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News > Archives & History > Sink the Bismarck! The Bishops connection…

Sink the Bismarck! The Bishops connection…

Today, Thursday 27 May 2021, marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the most famous battleship of all time - the Bismarck.
An artist's depiction of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers attacking the Bismarck
An artist's depiction of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers attacking the Bismarck

Today, Thursday 27 May 2021, marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the most famous battleship of all time. The Bismarck was the pride of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy’s greatest fear, and her demise was a pivotal moment during the darker days of World War II. The connections to Bishops may seem a little tenuous, but they are impressive nonetheless…

By Tim Richman, with additional research by Paul Murray

 

Of all the warships that have sailed through history, none was more notorious than the Bismarck. Along with her sister ship, the Tirpitz, she was the largest German battleship ever built – but it was the Bismarck alone that went on to symbolise the fearsome aggression of Hitler’s Reich and become the target of the greatest naval pursuit in history. Over the course of a week in May 1941, she was at first the focus of attention of Winston Churchill and the British Admiralty as she looked to break out from Scandinavian waters into the Atlantic Ocean, and then the object of their extreme obsession once she had destroyed Britain’s largest and fastest warship in the process at the Battle of Denmark Strait.

Bismarck was designed from the start to defy the Washington regime, the international treaty governing naval construction after World War I. On her launch in 1939, she measured 251 metres and displaced more than 50,000 tons fully loaded, more than 40% heavier than regulations permitted. She brandished eight 15-inch guns in four twin turrets and dozens of secondary armaments, and had an impressive top speed of 30 knots. As fearsome as any warship in existence, she posed a lethal threat to the Allies’ convoys and thus the UK’s maritime lifeline should she be allowed to slip undetected into the Atlantic. This is what she tried to do on 23 May 1941, along with her escort the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen.

Having left the safety of their Baltic port Gotenhafen (now Gydnia, in northern Poland) a few days prior, the two ships’ critical dash into the Atlantic began in the fjords near Bergen on the west coast of Norway. There were three potential routes: north of Iceland, south of Iceland, or an unfeasible run down the heavily defended English Channel. Using intelligence reports, radio intercepts and aerial reconnaissance, the Royal Navy did what it could to keep tabs on the Bismarck’s progress to that point, and it sent two sets of cruisers to patrol the likely routes. The Germans went north, powering full steam at 27 knots into the misty, ice-ridden Denmark Strait that separates Iceland from Greenland, and it was here that they were sighted that evening, first by HMS Suffolk, then HMS Norfolk. A larger force of Royal Navy ships, including the battlecruiser HMS Hood, flagship of Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland, and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, were vectored towards the Germans. A confrontation was imminent and it duly arrived at dawn the following day, the 24th of May. It did not last long.

The battle began in earnest at 5.52am with the Royal Navy getting off the first salvos before the German ships returned fire, concentrating on the Hood. Prince Eugen struck first with her rapid-firing 8-inch guns before Bismarck started finding her range. Less than ten minutes had elapsed before an enormous flame erupted from the Hood amidships followed by a catastrophic explosion that tore through the aft section of the British battlecruiser, breaking her back. She sunk, stern first, within three minutes. The Prince of Wales continued the battle for a little longer before breaking off, its main armament malfunctioning.

The loss of the Hood was “a bitter grief”, in Churchill’s words. For two decades after its launch in 1916 she had been the largest warship in the world, a revered icon of British naval dominance. Now she lay at the bottom of the ocean. As a battlecruiser, the Hood had traded her impressive speed for a lighter armour protection, which ultimately proved her undoing. Though the exact mechanics of her demise have been much debated in the decades since, it seems likely that a 15-inch shell penetrated into one of Hood’s aft magazines igniting a chain of cordite explosions. Famously, there were just three survivors from a crew of 1,419.

Churchill reacted with vengeful pithiness to the “formidable news” of her destruction: “Sink the Bismarck!” he ordered. The hunt for the Bismarck now escalated into the greatest naval pursuit in history, involving six battleships and battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, 13 cruisers and 21 destroyers.

Having taken three direct hits from the Prince of Wales, including a shot in the bow that was now leaking fuel oil, the Bismarck made for the port of Brest for repairs while the Prince Eugen slipped away quietly overnight eventually to return home. With her superior speed, the Bismarck could keep her pursuers at bay until she reached the safety of air cover from German-occupied France; the only way to catch her now was from the air.

