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The Battle of the Denmark Strait

24 May 1941 / Saturday morning
The morning was clear and cold, seas moderate. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had passed the narrowest part of the Denmark Strait. Bismarck was 1,750 yards astern of Prinz Eugen and both ships were making 28 knots.

24 May 1941 / 0203
Hood and Prince of Wales change course to 200°. The destroyers are detached to conduct a search to the north.

24 May 1941 / 0340
Hood and Prince of Wales change course to 240° and increased speed to 28 knots.

24 May 1941 / 0521
The German ships change course to 170°.

24 May 1941 / 0525
Oberleutnant zur See Karlotto Flindt, one of Prinz Eugen’s hydrophone operators, notified the bridge: ‘Noise of two fast moving turbine ships at 280° relative bearing! Range 20 miles.’ Kapitänleutnant Paul Schmalenbach, Prinz Eugen’s second gunnery officer, could see nothing from the bridge. Bismarck’s aft radar was still not working.

24 May 1941 / 0527
Schmalenbach spots two targets on the distant horizon. Two minutes later the forward fire control station confirmed two smoke plumes. Schmalenbach sounds the alarm.

24 May 1941 / 0532
The German force steered for course 220°, speed 28 knots, with Prinz Eugen leading Bismarck by 2,700 yards (2,500 m).

24 May 1941 / 0535
The first gunnery officer, Kapitänleutnant Paulus Jasper, confirmed the sightings and judged the targets to be cruisers. Brinkmann informed Lütjens of the presence of hostile craft: ‘Presumably light cruisers, 20° off the port bow.’

At around the same time, Prince of Wales made visual contact at a range of 38,000 yards (34,750 m). The distance was too great to determine which ship was in the lead, but they assumed it was the Bismarck. The German warships were on course 220°, Holland’s force on course 240°, slightly ahead of the Germans and on a gradually converging course. Unless the British changed course, they would soon be broadside to broadside with the Germans.

24 May 1941 / 0537
Holland altered course 40° to starboard to course 280°, speed 28 knots. This was the maximum angle of approach that allowed Hood and Prince of Wales to utilise their main guns.

24 May 1941 / 0541
Norfolk and Suffolk are some 30,000 yards (27,430 m) behind the Germans, too far to participate in the battle.

24 May 1941 / 0547
Brinkmann again reported: ‘Smoke plumes on the horizon to port.’ The Germans were still in doubt about the identity of the enemy ships. Brinkmann and Jasper maintained that they were dealing with cruisers; however, Schmalenbach disagreed. He was convinced that they are facing a battleship.

Lütjens ordered ‘General quarters!’

24 May 1941 / 0549
Holland ordered a turn of 20° to starboard to course 300°. Hood remained in the lead. This move prevented the British the use of their rear turrets, but Holland still had ten heavy guns to Bismarck’s eight.

Holland signalled Leach to stay close and follow his every move. Almost immediately, Holland gave another order: ‘Stand by to open fire. Target left-hand ship!’ The left-hand ship was Prinz Eugen that was no threat to the British ships due to its smaller guns and shorter range. However, Leach on Prince of Wales correctly identified the right-hand ship and disobeyed the order. He shifted his guns and targets the right-hand ship: Bismarck.

24 May 1941 / 0552½
Hood opened fire with her four forward 15” (38.1 cm) guns at Prinz Eugen from a distance of 25,000 yards (22,860 m). Holland finally realised that Bismarck was behind Prinz Eugen and ordered a shift of target to the right-hand ship. However, this order was never executed and Hood continued to fire at Prinz Eugen.

24 May 1941 / 0553
Prince of Wales opened fire at a distance of 26,500 yards (24,300 m) with her six forward 14” (35.6 cm) guns. Bismarck was about a mile astern of Prinz Eugen. The first salvo from Prince of Wales fell wide about 1,640 yards (1,500 m) astern of Bismarck. Suddenly, the No. 1 gun in A turret on Prince of Wales failed to operate leaving her with only five guns available forward. Her second, third and fourth salvos were also wide. Hood’s first two salvos fell short of Prinz Eugen. Puzzled, Brinkmann and Lindemann wondered why the British targeted the smaller ship. The German guns remained silent.

From the Bismarck’s fire control station in the foretop, First Gunnery Officer Adalbert Schneider requested permission to open fire. He received no reply. He telephoned the bridge: ‘Enemy has opened fire.’ Again, no reply. The enemy fired his third and fourth salvo. ‘Enemy’s salvos well grouped.’ Still no answer from Lütjens. Schneider asked ‘Request permission to fire’, but not a word from Lütjens. Bismarck remained steady on course 220°, making 28 knots.

