All that day and night the squadron sailed in formation through the Great Belt which divides the two parts of Denmark. Dawn broke to reveal a calm and empty sea, for as a security measure the Germans had frozen all shipping in the waters of the Kattegat and Skagerrak during the squadron’s passage. But they had not reckoned with the Gotland, a Swedish cruiser, which appeared soon after, grey in the sunlight against the green of the Swedish coast. She kept company with the German ships for several hours, then swung away. Admiral Lutjens, aboard the Bismarck, wirelessed home that he believed his presence had been betrayed.
Into the Open
AT Scapa Flow, ten miles from the coast of Scotland, lay the British Home Fleet, in a sweep of water ringed almost entirely by islands—a natural refuge for war-weary ships. On board the flagship King George V was a green telephone connected by a special shore line to the Admiralty in London. On this telephone, in the early morning of May 21, Admiral Sir John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, discussed the Gotland’s sighting.
It came as no surprise, It was known that both the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had completed training. Further, during the past ten days there had been frequent German reconnaissance flights over the
Flow and additional flights over the Denmark Strait, so that on May i8, at the moment the Bismarck was leaving the Baltic, Tovey had been prompted to order the cruiser Suffolk on patrol in the Denmark Strait to keep a sharp lookout, especially near the ice-edge, and her sister ship the Norfolk to sail from Iceland to join her.
Tovey was 56 now, a small, blue-eyed, twinkly man, who had entered the Navy at 15. He was deeply religious and radiated confidence, but could sometimes be fierce, An admiral had written of him when he was younger : “Tovey shares one characteristic with me. In myself I all it tenacity of purpose. In Tovey I can only call it sheer, bloody obstinacy.”
There were two things to be done immediately : make an aerial search of the Norwegian fjords, which the Admiralty had already arranged, and bring the fleet to short notice for steam. A signal went out from the flagship’s bridge, and from across the Flow the ships in company answered : the old battle cruiser Hood, 42,00o tons, for 21 years the pride of Britain’s Navy; the new battleship Prince of Wales and aircraft-carrier Victorious; and a score of cruisers and destroyers.
Not until afternoon was the result of the aerial reconnaissance known : the Bismarck was anchored in Korsfjord, the tongue of water that leads to Bergen. The Air Ministry agreed to an Admiralty
request to mount a bombing attack that night. But now came a change in the weather, a mist settled over the sea, it began to rain.
Hours passed. A creeping fear started to gnaw at Tovey’s heart, that the German ships had sailed, were even now heading towards the Atlantic where no less than 1 r Allied convoys were at sea. if so, there were no heavy ships to stop them. To Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland he sent a signal to proceed at once to Iceland with the Hood, Prince of Wales and six destroyers.
The next day dawned with more gloomy news; because of the weather only two of the 18 bombers that had set out to bomb the German ships had found the target area; both had bombed blind. Then early in the evening came news that the German ships had left Korsfjord, disappearing into the fog. Tovey immediately signalled the remaining ships to be ready to proceed with him at 10.45 p.m.
For the. men of the Norfolk and Suffolk, patrolling the Denmark Strait was not a popular job. The open sea here was a narrow passage, at this time of year not more than 3o or 4o miles wide, separating the edge of the Greenland ice-pack from the limits of the British declared minefield that stretched northwards from the Icelandic peninsula of Vestfirdir