Tovey had decided that the Bismarck was so damaged that she would never again be of any use to the Germans, despite the fact that she still remained afloat. A German Condor reconnaissance aircraft had already been sighted and the British commander believed a Luftwaffe attack could occur at any moment. Also, he had to break off the action, or else the remaining fuel might not be sufficient to take his ships back to the British bases. He ordered that the other ships should follow the flagship, which surprised the commanders of the respective ships. Would the action be broken off while the Bismarck remained afloat? Somerville had finally launched a group of 12 Swordfish aircraft which soon reached the scene of battle, but stayed at a respectful distance. They could see innumerable men swimming in the water abaft the enemy ship. ‘The gun duel between the ships was almost over,’ one of the airmen recalled. He gazed at the scene from his observer seat. ‘The Bismarck had turned to a smoking cauldron, rolling in the waves. She was still making headway with a few knots.’
The airmen saw the Rodney and King George V turn north and four minutes after Tovey had broken off the action, Somerville inquired what was going on. He was told that Tovey was low on fuel and returning to harbour. Bismarck was still afloat. The ships that had torpedoes left should try to sink her with those. ‘Can’t sink her with gunfire,’ the Admiral concluded.
Only the Dorsetshire still had any torpedoes. Commander Martin had awaited the order to torpedo the burning wreck. He soon received it, from Wake-Walker on board the Norfolk. The Dorsetshire closed the range to the Bismarck to deliver the coup de grâce.
In the starboard boiler room, Chief engine room artificer Schmidt reversed the pumps and opened all water-tight hatches nearby. He could hear Junack’s charges detonating at the engine control station not far away. Obviously, he urgently had to reach the deck. A seaman arrived and shouted ‘Everyone on deck!’
Meanwhile Junack and his subordinate worked their way upwards in the ship. As they passed the middle and upper platform decks, they expected to see frantic activity, but these spaces were deserted and the noise from the British firing had disappeared. ‘The lower decks were brilliantly lit up,’ he recalled, ‘A peaceful mood prevailed, such as that of a Sunday afternoon in port, – the silence only broken by the explosions of our demolition-charges below.’
The scenes became much worse when they reached battery deck, where most of the lights were out and groups of panic stricken men tried to find a way up through the smoke filled corridors. Junack was lucky. He encountered a group of seamen trying to get through a partially blocked hatch leading to the shelter deck. By persuading the men to take off their life vests, they managed to squeeze through the opening and one by one reach the deck.
At this stage, the ship was listing considerably, so much so that parts of the deck were below water. Men trying to leave the doomed ship crammed the deck. Junack could hear cries of distress, screams of pain, the sough from the flames and rumble from inrushing water, but for a moment was consumed by the irrelevant discovery that the cloud cover had broken up. He had not felt the sun on his face for many days.
Two powerful detonations rolled over the sea, as torpedoes from the Dorsetshire hit the doomed ship on the starboard side. These were followed by a third explosion on the port side a few minutes later. Junack joined a large group of people near the aft batteries. Several other officers were there too, among them Müllenheim-Rechberg, as well as hundreds of seamen and non-commissioned officers. Thick smoke obstructed visibility, but Junack could still see the ensign at the aft mast blowing in the wind.
Müllenheim-Rechberg ordered the men to inflate their life vests and prepare to jump into the sea. He and his men had remained in the fire control turret until the British fire ceased, but little time remained if they were not to sink with the ship. The list increased further. After a final salute to the ensign the men jumped into the sea.
Junack tried to instill some confidence into the men around him. ‘Don’t worry, comrades,’ he shouted to them. ‘I will be taking a Hamburg girl in my arms again!’ Then they jumped into the cold water, but many did not jump far enough. The waves threw them back against the hull and knocked them unconscious.
