GERMAN BATTLESHIP BISMARCK Interrogation of Survivors

C.B. 4051 24)


Interrogation of Survivors

August, 1941


     ADMIRALTY, S.W.1.   

     N.I.D. 08409/43.

The following report is compiled from information derived from prisoners of war. The statements made cannot always be verified; they should therefore not be accepted as facts unless they are definitely stated to be confirmed by information from other sources.


„BISMARCK,“ SUNK AT 1037 ON TUESDAY, 27th MAY, 1941,

IN POSITION 48° 09′ N., AND 16° 07′ W.


             Out of a total of between 2,300 and 2,400 officers and men believed to have been on board „Bismarck“ when sunk, only 110, including 4 officers, survived, and of these 75 were selected for interrogation.

             The inexperience and youth of the majority of the survivors, many of whom were under twenty, precluded much reliable information being obtained. Most of the survivors had only knowledge of their own part of the ship and prisoners emphasised that neither officers nor men received more information than was required for the performance of their own particular duties. It was evident, from interrogations, that much information had been purposely withheld from the ship’s company, the very extensive sub-division of the ship into watertight compartments hindering an exchange of information which might otherwise have become common knowledge.

             Considering their exceptionally severe experience it is remarkable how well the survivors withstood their ordeal. 


             It seems probable, from prisoner’s statements, that the normal complement of „Bismarck“ was between 2,100 and 2,200 officers and men, and it was suggested that this relatively large complement was due to the elaborate sub-division of the ship into watertight compartments.    

             The Commanding Officer, Kapitan z. See (Captain) Ernst Lindemann was born on the 28th March, 1894, and entered the Imperial German Navy in April, 1913.

             In March, 1938, he was promoted to Captain and became head of the Training Division at the Admiralty. Captain Lindemann was known to have been in command of the battleship „Deutschland“ in July, 1939, but it is not known when he was appointed to „Bismarck,“ and it is thought that he assumed command when commissioning on the 24th August, 1940.   

             Prisoners criticised their officers, stating that some of them were „peculiar“ and others lazy, the Divisional Officers taking little interest in their men; it was even said that one officer was an idiot.

        It was generally agreed, by prisoners, that the „Bismarck“ had an exceptionally young and inexperienced ship’s company. For many of the men „Bismarck“ was their first ship, which they had joined after doing a few months‘ naval training. Prisoners, on the whole, disliked serving in a battleship, stating that they would have felt more independent in a smaller ship. Many had been in the „Hitlerjugend“ (Hitler Youth Organisation) and had then had civil occupations such as: miner, farm labourer, clerk, barber, plumber, cook, electrician, mechanic and so on and had been drawn from all parts of Germany and some Austria and Czechoslovakia.

             The Petty Officers were of a good type physically and of good intelligence but the younger men were poorly developed both mentally and physically, and those who had been stationed below decks appeared to have suffered from lack of fresh air. Prisoners stated that there was noticeable friction between petty officers and men, which resulted in a lack of harmony which, in part, may also have been due to the activities of Party Agents. 


             Admiral Günther Lütjens was born on the 25th May, 1899, in Wiesbaden, entered the Imperial German Navy in April, 1907, and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant in 1910.     

             In 1934 he commanded the cruiser „Karlsruhe“ on an eight months‘ training cruise overseas and later was in turn Chief-of-Staff, North Sea Naval Station, Head of the Naval Personnel Office in Berlin, and Chief of the German Torpedo Arm.   

             At the beginning of the Polish campaign, he personally played a prominent part in his flotilla leader „Le[e]brecht Maas[s]“ and later distinguished himself in mining operations off the British East Coast.    

             On 1st September, 1940, Lütjens was promoted to Admiral and given Command of all Scouting Forces.

             Although Lütjens had achieved considerable success in the Polish and Norwegian campaigns and later in commerce raiding, his reputation on the lower deck was by no means envious. His command in „Gneisenau“ was marked by a chain of misfortunes and the superstitious had come to regard him as a „Jonah.“ This reputation had followed him to „Bismarck“ producing, in consequence, a depressing atmosphere.    

             Furthermore the Admiral was possessed of an overriding temperament, which later exemplified itself in open arguments with the Captain, tending to undermine morale.   

