Reaching his patrol area on May 23, Captain Robert Ellis of the Suffolk found good visibility over Greenland, but on the Icelandic side fog stretched in either direction. When, therefore, he was on his north-easterly run, facing the direction from which the enemy might come, he kept in the open water near the Greenland ice-edge, knowing that his radar would pick them up a long way ahead. But on the south-westerly leg when the bridge superstructure and funnel smoke obscured the view astern, he steered down the edge of the wall of fog, ready to slip into it if an emergency arose.
There hadn’t been a whisper of the Germans since the sighting in the Bergen fjords two days before; in that time, they could have steamed more than i,000 miles; they could be just over the horizon, already at the edge of the Atlantic, on their way back to Germany, or at anchor in some Norwegian fjord. Everyone had his own theory.
It was Able Seaman Newell in the Suffol who brought suspense to an end. At 7.22 p.m., he saw something which for the rest of his life
he would never forget—the Bismarck, black and massive, emerging from a patch of mist on the starboard quarter, not more than seven miles away. “Ship bearing Green One Four 0,” he shouted, and then as the Prinz Eugen swam into his lenses, “Two ships bearing Green One Four 0.”
Captain Ellis ordered hard a-port and full speed ahead to get into the fog. Another officer pressed the alarm bells and all over the ship men leapt from mess-bench or hammock, slid into sea-boots, snatched coats and scarves, lifebelts and tin hats.
But no salvoes came, and the Suffolk breached the fog wall unharmed. Safe inside, she waited, sending out a string of reports, watching the two blips on the radar scan. The Norfolk, 15 miles away in the fog, picked up the first signals. Captain Alfred Phillips at once increased speed, but in his eagerness misjudged the direction. He emerged from the fog to find the Bismarck only six miles away, coming straight at him.
The Bismarck’s guns roared in anger. Rear-Admiral Frederick Wake-Walker, in the Norfolk, saw the sea to starboard pocked with shell splinters, observed one shell bounce off the water 5o yards away and ricochet over the bridge. Great columns of milk-white water rose in the air, zoo feet high.
Five salvoes in all were fired before the Norfolk regained the mist;some straddled, and splinters came on board, but there were no casualties or hits. Both the Norfolk and Suffolk waited for the Germans to pass, then began to follow. It was not their business to fight the Bismarck, but to keep in touch with her until bigger ships arrived.
Admiral Tovey, then boo miles to the south-east, was as relieved as the Admiralty in London that his dispositions had proved correct. But the man to whom the news was of greatest moment was Vice-Admiral Holland in the Hood, which with the Prince of Wales and their destroyers was now only 300 miles away and steering on a converging course.
Preparations for Battle
Jr ANY one ship could be said to have been the embodiment of British sea power and the British Empire between the wars, it was the mighty Hood. Longer even than the Bismarck (86o feet to 820), although narrower in the beam, she mounted, like the Bismarck, eight 15-inch guns in four turrets. Her maximum speed of 32 knots, at the time she was built, made her destroyed by German shells which, fired at long range, had plunged vertically through the lightly protected decks and exploded inside. All big ships built after Jutland had strengthened armour. The Hood’s armour was strengthened on her sides but not on her decks; they were her Achilles’ heel.
Between the wars, when a quarter of the globe was still coloured pink for Britain, the Hood showed the flag, as they used to say, to the Empire and the world. Her 1923-24 world tour in company with the Repulse and five cruisers was described as “the most successful cruise by a squadron of warships in the history of sea-power.” Their arrival anywhere caused huge crowds to gather and filled the pages of the local Press. Millions saw the Hood, hundreds of thousands came on board.