The U-boat's captain was in an impish frame of mind as he
put his brand new U-556 through its trials in the Baltic. It was winter 1941
and from his point of view it had been a good war. Britain and Russia's
lifeline, the convoys crossing the Atlantic, were sitting targets for
Germany's U-boat packs. Lt. Commander 'Parsifal' Wohlfarth's latest command
was the most recent addition to the twenty-five submarines being produced by
German shipyards each month.
Across the darkening windswept waves of the Baltic Sea he could clearly make
out the superstructure of the Bismarck. At 40,000 tons it was the latest and
largest battleship in the world. It too was carrying out exercises when it
received a signal from the minuscule 500-ton U-556: 'personal from captain
to captain. A fine ship you have there!'
Wohlfarth's impertinence did not go down too well with the commander of the
Bismarck, who signalled back: 'from commander to captain; report name
of commanding officer.'
"Oh, Lord!" exclaimed Captain Wohlfarth. "Now I've done it." He promptly
signalled back to the Bismarck. 'From Captain to Captain – you try to do
this!' Within moments the cheeky skipper submerged his U-boat below the
THE GODFATHER U-BOAT
The weeks passed and Lt. Commander Wohlfarth wishing to make amends for his
cheek had drawn up a magnificent 'Certificate of God fatherhood'. It was
expressed in terms of friendly admiration in which U-556 pledged itself to
act as 'godfather' to the Bismarck.
He then called on the battleship's commander where amidst laughter the
document was received with good grace. The special relationship between the
world's most formidable battleship and the diminutive submarine was born.
Weeks later when the U-556 started out on its first patrol, Captain
'Parsifal' Wohlfarth signalled again to the Bismarck: 'Personal from
captain to captain. When you follow me, don't worry. I will see that you
come to no harm.'
It was a pledge that the U-556's captain would bitterly regret when months
later tragic circumstances caused him to fail as a 'godparent' to the great
U-556 was one of a U-boat pack patrolling the treacherous and near frozen
waters lying between Iceland and South Greenland. Their 'West Group' between
them had so far sunk eighteen British ships carrying cargo, much of it to
Stalin's war-crazed empire-building dictatorship then threatening the
existence of their German homeland. A further three allied ships had been
damaged and now Lt. Commander Wohlfarth's command was low on both torpedoes
THE KNIGHT'S CROSS BECKONS
It was time to return to Germany and at the same time pick up his Knight's
Cross from Admiral Karl Doenitz. Making his leisurely way back across the
north Atlantic the U-556's captain attacked yet another convoy and loosed
the last of his torpedoes. He had no way of knowing that this comparatively
small action in the greater theatre of war may have snatched victory from
As he resumed his interrupted journey the 40,000-ton battleship Bismarck
and the cruiser Prinz Eugen broke the British blockade and sailed out
into the Atlantic on a raiding mission. Aware of the threat the two
behemoths posed all available British forces was ordered to intercept and
destroy the marauders. If the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau
then being repaired in the French port of Brest ever joined these formidable
warships the effect the three battleships and the cruiser would have on
allied shipping would be devastating. Britain could possibly be starved into
giving up its war against the German folk nation.
Located by HMS Suffolk, a squadron composed of HMS Hood and
the HMS Prince of Wales made contact with the German raiders. This
brief and bloody encounter resulted in the sinking of the HMS Hood
with the loss of 95 officers and 1,324 seamen. The Bismarck however
had not emerged unscathed and headed for St. Nazaire for repairs leaving the
Prinz Eugen to continue its patrol.
THE RACE TO THE RESCUE
Hoping to lure the Royal Navy into a trap, the German battleship's
commanding officer, Admiral Lutjens called for a line of U-boats to be
stationed across his own line of approach, ready to deal with his pursuers.
Of the six U-boats able to answer his call two had no torpedoes and very
little fuel. One of them was Lt. Commander Wohlfarth's U-556, the
Bismarck's 'godfather' submarine that had pledged its protection. The
small German U-boat raced through towering seas towards the damaged
Realising that he couldn't close with the German battleship unless its speed
was reduced, RN Admiral Sir. John Tovey called up the Gibraltar squadron.
