If the Bismarck were to turn sharply west and increase speed when the British ships were going away from her, would their radar-men notice? There was nothing to be lost by trying, and soon after 3 a.m. Lindemann ordered the helmsman to put the wheel over to starboard, as the first move in a circle.
On board the Suffolk, tiredness, constant repetition and over-confidence had made the radar operators automatons, dulled them to the idea of anything new. When at about 3.30 they failed to pick up the Bismarck on the inward leg of their zigzag, no one thought greatly of it. They had lost and found her several times during the past 33 hours, soon they would find her again.
But time passed, and although the Suffolk increased her speed and kept on towards the west where she believed the Bismarck had gone, there was not a sign or whisper of her. She had vanished as completely as if she had never been, and at 5 a.m. Captain Ellis signalled to Wake-Walker: “Have lost contact with the enemy.”
IN THE Bismarck that morning, May 25, Lütjens thought he was still being followed, and in this belief he
transmitted to Germany a long signal about the efficiency of British radar, the engagement with the Hood, damage to the oil tanks—a thing he would not have dreamed of doing had he known he was alone.
The transmissions were picked up by various direction-finding stations about Britain, and the bearings passed to the Admiralty, who could hardly believe their luck. The Bismarck was shown to be south and east of her last reported positions, and Lieutenant-Commander Peter Kemp suggested the position be relayed to Tovey immediately. But Rear-Admiral Jock Clayton said no, explaining that before putting to sea Tovey had asked for bearings only and not a worked-out position : Tovey had two newly equipped direction-finding destroyers with him and, from a different angle, they would enable him to pinpoint the Bismarck.
So Kemp sent the bearings only and they reached the flagship soon after so a.m. But what the Admiralty didn’t know was that Tovey’s destroyers had all left for Iceland to refuel. Next, the bearings were plotted wrongly in the flagship, and as a result showed the Bismarck to be, not south-east of her last reported position, as she really was, but north of it. Accordingly, at 10.47 Tovey broadcast this position to the fleet, and the King George V, Prince of Wales, Victorious and Suffolk all turned north-east.
When the Admiralty staff heard what Tovey was doing, they didn’t know quite what to make of it. Tovey would not have turned the fleet towards the Iceland-Faroes gap without good reason. The best thing was to wait and see. And so all that morning and part of the afternoon, Tovey and Lütjens were steering away from each other, with the distance between them gradually opening.
During the afternoon the mistake in plotting was discovered by Tovey; all indications were that the Bismarck was heading for France. Accordingly, at 6 p.m. he ordered a turn to south-east. But the King George V turned virtually alone, for most of the ships were desperately short of fuel. After agonizing debate, the Norfolk too turned south-east.
Now the two main adversaries were steaming roughly the same course, but with the Bismarck though neither side knew it at this moment-150 miles in the lead. In something over 48 hours the Bismarck’s young crew, most of whom had never been outside Germany, would find themselves in France.
THAT night a Catalina aircraft of Coastal Command raced in the darkness across the waters of Lough Erne in north-west Ireland. The copilot was an American naval officer, Ensign Leonard Smith. He and eight other Americans had been assigned to Coastal Command as “Special Observers,” but were soon serving as full crew members a fact known then to very few. The plane circled once over the sleeping countryside and set course south-westwards across Donegal Bay towards the open sea in search of the Bismarck.
For three hours the plane flew, then dawn broke, and to those on watch came the pleasant smell of frying bacon and eggs. The plane carried 1,750 gallons of petrol so could remain airborne for up to 28 hours. The crew took their meals with them, and cooked them on a Primus stove as they went along.
At 9.45 they reached the area of search. It was a hazy morning with poor visibility and a very rough sea. About half an hour later, flying below cloud at 500 feet, Smith pointed ahead and said, “What’s that?” Flying Officer Dennis Briggs, the captain, saw about eight miles away a dull black shape which gradually took on the contours of a large warship.