The Sinking of The Bismark 1941
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.
BATTLE 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bismark did not open fire on the destroyers.
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.
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.
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.
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!"