A Time For Miracles
THE leader of the second striking force was Lieutenant-Commander Tim Coode. He and his 44 fellow pilots, observers and air-gunners had no illusions about what lay ahead; but on them now lay all the hopes of the Navy, and of England, for if they could not slow the Bismare k down, no one else could.
The weather was as bad as ever, angry seas, cloud at about 600 feet, frequent rain storms which at times blotted out visibility almost entirely. There had been a suggestion that the Fulmar fighters should also take off, to create a diversion during the attack, but in these conditions it was impossible; ironically, only the slow, ungainly, out-of-date Swordfish were operable.
At 7.10 p.m. the green flag went down, Coode opened his throttle, and his Swordfish trundled down the slippery deck. One by one the others followed.
They sighted the Sheffield at 8.35 p.m., and Captain Larcom signalled to Coode, “The enemy is 12 miles dead ahead.” Coode led the striking force upwards, to meet above the cloud and there split up so as to approach the Bismarck from different directions. But the wall of cloud reached to io,000 feet. With no chance of carrying out a co-ordinated attack, each sub-flight of two or three planes must attack on its own. Coode’s own sub-flight was the first, and down through the grey murk they screamed.
Some minutes later those on the bridge of the Sheffield, 12 miles astern, saw stabs of light and the brown puffs of bursting shells on the Bismarck’s port side. The time was 8.53 p.m. The last attack had begun.
On the admiral’s bridge of the King George V and in the plotting-room just off it, Tovey and his officers once more waited for news. There were no longer any calculations to be made about the enemy’s position; questions of fuel and endurance had long been decided; they knew that in less than three hours, barring a miracle, they would have to turn for home. Everyone was tired, physically and emotionally, and the movements of the ship did nothing to ease it.
And now the buzzer from the wireless office sounded; a signal had arrived. The Fleet Signal Officer unwrapped it, read, “From the leader of the striking force. Estimate no hits.” It was the final blow.
Although all hope was gone, the squadron steamed on; there was nothing else to do. Presently another signal arrived on Tovey’s bridge, this time from the Sheffield. “Enemy’s course 340 degrees,” it said. Tovey looked at it, baffled: 340 degrees was north-north-west, or directly towards them. “I fear Larcom has joined the reciprocal club,” he said bitingly. What he meant was that Larcom had mistakenly judged the Bismarck to be moving from right to left instead of left to right. It was not an uncommon mistake, especially at long range and in poor visibility, though hardly to be expected from so senior an officer.
But a few minutes later another signal arrived, this time from a shadowing Swordfish. “Enemy steering due north,” it said. A few more minutes passed in which no one knew quite what to think, then a further Swordfish report confirmed the Sheffield’s estimate of north-north-west. And then the Sheffield reported again, this time a course of north.
Now there was no doubt about it, something very serious had happened to the Bismarck. Tovey and his officers looked at each other with incredulity and joy.
Helpless As a Babe
Coode, with three planes and joined by a fourth from another sub-flight, had dropped out of the cloud on the Bismarck’s port beam. Thirteen of the 15 torpedoes were fired at the enemy, but Goode observed no definite hits at this stage. Afterwards, Goode hung around in the low cloud and rain, but saw no other attacks and, assuming that they were the only planes to find the target, he passed the signal to Tovey, “Estimate no hits.”
In fact, all the remaining Swordfish found the Bismarck. Returning to the Ark Royal, the pilots were debriefed, and as a result Captain Maund reported to Tovey, “Estimate one hit amidships,” and a while later, “Possible second hit on starboard quarter.”
It was a correct estimation. The hit amidships exploded against the armour belt, did no damage. But the hit on the starboard quarter was another matter.
Leading Seaman Herzog, a loader on the Bismarck’s starboard side aft, saw two planes coming towards him, wheels almost touching the wavetops, flying so low that at full depression his 37-mm flak gun could no longer bear. There was an explosion, and Herzog was thrown against other members of the crew. Down in the engine-room, Lieutenant-Commander Gerhard Junack saw the deck plates rise and fall “at least three feet.”
The ship was turning to port at high speed when the hit came. On the bridge Lindemann ordered the wheel to be centred. She refused to answer to it, went on swinging to port. The torpedo had struck right aft, at least 20 feet down, breached the steering-gear compartments and flooded them. The three propellers were unharmed, but the rudders were jammed at 15 degrees port. Ordinary Seaman Herbert Blum, on damage-control duty, remembered the time in the Baltic when they had practised their response to damage in the steering-gear compartment, and his lieutenant saying, “The chances of such a hit are 100,000 tot against.”
The first thing to do was try to free the rudders. The ship was put at slow speed into the wind, and below, the hatch leading to the steering compartments was opened. At once the water came surging and gushing into the passageway. Quickly the hatch was secured and battened down; no diver could possibly get down there, let alone move about and work.