The squadron consisted of the battle cruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft
carrier HMS Ark Royal and the Cruisers HMS Sheffield and
Everything however depended on the Ark Royal's own aircraft for they
alone could reach the Bismarck in time to strike with their torpedoes.
If anything could prevent the HMS Ark Royal closing with its target
then the magnificent but crippled German raider would make it to St. Nazaire
THE FATEFUL DENIAL
On the evening of the 26th May 1941 the U-556's watch reported the approach
of warships. Lt. Commander Wohlfarth crash-dived and then raising his
periscope was just in time to see what must have been every U-boat
commander's dream. The HMS Renown and the HMS Ark Royal were
streaming directly towards him, their massive grey hulls plunging repeatedly
into the mountainous seas.
Wohlfarth didn't even need to manoeuvre; it was as though they were steaming
straight into his torpedo tubes. All he had to do was press the firing
button to send the Ark Royal and HMS Renown to the bottom of
the Atlantic Ocean. But he had no torpedoes left. The last of them had been
used on a relatively unimportant merchant ship.
Such an opportunity would never again present itself; an enemy battleship
and aircraft carrier, without escorting destroyers, passing in front of a
U-boat's empty torpedo tubes.
Bismarck's fate was sealed. Her 'godfather' protector that had so
recently signalled its pledge of protection was in no position to protect
the pride of the German navy. The HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown
continued their course of destiny.
The British aircraft carrier closed on the Bismarck before launching an
airborne attack on her. In poor weather conditions nine Swordfish aircraft
led by Lieutenant Eugene Esmond found the crippled Bismarck and
launched torpedo attacks which resulted in dented plates, loosened bulkheads
and punctured her fuel tanks. The battleship was now taking in water.
THE CRIPPLING OF THE BISMARCK
Contact was then lost but a Catalina from 209 squadron spotted Bismarck the
next day and from HMS Ark Royal fifteen Swordfish were launched,
which soon chanced upon HMS Sheffield. Mistaking their own 'pride o'
the fleet' for the German battleship the aircraft launched twelve torpedoes,
which the British warship managed to avoid.
Admiral Somerville then ordered a second strike from HMS Ark Royal
and in appalling weather conditions Royal Navy flying officer
Lieutenant-Commander Jim Coode led Sub-Lieutenant Ken Pattison and
Sub-Lieutenant Joey Beal to find the elusive Bismarck. On finally
encountering the German battleship they launched their torpedoes, one of
which hit the port boiler room.
Jim Coode's 'tin fish' then hit the Bismarck's rudder leaving the
giant battleship circling helpless in the Bay of Biscay. A Royal Navy pilot
who was later to be killed on a training flight in North Africa had sealed
As dawn broke on the 27th May, the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, HMS
Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire, positioned themselves and began to
fire salvoes into the stricken German marauder. For three hours the Royal
Navy pounded broadside after broadside into the crippled battleship. In just
90 minutes an incredible 2,876 heavy calibre shells were fired at the
stricken ship. Adolph Eich, Heinz Jucknat and Franz Halke, all survivors
from the German battleship, described the lower decks as absolute carnage.
Fires raged everywhere as magazines exploded.
Circling, HMS Rodney fired two torpedoes into the Bismarck's
hull but still the magnificent warship remained afloat. At 10.15 am the
British Commander-in-Chief ordered the German battleship to be torpedoed
again. HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes into both the starboard and
port hulls of the Bismarck's burning shell, and at 10.40 am the great
battleship rolled silently on her side and began her descent to the bottom
of the seas, her war flag still saluting the grey skies.
THE SEA OF MISERY
In a scene straight from hell many hundreds of young German seamen found
themselves tossed helplessly by the seas, swimming vainly in their attempts
to remain afloat. High above them the heaving grey superstructure of the
HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori, their scrambling nets cascading
down its sides in compliance with the law of the sea.
Eager hands reached out for assistance but helpless by a combination of
exhaustion and the action of the waves few of the stricken men were able to
make it as far as the warship's sea swept decks. Of a crew of 2,221 men only
110 were picked from the waters. These by HMS Dorsetshire and HMS
On both sides of the tragic conflict there were singular acts of great
heroism. Notably a young 17-year old British sailor, Midshipman Brookes,
courageously climbed over the warship's heaving side. Descending to the
heaving waterline he manfully attempted to rescue a young German sailor who
had lost both his arms and was trying to hold on to the rope with his teeth.
