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The Bismarck is Discovered

26 May 1941 / 0345
A Catalina PBY aircraft Z (Flying Officer Dennis Briggs) from 209 Squadron Costal Command took off from Loch Erne. When he reached the west coast of Ireland, Briggs turned southwest and descended to his assigned search altitude of 500 feet. Another PBY took off that morning, aircraft M of 240 Squadron (US Navy Lieutenant (j.g.) J. E. Johnson), and was assigned to patrol an area due north and adjacent to the one Briggs was patrolling. Briggs reached his assigned search area at 0945 and began to fly a crossover search pattern.

26 May 1941 / 0835
Ark Royal launched ten Swordfish to help find the Bismarck.

26 May 1941 / Around 1000
Briggs climbed out of his seat and co-pilot (US Navy Ensign Leonard B. ‘Tuck’ Smith) took over the controls. At 1010, Smith saw something. It was eight miles away off to port and at the very limit of his visibility. He called Briggs who returned to his seat. Aboard the Bismarck, spotters immediately observed the Catalina and opened fire driving the aircraft away. Briggs soon lost sight of the ship due to the heavy overcast.

26 May 1941 / 1025
Group West signalled Lütjens that Luftwaffe air support would not be operational that day due to heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay with 40-50 mph winds, showers and visibility limited from six to eight miles. They also informed Lütjens not to expect air cover until he was close to shore.

26 May 1941 / Around 1026
Briggs reported his encounter with Bismarck: ‘One battleship bearing 240° five miles, course 150°, my position 49° 33’ north, 21° 47’ west. Time of origin, 1030/26.’ The second Catalina joined him and both aircraft tried in vain to locate the battleship. When news broke that Bismarck had been located, two of Ark Royal’s Swordfish changed course to assist the Catalinas.

26 May 1941 / 1114
Swordfish 2H (S-Lt. (A) J. V. Hartley, A/S-Lieutenant Peter Rodney Elias, LA Harold Francis Huxley) spotted the Bismarck followed by the second Catalina (Lt. (j.g.) Johnson). When spotters on the Bismarck saw the Swordfish, they knew that an aircraft carrier was nearby. Lütjens contacted Group West: ‘Enemy aircraft maintains contact in quadrant BE 27; wheeled aircraft!’

26 May 1941 / 1121
Swordfish 2F (Lt. (A) J. R. C. Callander, Lieutenant P. B. Schondfeldt, LA R. Baker) had arrived and made visual contact with Bismarck. Shortly after, two Swordfish with long range fuel tanks were launched from Ark Royal to relieve 2H and 2F.

After more than 31 hours, the British had regained contact with the Bismarck and she was shadowed by a Catalina and Swordfish from Ark Royal all afternoon. However, Tovey’s force was 135 miles to the north and Rodney 125 miles to the northeast. It would be impossible to catch the Bismarck unless her speed could be significantly reduced.

26 May 1941 / 1326
Vice-Admiral Somerville detached Sheffield (Captain Charles Larcom) with orders to ‘...close and shadow enemy’. A misunderstanding in communications resulted in that the Ark Royal was unaware of the developments and that Sheffield had left. This could have had serious consequences later that day.

Deployment of British forces at time of discovery of the Bismarck

Photo: Flying Officer Dennis Briggs, pilot of the Consolidated PBY-5 (Catalina) flying boat that re-discovered the Bismarck on 26 May.

26 May 1941 / 1450
Ark Royal launched 15 Swordfish commanded by Lieutenant-Commander J. A. Stewart-Moore to attack the Bismarck. The distance was estimated to be 52 miles. The only chance the British had was to reach the Bismarck by aircraft and hope to stop it or at least slow her down so they could catch her.

26 May 1941 / 1520
Rodney joined Tovey’s force that reduced speed to around 21 knots so that the Nelson class battleship could catch up. Tovey was seven hours from Bismarck.

26 May 1941 / 1550
Swordfish from Ark Royal made contact with a ship about 20 miles to starboard. Stewart-Moore believed that the contact did not correspond with the position of the Bismarck as given to the pilots in the carrier ready room; however, they had been told that there were no British ships in the area so it had to be German. As they prepared for their torpedo attack, pilot Lieutenant H. de G. Hunter yelled through the voice tube: ‘It’s the Sheffield!’ Sheffield, a light cruiser with twin funnels hardly resembled the Bismarck. Hunter broke off the attack and waggled his wings as Swordfish were not equipped with radios. Unable to warn the other aircraft, the remaining Swordfish dropped their torpedoes. The crew of Sheffield watched in horror as their anti-aircraft weapons remained silent. On the bridge, Captain Larcom and his coxswain were doing all they could to avoid the incoming torpedoes. Miraculously, Sheffield was not hit. The warheads were equipped with duplex pistols and on five of the 11 torpedoes they malfunctioned. Two torpedoes exploded upon hitting the water and three detonated on crossing the cruiser’s wake. Sheffield avoided the remaining six.

