by CAPTAIN RUSSELL GRENFELL, R.N.
IN the middle of May, 1941, Britain’s fortunes were low. For practically a year she had been standing all by herself in face of the powerful and victorious Axis Powers; Hitler’s forces had conquered Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France in 1940. Early in 1941 they had overrun Yugoslavia and had passed on to the invasion of Greece.
At sea, the situation was bad and getting worse. The enemy’s acquisition of the whole Norwegian coast and the French Channel and Atlantic seaboards had given him numerous excellent bases for the prosecution of his submarine offensive against shipping — an offensive which was facilitated by the grave shortages in convoy escort vessels and coastal aircraft with which Britain had entered the war and which could not be rectified under many months. Mercantile losses had been mounting ever since the fall of France. By May, 1941, they had become so serious that the British War Cabinet was on the point of deciding that it would be contrary to the national interest to publish any more monthly figures of the tonnage sunk.
The German Naval Command was not content to rely only on U-boats and aircraft, great as was the damage they were inflicting, but was using also its surface vessels in the attack on Britain’s sea communications. The Scheer had been operating against shipping in the Atlantic late in 1940. The battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been out early in 1941 and had inflicted some severe losses on convoys before appearing at Brest in March. It was almost certain, too, that the new battleship Bismarck had been completed and had for some months been under training in the Baltic. She also might take a hand in the game at any time.
In the early hours of May 21, a report arrived in the Admiralty to the effect that two large German warships, heavily screened and accompanied by eleven merchant vessels, had been seen steaming northwards in the Kattegat the day before. This vital piece of news was at once sent on to the flagship of the Home Fleet, H.M.S. King George V, then in harbor at the main operating base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. The information that had just come in was obviously of major importance, though not such as to cause surprise. It was, indeed, for just such an eventuality as this that Admiral Sir John Tovey’s fleet existed and had been stationed in the Orkneys; namely, the appearance of enemy warships in the North Sea.
Two questions immediately arose: What were these enemy ships that had been seen coming north, and what were they going to do?
It was, of course, a matter of conjecture whether the Bismarck was one of the German squadron. But this assumption was, in fact, made from the start-that the Bismarck was coming out.
Much more difficult was the estimation of the enemy’s intentions. There had been indications for some days that some enemy operation might be imminent. In the second week of May, an unusual amount of German air reconnaissance had been noticed between Jan Mayen Island and Greenland; that is, over the sea approaches to Iceland from both east and west. As there was also a noticeable increase in enemy aerial reconnaissance over Scapa, a circumstance which usually presaged a German naval enterprise of some kind, Sir John Tovey, with the possibility of an enemy movement ever in the forefront of his mind, had signaled to the cruiser Suffolk, then on patrol in the Denmark Strait to the north of Iceland, to keep a special watch on the passages in both directions. Next day, as a further precaution, the Norfolk, with Rear-Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker, commanding the 1st Cruiser Squadron, on board, sailed from the war base at Hvalfiord in Iceland to take the Suffolk’s place so that the latter could return and refuel in readiness for anything that might be impending.
In addition to these indications of possible naval activity by the enemy, there had been persistent rumors, over several weeks, of troop movements in Norway towards Kirkenes, on the coast well to the north. These rumors Admiral Tovey had interpreted as a possible indication of a coming invasion of or raid on Iceland or the Faroes. In view of this intelligence, the report that eleven merchant ships were in company with the German warships when in the Kattegat on May 20 was clearly a factor of potential importance.
The list of possibilities therefore came to this: —
1. The enemy warships might be escorting the convoy to Norway as a primary duty, afterwards returning to Germany.
2. They might be escorting the convoy northward for their own use when operating from the Norwegian coast.
3. They might be escorting the convoy northward preparatory to a military descent on the Faroes or Iceland, for which they were intended to provide the surface cover.
4. They might be escorting the convoy as an incidental duty, and afterwards be breaking out into the Atlantic.
The question was, Which of these four possible courses of action would the enemy follow? There was really no means of knowing. All were quite if not equally possible, and the only pointer in favor of any particular one was an Admiralty Intelligence opinion, based on special information, that the ships were about to break out into the Atlantic.
The Admiral’s final decision was that an Atlantic breakout was the enemy course of action that constituted the greatest immediate menace and hence was the one on which he would base his plans. This crucial point being settled, the next step was to consider what route the enemy might take in breaking out. There were five passages by which he could go. There was the Denmark Strait between Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. There was the passage immediately south of Iceland, between it and the Faroes. There was the passage between the Faroes and the Shetlands. There was the Fair Island channel between the Shetlands and the Orkneys; and, lastly, there was the Pentland Firth. The Pent land Firth could safely be ruled out, but all the other four were possible. The question was what disposition to make to watch the exits.
WHEN the news of the Bismarck’s possible sailing reached the Admiralty, it was realized that the enemy had the initiative and the British were confronted with search and chase problems which might well prove of some complexity. Such operations were notoriously expensive of ships; and early in the forenoon the Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff was telling Sir John Tovey by telephone that the Victorious and Repulse had been ordered to sail north from the Clyde to join his flag.
