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DEBRIEFING REPORT FROM BISMARCK SURVIVOR
OTTO HÖNTZSCH

This document was translated from the German by Ulrich H. Rudofsky, and edited/reviewed by José M. Rico. Notes by the editors are noted and placed in square brackets [...].


Staff Headquarters, 3 June, 1941.

Proceeding concerning the Sinking of the Battleship “Bismarck”.

The Matrosengefreiter Otto Höntzsch - 0 2589/40 S - of the Command of the Battleship “Bismarck” testifies:

My battle station was at the portside 3rd 3.7 cm gun.

Friday 23.5.41

On Friday afternoon towards 1700 hours (23.5.41) I was on off-duty watch. When I came to my gun (change of watch) at 1820 hours, my comrades told me that during the interim [when I was away] an English cruiser was spotted off port ahead. A combat encounter did not occur. As far as I recall, there was heavy artillery firing at night (2400-0100 hours). I myself did not see the cruiser. Command Central broadcast that two hostile cruisers are firing at each other. During my watch to 0400 hours nothing more occurred.

Saturday 24.5.41:

Toward 0500 hours I was awakened by heavy artillery fire. I immediately hurried to my battle station. I saw nothing of the battleship "Hood's" sinking. "Bismarck" continued to shoot towards port with heavy artillery. I cannot say which turrets were shooting, because I had taken cover on the lee side. Duration of the battle was approx. 20 minutes. Via the loudspeaker system [it] was broadcast: "Opponent on fire" and shortly thereafter, "Opponent explodes". I do not know how many salvos had been delivered by that time. After "Bismarck" ceased fire, my comrades told me that the 2nd battleship ("King George") had turned away. For the entire day, a smoke cloud was visible in a direction of 220º astern. It was thought to be "King George".

"Bismarck" received 3 hits during the course of this battle contact. 1 hit from the portside went through the bow at the height of compartment 21-22, [and] through the battery deck and starboard side 'tweendeck. Water entered the ship through this [hole]. I do not know what measures were taken to repair this damage. The other hit supposedly destroyed generating plant IV. The damage from the 3rd hit I did see myself. It was supposed to have been a 35 cm projectile that went clean through the bow of the launch and [then] exploded off the starboard side in the water. Of the three hits, I only saw the hit on the launch. The forecastle was lying deep in water because of the flooding. Divers attempted to lay a hose line from the forward oil bunkers to the aft [bunkers]. I do not know if the pumping of oil from forward to aft succeeded. During this time "Bismarck" ran with a [following] sea and made an average of 24 knots. I saw "Prinz Eugen" for the last time about 1000 hours, [dead] ahead of "Bismarck".

I do not know when he was released. From noon on, an English Aircraft (biplane) kept constant surveillance. It was broadcast by Flak telephone that it is assumed an aircraft carrier is present in the vicinity. I do not know if ID signals were exchanged between the aircraft and "Bismarck". There were no unusual occurrences until evening. Toward 2330 hours, 3 squadrons (27 aircraft) of biplanes attacked. The aircraft came in from all sides, the main attack coming from the port side (sun side). The defense was shared, in addition to the Flak weapons, by one fire of the heavy artillery (one of the forward turrets) and single shots from the secondary artillery. I had the feeling that the Englishmen tried with very much daring and courage to guide their torpedoes to the target. Some dove to within 100 meters of "Bismarck" and only then dropped their torpedoes. On average, [the torpedoes were dropped] from a 30 meter height. After the drop [was made by the aircraft] they turned left or right. It was announced through the loudspeaker system that 5 aircraft had been shot down. 2 of these aircraft were shot down by the heavy artillery and secondary artillery. "Bismarck" continuously changed his course during the attack. The opponent achieved only one hit and, specifically, [it struck] amidships at the height of compartment 10-12. Through the loudspeaker system it was announced that the torpedo hit had caused no damage. It detonated on the hull plating making a scratch in the paint. Oberbootsmann Kirchberg was flung against the superstructure by [the torpedo detonation's] air pressure. K. died instantly; thus, he was the first fallen on board. There were no wounded. Shortly after the air attack [and] toward 0100 hours the alarm was sounded: "Enemy! Port side". "Bismarck" delivered several salvos (3), whereupon the enemy turned away ("King George V").

