I Survived the Sinking of the “Bismarck”
AN ENORMOUS flame surged from the stern of the British warship Hood. Then a column of fire swept upward to maybe a thousand feet, releasing a cloud of dark smoke. As the cloud swelled out and spread into the sky, incandescent debris fell from it into the sea.
When the cloud cleared, nothing remained of the 42,000-ton British battle cruiser Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy. A shell from the German battleship Bismarck had hit an ammunition magazine. Thus, at six o’clock in the morning of May 24, 1941, off the coast of Iceland, over 1,400 British seamen perished, with only 3 surviving.
Whether friend or foe, none who witnessed this terrible scene could remain indifferent. True, the crew of the Bismarck, where I was in command of an antiaircraft battery, were elated over the victory. However, I noticed that some of the sailors around me had tears in their eyes as the British ship sank. They had fellow feeling for the seamen who were losing their lives.
The “Bismarck” Under Attack
On the evening of May 18 we had left Gotenhafen, today the Baltic port of Gdynia, in Poland. Our group of ships was on a mission to raid Allied commercial shipping in the North Atlantic. This was part of “Operation Rheinübung,” or Rhineland Exercise, which had been worked out by the German admiralty.
In charge of our mission was Admiral of the Fleet Lütjens. His flagship was the pride of the German Navy, one of the most powerful battleships afloat, the Bismarck. It displaced over 50,000 tons and had a crew of more than 2,000. Learning that we had entered the North Atlantic, British ships set out a couple of days later to intercept the Bismarck.
When we sank the Hood on May 24, every available British ship set out to sink the Bismarck. That evening the British aircraft carrier Victorious launched a torpedo-plane attack. I was in command of a 20-millimeter antiaircraft gun situated toward the starboard bow. To this day I can still see those British planes skimming in just above the waves, directly facing our powerful fire. One torpedo hit us but caused only slight damage. We managed to shake off pursuit for over 30 hours.
During the morning of May 26, however, a British Catalina reconnaissance plane located us again. The British aircraft carrier Ark Royal sent off two strike forces that launched 13 torpedoes at us. This time the Bismarck was hit by two of them, one of which severely damaged the rudder. As a result, we lost control of our course and began going around in an immense circle. Despite this, I was convinced that nothing serious could happen to us. But the succeeding hours were to prove me wrong.
The “Bismarck”—A Sitting Duck
On the morning of May 27, we were surrounded by British warships. These opened fire, literally raining down death and destruction. We were hit by at least eight torpedoes and several hundred shells. Although reduced to a sitting duck, the Bismarck obstinately stayed afloat.
The situation on board was desperate. The lifeboats were out of service, having been heavily damaged by repeated shelling and air attacks. Utter desolation reigned on all decks. Tangled metal was scattered all over the place. Black smoke belched from gaping holes in the deck. Fires were raging uncontrolled. The dead and wounded lay everywhere.
The order was given to abandon ship. The survivors all crammed to the back of the ship, life jackets and safety belts firmly attached. I was among those who leaped into the sea, with the wind behind us so as to avoid being dashed against the hull by the waves. Once in the sea, our only thought was to swim away as fast as possible to avoid being sucked down as the ship gradually sank and finally disappeared.
Three Days Alone in the Ocean
Our group was soon scattered by the ocean swells. The day was drawing to an end. The British ships disappeared on the horizon. In all directions, as far as the eye could see, were pieces of floating debris. When night fell only Hermann, who had worked in the engine room, and I were left together in the water.
The sea got rougher and the waves surged higher. Suddenly I realized that I had lost Hermann. There wasn’t a sign of him anywhere. I panicked. I was cold and frightened. We had been trained to be ready to die for the fatherland, but at that moment the idea of dying a hero’s death did not appeal to me at all. I wanted to live, even alone in the middle of a heaving, hostile, black ocean.
A stream of memories flooded my mind. I recalled my childhood in Recklinghausen, a coal-mining town in North Rhine-Westphalia. I thought of my dear father, who was a miner, and of my mother, my sister, and my three brothers. Our family were all Protestants, but Father always said that the churches did not put Bible teachings into practice. When I became a teenager, I went to live with my uncle in the country, and he sent me to an agricultural college, where I graduated.
When war broke out, I was enrolled in the navy in Gotenhafen, where my military training started. When I embarked on the “Bismarck,” I was the only son left in the family. One of my brothers died from sickness, another lost his life in the mine, and yet another was killed during the invasion of Poland.
The cold brought me back to reality. There I was in the middle of the ocean. I felt a sudden urge to pray, for I did not want to die. Overwhelmed with fear and aching all over, I remembered that my grandmother had taught me the Lord’s Prayer. It was the only prayer I knew, and I repeated it incessantly during the night. As the hours passed, my fear subsided and a calm came over me.
When at long last day dawned, I was completely exhausted. The sea got rougher and I started vomiting. Then, overcome with fatigue, I began to doze and eventually went off to sleep. Another day dragged by, with alternating periods of wakefulness and sleep. Then the second night set in. By then I was suffering severe thirst, my limbs were stiff from the cold, and I started getting cramps. I thought the night would never end.