This gave Sir John Tovey a force of two battleships (King George V and Prince of Wales), two battle cruisers (Hood and Repulse), and one aircraft carrier (Victorious) to give battle to the Bismarck, if it were she who was about to break out. These odds of four or five ships to one, or of two separate battle forces of at least two ships to one, look satisfactory enough at first glance. They need, however, a certain amount of qualification. The Bismarck was undoubtedly a tough proposition. She was brand-new. She was probably larger than any British battleship, and was believed to have about six feet greater beam, a feature which was specially valuable in conferring superior stability and defensive qualities. She carried a main armament of eight 15-inch guns, 1 inch larger in caliber than those of the latest British battleships, and was believed to be as fast as or faster than any British capital ship afloat. Moreover, the Germans had demonstrated in the previous war their ability to build exceptionally strong warships, able to stand greater punishment than their British counterparts. In addition, there was reason to think that the Bismarck had been given plenty of time in the comparatively secure waters of the Baltic for target practice, exercises, and the training of the ship’s company, and that she was by now a thoroughly efficient fighting unit.
The British big ships by no means presented a similar high quality. The Repulse was twenty-five years old and had two guns less than the Bismarck. Moreover, she was very weakly armored and of short fuel endurance.
The Prince of Wales, conversely, was too new. She had joined the fleet less than two months before, and with many of the contractor’s workmen still on board. Two of her turrets were not actually handed over to the Navy by the firm until April 27, hardly more than three weeks before, and not till then could training with the whole armament be started. Captain J. C. Leach had therefore had quite insufficient time to work his ship’s company up to battle efficiency and to “run in" the machinery. When Admiral Jellicoe commanded the Grand Fleet from 1914 to 1916, he would not lake a new ship to sea with the fleet till she had had two months’ full training at the fleet base.
The Victorious was in much the same condition as the Prince of Wales. She had first commissioned at the builders’ yard at Newcastle-on-Tyne two months before and had gone straight to the naval dockyard at Rosyth to dock. There she remained till May 16, when she proceeded to Scapa to complete her trials and to embark two squadrons of aircraft in readiness for her forthcoming convoy trip to the Mediterranean. The outstanding trials and the essential tuning-in of wireless and radar installations had been completed by the evening of May 20, and on the morning of the 21st — the day with which we are now dealing — the Victorious had gone to sea to embark her aircraft. When Sir John Tovey was being informed that she was now at his disposal, she was outside the harbor and was engaged in flying on nine Swordfish aircraft of No. 825 Squadron and six Fulmars of No. 800Z Squadron.
The Swordfish squadron had been well trained and worked up under its leader, Lieutenant-Commander E. Esmonde. Moreover, two or three of the aircraft were equipped with some of the first ASV radar sets and had opportunities to practice with them. But the squadron was intended for combined operations work and had not therefore carried out its deck-landing training. None of the “hostilities only” pilots had, in fact, ever before landed on a carrier’s deck. The Fulmars were not a squadron in the true sense, as they were manned by a scratch lot of pilots and observers who had been got together for the trip to the Mediterranean only, and the observers especially were short of training of every kind.
As soon as the aircraft were on board, decklanding training was started. But only two or three pilots were able to do practice landings before the ship returned to harbor for the night. In respect, therefore, both of herself and her aircraft, the Victorious was anything but a fully efficient unit.
Of the remaining two heavy ships, King George V and Hood, the latter was over twenty years old; and in those years there had been a number of improvements in warship design from which the Hood had naturally not benefited. If somewhat outmoded, however, she was nevertheless a powerful unit with a main armament as strong as that of the Bismarck. Thus, of Admiral Tovey’s five large ships, two (Prince of Wales and Victorious) were some way from being fully efficient, one (Repulse) was considerably weaker than the Bismarck, and a fourth (Hood) was rather long in the tooth. The Admiral had therefore only one ship (King George V) that could at this time properly be regarded as a fair match for such a vessel as the Bismarck.
The general picture in the mind of Admiral Tovey after he had been discussing the situation with his staff for some time can now be appreciated. He was assuming that the Bismarck was one of the two German ships seen coming north in the Kattegat on May 20. He had decided that the contingency of her and her consort endeavoring to break out into the Atlantic was the one to be primarily provided against. He had also reached the conclusion that while there was a balance of probability in favor of the Germans using the Denmark Strait escape route, the southerly channels between Iceland and the Faroes and between the Faroes and the Orkneys could not be ignored. Therefore, the interception dispositions should, if possible, be designed to cover all of them; though, in case of shortage, the order of priority should run from north to south. Finally, the formidable nature of the Bismarck as a fighting ship he fully recognized; and while the British strength had been increased by the attachment of the Repulse and Victorious to his command, the weakness of the first and the unpreparedness of the second and of the Prince of Wales were factors to be borne in mind.
The Admiral decided to divide his heavy ships into two forces. One of these, to consist of the Hood and Prince of Wales under Vice-Admiral L. E. Holland in the Hood, he would send north to Iceland to be handy for the Denmark Strait and the Iceland-Faroes passage, which the Commanderin-Chief regarded as the two most likely exits. The other heavy force would consist of his own flagship the King George V and the Victorious, later to be joined by the Repulse from the Clyde. With this force, the Commander-in-Chief would cover the passages from the Faroes southwards.
The question remained when to put these dispositions into force. The Commander-in-Chief had brought all ships at Scapa to short (two hours’) notice for steam already. But actually to sail the ships was a different matter, and one which was dominated by the question of fuel expenditure. It was possible that the enemy, if he were bent on escape into the Atlantic, would be caught in one of the exit channels and brought to action near to a British base. But this could not be guaranteed.
