Gerhard Junack was in the mid-ships engine-room when Commander Walter Lehmann on the telephone gave the order for scut-ding charges. Junack told his men to place them with time fuses in the cooling water intakes, and to open the seacocks, then go up top. The compartment was full of fumes but the lights were still burning brightly. They were burning too on the armoured deck, though no one was there. The firing had stopped, said Junack, and it was deathly still.
By this time a lot of men had gathered on the quarter-deck, 200 or Soo. They were all horrified by what they saw : the tangled wreckage, smoke and flames, the piles of dead and mutilated, the moans of the wounded. Some helped to adjust the lifebelts of the less badly wounded, put them over the sides.
Before the British ships had ceased firing, many men had gone over the side of their own accord to escape the merciless shelling; they could be seen strung out in a long line astern, for the ship was still moving. Now the others followed.
The Dorsetshire came round from the port side where she had fired her last torpedo, lay stopped in the sea a little way off. Survivors struck out as well as they could towards her, although with the high seas and the oil from the Bismarck’s tanks and the wounds of many, it wasn’t easy. After more than an hour’s swimming the first of them reached the Dorsetshire’s side, where rafts, ropes, nets and lifelines of all kinds had been let down.
The Dorsetshire picked up some 85 men, the destroyer Maori some 25. Many more were in the process of being hauled up and hundreds were waiting in the water when the Dorsetshire’s navigating officer sighted a smoky discharge in the water two miles away. The most likely explanation was a U-boat. The Dorsetshire, laying stopped in the water, was a sitting target. In the circumstances, the captain had no choice but to ring down for full speed, and the Maori did the same.
The Bismarck crewmen who were almost on board were bundled over the rails to the deck; those halfway up the ropes found themselves trailing astern, hung on as long as they could, then dropped off; others in the water clawed frantically at the paintwork as the side slipped by.
In Dorsetshire they heard the thin cries of hundreds who had come within a hair’s breadth of rescue, cries that the British sailors, no less than the Germans already on board, would always remember. Later, another five men would be picked up, but of the Bismarck’s company of more than 2,000, only 110 survived.
In Germany, people were as depressed by the news of the Bismarck’s death as the British had been by the death of the Hood; more so perhaps, for unlike the British they had no hopes of a compensating victory. Yet in Britain, the general reaction to the news of the sinking was one of relief rather than exhilaration.
On the afternoon of the battle, in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, not yet knowing the final outcome, told an enthralled House of the events up to the beginning of the final action, then went on to other business. In the middle of this, he was handed a note. “Mr Speaker,” he said, “I have just heard that the Bismarck has been sunk.” Members cheered and waved their papers, thankful that the cloud that had darkened their horizon for the last five days had been lifted.
But one member, the writer Harold Nicolson, sat silent; more than some, he saw the thing in human terms, thought of the innumerable dead, sensed its tragedy. Nearly four thousand men were dead, half on either side, who felt no personal ill will towards each other, who in different circumstances might have played and laughed and sung together, kissed each other’s sisters, visited each other’s homes.
The British knew that the Bismarck was a menace that had to he destroyed, and vet to watch her die was not a pretty sight. Ships had always been Britain’s livelihood and life, and the Bismarck was a ship after all, perhaps the finest they had seen. Today, the battleship is extinct, but those of us who lived with, and in, those strange, lovely, vast, mysterious creatures, remember them with pride; are proud, too, to have been at sea in their company in that week when the Hood and the Bismarck sailed to glory and disaster.