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THE MAN WHO SANK THE BISMARCK
Well known Simon's Town resident, Mr. George McCourt, recently celebrated his 90th birthday in style at a well attended function in Glencairn on Firday 31 May. Everyone who was anyone - local, national and international - were invited, with family, friends and well-wishers coming from far and wide to attend the auspicious and festive occasion.

The Launching Of The German Pocket Battleship Bismarck.
The Bismarck was the proudest ship of its day. This German Battleship boasted 2,000 sailors and 15 inch guns, both staggering facts for their day - there had been no ship like it. When it escaped into the Atlantic in May 1941 it posed a fearful threat to the supply convoys that kept Britain alive. After an epic pursuit the British finally cornered and sank the Bismarck on May 27th, 1941. The man who launched the torpedoes that actually sank the ship was originally from the Mountrath area in Co. Laois, Ireland.

The Bismarck At Anchor.

George McCourt is now 90 years of age and has lived in South Africa since World War II, returning to his native land for the occasional holiday. He is a small, slight man with a wry sense of humour and mischievous glint in his eye. George is still very much in possession of his full mental capacities, despite his great age, and is a pleasure to talk to. He is also well able to still knock back the whiskeys! Conversing with someone like George McCourt is a very special experience.

 Biography 

George Alexander McCourt was born in Gillingham, Kent on the 31st May 1912. His father was George and his mother Frances. Both parents were Irish. His father was in the Royal Engineers and Gillingham was the Engineers' HQ. George originally came from Londonderry and Frances from Dublin.

His father's life was devoted to soldiery and he received two Mentions for bravery during the First World War. Ironically, George Snr was badly injured just after the WW1 Armistice had been signed! Most of his ribs were broken when a lorry reversed back into him. Wouldn't that be the ultimate irony? To survive the horror of WW1 only to be killed in a civilian accident by a lorry?

When George Snr came out of hospital there was no promotion for him; as with many in the army he was being demobilised; he wanted to stay on but was compelled to accept his lot. Just before leaving the army his last job was Officer-in-Charge of the demobilisation of the Irish troops.

On his demobilisation George Snr decided to settle in Ballyfin, Co. Laios with the aim of becoming a farmer. A far cry from the world of soldiery but he was extraordinary confident that he could make it work. It didn't because for one reason or another, he simply just was never cut out to be a farmer.

The reason for George Snr's move to Co. Laois with his wife. Frances had travelled over to Ballyfin just prior to his advent too look after her aunt. George Jnr told me they knew nothing about his father's side but his mother's family were farmers. George Jnr therefore grew up in Ballyfin, despite his father's failure in farming and went to the local school. Nearby was the beautiful and highly impressive Ballyfin House, owned by Sir Algernon Coote. 'He had a lake and we used to pinch the fish'.

The old cliché - like father, like son: In 1927 George Jnr made the most important decision of his life, he decided to join the navy. He was ridiculously young, just 15, the youngest age one could join and he became a Boy Seaman.

At the time he felt he had to get work and the navy appealed to his romantic instincts. He didn't like school at all 'and I didn't want to pick potatoes on my uncle's farm,' therefore he went to Devonport in Devon, Southern England and joined the navy there.

According to George his parents were completely neutral about this dramatic career decision and didn't want him to do something more prosaic. Because of his father George knew a great deal about the army, however he knew very little about the navy. What he did know was that he wanted to take to the seven seas and enjoy a life of adventure and travel. He told me that he never ever regretted once the decision to join the navy; it was a life that he absolutely loved.

Six years of George's navy service was spent in China. There was one disadvantage with this sort of life - he wanted to get married and this was a very long time to spend away from home and not exactly conducive to the married life; despite this difficulty he eventually married a South African lady, Muriel Furnell. He also enjoyed one period in an aircraft carrier, a time he loved very much as he had a great penchant for aircraft carriers. George eventually rose to the rank of Acting Petty Officer, the highest he would go (he had not gone through the proper educational procedure to go any higher), but this was never officially confirmed.

He had signed on for 12 years and the war broke out right at the very end of this 12 year period. He decided to stay on then for the war; he felt he would have to do his but and besides the Navy was his life and he had no wish to do anything else. During the war period George served most of his time in Cruisers. It was naturally a highly stressful period but the worse was the final 18 months of the war when his Cruiser was assigned to look after the Russian convoys; harried by submarines, enemy aircraft, intense cold and highly disturbed seas, this was an extraordinary arduous time.

 Sink The Bismarck 

And now the conversation turned to the most dramatic moment of George's life - the fact that he fired the torpedoes that destroyed the Bismarck. He told me that he saw the film 'Sink the Bismarck' and hugely enjoyed it. He also told me that at the time during World War II, the myth that was circulated about the Bismarck was that it was unsinkable; evidently this wasn't true, as nothing is unsinkable. He remembered clearly the shock that he felt on learning that the pride and joy of the British Fleet, the Hood, had been sunk by the Bismarck.