26 May 1941 / 1720
The Swordfish returned to Ark Royal. Maintenance crews exchanged the duplex pistols for contact detonators for the next attack.

26 May 1941 / 1740
Bismarck sighted Sheffield that shadowed the German battleship.

26 May 1941 / 1903
Lütjens signalled Group West: ‘Fuel situation urgent – when can I expect replenishment?’

26 May 1941 / 1915
Fifteen Swordfish (under command of Lieutenant-Commander T. P. Coode) took off from Ark Royal. They were mostly the same aircraft that had been used in the previous attempt. The Swordfish headed for Sheffield, this time as a reference point, before heading for the Bismarck.

26 May 1941 / 1948
U-556 (Kapitänleutnant Herbert Wohlfahrt) sighted Renown and Ark Royal. Since Wohlfahrt had used all his torpedoes against ships of convoy HX-126, he was unable to attack Somerville’s force and help Bismarck. He could only report their position, course and speed.

26 May 1941 / 1955
The Swordfish strike force made contact with Sheffield and proceeded towards the German battleship. As it would soon be dark, this was most likely their last chance to stop the Bismarck from reaching safety.

As in the case with the attack from Victorious two days before, Korvettenkapitän Schneider ordered the main and secondary armament to fire at the torpedo tracks so they might explode prematurely. Simultaneously, all anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The Swordfish approached from such a low altitude and speed that accurate anti-aircraft fire was extremely difficult. Several aircraft were hit, but none were shot down. Bismarck was hit by one or two torpedoes on the port side amidships near Section VII. Bismarck was then hit in the stern on the starboard side. (Note: many sources claim the Bismarck was hit in the rudder and on port side – both claims are incorrect.)

It soon became clear that the situation was critical for Bismarck. The first torpedo hit amidships on port side at Section VII without significance. The second hit in the stern on starboard side at Section II was far more serious. Bismarck’s twin parallel rudders were jammed 12° to port. The ship slowed down to 13 knots and ran in a continuous counterclockwise turn.

The hit in the stern had damaged the steering gear and flooded the steering gear room and other adjacent compartments. The safety valve in the starboard engine room closed and the engines shut down. Bizmarck was temporarily without power.

Lindemann supervised the repairs and to obtain a clear overview of the damage. Kapitänleutnant (ing.) Gerhard Junack and Oberleutnant (ing.) Hermann Giese and a team of carpenters shored up the transverse bulkhead and sealed broken valves and tubes. Men from the starboard secondary guns and anti-aircraft guns tried to place collision matting over the hole in the ship’s hull, but the rush of incoming seawater could not be stopped. Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels repeatedly called Giese for up-to-the-minute damage reports as did Lütjens.

Clearly the biggest problem were the jammed rudders, and since compartments were flooded, urgent repairs had to be conducted underwater. Junack and Giese suggested that they make their way through an armoured hatch to the upper platform deck and disengage the rudder-motor coupling. Each attempt ended in failure as every time they opened the hatch over the steering gear, seawater forced them back and threatened to suck them down as the ship pitched up and down in the high waves.

26 May 1941 / 2105
Lütjens signalled to Group West: ‘Quadrant BE 6192; torpedo hit in stern!’

26 May 1941 / 2115
Lütjens again signalled Group West: ‘Ship no longer manoeuvrable!’

The Bismarck was now on an erratic course, roughly northwest into 40-50 mph winds and heading towards the enemy. Lindemann attempted to use the three propellers to steer the ship to no avail. When the starboard propeller ran at a higher speed than the port propeller he could force the Bismarck to turn to port. However, as soon as some speed was attained, the rudders would bite into the sea and drive the ship back to starboard.

A plan to detach the rudders with explosives was considered, but the possibility of damage to the propellers was too great and was rejected. Another plan was to weld an aircraft hangar door to the starboard side of the stern at a 15° angle that would correspond to a rudder position of 12°. This plan was abandoned due to rough seas. Divers were also sent down to uncouple the starboard rudder. This failed when the divers discovered that the coupling was so badly damaged it could not be freed.

