South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 14 March 2013 was fellow-member Mr Robert Buser whose topic was The Story of the Bismarck, May 1941 – The Life and Times of World War Two’s most famous Battleship. Capt. Piet Botha (SAN ret.) was invited to display his working model of the Bismarck at the night’s meeting, which proved to be an excellent idea as it drew an appreciative audience both before and after the lecture.


In May 1941, a series of naval engagements took place in the North Atlantic over a period of nine days. In size, it was a small campaign. Some 3 800 men died and this in only three ships – Hood, Bismarck and Prince of Wales. This short campaign, however, had an extremely important effect upon the strategic situation, both generally and insofar as it affected the war at sea.

From the British point of view, the situation was pretty gloomy. Britain and her Commonwealth and Empire stood alone against the Axis powers, which controlled most of Europe, directly and through alliances.

In North Africa, Rommel was advancing on Egypt and British counter offensives had either failed or were in the process of failing. Malta was under heavy attack from the air.

Operations in Abyssinia and Somaliland were coming to an end. New campaigns were starting in Iraq and Syria, and also in Persia. Greece was lost – the troops had been evacuated with heavy losses in men, equipment and ships. Crete was being invaded.

From the German point of view the position was far brighter. They controlled most of Europe, apart from some neutral countries. A major attack on Russia was planned. Trouble was being stirred up in Iraq, Syria and Persia. The campaign in North Africa was progressing well. Malta had been subdued, the British defeated in Greece and the Royal Navy’s dominance in the Mediterranean had disappeared. The campaign against British merchant shipping in the Atlantic was going well.

Britain had few of the raw materials necessary for conducting a war. Ample supplies of coal were available but the oil fields that provided the fuel were in the Americas, Iraq, Persia and South East Asia. Russian and Romanian oil was not accessible to the British.

Oil and the minerals required to produce the metals used to build the ships, aircraft, tanks, guns and everything else needed to carry on a war, as well as food, cotton, wool, timber and many other commodities had to be imported, as Britain was not self-sufficient in these.

Ammunition, vehicles, aircraft, guns, et al, and especially, men had to be sent from Britain to the Mediterranean and East African fronts and to South East Asia. All of this required lots of merchant ships – tankers, freighters and liners for the men. They were in short supply and were prime targets for subsurface, surface and air attack.

The British convoy system
To protect their ships, the British introduced the convoy system, not something new – it had been used in the days of sail and in WW1. The convoys were escorted but, in mid-1941, the numbers of escorts were inadequate – a well-escorted convoy might have an old V/W class destroyer or an American 4-stacker, a sloop and three to five corvettes. In 1941, the German submarines were sinking ships almost at will off the American eastern seaboard – known to the U-Boat crews as the “happy time”. The Wolf Pack system had been introduced and was working well. There had been some losses of submarines, but were viewed as an acceptable rate of attrition.

Air cover for convoys was inadequate – the only long-range aircraft was the Sunderland, but the Americans had started to supply the highly versatile and popular Catalina flying boats. Bomber Command refused to hand over any of their long range bombers to Coastal Command. Long range fighters, to defend convoys, and strike aircraft, to attack submarines at sea or in harbour, were absent. Squadrons based in the UK, Iceland and Canada provided limited air cover, but there were huge gaps in mid-ocean that were not covered.

In addition to submarines and surface ships used against the convoys, there was the added threat of mines in all waters, including off the Cape, and, as the convoys neared the UK, air attacks could also be expected.

The German response to this
The German strategy was to use U-boats, the Luftwaffe, disguised surface raiders and the Navy’s capital ships in coordinated fashion to destroy as many merchant ships as possible.

Disguised surface raiders were sent out to attack the individually-routed ships, especially in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean areas, helped by a network of supply ships and tankers. In May 1941, six raiders were at sea. They had many successes.

The Admiral Scheer had sunk the AMC Jervis Bay and 16 merchant ships, Hipper had sunk 7 and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had sunk 22 ships. The German Navy had been ordered to attack convoys but to avoid damage that could not be repaired at sea.

