“Have Lost Contact”
WHEN the crews of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were told that the Prince of Wales had turned away, there was much cheering and shouting, joy at victory and relief at survival. “Report hits and casualties,” Lütjens signalled to the Prinz Eugen. The signal came back, “None.”
But the Bismarck had been less fortunate. She had received three hits altogether. The most serious had struck the port bow at about the waterline, penetrated two oil tanks and come out the starboard side without exploding. The hit let seawater into the oil tanks and quantities of oil into the sea.
Because of the flooding the bow was down by two or three degrees, and there was a list to port of nine degrees. Lindemann ordered counter-flooding aft to restore the trim, and maximum speed was reduced from 30 to 28 knots. Collision mats were put down to cover the two holes in the bows, and presently they stopped any more water getting into the ship, although the oil continued to leak out.
The Bismarck could no longer carry out her assignment without dockyard repairs. The nearest friendly port was Bergen or Trondheim, both 1,000 miles away. But this meant a return through the hazardous passages north or south of Iceland. The coast of France was boo miles further, but meant longer nights and wider seas in which to shake off her shadowers. So Lütjens signalled Germany his intentions to release the Prinz Eugen for independent warfare and for the Bismarck to put into St. Nazaire.
Meanwhile, unknown to Lütjens, the King George V, flagship of Admiral Tovey, together with the Repulse, the aircraft carrier Victorious and her escorting cruisers and destroyers, were slowly closing from the east. Admiral Tovey calculated that if the Bismarck maintained her course and speed, he would not be in action with her until early next morning (May 25).
But what if the Germans put on a burst of speed during the night, zigzagged violently, broke away westwards or to the north F He had only one weapon that could slow the Bismarck down : the Victorious and her Swordfish torpedo planes.
Tovey thought of his raw young airmen, many of whom had never flown on sea operations before. Was it fair to baptize his pilots on such a mission, did they have the smallest chance of success ? The biplanes had wing-struts, two fixed wheels, one engine, things the Wright brothers or Bleriot might have flown an age ago. But he thought of the Hood too, and her 1,400 dead and what might happen in the Atlantic if the Bismarck got away. There was no choice. At about 3 p.m., he ordered the Victorious to steer a direct intercepting course towards the enemy. By evening she should be roo miles from the Bismarck—the maximum range for launching and retrieving the planes.
There were to be nine Swordfish in the attack. Each carried a crew of three and an 18-inch torpedo slung below the belly. The first plane trundled down the flight deck soon after to p.m., took off, and presently the whole squadron was airborne.
In the Bismarck they watched the approach of the Swordfish with amazement. “It was incredible to see such obsolete-looking planes,” said one German, “having the nerve to attack a fire-spitting mountain like the Bismarck.” But attack they did.
Miraculously, not one of the Swordfish was shot down or even badly damaged, and all returned to the Victorious.
On the other hand, only one torpedo struck the Bismarck, and it did little damage. Forward, however, the collision mats had been displaced by the high-speed twisting and turning to avoid the torpedoes. Water poured in, the ship again went down by the bows. Speed was reduced to i6 knots to allow divers to reset the mats and bring in more pumps.
For Lütjens two needs had become paramount : to abandon the somewhat leisurely course he was steering down the middle of the Atlantic and cut away directly for France; and secondly, to escape the shadowing cruisers. Other planes would be back in the morning for certain. Also Lütjens had heard from shore headquarters of the departure from Gibraltar for “an unknown destination” of Britain’s Force H — the Renown, the Ark Royal, the cruiser Sheffield and destroyers. Unless he could give the Norfolk and Suffolk the slip, it would be only a matter of time before the Ark Royal’s planes also found him.
Fortunately, a means of escape had now come to hand. From hydrophones and other devices, it had become evident that there were no British ships on the starboard side (due to an unexpected alteration in the Bismarck’s course), while those on the port were zigzagging, at times coming to within 12 miles of the Bismarck, at others increasing the distance considerably.