24 May 1941 / 0555
Holland now changed tactics in the middle of the fight. He turned his ships broadside to broadside. This manoeuvre revealed the silhouettes of both ships to the Germans and was steaming on a diagonal course. This exposed his ships to the greatest probability of being hit. The Germans now identified the British ships as the battlecruiser Hood and battleship King George V. (The Germans were unaware that Prince of Wales had been completed.)

Lütjens hoisted the signal ‘JD’ (Jot-Dora) allowing Prinz Eugen to open fire on the lead ship. Brinkmann responded at once: ‘Commander to artillery. Heavy; clearance to fire!’ Prinz Eugen opened fire against Hood from a distance of 22,100 yards (20,200 m), but no hits were scored.

The sight of two British capital ships must have disturbed Lütjens as German intelligence reported both to be still in port. Their appearance in the Denmark Strait could mean only one thing – the operation had long been discovered.

Immediately after Prinz Eugen opened fire, Bismarck’s 14.96” (38 cm) guns roared into action. Lütjens returned fire on Hood at a distance of 24,100 yards (22,000 m), the shells fell short ahead of the target.

Hood fired her fourth salvo at Prinz Eugen, again with no hits. Prince of Wales fired her fifth salvo against the Bismarck from a distance of 22,100 yards (20,200 m). After this action, another gun in the quadruple A turret on Prince of Wales failed.

Photo: The Bismarck firing against the Prince of Wales.

24 May 1941 / 0556
Prince of Wales fired her sixth salvo at a distance of 21,150 yards (19,340 m), scoring the first hit on Bismarck. The shell tore through her port side bow in compartments XXI and XX, penetrating the ship and exiting through the starboard bow. The damage caused an oil leak and flooding of the forward compartments.

Bismarck fired her second salvo at Hood from 21,870 yards (20,000 m) with no hits.

At the same time, Prinz Eugen scored the first hit on HMS Hood. The shot fell between the second funnel and the mainmast near where ammunition for the 4” (102 mm) anti-aircraft guns and several UP anti-aircraft rockets were stored starting a fire.

Hood fired her fifth and sixth salvos against Prinz Eugen. No hits were obtained. Prince of Wales fired her seventh and eighth salvos against the Bismarck with no hits.

Prinz Eugen fired her third salvo from 19,700 yards (18,000 m) against Hood, missing the target.

Norfolk closed in at a distance of 25,150 yards (23,000 m). Suffolk was further behind at 31,700 yards (29,000 m). Both ships are out of range.

24 May 1941 / 0557
Prinz Eugen fired her fourth and fifth salvos from 18,600 yards (17,000 m). Bismarck fired her third salvo from 20,230 yards (18,500 m) against Hood and hit the fire control tower killing most of the men inside. The British ship was now without central fire control. A shell from Prinz Eugen’s sixth salvo hit near the base of the forward superstructure causing a fire in the forward part of the ship.

The distance between the German and British ships was now down to 19,700 yards (18,000 m). This allows Bismarck’s three port 5.9” (15 cm) twin secondary guns and the four starboard 5.25” (13.3 cm) twin secondary guns of Prince of Wales to join the battle.

Hood fired her seventh salvo against Prinz Eugen. Prince of Wales fired her ninth salvo from 18,250 yards (16,690 m) and scored another hit on the Bismarck. The shell exploded against the 45-mm armoured bulkhead amidships below the waterline and main belt in section XIV. This causes flooding in the No. 4 port electric plant and the adjacent No. 2 boiler room. Further oil leaks were also seen.

24 May 1941 / 0558
Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to change target to Prince of Wales. Bismarck fired her fourth salvo against Hood from a distance of 18,600 yards (17,000 m). Prinz Eugen fired her sixth and last salvo against Hood before redirecting fire against Prince of Wales. None of the shells hit Hood. The distance between Prinz Eugen and Bismarck on her starboard side astern at this point was around 2,200 yards (2,000 m).

Prinz Eugen fired her seventh salvo, the first against Prince of Wales, without a hit.

Prince of Wales fired her tenth salvo at a distance of 17,150 yards (15,680 m) and her 11th salvo from 17,100 yards (15,640 m) both against the Bismarck. Both fell short. Prince of Wales could now use her Y turret, but one of the guns malfunctioned.

A Short Sunderland reconnaissance flying boat (RAF Z/201) from Iceland, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R. J. Vaughn, arrived at the battle scene. He observed two fires on Hood, one at the base of the bridge structure and another further aft.

Hood fired her eighth and ninth salvos against Prinz Eugen at a distance of 17,500 yards (16,000 m). No hits were obtained.