The Admiralty, aware of Sir John Tovey’s greedy anxiety for news of the enemy, were able to tell him that special Spitfires of the Coastal Command Photographic Reconnaissance Unit would be taking off about 11 A.M. to search the Norwegian coastline. One of the Spitfires, piloted by Flying Officer Churchill, searched the Skaggerak and Oslo Fiord, but sighted no warships. Another aircraft, piloted by Flying Officer Suckling, searched the western approaches to the Skaggerak and the Norwegian coast as far north as Bergen. Almost at the end of his search he sighted two warships in the secluded Grimstad Fiord just south of Bergen, and these he photographed. This was at 1.15 P.M. on May 21.
Suckling landed at Wick airfield at 2.45 P.M. and reported having seen two cruisers. But his personal estimate was incorrect. When his photographs had been developed, they showed to the expert examiners who eagerly scrutinized them that what he had really discovered was a battleship of the Bismarck class and a Hipper class cruiser. So the Bismarck it was.
THE exciting evidence contained in Suckling’s photographs set activity in train in a number of directions. Arrangements were at once pul in hand for attacking the enemy in his now discovered lair. A bombing attack should take place that night by six Whitleys and six Hudsons of Coastal Command, and a strong force of bombers and torpedocarrying aircraft was ordered to assemble for still stronger attacks after daylight.
The Commander-in-Chief was also coming to the decision that it was time Vice-Admiral Holland’s force was sent to sea. By 9 P.M. it was over seven hours since the enemy had first been seen near Bergen, and no further sighting reports had since come through. Moreover, the weather reports were unpromising, and it might be that no more sightings would be made for some time. It would therefore be a good thing to get the Hood and her squadron started on their way north. A signal was consequently made to the Vice-Admiral to proceed with the Hood, Prince of Wales, and the destroyers; and this force left harbor about midnight, with orders to cover the patrols north of the latitude of 62 degrees North.
Meanwhile the flying weather had been steadily deteriorating. Mist and rain had set in over a large part of the North Sea, and when that night the RAF bombers went out for their attacks on ihe German ships, they found it very difficult to find the Norwegian coast. Only two aircraft did, in fact, manage to discover it, and they could not be sure which part of the coastline it was.
When day came, the weather was just as bad, if not worse. Reconnaissance aircraft sent out to search the Bergen area reported that the conditions were extremely adverse, with cloud down to 200 feet. By 10 A.M. it was being reported that the visibility had shut down completely and that no reconnaissance was possible, and later attempts had no more success. The striking force of bombers and torpedo-aircraft could not therefore be dispatched, and remained on the ground.
As the hours passed without news of the enemy and with only dismal reports of bad flying conditions, it is not difficult to picture Sir John Tovey’s unease of mind. For all he knew, his enemy might be well out to sea and steaming farther beyond reach with every minute that went by. This possibility naturally made the Admiral want to get to sea and take ground to the westward. Yet if he did so and the enemy had not gone out, the British ships would merely be wasting fuel while the enemy was still in harbor with his oil tanks full. Faced with such a choice of evils, Sir John decided to hang on as long as possible in harbor, where he would be in a position to receive any fresh word of the enemy by the quickest possible route.
On the main Orkney island, near to the capital, Kirkwall, was the naval air station of Hatston, under the command of Captain H. L. St. J. Fancourt, R.N. As it became increasingly clear to him that the RAF reconnaissance was unlikely to achieve a look into the crucial fiord, Captain Fancourt began to cast about in his mind as to whether he himself could do something to gain the urgently required information. It occurred to him that he had one or two Fleet Air Arm officers in his command with many years’ experience of flying over the sea in all sorts of weather and that a really first-class crew of this kind might have a very fair chance of reaching Bergen, even in the filthy weather then prevailing.
Following this line of thought, Captain Fancourt mentally picked on Commander G. A. Rotherham as the man most likely to bring off the required feat. Commander Rotherham was actually at Hatston for administrative duties and normally did no flying. But he was a Fleet Air Arm observer of long experience, which covered the earlier and more rudimentary days of naval flying when aids to navigation by means of instruments and wireless beams were none too well developed.
Then there was the question of what aircraft to use. There were at Haston two long-range American twin-engined Maryland bombers, the normal use of which was as height-finding and target-towing aircraft for training with the fleet in Scapa.
Accordingly, about 2 P.M., Captain Fancourt sent for Commander Rotherham and propounded to him the idea of a flight to Bergen. Rotherham immediately expressed his readiness to make the attempt. When the news got round the station that a Maryland was going, the oflicer in command of the target-towing squadron, Lieutenant-Commander Goddard, declared roundly that no one other than himself would pilot the machine.
About 4.30 P.M. the Maryland took off. When they ran into mist, they began to fly within sight of the surface so as to keep an eye on windage. They came to be almost skimming the surface, and the pilot, who had a more restricted view than Rotherham, found the strain such that he went up to 3000 feet. After flying some time at this height, Rotherham decided he must see the surface again, and down they went into the cloud. The sea came in sight dangerously close, and the pilot had so much difficulty in not flying into it that after a little he said he must again go up. They had, however, obtained a valuable glimpse of the water, which enabled a new estimation of the strength and direction of the wind to be made. Again they went up above cloud level, and again after a while they came down for another surface skim, followed by yet another climb. After a breather up high Rotherham reckoned they were within ten minutes of their landfall, and that a further descent was imperative. They were nerving themselves for the possibility of flying straight into a hillside when Providence decided to show favor to temerity. At this critical moment, the clouds began to break, and right ahead they saw the very island for which they had been making.
