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By José M. Rico

The Bismarck alongside at Gotenhafen in May 1941, shortly before Operation Rheinübung.


Following the success achieved by the surface ships in the Atlantic during the winter of 1940-1941, the German Naval High Command decided to launch a much more ambitious operation. The idea was to send a powerful battle group comprised of the battleships Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into the Atlantic to attack Allied merchant shipping. The latter two battleships were in Brest, in occupied France, since 22 March. They had just completed a successful campaign of two months in the North Atlantic under the command of the Fleet Chief, Admiral Günther Lütjens, in which they sank or captured 22 ships with a total tonnage of 116,000 tons. Unfortunately, the Scharnhorst had to enter dry dock in order to undergo machinery repairs and would be unavailable at least until June. In the Baltic, the Bismarck had almost finished her trials and would soon be ready for her first war cruise. However, the Tirpitz, which had only recently been commissioned on 25 February, had not yet completed trials, and it was unlikely that she would be available in the spring.

On 2 April, the same day the Bismarck received her last two Arado 196 aircraft, the High Command outlined the strategy to follow in its operation's order (B.Nr. 1. Skl. I Op. 410/41 Gkdos Chefs.1). With the Scharnhorst in dry dock and the Tirpitz not ready for action yet, it was decided that Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen would be sent into the North Atlantic in late April under the command of the Fleet Chief. The Gneisenau would later sail from Brest to join them. The mission of the German ships was to attack convoys operating in the Atlantic north of the Equator. Because of the success of the German warships in recent months, the Allied convoys had improved their protection and were now strongly escorted by either battleships or cruisers. So, it would be Bismarck’s duty to engage the escorts while the other ships attacked the merchant vessels virtually unopposed.

The British Admiralty was concerned and had serious indications that the Germans were planning a large surface operation in the Atlantic. The British knew of Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau's presence in Brest and the danger they posed should they sortie in conjunction with Bismarck. Therefore, they decided to immobilize these two German battleships through air raids. On 6 April, a Coastal Command Beaufort plane (Lieutenant Kenneth Campbell) of the 22º Squadron scored a torpedo hit on Gneisenau's stern. Although the British aircraft was shot down by the anti-aircraft batteries, Gneisenau was damaged and had to enter dry dock for repairs. A few days later, during the night of 10/11 April, the battleship was hit again. This time by four bombs dropped by the RAF, and this forced to lengthen the repair work for months. As a result of these attacks, the German force was reduced to Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which would be the only warships available to participate in attacks on enemy merchant shipping that spring.

There were more than enough reasons to cancel the operation until a larger force could be assembled. By autumn, the Tirpitz would be worked up and the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest would be ready again. Also the short spring nights made it more difficult for the German ships to reach the Atlantic undetected. Despite this, the idea to send the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen to the Atlantic in the spring remained a viable one. The United Kingdom was in a critical situation for supplies, and five months of "relative calm" at sea would have only strengthened her position. There was also the increasing fear that the United States would join the war, resulting in greater detection capabilities, and thus, reducing to a considerable extent the movements of the German fleet. The Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder thought it more important to utilise Bismarck's potential and keep up the pressure on the British supply lines, and, therefore, he decided to go on with the operation. The most important task was that the two German ships could reach the Atlantic unnoticed. From there, they could get lost in the immensity of the ocean and attack enemy convoys at will.

In the meantime, Admiral Lütjens had met the U-boat Chief, Vice-Admiral Karl Dönitz, in Paris on 8 April. Both Admirals knew each other well as they had worked together on several occasions before the war. At that conference they outlined the U-boat support that was to be given to the Bismarck. The U-boats would carry on as usual in their normal positions, but if any opportunity arose for a combined action with Bismarck, it would be fully exploited. A U-boat liaison officer was therefore assigned to the Bismarck.

On 22 April, Admiral Lütjens established the details of the operation now code-named Rheinübung (Rhine Exercise). The departure of the German ships was imminent, but on 23 April the Prinz Eugen was damaged by a magnetic mine while en route to Kiel. This required repair work which delayed the operation for some time. Three days later, on 26 April, Lütjens and Raeder met in Berlin to discuss the situation. The Fleet Chief suggested to Raeder the possibility of postponing the operation until the Scharnhorst and/or Tirpitz would be ready. The Grand Admiral, however, thought it was imperative to resume the Battle of the Atlantic as soon as possible and ordered the operation to go forward.