Two Swordfish remained at the scene to shadow Bismarck and help Sheffield maintain contact. One of them radioed Ark Royal: ‘Enemy course 090°.’ Captain Maund on the carrier gave no importance to the signal. If Bismarck was heading due east it was because she had been attacked and the manoeuvre was intended to avoid torpedoes. He believed that she would resume course 120° shortly.

26 May 1941 / 2122
Ark Royal received another message from the shadowing aircraft: ‘Enemy course 000°.’ This made no sense to Maund. Why would Bismarck change course to due north? It had to be an error. Six minutes later he received a new message: ‘Enemy changed course to port.’

A further two minutes passed and Maund received a new message: ‘Enemy course 340°.’ Bismarck had almost made a complete circle. Then another message came in: ‘Enemy laying smoke.’ A message five minutes later reported: ‘Enemy course 330°.’ For unknown reasons Bismarck was still turning to port.

26 May 1941 / 2136
Sheffield sent a mes¬sage confirming information from the two Swordfish. Bismarck was steering 340° and turning to port followed four minutes later that the battleship was steaming due north. Maund was positive that Bismarck was seriously damaged.

26 May 1941 / 2140
To High Command it was clear that the situation was hopeless. Raeder sent a message to Lütjens: ‘All our thoughts are with you and your ship. We wish you success in your desperate struggle.’ Admiral Alfred Saalwächter from Group West wrote: ‘Our thoughts and good wishes are with our victorious comrades.’ Admiral Rolf Carls from Group North also sent a message: ‘We think of all of you with loyalty and pride.’

Lindemann struggled to keep control of the Bismarck. He had to keep the ship underway to prevent her from wallowing and yawing helplessly in the 45’ breakers. Lindemann could only achieve this by holding her into the wind on a northwesterly course at a speed of five to seven knots. He was returning in the direction he came from – towards the British forces.
26 May 1941 / 2142
Tovey’s force was about four hours away from Bismarck and ordered his captains to change course to 180°, due south, to close and engage without delay.

26 May 1941 / 2145
Sheffield came under fire from Bismarck at a distance of nine miles. Bismarck’s first 15” salvo fell short, the second straddled the cruiser. After six salvos there were no direct hits. However, shell splinters killed one crewman (Ordinary Seaman David T. George) and injured seven others, two would later die of their wounds (Able Seaman Ambrose Ling died on the 27th and Able Seaman Raymond C. Taylor died on the 28th). Sheffield turned away under the cover of a smokescreen. The cruiser’s main radar was out of action after being hit by a splinter in the main mast and some 40 holes peppered the hull above the waterline. In her escape, Sheffield lost visual contact with Bismarck and was unable to regain contact without radar. Around 2200, she made contact with Vian’s destroyer force where he received Sheffield’s last sighting report of the German battleship.

26 May 1941 / 2205
The Swordfish returned to Ark Royal. It was too late in the day for another strike.

26 May 1941 / 2238
Vian’s flotilla comprised of destroyers Cossack (flagship), Maori, Zulu, Sikh and Piorun carried out a high-speed attack against the Bismarck. Piorun was the first to sight Bismarck.

26 May 1941 / 2242
Bismarck’s secondary guns opened fire against Piorun, the destroyer’s decks were showered with splinters. Piorun returned fire with her 4.7” (11.9 cm) guns as she fled in a smokescreen. Maori, second from left, came under fire from Bismarck. Cossack, Sikh and Zulu passed by untouched. The flotilla, without Piorun, regrouped some ten miles to the south of Bismarck as Vian weighed his options.

26 May 1941 / 2306
After reconsidering the situation Tovey decided it would be best to open the battle at dawn. He changed course heading due east to get to the north-northeast of Bismarck’s position. Tovey planned to engage the battleship from the west as she would be visible against the early morning twilight.

26 May 1941 / 2335
The two Swordfish that had shadowed Bismarck returned to Ark Royal. The crews reported that Bismarck had made two complete circles at slow speed. It was now clear to the British that the German ship was crippled and could hardly believe their luck.

26-27 May 1941 / Around midnight
Lindemann had given up all attempts to repair the rudders and announced to his crew that they could help themselves to the ship’s stores. Lütjens sent a signal to Group West: ‘Ship fully intact in terms of armaments and machinery. But cannot be steered with engines.’

Vian originally planned only to shadow Bismarck, but decided that his force should attack and launch their 21” (53.3 cm) torpedoes. His own ship, Cossack, went first closely followed by Zulu, Sikh and Maori.