The old battle cruiser, the Hood, was 42,000 tons and for 21 years the pride of Britain's Navy and the biggest warship in the world. The ship inspired a curious blend of affection, admiration and awe not only in Britain but also amongst hundreds of thousands throughout the world. She was launched in August 1918 and named after a family who had given the British Navy four famous admirals. The Hood was a wonderful ship but had one great achilles heel - a lack of armour on her upper decks. May 1941 found her with five other ships pursuing the Bismarck. In one of the supporting ships a man wrote: "With Hood to support us we felt we could tackle anything,there was no bearing her it was inconceivable to think that anything could happen to her.


The British Battlecruiser HMS Hood.

In the early hours of the 24th of May Hood and Bismarck engaged in action in the Denmark Straits, to the west of Iceland. The ships first spotted one another when 17 miles away. When the range was down to 13 miles the Hood opened fire - four shells weighting a ton apiece went rocketing out of the muzzles at over 1,600 miles an hour. A German sailor watching said the flashed appeared like 'great, fiery rings like suns'. The large battleship Prince of Wales was with Hood and it too now fired. The Bismarck and another large ship with it, Prinz Eugen returned fire.

It took a seemingly interminable period for the shells to land and the men in either ships waited tensely for their arrival. Hood's shells landed near Prinz Eugen but not dangerously so; Prince of Wales's were a thousand yards short of Bismarck; the German shells were deadly accurate - they enveloped Hood in a curtain of splashes; the men of Prince of Wales watched with an a mixture of horror and relief. The shelling continued, going to and fro, east and west. The shelling went on for a few minutes and then the unbelievable happened - one of Bismarck's shells came plunging down like a rocket, pierced the old ship between centre and stern, penetrating through steel and wood, struck the ship's innards below the water-line and exploded; this touched off the 4-inch magazines which in turn touched off the after-15 inch magazine. There was an incredible explosion and the Hood began to sink. Those watching from the other ships saw a huge column of flame leap up from the ship's centre that 'nearly touched the sky' and then, once the smoke had cleared, the ship with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. Both parts slid quickly beneath the waves, taking with them more than 1,400 men. There were only three survivors.

Following this terrible tragedy the British Admiralty dispatched every ship possible seeking a terrible vengeance. I asked at this stage what were George's feelings going into battle. At first he said that he had no feelings really; he was trained to do everything automatically and one just did it; but then he admitted later on in our conversation that the natural fears had assailed him including neurotic post-battle stress. And emotionally speaking, what was it like for these men involved in these sea-battles? An excellent description from a book about the Bismarck is well worth repeating in full. It describes graphically the tension prior to engagement. The book is entitled 'Pursuit - The Sinking of the Bismarck' and was written by Ludovic Kennedy in 1974.

The men of 'Hood', 'Prince of Wales' and their destroyers, told that action was expected before the night was out, felt the chill of fear in their bowels, a heightening of sensation, a quickening of the blood. They were about to undergo a novel experience, do what the ship has been built for and they had been trained for, fight. For most, so far, war had been what for most participants it always is, boredom and discomfort, long patrols in winter weather, seeing nothing, meeting nobody, dog days in harbour when you had to listen to the radio to know a war was on. And now the moment, which had lived only as an embryo in the wombs of their minds, had gestated, was at the point of birth, there was absolutely no avoiding it. And everywhere men wondered - all but the very unimaginative, the very brave - how it might go for them; whether they would be mutilated, lose a hand or eye or testicle, whether they would die in agony or without knowing a thing about it, how they would acquit themselves. Whether discover untapped reserves of courage and calm, or, seeing men killed beside them, blood and splintered bone and the spilling out of friends' insides, they would break down, vomit, scream they couldn't go on, be paralyzed with terror.


HMS Dorsetshire
And they looked at one another, each alone in his cell, hoping, doubting that others felt the same. But none spoke, for all were ashamed of their fears. Several ships were called into the fray and at different periods different ships were chasing the Bismarck. These included the two battle ships Rodney (which boasted 16 inch guns, the largest in existence at the time) and the King George V (which had 14 inch guns) and the Dorsetshire (which at the end of the pursuit was the only Cruiser). George's Cruiser the Dorsetshire was captained by BCS Martin and boasted about 750 souls onboard. On the Bismarck there were about 2,000 men.

The Dorsetshire was escorting a convoy back to England when it heard about the Hood being sunk; the whole ship was plunged into a profound state of shock; then they heard that the Bismarck had disappeared and could not be found.

The following day a British plane discovered the Bismarck. Obsolete-looking swordfish, but with deadly torpedoes attached, were sent into the attack. They had already attacked the Bismarck once before and miraculously not one of these dozen or so swordfish had been shot down or even badly damaged. Miraculously again none of the pilots lost their lives, although a few of the planes were write-offs and unlike the first attack, the swordfish attack caused significant damage.

