In his binoculars, Tovey observed the shell splashes near the enemy battleship. The Rodney seemed to have got the range correct after a few salvos, but Tovey’s gunners were far from the mark. The Bismarck was half concealed by rainsqualls and it was difficult to make correct observations of the shells hitting the water. But the radar operators on the flagship ought to obtain a better range estimate. Why was not the fire more accurate?
Tovey’s thoughts were interrupted by a whizzing sound and the crash when the first German salvo landed. Clearly, the target was the Rodney and to Tovey’s resentment, he could see that the Bismarck’s fire was more accurate than his ships could accomplish. A series of water columns shot up ahead of the Rodney, some of them so close that the water washed over her deck as it fell back. ‘I watched the Rodney,’ Guernsey recalled, ‘To see if she was hit, but she just sat there like a great slab of rock blocking the northern horizon, and then suddenly belched a full salvo.’
Thomas Kelly, an officer on board the destroyer Tartar who had served on the Hood more than a decade earlier, saw how the Bismarck’s first salvo crashed down around the Rodney ‘We could hear the shells from the Bismarck,’ he remembered, ‘and the salvo straddled Rodney. I turned to the Captain and said ‘God, sir, not again!’ My thoughts were with the Hood.’
Schneider, the artillery officer, observed his first three salvos as successively ‘short, ‘straddling’ and ‘over,’ Müllenheim-Rechberg noted. ‘An extremely promising start that I only knew about from what I heard on the telephone; the swinging back and forth of the Bismarck allowed me only intermittent glimpses of the enemy.’
Dalrymple-Hamilton quickly reacted to the German fire. He had prepared a number of manoeuvres, which would make it more difficult for Schneider to aim his salvos, and they were now initiated. First he sheered to port, thus increasing the distance between the Rodney and King George V. At the same time, the fire controllers on the British battleship made a grave mistake when estimating the range to the Bismarck, forcing them to again begin firing spotting rounds.
Both sides fired ineffectively for a few minutes. Schneider’s first salvos, which had been very close, could not be followed by further accurate fire, as the Bismarck moved erratically in the sea and made all gunnery calculations difficult. The machines making the ballistic computations needed data from the steering system, to compensate for the movements of the ship, but this did not work with the damaged rudder. The gunnery officers had to make improvised calculations to compensate for the ship’s movements, but they could not be as accurate or as rapid as would have been the case with a properly working steering system. Also, the unpredictable movements compelled the gun turrets to traverse almost continually.
At this stage it was discovered why the gunnery radar on the King George V had not produced any reliable data. The radar operators had not taken account of the rapidly shrinking range. When the echo from the Bismarck was suddenly lost on the screen, they had continued to search at the range where she had previously been located. When six minutes had elapsed since the first shots were fired, they again saw an echo from the Bismarck on the screen. The range was estimated at 20,500 metres. A double salvo was fired with a 200-metre bracket. The fire was immediately on the mark and a hit in the Bismarck’s forebody was noted.
The Rodney too had found the range and the two battleships bombarded the enemy with four salvos per minute. The medium guns also joined in, as did the Norfolk with her 20.3cm guns. The German battleship disappeared amid the fountains of water. Tovey ordered a turn southward, to allow the King George V to fire full broadsides. The Rodney soon followed, but not before scoring a few hits that had a profound influence on the subsequent events.
On board the Rodney, Captain Donald Campbell had an excellent overview from the anti-aircraft directory. He saw how the shells rose, lingered at the top of their trajectory and then descended on the Bismarck. At the same time the enemy fired and for a fraction of a second, the trajectories met, allowing Campbell briefly to see them gathered slightly above the masts of the enemy ship. Soon three pillars of water rose from the sea around the Bismarck, which meant that two shells had found their target. One of them hit the central directory and probably killed Schneider and the men surrounding him. The other hit ahead and the turret Bruno was surrounded by fire and brown smoke.
Campbell was only partly aware of these hits, as his eyes followed the growing projectiles from the Bismarck as if he had been hypnotized. When they had passed the highest point of their trajectory and begun to fall, he could even see how the bronze surfaces glistened. The salvo seemed so well aimed that it could be on its way towards the tip of Campbell’s nose. He could not suppress an instinctive reaction to duck, despite the fact that it would provide absolutely no protection. Pillars of water shot up on both sides of the Rodney; a perfectly aimed salvo, but the British battleship was lucky, none of the shells hit. A fist-sized splinter whizzed through Campbell’s action station, destroyed a few vital components in the fire control system and finally came at rest on the floor. One of the seamen triumphantly lifted it up, but a second later he screamed from the pain as the white hot metal burned into his hand.
This moment marked the beginning of the defeat of the Bismarck and her drawn out death struggle. During the following minutes, the fore fire control was also hit and both main turrets silenced. At this stage, the Dorsetshire had also closed the range, enabling her to open fire. Thus the Bismarck was pounded by two battleships and two heavy cruisers.
