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.

Bismarck had received three hits altogether. One had carried away the captain's motor-boat amidships, damaged the aircraft launching gear, landed in the sea beyond without exploding. The second had also struck amidships, penetrated the ship's side beneath the armored belt, destroyed one of the dynamoes, put No. 2 boiler-room and its two boilers out of action, wounded five men by scalding, caused some flooding. The third and most serious hit had struck the port bow about the level of the water-line, penetrated two oil tanks, come out the starboard side without exploding. This hit not only let sea-water into the oil tanks and quantities of oil into the sea, but knocked out the suction valves, and cut off from the engines a further thousand tons of oil.

Because of flooding the bow was down by two or three degrees, there was a list to port of nine degrees, the starboard propeller was coming out of the water. Captain Lindemann ordered counterflooding aft to restore the trim, and maximum speed was reduced to 28 knots. Collision mats were put down to cover the two holes in the bows, divers were sent to the flooded compartments. Presently the collision mats stopped any more water getting into the ship, though the oil continued to leak out of it. Some officers suggested a big reduction of speed and further counterflooding to bring the bows right out of the water, enable the holes to be repaired by welding; but Admiral Lütjens was not prepared to risk the dangers of delay. Schlüter (a technician from Blohm and Voss) suggested lightening the bows by cutting loose the anchors and cables, dumping them overboard, but this idea was also rejected. Despite the difficult working conditions the divers finaly managed to make temporary repairs, pump out some of the water so the bows began to rise.

But however successfull the repairs, it was clear beyond a doubt to Lütjens and his staff that with one boiler-room out of action, maximum speed reduced to 28 knots, serious flooding and loss of fuel and the ship leaving a pathway of oil that could be seen for miles, Bismarck could no longer carry out her assignment without dockyard repairs.

Lütjens had now decided that the Bismarck needed some repairs in a dockyard. But to wich dockyard should he go? If back to Germany his nearest friendly port was Bergen or Trondheim in Norway, both a little over a thousand miles away. But this meant a return through the hazardous passages north or south of Iceland, with the enemy's air forces now fully alerted, and the possibility that further heavy British units were at sea between him and Scapa Flow.

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.

The coast of France was 965 kilometer (600 miles) farther, but meant longer nights and wider seas in wich to shake off his shadowers, perhaps entice them over a line of U-boats, top up with fuel from one of the waiting tankers, then steam unmolested to the huge Normandy dry dock at the French port of St. Nazaire (which had been built for the great French liner Normandie).

A further advantage of this was that once repairs had been effected, Bismarck (with perhaps Scharnhorst and Gneisenau too) would already be poised on the edge of the Atlantic trade-routes instead of having to renegotiate the perils of a second break-out from Germany. That would bring Operation "Rheinübung" closer to its original concept. In the meantime, the Prinz Eugen might be able to inflict some damage on British convoys by herself and keep the Royal Navy busy until the new battlegroup could be formed.

At 0801, Lütjens signalled Group North, together with a report on Bismarck's damage and the efficacy of British radar, his intensions to release Prinz Eugen for independent cruiser warfare and for Bismarck to put into St. Nazaire.

Once the action with the Bismarck had been broken off and the Prince of Wales was out of range of German guns, Captain Leach slowed his ship and turned to rendezvous with the Suffolk and Norfolk. The cruisers had continued to follow the German squadron after the Hood was sunk and the Prince of Wales disengaged. As soon as the Norfolk appeared, Leach conferred by signal with Admiral Wake-Walker. The Admiral had to continue the pursuit of the Bismarck, and he ordered the Prince of Wales to join his squadron in that pursuit regardless of the damage she had sustained. She was still a potent fighting machine that might yet be needed to help destroy the Bismarck in conjunction with other units of the Royal Navy en route to intercept the enemy.

About 1000, Lütjens ordered the Prinz Eugen to take up position aft of Bismarck temporarily in order to observe her loss of oil. An hour later, the Prinz Eugen resumed her previous position in front of the Bismarck. At 1240 the German task force changed course to 180º due south at 24 knots.

During the mid-afternoon of 24 May, the three-ship task force under Wake-Walker continued to maintain contact with the German squadron, which was now steaming at high speed in a southwesterly direction. Shortly after noon, the German ships turned south and made desperate manoeuvres in attempts to shake off their pursuers. Lütjens had the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen slow down, suddenly speed up and change direction, and take other evasive action in an attempt to lose the British task force, but to no avail.

In addition to the other ships already committed, the battleships Rodney, Ramillies, and Revenge and the cruisers London and Edinburgh were detached from convoy or patrol duty in the North Atlantic to aid in the search and destruction of the Bismarck. Force H at Gibraltar, under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville was also alerted to participate in the chase should the Bismarck head in that direction. That force consisted of the battlecruiser Renown, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and the light cruiser Sheffield.

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.