All of this activity had dislocated the convoy system and the RN had to provide heavy ship escorts to the convoys, usually in the form of an old battleship or heavy (E or County class) cruiser. They were weak ships and were there to give the convoy time to scatter and nothing more.

In addition to the close escorts, the RN set up Home Fleet, based at Scapa Flow. In 1941 this was commanded by Vice Adm John Tovey. His command consisted of King George V, Hood, Nelson, Rodney, Repulse and a while later, Prince of Wales. There were also cruisers and destroyers and sometimes an aircraft carrier. Some of these could be withdrawn if other priorities arose. Its function was to stop the Germans from getting into the North Atlantic.


In May 1941, the Royal Navy battle line consisted of the following 16 ships –

The Kriegsmarine had the following 5 ships in May 1941— Of the Royal Navy ships, four were in the Mediterranean (Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, Valiant and Barham) and one (Renown) with Force H at Gibraltar, Nelson with a convoy south of Freetown. The old ships were relegated to convoy duties.

This left only King George V and Rodney, along with Prince of Wales to slog it out with Bismarck, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Hood was well-armed but her armour was too weak to fight a battleship. So the two sides were rather evenly balanced.


Bismarck was commissioned on 24 August 1940. Bismarck was probably the most powerful battleship in the world in 1941, well armed, fast with a three propeller arrangement, with double rudders between the propellers.

Her critical spaces were well-protected by high quality, heavy armoured steel. The main side armour stretched from forward of A turret to aft of D turret. The steering compartment was not well protected. She was well-protected against plunging fire, her main turrets and the conning tower and sighting equipment were well-armoured. The superstructure was only lightly-armoured. Her main armour belt did not extend very far beneath the waterline, leaving her vulnerable to deep running torpedoes and underwater explosions.

She had state-of-the-art electronics and three of the excellent German stereoscopic systems each with two directors, optical range finder and gun control radar.

Bismarck sailed to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) for her sea trials and to train her crew. Finally, in May 1941, she was judged to be ready for operations. In Berlin the Germans were planning the next foray into the North Atlantic, to consist of 3 battleships and the cruiser Prinz Eugen, the nightmare long feared by Vice Adm Tovey, but two were under repair. It was finally decided to go ahead with the operation with only two ships. So they prepared for sea. Tankers, supply ships and weather ships set sail to pre-determined positions and an escort of destroyers and minesweepers was assembled.

19 May 1941
At 0200 Bismarck and Prinz Eugen sailed from Gotenhafen, with three destroyers, for the Baltic and through the Great Belt, which splits the two parts of Denmark. The Germans had banned all shipping from this area and the Kattegat and Skaggerak -in the parts they controlled. As they were powerless to exert control in Swedish waters, it would have been better to slip through the German Kiel Canal into the North Sea.

20 May 1941
At this point the Swedish cruiser Gotland appeared and, staying in Swedish territorial waters, shadowed the German force on its way up the Kattegat for some hours. She sent sighting reports to Swedish Naval Headquarters in Stockholm. After the fall of Norway, a number of senior Swedish officers decided that an all-powerful Germany would not be good for a neutral Sweden and they worked with the Norwegian underground, via its Swedish office which, in turn, worked in close liaison with the British naval attaché in Stockholm. He received a copy of Gotland’s sighting report that evening and transmitted it to London immediately.

The German force turned into the Skaggerak and passed Kristiansund on the Norwegian south coast on the evening of the 20th, in full view of people strolling along the coastal promenade. One of them was a resistance member who saw warships sailing fast towards the North Sea and arranged for a message to be sent to London that same night.

Adm Tovey had available at Scapa Flow King George V, Hood and Repulse, Prince of Wales with faulty turrets and dockyard technicians on board. Rodney was on her way to America for a refit. The new carrier Victorious, carrying 45 aircraft for Malta and part of her air group, was available. Force H at Gibraltar had Renown, Sheffield and Ark Royal.

21 May 1941
Bismarck arrived at Grimstadfjord, south of Bergen at 0900. Prinz Eugen headed to Kalvanes, NW of Bergen. Bergen was within range of RAF aircraft. They should have gone further north, to Trondheim or Narvik. Prinz Eugen filled her tanks to the brim but Bismarck did not – a crucial mistake.

