Bismarck

 

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The Special Bond between the Bismarck and the U-556
There was a very special bond between the battleship Bismarck and the submarine U-556. Both ships were built at Blohm & Voss in Hamburg and in the summer of 1940 they were often neighbors on the ways. When the U-556 was commissioned, the mighty bow of the Bismarck towered over her. Herbert Wohlfahrt (the captain on the U-556), who was known in naval circles as "Sir Parsifal," decided that the commissioning ceremony would not be complete without a band and, since a U-boat certainly did not carry one, he would ask the big neighbor, which as Fleet Flagship had a band, called the Fleet Band, to provide the music. Accordingly, he went to see Ernst Lindemann (the captain on the Bismarck), but he did not go empty-handed. In exchange, he offered the Bismarck the Patentschaft (Sponsorship) of his ship. Ernst Lindemann readily accepted. Herbert Wohlfahrt got his band and thereafter his artistically designed Patentschafts Urkunde (Certificate of Sponsorship) hung in the Bismarck.

Lindemann and Wohlfahrt became friends. At the beginning of 1941 the Bismarck and the U-556 were together during gunnery exercises in the Baltic, and once even used the same target. The U-556, which Lindemann had allowed to precede him, damaged the target so badly with ten hits that the Bismarck could not use it that day. Lindemann, however, did not take it amiss and soon dispelled Wohlfahrt's fear that he would be greeted with an ill-humored reaction, "I do not begrudge you that in the least. I wish that you may have as much and rapid success in the Atlantic and win the Knight's Cross for it." Relieved, Wohlfahrt replied, "I hope we both receive the Knight's Cross in the common struggle in the Atlantic."

Patentschafts Urkunde (Certificate of Sponsorship)
The Patentschafts Urkunde of the U-556 for the Bismarck. (Courtesy of Herbert Wohlfahrt)
Sketch 1
The first sketch on the certificate shows "Sir Parsifal" (Herbert Wohlfahrt) warding off aircraft attacking the Bismarck with a sword in his right hand and stopping torpedoes coming towards her with his left thumb.
The text translated to English
"We, the U-556 (500 tons), hereby declare before Neptune, the ruler of the oceans, lakes, seas, rivers, brooks, ponds and rills, that we will stand beside our big brother, the battleship Bismarck (42,000 tons), whatever may befall her on water, land or in the air. Hamburg, 28 January 1941. The captain and crew of the U-556."
Sketch 2
The second sketch on the certificate shows the Bismarck being towed by the U-556.
Gift of Prophecy
It almost seemed as though Herbert Wohlfahrt had the gift of prophecy when he prepared that certificate above.
Help against aircraft and torpedoes, and then a tow. That was exactly what the Bismarck needed, and he of all people, Godfather Wohlfahrt, was near her. But he was powerless to help her.

The Bismarck's Final Hours and the U-556
On 26 May, when dispositons were being made to support the Bismarck in her increasingly critical situation, new instructions were sent to the U-boats in the Bay of Biscay. One of those boats was the U-556, whose commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Herbert Wohlfahrt, was ordered to reconnoiter and operate in the area of the Bismarck's most recently reported position. When Wohlfart received those orders, he was on his way home from a patrol that began on 1 May. Therefore, he was low on fuel and, on his way to the Bismarck, he would have to be extremely economical with what he had left. Furthermore, he had expended all his torpedoes against British convoys.

Wohlfahrt reached the immediate area around the Bismarck on the evening of 26 May. Around 1950 he saw the Renown and the Ark Royal coming out of the mist at high speed the big ships of Force H. Nothing for it but to submerge. "Enemy bows on, 10 degrees to starboard, without destroyers, without zigzagging," as Wohlfahrt later described it. He would not even have had to run to launch torpedoes. All he would have had to do was position himself between the Renown and the Ark Royal and fire, at both allmost simultaneously. If only he had some torpedoes! He had seen activity on the carrier's (Ark Royal's) flight deck. Perhaps he could have helped the Bismarck. That is what he thought at the time. But what he saw was the activity after the launching of the second and decisive attack on the Bismarck. So, even if he had torpedoes, he would not have been able to save the Bismarck from the rudder hit. The Swordfish had long since banked over the Sheffield and were just about to attack the Bismarck.

Fifty minutes later, at 2039, Wohlfahrt surfaced and made a radio report: "Enemy in view, a battleship, an aircraft carrier, course 115°, enemy is proceeding at high speed. Position 48° 20' north, 16° 20' west." Wohlfahrt intended his report to be picked up by any of his comrades who might be in the vicinity and able to maneuver to attack. Then he proceeded on the surface at full speed behind the Renown and the Ark Royal. Their course to the Bismarck coincided almost exactly with his own. Every now and again, he submerged and took sound bearings to both ships, but after 2200 he could no longer hear them. The race between his little boat and the two big ships was an unequal contest.

At 2330 Wohlfahrt, then 778 kilometer (486 miles) west of Brest (France), gave the alarm again. A destroyer came out of the mist at high speed. Once more he quickly dove. He had reached a depth of 30 meters (98 feet) when the enemy passed him, her propellers making a devilish row. Relieved, he noted in his War Diary: "Fingers crossed again, no depth charges!"

It was probably one of Vian's destroyers, but at that moment she was not interested in a U-boat. She was too busy trying to shadow and torpedo the Bismarck.

Another entry in Wohlfahrt's War Diary reads: "27.5.0000, (wind) northwest 5, seaway 5, rain squalls, moderate visibility, very dark night. Surfaced. What can I do for the Bismarck? I can see star shells being fired and flashes from the Bismarck's guns. It is a terrible feeling to be near and not to be able to do anything. All I can do is reconnoiter and lead in boats that have torpedoes. I am keeping contact at the limit of visibility, reporting the position, and sending directional signals to call up the other boats."

At 0352: "I am moving around on the east side to the south, in order to be in the direction of the activity. I soon reach the limit of what I can do in view of my fuel supply. Otherwise I won't get home."

0400: "The seas are rising ever higher. Bismarck still fighting. Reported weather for the Luftwaffe."

Around 0630 Wohlfahrt sighted the U-74, one of the other boats that had been in the Bay of Biscay. Optically and by megaphone, he transferred the mission of maintaining contact with the Bismarck to her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat. He gave Kentrat the Bismarck's position, which he based on his observations of the star shells fired during the night, adding: "I have not seen her directly. You assume contact. I have no more fuel." And after blinking a greeting to Kentrat, he turned away.

In his War Diary Wohlfahrt wrote: "Around 0630 gave last contact report, sighted U-74, by visual means gave U-74 the mission of maintaining contact. I can stay on the scene only by using my electric motors at low speeds. Above water I need fuel and would have to retire."

After transferring his mission, Wohlfahrt promptly submerged and did not surface again until 1200, a time at which radio signals were routinely repeated. That was when he heard for the first time the order radioed to him between 0700 and 0800 to pick up the Bismarck's War Diary. Having no more idea than had the headquarters ashore that in the meantime the Bismarck had sunk, he immediately asked Commander in Chief, U-boats, to transfer this mission to Kentrat. In the course of the morning Wohlfahrt did hear a series of explosions, but had no way of interpreting their significance.

By the time Kentrat received the radio order issued in response to Wohlfahrt's signal, "U-boat Kentrat pick up Bismarck War Diary," he could only search in vain.


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