Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

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Vic Dale
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Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Thu May 23, 2013 12:40 am

After Bismarck went down, there were many hundreds of survivors left in the water with a very good chance of survival, if they could get to a ship. Reading the Baron's account of how he managed to get aboard Dorsetshire, I feel it is quite amazing that he possessed so much presence of mind that he could stand off and take an overview, watching others get rescued and directing the efforts of some and helping them to get saved. He had two goes at getting aboard, the first time he overestimated his strength and fell back into the water when he took one hand off the rope. He left no room for error and quickly grabbed a rope, which turned out to be the same one. He asked the men on the rope, to haul him aboard. He then waited on the deck watching the rescue operations for a while and estimated that 800 men were in the water around the ship.

This observation started a chill in me, because 800 is more than Dorsetshire's whole ship's company of 680 to 700. If all these men were plucked from the sea by this single ship, there is the distinct possibility that they could turn, overwhelm Dorsetshire's crew and take over the ship. It would not be possible to put such a number under armed guard. I am not for one minute suggesting that they would turn on their rescuers, but such a question must surely be considered by the Captain of a rescuing vessel.

This will have been Captain Martin's dilemma and this, I believe, is the reason Dorsetshire did not put scrambling nets over the side - an act which would have drastically cut rescue times and could have got many more men aboard. As far as I know, the Geneva Convention does not specify the number of survivors a Captain must rescue before he can break off the operation, nor how efficiently he must go about the task, but I would be willing to bet there was an Admiralty Standing order setting such a limit. I seem to recall reading somewhere that ships involved in the sinking of Scharnhorst were ordered to go in and "take a sample" of the crew.

On convoy duties early in the war, captains were forbidden turn and rescue their own men left in the water, when their vessels had been torpedoed, owing to the number of losses incurred during such mercy work. Later when it looked like the merchant fleet might mutiny and refuse to sail if more was not done to rescue survivors, 29 ships were designated Rescue Vessels. They would stop and pick up survivors whilst the convoy continued onward. The rescue ships then had the speed to catch up and rejoin the convoy. Six of these proud little vessels were sunk whilst carrying out their duties.

I find it odd that the Admiralty had to be driven to act on this, rather than thinking it out in advance and making suitable and humane dispositions earlier.

I don't like it, but I believe that Captain Martin's decision to break off the rescue was consciously taken. Dictated no doubt by concerns for his ship, not from any U-Boat, but from the very men he might be rescuing. He was most likely acting within constraints imposed by an order from on high, instructing him not to expose his ship to danger from a large number of survivors, when rescuing the enemy. I would not be surprised to learn that there is a set ratio of ship's company : survivors, for when rescuing the enemy.

I think it should be remembered just how grueling an ordeal these men had been through, they might be hysterical with grief, or euphoric to the point of insanity, either way, if there were a great number of them a single spark could start a riot. From my own personal experiences, it only takes a few idiots to start a riot and then you have the mother and father of jobs to stop it. I have the feeling that there was an example of this during the Napoleonic wars, when either a French or an English warship was overwhelmed by the large number prisoners she had taken.

Probably Captain Martin felt deeply ashamed of his decision and this may explain his harsh reaction to Midshipman Joe Brookes who heroically went down a rope to rescue an injured man. He was arrested and charged with leaving the ship without permission and confine to his cabin, but seeing he had a rope around his waist which was attached to the ship, I think it would be hard to make that one stick and neither was he absent from place of duty, because he was engaged in the rescue operation.

It always came as a pleasant surprise for British sailors when rescuing German sailors, to see that they were just men of the sea like themselves and not the blood thirsty fanatics they had been led to believe. Apparently some German sailors were convinced they would be shot if they went near a British ship, after what they had done to the Hood and swam so as to avoid rescue.

During the first World war a merchant man under one Captain Fryatt, was stopped by a U-Boat. The crew were ordered into the boats, before the U-Boat fired a torpedo. Captain Fryatt saw his opportunity, went full ahead and rammed the U-Boat. For this he was decorated, but later when he was captured by another U-Boat, they found the decoration, identified him and put him on trial and then hanged him as a franc-tireur; a "free shooter" a guerrilla, a terrorist. Apparently civilians are not allowed to take up arms against military formations, even in time of war. Oh well, rules are rules I suppose. Legally he had been captured and had been permitted to leave the ship in safety before she was torpedoed. He chose not to do so and took advantage of the situation. In effect he had broken his bond and turned on his captor.

War is a ghastly business and it is certain that today, somewhere in the higher echelons of the military there are pieces of paper with instructions detailing how many civilian casualties (collateral damage) are acceptable in an operation, how many prisoners are to be taken under given circumstances and how an armed unit can avoid taking responsibility for refugees. These are all questions governed by simple military necessity. It often appears to me that the only difference between the actions of dictatorships and the democracies is, the dictatorships are usually more open about what they are doing.