The Bismarck immediately spotted the charging destroyers. First Gunnery Officer Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Schneider (main armament) and Third Gunnery Officer Fregattenkapitän Helmut Albrecht (secondary armament) opened fire on Cossack and Sikh with their 5.9” (15 cm) secondary armament. Cossack was straddled by shellfire and splinters destroyed her main aerials. Vian broke off the attack. Bismarck then targeted Zulu, this time with her main armament. Again, the first salvo straddled the ship and three men were wounded, forcing Zulu to withdraw. Bismarck's shooting was extremely accurate.

27 May 1941 / Shortly after 0100
Maori now attacked the Bismarck. She fired several star shells, high-arcing white illumination rounds, closed to 3,200 yards (2,926 m) and launched two torpedoes, both of which missed. Maori then broke off the attack to seek safety.
Attacks continued until 0300 when Vian realised he could not launch a co-ordinated assault on the powerful Bismarck. As a result of the attacks against Bismarck, three men were killed: Leading Stoker Ernest Robert Potter (aged 22) on Sikh died on 26 May, Petty Officer John Palmer (aged 31) on Maori died on 31 May and Leading Seaman William Francis Dawe (aged 23) on Zulu died of wounds on 2 June.

Tovey was informed that Vian failed to score any hits against Bismarck. He radioed Vian to confirm Bismarck’s position was marked throughout the night – this was vital as he would make his approach before dawn. The destroyers initially tried to illuminate the battleship by firing star shells; however, every salvo brought fire from the Bismarck. Vian then tried to transmit Bismarck’s position by radio, but the antennas had been badly damaged and this also failed.

Tovey had a good idea of where the Bismarck was located, but did not have an accurate enough position to attack at dawn. He therefore decided to wait until full light at around 0830. Norfolk was to handle flank marking for King George V and Rodney as they fired at the German ship.

The crew on the Bismarck prepared to launch the Arado Ar 196-A4 (T3+DL) aircraft to fly to France where mail and the ship’s war diary would be in safe hands. This proved to be impossible as the weather was too bad. Since the aircraft was fully fuelled and posed a fire hazard, it was dumped overboard where it drifted floats up. Lütjens therefore requested that a U-boat collected the war diary. After the continuous destroyer attacks, Bismarck’s crew was exhausted after five days and nights with¬out sleep. Many fell asleep at their posts.

27 May 1941 / 0258
Lütjens signalled Hitler: ‘We will fight to the last, believing in you, my Führer, and with unshakable faith in Germany’s victory.’

Lütjens was informed by Group West that three tugs and three bomber groups would leave France between 0500 and 0600. He called on Lindemann: ‘Please inform the crew that early in the morning 81 Junkers Ju 87 aircraft will join us; in addition, two tugs and one tanker. The U-boats have received orders to close with Bismarck.’

Hitler had retired for the night so Major Nicolaus von Below, his Luftwaffe adjutant, composed several replies on Hitler’s behalf. To Lütjens: ‘I thank you in the name of the entire German Folk.’ To the crew of the Bismarck: ‘All of Germany is with you. What can still be done, will be done. Your performance of your duty will strengthen our Folk in its belief in our struggle for existence.’ Each communiqué from the Führer was relayed to the Bismarck’s crew. Finally, Lütjens requested that Korvettenkapitän Schneider be awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) for sinking Hood.

27 May 1941 / 0351
Raeder signalled the Bismarck that Hitler had consented to the decoration of Adalbert Schneider.

Later in the morning, Group West informed the Bismarck that two Focke-Wulf Fw 200 reconnaissance aircraft had taken off at 0330 and that 51 bombers left their bases between 0520 and 0645.

27 May 1941 / 0630
Wohlfahrt on U-556 sent his last position report. He had received a message from Dönitz: ‘U-556 proceed to Bismarck and retrieve fleet war diary.’ However, he was too low on fuel.

U-74’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat, received Bismarck’s position from his colleague, Herbert Wohlfahrt. U-74 was the only U-boat in the area that could possibly assist the wounded German battleship, but sea and weather conditions were so bad that it made visual observation almost impossible.

27 May 1941 / 0700
Maori made another torpedo attack on the Bismarck, only to be straddled by heavy shellfire. A total of 16 torpedoes had been fired in anger by Vian’s destroyers and all had missed their target. Lindemann sought to lift the spirits of the Bismarck’s crew by inaccurately informing them that one destroyer had been sunk and two severely damaged and on fire.
27 May 1941 / 0726
A cruiser and a destroyer forced U-74 to crash dive. U-74 resurfaced at 0922 and no ships were in sight. Kentrat received a message from U-boat headquarters near Lorient: ‘U-Kentrat, retrieve KTB Bismarck!’ Kentrat replied: ‘Retrieval of Bismarck’s KTB no longer possible.’

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