Meanwhile, aboard the Bismarck, everything was reaching a level of maximum readiness. In late April, two new 2 cm Flak C/38 quadruple mounts were installed on both sides of the foremast above the searchlight platform. On 28 April, Captain Lindemann informed the Naval High Command (OKM), Group North, Group West, and the Fleet Command that the Bismarck was personnel-wise and materiel-wise fully ready for action, and provisioned for three months.2 He noted in the ship’s war diary:

    “The first phase in the ship’s life since the commissioning on 24 August 1940, is successfully completed. The goal was reached after eight months, being over the target date by only fourteen days; although the original intention (Easter) was missed by a forced waiting period in Hamburg (24.1–6.3.1941) of six weeks, due to the closing of the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal and by ice jams.
    The crew can be proud of this accomplishment. It was accomplished, because there was an overall common desire to engage the enemy as soon as possible. I, therefore, had no qualms to make extremely high demands on them for a prolonged period of time, and because the ship and his equipment had been totally spared, despite of hard use and very Spartan lay-up time, from extensive breakdowns and damage.
    The state of training that has been reached, compares favourably with that of a capital ship’s readiness for a full [scale] battle inspection in the good years of peacetime. Although the crew, with few exceptions, completely lacks real combat experience, I have the calm feeling that all forthcoming combat demands will be readily dealt with. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that the combat value of this ship, by virtue of the achieved state of training, awakens great confidence in every man so that - for the first time in a long time – we can feel at least equal against any opponent.
    The delay of our deployment, whose approximate time could not be kept hidden from the crew, is a tough disappointment for all involved.
    I will use the waiting period in the previous manner, for the further perfection of training, but also to provide somewhat more rest for the crew. Furthermore, I intend to devote more time to division duties and the outer maintenance of the ship, since both of these duties necessarily had to take on very minor role. In addition, I will replenish weekly the expended stores of the three months requisition requirements.”

On 5 May, Hitler visited Gotenhafen (today Gdynia) to inspect both the Bismarck anchored in the roadstead, and the Tirpitz at the pier in the harbour. Raeder was absent, and Lütjens received the Führer, but he didn't inform him about the upcoming sortie of his ships.

On 13 May, Admiral Lütjens and the Fleet Staff embarked in the Bismarck and then the ship spent the whole afternoon in the Bay of Danzig conducting refuelling exercises with the Prinz Eugen. On the next day, during the course of other exercises, this time with the light cruiser Leipzig, Bismarck’s 12-ton portside crane was disabled. The departure of the Bismarck was, therefore, once again delayed in order to repair the crane. Finally on 16 May, Lütjens informed the High Command that the ships were ready, and the date for the beginning of Operation Rheinübung was established as 18 May.

Bismarck's Departure.

At 1000 on the morning of 18 May 1941 in Gotenhafen, Admiral Lütjens inspected Prinz Eugen's crew. Afterwards, a conference was held on board the Bismarck, where the Admiral briefed the operative plan to the two ships' commanders, Captains Ernst Lindemann and Helmuth Brinkmann. It was decided that if the weather proved favourable, they would not stop in the Korsfjord (today Krossfjord). They would, instead, sail north to refuel from the Weissenburg before cruising into the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland.

At noon, the Bismarck left the berth under the tunes of Muß i' denn played by the fleet band, and then she anchored in Gotenhafen's roadstead to take on supplies and fuel. Operation Rheinübung had begun. While refuelling in the roadstead, one of the fuel-oil hoses broke and Bismarck could not be refuelled to her full capacity. It was nothing significant, although the battleship was loaded with approximately 200 tons less of fuel. At about 2100, the Prinz Eugen weighed anchor. Bismarck followed suit at 0200 in the early morning of 19 May. Both ships sailed independently until they joined together off Rügen Island at noon on 19 May. It was then that Captain Lindemann informed Bismarck's crew by loudspeaker that they were going into the North Atlantic to attack British shipping for a period of several months. After this, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen sailed west escorted by the destroyers Z-23 (Commander Friedrich Böhme) and Z-16 Friedrich Eckoldt (Commander Alfred Schemmel). At 2230, the destroyer Z-10 Hans Lody (Commander Werner Pfeiffer) with the Chief of the 6th Flotilla (Commander Alfred Schulze-Hinrichs) on board, joined the formation. During the night of 19/20 May the German ships passed through the Great Belt, which remained closed to merchant ships, and then reached the Kattegat in the morning of 20 May.