24 May 1941 / 0559
Prinz Eugen fired her eighth and ninth salvos against Prince of Wales at a distance of 17,500 yards (16,000 m). Again, no hits were scored.

Prince of Wales fired her 12th salvo against Bismarck from a distance of 17,100 yards (15,640 m). It fell short. Shortly thereafter, she fired her 13th salvo from 16,150 yards (14,770 m) and scored a third hit on Bismarck. Damage is light as the shell failed to explode. Only a service boat was hit.

Hood fired her tenth salvo against Prinz Eugen, the distance now down to 15,300 yards (14,000 m). The British battlecruiser failed to score a hit. Holland ordered another 20° turn to port to course 260°.

Photo: The Hood blows up.

24 May 1941 / 0600
Bismarck fired her fifth salvo from 17,200 yards (15,700 m) against Hood. The British warship received a direct hit, apparently in one of her after magazines.

24 May 1941 / 0601
In a terrible scene reminiscent of the Battle of Jutland in the previous war, what had been, until the Bismarck, the world’s largest warship, suffered a massive explosion aft and broke in two. Shortly after this the area in front of A turret exploded and the centre and fore part of the ship also broke in two. Hood sank in three minutes around 63°22’N, 32°17’W, and all but three of her 1,418 men went down with the ship. The three survivors were Midshipman William John Dundas, Able Seaman Robert Edward Tilburn and Ordinary Signalman Albert Edward Pryke ‘Ted’ Briggs, all three were later Mentioned in Despatches.

The wreck of Hood was discovered on 19 July 2001 by David Mearns and his team. The wreck rests at a depth of approximately 9,200 feet (2,804 m).

Vaughn in the Short Sunderland withdrew into the clouds, the subject of heavy anti-aircraft fire.

Prinz Eugen fired her tenth and 11th salvos against Prince of Wales from a distance of 15,300 yards (14,000 m). No hits were scored.

Prince of Wales, now alone, fired her 14th salvo against Bismarck at a distance of 16,300 yards (14,900 m). The 15th salvo was fired from 15,000 yards (13,700 m) and salvo 16 from 15,100 yards (13,800 m). All fell short of the Bismarck. Due to the rapid and unexpected sinking of Hood, Bismarck’s sixth salvo was still aimed at the doomed battlecruiser. The distance was now 16,400 yards (15,000 m).

Prince of Wales had been steaming about 1,000 yards (900 m) behind Hood when the battlecruiser sank. To avoid plowing into debris, Leach immediately put his wheel hard a-starboard, and in doing so, Prince of Wales' after turrets could not bear on the enemy. Brinkmann contemplated a torpedo attack from the Prinz Eugen. However, the distance between them was close to the maximum range of his torpedoes (13,120 yards / 12,000 m). Birkmann ordered his Torpedo Officer, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Reimann, to be prepared if the opportunity presented itself.

Photo: Bismarck continue to fire against Prince of Wales.

Bismarck changed target to Prince of Wales. The seventh salvo was fired from 16,400 yards (15,000 m). Prinz Eugen, some 1,640-1,970 yards (1,500-1,800 m) ahead of the Bismarck, fired her 12th and 13th salvos from a distance of 15,850 yards (14,500 m). None of the shells found their mark.

Prince of Wales fired her 17th salvo from 14,100 yards (12,900 m) and 18th from 14,500 yards (13,250 m) against the Bismarck. Both salvos fell short.

24 May 1941 / 0602
Bismarck fired her eighth salvo from 15,300 yards (14,000 m) and hit Prince of Wales on the command tower (compass platform). Although the shell did not explode, its impact killed most of the crew inside. With immediate effect, Prince of Wales ceased fire, disengaged from combat with evasive manoeuvres and turned to port.
Prinz Eugen fired her 14th salvo against Prince of Wales from some 15,300 yards (14,000 m). Norfolk opened fire against Bismarck from a distance of 21,800 yards (20,000 m). The shells fell short.

24 May 1941 / 0603
Prince of Wales turned 160° to port and laid a smokescreen. Bismarck fired her ninth salvo from around 15,300 yards (14,000 m) hitting Prince of Wales twice. One shell hit below the waterline without exploding. The other hit the starboard 5.25” (13.3 mm) secondary fire control station putting it out of action.

Prinz Eugen fired her 16th and 17th salvos from a distance of 14,200 yards (13,000 m). Again, Prince of Wales was hit in the stern below the waterline. Suddenly, a crewman reported a trail of torpedoes approaching Prinz Eugen. Bismarck was warned. Both vessels made a 50° turn to starboard on a course of 270°.

