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Movietone at War: The sinking of the Bismarck

Schlachtschiff Bismarck, pride of the Kriegsmarine, was a state-of-the-art warship.

Together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen the ship was based in Norway.  On May 21st 1941, the two warships set off for the Atlantic where they were to attack Allied merchant ships.  It was called Operation Rheinubung. The Admiralty, made aware of the Germans’ departure, alerted its squadrons at sea that Bismarck was making for the North Atlantic.

The pursuit was on.   The German captain was Kapitan zur See Ernst Lindemann who, together with Admiral Gunther Lutjens chose to reach the shipping lanes via the Denmark Strait which lies between Iceland and Greenland.

Directly in their path lay the Royal Navy cruisers H.M.S. Suffolk and H.M.S. Norfolk.

On the evening of May 23, the enemy warships were sighted by the cruisers and their position was signalled to the Admiralty. Units of the Home Fleet, including the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship Prince of Wales, set off to intercept the Germans.

The first engagement took place the following morning and after only fifteen minutes H.M.S. Hood was sunk.  A shell had penetrated her armour and exploded in the aft magazine.

Bismarck firing at HMS Prince of Wales on 24 M...

Bismarck firing at HMS Prince of Wales on 24 May 1941 as seen from Prinz Eugen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly afterwards, Bismarck attacked and damaged H.M.S. Prince of Wales which made smoke to cover her withdrawal.  This had been the Battle of the Denmark Strait.

Knowing that the entire Home Fleet of the Royal Navy would pursue them, they could have turned tail and returned to Norway, but the German Admiral Lujens insisted on making for to St. Nazaire in France to make repairs to their battle damage.  He reasoned that, from there, they could get back into the Atlantic easier than from Norway.

The British Cruisers, together with the stricken Prince of Wales, continued to shadow the Bismarck.  The Prinz Eugen moved away into the Atlantic leaving Bismarck on her own.

Bismarck left Hamburg for the first time on 15...

Bismarck left Hamburg for the first time on 15 September 1940. Grützner 2010, pp. 152, 397. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the British ships were avoiding engagement under a smoke screen, Bismarck changed course and became lost to the Royal Navy.  Lutjens  made a long signal to Gruppe West.  The signal was intercepted by the British who were now able to roughly spot her position.

The German warship was found by a Catalina of Coastal Command.

The information was relayed to Force H which included the aircraft carrier Ark Royal the closest British warship.  A decision was made to attack Bismarck from the air. Ark Royal had obsolete Fairey Swordfish, planes that had been designed in 1934.

The maximum speed of the Swordfish was 121 knots.

English: Swordfish torpedo bombers on the afte...

English: Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious before the attack on the Bismarck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This may have acted in their favour because the planes were too slow for the fire-control predictors of the German guns. The German shells exploded so far in front of the aircraft that shrapnel damage was greatly diminished. Some of the Swordfish flew so low that most of the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft guns were unable to depress enough to hit them.

The ageing Swordfish aircraft scored two hits; one did little damage, but the other jammed Bismarck’s steering which jammed at an angle of 15 degrees.   Bismarck was now unable to do anything but describe a wide circle.

Now Force H, which also included the battlecruiser H.M.S. Renown and the cruiser H.M.S. Sheffield, closed in. They were joined by the battleships H.M.S. Rodney and H.M.S. King George V, as well as other cruisers and destroyers.

The two battleships opened fire on Bismarck and within half an hour, Bismarck’s guns had all been destroyed and the ship was now getting low in the water.

The Royal Navy ships continued to fire, as did the cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire until the Bismarck finally went down.

Leslie Mitchell wrote about censorship and getting film of the sinking of the Bismarck:

Meanwhile strict censorship had become a vital necessity.  What with film from the invaded countries and the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the newsreels had more than adequate material on which to draw, and there arose a very real risk of accidentally giving away secret information about troop-movements or new types of rmament and aircraft.  During the Blitz we had to be careful not to show the extent of damage done by the Luftwaffe.  Dispositions of the Fleet could be assessed from pictures of the Navy at sea.  The whereabuts of leading commanders or statesmen could be traced by the scenery behind them.  Eventually a censor had to sit with our editorial board for th screening of all material.  Much of it had to be scrapped.

leslie mitchell

Leslie Mitchell

Leslie’s recollections are somewhat flawed.   The censor was, eventually, based in the Ministry of Information and all material was sent there for the censor.  In the early days, the newsreel editors only saw the film that the censor released.  Later, a member of the Newsreel Association was able to sit in with the screening of uncensored film.

Leslie Mitchell continued:

When news came of the sinking of the Bismarck we begged the Admiralty for any kind of film coverage to illustrate the victory since none of our cameramen took part in the action.  After some delay we received a story from the Admiralty on 16mm film, obviously taken by an amateur, but still worth showing as the only record of a historic occasion.  We watched it with mounting excitement.  Clearly the film had been taken from one of our smaller ship – perhaps a destroyer.  The movement of the camera indicated that she was rolling quite considerably  in not very rough weather.  On the skyline appeared the bulk of a large battleship.  This must be the Bismarck.

The camera held steadily on her – she was moving in the same direction.  After some moments there was a violent explosion in the area of the bridge.  There was a flash of flame, then a long plume of smoke.  This was the climax of the film.  Obviously a newsreel scoop – factual moving pictures of one of the most dramatic events of the war.

Suddenly doubts began to assail me.  Having been an enthusiastic user of 16mm film for years, it seemed to me that the pictures of the Bismarck could not have been taken from a greater distance than two miles, judging by the size of the battleship in comparison with the screen.  If, as I thought,  the film had been taken from a British corvette or a destroyer, she would hardly have held on a parallel course at such short range without being blown out of the water.   Could there have been some mistake ?  I exprssed my doubts to my colleagues.  We looked at it again.  Eventually, they asked the Admiralty to send an expert to check.  In due course, an old friend, Commander Anthony Kimmins, arrived.  (Having forsaken playwriting and film-directing for the duration, he was back in the Navy).  He, too, was puzzled.  So there was another delay while yet another expert was sent for.  In the early hours of the morning, the sad truth came out.  The battleship was British, and being put out of action by a direct hit.  The film was not shown.  I believe what we were watching was the occasion in which poor Esmond Knight, the actor, lost his sight on the Prince of Wales.*

*Esmond Knight was blind for two years but then regained some sight in his right eye.  He was an accomplished actor.

The Movietone At War articles are based on extracts and research for my forthcoming book: “Movietone At War”.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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