Junack never saw the fate of Lindemann, but some sailors in the water had a glimpse of two figures gradually working their way forward along the shelter deck. It was Lindemann, closely followed by his orderly. While the ship sank deeper and deeper, and the bow gradually raised, the Captain gesticulated to the younger man that he should save himself by jumping into the sea, but he refused and dutifully followed his commander. When both of them reached the stem, Lindemann stood at attention and moved his hand towards his white cap. The scene engraved itself on the memory of the men who witnessed it – ‘as if taken from a book, but I saw it with my own eyes’ – and then the ship rolled over and began to sink.
Müllenheim-Rechberg swam until he was far enough from it not to be sucked down when it sank. He checked himself and turned around to see the Bismarck capsize:
The whole starboard side of her hull, all the way to the keel, was out of the water. I scrutinized it for signs of battle damage and was surprised to see no sign s of any. Her port side had borne the brunt of the battle, and that side of her hull may have told a different story.
Before the eyes of the German seamen who had abandoned the ship, the Bismarck sank stern first. Small geysers of water pouring out left her hull and large bubbles of water developed in the oily water. A loud gurgling sound filled the air.
Then she was gone, as completely as if she had never existed. She took with her Lütjens, Lindemann, and perhaps as many as 1,400 seamen and officers, as well as all plans and dreams of successful cruiser warfare against British merchant shipping. No life remained on the Bismarck when she finally hit a volcano on the bottom of the ocean, almost five kilometres below the place where she had fought her last battle. She slid along the mountain slope before she settled in the sludge where she was to remain indefinitely.
For the men who had escaped sinking, another danger loomed large. The rough, cold and oily water was anything but benevolent. They struggled hard to keep their heads above the surface. The wounded suffered badly and their strength was rapidly sapped as they lost blood. The ice cold water first made their feet and hands numb, then legs and arms. Head after head disappeared below the waves, never to be seen again. Statz had jumped into the water together with Lieutenant Cardinal. For a moment they became separated, but somewhat later, Statz saw Cardinal again. However, the Lieutenant floated with his head at a strange angle, almost as if he was asleep. When the artificer swam closer, he realized Cardinal had shot himself in the head to avoid dying from drowning.
For a while, Statz believed he was the only one remaining, because he could not see any of his comrades in the waves. He tried to keep from swallowing the oily water and found some consolation in the fact that air contained by his leather jacket helped keeping him afloat. He wondered how many of the men had obeyed the general advice not to take off clothes before jumping into the water.
He did not know how long he had been swimming, when he saw the stem of a warship heading straight towards him. It was the cruiser Dorsetshire and behind her the destroyer Maori followed. They stopped, evidently to rescue survivors: A race against time began, as it was impossible to predict how long they would stay for fear of German submarines.
It took quite some time for the German seamen to swim near the cruiser, where the British crew had prepared scrambling nets, ropes and lifebuoys. Walter Fudge was one of the seamen who tried to help the distressed in the water. The County-class cruisers had a good reputation for stability, but only at speed. When immobile, they rolled violently. Merely to remain standing on the deck was very difficult and of course it was even more difficult to help the survivors in the water.
Fudge had been at his battle station, so he had not seen anything of the Bismarck. He was not permitted to go out on deck until the Bismarck had already sunk. However, when he saw hundreds of men swimming towards the Dorsetshire, a thought crossed his mind. ‘It was only with the blessings of fate that it wasn’t me there in the water, swimming for my life. In that moment I couldn’t feel but pity for those men, and I can speak for the entire crew in saying we all felt the same. There was nothing of the usual ‘you-shouldn’t-have-messed-with-the-Royal-Navy’-attitude, only genuine compassion.’
Seventeen-year-old George Bell, who served as Captain Martin’s orderly, was of the same opinion. ‘To be perfectly honest, there should have been a feeling of bitterness after the sinking of the Hood,’ he recalled, ‘but as soon as the rescue was begun, this was all forgotten. We were simply saving shipwrecked sailors.’
