Caithness Field Club

The Sinking of The Bismark 1941
by Richard Polanski


Editorial Note:

Truth is multi-faceted. An event such as a major sea battle is a complex operation which usually passes into history via an official account.

The sinking of the Bismark was witnessed by Richard Polanski and his personal account follows. It differs from the generally accepted version of events. The latter clearly attributes the disablement of the Bismark steering to torpedo attacks from Swordfish aircraft whereas Richard Polanski believes that the damaging torpedo was fired from the destroyer on which he was serving. Certainly it was this inability to steer which enabled the huge flotilla of Allied warships to close in and then sink the Bismark. At the time, all that mattered was that the Bismark, which had already inflicted much damage to the Allied fleet, was eliminated. Afterwards, people in comfortable surroundings pondered over the details of the action.

There were a few survivors of the Bismark and these were interrogated, but most of those who could contribute, and the crucial evidence from the ship itself, went to the bottom of the ocean. With respect to those brave participants in this bloody affair, the record will always have an element of speculation about it. The Bulletin is not the appropriate forum in which to conduct this debate; what follows is a graphic and personal account from a Caithness Field Club member who participated in the action.

During the Second World War I was an eye witness to an encounter at sea between the most powerful German battleship and a destroyer. I am glad to be able to throw some light on the sinking of Bismark.

In the autumn of 1939 the German Navy, as well as the German land and air forces, were well prepared, ahead of any other country, in the challenge for supremacy by Adolf Hitler and the resulting second world war.

Submarines, forbidden by Versailles Treaty, were secretly built for the Germans in Spain and Finland. Bismark, listed under agreement for only 35,000 tons, was built in Hamburg to a displacement, when fully laden, of over 50,000 tons. In the Spring of 1941 when British shipping suffered some very heavy losses in the Battle of the Atlantic, Bismark was ready to put more power behind the enemy's efforts of destruction by the sinking of H.M.S. HOOD.

For the Allies, it was important to neutralise this destructive ship, Bismark.

A British destroyer, built on the Clyde in 1940 of Javelin class, named Nerissa was of 1760 tons, speed 36 knots, armed with 4.7" guns and torpedoes. In Autumn 1940 the ship was on loan to the Polish Navy, renamed Piorun and with a Polish crew aboard under command of Lt. Cdr. E Plawski, became part of the Home Fleet Flotilla in Scapa Flow.

I joined the Polish Navy at the age of 18 and was trained as a gunner by the R.N.staff in Devonport Dockyard in 1940. In 1941 I was serving on the Piorum when the hunt for the Bismark began. This is what happened.

26 May I came on watch by the forward No 1 twin barrelled 4.7" gun at 20.00 hrs 8 p.m. on 26 May and put on my headphones in order to keep in contact with the staff on the bridge. (Someone had failed to isolate the bridge and I was able to hear all talk there.)

The visibility was excellent that night but there was a low bank of cloud far on the westerly horizon. The wind was mild and moderate. The sea was calm with a long wave from west to east and this was rather unusual for the Bay of Biscay which is well known for shorter, bumpy waves.

20.10 hrs
The first reported sighting of Bismark was by a Catalina, a twin-engined reconnaissance plane, flashing signals to Piorun.

20.15 hrs
On starboard side, about 10o , gunner Sliwinski saw a ship. I reported this to the bridge just ahead of Wisniewski who was a spotter by the range finder.

I heard on the phone, our C.O. recognising the ship as Bismark. Piorun, at full speed, turned for the big battleship and thus the conflict between the two ships began.

20.45 hrs
When Piorun came within the range for her torpedoes, the ship turned to port with the speed reduced and, to order from C.O., the three torpedoes were fired. This was the first time that Piorun fired a torpedo in action, so I ran over to starboard but saw only the third one fired from the tube into the air, before it hit the water. The other two torpedoes, leaving behind them a trace easily to be seen on the quiet sea, were well on target. I watched the first pass by the stem, the second torpedo hit and exploded at the centre of port side of Bismark, the third hit and exploded at the edge of the stern.