We are not likely to know the full truth of this sad event which occurred 72 years ago in 1941, until the secret Admiralty files are released in about 30 years.

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frontkampfer
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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by frontkampfer » Thu May 23, 2013 2:21 am

IMHO - I think the RN could have done more to save the Bismarck survivors.
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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by northcape » Thu May 23, 2013 3:47 am

that is an interesting post - i never thought about the possibility of the rescue ship being taken over.

i think they broke off the rescue operation for a variety of reasons. there were reasons to believe that u-boats maybe around, and the captain has the responsibility for both his crew and a very valuable war ship. maybe he additionally wasn't sure how if and how he could handle several 100 prisoners. it definitely was a tough decision, and overall captain martin possibly decided to be on the safe side. one must also not forget the strain and pressure - it had to be decided in a very short time, and his decision meant life or death for several hundred people. i guess this pressure also explains captain martins harsh reaction to the baron. i definitely do not judge the captains decision - i'm just glad that i never was in a similar situation,

again, we can learn that war is hell. i seriously doubt that anybody who wasn't there is qualified to say that this was right or wrong.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Thu May 23, 2013 9:09 am

Having opened this can of worms, I have to question why more ships were not sent in to recuse those men. They did not even drop any rafts for them, ship's boats could have been lowered and many many more men could have been saved. A large Carley could safely hold as many as 50 men. Each of the cruisers and destroyers could have dropped their rafts, then waited until each was filled, then go in individually with scrambling nets to take them off and recovering the raft as it emptied, even as the ship got underway.

If Dorsetshire was sent in, why not Norfolk and more destroyers?

It seems to me that there was a lack of will to save those men, perhaps not on the lower deck, but possibly among the higher ranking officers.

5 percent? That sounds very much like a sample to me.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by phil gollin » Thu May 23, 2013 9:23 am

.

There were instances of ships rescuing survivors from ships having been sunk in a convoy themselves being sunk (NOT as an anti-humanitarian act, merely as a continuation of the attack on the convoy). As a result of this the Admiralty ordered that ships ought NOT be hazarded to save survivors (this was NOT an outright prohibition, merely strong guidance (i.e. SIMPLISTICALLY, if a captain did stop to pick-up survivors then he wouldn't be automatically court-martialled, BUT if his ship was damaged or lost then he WOULD be charged). As resources became available specialist "rescue ships" were included in convoys (LONG AFTER the Bismarck).

From accounts a U-Boat periscope WAS sighted and hence the rescue efforts were abandoned - no ne at the time would have even thought twice about it as the "correct". if unfortunate, thing to do.

---------

ONE MUST BE CAREFUL of "the Baron's" much delayed report on what happened at the sinking - from British reports on the survivors it is obvious that his state upon rescue was not particularly calm.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Thu May 23, 2013 10:17 am

Hi Phil.

In Dorsetshire, one man thought to have said he thought he saw a periscope, other accounts say it was a smoke float going off, but there was no further confirmation of this sighting. There is no question that if a periscope was sighted this would be the signal to get out, but why not drop your rafts for those men? Why use single lines when scrambling nets would bring the men in that much quicker? Why only Dorsetshire and Maori sent to the rescue?

I take your point about the Baron, but I am sure he will have seen enough quarterdeck musters, which would show about 800 men fallen in below him. So I don't doubt his estimate of 800 men around Dorsetshire. I expect a great many more than that got off the ship before she went down. More than a thousand I believe. The whole thing sounds very disciplined and good order seems to have been the order of the day, particularly among the medical teams who got so many wounded men out of the ship from the over crowded dressing stations.

Seeing those men struggling to get a grip on those greasy lines is heartbreaking. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that those men were abandoned by the Royal Navy.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by frontkampfer » Thu May 23, 2013 12:12 pm

Vic Dale wrote: Seeing those men struggling to get a grip on those greasy lines is heartbreaking. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that those men were abandoned by the Royal Navy.
I have to agree. It was payback for Hood!
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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Thu May 23, 2013 2:44 pm

A further thought on the U-Boat sighting. With destroyers on the scene, why was the alert not given to get them in and try to sink it. Was the Royal Navy tired of fighting that day? Is there any evidence that Captain Martin did try to alert ships which could take out this menace?

I am beginning wonder about the whole thing and if the conclusions I am reluctantly drawing from all this are correct, then it is one of the most disgraceful episodes of the war.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by phil gollin » Thu May 23, 2013 8:40 pm

.