At 1200, a PRU Spitfire from RAF Wick arrived, flying at 25,000 feet to photograph Bergen and the nearby fjords. The pilot, F/O Suckling, saw some ships below. At RAF Wick, the ships on the photographs taken were assessed as a battleship and cruiser. The Admiralty, Coastal Command and Adm Tovey were informed. At 1930, the German ships sortied, heading for the Denmark Straits.

Tovey ordered Norfolk to sail for Hvalfjord, refuel and join Suffolk in the Denmark Straits. The Faroes/Iceland gap was covered by Manchester and Birmingham. Vice Adm Lancelot Holland with the Hood and Prince of Wales headed for Hvalfjord. Tovey kept the King George V, Repulse, the carrier Victorious and four cruisers under his command.

22 May 1941
Of the five access passages from the Arctic/North Sea to the North Atlantic, the Faroes/Shetlands, Shetlands/Orkneys and Orkneys/Scotland gaps were near to British bases and patrolled. The Faroes/Iceland and Iceland/Greenland (or Denmark Straits) gaps were covered by Cruiser forces. The North Sea at that particular time was under fog with a very low cloud base.

A squadron of Marylands was stationed at Hatson, near Scapa Flow. At 1630, a Maryland took off and crossed the North Sea just below the clouds. With some difficulty, they found the coast and scouted round Bergen and its fjords. The Germans had gone. At 2215, Tovey sailed with King George V and four cruisers.

Lutjens decided to head for the Denmark straits without refueling from the tanker Weissenburg – a fatal mistake. He sailed into heavy seas and thick fog. At 2300 he turned SW to make his run through the Denmark Straits.

23 May 1941
In the afternoon the weather in the Denmark Straits was beginning to clear. The job of patrolling the Denmark straits was not popular with the crews of the Norfolk and Suffolk, both 10,000 ton, lightly armoured County class cruisers, fast and armed with eight 8-inch guns. The weather was usually stormy, cold and icy but on the 23rd it was quite pleasant. Capt Ellis of Suffolk used his newly updated radar set with a range of 14 miles as he patrolled the Greenland side of the Straits. Norfolk watched the Iceland side. Able Seaman Newall was the starboard after lookout on Suffolk – the “Mark One, Eyeball” was still a most useful tool. He was bored and waiting for the end of his watch as he swept his arc from midships to the stern when at 1900, about seven miles away, the massive bulk of the Bismarck appeared out of the mist. “Ship bearing green 140” he shouted then “Two ships bearing Green 140”. Capt Ellis ordered hard aport and full ahead to get back into the fog. Suffolk fell in behind the Germans, using its radar to track the ships. Norfolk came hurtling out of the fog, almost close enough to board the Bismarck, which opened fire. Norfolk was soon back in the fog shadowing the German force. The cruisers sent out sighting reports all night. Lutjens tried to shake off his pursuers but to no avail. Bismarck’s radar was damaged, so Prinz Eugen took the lead.

24 May 1941
The Hood and Prince of Wales were now on an interception course with the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, thanks to the reports from Suffolk. The Germans hurried south-west at 28 knots.

By midnight on 23/24 May, Holland was only 100 miles from the Germans. He turned away so as to reach the German force at dawn. He planned to engage Bismarck with his battleships and let the cruisers take on Prinz Eugen but, with his policy of radio silence, never told them this. At 0028 Suffolk lost radar contact, but by 0247 regained contact again. Holland was now 35 miles NE of Bismarck, abeam of the German force.

AB Knocker White, the lookout in the Prince of Wales, sighted Bismarck at approximately 0535. The ships slowly converged with the British steaming WSW at 28 knots and the Germans on a course of SW. At 0537 Holland ordered a course change of 40 degrees to starboard. This would bring him within firing range in 5 minutes but the line of approach meant his rear guns would not bear, but on the plus side it meant that the time Hood was vulnerable to plunging fire, was also reduced.