I started praying again, begging God to help me survive. Dawn broke at last, bringing a third day. I fell into a semicoma, losing all notion of time, and in that state I just made out the sound of an engine before I lost consciousness.
Back on Dry Land
I came to in an unfamiliar setting. Slowly things came into focus, and I distinguished a nurse bending over me and vaguely heard her saying: “You’ve been asleep for three days. I’m sure you would like something to eat now.” It gradually dawned on me that I was still alive. Six days had gone by: three in the ocean, where I had drifted over 75 miles before being picked up by a German ship, and three more unconscious in a hospital at La Baule-Escoublac, a French seaside resort on the Atlantic Coast.
It took a month for my body to return to normal proportions; I was completely bloated after three long days in the ocean. I was granted leave, and on my way home to Germany, I learned that only 110 of the Bismarck’s more than 2,000 crew members had survived. Most had been rescued by the British cruiser Dorsetshire.
As I neared home, my heart started beating wildly. I was unaware that the authorities had informed my parents that I was lost at sea. My father caught sight of me first. He hugged me tightly, took my face in his rough hands and said: “My son, you were dead, and now you’ve come back to us!” He burst into tears, and sobbing, we embraced. He took me over to my mother, who was lying on the sofa, paralyzed. Unable to move or utter a word, her lips said: “My son, my boy . . . ” I fell to my knees at her side and wept like a baby.
During the next three years, I followed the pattern of coming home on leave and going back to war. Then, on November 24, 1944, my regiment, the Marine Light Infantry, was captured by the Americans. I remained in captivity until 1947 and on release returned home. Four days later Mother died. It was as though she had managed to survive long enough to see me again before passing away.
In Germany I noticed many changes. Hunger and unemployment were everywhere. The black market held the people in its grip. Inflation was skyrocketing. Poverty was our daily lot for a number of years.
In the French Foreign Legion
Finally, in 1951, I made a decision that influenced the course of my life for the following 18 years. I took the train to Strasbourg, a French town just across the Rhine from Germany. There I joined the French Foreign Legion. I was trained as a parachutist and was sent to Indochina, of which present-day Vietnam was a part.
In July 1954 our regiment left for Algeria, where the stage was being set for the war for independence. We were parachuted all over the territory, day and night, to assist the soldiers of the French contingent. In 1957 I was wounded and obliged to spend three months in a hospital in Constantine, eastern Algeria. In May 1961 my regiment was withdrawn from Algeria, and we embarked for a new destination, Madagascar.
A Changed Life
My life in Madagascar had absolutely nothing in common with my experiences of the previous 20 years. I had almost forgotten what peace and quiet felt like. In Madagascar I started to appreciate life again. I took an interest in my surroundings: the blue sea with its shoals of multicolored fish, the local plantations, and the majestic mountains. Here I met Marisoa, the girl who was to become my wife.
When I obtained my military pension in 1969, we set up home on the small island of Nosy-Be, five miles off the northwest coast of Madagascar. We stayed there five years but then had to return to France for family reasons. We settled in Saint-Chamond, an industrial town 30 miles from Lyons.
Not long afterward, Marisoa accepted a Bible study with two young Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited. I would sit in a nearby room and listen to all that was being said. Yet, when my wife invited me to sit in, I would tell her: “I have done so many bad things. I just know God can never forgive me for what I did as a soldier.” A little later my wife offered me a Bible in German, my mother tongue, and obtained a Watchtower subscription for me.
But I systematically refused to attend Christian meetings, thinking that only people who had committed minor sins could attend them or approach God in prayer. However, Marisoa insisted that I accompany her to the Memorial celebration of Christ’s death, held once a year. I finally gave in, making her promise that she would not bring the subject up again once we returned home. Yet, I had to admit that I was deeply touched by the warm welcome I received that evening.
From that time on, contrary to all my intentions, I went with my wife to the meetings at the local Kingdom Hall. Why? Because I felt at ease with these people. I was impressed by their warm love for one another and by their teachings, based on the Bible. I accepted a Bible study, and in 1976 my wife and I symbolized our dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. After that, my mind dwelt less on past experiences, and I spent my time helping others learn Bible truths. Thus, with the expansion of our preaching activity in mind, we returned to Madagascar in 1978.
Roads are few and far between in certain parts of the island, but we cheerfully set off along the dusty tracks, knowing that on arriving at our destination, there would be many a hearing ear. We walked from six to ten miles daily in temperatures of over 104°F. Sometimes by the time we arrived home, our stomachs and Bible book bags were empty! In three months I placed a thousand books, and we helped several persons to share our faith. Unfortunately, we had to leave Madagascar in 1982 because of health problems, and we returned to France.
The horrors I have experienced sometimes still run through my mind. But I know that the time will come when such memories, including those terrible days and nights spent during and after the sinking of the Bismarck, will enter my mind no more. Jehovah’s promise will be fulfilled: “For here I am creating new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.”—Isaiah 65:17.—As told by Wilhelm Wieck.
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My wife and me, reading the Bible together
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Photos: Bundesarchiv, Koblenz, Germany