21.00 hrs
Bismark's guns opened fire on the starboard side. The gunfire was very intense and of planned precision to create an impenetrable A.A. screen. Bismark was under attack by torpedo carrying Swordfish planes. In two separate attacks the planes dived towards Bismark.

I did not see what fate befell those planes because the bursting shells and then the big hull of Bismark obscured my vision and I did not see any hits, as those would have produced a high plume of water above the sides of the battleship.

Two Swordfish planes carried out a torpedo attack on Bismark, leaving the bank of cloud in the west behind the battleship, and dropped their torpedoes on target.

Both planes flew very low, almost touching the water and after releasing their torpedoes, banked to port to escape safely along portside of Bismark.

Only one torpedo was successful and exploded on the starboard edge on the stern.

All through this time Piorun was at full speed, closing up for another torpedo attack to fire them whenever the tubes were reloaded.

22.00 hrs
Bismark's four 15" guns began firing at Piorun. the big shells were passing over above the mast height with terrifying noise. Piorun weaved from side to side in attempt to avoid being hit.

The situation was eerie. The familiar colour of paint on the destroyer, called battleship grey, was changed by reflecting continuous orange flash of Bismark's guns into a hideous colour of deep blood-red - even the motionless figures of the gun crew were similarly transformed, creating a vision suitable more for a scene from "Dante's Inferno" than life on the ocean wave.

23.00 hrs
At last there was to be some action - I thought - when I overheard the C.O. giving order to Sub.Lt. of artillery that No 1 gun was to get ready to fire. The order to fire came with instruction that I was to pick my own target on the bridge of Bismark, I was glad of a previous experience during the Blitz on Clydebank; then I had been on the bridge of the battleship Duke of York and that gave me an insight to the lay-out of a battleship and thus where to aim.

I picked for my target, the second oblong window on the bridge from the stern end, where I imagined the control centre was. The distance between the destroyer and the battleship was so close that, owing to high magnification of the gunsight, I would see only a very small portion of the huge bridge, and had to align by the barrel of the gun first to assure myself I was on focus.

As before, when Piorun fired at Bismark with torpedoes, C.O. turned the ship to port and slowed down, thus making it easier for me to aim and hit the bridge. I fired three salvos and sent six shells on target. I heard each hit confirmed by the sub-lieutenant on the bridge. To my surprise I was ordered to stop firing. I was attracted towards the stern by flashing lights and against the eastern sky I saw a destroyer and then another one, come into view. Both were signalling, demanding Piorun's withdrawal.

24.10 hrs
Piorun was on course for Bismark with torpedoes reloaded and ready to fire and the C.O. was determined to continue the action.

Our ship was so close to Bismark that looking up, I could not restrain myself and shouted - "Jaka to stodota" - What a Barn".

A moment later I was surprised to see alongside between Piorun and Bismark, the famous "Cossack". With skilled manoeuvring, with flashing signals and with smoke pouring from her stern, she forced Piorun to turn to port and follow her hidden in smoke in a sweep eastward.

24.20 hrs
When the smoke cleared, I saw four British destroyers, Cossack, Maori, Sikh and Zulu, about three miles out on the western flank. Bismark was about the same distance to the north of them and north west from Piorun.

01.00 hrs
Bismark was moving slowly. The British destroyers in turn, one after another, made torpedo attacks on Bismark. Piorun was not asked to participate. Until three in the morning there was no further action. Bismark continued her slow progress south west, her anti-aircraft guns kept on firing through the night.

03.00 hrs
The Fleet, about ten miles south, eager to avenge the sinking of H.M.S. Hood by Bismark, began firing star shells on Bismark prior to bombardment. By mistake the shells fired by the Fleet were short of target and illuminated the area occupied by the four British destroyers.

Bismark did not open fire on the destroyers.

05.00 hrs
With the first light, the bombardment of Bismark by the guns of Rodney, King George V and cruisers, began. They were pounding the battleship concentrating on fore and aft guns. Some shells were ricochetting far into the sea. I saw only one shell hit the bridge at deck level.

06.00 hrs
The big guns of Bismark were turned to portside. They began to fire one after the other. Above the fore gun, on firing second time, I saw some debris in the black smoke after discharge.