Prince of Wales fired her 19th salvo, but it fell short of the Bismarck.

Bismarck fired her tenth salvo from 16,950 yards (15,500 m) and scored another hit on Prince of Wales. She was hit amidships destroying the port-side crane and damaging service boats. A shell punctured the second funnel and damaged the Walrus aircraft.

Prinz Eugen fired her 18th salvo from 15,850 yards (14,500 m), scoring two more hits on Prince of Wales. One hit the stern below the waterline. Another shell hit the fourth 5.25” (13.3 mm) turret ammunition storage on the port side. Luckily for the British, the shell failed to explode.

Prince of Wales fired her 20th salvo from Y turret at 16,400 (15,000 m). Three of four guns were out of action and only one shell was fired. The shot fell short of Bismarck’s stern.

Balance of Forces
Prinz Eugen
Prince of Wales
50,900 mt
19,042 mt
48,400 mt
44,400 mt
8 x 38 cm
8 x 20.3 cm
8 x 15" (38.1 cm)
10 x 14" (35.6 cm)
12 x 15 cm
16 x 13.3 cm
12 x 53.3 cm
4 x 53.3 cm
Main Belt
320 mm
80 mm
305 mm
348-374 mm
130-360 mm
160 mm
127-381 mm
150-325 mm
Main deck
50-80 mm
25 mm
38 mm
Armour deck
80-120 mm
30 mm
75 mm
124-150 mm
Max speed
30.8 knots
32.5 knots
29 knots
28 knots

24 May 1941 / 0605
Bismarck fired her 11th salvo and Prinz Eugen her 19th salvo without scoring a hit. Prince of Wales fired her 21st and last salvo, the shells fell harmlessly into the sea.

24 May 1941 / 0606
The Germans changed course making a 50° turn to port to return to course 220°.

24 May 1941 / 0609
Lütjens ordered a ceasefire and the Battle of the Denmark Strait was over. According to a number of survivors, a heated argument ensued on the bridge of the Bismarck. Lindemann wanted to hunt down the crippled Prince of Wales and sink her. However, this was rejected by Lütjens and he was not to debate a command decision with a subordinate officer. The mission ordered was commerce raiding – end of discussion. With hindsight this was a very poor decision, but Lütjens had no way of knowing that the guns on Prince of Wales were malfunctioning or how badly she had been damaged. His ship was damaged and orders were to protect the ships at all costs.

During the battle, Bismarck had fired 13 salvos and used 93 14.96” (38 cm) shells. Prinz Eugen fired 23 salvos and fired 157 8” (20.3 cm) shells. Prince of Wales fired 21 salvos and used 59 14” (35.6 cm) shells. It is unknown how many shells Hood fired, but 10-11 salvos and 40-44 shells is possible. Likewise, it is unclear how many shells Norfolk used, but it fired three salvos with the possible use of 24 shells.

Bismarck was hit three times by Prince of Wales. The British warship was hit seven times: Four times by Bismarck and three times by Prinz Eugen, which escaped the battle unscathed. Hood failed to score a single hit. 1,415 crewmembers perished when Hood sank with only three survivors. Prince of Wales lost 13 sailors and another later died of wounds. The Germans were more fortunate with no casualties and five of Bismark’s crew slightly wounded.
The three survivors from Hood, Dundas, Tilburn and Briggs, managed to climb into small rafts. They were rescued three hours later by Electra. The men were taken to Reykjavik, Iceland, late on 24 May and were hospitalised for a day. They later returned to England on the merchantman Royal Ulsterman.

After Captain Leach had broken off action, he waited for Norfolk and Suffolk to rejoin. Rear Admiral Wake-Walker on Norfolk then took command and assessed damage to Prince of Wales. Only three of her ten main guns would fire: Y turret would not rotate; her bridge was a smoking ruin; she had 400 tons of seawater in her stern compartments and speed reduced to 27 knots. Wake-Walker decided that Leach had made the right call and that there was nothing to be done but resume trailing the German ships. Suffolk and Norfolk each took the same flank on Bismarck as they had done before the battle.

24 May 1941 / 0610
Prinz Eugen was on high alert as Vaughn in his Short Sunderland again made an appearance. However, he fled from the area due to intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire.

Prinz Eugen was now on Bismarck’s starboard side and the battleship was ahead. Prinz Eugen increased speed to 32.5 knots and again took lead of the German task force.

24 May 1941 / 0614
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen changed course to 270° due to false torpedo alarm. Norfolk and Suffolk were shadowing.