Navigationally, the worst difliculties were over. In fair visibility, they flew left up the coast and soon found the fiord where the German ships had been lying. It was empty, but they circled round again to make sure, and then made for Bergen to examine the harbor there. As they passed over the town, the defense opened up with every gun. The pilot proceeded to dive. Down through a hurricane of projectiles they tore until they were roaring over Bergen at only about 200 feet from the housetops. Then out to sea, astonished that they were still intact. The Maryland flew on to Sumbrugh in the Shetlands and landed about 7.45 P.M.
Rotherham’s report satisfied the Admiral that the enemy had really left the Bergen area. He therefore gave orders for the fleet in Seapa to be ready to weigh at 10 P.M., the earliest time steam could be ready. He also sent out three signals to the northern forces, these telling: —
(a) The Suffolk to return to the Denmark Strait to join the Norfolk.
(b) The Arethusa to join the Manchester and Birmingham in the Iceland-Faroes passage.
(c) The Vice-Admiral in the Hood, then on passage with his force to Hvalfiord, to proceed instead as necessary to cover the Iceland-Faroes passage and the Denmark Strait.
At 10.15 P.M., the fleet in Scapa was aweigh and the leading ships were making for the gates.
ON the evening of May 23, at 7 o’clock, Captain R. M. Ellis was standing on the bridge of his cruiser, H.M.S. Suffolk, in the Denmark Strait. The bridge had been “arcticized,”which meant that it was closed in and fitted with steam heating, and was therefore tolerably warm. Captain Ellis had been on the bridge all that day and all the night before, and indeed the night before that. His ship had recently been on patrol for ten days and had been recalled to refuel two days before. That had involved a night coastal passage at high speed to Hvalfiord and another night passage back twenty-four hours later after fueling.
The Bismarck’s appearance on the Norwegian coast was already known, and on the Suffolk’s return to the entrance to the Denmark Strait, she was summoned into Isa Fiord to receive final patrol orders from the Flag Officer of the squadron, RearAdmiral W. F. Wake-Walker, who was in there in his flagship, H.M.S. Norfolk, paying a flying visit to the new radar station ashore. The instructions he signaled to Captain Ellis were that the Suffolk was to investigate the ice near the top of the mine fields and then patrol northeast and southwest along the edge of the ice. This was the pack ice that ran out a hundred miles or more from the coast of Greenland towards Iceland. Its extent varied greatly according to the time of year and even from week to week. At this particular time, it covered about half the sea area between Greenland and Iceland, leaving a channel of open water about sixty miles wide between its edge and the Icelandic coast.
On the day of which we are now speaking, the weather conditions in the Denmark Strait were somewhat unusual. Over the ice it was clear and also for about three miles to the southeastward of the ice edge. The rest of the Strait, almost up to the coast of Iceland, was covered in fog and mist. There was thus a lane of clear water about three miles broad between the ice and the ragged wall of mist which ran out of sight in both directions roughly parallel to the ice.
At 7 P.M. the Suffolk was steering southwestward close to the mist, with her stern to the direction of most likely enemy approach. In consequence of the radar being blind on that sector and the view from the compass platform much obstructed, Captain Ellis had had the seamen lookouts strengthened for the after bearings. At 7.22 P.M. there came a hail from the starboard after lookout, Able Seaman Newell, of “Ship bearing Green 140 [degrees],” quickly corrected to “two ships" on the same bearing. The Captain and most of those on the compass platform rushed over to that side of the bridge and saw through their binoculars what was undoubtedly the Bismarck and a cruiser with her.
They were no more than about 14,000 yards away, a dangerously close range to enemy guns that could shoot up to 40,000 yards. Captain Ellis put his wheel over on the instant to make for the fog, and it was with a feeling of relief that he saw the mist close round his ship. But it had taken him two or three minutes to reach it and he thought it extraordinary that the Bismarck had apparently failed to notice him during that time. As he turned, he ordered an enemy report signal to be sent out.
His retreat into the mist took him into the angular space between two of the mine fields; and in that space he maneuvered, keeping radar contact all the time, to allow the Bismarck to pass him so that he could take up a shadowing position behind her. Watching intently the white dots on the radar screen which represented the two enemy ships, he saw them cross to the northward and move on beyond him. When he thought they were about the right distance away, he steered back into the open. But he found he had misjudged it. The enemy was still too close and he went back into the mist to drop back further. At his second emergence, the enemy ships were about fifteen miles ahead, steering along and close to the ice edge. This distance approximated to what Captain Ellis wanted, and he set course to shadow, sending out a string of wireless signals as he went. The enemy, he soon found, was steaming fast at from 28 to 30 knots.
Deep in the mist, the Norfolk look in those signals. Captain A. J. L. Phillips had ordered dinner brought up to his sea cabin and he was munching some welsh rarebit when the Chief Yeoman of Signals almost fell through the door with the excited announcement “Suffolk’s got ’em, sir!” and handed him the enemy report.
