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After the battle in the Denmark Strait, the German ships continued on a south-western course. At this time Lütjens had two main options. The first was to return to Norway and the second to carry on into the North Atlantic. Today most people agree that, if at all possible, Lütjens should have destroyed or at least disabled the already damaged Prince of Wales, then turn around, and head for Trondheim, via the Denmark Strait. Lütjens could also have taken a shorter path to Bergen, via the Faeroes-Iceland passage, although the chances of being intercepted by Tovey's battle group (King George V, Repulse, and Victorious) coming from Scapa Flow were greater as well. Instead, the German Admiral opted not to pursue the Prince of Wales (apparently against Captain Lindemann's suggestions) and headed for the Atlantic. At 0801, Admiral Lütjens sent a series of messages to Group North informing of his intention to take Bismarck to Saint-Nazaire for repairs. The Prinz Eugen, which was undamaged, would stay in the Atlantic to attack enemy convoys on her own.
The decision to head for Saint-Nazaire shows that after a survey of the damage sustained, Lütjens had correctly decided to cancel Operation Rheinübung at least temporarily until the Bismarck could be repaired in port. But, why did he choose Saint-Nazaire? The French port was farther than Norway and it required greater fuel expenditure. Lütjens probably thought France was the best place to resume the battle of the Atlantic as soon as possible following Raeder's wishes. In fact, he had successfully entered Brest with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau a couple of months earlier.
At 0950, Captain Brinkmann was informed by semaphore of the damage received by Bismarck:
The Bismarck seen from the Prinz Eugen in the morning of 24 May after the battle of the Denmark Strait.
Three hours after the sinking of the Hood, the British Admiralty issued the following announcement to the press:
The battleship Rodney (Captain Frederick H. G. Dalrymple-Hamilton) was at sea to the west of Ireland on her way to Boston for repairs with destroyers Somali, Tartar, Mashona, and Eskimo of the 6th Flotilla. They were escorting the liner Britannic (27,759 tons) now used as a troop transport. The Admiralty ordered Rodney to operate against Bismarck and at 1036 hours on the 24th signalled: "If Britannic cannot keep up, leave her behind with 1 destroyer." Therefore Rodney and destroyers Tartar, Mashona and Somali left Britannic with destroyer Eskimo at noon. The battleship Ramillies (Captain Arthur D. Read) to the South of Cape Farewell was also instructed to leave the convoy she was escorting (HX-127) and "proceed so as to make contact with enemy from westwards, subsequently placing enemy between Ramillies and C.-in-C".1 In addition, the battleship Revenge (Captain Ernest R. Archer) in Halifax was ordered to put to sea, and she left port at 1500, then headed east.
Early in the morning of 24 May, Admiral Lütjens had already decided to detach the Prinz Eugen, and at 1420 sent a semaphore signal to Captain Brinkmann:
The fuel situation aboard Bismarck had become serious, and at 2056, Lütjens informed Group West that, due to fuel shortage, he was to proceed directly to Saint-Nazaire. In fact, at this time the Bismarck had less than 3,000 tons of fuel-oil available, and unless some of the 1,000 tons of fuel blocked under the forecastle could be retrieved, the battleship would be forced to slow down in order to reach the French coast. Had Bismarck been refuelled in Bergen on 21 May, now she would have some 1,000 tons more of additional fuel available. That would have given Bismarck more freedom of movement and would have enabled Lütjens to make a diversionary manoeuvre to try shake off his pursuers. But the reality was that the fuel shortage hampered the original idea to drive the pursuing British forces into the western U-boat screen, and it forced Bismarck to follow a steady course to France. As a result of this change of plans, all available U-boats in the Bay of Biscay were now ordered to form a patrol line to cover Bismarck's new expected course.
At 1509, Admiral Tovey had detached Rear-Admiral Alban Curteis (in Galatea) with the carrier Victorious (Captain Henry Cecil Bovell) and the four light cruisers Galatea, Aurora, Kenya and Hermione to close the range and deliver a torpedo attack. At the time, the Victorious had a reduced air wing of only nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers (the so-called "Stringbags") and six Fairey Fulmar fighters available. Three of the Swordfish were equipped with new ASV (Air-to-Surface Vessel) radar sets. At 2210, some 120 miles away from Bismarck, the Victorious launched all the torpedo bombers of the 825th Squadron under the command of Lieutenant-Commander (A) Eugene Esmonde.2 At 2300, they were followed by three Fulmars of the 800Z Squadron, and at 0100 by two more to maintain touch. Esmonde obtained a surface contact on his ASV radar at 2350, and prepared his aircraft for the attack, but instead of Bismarck he found the US Coast Guard Cutter Modoc (Lieutenant-Commander Harold Belford) that happened to be on patrol in the area. The Bismarck, only six miles away, spotted the British aircraft and opened fire immediately while increasing the speed to 27 knots.