On 20 May, while in the Kattegat, the German battle group was sighted by numerous Danish and Swedish fishing boats. The weather was clear, and at 1300, the German ships were sighted by the Swedish cruiser Gotland (Captain Agren) which reported the sighting to Stockholm. Lütjens assumed this ship would report his position, and at 1737 radioed this incident to Group North, the German Naval command station based in Wilhelmshaven then under the command of Generaladmiral Rolf Carls. The Swedish had reported the sighting and then it was leaked to the British Naval Attaché, Captain Henry W. Denham. Later in the day, from the British embassy in Stockholm, Denham transmitted the following message to the Admiralty in London:

    "Kattegat, today 20 May. At 1500, two large warships, escorted by three destroyers, five ships and ten or twelve planes, passed Marstrand to the northeast. 2058/20."
Meanwhile, at 1615 in the afternoon, the 5th Minesweeping Flotilla (Lieutenant-Commander Rudolf Lell) joined the German battle group temporarily to help the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen pass through the minefields that blocked the entrance to the Kattegat. At dusk on 20 May, the German ships were already getting out of the Skagerrak near Kristiansand. They were then sighted from the coast by Viggo Axelssen, of the Norwegian resistance, who duly reported the sighting to the British in London via Gunvald Tomstad's secret, unregistered personal transmitter at Flekkefjord. During the night of 20/21 May the Germans headed north.

The Bismarck during her voyage to Norway seen from a minesweeper of the 5th Flotilla on 20 May 1941.

Early on 21 May, the British Admiralty received the sighting report from Denham, and aircraft were instructed to be on the alert for the German force. At about 0900, the German squadron entered the Korsfjord south of Bergen with clear weather. Admiral Lütjens had wanted to continue to the north without stopping in Norway, but because of the clear weather he decided to enter the Korsfjord and continue the voyage that night under cover of darkness. Pilots were taken aboard the German ships, and at noon, the Bismarck anchored in the Grimstadfjord at 250-500 meters off the nearest shore. The Prinz Eugen headed north with the three destroyers and anchored in Kalvanes Bay. As a measure of precaution two merchant ships were laid along both sides of Prinz Eugen as torpedo shields.

Bismarck Grimstadfjord
The Bismarck in the Korsfjord in the morning of 21 May 1941.

Meanwhile, at 1100 on 21 May, the British Coastal Command had dispatched an Spitfire (Lieutenant Michael Suckling) from Scotland to look for the German ships. At 1315, the Spitfire successfully sighted and photographed the German ships in the Korsfjord from an altitude of 8,000 meters (26,200 feet), and then returned to Scotland where it landed at Wick Airfield at about 1415. The sighting of the German battle group by the Swedish cruiser Gotland in the Kattegat as well as by Norwegian resistance operatives the previous day, had proven very unfortunate for the Germans. If the German group would have passed through the Kiel Canal instead, this may have possibly prevented such immediate sightings, and thus the Coastal Command sending the Spitfire. Unfortunately, it took two full days to transit the canal and it was not considered a viable option by the German command.

Route followed by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen within the Korsfjord.
During their brief stay in the Korsfjord, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen painted over their striped camouflage paint with outboard grey. In addition, the Prinz Eugen with less than 2,500 mt of fuel oil left in her tanks refuelled from tanker Wollin. The Bismarck did not refuel and this would later prove to be a mistake. It seems that refuelling the Bismarck was not scheduled, and that Prinz Eugen was refuelled only because she absolutely had to be due to her shorter endurance. By 1700, the Prinz Eugen completed refuelling, and at 1930, the German ships weighted anchor. At this time, Bismarck's intelligence team received a message from Germany, in which, based on an intercepted radio message, British aircraft had been instructed to be on the alert for two battleships and three destroyers proceeding on a northerly course. Around 2000, just before night fall, the five German ships left the Norwegian fiord, and after separating from the coastline, set a course of 0º at 2340, due North.

Upon receipt of the first sighting reports, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Cronyn Tovey, immediately began to consider the possible intentions of the German warships. He ordered the heavy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk, both under the command of Rear-Admiral William Frederick Wake-Walker, to patrol the Denmark Strait. Later in the afternoon, the photos taken by the Spitfire arrived, thus positively identifying one Bismarck class battleship and one Hipper class cruiser in Bergen. Therefore, shortly before midnight on 21 May, the battlecruiser Hood flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Lancelot Ernest Holland, the battleship Prince of Wales, and the destroyers Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra, and Icarus, left Scapa Flow for Hvalfjord in Iceland. Their mission to cover the access points south and east of Iceland.

This is the famous photograph taken by the British Spitfire (Suckling) at 1315 hours on 21 May 1941. The Bismarck can be seen to the right anchored in the Grimstadfjord near Bergen, Norway, with three merchant ships. Position 60º 19' 49" North, 05º 14' 48" East. The steamers would serve as torpedo shields in case of enemy attack. Unlike many other publications, this photo is shown here in its correct orientation, North up.

To the Denmark Strait.