The following night a flight of nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious managed to locate their quarry, but flying in the gathering dark and under withering anti-aircraft fire, they inflicted only one hit, with little effect. The Bismarck was the most heavily armoured ship afloat, with no obvious defensive weakness, while the Fairey Swordfish was an obsolete biplane that carried a single torpedo. The plane was constructed from linen stretched across a steel frame, and the three-man crew sat in an open cockpit facing the brunt of atrocious Atlantic weather conditions and struggling just to navigate using their crude early air-to-surface radar system. Once the Bismarck had been relocated, the next Swordfish attack took off from HMS Ark Royal two evenings later on 26 May and proceeded to attack their own cruiser, the HMS Sheffield, by mistake.

There was an important lesson to be taken from this embarrassing error: the magnetic-fuse torpedoes they were carrying malfunctioned on release, to the relief of those onboard the Sheffield. The last 15 airworthy Swordfish were rearmed with more reliable contact-fuse torpedoes and refuelled, and they set off into 50-knot winds for one last crack. This time they used the Sheffield, which was now shadowing the Bismarck using radar, as a navigation aid, and they commenced their attack as darkness was descending. Anti-aircraft fire from dozens of guns filled the night sky for the duration of the half-hour attack, but the Swordfish did have one thing going for them: with a top speed of just 230km/h they were so slow the German gunners, often firing too far ahead, couldn’t shoot them down.

Two torpedoes found their target and, as it turned out, the formidable Bismarck did, in fact, have an Achilles heel: her single rudder. While one torpedo stuck amidship, it was the torpedo that struck her stern that proved decisive, jamming the battleship’s rudder to port and steering the ship into a long arcing turn. By 21.15 she was unmanoeuvrable, and the British fleet could now catch up.

For the rest of the night destroyers harried the Bismarck, tiring her crew, and after dawn broke the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V went to work, opening fire from over 20 kilometres away. Fifteen minutes into this final action the Rodney struck a decisive blow when one of her 16-inch shells hit the Bismarck’s forward upper deck, killing most of the senior officers on the bridge and putting her A and B main turrets out of action. With the rear turrets silenced shortly after, the cruisers HMS Norfolk and Dorsetshire could join the action while Rodney closed to point-blank range to lay waste to what remained, engaging from less than three kilometres and firing two torpedoes for good measure. (This is the only instance in history of one battleship torpedoing another.)

Amazingly, despite taking around 400 hits, and burning from end to end, gunfire was not enough to sink the Bismarck. The mighty battleship was scuttled under orders from her most senior surviving officers, and sank at around 10.40am with the loss of 2,200 German sailors. She now lies at a depth of around 4,800 metres about 650 kilometres west of her intended destination, Brest.

The Bishops connection – the pilot and the admiral

Of the fifteen Fairey Swordfish that set out in fading light from the Ark Royal for a final shot at the Bismarck on the 26 May 1941, one was piloted by a 23-year-old lieutenant commander of 820 Squadron by the name of Anthony Dixon. Eighty years later, he is remembered with great pride by his family, including Michael Dixon (1995F).

“It was a very bad, wet, cloudy, rough sea,” Tony recalled decades after his heroics over the North Atlantic. The flight of Swordfish were split up in the horrendous conditions of that evening, and they arrived on target in drips and drabs emerging from the cloud cover as low as 700 feet. He and his wingman were two of the last to attack the Bismarck and they found themselves up against the combined fire of the ship’s entire anti-aircraft battery.

“We were in tight formation but unknown to me my flight leader, Willcocks, got parted from the main flight and later we came out through the cloud and there was the Bismarck about two miles east of us,” he remembered. “Aircraft had been attacking and as I motored in to attack they were using their main armament at me. I would imagine they were getting pretty desperate because they had already been hit, and as I came close to astern of her, she was turning round very slowly and eventually ended up sailing back towards the home fleet at about 6 or 7 knots. I returned to the Ark Royal, flying over the Sheffield.”

The anti-aircraft fire they had faced was so intense that Dixon’s aircraft had to drop its torpedo from a considerable distance of around 2,000 yards, while Willcocks had to break off his attack and ultimately jettison his payload.

Incredibly, all 15 pilots managed to steer their rickety flak-riddled biplanes back to their aircraft carrier for a hazardous night landing on heaving seas. Several crashed on landing and only six remained serviceable. Tony Dixon’s aircraft, pictured here in better shape, never flew again. 