The flight deck of HMS Victorious on 24 May 1941. This photo shows the strike group being arranged on deck several hours before the launch against the Bismarck. All nine Swordfish of 825th Squadron are clearly visible as well as, in the extreme rear, two Fulmars from 800Z Flight.
One Swordfish lost contact with the rest of the squadron in a cloud layer, and only eight planes proceeded to attack around midnight. Torpedoes had been armed with duplex pistols and set to a depth of 31 feet, speed 40 knots. The German anti-aircraft fire was very intense and even the main and secondary batteries opened fire. Lindemann and the helmsman, Hans Hansen, operating the press buttons of the steering gear, successfully avoided the first six torpedoes when suddenly the battleship was hit. An 18-inch MK XII torpedo3 struck Bismarck's starboard side, amidships, at the level of the main belt which resisted the explosion very well. The damage was minimal, although Oberbootsmann Kurt Kirchberg who was standing on the starboard side was thrown by the blast and killed, thus becoming the first casualty aboard. Six other men were injured. Air Gunner Leslie D. Sayer, in the back seat of Swordfish 5F, later recalled:
After the Swordfish attack, the Bismarck reduced her speed to 16 knots to alleviate the pressure in the forecastle and carry out repairs. The distance between both forces decreased, and at 0131 hours, the Prince of Wales opened fire on Bismarck. The battleships exchanged two salvoes each at a range of 15,000 metres (16,400 yards), but due to the poor visibility neither side scored any hits. The morale aboard the Bismarck was high, it was Lütjens' 52th birthday and sometime about then, the crew wished the Chief of Fleet a happy birthday by the ship's loudspeaker system.
All three British ships that were shadowing the Bismarck from the port quarter had begun to zig-zag in case of a possible U-boat attack. Shortly after 0300, taking advantage of the enemy’s disposition and the darkness, Lütjens saw his opportunity to break the contact with his pursuers. The Bismarck increased her speed to 27 knots and turned to starboard, in a manoeuvre very similar to the one executed the previous afternoon when the Prinz Eugen was detached. Finally, the Bismarck succeeded in breaking contact and after turning almost a complete circle, she established a new course of 130º due southeast, to Saint-Nazaire. The British ships tried in vain to re-establish contact with the Bismarck, and at 0401 the Suffolk reported: "Enemy contact lost."
Nevertheless, on board the Bismarck for some reason they did not realize that the contact had been broken, and at 0700 Admiral Lütjens radioed to Group West: "One battleship, two heavy cruisers keeping contact." Shortly after 0900, Lütjens sent another long message to Group West:
At 1152, Lütjens received a personal message from Admiral Raeder: "Heartiest Birthday Wishes! In view of your recent great armed feat, may you be granted many more such successes [as you enter] a new year of your life!" Minutes later, at noon, Lütjens delivered the following speech to the crew by the loudspeakers:
At 1625, Lütjens received yet another message of congratulations, this time from Hitler: "I send to you today my very best congratulation for your Birthday!" That same afternoon, Bismarck's Chief Engineer, Korvettenkapitän (Ing.) Walter Lehmann and several crewmen began to construct a dummy funnel. This would give the battleship two funnels and hopefully confuse the enemy, should Bismarck be detected again.4 During the night of 25/26 May, the Bismarck maintained her course and there were no incidents on board.
In the morning of 26 May, as the Bismarck was approaching the French coast, the crew was ordered to repaint the top of the main and secondary turrets yellow. Hard job considering the state of the seas, nevertheless it was carried out although the yellow paint washed off at least once.
A few hours earlier, at 0300, two Coastal Command Catalina flying boats had taken off from Lough Erne in Northern Ireland on a reconnaissance mission in search for the Bismarck. At about 1010, Catalina Z of 209 Squadron commanded by Flying Officer Dennis Briggs sighted the German battleship that immediately answered with very accurate anti-aircraft fire.5 The Catalina jettisoned her four depth charges and took evasive action after her hull was holed by shrapnel. Then at 1030 signalled: "One battleship, bearing 240º, distance 5 miles, course 150º. My position 49º 33' North, 21º 47' West. Time of transmission 1030/26." Briggs would later describe the sighting as follows:
Only the Force H, under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir James F. Somerville, sailing from Gibraltar, had a chance to intercept Bismarck. The battlecruiser Renown (Captain Rhoderick R. McGrigor) was in the best position, but having lost the Hood only two days earlier, the Admiralty did not allow Renown to engage the Bismarck unless she had already been heavily engaged by Tovey's battleships. The best hope for the British was to launch an air strike from the carrier Ark Royal. The Ark Royal had already launched 10 Swordfish at 0835 to try find the Bismarck, and once the report of the Catalina sighting arrived, the two closest Swordfish altered course to intercept. At 1114, Swordfish 2H located the German battleship too, followed seven minutes later by the 2F.6 Shortly afterwards two more Swordfish, fitted with long-range tanks, were launched to relieve 2H and 2F and keep touch with Bismarck.