Captain Phillips was on the compass platform in a moment to order the course to be altered to close the enemy’s reported position at high speed. The ship went to action stations and a number of depth charges on the upper deck were jettisoned. At 8.30 P.M., after an hour’s hard steaming, the Norfolk suddenly ran out of the mist and sighted the Bismarck and her attendant cruiser (later known to be the Prinz Eugen) on the port bow on a nearly opposite course and at an estimated range of six miles. The two sides were closing rapidly and the Norfolk’s position was highly critical. Captain Phillips put the wheel hard astarboard to get back into the mist and made smoke to cover his withdrawal. This time the Bismarck was on the alert and opened a very accurate fire. Three 15-inch salvos straddled the Norfolk and another came down in her wake. By immense good fortune she was not hit. Some large splinters came on board, but she got back into the mist undamaged.
After the Norfolk had obtained sanctuary in the mist she, like the Suffolk a little earlier, maneuvered to take station well behind the enemy. For her, however, it was a more difficult calculation, since lacking a training radar set she lost all touch with the enemy ships when she entered the mist. Captain Phillips had therefore to rely entirely on guesswork in judging when to turn onto the shadowing course. He also had to decide what this course was to be. The Suffolk, he knew, was in the clear channel between the mist and the ice, and he could tell from her reports that she was more or less right astern of the enemy, who clearly could not escape to starboard on account of the ice. There was, however, open water on the enemy’s port side. The obvious post for the Norfolk, therefore, was out on the enemy’s port quarter, ready for a turn by him in that direction. But to remain on the Bismarck’s port quarter meant remaining inside the fog area; and with her early-pattern radar, the Norfolk could not compete with mist or other forms of low visibility. She could not rely on “seeing" through these in the way that the Suffolk — and perhaps the Bismarck — could. Therefore, when the visibility was poor, it was only too possible for her to get dangerously close to the Bismarck without knowing of her proximity.
For the Suffolk, with her good radar, shadowing was not specially difficult to begin with. She had to be near enough to keep in touch, preferably visual touch, but far enough away to avoid coming under accurate gunfire. Even one hit might cause a reduction of her speed, which would result in the ship’s falling astern and losing contact with the enemy; and as the Bismarck’s effective gun range in good visibility, and possibly by radar in bad, was anything up to sixteen or seventeen miles, it was necessary to remain at a respectful distance. But since the limit of range of the Suffolk’s radar was about thirteen miles, Captain Ellis endeavored to remain at about that distance.
The weather was preventing any aircraft from giving assistance to the surface shadowers. For several hours, however, the Suffolk did have an aerial escort. A large goose detached itself from a flight passing some way to the northward and flew along with the ship close over the forecastle. As the news of its presence passed round the ship, several sportsmen from the wardroom, with an eye on varying the dinner menu, were for shooting it down on board, on the plea that it was a pro-Axis goose on reconnaissance for the enemy. But Captain Ellis, with thoughts of the Ancient Mariner, restrained them.
As night approached, the surface shadowing conditions deteriorated. As seen from the Suffolk, the German ships began to run in and out of patches of mist. Then snow and rain storms began to be encountered. Such weather was obviously in the enemy’s favor by giving him cover for unobserved maneuvers. It was fully to be expected that he would try to throw off pursuit by large alterations of course when good opportunities occurred.
There was a possibility that the Bismarck might try to make an unnoticed rightabout-turn to bring one or other of the shadowers within decisive gun range and so dispose of her. If this turn were made behind mist or snow, it might not be any too easy, even with radar, to spot what was happening, until the range had already come down quite a lot. Without efficient radar, there would be little or no warning until the shadowing ship blundered into the returning enemy at point-blank range.
Thus did the pursuit continue, chasers and chased rushing at nearly full speed through the icy waters of the Strait in the half-light of the Arctic night, in and out of fog banks, snow and rain squalls, the Suffolk with her radar constantly probing for the enemy and her wireless office sending out a succession of signals giving the latest estimate of the enemy’s position, course, and speed for the guidance of any British big ships trying to set an intercepting course.
MEANWHILE, Vice-Admiral Holland’s squadron of Hood and Prince of Wales with six destroyers had been steaming hard to cut the enemy off. The Vice-Admiral had taken in one of the Suffolk’s early signals a few minutes after 8 o’clock the evening before, which had put the enemy about 300 miles nearly north (005 degrees) from the Hood. The Vice-Admiral calculated the intercepting course as 295 degrees and he turned his ships to that, increasing speed to 27 knots.
At midnight the Bismarck was estimated to be 120 miles away, bearing 010 degrees, and the ViceAdmiral expected to make contact any time after 1.40 A.M. At fifteen minutes past midnight, therefore, he ordered all ships to make final preparations for action and to hoist battle ensigns. Officers and men went clambering into their action stations, and for a quarter of an hour the telephone systems of the big ships were alive with voices passing orders and making reports, as all the turret and gun machinery and other battle equipment were tested and got ready for instant use.
At this time, however, the flow of enemy reports ceased to come in, since the Bismarck and Suffolk had run into the snowstorm, and half an hour after midnight the Vice-Admiral signaled to the Prince of Wales that if the enemy was not seen by 2.10, he would probably steer parallel to him till the cruisers regained touch, so as to make sure the enemy did not get ahead of the British squadron unsighted.
On receiving the Suffolk’s report of regaining touch at 2.47 the Vice-Admiral brought his ships round again for a closing course and went on to 28 knots. Visibility was poor. There was a fresh breeze from the starboard side and a moderate swell. By 4 A.M. the enemy was estimated to be twenty miles to the northwest. Visibility was beginning to improve as twilight lightened into day. At 5.10 A.M. instant readiness for action was ordered: and at 5.35 A.M. two ships were made out a long way off before the starboard beam. The heavy turrets, which were waiting silent but alert, sprang into movement as they followed the Director round in that direction.