Sunday 25.5.41:

During the night it was announced by telephone that only one of the 27 aircraft made it back to the aircraft carrier. During Sunday, the signal transmitter of the main Flak battle station said that the forecastle hung so low in the water that it was reminiscent of a U-boat. Damage control worked incessantly. Sunday morning was quiet. At noon, the Chief-of-Fleet addressed the crew via the loudspeaker system. He declared among other things: "I have released "Prinz Eugen" and he has succeeded in shaking off the enemy. He should continue to operate on his own volition. We still have to succeed in a heavy battle with English forces, because the Englishmen are concentrating their fleet [on us]. We will win or die". The rumor spread on board that a Danish steamer had revealed our departure and intention to break-out through the Denmark strait to the English by telegraph. The mood, in part, was depressing, since one expected a more hopeful message for the operation's success from the Chief-of-Fleet. [This is] Particularly [so] since the ship's leadership said during the course of the late morning that 5 German U-boats were in the vicinity and that we would be within the German combat planes' zone of operation by Monday morning (0800 hours). Likewise, Italian U-boats were to lay down a barrier. A second funnel was built in the afternoon, but it was not rigged anymore, because "Bismarck" was not able to shake of the stalker. The afternoon and the night of 25-26.5 transpired quietly.

Monday 26.5.41:

In the morning, it could have been between 0800-1000 hours, I saw a flying boat (similar to Do 18), which kept surveillance. It attempted to fly in closer. "Bismarck" gave his ID, but I did not see the aircraft's answer. Comrades told me [later] that the aircraft answered with the wrong ID. Thereupon, the Flak defense engaged and forced the aircraft to turn away. In the course of the forenoon, a second stalker (biplane) appeared which was constantly [regularly] relieved. The main Flak battle station transmitted that an aircraft carrier is nearby. The aircraft kept up surveillance until evening. Toward 2030 hours the air raid alarm sounded. 16 aircraft were reported at extreme altitude, which I could not see. It was assumed they were assembling above the clouds for attack. Since no attack came, "off-watch dismissed for chow" and "Flak watch, stand-down at the guns" was ordered. A few minutes later air raid alarm was sounded again. The opponent attacked from all sides with groups of 4 aircraft breaking through the clouds. The entire on board gunnery (including heavy and secondary artillery) went into action. I sensed several heavy concussions [tremors, shocks] in the ship, but I don't know if they emanated from torpedo impacts or [our own] heavy artillery. This attack lasted much longer than the first (24.5.); in my opinion, about 1 ½ hours. The gun signal transmitter told me that the attack was conducted by 35 aircraft. We were supposed to have downed 7 opponents. I myself did not see the crash of any opponent. The English supposedly struck "Bismarck" with two torpedoes. One torpedo hit the rudder assembly (rudder machinery compartment). The ship traveled in a circle, but I no longer recall if [we circled] to port or starboard. As far as I heard, an attempt was made to steer the ship with the screws. Approximately half an hour after the air attack, a coxswain's [helmsman's] mate yelled at my gun leader from the abaft station that the rudder is again in order and that the ship lies on a straight course; the engines are in good shape and that an attempt to increase speed will be made. I cannot say how much speed the ship made good. "Bismarck" had a list to port of more than 5º.

The second hit must have been amidships on the portside. I did not hear [anything] about its effect.

The first destroyer attack commenced at about 2300 hours. I myself was taking cover. I do not know if the attack came from the port or starboard side. Shortly before I took cover, I observed [shell] impacts off the port [side] (approx. 300 meters distant from the ship). At that time, "Bismarck" was running head-to-the-sea. After about 10 minutes the loudspeaker system transmitted that one destroyer sank and two are aflame. Personally, I did not see the destroyers. At that time, flare grenades were not yet used, but the enemy fired flares as it became dusk. The destroyer attacks persisted until the morning of 27.5.41.