At about 0500, the German hydrophones picked up propeller noise. Action stations were sounded. The course changed to 265 degrees, due west. Holland went to 300 degrees to approach his opponent faster and, at 0553, Hood opened fire on Prinz Eugen in the lead. Capt Leach of Prince of Wales ignored the order to fire at the lead ship and opened fire on Bismarck. The British were in close order with no freedom of manoeuvre.

German retaliation came swiftly. At 0553, Prinz Eugen fired at Hood after a course change, hitting her twice, starting a fire amidships. The German course of 200 degrees meant that they were in a position to cross the British T. They could use all of their guns while only the British forward guns could be brought to bear. On top of this, Prince of Wales had problems with her A turret. Bismarck opened fire at 0555. Hood saw her mistake and changed target.

Holland ordered a 20 degree to port course change. A straddle on Hood was achieved by the third broadside and Prinz Eugen was ordered to fire at Prince of Wales. A slight turn and Holland could bring all his guns to bear.

Bismarck’s 5th broadside at about 0600 straddled Hood. One shell, a direct hit, plunged through the deck, exploded in the rear secondary magazine and touched off the rear 15-inch magazine. A huge column of flame leapt up from the Hood’s centre, followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke. She sank at 0603. Prince of Wales had to alter course radically to avoid hitting the wreckage and steamed past the bow section which towered above her, going on a course of 260 degrees, more or less parallel to Lutjens.

Prince of Wales was now under fire from both German ships and was hit by four 15-inch and three 8-inch shells. Much of her superstructure had been smashed. 400 tons of sea water had leaked in and her gun turrets were giving trouble. Her fire had been quite accurate and she hit Bismarck with three 14-inch shells but, at 0613, Capt Leach turned away on a course of 150 degrees SSE, made smoke and withdrew.

HMS Electra found only three survivors, out of the Hood’s crew of 1,419. Three 14-inch shells had hit Bismarck – one forward causing flooding, one amidships, severing fuel lines and damaging bulkheads and the third which wrecked a boiler room and the boats. She was down 5 degrees at the bow and had a 9degree list to port. Worse, she had lost 1,000 tons of bunker oil. Her speed was down to 24 knots and Lutjens decided to head for France.

Adm Wake Walker continued to shadow Bismarck as the latter turned south. Adm Tovey was 350 miles to the SE. Force H was ordered north. Rodney ordered to leave her convoy and head north. Victorious was sent with four cruisers to close for a torpedo attack with her nine Swordfish and six Fulmars. Adm Holland’s tactics had been bad -a line ahead approach, no use of radar, no orders to Wake Walker, no use of air reconnaissance.

Wake Walker’s force followed the Germans some 30,000 yards back and Coastal Command aircraft made their appearance. The German force split at 1840. Prinz Eugen continued on the same course and Bismarck turned west, and then north.

By 2200, Victorious, 120 miles from Bismarck, launched her eight serviceable Swordfish. The aircrew was, with the exception of three, inexperienced. Some had never taken off from a carrier before. They were launched in vicious weather and flew off into fog and cloud.

The Swordfish got lost, found Norfolk, got a new course and had nearly attacked Modoc, a USCG cutter. Under heavy fire they attacked Bismarck at 2330 and scored one hit. All of the aircraft had landed back safely. The hit had caused no damage. Bismarck waited her chance, utilizing the low visibility, turned sharp west and increased speed.

25 May 1941
This was done at 0300. Bismarck made a huge loop round her pursuers then headed south-west towards the Bay of Biscay – and Force H. She had shaken off her pursuers. At 0500, Adm Wake Walker reported “lost contact with enemy”. At the time the RN had forty ships at sea, all looking for Bismarck. Adm Tovey was 100 miles to the south east.

The Admiralty transmitted some bearings which had been picked up on HF/DF. This was at 0800, when Lutjens had sent a long transmission to Berlin. These were sent to Tovey and his staff, who miscalculated Bismarck’s position and turned north. Later Tovey redid his calculations and turned south again. He was now 150 miles behind. Force H was ordered to move north to block access to Brest. Repulse left to refuel. Rodney was 350 miles SE of Bismarck. She headed north, but Adm Wake Walker headed towards France as well.