Vic,

Why should the cruiser lose her life-saving gear with a U-Boat in the area ? The captain's first responsibility is to his own men.

The state of the survivors was NOT disciplined and "the baron" himself was in a near hysterical state.

.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Thu May 23, 2013 11:55 pm

The men could stay on the carley floats whilst the destroyers located and dealt with the U-Boat, either sinking her or driving her deep. Then the rescue could continue and the floats could be brought inboard as the men came aboard. The Ships would not lose their floats and would have them in the water for only a short while. I believe each ship had sufficient capacity for their own ship's company, so they wouldn't even have had to put all their floats over the side.

If Dorsetshire had put scrambling nets, or even rope ladders over the side, those men would have been aboard very quickly and if Captain Martin thought he would be overwhelmed on seeing so many men around his ship, he should have called up other ships to aid him. But he didn't do that. In the event that the Baron has over estimated the number of men around Dorsetshire, then there were less to deal with.

Tovey left the battle area prior to Bismarck's sinking and Wake-walker in Norfolk will have become the Senior Officer, tasked with seeing the ship to the bottom, or in the event of her remaining on the surface guarding the wreck. Rescue operations would have become his responsibility. It seems he did nothing and left rescue or no rescue to the personal preference of his various Captains.

There was no U-Boat alert raised with any other ship on the scene that morning, otherwise there would have been a hunting group mustered and on the scene looking for it. So without that I simply don't believe that story. This is the Royal Navy we are talking about, the scourge of the seas and ready at an instant to give battle. Yet they failed to respond to a U-Boat sighting. Hard to believe, given the desperate time Britain's commerce was having.

Not nearly enough was done that day and what was done seems to have been done very inefficiently.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by phil gollin » Fri May 24, 2013 10:59 am

.

You live in a fantasy world where ships are immune to torpedoes and destroyers always kill U-Boats.

The RN had MORE than enough bitter evidence of the fallacy of such beliefs.

Once the captain received the report of the periscope he near-enough had NO choice about his actions.

Ships do NOT get rid of their life saving gear when there is an enemy submarine in the immediate area.

Cruisers do not instantly accelerate so immediate action to get underway was required and only the very strongest men would be able to hold on to scrambling nets at only a knot or two - basically as soon as the ship starts moving the survivors are lost.

A strange world you life in.

.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Fri May 24, 2013 3:20 pm

You live in a fantasy world
Phil. I take exception to your attitude. Please in future address the matter in hand. I am, 65 years old and in full command of my faculties. Do not talk down to me again. If you have run out of arguments, be a man and let it go and try to avoid stooping to personal remarks.

At no time have I suggested that Captain Martin was wrong to get out if a periscope had been sighted.

What I am saying is this; there was no alarm raised on the U-Boat sighting and no hunting group sent to suppress or try and sink it. So it sounds like some weak excuse for not doing more. Coastal command went to very great lengths to get DF fixes on U-Boats so they could be hunted down and sunk and here was Dorestshire sitting right on top of one.

The rescue operation was not done efficiently. Had scrambling nets been put over the side many more men could have been saved and the rescue time cut to one quarter of what it was. If Dorsetshire had enough to handle another vessel should have replaced her. If on the other hand the operation was thought too risky, why take such a risk in the first place?

Carley rafts would have saved those men from drowning and a humanitarian appeal for a temporary ceasefire in that sea area until the rescue had been made, should have been sent to the German High Command. This sort of thing was done from time to time during the war and even an SS general responded favourably on at least one occasion. If the Germans refused, a great propaganda coup would have been achieved and would have sewn very great discontent in the Reich. It may be recalled that the nightly mass bombing raids were partly designed to lower morale among the German population. First losing the pride of the fleet, then seeing that Hitler did not care about her crew - nothing more depressing than that.

In different circumstances, abandoning so many men to drown when they could have been rescued might be considered a war crime.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by paul.mercer » Fri May 24, 2013 7:57 pm

Vic Dale wrote:After Bismarck went down, there were many hundreds of survivors left in the water with a very good chance of survival, if they could get to a ship. Reading the Baron's account of how he managed to get aboard Dorsetshire, I feel it is quite amazing that he possessed so much presence of mind that he could stand off and take an overview, watching others get rescued and directing the efforts of some and helping them to get saved. He had two goes at getting aboard, the first time he overestimated his strength and fell back into the water when he took one hand off the rope. He left no room for error and quickly grabbed a rope, which turned out to be the same one. He asked the men on the rope, to haul him aboard. He then waited on the deck watching the rescue operations for a while and estimated that 800 men were in the water around the ship.