Sadly by this time 'naval activity had been spotted' in the distance and the
rescuing warships were ordered to get under way. The young British
midshipman was placed under arrest for defiantly refusing to give up his
rescue attempt and was threatened with execution.
FULL MILITARY HONOURS – AND TEARS
Only 115 of the Bismarck's crew of 2,206 men survived. Several of
those who later died aboard the HMS Dorsetshire were committed to the
sea with full military honours. Typically each was sent to a watery grave as
a bugler played the last post and both German and British sailors stood
solemnly to attention.
The German survivors were given permission to salute their fallen comrades
with the oldest salute in the history of mankind, the raised arm and open
hand, the sign that says 'I do not carry a weapon; I wish only peace with
In the background could be heard the plaintive strains of a borrowed
harmonica playing the fallen German serviceman's lament: 'Ich hatt einen
kamaraden.' (I once had a comrade). As each body was committed to the waves
both German and British sailors wept openly.
Of the two greatest controversies surrounding the sinking of the Bismarck
one has been resolved. The Germans always held that the Bismarck was
never sunk but was scuttled to prevent it falling into the hands of the
Subsequent investigation has found in favour of the German account. The
great German battleship was never sunk by the British but was scuttled by
its own officers. With all but one gun destroyed it was imperative that the
British should never learn of its unsinkable structure. British ships
subsequently built to its design would almost certainly lead to the deaths
of untold thousands of German sailors. The great sub-marine explorer
Commander Ballard who has since discovered the wreck of the Bismarck
has confirmed that it was indeed scuttled.
The remaining great controversy centres on the Royal Navy's abandonment of
nearly 2,000 German seamen, left to their fate in defiance of international
law, the age-old law of the sea, and that of common humanity. This
abandonment has never been properly explained and one can only question the
One cannot however question the pathos of the scene the retreating ships
left in their wake. One British sailor described how, as the rescuing ships
turned stern on, there was the most tragic wailing of despair from the
multitude of men, young and old, left floundering in the water. May God look
after the souls?
Footnote: The Spanish Leader General Franco on hearing of the tragedy
immediately despatched the Spanish cruiser Canarias to the scene but
it found no survivors.
THE 'INFAMOUS' 'LACONIA ORDER'
Few things illustrate the half lie better than the infamous 'Laconia Order'.
This was the order given by Hitler, which expressly forbade German shipping
from picking up survivors at sea. Ever since it this order has been recycled
to show the Germans in a bad light but why was it given?
On September 12th 1942, at 9.30pm the British troopship Laconia was
sunk off the West African coast by the German submarine U-156.
The U-boat, under the command of Werner Hartenstein, began picking up
survivors and sent out a rescue signal on an open channel requesting any
ships in the vicinity to assist with the saving of men in the sea.
U-156 was soon joined by another U-boat, but then both submarines were
bombed by a squadron of American aircraft that had picked up the rescue
signals. As a consequence a total of 1,792 men lost their lives, many of
whom were Italian prisoners-of-war.
As a consequence Hitler issued the 'Laconia Order', forbidding all German
vessels, irrespective of type or size, to pick up allied survivors. Not
surprisingly, thousands of allied seamen who might otherwise have been saved
were abandoned. Not because of the German leader's wickedness but because of
the allied killing frenzy that so often backfired.
A GERMAN SAILOR'S POEM
There are no roses on a sailor's grave,
No lilacs on an ocean wave,
The only tribute is a seagull's sweep,
And the teardrops that their sweetheart's weep,
SO IT WAS WITH PROPAGANDA – AND STILL IS
"If a nation is to go to war, then that nation cannot afford to tell the
balanced truth about the enemy nation, and anyone who does during wartime
will be tried and sentenced for sedition, and possibly executed.
The warmongering faction has to get its citizens mad at the enemy, and in
the proper mood. It has to get its citizens to think they are fighting for
the world's good, and for Christian or other religious righteousness, and
the enemy is evil and ruled by the devil. So it was with the propaganda
against Hitler and Germany, and so it has been ever since." – Alex S. Perry
Jnr. The Barnes Review, Vol. No.1.