It was the German squadron. The enemy ships were some way apart, so that the two vessels could not be held in the spotting officers’ glasses simultaneously. The silhouettes of both looked very similar, and in the Prince of Wales’s after control tower it was thought at first that they were the Bismarck and Tirpitz. Vice-Admiral Holland had made an excellent contact, his force being nicely on the enemy’s bow. Two minutes after the sighting, he turned both his ships 40 degrees towards the enemy to shorten the range. The turn was made by Blue Pendant (that is, both ships turning together) and it closed the British A arcs; that is to say, the bearing of the enemy was now too far ahead for the after turrets to bear — to the disgust of their crews and those in the after controls, to whom it was desperately tantalizing to have their view of the enemy shut off at this supreme moment. Twelve minutes later, the ships were turned another 20 degrees towards the enemy.
In the Norfolk and Suffolk, too, excitcmenl was mounting. The cruisers had not become aware until 4.45 A.M., from an intercepted signal by one of Vice-Admiral Holland’s destroyers, that British heavy ships were in the vicinity. At 5.15 the Norfolk sighted two smudges of smoke on the port bow, which gradually took shape as the Hood and Prince of Wales steaming at high speed towards the enemy, who had also now come in sight sixteen miles on the starboard bow. The Suffolk had also seen the British battle force, and for those on both cruisers’ bridges its appearance made a most gladsome sight. They had had a tense and anxious night, racing along behind the enemy under most difficult weather conditions, while their signals guided their bigger brothers to the scene. Now the big ships had actually arrived, the cruisers’ object had been successfully achieved, and their tired officers and men prepared to watch with joyful and fascinated satisfaction the outcome of their efforts in the shape of the destruction of the enemy. Little did they realize what they were about to see.
From now on, things happened very quickly. At 5.49 A.M., the Vice-Admiral made the signal for a concentration on the left-hand ship. He had clearly mistaken the Prinz Eugen for the Bismarck, as they realized at once in the Prince of Wales, where, the Captain and the Gunnery Officer being both certain the Bismarck was the right-hand ship, it was decided to disregard the signal. Three minutes later, when the range was down to 25,000 yards, the Vice-Admiral evidently discovered the mistake and made the signal for shifting one target right. Almost at the same moment, the Hood opened fire, to which the Bismarck at once replied. Within a matter of seconds the Prince of Wales had joined in and the action had begun. Which ship was the Bismarck firing at? After a rather tense wait for the time of flight to pass, those in the Prince of Wales noted, not without relief, that she was firing at the Hood.
The principal guideposts in modern naval gun battles, both for the actual combatants and for any observers, are the splashes made by shells hitting the water. These splashes leap up to a great height — in the case of large shells to about 200 feet — and are the means whereby gun control officers know where their shots are going. If all the splashes are over or short or to the right or left of the target, the appropriate corrections are applied. What the control officer wants is a “straddle"; that is to say, one or more splashes over and one or more splashes short. He then knows that he is “on” the target and that there may be one or more hits. As a rule, he will not — indeed he should not see those hits. With delayed-action fuses, a shell may crash through a ship’s side or deck and penetrate deep into her hull before exploding. When, therefore, it does go off, the flash will probably be right inside the ship and invisible from outside.
As seen from the distant Norfolk and Suffolk, the Hood’s firing seemed excellent. Her first two salvos were very close to the enemy and the third looked like a straddle. The Prince of Wales was taking longer to get on. Her first salvo was over. Corrections were made, but it was not until the sixth salvo that a straddle was obtained. As already mentioned, the ship had gone into action with only her forward turrets (A and B) bearing on the enemy, owing to the ship’s acute angle of inclination to the line of fire on the closing course being steered. One of A turret’s guns, moreover, had a temporary defect which made it certain that, although it could fire the one round with which it was loaded, it would fire no more until the ship got back to harbor. This was known beforehand to both the Gunnery Officer and the Captain. Rangefinding during the approach had been difficult. A and B turret range-tinders were blanked by spray, and fire had had to be opened on the strength of the comparatively small (15-foot) range-finder in the Director Control Tower. Hence the initial overestimating by about 1000 yards.
The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen both opened against the Hood and were both quickly on their target. With her more rapid rate of fire, the Prinz Eugen scored the first hit in under a minute. A large fire broke out by the Hood’s mainmast which spread rapidly forward and blazed up high above the upper deck. To the watchers in the cruisers, it appeared as a big semicircle of flame, very like the top half of a setting sun, and they held their breath wondering whether it would be humanly possible to get it under control. Then it died down a bit and afterwards seemed to pulsate up and down.
The range meanwhile was coming down rapidly. At 5.55 A.M. the Vice-Admiral made the signal for a Blue Pendant turn of 20 degrees to port, away from the enemy. This would have opened both ships’ A arcs and have brought the squadron’s full gunpower to bear. By now, the Bismarck had obtained several straddles on the Hood, and had very probably hit her. The German Admiral, perhaps fearing to leave one enemy ship wholly unfiredat, and possibly to eliminate splash interference in spotting the fall of shot, had just ordered the Prinz Eugen to switch her fire to the other target.
