At dawn on 27 May Admiral Tovey drove his battleships King George V and Rodney directly at Bismarck, closing the range as rapidly as possible. Bismarck’s gunnery officer Adalbert Schneider knew that Rodney was the more dangerous opponent and concentrated his fire on her, but to no avail. HMS Rodney opened fire with her 16in guns at 0847. Just twenty-three minutes later, all of Bismarck’s guns were silent, and although turrets ‘Caesar’ and ‘Dora’ managed to fire a few sporadic rounds after that time, by 0931 both these turrets had been destroyed. Rodney and KGV had each scored forty main armament hits. To these eighty heavy shells were added between two and three hundred shells from 5.25in, 6in and 8in guns. Plus the 24.5in torpedo hit claimed by Chief Petty Officer Pollard and his team.
At this stage the British heavy ships were all running critically low on fuel, but Churchill was determined that the Bismarck be sunk, to avenge HMS Hood. He radioed to Admiral Tovey that he should continue the action until the bitter end, even if it meant towing home the King George V. As this would have guaranteed her loss to U-boat and Luftwaffe attacks, Tovey wisely ignored the order, sent a general signal to the warships in company, ‘Any ship with torpedoes to close Bismarck and torpedo her’, and turned his heavy ships for home. Even then, it was a close-run affair: Luftwaffe bombers sent to succour Bismarck found one of Rodney’s escort destroyers, HMS Mashona, and sank her.
Only Dorsetshire still had torpedoes — three 21in Mark IXs — and she deliberately fired two at Bismarck’s starboard side, which both hit, and then went around the wreck to fire a third at Bismarck’s port beam, which also hit. By that time, Bismarck’s main deck was awash, and her shattered hull was flooding with thousands of tons of water, so that one of the torpedoes was seen to strike Bismarck’s catapult deck, normally high above the waterline. Down below, scuttling charges were exploded, but these merely hastened her end, and she sank at 1040. Very few survivors were picked up by British and German vessels, and more than two thousand of her crew were lost.
Dr Ballard’s team, which rediscovered the wreck of Bismarck in June 1989, were only able to photograph her from above. The second expedition which explored her in July 2001 sent remote cameras down to photograph the underwater hull. The outer plating had been torn away over considerable lengths of the hull, which seemed to indicate that Dorsetshire’s torpedoes had inflicted the fatal damage which sank Bismarck. However, the team estimated that the plating had been ripped away when Bismarck hit the seabed and slid down the slope of an undersea mountain. They examined the inner torpedo bulkheads and claimed that the parts they saw were undamaged. That is not the same as saying that they had not been pierced by shell, torpedo or plating fragments, or been displaced from their attachment points, causing widespread leakage into the ship’s vitals, or that the sections not visible to the team had not been disrupted. Thus the argument over what finally caused Bismarck to sink so quickly — the shell and torpedo damage or the scuttling charges — has not been resolved, and it may never be.
SHOOTING WAR IN THE ATLANTIC
The US Navy was actively involved in the Battle of the Atlantic long before the official entry of the USA into the Second World War. Prior to 7 December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had done everything in his power to help the Allies, short of declaring war on Germany. Notably, in March 1941 the Lend-Lease Act was passed into law, meaning that Britain could receive arms and other urgent supplies without the need for immediate payment. The US Navy would be tasked with seeing that these American products reached their destinations. In April FDR extended the Pan-American Security Zone almost as far east as Iceland. American warships would escort convoys as far as the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point, and several clashes with German U-boats took place.
On 10 April destroyer USS Nilblack, rescuing survivors from a torpedoed Dutch ship, the Saleier, detected a sonar echo and dropped three depth charges on the assumed position of a U-boat, without result. On 27 May FDR proclaimed the existence of a state of unlimited emergency, in June US forces landed in Iceland, relieving occupying British troops, and between 9 and 12 August FDR and Churchill met in Ship Harbour, Newfoundland, and drafted the Atlantic Charter.
On 4 September the destroyer USS Greer, carrying mail for the Iceland garrison, was attacked by U 652, whose commander took her to be one of the fifty old flush-deckers being transferred to the Royal Navy. The Greer dropped two depth charges, U 562 fired two torpedoes, but both vessels escaped unscathed. In his next ‘Fireside Chat’ FDR claimed the U-boat had deliberately targeted the US destroyer.
On 16 October the USS Kearny (DD-432), a 1630-ton destroyer of the Livermore class, was one of four US destroyers called to help defend a convoy under attack by a German wolf pack, and she dropped several depth charges during the night. The next day U 568 retaliated by firing a torpedo which struck Kearny in the forward boiler room, killing eleven of her crew and injuring another twenty-two. Able to steam at slow speed, Kearny made for her base at Reykjavik, Iceland, where temporary repairs were carried out by the base ship USS Vulcan, using a cofferdam of yellow pine positioned by hogging lines and held against the destroyer’s hull by water pressure. Kearny later sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, for permanent repairs.
Her survival provided proof of the advantages of arranging the machinery on the unit system. By this, her boilers and engines were arranged so that one shaft was powered by the forward boiler and turbine set, while the opposite shaft was powered by the rear boiler and turbine set, each set being separated longitudinally. The forward boiler room (fire room in USN parlance) was damaged but the rear unit was able to continue operating.