The morning of 24 May had remained relatively clear with only occasional small patches of fog. The British ships were therefore able to maintain not only radar contact, but also visual contact with the Bismarck for most of the morning. In the early afternoon, the weather began to deteriorate, and the German squadron became more difficult to see. Lütjens decided that this would be a good opportunity to detach the Prinz Eugen. His plan was to turn on his pursuers out of the fog with guns blazing and create enough of a diversion to allow the Prinz Eugen to escape undetected in the confusion. An earlier attempt in mid-afternoon had to be aborted when the Bismarck became visible too soon.

Deployment of British forces as Bismarck turns on pursuers to allow Prinz Eugen to escape.

In the early evening at 1814, while both ships were in a fog bank, the Bismarck made a sudden 180º turn at 27 knots toward her pursuers. As she emerged from the fog bank, she opened fire on the following British cruisers. The British force broke off their pursuit and scattered to escape the heavy gunfire. The Prinz Eugen continued at high speed on her southerly course, and she was soon beyond radar range of the British, making good her escape.

At 1830 the Bismarck was firing at 18,000 meters (20,000 yards) against the Suffolk which was the more persistent ship in maintaining contact, but she was able to avoid damage by turning away under a smoke screen. Between 1840 and 1856 there was an exchange of shells at long distance with the Prince of Wales. Bismarck were trying to hold the British ships to let the Prinz Eugen escape.The last thing her crewmen on deck saw of the Bismarck was the flashes of her guns as she continued to fire on the British ships until the cruiser was in the clear. Realising the remote possibility of a hit at nearly 27,000 meter (30,000 yards), both sides finally ceased fire to conserve their ammunition, and the Bismarck returned to her southerly course.

Deployment of British forces during air strike against Bismarck from Victorious.

Later in the evening, while it was still light, Admiral Tovey's task force came within aircraft range of the Bismarck, and he ordered an air strike from the Victorious in an effort to disable her or at least slow her down. At 2210, nine Swordfish torpedo planes of the 825th Squadron took off. At 2300, they were followed by three Fulmars, and at 0100 by two more.

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.

At 2330, the Swordfish obtained visual contact with the Bismarck and attacked. The Bismarck received a single torpedo hit at 2338 on the starboard side, amidships, at the level of the main belt which resisted the impact without much problem. It caused the death of a crewmember (Kurt Kirchberg - who became the first casualty aboard) and injured six others. Except of two Fulmar's wich ran out of fuel, all of the aircraft returned safely to the Victorious in spite of the heavy anti-aircraft fire directed against them and poor visibility as darkness fell.

After the attack of the Swordfish, the Bismarck reduced her speed from 27 to 16 knots to do some repairs in the forecastle. The distance between both forces decreased, and at 0131 on 25 May the Prince of Wales fired two salvos from 15,000 meters (16,000 yards) against the Bismarck which responded with another two salvos. However the visibility was very bad and no hits were scored.

The Admiralty decided that the destruction of the Bismarck was the highest-priority task facing the Royal Navy, and it was willing to take certain risks to achieve that goal. Admiral Somerville's Force H, standing by at Gibraltar, was now committed to the pursuit.

The Prinz Eugen had escaped, and now it was the Bismarck's turn to try to shake her pursuers. During the night, the crew of the Bismarck noted that the British ships were staying on her port quarter and that they had begun zigzagging, probably as a precaution against U-boats believed to have been dispatched to help the Bismarck. Once darkness had fallen, the Suffolk could maintain contact with the Bismarck only by radar, but at times her zigzagging took her temporarily out of radar range of 23,000 (25,000 yards). Lütjens, realising that this might be the case, decided to take advantage of those circumstances and try to break away from his pursuers.

Deployment of British forces during escape attempt by Bismarck.

In the early hours of morning of 25 May, the Suffolk was beginning to make another south-eastward swing on her zigzag course which would again put her out of radar contact with the Bismarck for a few moments. When the cruiser seemed to be approaching the limit of her south-eastward swing, Lütjens ordered the Bismarck to make an immediate turn to starboard and to continue almost due west at high speed away from the British force. The manoeuvre worked. When the Suffolk returned to the south-westward leg of her zigzag course, her radar did not pick up the Bismarck as it had done after earlier zigzags. Concentrating on the Bismarck, the Suffolk was not yet aware that the Prinz Eugen had already escaped.

When the loss of radar contact with the Bismarck was reported to Admiral Wake-Walker on the Norfolk, he immediately ordered his two cruisers to steam in a south-westerly and then a westerly direction in an attempt to regain it. Lütjens, however, instead of renewing his southerly course after breaking free, decided to make a wide swing to the north and circle around to the rear of the British ships. Once he had completed the circle, he headed in a southeasterly course of 130º toward St. Nazaire. By dawn, it became apparent that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had successfully eluded their pursuers and that it would take the combined resources of all available British air and sea forces to find them again.