24 May 1941 / 0616
Suffolk realised that Prinz Eugen was closing fast.

24 May 1941 / 0617
Brinkmann turned 100° to port and returned to course 220° and again went ahead.

Suffolk misread its radar data and opened fire, believing the distance to Prinz Eugen was 19,400 yards (19,800 m). It was in reality 29,540 yards (27,000 m).

Prince of Wales suddenly appeared out of its smokescreen and fired a salvo against the Bismarck at a distance of 32,800 yards (30,000 m); however, the shells fell well short. Prince of Wales then retreated into the smokescreen. Bismarck turned 50° to port, now on course 220°, the same as Prinz Eugen that had by now regained the lead. Suffolk fired another three salvos against Prinz Eugen, but they were short by 11,000 yards (10,000 m).

24 May 1941 / 0624
Suffolk fired her sixth and last salvo and disengaged from combat.

24 May 1941 / 0629
Suffolk reported to the Admiralty: ‘German ships are 18 nautical miles on a bearing of 240° from me.’

24 May 1941 / 0632
Lütjens reported to Group North: ‘Battlecruiser, probably Hood sunk. Another battleship, King George V or Renown, turned away damaged. Two heavy cruisers maintain contact.’ Additionally, he signalled Group West: ‘Hood destroyed within five minutes in artillery duel at 0600 this morning. King George V turned away after hits. My speed reduced. Stem down due to hit in foreship.’

24 May 1941 / 0705
Lütjens once again signalled Group North: ‘Have sunk a battleship at approximately 63° 10’ North, 32° 00’ West.’ Brinkmann was worried about the amount of radio traffic and expressed his concerns in the ship’s war diary.

24 May 1941 / 0801
Lütjens signalled the Naval High Command: ‘Denmark Strait 50 nautical miles wide, floating mines, enemy two radars . . . Intention: To proceed to Saint-Nazaire, Prinz Eugen [to conduct] cruiser warfare.’

On Bismarck, Lütjens received the damage reports from his captains. Brinkmann reported that Prinz Eugen had received no hits. Lindemann reported of the three hits that Bismarck had taken and then turned to the current damage-control report.

Since the battle, Bismarck’s damage-control parties had been at hard work without rest. The forecastle, that had been penetrated by a shell, was flooded. Listing forwards, the stem was down by 3°, a list of 9° to port and speed was reduced to 28 knots. Also, tips of the starboard propeller were visible out of the water. Lindemann ordered void tanks in sections II and III astern to be flooded to restore the ship’s trim. He then sent a team of divers into the submerged forecastle with instructions to connect the forward fuel tanks, which held 1,000 tons of fuel, first directly to the fuel tanks near the boiler room and then to the rear fuel tanks by way of a line run over the ship’s upper deck.

When both attempts failed, Lindemann requested permission for the Bismarck to lower its speed and to heel the ship from one side to the other to allow holes in the forward hull to be patched temporarily by welding plates from within. Lütjens initially refused, but agreed to reduce speed to 22 knots. The idea was to stuff holes in the No.2 boiler room and auxiliary boiler room with collision matting and hammocks to slow the growing intake of seawater. However, this also failed and the boiler was shut down.

Why Lütjens decided to abandon Operation Rheinübung is unknown since all documents were lost with the sinking of the Bismarck. And why Lütjens decided to head for Saint-Nazaire in France is also unknown. The distance to Saint-Nazaire was 2,000 nautical miles. Brest, a little closer, was not ideally suitable as it was within range of the R.A.F. and battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were currently undergoing repairs there. Lütjens could have returned by way of Norway through the Denmark Strait to Trondheim (1,400 nautical miles), through the waters south of Iceland to Trondheim (1,300 nautical miles) or via the same course to Bergen (1,150 nautical miles). The advantage of heading for Saint-Nazaire might have been that Lütjens could continue Operation Rheinübung after repairs. Also, there was the possibility of uniting with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau when they had been repaired.

According to Bismarck survivors, Lindemann recommended that the ship return at once to Bergen. In Lindemann’s view, Bismarck was ‘too fine a ship to be risked in further unequal engagements’. Again, he was overruled by Lütjens.

24 May 1941 / 1010
Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to fall astern to the Bismarck and confirm the oil slick. Brinkmann reported to Lindemann that the men aboard the heavy cruiser could not only see but also smell broad streams of oil on both sides of Bismarck’s wake.

24 May 1941 / 1100
Lütjens returned Prinz Eugen to a position ahead of the battleship to take advantage of her forward FuMO radar. At the same time, the weather worsened and visibility decreased as the ships ran into a front. German radio intelligence aboard both ships reported that the British ships managed to maintain contact at 33,000 yards (30,200 m).

© John Asmussen, 2000 - 2014. All rights reserved.