At 1450, fifteen Swordfish commanded by Lieutenant-Commander J. A. Stewart-Moore took off from the Ark Royal (Captain Loben E. Maund) to attack the Bismarck. At 1550, they obtained radar contact with a ship and dived to attack. The attack, however, turned out to be a failure since the ship sighted was actually the light cruiser Sheffield (Captain Charles A. Larcom) which had been detached from Force H to make contact with the Bismarck. Luckily for the British, the Sheffield was not hit by any of the 11 torpedoes launched because they had faulty magnetic pistols. Two torpedoes exploded upon hitting the water, three on crossing the cruiser wake, and the other six were successfully avoided. The Swordfish returned to the Ark Royal where they landed after 1700, but not without trouble because of the terrible weather conditions. The rise and fall of the stern was measured to be 56 feet, and three aircraft smashed their undercarriages against the flight deck. Shortly afterwards, at 1740, the Sheffield obtained visual contact with the Bismarck.
The British put every effort on one last attack. It would be dark soon, and they knew this was their last real chance to stop or at least slow down the Bismarck. If they failed again, the Bismarck would reach the French coast on the next day, since another air strike late at night was unlikely to succeed. Therefore, at 1915, another group comprised of fifteen Swordfish, mostly the same planes used in the previous attack, took off from the Ark Royal. This time, however, their torpedoes were fitted with contact pistols and set to run at a depth of only 22 feet.
The Swordfish striking force, this time under the command of Lieutenant-Commander T. P. Coode, first approached the Sheffield to get the range and bearing to the Bismarck, and at 2047, began the attack. Bismarck's anti-aircraft battery opened fire immediately. During the course of the attack, the Bismarck received at least two torpedo hits. One torpedo (or two) hit the port side amidships, and another struck the stern in the starboard side somewhere between frames 10.5 and 14.5.7 The first hit did not cause important damage, but the second jammed both rudders at 12º to port. The Bismarck made a circle and then began to steer northwest involuntarily into the wind. As before, none of the Swordfish were shot down although some were hit several times.8 The damage to Bismarck was so serious that at 2140, Admiral Lütjens sent the following message to Group West: "Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer."
The impact in the stern area caused the flooding of the steering and other adjacent compartments. This meant that all repair attempts would have to be done under water. Divers were ordered to enter the steering compartment in order to free the rudders, but the violent movement of the water inside made this an impossible task. It was not possible to lower divers over the side due to the high seas. As an alternative, it was considered to blow the rudders away with explosives and try to steer the ship using the propellers alone, but the idea was rejected fearing that the explosion could damage the propellers. Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Gerhard Junack down in the Centre Turbine Room described the event:
After the aerial torpedo attack, the new erratic course of the Bismarck caused her to close the range with the Sheffield. At about 2145, Bismarck opened fire on the Sheffield at a range of about nine miles. Bismarck fired a total of six salvoes and the British cruiser turned away to the north under the cover of a smoke screen. The Sheffield was not hit, but some splinters disabled her radar and injured twelve men of whom three died later.9 The turn caused Sheffield to lose contact with Bismarck, but at 2200, she made contact with the destroyers of the 4th Flotilla (Captain Philip L. Vian) Cossack, Maori, Zulu, Sikh and Piorun, and provided them with the approximate bearing and distance to the German battleship.
At 2238, the Polish destroyer Piorun (Commander Eugeniusz Plawski) sighted the Bismarck. The German battleship responded shortly thereafter with three salvoes. The destroyers proceeded to attack, but Bismarck defended herself vigorously in the dark. At 2342, splinters knocked down Cossack's antennas. The night was pitch black and shortly after midnight, star shells from the destroyers began to illuminate the area. The Germans, however, didn't use the ship's searchlights in order not to provide a good aiming point for the enemy. At about 0100, a star shell fell on Bismarck's bows starting a fire there that had to be extinguished by some crew members. Throughout the night the destroyers attacked the German battleship. These attacks were carried out in heavy seas, rain squalls and very low visibility, and no torpedo hits were obtained on Bismarck, that time after time repelled every attack with heavy and accurate fire from her main and secondary batteries. By 0700, a total of 16 torpedoes had been fired by the destroyers of the 4th Flotilla. Sunrise was at 0722 hours.
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