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The Bismarck Escapes
Photo: Bismarck as seen from Prinz Eugen shortly after the battle of the Denmark Strait. Notice that her A and B guns are not trained in yet.

24 May 1941 / Shortly before 1400
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were in quadrant AK 11, some 240 miles east of Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. They changed course to 180° due south for France at a speed of 24 knots. Lütjens signalled Group West: ‘King George and a cruiser maintaining contact. Intention: if no action, to attempt to lose them after dark.’

An R.A.F. Catalina PBY approached the Bismarck from astern. Anti-aircraft batteries opened fire and the aircraft left the area. The Catalina had radioed the battleship’s position and dropped star shells in her wake.

24 May 1941 / 1420
Lütjens signalled Brinkmann on Prinz Eugen: ‘Intend to shake off contact as follows: Bismarck will turn away on a westerly course during rainsqualls. Prinz Eugen to maintain course and speed unless forced to turn away or three hours after Bismarck has turned away. Thereafter, release to refuel from Belchen or Lothringen. Then conduct independent cruiser warfare. Execute on signal ‘Hood’’.’

24 May 1941 / 1515
German naval intelligence reported to Lütjens the presence of the US Coast Guard cutter Modoc (Lieutenant-Commander Harold Belford) in quadrant AJ 3829, not far from the Bismarck. Later that night, Modoc’s presence, now in quadrant AJ 3920, was confirmed by Vice Admiral Karl Dönitz.

The British began to marshal all resources available to hunt the Bismarck. The cruisers Manchester, Birmingham and Arethusa were to patrol the Iceland-Faeroes gap. Rodney was diverted to join Tovey’s force. Ramillies was ordered to take a position west of the German battleship. Revenge was to leave Halifax Harbour immediately and shape course to intercept. Edinburgh was to join Wake-Walker.

24 May 1941 / 1540
Lütjens signalled Prinz Eugen: ‘Execute Hood.’ The Bismarck increased speed to 28 knots on a starboard course in a westerly direction. The manoeuvre failed when Bismarck ran into one of the British warships that was shadowing her.
24 May 1941 / 1559
Lütjens sent a short signal to Brinkmann: ‘A heavy cruiser stands off to starboard!’ Brinkmann was now certain that the two ships would remain together.

24 May 1941 / 1722
Lütjens received a signal from Group West that Renown, Ark Royal and a Sheffield class cruiser had left Gibraltar during the night of 24 May. Their course was unknown.

Photo: The ship yard area at the port of St. Nazaire in France. The huge "Normandie" dry dock, which the Bismarck headed for, can be seen at the center, close to the top on the photograph.

Photo: The Bismarck in the wake of Prinz Eugen after the battle of the Denmark Strait.
Photo: Bismarck falls further aft in order to prepare the detachment of Prinz Eugen.. This is the last German photograph of Bismarck.

24 May 1941 / 1800
Fog returned and for a second time Lütjens signalled Brinkmann: ‘Execute Hood.’ The Bismarck steered to starboard, first on a westerly course and then on a northerly one. Lütjens turned towards the British force and opened fire creating a diversion that allowed Prinz Eugen to break away unnoticed. This daring move worked exactly as planned.

24 May 1941 / 1847
Although Suffolk had been driven off by the Bismarck, Prince of Wales returned. Lütjens immediately ordered a return to a southerly course.

24 May 1941 / 1856
Both ships ceased firing as the distance between them grew to 17 miles. Neither side registered a hit. During the engagement, two guns on the A turret of Prince of Wales malfunctioned.

24 May 1941 / 1914
Lütjens reported the encounter: ‘Short action with King George V without result. Prinz Eugen released to fuel. Enemy main¬tains contact.’

Suffolk joined Norfolk and Prince of Wales on the port side of the Bismarck. This was possibly done to avoid being surprised once more if the Bismarck reversed her course. This left the Bismarck’s starboard side open.

24 May 1941 / 2056
Lütjens informed Group West that due to a shortage of fuel, he was proceeding directly to Saint-Nazaire.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were now on separate courses. While Bismarck began her run to France, Prinz Eugen continued on a course due south at 24 knots.

Prinz Eugen rendezvoused with the tanker Spichern at 0606 on 26 May and took on fuel. Two days later, Esso-Hamburg provided more fuel, fresh water and a supply of 8” (20.3 cm) shells. This operation was cut short by the appearance of smoke on the horizon.

24 May 1941 / 1509
Tovey ordered Victoriou and cruisers Galatea, Aurora, Kenya and Hermione to close the range to the Bismarck and prepare to launch an air strike. It was only ten days since Victorious had been commissioned and she only had one-quarter of her aircraft embarked. In appalling conditions, she had managed to get within 120 miles from the Bismarck.

