came signals of more practical encouragement. All available U-boats were steering for the Bismarck; three tugs were on their way to take her in tow; protective squadrons of German bombers would be reaching the ship by dawn. Yet as time went by and the course and speed of the ship remained the same, there was a smell of death in the air. With every hour, the gap between themselves and the enemy was slowly but inevitably closing; the final reckoning could not long be delayed.
Towards dawn, Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg visited the bridge. He noticed Captain Lindemann was wearing an inflated lifebelt, went over and saluted. Lindemann stared at him dully, didn’t return the salute. “He looked like a man doomed to destruction, dead tired, waiting patiently for the end.” Mullenheim-Rechberg moved to the chart table and saw the drunken course the ship had been steering through the night, a picture that was self-explanatory.
No Longer a Menace
DURING the night Tovey planned his battle tactics. Several days ago the old battleship Rodney had set out for Boston for a refit, accompanying four destroyers and a troopship. But she had been diverted to the pursuit and now trailed the King George V, along with the destroyers Tartar and Mashona. Five other destroyers, under Captain Philip Vian, had also come up, and throughout the night they sought to close the range on the Bismarck, launching their torpedoes. Then four of them took station round the crippled battleship.
The King George V and Rodney would approach the enemy head-on in line abreast. “I hoped,” said Tovey, “that the sight of two battleships steering straight for them would shake the nerves of the range-takers and control officers, who had already had four anxious days and nights.” The two ships would close as quickly as possible to seven or eight miles, then turn and fire broadsides.
At dawn Tovey went to his cabin,as Nelson had done before Trafalgar, and prayed, as he put it, “for guidance and help.” The longer he prayed, the calmer he felt. It was, he said, “as if all responsibility had been taken from me and I knew everything would be all right.” He returned to the bridge refreshed and confident.
Officers and lookouts strained through binoculars to catch a first glimpse of the ship that for days had been in the very marrow of their lives. And then suddenly there she was, “veiled in distant rainfall,” wrote Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Guernsey, “a thick, squat ghost of a ship, very broad in the beam, coming straight towards us.” The time was 8.43 a.m.; the range, twelve and a half miles.
Four minutes later the Rodney fired, then the flagship. It was like a small earthquake. On the King George V the compass bounded out of its binnacle, Guernsey’s tin hat was blown on to the deck, a pile of signals was scattered to the winds.
The salvoes fell as the Bismarck was turning to bring all her guns to bear; great white clumps rose all round her, higher than her foremast. Then it was her turn. In the British ships they saw a ripple of orange fire down the length of her, followed by a pall of cordite smoke.