Tuesday May 27, 1941 dawned as a gloomy day with dark grey cloud cover and a strong westerly wind that refused to allow the sea any rest. British destroyers split the waves as white foam washed over the decks. The larger ships were better suited to the weather, but the wind that swept past the Ark Royal’s flight deck was so strong it was feared that the Swordfish aeroplanes would be damaged.
In spite of the depressing morning, morale on board the British ships remained high. The previous day, the Bismarck had seemed to escape the revenge so dearly longed for by the Royal Navy. Now the situation had reversed completely and preparations were made for battle. All loose items were secured or stowed away. The seamen changed socks and underwear as a precaution against infection in case of suffering from wounds. Men serving on deck or in gun turrets and as shell handlers collected the white equipment that protected against gun flashes and burns. Lifebelts and steel helmets were put on, whereupon resolute men who tried to collect their thoughts as well as possible, to cope with the tasks they had to perform, manned battle stations. Although most of the men on the British cruisers and battleships felt anxiety as well as fear, all but a few also looked forward to avenging the destruction of the Hood. Fatigue was forgotten. A final exhortation, a final battle, and the men could return to the sleep, the safety and the recreation on land.
On the Bismarck, exactly the opposite situation prevailed. The seamen had already persuaded themselves that the dangerous part of the voyage lay behind them. Plans for home leave or adventures in France were already being discussed. Then, suddenly came the improbable torpedo hit. The younger men perhaps did not realize quite how desperate their situation was. In their minds, they were immortal. Men died in war, but other men, not they. It would be dangerous, but somehow they would survive. The older and more experienced were more realistic. They could not know much about the forthcoming battle, but they realized the British would send sufficient forces to ensure their destruction. However, they kept their thoughts to themselves so as not to spread unnecessary panic among the younger men. The only chance of survival lay in every man performing his duties as well as possible.
The officers knew what the damaged steering system would mean to their chances in the forthcoming battle. They could afford to ignore the calls in the loudspeakers urging the crew to watch for German submarines and aircraft, as they realized it was only a measure to strengthen morale.
In the damage-control centre, Artificer Josef Statz decided to remain at his post, no matter what happened during the coming battle, and to follow the ship to the bottom of the ocean if the battle ended badly. After a long period of inactivity, Lieutenant Jahreis called for their attention. ‘We have some time now,’ he said. ‘Let’s think once more of the homeland!’
‘Yes, and of wives and children most of all,’ someone added.
When Müllenheim-Rechberg made a final visit to the gunroom, he was met by an oppressive silence, sometimes interrupted by dispirited comments. Suddenly one of the officers made a remark that would forever engrave itself on Müllenheim-Rechberg’s memory: ‘Today, my wife will become a widow, but she doesn’t know it yet.’
‘It was depressing,’ Müllenheim-Rechberg wrote later, ‘too depressing to stay.’
He left the gunroom and continued to the bridge, where silence met him. To his surprise, he saw that Lindemann already wore a life vest and appeared absent-minded.
He saw me coming, but he did not return my salute, which I held as I looked at him intently in the hope that he would say something. He did not say a word. He did not even glance at me. I was greatly disturbed and puzzled. After all, I had been his personal adjutant and the situation we were in seemed to me unusual enough to merit some remark. I would have given a great deal for a word from him, one that would have told me what he felt about what had happened. But there was only silence, and I had to interpret it for myself.
It was decided that one of the floatplanes would fly to France with the ship’s war diary, the films shot on board and an account written by one of the war correspondents. The fortunate airmen who were given a chance to avoid the impending catastrophe dressed for the mission while their Arado was moved from the hangar to the catapult. When the pilots reached the deck, seamen who had written their last words to parents, friends, wives or fiancées and wanted these greetings to be taken home surrounded them. With a mixture of relief and disgrace for leaving all the other men to their fate, the airmen put the papers in their pockets and entered the aircraft. But the aircraft could not be launched. After a while, it was discovered that a splinter originating from a shell fired by the Prince of Wales had punctured the container with the compressed air that propelled the catapult. It could not be repaired and the two airmen were again left to share the fate of their comrades.
Meanwhile, Tovey tried to gather his forces, to coordinate the attack. Although the Bismarck was damaged, she could not be dismissed as an impotent adversary. It could not b forgotten that she had sunk the Hood within a few minutes. The position reports given by Vian’s destroyers did not seem to fit with Tovey’s data and he could not see any star shells or flares. He wanted to approach the enemy head to head, from the west-northwest. But he could not accomplish that without knowing the position of the enemy. The latest report, from the destroyer Maori, told him that the enemy sailed at a course of 300 degrees. Fifteen minutes after dawn, Tovey altered to an easterly course. To the north, he could see the Rodney; not as close as the Prince of Wales had been to the Hood but allowing Dalrymple-Hamilton sufficient room for individual manoeuvre.
Like Tovey, Somerville had his share of problems to consider, partly caused by the unreliable position reports. He feared that Force H would accidentally encounter the Bismarck, which might hit and damage, or even destroy, the Ark Royal or Renown before Tovey arrived on the scene. There was also a risk that the Renown might mistakenly be fired upon by Tovey’s battleships when visibility was reduced by rainsqualls. Aerial reconnaissance had not produced any results yet.