24 May 1941 / 2210
Victorious reduced her speed to 15 knots and turned into the wind. All nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo biplanes of 825 Squadron, under command of Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde, were launched.

24 May 1941 / 2300
Three Fairey Fulmars of 800Z Squadron took-off from Victorious followed by a further two at 0100. The British aircraft headed southwest for the ships of Rear Admiral Wake-Walker. Esmonde intended to use the ships to get a bearing on the Bismarck. The Swordfish were equipped with a new airborne ASV (air-to-surface-vessel) radar, and about an hour after launch, Esmonde’s radar picked up a ship about 16 miles off to port. For a few valuable seconds he saw a glimpse of the Bismarck, but it then vanished into thick fog. Esmonde lost his bearing on the battleship and the squadron changed course to the northeast. They made contact with Wake-Walker’s three ships and Norfolk signalled that Bismarck was almost due south, distance 14 miles. The Swordfish headed off and shortly after made contact with another vessel, the Modoc WPG-36. The Bismarck was now only six miles away from the Swordfish. However, one Swordfish became lost in the clouds, so the remaining eight turned towards the Bismarck for their torpedo run.

24 May 1941 / 2333
Aboard the Bismarck, Matrosengefreiter Georg Herzog of the port third 1.5” (3.7 cm) anti-aircraft mount, spotted enemy aircraft approaching on the port bow. The Swordfish were flying low from the northeast. The remaining anti-aircraft batteries opened fire shortly thereafter. Korvettenkapitän Schneider ordered the main armaments 15” (38 cm) guns and the secondary armaments 5.9” (15 cm) guns to their lowest possible elevation (-8°). They fired into the ocean ahead of the approaching aircraft and giant columns of water rose as shells peppered the sea, but not one of the Swordfish were hit.
Captain Lindemann increased the ship’s speed to 27 knots and ordered Bismarck’s coxswain, Matrosenhauptgefreiter Hans Hansen, ‘Hard a-starboard!’ followed by ‘Hard a-port!’ Bismarck desperately zigzagged to avoid the incoming torpedoes. The violent manoeuvres ripped the matting that had been placed over the holes in her hull causing a torrent of water to rush into her forecastle. The damaged bulkhead between the No. 2 boiler room and the adjacent electric power station was ripped open by vibrations from the firing of the main guns. Consequently, the boiler room was flooded and closed down.

Bismarck had avoided six torpedoes but received a hit on the starboard side amidships between sections VIII and X. The battleship was hit by a 388-pound (176 kg) 18” MK XII torpedo causing insignificant damage. However, the explosion killed a crewman and injured six. Oberbootsmann Kurt Kirchberg died when he was thrown against the aircraft catapult by the blast. Kirchberg became the Bismarck’s first battle casualty.

Photo: Bismarck, as photographed by one of the Swordfish aircraft of the 825th Squadron, 24 May 1941.
Photo: During the attack on 24-25 May 1941, the Bismarck was hit amidships. The hit was of no significance.. This picture probably shows the clouds of smoke from this torpedo hit.

After the attack, Lindemann reduced speed to 16 knots allowing the damage-control parties to replace the matting in the forecastle. They worked throughout the night to repair the damage inflicted by HMS Prince of Wales. Korvettenkapitän (Ing.) Walter Lehmann struggled to prevent sea water that had flooded the port No. 2 boiler room from corroding the feedwater system of turbo-generator No. 4. This could have resulted in unevaporated water being carried along with steam into the propulsion turbines, destroying the turbine blades. It was not until the evening of the following day that Lehmann could report that danger had passed as the ship’s four freshwater condensers and auxiliary boiler produced sufficient freshwater. Another damage-control party set about to reinforce the collision matting that had been placed in the holes in the forecastle. As Bismarck slowed to 12 knots, divers entered the flooded forward compartments and placed fresh collision matting against the gaping holes. They also managed to connect two hoses to the forward fuel tank valves and pump a few hundred tons of fuel oil to the tanks further aft.

24 May 1941 / 2338
Lütjens reported the attack to Group West: ‘Aircraft attack quadrant AK 19.’ He would send further reports over the next two hours.

25 May 1941 / 0028
Lütjens to Group West: ‘Attack by air¬craft carrier planes. Torpedo hit starboard side.’

25 May 1941 / 0037
Lütjens to Group West: ‘Expect further attacks.’

25 May 1941 / 0131
Prince of Wales and Bismarck exchanged two salvos at a range of 16,400 yards (15,000 m) with no hits. Lütjens signalled Group West of the action: ‘Short battle with ‘King George’ without result. Released ‘Prinz Eugen’ to refuel. Enemy maintains contact.’