On 22 May, the weather worsened. During the night, the German battle group headed North, with the three destroyers in the lead and the Prinz Eugen closing the formation. At 0420, the destroyers were detached and headed east to Trondheim, while the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen maintained their northward course at 24 knots. At 1237 there was a submarine and air alarm, and the German ships zig-zagged for about half an hour. When the alarm ended, the tops of the main and secondary turrets were painted over, and the swastikas on the decks were covered with canvas, as they could help enemy aircraft to identify the German ships. Afterwards, the group set a northwest course to the Denmark Strait. It was cloudy the entire day and the fog was so thick that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had to switch on their searchlights from time to time in order to maintain contact and keep position. The weather conditions were therefore very favourable for the German ships to pass through the Denmark Strait and reach the Atlantic unnoticed.

The Prinz Eugen follows Bismarck in the fog with the help of a searchlight. 22 May 1941.

Meanwhile, at 2000 on 22 May, Admiral Tovey received news that the German warships had departed Norway. He then left Scapa Flow with the battleship King George V, the aircraft carrier Victorious, the light cruisers Kenya, Galatea, Aurora, Neptune, Hermione, and the destroyers Active, Inglefield, Intrepid, Lance, Punjabi and Windsor. The battlecruiser Repulse, sailing from the Clyde was to join them later the next morning.

That night of 22/23 May, after receiving the report, Winston Churchill cabled to president Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Yesterday, twenty-first, Bismarck, Prinz Eugen and eight merchant ships located in Bergen. Low clouds prevented air attack. Tonight [we discovered] they have sailed. We have reason to believe that a formidable Atlantic raid is intended. Should we fail to catch them going out your Navy should surely be able to mark them down for us. King George V, Prince of Wales, Hood, Repulse and aircraft carrier Victorious, with auxiliary vessels will be on their track. Give us the news and we will finish the job."3

On 23 May the weather remained the same. At 1811 in the afternoon, the Germans sighted ships to starboard, but soon realised they were actually icebergs which were common in those latitudes. Meanwhile, the battle group reached the ice limit, and set a course of 240º. At 1922, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were sighted by the British heavy cruiser Suffolk at a distance of seven miles.4 The Suffolk sent an enemy report: "One battleship, one cruiser in sight at 20º. Distance sevn miles, course 240º." The Germans had detected the British cruiser as well, but were unable to engage the enemy because the Suffolk took cover in the fog. About an hour later, at 2030, the Germans sighted the British heavy cruiser Norfolk, and this time the Bismarck opened fire immediately. She fired five salvos, three of which straddled the Royal Navy ship throwing some splinters on board. The Norfolk was not hit by any direct impact, but had to launch a smoke screen and retire into the fog. The British cruisers then took up positions astern of the German ships; the Suffolk (equipped with a new Type 284 radar) on the starboard quarter, and the Norfolk (with an old Type 286M radar) on the port quarter. Both ships would keep R. D/F (radio direction-finding) contact and report the Germans’ position until more powerful British ships could engage.

On board the Bismarck the forward radar instrument (FuMO 23) had been disabled by the blast of the forward turrets. Because of this, Admiral Lütjens ordered his ships to exchange positions and the Prinz Eugen with her radar sets (FuMO 27) intact took the lead. Bismarck’s powerful artillery would serve to keep the British cruisers from coming any closer. This change would produce great confusion for the British the next morning.

After being sighted by cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk, Lütjens could have then turned around and head for the Norwegian Sea in order to refuel from tanker Weissenburg. He had already done this earlier that year when in command of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau his force was detected by the British cruiser Naiad in the Faeroes-Iceland gap. An early retreat at this point would have forced the four British capital ships (Hood, Prince of Wales, King George V and Repulse) that had already put to sea, to go back to Scapa Flow with a considerable expenditure of fuel. This time however, Lütjens continued towards the Atlantic with the hope of shaking off the British cruisers at night. The weather conditions in the Denmark Strait were favourable to do so. When Lütjens decided to press on, it is probably because he believed that the heavy units of the Home Fleet were too far away to intercept him, and that they may still be in Scapa Flow. The German reconnaissance reports seemed to confirm this, although the truth is that Vice-Admiral Holland's force was already approaching the area at high speed. Another thing Lütjens did not count on was the effective use of British radars. At about 2200, the Bismarck reversed her course trying to catch the Suffolk, but the British cruiser withdrew maintaining the distance. Therefore, the Bismarck returned to the formation behind the Prinz Eugen.

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1. Report No. 1, Office of Naval Operations 410/1941 Secret Command Subject, For the Attention of the Chief.

2. Group North was the German Naval command station based in Wilhelmshaven. It was at that time under the command of Generaladmiral Rolf Carls. Group West was based in Paris under the command of Generaladmiral Alfred Saalwächter.

3. WSC to FDR, May 23 (FDR microfilm I/0323). Also see PRO ADM 205/10.

4. Able Seaman Alfred Newall aboard Suffolk was the first man to sight the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait.

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