All Royal Navy and World War Two enthusiasts will be aware of the sinking of the fearful German battleship Bismarck on 27th May 1941 by British destroyers, shortly after she had herself sunk the battle cruiser HMS Hood. Only 115 out of her crew of 2,200 men survived the sinking. Here’s an eye witness description of the sinking, taken from the letters of David Edmond Cole-Hamilton, the First Lieutenant on HMS Sikh. We are grateful to his son Mike for sending us this unique account and allowing us to publish it.
From my father's letter of June 5th, 1941 (copyright Mike Cole-Hamilton and Forces War Records Archive):
These really have been the most thrilling and exhausting few days of my life and I will try to give you the whole story.
We were hundreds of miles from the scene of action when the first encounter took place and never believed for a moment that we should have anything to do with it. We were all rather naturally downcast at the sinking of the “Hood”, which was rather unexpected, and it appeared after Saturday night that the Bismark had got away. We thought that she might be coming our way but the Atlantic is pretty large and we just didn’t know where she was.
In actual fact, although we didn’t know it, she must have passed within 50 miles of us early on Monday morning, but it wasn't until she was sighted at 1100 by an aircraft that we realized it. By then she was 70-80 miles from us, steaming south at 24 knots, and immediately we altered course to try to pick her up. It was very rough weather and we were rolling 30 and 40 degrees each side as we roared along at 28 knots with a following sea.
We had a tragedy during the afternoon because a man was washed overboard – we turned the ship and brought it right up to him and were within 15 yards of picking him up when he just disappeared. It was very sad and rather disheartening for the Ship’s Company, but everything possible was done. We dashed on again and in the evening saw the torpedo bombers going over to make their attack and at about 2100 we saw “Sheffield”, who had been in touch shortly before.
We pressed on in heavy rain squalls and sighted her ahead of us at 2220, at about 8-9miles distant. At that time we were well separated and we spread out around, determined that whatever else happened, the Tribals would never let go. She fired spasmodically at all of us up until nightfall, when we proceeded to close the net a bit tighter. About midnight we got into the perfect shadowing position and were hard at it reporting her movements for some time.
We closed to within 7,000 yards of her and were doing fine, when suddenly she turned broadside on to us and let us have everything she had got. We nearly jumped out of our skins because we thought we hadn’t been seen. The first salvo landed plumb alongside us about 30 yards away and the most enormous column of water shot up. We had our helm hard over and increased to full speed (we had been doing 12 knots) and practically took off. We had to turn through 180 degrees to get away from her and there were some pretty hair-raising seconds whilst 3 large shells plumped into the water all round us.
She had our range perfectly but each time they were just out of line and all we got on board was a few splinters which did no damage. I think she fired 5 salvos before we managed to get away under cover of a smoke screen.
After that we stood off for a bit and let someone else do the work while we cooled down. Cossack, Zulu and Maori then made their torpedo attacks and I think scored 2-3 hits between them, and at about 0200 we got back to the scene to make ours. There had been a good deal of shooting of various sorts and kinds whilst the others did their attacks and we were expecting to be beaten up. We went in however and managed to get our “fish” off at pretty close range without being seen, and we reckon we hit her once.
We then continued to shadow for well over an hour and were the only ones in touch for a long time, but eventually we lost her and Cossack took up the job, and later Maori found her. Towards daylight we stood off a bit to the westward as we were not quite sure where anybody else was and didn’t want to be silhouetted against the morning light.
At this time it was rather squally and the sea pretty rough and we were continually getting soaked on the bridge. Almost full day-light came and though we had seen one or two of our own side, we had little idea where the enemy was, when suddenly I, who was lookout on the starboard side, saw her emerge from a rain squall a bare 5,000 yards away.
I simply yelled to the Skipper and once again we made a very hasty retreat. By all rights we should have been blown clean out of the water but for some unknown reason she never saw us. I think they must all have been pretty weary because they had been kept very much on the alert all night, as we kept nipping in from every direction.
After that we kept a respectable distance and just kept her in sight. We knew that the K.G.V. and the Rodney were pretty close at hand, as they had been waiting all night and following up as we made our reports, and when daylight came there was no escape for the Bismark, as the four Tribals were at the four points of the compass round her and every move she made was seen.
Just before 1000 we saw her open fire and guessed that the “wagons” had arrived and so we closed in to watch, and had a ringside seat of the ensuing battle. Of course it was a foregone conclusion but still I don’t think there are many people in the world who have had a close up view of a battleship action.
Considering the odds against her and the punishment she had received already she fought back magnificently and one can but admire the courage of those men, who had been hunted for four days and not only knew their number was up, but that they must remain the lone wolf and could get no support from their own side.
We passed within a couple of miles of her just as she sank at 1100 and by then she was just a smoking wreck. She had taken the most terrific punishment and finally she went down very quickly by the stern – her bow cocked up and then she slid under.
Two ships remained to pick up survivors but it was very rough and boats could not be lowered, and I believe that there was a “U” on the spot who fired a torpedo as they tried to pick the men up. We all then raced for home, and felt that at least we had done something to avenge the “Hood”.
I don’t think I have ever felt so weary in my life as I did when we got in very early this morning, and I can truthfully say that I have had 14 hours sleep in the last four days and nights. Apart from those 14 hours I was on my feet the whole time on the bridge, usually with a pair of glasses glued to my eyes. My eyes and legs are definitely feeling the strain now but they held out till we arrived in. I seem to have existed on cups and cups of odd beverages which were always arriving on the bridge, tea, coffee, cocoa, oxo, or anything else that happened to be brewing.
The Ship’s Company have been splendid and most of them never turned a hair the whole time. Of course it was rather dull for those who were not actually on the bridge, because it is very difficult to get a clear picture of what was going on. In fact all that most people knew was that they were standing by their guns, and every now and then there would be some excitement.
One lad of 18 who was up on the range-finder passed down a running commentary through his telephone and kept it up quite calmly whilst the shells were whistling about our ears. The Skipper was magnificent and did everything just right and I reckon he will pick up a D.S.O. which he thoroughly deserves.
(N.B. According to our records the Captain of the HMS Sikh at that time, St John Aldrich Micklethwait, was in fact awarded a Distinguished Service Order, but not until later, on the 8th of September 1942. Lieutenant David Edmund Cole-Hamilton was later to win the Distinguished Service Cross on 14th October 1941, and a Bar on 26th May 1942. He died at sea on the 14th June 1942, leaving behind his wife Anne and son Michael, then not two years old. He was just 28.)