‘It was hard work keeping those eight-inch guns roaring,’ Walter Fudge recalled. He belonged to the artillery crews on the Dorsetshire and had a special relationship with the Bismarck. One morning during Fudge’s earlier shore training in Plymouth, his group was ordered to draw up at the barracks square. Fudge and a few of his comrades had been late and ended up far down the line. An officer had counted off 24 men and told them to pack. They received orders to serve on the Hood. The others, including the late arrivals would serve on less important ships. Fudge had been number 26 and at the time he had been very disappointed. However, on the previous day, he was informed that the Hood had been sunk, with only three survivors. His relief of escaping such a fate was mixed with regret at the loss of his comrades. Now he was close enough for revenge. ‘At one time our turret was firing twin eight-inch projectiles every eight seconds with no misfires,’ he wrote. ‘My own personal feelings were many and varied. The biggest thought was to do it to them or they will do it to us. Like others I was somewhat on edge waiting for the ‘wipe out’ to us which never came.’
Shell after shell hit the Bismarck. Most of them hit in the forebody. In the aft fire control centre, Müllenheim-Rechberg was informed that contact with Schneider had been lost and the fore turrets had been silenced. It fell to him to direct the aft turrets. By this time the King George V and Rodney had completed their starboard turns, while the Bismarck had slightly turned to port. Thus, the ships passed each other on opposing courses. As the King George V was well ahead of the Rodney, and the latter ship was in a blind spot from Müllenheim-Rechberg’s position, he had to shift fire to the King George V. His first salvo was slightly too far to the right of the British flagship. He corrected:
‘Ten more left, down four, a salvo!’
‘Down four, a salvo!’
‘Up two, good rapid!’
The forth salvo was straddling, and Müllenheim-Rechberg had just ordered continuous fire with all guns when
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.
As his optical instrument was destroyed, there was little Müllenheim-Rechberg could do. The time was almost 09.15 hours and he ordered the aft turrets to fire individually. His men asked for permission to leave the battle station – as far as they knew orders to abandon the ship could already have been issued – but Müllenheim-Rechberg held them back. As long as British shells hit the ship they would be safer in the armoured turret than on deck.
The King George V had reached a position south of the Bismarck and the visibility was obstructed by smoke from her own weapons as well as by the cordite smoke clouds leaving the Rodney’s guns, which formed a curtain between the Bismarck and the British flagship.
Dalrymple-Hamilton too had passed the enemy and even launched a torpedo salvo as he did so. He clearly understood that the smoke would present a serious hindrance if he continued southward. Furthermore, the course would bring him to a position between the King George V and Bismarck. Instead of waiting for the flagship to turn 180 degrees, Dalrymple-Hamilton used the latitude given by Tovey. He turned starboard, bringing the Rodney away from the flagship’s field of fire and onto a course parallel with the Bismarck. Soon the German battleship could be seen clearly from the Rodney. A few minutes later, the King George V too made a 180-degree turn, which resulted in the flagship getting into a position abaft of the Bismarck on her port side, while the Rodney was almost on her port beam.
At this stage of the battle, the thick layers of cloud began to break up. Blue patches appeared between white clouds. The colour of the sea, which had for so long reflected the thick cloud cover with its depressing grey hue, suddenly changed to dark green with the windswept wave crests glittering. The dark body of the Bismarck, swept in dark brown smoke, partly interrupted by yellow spots where fires raged, appeared in stark contrast to the white pillars of water indicating shells striking the water close to her.
The turret Dora struggled for another six minutes after her crew received the order to fire individually. Then there was a barrel explosion, which killed several men in the turret. At 09.25 hours the Bismarck’s fore turrets fired another salvo, but they were to be the last shells that left the fore main guns. Turret Cesar continued firing during the following four minutes, whereupon her guns too were silenced. One of the last shells hit the water very close to the Rodney’s forebody. The doors to the British battleship’s torpedo battery were rendered inoperable and the crew manning this weapon had a severe shock. However, the British ships did not suffer any further damage. All shells that hit fell on the Bismarck. The barrels of turret Anton had come to rest on the gunwale and the rear part of turret Bruno was blown off. To British officers studying the Bismarck in their binoculars, the consequences of turret Dora’s barrel explosion were clearly visible. The barrel was split open like a peeled banana. From the aircraft hangar, thick smoke belched out and the ship’s list to port was obvious. In addition, it was clear that the central director was destroyed, that the fore-top had been shot into the sea and many of the fires raging inside the ship must have damaged or destroyed communications systems. ‘What that ship was like inside,’ wrote George Whalley, a young officer on the destroyer Tartar, ‘Did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt.’
Despite all this, some of the secondary guns still battled on and the black, white and red German naval ensign still streamed in the wind.