07.00 hrs
All gunfire stopped on Bismark. The anti-aircraft screen I saw the night before, was no longer there. I saw the crew on Bismark assemble on the foredeck. The stern was progressively sinking. Bismark's stem was pointing into the westerly wind. The sailors began to leap feet first off the high stem and soon the sea on the port side of Bismark was full of German sailors attempting to swim some distance away from their sinking ship.

08.00 hrs
A submarine was detected below the large group of survivors. there was no attempt made as yet to pick up any of them.

On Piorun, after twelve hours on deck, the "action stations" was called off. As I was making my way down to my quarters, Bismark slid under the water by the stern. The sea closed over her, some air burst forth and that was the end.

08.20 hrs
When someone shouted "Bismark is up again!", I thought it was a joke but I ran up to see and there she was again, upside down.

09.00 hrs
On mid-deck of Piorun there was some activity. The sea ladders were out over the side and some Germans were scrambling aboard and were taken to stern quarters for a change of clothing and dry-out. I counted about seventeen of them, when a destroyer signalled and the ladders were taken up to the visible disappointment of those abandoned in the water. The same destroyer, her stern ploughing through the midst of survivors, parting them in two, came alongside of Piorun. All the crew on Piorun were ordered below the deck.

09.30 hrs
I was on the starboard side on the stern near the door leading to the officers' quarters, too far from my forward quarters to obey the order. The officers' quarters were out of bounds to the ratings. I stayed where I was and saw the transfer of the German survivors from Piorun to the British destroyer accomplished with skilful navigation by both, aided with a loudhailer. The Germans were able to walk over from an opening in the stem guardrail on Piorun, to the other with ease and no ropes were used.

The motive behind the transfer was the unfounded notion that the Poles would mistreat the Germans who invaded their country. I found the excuse offensive.

10.00 hrs
"Action stations" was sounded again. I was back at No 1 gun and not long after saw Bismark go slowly down for the second time, as  one might say "An answer to a prayer". I was tired and shaken by all I saw that morning.

10.30 hrs
Piorun undertook a westerly course. I reported a sighting of a torpedo targeting the port bow. There was an instant response from C.O. The ship was turned to port and a disaster avoided. Back on course my mate on the starboard saw a ship about 10o off the stem which I reported to the bridge by phone. I trained the gun on the ship and with the gunsight, was able to read the name of the cruiser fashioned from steel - "Prince Eugen", on the round stern.

A plane was launched from the cruiser. Piorun opened up with all guns but with no success. I was firing on automatic control. The distance setting on shells was also ordered by the staff on the bridge.

Two bombs were dropped very close to Piorun's stern. Piorun's intended torpedo attack, once within the range, was foiled by fairly accurate gunfire from the Prince Eugen. Piorun made smoke screen and withdrew behind it. On the way back for port, a pilot from Prince Eugen, whose plane I saw make a "U" turn and go down in control on the water, was picked up.

14.00 hrs
Piorun was outside Plymouth but had entry refused for lack of space as the Fleet was in. A small tender was sent out to refuel Piorun for a further journey to Portsmouth. With the boilers shut down for lack of fuel "Action Stations" was called. Just before going up, I heard on the ship's radio, "Lord Haw-Haw" saying how Hitler swore vengeance on all ships that took part in the sinking of the Bismark with a mention by name "specially the Polish destroyer, Piorun!".

17.00 hrs
Piorun was tied to the quay in Portsmouth at low tide at five that evening. Further up the quay, the British destroyer was landing the survivors that were transferred from Piorun. Piorun's German pilot was also taken ashore, in good order.

18.00 hrs
A heavy air-raid was started by Luftwaffe on Portsmouth. Piorun slipped her moorings in strict black-out and left for Scotland.

There is little more to add but, about a year later, I met up accidentally with a British "Jock" who told me that he was interpreter at the interrogation of the survivors and was told of the damage that Piorun's shells did to the control room of Bismark. He patted me on the back and embraced me before rushing off on leave for home, with the words - "Great Shooting!"

Published in 1995 Bulletin