As the British ships began their turn, two German splashes went up close alongside the Hood. Almost immediately, the horrified spectators in the British cruisers saw a vast eruption of flame leap upwards between the Hood’s masts to a height of many hundreds of feet, perhaps as high as a thousand, in the middle of which a great incandescent ball was seen soaring skywards. The volcanic upshoot of fire lasted but a second or two; and when it had disappeared the place where the Hood had been was covered by an enormous column of smoke. Through it, the bow and stern of the ship could just be discerned, each rising steeply up as the central part of the ship collapsed. The Hood had blown up in the middle, had broken in half, and in a couple of minutes or so had completely disappeared. The Prince of Wales, which was already swinging in obedience to the turning signal, had to reverse her rudder quickly and sheer back to starboard to avoid the pillar of smoke and the probable wreckage within it.
THE Prince of Wales had been firing away at the Bismarck almost undisturbed during the few minutes in which the Hood had been drawing the enemy’s fire. She now came in for the full blast of the enemy’s ferocity. A towering wall of water leapt out of the sea close at hand, where a 15-inch salvo had landed. It was swiftly followed by the slightly smaller splashes of the Bismarck’s secondary armament 6-inch shells, salvos of which, mingling with and scarcely distinguishable from those of the Prinz Eugen’s 8-inch, began to fall one on top of the other with whirlwind rapidity about every ten to fifteen seconds. The din was tremendous, the rush and crash of the enemy’s shells combining with the roar and banging of the Prince of Wales’s heavy and light guns and the hiss of falling spray from near-by shell splashes to make what seemed a continuous deluge of sound. So much water was being thrown up all around the Prince of Wales, some of it reaching up over the masthead, that it became none too easy to spot her own fall of shot.
Every now and then the ship was felt to shudder as something hit her, and those in the after control became aware of black smoke drifting past them from an obvious fire further forward. In the midst of this turmoil, a 15-inch shell came streaking down onto the bridge, through which it smashed, exploding just as it emerged on the other side. The bridge instantly became a shambles, every officer and man on that key position being either killed or wounded, excepting only Captain Leach himself and the Chief Yeoman of Signals, though both were knocked down and momentarily dazed. In the plotting room just below, blood began to drip off the end of the bridge voice pipe onto the plot. Curiously enough, the Gunnery Officer and other main control officers in the Director Tower, a few feet only from this explosion, entirely failed to notice it and continued to direct the ship’s fire with undivided concentration of purpose.
The ship received seven hits during this period -four 15-inch and three 8-inch. The shell on the bridge, as well as the damage it did there, severed the communications to the steering wheel and destroyed some of the gunnery control telephone leads. Another 15-inch hit the superstructure supporting the fore Secondary Armament (5.5-inch) Directors and put them out of action, and the after Director took over. The third hit went off on the aircraft crane. The ship’s aircraft was on the point of being catapulted off to act as gunnery spotter. The catapult officer actually had his flag in the air preparatory to dropping it for the signal to go when the shell arrived. When he had picked himself up, he saw that both wings of the aircraft had been shattered by splinters; so, getting the crew out, he hastily catapulted the dangerous, petrol-laden wreck into the sea. Not till the ship returned to harbor was it discovered that yet another heavy shell had pierced the side deep under water, had passed through several protecting bulkheads, and had come to rest without exploding close to one of the Diesel dynamo rooms. Two of the 8-inch hits had been on the waterline aft. The ship’s side was pierced and a number of compartments were flooded, about 500 tons of water getting into the ship. The third 8-inch shell entered one of the 5.25-inch shell handing-rooms. Round this small space it flew like lightning several times and evenlually sat down without going off and without having touched a man.
To Captain Leach, who by now had moved to the lower bridge, the fact that his ship was not developing her full gunpower was obvious. He knew that mechanical troubles might be expected with the new type of mounting fitted in his ship, one gun, as he was aware, being completely out of action. He knew that his ship’s company were semi-trained. His vessel was under a heavy and accurate fire from an enemy which had just blown up his flagship before his eyes. That enemy, on the other hand, showed no apparent sign of damage but was still shooting very accurately with, as it seemed, all her guns in action. He was aware that there was every likelihood of tactical reinforcement before long, and it is therefore understandable that he came to the swift conclusion that he ought to wait for it and that the present engagement should be broken off. With the range down to not much more than 14,000 yards, he put his wheel over and retired out of action behind a smoke screen. As the Prince of Wales heeled over on the turn, Y turret shell ring slid over on its rollers and jammed. This left the four guns of this turret with only two more rounds apiece until the jam could be cleared.
The Bismarck made no attempt to follow the Prince of Wales, but was seen to alter course away as the Prince of Wales turned. The Bismarck was showing no sign of damage. The only evidence which suggested that she might have been hit was a conspicuous pillar of black smoke that was seen by the British cruisers to shoot up out of her funnel after about three minutes of battle. It was as if, shaken by some heavy jolt, all the soot had fallen out of the crevices and corners of her boiler-room uptakes and had been shot high in the air on the escaping funnel gases.
THE Hood was the biggest ship in the fleet. A whole generation of naval men had grown up to regard her as the most powerful ship in the world. In fleet maneuvers over many years, when the “mighty Hood” appeared on the scene, the other side’s chances were felt to be as good as over. And in her first battle she bad disintegrated in a huge burst of flame after being under fire for only a few minutes.