             The events leading up to the destruction of „Bismarck,“ and the lack of support by U-Boats, aircraft or other units, suggest a weakness in the co-operation between the Admiral and shore commands, which may be partially attributed to faulty staff work.        

        Prisoners who spoke disparagingly of Admiral Lütjens also criticised Grossadmiral (Admiral of the Fleet) Heinrich [Korr.: Erich] Raeder. It was stated that Raeder was not popular in the Navy, and stood in the way of worthy officers‘ promotion. It was added that he was a „turncoat,“ prepared to serve under any political leadership.

(2)  Action with H.M.S. „Hood“

             H.M.S. „Hood“ (Captain R. Kerr, C.B.E., R.N.), wearing the flag of Vice-Admiral L. E. Holland, C.B., with H.M.S. „Prince of Wales“ (Captain J. C. Leach, M.V.O., R.N.) and a screen of destroyers had been proceeding to intercept „Bismarck“ ever since she was first sighted by „Norfolk“ at 2032, 23rd May. Contact was made at 0535, 24th May, in the Denmark Strait, and „Hood“ and „Prince of Wales“ closed to engage. Action was joined at 0553 at a range of 25,000 yards. „Hood,“ according to „Bismarck“ prisoners, fired first, the salvo being over. A second salvo from „Hood“ fell short, but the third hit, and three shells in all struck „Bismarck.“

        Meanwhile „Bismarck“ had opened fire on „Hood“ from her main armament turrets and her port secondary armament, with armour-piercing shells, firing salvoes of four guns with the 38-cm. armament. The opening range was stated by prisoners to have been 23,000 metres (25,152 yards). According to one prisoner, Fregattenkapitän Schneider, the 1st Gunnery Officer failed to recognise his target as „Hood,“ believing that he was firing at a British cruiser. He was corrected by the 2nd Gunnery Officer, Korvettenkapitän Albrecht, who said: „Herr Schneider, observe the superstructure, you know well which ship in the British fleet has that superstructure. That is no other than the battle-cruiser ‚Hood‘!“ The prisoner who recounted this incident also added: „Who of us ever thought we should be engaged in a sea battle! We had merely thought of commerce raiding and sunning ourselves on deck.“


       At 0851 „Rodney“ had straddled „Bismarck“ but it was not until 0857, according to prisoners, that „Bismarck“ sustained her first hit. „Bismarck,“ it now appears, had first intended to engage the destroyers with her main armament, but before a salvo was fired new directions were given to fire on „Rodney.“  Fire was now opened, the fore and after turrets firing alternatively in salvoes of four. Range was closing rapidly. Fire at this time was being controlled from the upper direction tower (Vormars), but after 25 minutes this position received a direct hit and was completely wrecked. Kapitänleutnant von Müllenheim-Rechberg [Note: 4th. artillery officer and highest ranking survivor] believes that this hit was scored by a shell from „Dorsetshire,“ who had reached the scene of action. This officer states that he believes „Bismarck“ could have held her own against „Rodney“ and „King George V“ had it not been for this hit, which, metaphorically speaking, „blew out ‚Bismarck’s‘ brains.“

       Scenes below deck were indescribable. A direct hit in the after dressing station killed the medical staff and the wounded there. Hatches and doors in all parts of the ship had become jammed owing to distortion, resultant upon the terrific pounding the ship was receiving and also because heavy wreckage now lay across most of the hatches opening on the upper deck. Crews in two magazines became trapped as they were unable to free exit hatches. As rescue parties worked desperately to save trapped men, fires above were raising the temperature within the magazines to a dangerously high level. Finally the probability of explosion became so acute that rescue work was abandoned. Orders were given to flood and the imprisoned men were drowned.  

       In the forward canteen 200 men also became trapped under jammed hatches. At the very moment when a hatch to the upper deck became freed, a direct hit crashed through the deck, transforming the canteen into a charnel house. According to one prisoner, not one man of this group of 200 strong survived, and in making his own escape he was forced to pick his way between „mountains of flesh and bone.“ This prisoner also described how he passed through the W/T room, where the entire staff had been blown to pieces.

       As regards the final phase of the action, it may be of interest to note that one prisoner mentioned the fact that members of the Propaganda Kompanie had filmed the battle, remarking that if these films had ever been shown in Germany, there would have been no more volunteers for the German Navy.