Tuesday 27.5.41:

Approximately 0100 hours at night, as enemy contact was lost, the Commander gave an address through the loudspeaker system to the crew. Our gun signal transmitter verbally repeated the speech. The Commander announced that a telegram to the Führer had been sent with the following content, as far as I remember: "The ship finds itself in such a threatening position that one cannot count on its being brought through [the danger] successfully. We will fight to the end. All for you, my Führer. Chief-of-Fleet." Then he continued to say that a radio message was received in which the Führer had awarded two Knight's Crosses of the Iron Cross (as far as I know to the 1st artillery officer and 2nd artillery officer). Presently, 81 aircraft, U-boats, 3 ocean tugs, and a tanker would come to our aid.

At night there was another air raid alarm. The aircraft flew across the ship from starboard to port.

The destroyers achieved no torpedo hits during the night.

I cannot say of how long the ship maintained forward speed. As the morning twilight came, "Bismarck" lay motionless with the seas abeam. A strong seaway prevailed at the time. During this period the ship had a marked list to port so that the 15 cm turrets were in the water and the crews of the 10.5 guns were washed overboard by the breakers. In my opinion, the ship listed up to 40º during the rolls [in the waves]. From my battle station I watched gun crew personnel on the port side 10.5 cm being washed overboard by breakers. I don't know if the depth charges went overboard. At about 0600 hours in the morning it was piped: "Officers of the off duty watch into the chart house." At about 0630 hours, an alarm was transmitted that after this fight the [Flak] battle stations are to be cleared [not sure if I understand meaning of that order. I think it means that when the big guns fire full salvos, the Flak stations need to be evacuated, UR]. "Bismarck" first fired with the forward turrets on a bearing of 300º, [and] later in a direction of 30º. Turret "D" fired no more. Over the speaker system an order came that the gun service crew [of "D"] would be assigned to another position. Where, I don't recall. In my estimation, one hour passed before "Bismarck" received his first hit, then the opponent had zeroed in. The projectiles hit the ship at ever shorter intervals. I did not notice any fire. I do not know if the telegraph installations where herewith destroyed. I stood during this time at the portside 3rd 3.7 cm gun. The hits were distributed over the entire ship. I did not see wounded. The signal transmission telephone [to the gun position] was defunct so that no orders could be received. Thus, orders for survival procedures, [such as] putting on life vests, making rafts and inflatable boats ready, could not be given. Along with several comrades, we threw the inflatable boats from the Aufbaudeck to the upper deck. There they were taken by [other] comrades. I also went to the upper deck, and, with help from my comrades (1 lieutenant, several high and low non-commissioned officers, and crew) tried to launch the inflatable boats. We sought protection behind turret D and C. Each time the turret revolved we ran from port to starboard and in reverse. The hits were concentrated amidships. I saw destruction only in the superstructures. The air pressure of a projectile that hit very near us hurled me overboard. Since I was tightly holding [onto] the inflatable boat, I pulled [both] it and my comrades, Matrosengefreiten Manthey and Herzog, who were also holding onto the boat, overboard. We and the boat drifted [rapidly] astern until my comrade Manthey managed to get in the boat. I also got in under my own power. We both pulled in Herzog. "Bismarck" rapidly disappeared from view. In close proximity drifted another raft with 5 comrades. We tried to raft up with them, but with all our efforts we failed. Soon after we lost sight of them. It was probably between 0900-1000 hours that we went overboard. I saw "Bismarck" only when we were on the crest of a wave.

I had the impression that "Bismarck" listed to port. Turrets "A", "B", and "C" were still shooting at that time. After about 20 minutes I saw a brown smoke cloud in the "Bismarck's" direction. [Then] I did not hear any more shots. I did not discern an explosion. From the boat I saw a destroyer heading for "Bismarck". Approximately one hour later we saw a "Kondor" aircraft [Focke-Wulf 200] which flew extremely low. Shortly after passing [us], she flew back on the reciprocal course. Just before 1900 hours we were taken aboard "U-74". The transfer was very difficult due to the heavy seaway. As soon as we were on board we were bundled into bunks and given rations.

I do not know how the Dete instrument worked.

Signed: Höntzsch

Signed: Westphal
Fregattenkapitän and Adjudant
Naval Group West


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