Bismarck chase veteran looks back after 50 years


LONDON -- Fifty years after shooting it out with the Royal Navy in one of history's epic sea battles, the German battleship Bismarck is still revered as the greatest warship of its time.

Peter Baynes should remember. He was a 19-year-old seaman aboard the battleship HMS King George V, the Royal Navy flagship that led the battle against the 50,000-ton behemoth.

"It was bigger, faster, more heavily armed than anything we had," Mr. Baynes recalled as he sat in a lounge at the Naval Club in London. "She was just a battleship of all times, a beautiful ship."

Fifty years ago last month, the Bismarck was looked upon more with respect than admiration for the menace it posed to the convoys bringing vital supplies and war materiel from the United States to Britain.

Fortified with heavy armor and packing eight 15-inch guns, the warship was the pride of Adolf Hitler's navy when it left the Polish port of Gdynia on its maiden voyage on May 18, 1941.

Two days later, it was sighted off the coast of Norway headed toward the North Atlantic to join other German ships attacking allied convoys.

The Royal Navy set sail to meet it. The first great sea battle of World War II was under way.

"We were in port at Scapa Flow [in the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland] when word came she had broken out," Mr. Baynes said. "We had to have every bit of Navy we could muster to catch her."

About 35 warships from the Home Fleet were put into action, and "Force H" led by the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal headed north from Gibraltar to join in.

After four days of cat-and-mouse shadowing, British guns opened fire on the giant ship on May 24. The Bismarck responded, and its shells ripped into HMS Hood, causing an explosion that literally tore the 20-year-old battle cruiser in two.

The Hood -- the pride of the Royal Navy -- went down with more than 1,400 seamen aboard. The tragedy stunned "the entire British empire," said Stuart Thomson of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

It was then that Winston Churchill issued his famous command: "Sink the Bismarck!"

"The response was partly emotional, but it was also necessary," Mr. Thomson said. "Had she got out into the Atlantic, she would have been able to wreak havoc on the convoys, and we didn't need that at that time."

During the next two days, it seemed as if the Bismarck might escape. But on May 26, a torpedo attack on the Bismarck's rudders by Swordfish aircraft from the Ark Royal ruined its ability to steer.

British ships closed in on the crippled battleship overnight, and on the morning of May 27 they pounded it with all the firepower they could muster.

Six levels below deck on the King George V, Mr. Baynes labored in the cordite handling room, sending the explosive powder up to the ship's powerful guns. "All you could hear was the 'thump, thump' of the guns," he said.

The Bismarck withstood the hammering for more than 90 minutes.

Watching the spectacle with awe and respect, Adm. Sir John Tovey ordered a torpedo attack to finish the Bismarck off.

At 10:40 a.m., still flying its colors, the Bismarck went down, taking all but 115 of its 2,300-man crew with it.

"Any ship that could take that kind of battering is special," said Mr. Baynes, who rose to the rank of lieutenant in a six-year naval career.

Two years ago, U.S. oceanographer Robert Ballard -- discoverer of the Titanic wreckage -- found the Bismarck about 600 miles west of the port of Brest, France.

The rusting hulk lay upright, 15,700 feet beneath the surface, halfway down the slope of an extinct volcano. Mr. Ballard's deep-sea robot camera system delivered pictures showing the Bismarck's guns pointed eerily upward.

Overall, Mr. Ballard said at the time, the 820-foot ship was "intact, in an excellent state of preservation."

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