25 May 1941 / 0153
Lütjens to Group West: ‘Torpedo hit immate¬rial.’ Sunday 25 May was Admiral Lütjens 52nd birthday and he was wished a happy birthday on the ship’s loudspeaker system.

25 May 1941 / Around 0230
The aircraft returned to Victorious. The remaining two Fulmars that had been launched from Victorious were lost after they ran out of fuel and were forced to ditch. One crew was rescued by the merchant ship Beaverhill. However, Lieutenant Brian Donald Cambell, R.N. and Sub-Lieutenant (A) Mathew Gordon Goodger, R.N.V.R were lost. Lt. Commander (A) Eugene Esmonde was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) for the mission. Esmonde was shot down and killed on 12 February 1942 while attacking Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen during the infamous ‘Channel Dash’. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage and resolution.

Wake-Walker’s ships that followed the Bismarck from her port quarter had entered an area with increased risk of U-boat attack. They therefore began to zigzag 30° either side of their base course every ten minutes. Consequently, Suffolk steamed for ten minutes or so outwards from the base course, then turned to steam for the same length of time inwards. As a result, Suffolk was out of radar range when she reached the last few miles of the port, or outward, leg of her zigzag manoeuvre. Lütjens believed it was time to shake off his pursuers and make a run to starboard.

25 May 1941 / 0300
Lütjens ordered an increase in speed to 27 knots.

25 May 1941 / 0306
Lütjens changed course to starboard heading west, then to the northwest, and finally north. Lütjens began his turn just as Suffolk reached the outward limit of her port zigzag.

25 May 1941 / 0330
The captain of Suffolk noticed that Bismarck did not reappear on the radar as it had previously. Bismarck had made an almost complete circle and headed for Saint-Nazaire on course 130° and the British had lost her. Suffolk’s captain hoped to regain contact, but at 0401 informed Wake-Walker that he had lost the Bismarck.

Wake-Walker ordered his ships to fan out over an arc from west to south at dawn in the hope to locate the German battleship. Prince of Wales steered due south, eventually to join Admiral Tovey, while HMS Norfolk headed directly west and Suffolk southwest. But their search was in vain.

When Tovey was informed that they had lost contact with the Bismarck, his ship, King George V, was about 100 miles to the southeast of the battleship’s last reported position. Tovey decided to search to the west and ordered all other available Royal Navy ships to hunt the Bismarck. In addition, aircraft from Victorious and land-based reconnaissance aircraft would be involved in the search. The British were desperate to find the Bismarck and even asked the Americans to assist.

Lütjens seems to have been the only one in this great sea chase who was unaware that Bismarck had been lost. He was still convinced that he was being shadowed by the British.

25 May 1941 / 0700
Lütjens sent a message to Group West: ‘0700 hours. Quadrant AK 55, one battleship, two heavy cruisers continue to maintain contact.’

British shore stations intercepted the message that made it possible to calculate his approximate position. The signals were in code and could not be read, but the British recognised the call signs when Hood was sunk and assumed it was the Bismarck. The British could determine Bismarck’s approximate latitude but not her longitude. When her position was plotted on a map, it appeared that Bismarck was somewhere east of Admiral Tovey’s force.

25 May 1941 / 0846
Group West attempted to inform Lütjens that the British had lost contact.

25 May 1941 / 0854
Tovey on King George V received information about Bismarck’s position somewhere to the east of his force. They plotted the bearings which showed that Bismarck was to their northeast. It indicated that Bismarck was returning home, either through the Denmark Strait or the strait between Iceland and the Faeroes.

25 May 1941 / 0900
Again Lütjens sent a message, this time a long situation report.

‘Presence of radar apparatus on enemy ships, range at least 35,000 yards; has the severest possible effect on Atlantic operations. Ships had been contacted in the Denmark Strait in thick fog and contact was never broken. Attempts to break off failed despite favorable weather conditions … Running battle between 23,000 and 19,000 yards. Adversary Hood ... destroyed by explosion after five minutes; thereafter, shift target to King George V, which veered off making smoke after several clearly-observed hits, and was out of sight for several hours. Own ammunition expenditure: 93 shells. King George V thereafter accepted battle only at most extreme range. Bismarck twice hit by King George V, one of these below side armor, Sections XIII and XIV. Hit Sections XX and XXI. Reduced speed and caused ship to be down by the bows and loss of oil tanks. Detachment of Prinz Eugen made possible by battleship engaging cruiser and battleship in fog. Own radar-detection set subject to disturbances, especially when firing.’