Loops were tied at the lower end of the ropes and let down to the water to help the Germans. Some still had the strength to place the loop around their waist or feet, enabling the British to haul them on board. Others were exhausted by the swimming, their wounds and the cold water robbing them of energy. The reached the British cruiser in such dazed condition that they drowned, despite being able to touch the cruiser with numb fingers.
Müllenheim-Rechberg was among those who managed to reach the Dorsetshire. After several attempts, he grasped one of the ropes and put his foot into the loop. But he was so exhausted that he slid when he had reached the gunwale and fell back into the sea. By a stroke of fortune, he got hold of the same rope again and the same British seamen pulled him up once more. This time, Müllenheim-Rechberg did not try to get over the gunwale by himself. Rather he allowed himself to be dragged onto the deck. His immediate instinct was to assist the British seamen working to save the survivors, but he was quickly brought below deck.
Statz too was hauled on board. When he glanced at the water, he realized how many of his comrades had actually been swimming out there, not far from him. If Cardinal had not shot himself, he thought as a British seaman showed him where to go, he too would have been saved.
Generotzky had made several attempts to get hold of the ropes hanging down from the Dorsetshire, but every time the ship rolled and his hands had to carry all his body weight, he lost the grip and fell back into the sea. In the tumult someone stepped on his head and pushed him down, below the surface of the sea. A surge threw him onto the hull of the Dorsetshire and his leg was injured by the impact.
Generotzky almost gave in, but when he saw that the British lowered further ropes abaft, he swam to them and grasped a rope with a loop. He managed to attach it and was pulled on board by two British seamen.
By then, about 80 German seamen had been hauled up on the Dorsetshire, among them Müllenheim-Rechberg, Junack, Schmidt, Blum, Statz and Generotzky, but hundreds still waited when the navigation officer on the Dorsetshire suddenly saw a small smoke puff emerge from the water about two nautical miles from the cruiser, on her starboard side. He immediately notified Captain Martin. After briefly considering the observation, it was agreed that the smoke probably came from a submarine. Although all the officers on the bridge were unanimous, it was Martin who had to take responsibility for the terrible decision. While the survivors near the hull of the British cruiser screamed loud enough to be heard on the bridge, and the officers around Martin watched their commander, he hesitated briefly. He weighed the risk of his ship being torpedoed against the knowledge that hundreds of seamen would drown. He had to give the highest priority to the security of his own ship. ‘We have no choice,’ he said to the officer on duty: ‘Full speed ahead.’
The engine-room telegraph rang, the ship began to vibrate and the Germans in the sea saw how the water began to bubble as the propellers began to revolve. Terrified they raised their arms to the seamen working at the gunwale, shouted and pleaded to the men who a few hours earlier had been their enemies not to abandon them. British seamen beneath the deck could hear dull thuds as the Germans struck the hull with their fists. When the Dorsetshire gained speed, some of the Germans clung to the ropes, until their frozen hands were no longer capable of maintaining the grip. A few more Germans, who already were on the nets or about to be pulled up in the ropes, were saved, one of them after a British seaman climbed down the side of the hull and helped the exhausted man over the gunwale. Almost all the rest were lost.
In the cabin he had been taken to, the exhausted Müllenheim-Rechberg was exchanging his soaked clothes for the British clothes he had received, when he felt the vibrations from machines picking up speed and realized what was about to happen. He understood that the ship was about to sail, but could not understand why, as so many men remained in the water. He was quite convinced that no submarines were in the area and he ought to have heard the air raid alarm if Luftwaffe units closed in. ‘I racked my brain,’ he recalled, ‘but the only thing that registered was horror that our men in the water, hundreds of them, before whose eyes the Dorsetshire was moving away, were being sentenced to death just when safety seemed within reach. My God, what a narrow escape I had.’
‘This dreadful situation,’ Walter Fudge said, ‘wasn’t any fault of ours; neither was it the Germans.’ It was the war!’