Operation "Rheinübung" (Part Two)
Photo: Bismarck anchored in Grimstadfjord in Norway.

While at their anchorages, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were repainted. Both took on additional supplies, and the Prinz Eugen topped up her fuel tanks, but the Bismarck did not. For some unknown reason, Lütjens and Lindemann decided not to top up the Bismarck's fuel tanks while she was lying in Grimstadfjord. Bismarck had used a significant amount of fuel sailing from Gotenhafen to Norway, and it would have been prudent to refuel at that time, as was done for the Prinz Eugen. The only opportunity that remained for refuelling the Bismarck before she entered the Denmark Strait was by the german tanker Weissenburg, which was stationed in the Norwegian Sea above the Arctic Circle and was not too far off their intended course.

The information that Lütjens received from the German intelligence showed that as far as was known, all units of the Home Fleet were still at their base at Scapa Flow. The British Home Fleet appeared to be no serious threat to the breakout for the German task force along the more northerly routes that Lütjens could take.

Possible routes for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to break out into the North Atlantic.

The German task force could choose between four different routes into the North Atlantic. The passage between the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands, and the passage between the Shetland Islands and the Danish Faeroe Islands was rejected because of the short distance to the British RAF airbases in northern Scotland and the naval base at Scapa Flow. The only truly viable alternatives were either the passage between the Faroe Islands and Iceland or the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. Lütjens was not convinced of the safety of using the passage between the Faroe Islands and Iceland since his ships had been spotted by the Swedish cruiser Gotland and by Danish and Swedish fishing boats in the Kattegat. Lütjens decided to take the long way around through the Denmark Strait even though he was aware of the dangers of that route. Because of the pack ice surrounding Greenland, the passage between Iceland and Greenland was quite narrow. He also knew of the minefield that had been laid off the north-western coast of Iceland, but in the end, as the operational commander, the decision was up to him.

Route selected by Admiral Lütjens for breaking out into the North Atlantic.

It was now very important for the British to locate the two German ships and to keep track of their movements. The Royal Air Force was requested to undertake reconnaissance missions along the coast of Norway in an attempt to locate and positively identify the reported German warships. On the morning of 21 May, RAF photographic-reconnaissance Spitfires took off from northern Scotland to scout the lower portion of the Norwegian coastline, especially its fjord systems which could easily hide the ships.

Photo: Bismarck photographed in Grimstadfjord by a British photographic-reconnaissance Spitfire.

Shortly after noon on 21 May, one of the Spitfires (Flying Officer Michael Suckling) flew at high altitude over the fjord system in the area of Bergen, Norway and routinely photographed all of the possible anchorages in sight. One photograph taken over Grimstadfjord showed a large ship surrounded by several much smaller ones. The size of the ship and a measurement of its beam-to-length ratio was indicative of a modern battleship. The British was certain that the Bismarck had been found.

After the discovery of the Bismarck in Grimstadfjord, RAF Bomber Command was immediately ordered to attack her anchorage.

Photo: At 1930, 21 May Bismarck weighed anchor and headed north to join the Prinz Eugen and the three destroyers in Kalvanes Bay.

At 1930, 21 May the Bismarck weighed anchor and headed north to join the Prinz Eugen and the destroyers outside Kalvanes. The formation continued on its way. Later that evening, the weather got worse and the sky became completely overcast. At about 2300 they turned away from the rocky shoreline, the destroyers in the lead, followed by the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen.

During the night of 21 May the area, where Bismarck were sighted, was heavily bombed by the British, but due to poor visibility, the planes returned without being able to report the results of their raid. The next day, an RAF Coastal Command reconnaissance plane scouted the area and found the anchorages to be empty. At this time it was more than 24 hours since the RAF photographic-reconnaissance Spitfire (Flying Officer Michael Suckling) had photographed the German task force at Bergen, and they could have sailed over 600 miles in that time.

According to plan, around 0500 on Thursday 22 May, Lütjens released the destroyers that had shielded the formation from British submarines. The task force were in the latitude of Trondheim. From now on, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were alone, and the squadron continued northwards at 24 knots. Lütjens was still uncertain whether to go north or south of Iceland.

Steaming at 24 knots in hazy weather under an overcast sky, the task force reached a position approximately 200 nautical miles from the Norwegian coast, in the latitude Iceland-Norway, at about noon 22 May. Weather conditions, which seemed settled, were just what Lütjens hoped to encounter when he attempted to break out into the Atlantic through the northern passage. At noon, Lütjens advised the Prinz Eugen that he intended to go direct for the Denmark Strait but not to oil from Weissenburg (German tanker) unless the weather lifted. A fatal decision that would have consequences later for the Bismarck and her crew. What may have finally decided Lütjens to stick to the originally plan was the continuing poor visibility which meteorologists predicted would last to southern Greenland. The squadron altered from due north to north-west.

Photo: Bismarck in front of Prinz Eugen in the North Atlantic.

At 1237 22 May, the Bismarck sounded her submarine and aircraft alarms - a periscope sighting had been reported. The task force turned to port and steered a zigzag course for half an hour, but nothing transpired and at 1307 it resumed its former course. Due to poor weather and and thick fog the Bismarck shone her big searchlights astern to help the Prinz Eugen keep position. They were now in the northern latitudes, where the nights are almost as light as the days, so they could stay in a tight formation and maintain 24 knots even in poor visibility.

Deployment of Royal Navy units to intercept Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

The British was now well aware that Bismarck was on her way trying to break out into the North Atlantic. Admiral Tovey ordered Hood and Prince of Wales to take station south of Iceland. There they would be in a position to cover the Denmark Strait passage or turn east to back up the forces covering the Faeroes-Iceland passage should the Bismarck appear in that area. The Suffolk was ordered to join the Norfolk, in the Denmark Strait. The light cruisers Arethusa, Birmingham and Manchester were directed to resume their patrol of the Faeroes-Iceland passage after refuelling at their bases in Iceland.

Admiral Tovey then formed his second task force from the remainder of the Home Fleet that was still at Scapa Flow. This included the battleship King George V, aircraft carrier Victorious, light cruisers Aurora, Galatea, Hermione, Kenya, and Neptune, and six destroyers. Admiral Tovey's force left port some time before midnight on 22 May. The Repulse, about to embark on convoy duty, was recalled from the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow and ordered to join Admiral Tovey's force at sea north-west of Scotland. There the task force would lie in wait behind the light cruiser screen, ready to pounce on the Bismarck should she attempt the Iceland-Faeroes passage, or be prepared to turn westward and support the Hood-Prince of Wales task force should the Germans come through the Denmark Strait.

At 2322 Lütjens ordered a course change to the west: a course toward the Denmark Strait.