Gunner who helped sink the Bismarck dies at 103

The sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941 boosted morale in Britain
The sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941 boosted morale in Britain

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One of the last remaining survivors of the gun turrets which sank the Bismarck has died at Fareham on his 103rd birthday.

William Herbert Millener – known as Bert – was a Royal Marine on board the battleship HMS King George V when the Royal Navy chased and destroyed the formidable German battleship in May 1941.

HMS Hood

HMS Hood

He passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of his 103rd birthday, a proud man who had served his country with honour and with compassion.

Marking his 100th birthday three years ago, Mr Millener was guest of honour at a Royal Marines Band concert at St Mary’s Church, Alverstoke, Gosport.

Speaking as he reached his century, Mr Millener recalled the hunt for the Bismarck.

‘The main thing was that she had sunk the [battlecruiser HMS] Hood,’ he said.

Bert Millener

Bert Millener

‘We wanted revenge for The Hood. The Hood was the pride of the fleet, and Churchill was saying ‘‘Get the Bismarck!’’’

Mr Millener vividly recalled the claustrophobia of the gun turrets.

He said: ‘Once the door banged shut, that was that. But once you started, you forgot everything. Our main concern was getting on with the controls to get the guns firing.

‘I was behind the gun [one of four in the turret], and I had a set of four levers. You had a routine.

Bert and Sylvia Millener

Bert and Sylvia Millener

‘Once the ship was seen to be sinking, we all ceased fire. We sponged the gun and came out of the gun turret. It was three cheers!

‘We wanted to avenge the Hood and we were going to sink the Bismarck at all costs. But afterwards you think about all the men on board and that they had wives and children. And then you think that if it hadn’t been them, it could have been us.

‘People say it was a ‘‘good show’’, but your first thought is that they were servicemen, the same as we were.

‘It gets you. You don’t want to kill anyone.’

In fact, Mr Millener shouldn’t have been there at all. He had been sent to hospital with pneumonia and, after being dischargd, should have been returned to barracks, but the order was countermanded.

Still suffering, he was sent straight back to the ship to join the hunt for the Bismarck.

The chase lasted from May 23 until May 27. HMS King George V and HMS Rodney engaged the Bismarck which was finally sunk by the cruiser Dorsetshire.

Mr Millener was born in Hull on November 17, 1912, just a few months after the sinking of the Titanic and two years before the outbreak of the First World War.

The son of a trawler skipper, he served on trawlers with his father and uncle in 1928 before joining the Royal Marines in Deal in November 1929.

He was posted to Eastney barracks in Portsmouth on completion of his training in February 1931. Later that year, he joined the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous in the Home Fleet. He also served in the battleship HMS Resolution in the Mediterranean Fleet and also the new cruiser HMS Birmingham on the China station.

He married Sylvia Harwood, who died in 2004, in Fareham in 1940. Later that year he was drafted to the battleship HMS King George V.

Other wartime adventures included three weeks with malaria in the American Military Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone. On the Malta convoy in 1942, still suffering from malaria, he left the sick bay to man an anti-aircraft gun to bring down a Stuka dive bomber for which he was mentioned in despatches.

Mine damage to his ship in 1944 brought him into Philadelphia for repairs. He spent 10 days working on the American railroad. In September 1945, he took part in the Allied landings at Penang. No opposition was met. The Japanese had already surrendered.

After the war, Mr Millener worked for 25 years at the Ford factory at Eastleigh. He is survived by his son George.

Mr Millener’s funeral is at Portchester crematorium on Friday, November 27 at 12.15pm.

William Herbert Millener. Born November 17, 1912, died November 17, 2015.