26 May 1941
During the previous evening (the 25th) Coastal Command and Admiralty had planned the next day’s aerial recces. Air Marshall Bowhill felt that Bismarck might be south of where she was estimated to be, so a Catalina was sent into that area, in addition to the other areas. The aircrew had just had their breakfast in aircraft Z/209 when, at 1030, they found and identified Bismarck, 690 miles west of Brest. Home Fleet was running low on fuel but Force H was 112 miles ESE.

Ark Royal had been sending out Swordfish and one of these arrived over Bismarck some 12 minutes after aircraft Z/209. Sheffield arrived at 1824 and Dorsetshire, Norfolk, Rodney and King George V were approaching – the only ones with fuel. Adm Tovey contacted Force H and ordered them to slow Bismarck.

Ark Royal’s flight deck was rising and falling some 60 feet and the wind speed was 40 knots. A Swordfish’s top speed is 95 knot. At 0845 the strike took off, some of the aircraft nearly hitting the sea. This strike returned without finding the enemy and a fresh strike of 15 aircraft took off. They had not been told that the Sheffield was up ahead. They attacked Sheffield which avoided all the torpedoes. At 1740 Sheffield picked up Bismarck on her radar.

The planes all returned safely and Adm Tovey, now really short of fuel, was informed “attack made no hits”. He asked for a further strike. Bismarck was now also running short of fuel, with barely enough to reach Brest.

A second strike was launched at 1915. Ark Royal was only 38 miles from Bismarck, with Renown to protect her. The planes sighted Sheffield which signalled “B 12 miles dead ahead”. Cloud level was 200 feet and it was decided that each sub-flight would attack individually and from all sides. The target was reached at 2030, with no hits. About this time U556 sighted Ark Royal launching its strike, with Renown and NO destroyers. The U-Boat, alas, had no torpedoes left and [was] powerless to strike.

Then Sheffield reported “B course 340 degrees” or NNW, straight towards Home Fleet. A Swordfish signalled “enemy steering due north”. Sheffield and another Swordfish reported “course NNW and due N”. The attack had gone in but one aircraft had got lost, returned to Sheffield, again set course with the correct bearings and chanced unexpectedly upon the Bismarck. His tinfish hit Bismarck’s stern, flooding the steering mechanism and jamming the rudders. Bismarck was now trying to steer on main engines with a jammed rudder. With the heavy seas, she could only steer NW.

27 May 1941
Morale was dropping on Bismarck – the constant attacks, jammed steering, lack of fuel and the knowledge that Home Fleet had arrived had had their effect. At 0800 King George V and Rodney were sighted coming up fast. Battle stations were ordered on the Bismarck.

At 0843 Rodney sighted the Bismarck 12½ miles ahead. The British approached as fast as possible, in line abreast to allow each ship to operate individually. Rodney opened fire at 0847, followed at 0848 by King George V. Bismarck opened fire at 0849, achieving a number of straddles but no hits. Norfolk opened fire at 0854 and Dorsetshire at 0901.

Rodney was shooting superbly with a hit in the third broadside. King George V was scoring hits as well and Bismarck, which was virtually dead in the water, was pounded to pieces at very close range. By 1000 she was a blazing wreck. All firing ceased at 1016. Only a couple of shells had pierced her main armour belt covering her magazines and engines.

King George V, Rodney,Norfolk and the destroyers left for Plymouth as their fuel was dangerously low. Dorsetshire stayed behind to fire its torpedoes into the wreck. A scuttling order had been issued at 1000 and at 1036 she rolled over and sank.

Dorsetshire and Maori started rescuing survivors. Some 110 had been saved when a submarine periscope was sighted and rescue attempts had to be aborted. U74 was in the area. She saved three and the weather ship Sachsenwald another two.

Wreck of the Hood
Hood sank at 0600 on 24 May 1941 and the wreck was discovered by an expedition led by David Mearns on 19 July 2001. A diving bell was used to examine the wreck and a submersible fitted with a camera took numerous photographs.