This observation started a chill in me, because 800 is more than Dorsetshire's whole ship's company of 680 to 700. If all these men were plucked from the sea by this single ship, there is the distinct possibility that they could turn, overwhelm Dorsetshire's crew and take over the ship. It would not be possible to put such a number under armed guard. I am not for one minute suggesting that they would turn on their rescuers, but such a question must surely be considered by the Captain of a rescuing vessel.

This will have been Captain Martin's dilemma and this, I believe, is the reason Dorsetshire did not put scrambling nets over the side - an act which would have drastically cut rescue times and could have got many more men aboard. As far as I know, the Geneva Convention does not specify the number of survivors a Captain must rescue before he can break off the operation, nor how efficiently he must go about the task, but I would be willing to bet there was an Admiralty Standing order setting such a limit. I seem to recall reading somewhere that ships involved in the sinking of Scharnhorst were ordered to go in and "take a sample" of the crew.

On convoy duties early in the war, captains were forbidden turn and rescue their own men left in the water, when their vessels had been torpedoed, owing to the number of losses incurred during such mercy work. Later when it looked like the merchant fleet might mutiny and refuse to sail if more was not done to rescue survivors, 29 ships were designated Rescue Vessels. They would stop and pick up survivors whilst the convoy continued onward. The rescue ships then had the speed to catch up and rejoin the convoy. Six of these proud little vessels were sunk whilst carrying out their duties.

I find it odd that the Admiralty had to be driven to act on this, rather than thinking it out in advance and making suitable and humane dispositions earlier.

I don't like it, but I believe that Captain Martin's decision to break off the rescue was consciously taken. Dictated no doubt by concerns for his ship, not from any U-Boat, but from the very men he might be rescuing. He was most likely acting within constraints imposed by an order from on high, instructing him not to expose his ship to danger from a large number of survivors, when rescuing the enemy. I would not be surprised to learn that there is a set ratio of ship's company : survivors, for when rescuing the enemy.

I think it should be remembered just how grueling an ordeal these men had been through, they might be hysterical with grief, or euphoric to the point of insanity, either way, if there were a great number of them a single spark could start a riot. From my own personal experiences, it only takes a few idiots to start a riot and then you have the mother and father of jobs to stop it. I have the feeling that there was an example of this during the Napoleonic wars, when either a French or an English warship was overwhelmed by the large number prisoners she had taken.

Probably Captain Martin felt deeply ashamed of his decision and this may explain his harsh reaction to Midshipman Joe Brookes who heroically went down a rope to rescue an injured man. He was arrested and charged with leaving the ship without permission and confine to his cabin, but seeing he had a rope around his waist which was attached to the ship, I think it would be hard to make that one stick and neither was he absent from place of duty, because he was engaged in the rescue operation.

It always came as a pleasant surprise for British sailors when rescuing German sailors, to see that they were just men of the sea like themselves and not the blood thirsty fanatics they had been led to believe. Apparently some German sailors were convinced they would be shot if they went near a British ship, after what they had done to the Hood and swam so as to avoid rescue.

During the first World war a merchant man under one Captain Fryatt, was stopped by a U-Boat. The crew were ordered into the boats, before the U-Boat fired a torpedo. Captain Fryatt saw his opportunity, went full ahead and rammed the U-Boat. For this he was decorated, but later when he was captured by another U-Boat, they found the decoration, identified him and put him on trial and then hanged him as a franc-tireur; a "free shooter" a guerrilla, a terrorist. Apparently civilians are not allowed to take up arms against military formations, even in time of war. Oh well, rules are rules I suppose. Legally he had been captured and had been permitted to leave the ship in safety before she was torpedoed. He chose not to do so and took advantage of the situation. In effect he had broken his bond and turned on his captor.

War is a ghastly business and it is certain that today, somewhere in the higher echelons of the military there are pieces of paper with instructions detailing how many civilian casualties (collateral damage) are acceptable in an operation, how many prisoners are to be taken under given circumstances and how an armed unit can avoid taking responsibility for refugees. These are all questions governed by simple military necessity. It often appears to me that the only difference between the actions of dictatorships and the democracies is, the dictatorships are usually more open about what they are doing.

We are not likely to know the full truth of this sad event which occurred 72 years ago in 1941, until the secret Admiralty files are released in about 30 years.


Does anyone know what happened to midshipman Joe Brooks, was he ever charged?

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by Vic Dale » Fri May 24, 2013 8:03 pm

As far as I know, Captain Martin stopped at confining Joe Brooks to his cabin.

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Re: Rescue Operations After Bismarck's Sinking

Post by RNfanDan » Fri May 24, 2013 8:44 pm

Vic Dale wrote:As far as I know, Captain Martin stopped at confining Joe Brooks to his cabin.
Agreed. Martin would have satisfied two overarching requirements by doing so---militarily AND morally.
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