One of the torpedoes had struck right aft, at least 20 feet down, had breached the steering gear compartments and flooded them; this had resulted in the rudders jamming at 15 degrees port. This meant that the ship now began to sail helplessly north-eastwards and towards danger instead of eastwards and towards safety.

The British now, like a pack of wolves, swooped down on their prey. Ludovic Kennedy describes the Bismarck at this period with great feeling: 'She lay there walling in the unrelenting seas, like a great wounded sullen bull. The picadors had done their work, thrust their darts deep into flank and shoulders taken half her power from her. Now she waited for the arrival of the torero, for the last trial of strength whose result was a foregone conclusion. But if she had to die, as bulls did, then she would die bravely and with dignity that too was determined.

At the end the Bismarck was surrounded by the Rodney, Norfolk, King George V and the Dorsetshire. Initially, according to George, when the Dorsetshire had first decided to intercept the German ship it was the only ship that could intercept the Bismarck. 'The Captain decided to leave the convoy', remarked George, 'and reported to the Admiralty what he was doing. If the Admiralty said no, he would return to the convoy but the Admiralty gave him the go-ahead and he carried on. 'The action had already started when we arrived,' he continued. 'The Rodney and KGV had already been firing at her. They were firing at her port side and Doresetshire came up on the starboard side with its 8 inch guns. These were no good against Bismarck's armour and concentrated on her upper works. The 5th salvo wiped out the system for the guns, which meant that only one gun was firing at a time and not together and they didn't have the same power. The Dorsetshire was about one or two miles from Bismarck when the ship sunk.

'I was on the bridge. The torpedo controls were on the wing section of the bridge and I was in charge of the torpedo controls. The Bismarck looked a real mess and was burning. The guns had stopped and Dorsetshire was ordered to finish her off, to sink her. The torpedo tubes were on the deck.


A schematic of the damage to Bismarck after having been hit by a torpedo.

'You close in on your ship and when it's right you pick up a certain portion of your target and then you fire. The 1st launch hit at least two thirds along and the second hit under the bridge; we then went around her bows and hit a third time. When the third one struck Bismarck started capsizing. Some reports said the Germans scuttled their ship. They never did - that's what I believe. When divers found the Bismarck many years later (the same divers who found the Titanic) she was lying down on the bottom as if she had sunk straight down; but there were no guns. The guns were found a couple of miles away. That's proof to me she was never scuttled. If she had been she would have gone straight down and the guns and their turrets would have stayed there'.

It was about 10am when the Bismarck disappeared below the waves forever and the date was the 27th May 1941. It had taken about one and a half hours to sink the Bismarck. 'It was horrible to see people swimming in the area,' remarked George, 'and we were nearest and picked up about a hundred. But then we heard there might be an enemy submarine nearby and we shipped off. Hundreds of Germans were left behind. Only a handful survived. The rest died of cold. The survivors were landed in North Shiels on the 31 May'. Out of a crew of over 2,000 there were only 102 survivors.

 Sunk By The Japanese 

One year later it was the Dorsetshire's turn: Japanese aircraft from nearby aircraft sank the ship on Easter Sunday 1942 in the Indian Ocean. The whole ship really shook, commented George, 'nearly broke our ribs.' The Japanese hit them 9 to 11 times. In less than 10 minutes, two ships, Dorsetshire and Cornwall, were sunk. It was the same Japanese team, minus two ships, that had attacked Pearl Harbour. There were about 500 survivors from the Dorsetshire. 'All I could do was stand on the bridge and think that every bomb was going to hit us' remembered George. 'Nobody could beat the Japs they were marvellous. 'They machine-gunned some of the survivors in the water then cleared off. There was a British fleet out there run by Summerville. Dorsetshire was due to meet the fleet and they sent out a plane. (One couldn't break silence and say one was being attacked)'.

In the water we had about two whalers which could take about 30 people and we used these for the wounded; the rest floated on or held onto bits of stuff from the ship. There was about 200 of us sitting on the main mast from the ship; every time it rolled a bit we all fell off and then we all got back on again. Some of the survivors even started playing water polo. The plane spotted us and after about 30 hours we were eventually picked up.

Three days later the Japanese sank the Hermes and never came back into the Indian Ocean again.


HMS Cornwall sinking near Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after fatal bomb hits by Japanese aircraft, April 5 1942.

 After The War 

Following the war George left the Navy and settled in Cape Town South Africa. He found employment as a maintenance engineer and spent the rest of his working life doing this. He and Muriel had one daughter Joan. His wife passed away in 1991.

George still has relations in Co. Laois (near Mountrath) and he stayed with them during a recent visit in 2000.

In conclusion, on being asked whether he missed Ireland, George remarked: 'No, not really. South Africa is my home. I love and place and I plan to end my days there'.

Based on an article by Derek Fanning in the Tribune of 30 September 2000. All rights reserved.


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