Moreover, her fate was unpleasantly reminiscent of what had happened at Jutland when four British armored ships had also gone up in flames that leapt skywards as the magazines exploded. It was afterwards said that better protection in future ships and the fitting of anti-flash devices in the magazines would prevent further disasters of this kind. Now it had happened again.
The undoubted fact is that the Hood’s design was defective. Indeed, a year or two after her launch certain naval experts drew attention to the circumstance that an enemy shell approaching a certain part of the ship at a certain angle would have a fairly easy passage into a magazine. This weakness could, however, be remedied by extra armor plating, and the higher authorities at the Admiralty decided to have this placed when the next opportunity came for an extensive refit. But time passed and the job was not done. There were other ships needing reconstruction just as much as the Hood. Money was short, and even though tire twenties and early thirties were years of allegedly profound peace, too many ships could not be laid up at once. Then came the Abyssinian crisis, and after that it became difficult to take the Hood in hand for extensive alteration. She was such a big and well-known ship to put out of commission during the years of growing international tension, and political influence was on the side of her remaining in normal service. So the job was never done.
The action had been fought on the British side with inelastic formalism. The two ships had come into action in close order and had been maneuvered as one by signal from the flagship. It was an arrangement which left next to no initiative in the hands of the Captain of the Prince of Wales, an able and experienced officer, He was told what courses to steer, what ship to lire at, what speed to maintain, and when to open fire.
The British had a superiority of two to one, but owing to the way they came into action, this superiority was not brought into play. When the action opened, the Bismarck had her full broadside of eight guns bearing. But Vice-Admiral Holland was intent on closing the range quickly, and was steering inwards at a steep angle with the Hood’s A arcs closed; that is, with only her two foremost turrets able to fire. The Prince of Wales, obliged by signal to conform to the Hood’s movements, was similarly placed with only six of her ten guns bearing, one of which would only fire one round. This was the position during nearly the whole period the two British ships were together, until the Hood blew up. Thus, during this first critical part of the action only nine British guns were facing eight German, so that the British superiority was almost entirely thrown away. The remaining eight British guns were held in reserve so long that their influence was never exerted; for almost before the signal which would have swung them into action could take effect, one of the British ships had ceased to fight.
Close proximity also enhanced the moral effect of the explosion. Lieutenant-Commander McMullen, Gunnery Officer on the Prince of Wales, suddenly noticed that the inside walls of the Gunnery Director Tower, his battle station, were tinted a lurid orange, and guessed from this and the roar of the explosion what was happening. No doubt originating in the same way, the news went round the ship in a flash. In a matter of seconds, McMullen heard in his control telephone the voice of the “dagger” gunner in the transmitting station, 100 feet down inside the ship, saying: ” How’s the Hood, sir?”
“She’s not too good.”
“She’s gone hasn’t she, sir?”
On the face of it, the British tactics appear to have been unskillfully conceived and directed. Yet Vice-Admiral Holland was regarded in high esteem throughout the Navy as an officer of outstanding ability. He had, moreover, done well in the Mediterranean in the earlier period of the war. What, then, is likely to have induced him to pursue the course of action he did? I have been assured by senior officers that the way the Vice-Admiral took his squadron into action harmonized with some fidelity with the official instructions as to how such a phase of a battle should be conducted.
The instructions to which reference is here made were the descendants of the old fighting instructions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Admirals of the earlier centuries liked to keep the control of the battle in their own hands as far as they could, and the official fighting instructions issued for the guidance of subordinate Commanders always tended towards a tactical rigidity and formality of maneuver with little initiative left to juniors. Nelson’s rare genius virtually killed these cut-and-dried fighting rules for a century. The brilliant unorthodoxy of his methods and his open contempt for tactical convention, as well as his persistent encouragement of all his juniors to exercise their own independent initiative, were obviously inconsistent with voluminous printed instructions; and the British Navy, nurtured during the nineteenth century on the simple Nelsonian precept that “no Captain can do very wrong who places his ship alongside that of an enemy,” went into the war of 1914 with practically none.
There was an immediate reversion to ancient practice. A new set of battle instructions was compiled, just as bulky as any of its predecessors and breathing a very similar spirit of centralized control. These new instructions, with minor alterations, remained the tactical Bible of the Navy from 1918 till the outbreak of war in 1939, and were officially taught to numerous courses of senior officers at the Tactical School. There could, therefore, be no great cause for surprise if Vice-Admiral Holland’s actions were governed by these instructions on May 24, 1941.
Now in the aftermath the destroyers were sent to look for survivors from the Hood. They searched a wide area for a long time, but though they encountered much wreckage, they could only find three survivors alive in the water. These were Midshipman W. J. Dundas, who had been midshipman of the watch on the upper bridge; Able Seaman R. E. Tilburn, who had been on the boat deck; and Ordinary Signalman A. E. Briggs, who had been on duty on the navigating bridge. On completion of this mournful duty, the destroyers returned to Iceland.
Whatever Sir John Tovey may have thought in his innermost mind at the message “Hood has blown up,” which threw his whole plan out of gear, his only expressions of regret were confined to sorrow at the loss of the Hood’s ship’s company. His whole attention appeared to be concentrated on restoring the situation. If it had been necessary to sink the Bismarck before the catastrophe of the Hood’s destruction, it was doubly necessary after it.
The second half of this engagement will be described by Captain Grenfell in the July Atlantic under the title “Where Is the Bismarck?”