By 03.00 hours Somerville had already inquired when Maund could launch another torpedo attack. He had been told that the aircraft were ready, but he did not want to launch them until daylight made it possible to separate friend from foe. Now, Maund asked if it would not be better to cancel the attack altogether. The incident with the Sheffield was still clearly remembered and the miserable weather would make it harder to avoid such mistakes, if it permited air operations at all. Somerville agreed and informed Tovey. In order to establish the position of the enemy, Somerville turned north and shortly afterwards sighted the Maori, which could report the enemy’s exact position. Satisfied with this information, Somerville returned south. He could keep his ships outside the coming battle.
At the same time, yet another British ship moved towards the scene. The heavy cruiser Dorsetshire was escorting the convoy SL74 when she received the Admiralty’s broadcast on the report from the Catalina. The commander, Captain Benjamin Martin, realized his cruiser was in a position to intercept the Bismarck. The northbound convoy was left behind as the Dorsetshire increased speed and set course towards the Bay of Biscay. She approached the Bismarck from southeast.
On 27 May it was Rear Admiral Wake-Walker on the Norfolk who first caught sight of the Bismarck. He had been sailing westwards until midnight between 25 and 26 May. Now he saw the Bismarck in the sea mist ahead. However, he mistakenly identified the shadow as the Rodney and sent a recognition signal, but immediately afterwards realized his mistake. The Germans did not bother sending any recognition signal. Instead, the Bismarck’s main guns flashed and a few seconds later her shells landed around the British cruiser, which turned around and soon reached safe distance. Wake-Walker waited for Tovey to arrive. He did not have to wait long; soon the masts and superstructures of the King George V and Rodney became visible on the horizon. ‘We were rather tired at this point,’ Phillips remembered. ‘There hadn’t been much sleep during the last days. But the battleships turned against the enemy.’
All the efforts finally paid off. All that remained was to defeat the crippled enemy. Rapid signals were exchanged between the British ships and at 08.43 hours the loudspeakers on the King George V announced that the Bismarck had been sighted.
When the crew on board the British battleship cheered, many officers on the bridge felt jubilant as the long pursuit was finally coming to a successful end. At last they saw her: the ship they had chased for four days. Many times they had felt despair as she seemed to evade them indefinitely. ‘Veiled in distant rainfall,’ Lieutenant Commander Hugh Guernsey wrote. ‘A thick, squat ghost of a ship, very broad in the beam, coming straight towards us.’
‘I think it was the most magnificent ship I ever saw,’ recalled Ludovic Kennedy, a Lieutenant on board the destroyer Tartar and son of the late commander of the Rawalpindi. ‘Massive – 50,000 tons. But despite her beauty, we realized she had to be destroyed.’
On board the Rodney, Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton sent a thought, proud as well as worried, to his son who served with the antiaircraft artillery on the King George V. Then he grasped the microphone for the internal loudspeaker system and said: ‘We’re going in! Good luck!’
A second later the barrels of the forward gun turrets flashed, the sea ahead of the battleship was temporarily flattened by the blast and six 40.6cm shells had begun their trajectory towards the Bismarck. The time was 08.47 hours, the wind northwesterly and the range 25,000 metres.
‘The alarm bells were still ringing,’ Müllenheim-Rechberg remembered, ‘when, returning from the bridge, I entered my action station.’ He grasped the receiver to the control telephone and heard that the waiting was over: ‘Two battleships port bow.’
I turned my director and saw two bulky silhouettes, unmistakably the King George V and Rodney, at a range of approximately 24,000 metres. As imperturbable as though they were on their way to an execution, they were coming directly towards us in line abreast …
In his headset, Müllenheim-Rechberg heard Schneider calmly issuing orders: ‘Main and secondary batteries ready, request permission to fire.’
But it was Dalrymple-Hamilton who opened the battle. When the first shots were fired, the British battleships were on an east-southeasterly course, with King George V ahead and the Rodney slightly abaft on the port side. The Bismarck approached from the south, on a north-northwesterly course, placing her more or less ahead of the bows, just slightly to the starboard of the British ships. Seen from the Bismarck’s position, the Norfolk was located 30 degrees to starboard and the Dorsetshire 90 degrees to starboard. Both cruisers remained at a safe distance.
King George V opened fire soon after the Rodney. Müllenheim-Rechberg knew it would take less than a minute for the shells to reach their target, but it seemed like much longer. ‘Finally,’ Müllenheim-Rechberg wrote, ‘white mushrooms, tons of water thrown up by heavy shells, rose seventy metres into the air. But they were still quite far from us.’
Three minutes later than the Rodney, the Bismarck opened fire. On the British battleships, the huge orange flashes from the Bismarck’s guns could easily be seen. A thick cloud of smoke, much darker than the smoke from the British guns, drifted away over the stormy sea. It would take little more than half a minute for the shells to cover the distance between the ships, and the British could not yet tell if the target was the Rodney or the King George V.
One of Tovey’s officers made a quick estimate on the time needed for the German shells to reach their target. He began to count down loudly as he looked at his watch.
‘For God’s sake,’ Tovey interrupted, ‘Shut Up!’ Like everyone else on the bridge, he had put on his steel helmet and placed cotton in his ears to protect them from the sharp sound when the flagship’s main guns fired. He was as aware as anyone else what would happen if the enemy’s salvo hit the bridge and he did not want to know exactly when this would happen.