`SINK THE BISMARCK!’ pt.8

Hardly able to contain his excite­ment, Briggs ordered Smith to take a closer look while he moved to the wireless table. Smith went up into cloud, meaning to curl round to a position astern of the ship, but misjudged. - ed A few minutes later at 2,000 feet the clouds parted and there was the Bismarck on the beam, less than 500 yards away.

There was no need to question her identity : she disclosed it on her own. There were shell bursts all round them, the nasty rattle of shrapnel hitting the hull. Briggs, trying frantically to get his message off in case he was shot down, saw the Bismarck from the corner of his eye as one great winking flame.

At the Admiralty, relief at the Bismarck’s rediscovery was tem­pered by the knowledge that the King George V, 135 miles to the north, would not be able to catch up unless the Bismarck could somehow be slowed down. The man who had the best means for slowing her down was Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville of Britain’s Force H. With the Renown, Ark Royal and Sheffield, he had crossed ahead of the Bismarck’s track earlier that morning and was now only Too miles away, between the Bismarck and Brest.

Dawn had broken over Force H to show a storm-tossed sea, waves 40 feet high. Although the Ark Royal’s flight deck was 62 feet above the water line, it was being drenched with spray, and at times the forward end shipped green seas like a destroyer. The wind speed over the deck was 50 mph.

An hour and a half before the Catalina’s sighting, the Ark Royal sent off its own Swordfish in search of the enemy. Few carrier-borne aircraft had ever operated in such conditions. With the ship rolling up to 3o degrees, the flight crews had difficulty preventing the planes from sliding across the deck. The first plane off, tearing downhill to­wards the sea, ploughed a furrow through the wavetops with its wheels before it got clear.

When the Catalina’s sighting report came, the Swordfish were re­called to the ship to be armed with torpedoes. Then at 1.15 Admiral Somerville, on board the Renown, ordered the Sheffield to steer for the Bismarck, 40 miles away, and sha­dow from astern. He informed the Admiralty and Tovey of this by wireless signal, also the Ark Royal, which was out of visual touch with the flagship at the time.

The signal reached the Ark Royal in cipher, but as other important messages were waiting to be deci­phered, it was put to one side—so that when after lunch the crews of the striking force went to the Obser­vers Room for briefing, they were not told that the Sheffield was on her way to the Bismarck, and would be quite near her by the time they reached the scene. Their instruc­tions were that the Bismarck was alone.

At about 4 p.m. Captain Charles Larcom on the bridge of the Shef­field saw the Swordfish approach­ing. He was expecting them, having received Somerville’s signal that they had taken off. But there was something horribly familiar about their approach. Instead of flying past, they were coming at him from different directions, as he had often

seen them do when carrying out practice attacks on him. In a flash he realized the pilots had mistaken him for the Bismarck. He rang down for full speed, ordered the gun crews not to fire.

The first plane dropped its tor­pedo, and Larcom put the wheel over to comb the track. A second torpedo fell, but exploded as it hit the water, as did a third. But five or six more were launched successfully. On the bridge, Larcom listened to reports of where they were coming from, swung the wheel hard over to port or starboard. Thanks to his cool ship-handling, not one torpedo hit.

Only during their return flight to the Ark Royal did the Swordfish re­ceive the signal, “Look out for Sheffield.” After landing, the pilots clambered out despondently, but Captain Loben Maund of the Ark Royal was sympathetic, told them they were not to blame and to be ready for another attack in an hour’s time. Then he informed Somerville by lamp what he was doing, and Somerville signalled Tovey, “Sec­ond striking force will leave Ark Royal about 18.30.”

Tovey and his staff were not much cheered. They had been told that the result of the first strike was “no hits.” Not knowing about the Sheffield incident (Somerville had wisely decided this was not the mo­ment to publish it), they had little reason to think that a second attack would be any more successful. Time was running out fast. At 6.21 Tovey had previously signalled the Admir­alty and Somerville that unless the Bismarck’s speed had been reduced by midnight, he himself would have to return to harbour for lack of fuel — with the Hood’s death unavenged and the Bismarck still at large.