Lieutenant Commander Anthony Dixon at the controls of the Fairey Swordfish he flew in the attack on the Bismarck. He made it back to his aircraft carrier but the plane never flew again.

Of the 43 crew who participated in the decisive attack on the Bismarck, eight were later killed in action, including six of the pilots. Tony Dixon survived the war, including the critical Malta “runs” and the sinking of the Ark Royal, after it was torpedoed by a U-boat off Gibraltar in November 1941.

While Tony Dixon was only related to an OD, Admiral Sir Edward Neville Syfret spent four years at Bishops, from 1899 to 1902, and was from a family that has a long and rich relationship with the school. His father, Edward Ridge Syfret (at Bishops from 1872-77), was president of the OD Union in 1936-37, and he himself would play an important role in the Union for many years in his later life. His younger brother Jack Eustace Ridge Syfret was also at Bishops (1909-1915), though he was not long an OD, dying from injuries sustained in World War I at the age of 20.

Admiral Sir E. Neville Syfret, probably the most illustrious naval man to have come from Bishops. (Courtesy of Gallo.)

Neville Syfret built an illustrious career in the Royal Naval over the course of four decades, joining in 1904, serving in both wars and ultimately retiring in 1948. He was knighted for his efforts. As described in the Diocesan College Record in the Second World War 1939-1945:

“Admiral Sir E. Neville Syfret, most modest of men, who shewed [sic] the highest of promise at Bishops was Naval Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty when the War began and for some time afterwards. In the course of the War he was in Command at the taking of Madagascar, commanded Force ‘H’ (Western Mediterranean), conducted desperate but successful convoys through the narrow straits to Malta, took part in convoys, almost equally desperate, to the Northern ports of Russia, for two months acted as First Sea Lord, and ended as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet… For his outstanding and varied service he was awarded the G.C.B., the K.C.B., the C.B. and the K.B.E.  He was mentioned in Despatches.’

A profile published in The Cape Times less than a year before he died referred to him as the ‘Ex-Bishops Boy’ and the ‘Man behind the Malta convoys’. From 1940 to 1943, while the war was being fought in the deserts of North Africa, Malta proved to be a critical strategic asset for the United Kingdom, a base from which the Allies could attack Axis supply ships from Europe to Italian Libya. Force ‘H’ was the naval formation, based out of Gibraltar, that led many of the critical convoys to resupply the island. It was an epic and ongoing struggle for survival. In August 1942, for instance, just five of a convoy of 16 ships reached the island, with the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle and cruiser HMS Manchester among those that were lost. 

So we see the connection between Neville Syfret and Anthony Dixon as individual member of Force H and so brothers in arms, but how else was the former connected to the sinking of the Bismarck?

First, by the time of her pursuit Syfret was Naval Secretary to the First Sea Lord, and so a member of the board of Admiralty that oversaw the Navy’s actions. Thus he was a key player in the strategic hunt.

And second, there was what must have a been a satisfying personal connection for him: Syfret, trained as a gunnery specialist, was once the captain of the HMS Rodney, the ship that rained the most destruction on the Bismarck on her final morning. In fact, Syfret held the command of the Rodney at the outbreak of war before becoming naval secretary.

The HMS Rodney, once commanded by Admiral Syfret, delivered the killer blows to the Bismarck. Note the peculiar battery layout of her 16-inch guns, a weight-saving tactic to conform to regulations.  (Courtesy of Gallo.)

Admiral Sir Edward Neville Syfret died in December 1972. His cousins Peter Syfret (1961S) and Peter’s son Stephen Syfret (1986S) followed his path to Bishops. Anthony Dixon died in January 2003, by which stage he had lived to see his grandson Michael graduate from Bishops. Michael, as it turns out, played in the 1991 under-13 Colts rugby team, coached in his first year as a teacher at Bishops by Paul Murray, co-author of this article. Tim Richman (1995B), Paul’s co-author, was also in the Colts in 1991. And so the Bishops network reaches, however tentatively, back into history… 

This article is a first draft, compiled from various sources. An updated version will appear in Issue 7 of The Old Diocesan, due to be published in September/October. If you would like to make any comment or provide additional information about ODs connected to the sinking of the Bismarck or the Malta convoys, please do contact the OD Union, for attention Tim Richman.

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