‘I TORPEDOED THE BISMARCK’ - Naval Message, May 1941
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21.3cm (8.4in) x 22.2cm (8.75in)
Printed paper inscribed in ink. Naval Message to the Senior Officer Force H, Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, from H.M.S. Dorsetshire reporting the final torpedoing of the German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 300 nautical miles west of Brest, France on 27 May 1941. The message decoded and transcribed onto a S.1329b. form at 12.07hrs reads. ‘I TORPEDOED THE BISMARCK BOTH SIDES BEFORE SHE SANK STOP SHE HAD CEASED FIRING / BUT HER COLOURS WERE STILL / FLYING.’ Contained in modern glazed frame. Overall: 33.5 cm (13.25in) x 32cm (12.5in).
The sinking of the Bismarck on 27 May 1941 was cause for a national sigh of relief. The catastrophic damage the world’s most advanced battleship could inflict on the transatlantic convoys carrying to vital supplies to beleaguered Britain could not be overestimated. After sinking the battlecruiser Hood three days earlier in Denmark Strait, Bismarck ranged in to the North Atlantic hell-bent on carrying out Operation Rheinübung - the latest in a series of commerce raids. In response the Royal Navy launched an ocean wide hunt deploying six battleships, three battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, 16 cruisers, 33 destroyers, eight submarines, and l aircraft.
Marked as sent at 11.07hrs, the present message originated with Captain (later Admiral Sir Benjamin) Martin, R.N., commanding the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire. Twenty-four hours earlier he was escorting convoy SL 74 north from Sierra Leone when he received the Admiralty’s signal that an RAF Catalina had sighted Bismarck alone and steering southeast. Martin at once believed he had a good chance of intercepting Bismarck and broke away from the convoy to join the hunt for the German ship. As Dorsetshire steamed northward at top speed in increasingly heavy seas, Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from Force H’s HMS Ark Royal succeeded in jamming Bismarck’s steering. As midnight neared, Somerville’s flagship Renown and Philip Vian’s destroyer flotilla surrounded Bismarck which had resolved to fight on with the following report to German Naval Command (OKM) "To the Führer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler: We shall fight to the last man with confidence in you, my Führer, and with rock-solid trust in Germany's victory!"
Next morning Dorsetshire encountered the destroyer flotilla leader Cossack which had been engaging Bismarck all night. At 0902 Dorsetshire opened fire at a range of 22,000 yards, firing 254 shells and joining the battleships King George V and Rodney in the final fight. Raking Bismarck from stem to stern they gradually silenced her turrets but running low on ammunition and fuel the two battleships were ordered to port by the C-in-C Home Fleet. At 1020hrs Dorsetshire was ordered to close and torpedo the crippled Bismarck. At 1022 Bismarck was hit on the starboard side by two of Dorsetshire 21 inch MK VII torpedoes fired from 3,000 meters (3,280 yards). Two more were fired into the port side from 2,200 (2,400 yards). Bismarck turned over and foundered at 1040, taking with her nearly 2,000 Germans and their Fleet Commander, Admiral Lutjens. One hundred and ten survivors were rescued Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori, but the work was interrupted by the appearance of a U-boat that forced the British ships to withdraw. Captain Martin, who was the son of a stoker and had risen from the lower deck, was awarded the D.S.O.
Winston Churchill, who closely followed the saga over the preceding days, told a packed House of Commons on 27 May, “This morning shortly after daylight, the Bismarck, virtually at a standstill, far from help, was attacked by the British pursuing battleships. …It appears, however that the Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and she will now be dispatched by torpedo. It is thought that this is now proceeding, and it is also thought that there cannot be any lengthy delay in disposing of this vessel. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful, as she is the newest, battleship in the world.” With those words the Prime Minister resumed his seat, only to rise a few moments later on receipt of the conclusive news ‘Bismarck is sunk’.