25 May 1941 / 1047
Tovey’s force headed northeast on course 055° at 27 knots. This miscalculation took the British in the opposite direction increasing the distance between them and Bismarck.

From Gibraltar, Vice-Admiral Somerville’s Force H, comprising Renown, Ark Royal and Sheffield were steaming at full speed to engage the Bismarck. Rodney was still on its way to join Tovey’s force. She was old and slow, but her nine 16” (40.6 cm) were the biggest guns in the Royal Navy.

Deployment of British forces during escape attempt by Bismarck.

The heavy cruiser Dorsetshire detached from convoy escort duty on Martin’s own authority to engage the Bismarck.

Meanwhile, High Command was frustrated that Lütjens continued to send signals completely unaware that the British had lost contact.

The Admiralty was also frustrated. Based on Lütjens’s signalling, they concluded that Bismarck was southeast of Tovey’s force. Therefore, they could not understand why Tovey was heading northeast. Tovey continued to head in the wrong direction for most of the day. Tovey asked his navigation officer, Captain Frank Lloyd, to recalculate the bearing reports which had been sent from the Admiralty that morning. A few minutes later, Lloyd informed Tovey that he had made a terrible error: Bismarck had been to the southeast of King George V at mid-morning, not northeast. Tovey was puzzled. If he was heading in the wrong direction why had the Admiralty not told him otherwise?

25 May 1941 / Around noon
Lütjens addressed his crew: ‘Sea¬men of the battleship ‘Bismarck’! You have covered yourself with great glory! The sinking of the battlecruiser ‘Hood’’ has not only military, but also moral value, for ‘Hood’ was the pride of England. The enemy will now seek to concentrate his forces and to deploy them against us. Thus, I released ‘Prinz Eugen’ yesterday so that it can conduct commerce warfare in the Atlantic. She has managed to evade the enemy. We, on the other hand, have received orders because of the hits we took to proceed to a French port. On the way there, the enemy will gather his forces and force us to do battle with him. The German Folk is with you and we will fire until the barrels glow red-hot and until the last shell has left its bar¬rel. For us seamen, there is now but one cry: ‘Victory or Death!’’

25 May 1941 / Early afternoon
Lindemann issued orders for the crew to construct a dummy funnel from wood, canvas and sheet metal, and to paint it light grey to imitate Bismarck’s single funnel. This might cause air patrols to mistake Bismarck for a King George V or New York class battleship, which both had twin funnels. Officers on Bismarck joked that the ship’s smokers ought to take residence inside the fake funnel so that it would smoke. The duty crew in the signal room composed English language Morse signals to throw off future enemy contact by surface vessels.

25 May 1941 / 1548
Tovey, still in doubt about what to do, ordered Captain Patterson to change course to 080°.

25 May 1941 / 1621
Tovey signalled the Admiralty: ‘Do you consider that enemy is making for Faeroes?’ Hours went by without response.

25 May 1941 / 1805
HMS King George V intercepted a message from the Admiralty to Rodney on cancelling earlier instructions to head for the northeast. Tovey decided not to wait any longer.

25 May 1941 / 1810
Tovey changed course to the southeast 117°, speed 24 knots.

25 May 1941 / 1924
The Admiralty finally sent out a message to all its ships at sea: ‘Information received graded A1 that intention of Bismarck is to make for the west coast of France.’

26 May 1941 / 0159
The British had an increasing issue with escorting destroyers of different forces which had to be detached to refuel. Their capital ships were in U-boat waters and they would be vulnerable without protection from destroyers. The Admiralty was in desperate need of fresh destroyers. Therefore, they ordered the Fourth Destroyer Division to provide an anti-submarine screen for the battleships. The Fourth Destroyer Division consisted of destroyers Cossack, Maori, Zulu, Sikh and the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun.

The Admiralty also had to decide where to send reconnaissance aircraft once dawn broke. Ark Royal’’s Swordfish were to patrol the Bay of Biscay and the Americans were keeping watch west of longitude 30 degrees, which was probably not where the Bismarck was heading in any case. Coastal Command had been searching fruitlessly all day. On the morning of 26 May, two Catalina PBY aircraft would fly a search pattern from northeast to southwest over the area Bismarck was most likely to steam through on her way to Brest or Saint-Nazaire.

26 May 1941 / 0430
An announcement from Bismarck’s bridge spread cheer and joy throughout the ship: ‘We have now passed three-quarters of Ireland on our way to Saint-Nazaire. Around noon we will be in the U-boats’ operational area and within the range of German aircraft. We can count on the appearance of Condor planes after 1200.’ Bismarck was on a southerly course at a speed of 21 knots or so.

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