It has always been assumed that Hood broke in two as a result of an explosion in a magazine. The wreck is, in fact, in three pieces and there is considerable evidence of more than one explosion. The theory is that Bismarck’s shell penetrated the deck and exploded in the aft secondary armament magazine. The explosion also set off the main armament magazine just aft of this and the explosion also spread through the engine room, wiping that out. This then set off a huge explosion in the two forward magazines. This would explain the triple breakup and the evidence of multiple explosions. There were only normal steel plate bulkheads between the various magazines and the engine room.

Wreck of the Bismarck
Bismarck sank at approximately 1036 on 27 May 1941 and lies at a depth of 15700 feet. She was found by an expedition led by Dr Robert Ballard in 1989 and subsequently visited in June 2001 by two other expeditions.

Bismarck turned turtle as she as she sank and her main armament turrets broke away and sank independently, as did her mast, stern and other parts of her superstructure. There were many penetrations in the less well armoured portion of the hull but only very few in the area of the main 14-inch armour belt. There were many large openings beneath the armoured belts on both sides of the ship. These were caused by torpedoes. Bismarck’s side armour belt did not go far enough below the surface.

There was massive damage to the superstructure. The British short range fire did not penetrate the hull but wrecked the superstructure. This is why Tovey at 1016 ordered the use of torpedoes. The torpedo hits were a major contributing factor in sinking the Bismarck, although the scuttling charges, flooding and counter-flooding also would have played a major role in bringing about the demise of the Bismarck.

The British had been very fortunate that the Germans had used their battleships and other heavy ships in penny packets. Had they not done this Home Fleet would have been very hard pressed to stop them from decimating the convoys. This would have had a disastrous effect on the war effort – Britain could well have lost the war.

The RN now knew that a network of tankers and supply ships must be lurking in various parts of the Atlantic. Within six months, nine had been sunk. This meant that the surface raiders had lost their logistical backup. The most important threat remaining was now the U-Boat campaign. The Home Fleet with its five battleships – King George V, Duke of York, Prince of Wales, Nelson and Rodney – could have been used more productively elsewhere, e.g. on escorting the Malta Convoys.

There was a large reduction in the pressure on the Royal Navy and the sinking of Bismarck had an effect on the war at sea out of all proportion to the loss of a single battleship. But on 7 December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. At war now with all three of the Axis partners, it just served to dilute the Royal Navy’s strength in Home Waters and the North Atlantic still further -and more shocking losses to follow.

The presence of a working model of the Bismarck in 1:128th scale (that translates into a model all of two metres long) really served to enhance the quality of our speaker’s lecture. The impact of events more than seven decades ago was highlighted by Capt Botha, pointing out to the audience all the features of the Bismarck and areas where damage occurred, at the same time as our speaker covered it in his talk. The chairman thanked both our speaker and our guest for their contribution in combining to turn an excellent lecture into a memorable evening, to which the audience most certainly will heartily concur. He presented both our speaker and visitor with the customary gift.


We welcome new member Mr J W Ridgeway and look forward to have him at our monthly lectures.


The AGM will be held on the 11th of April and all matters will be dealt with and finalized before the commencement of the evening’s lecture. The AGM will start punctually at 20:00.

11 APRIL 2013: THE WESTERN FRONT: A FAMILY ODYSSEY by Dr James Tunnicliffe

Dr Tunnicliffe will present an illustrated talk on the results of his research into the military career of his great-uncle who participated in the “Great War” of 1914-1918. Our speaker only recently discovered that his great-uncle served with distinction on the Western Front and participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He has visited the battlefield to follow in his relative’s footsteps and will illustrate his talk with some vivid and evocative pictures of the battlefields as it was then, and now. Being a medical doctor, he is greatly interested in the medical aspects of the First World War.

9 MAY 2013: THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG by Stan Lambrick

The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War. After this battle which was the largest ever fought on American soil, the Confederate hopes of establishing a separate nation dwindled. After those momentous three days -1st to 3rd July, 1863 -the Southern cause went into decline. Gettysburg would forever be known as the "High Tide of the Confederacy".

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /