An analysis of the famous engagement between German warships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen against British warships H.M.S.s Hood and Prince of Wales (plus Norfolk and Suffolk).
I am sure that to any of us that happened to look at photos of important naval battles and tried to associate them with the chronological series of events, there are inconsistencies in the way the events are portrayed. When I examined photos of the Bismarck taken during the Battle of the Denmark Strait against the Hood and against the Prince of Wales the captions under the photos were often contradictory. One day on the Internet looking at various forums concerning this battle I even read about a theory that assumed some of the photos had always been printed in reverse (1). There seemed to be no sense to what was written. For such an important historical event why are there still so many doubts, errors and approximations. Naval history, the Kriegsmarine and military strategy are my passion, so I decided to re-construct that battle in full detail with all the supporting information from films (2), photos, prints and paint or drawings available (3).
This article, consequently, is not intended to describe the whole of Operation “Rheinübung” (4), but is meant to clarify only the series of events which occurred during the Battle of the Denmark Strait on the morning of Saturday May 24, 1941.
This engagement was composed of one German formation and two British formations. The German formation included the battleship Bismarck (Captain Ernst Lindemann, with Fleet Chief Admiral Günther Lütjens on board) and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (Captain Helmuth Brinkmann).
The first British formation, which had been shadowing the German formation since the evening before, included the heavy cruisers Norfolk (Captain Alfred J.L. Phillips, with 1st Cruiser Squadron Commander Rear-Admiral William F. Wake-Walker on board) and Suffolk (Captain Robert M. Ellis). The second formation, which was converging on the area with the intent of engaging the enemy by surprise, guided to this by the continuous signals received from the Norfolk, included the battlecruiser Hood (Captain Ralph Kerr, with Battle Cruiser Squadron Commander and 2nd in Charge of the Home Fleet Vice Admiral Lancelot E. Holland) and the battleship Prince of Wales (Captain John C. Leach). This formation also included 6 escort destroyers (Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra and Icarus) which were detached the previous evening and were not present at the battle.
The strategic and tactical scenarios during the early hours of May 24, 1941 were different between the Germans and the British.
The Germans had been intercepted the evening before by Suffolk, at 19:22 (5) on the narrow area of the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Suffolk had been joined almost immediately by her sister ship, Norfolk, which was patrolling the same area. The Bismarck was sailing in-line ahead, followed by the Prinz Eugen. The Bismarck reacted at once by firing at the Norfolk (5 main gun salvoes at 20:30 ) which had just emerged from a rainstorm to find herself seriously exposed at a very short distance from the Germans (7 nautical miles – 13,000 meters ) and had to quickly turn and re-enter the rainstorm to avoid being hit by the Bismarck’s big guns (6).
The main gun salvoes fired by Bismarck damaged the forward main radar sets of the German battleship: the equipment model FuMo 23, one on top of the main tower above the main rangefinder and the other on top of the forward rangefinder, went out of action leaving the German battleship blind ahead and with only the aft third radar set working.
Since it was impossible to repair them quickly, and due to the approaching darkness (even though during that time of the year in those latitudes night only lasted a few hours and at 04:00 the light was comparable to a normal daylight) Admiral Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to exchange position (signal “NW”) moving ahead to cover the German formation's forward sector with her own FuMo 27 radar set, while the Bismarck was to cover the aft ones with the only working one of her 3 model FuMo 23 radars, the one atop the aft rangefinder (7).
This manoeuvre, which occurred in darkness, was not observed by the British radar and passed un-noticed by the Suffolk, which was shadowing on the starboard aft area to the west of the German formation, and the Norfolk which was shadowing on the port side aft, to the east.
On board Suffolk and Norfolk the radar outfit was different (8): the Suffolk was equipped with the latest radar version of the Type 284 modified, using a rotating antenna (only a ‘’blind area ‘’ sector on the stern ), which could guarantee a coverage as far as 13 nautical miles (24,000 meters ) in distance. Thanks to this capability, the Suffolk could shadow the German formation from the west keeping a safe distance from the Bismarck's main guns. The Norfolk, which was sailing to the east of the German formation and was not equipped with same radar, could only count on the Type 286M radar, with a fixed antenna and reduced range, covering only forward sectors and was forced to leverage the Suffolk radar data to hold contact.
The reason why the change of position of the German ships passed un-noticed by the British radars was a snowstorm which began at 23:52 of May 23 (9). This snowstorm created noise and false echoes on the Suffolk radar screen which added to very strange optical effects of the arctic night. This made the British heavy cruiser commanders afraid that the German ships could have inverted course and take them by surprise: against the Bismarck main guns they would have had very little chance and could have been sunk in a short time.
When a spotter atop Suffolk's main tower reported a big shadow which seemed to close in from the south, the British heavy cruiser immediately reversed course and sailed away. Having realized the mistake, she returned to the old course but was so far aft that it took nearly 3 hours to regain radar contact with the German ships (at 02:47 of May 24). Norfolk, on its own, was not able to keep radar contact, consequently for 3 hours the German ships remained out of any British radar range (10).
It was in this situation that the position change between the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen passed unnoticed by the 2 British heavy cruisers and was not communicated to the incoming battlecruiser formation (Hood and Prince of Wales). This force was coming in at 27 knots on a course of 295°. The escorting destroyers which, because of the rough sea and the speed, had found it difficult to maintain contact with the main units and were ordered by VADM Holland to follow at the best speed possible (11).
VADM Holland, on board the Hood, having not received any more precise information from Suffolk, became convinced that the German formation was trying to sail back into the Denmark Strait after having reversed course and consequently at 00:08 ordered the Hood and Prince of Wales together with the escorting destroyers to turn north on course 340°, reducing their speed to 25 knots (12).
At 00:30 Holland signaled again to Prince of Wales that, if before 02:10 the contact was not re-established, the battlecruiser group should take a course south, 180°, until contact was regained by the heavy cruisers. It was his intention to engage the Bismarck with the Hood and the Prince of Wales while the Norfolk and the Suffolk engage the Prinz Eugen (confirmed by Admiral Sir John Tovey Commander of the Home Fleet). This order was obviously not transmitted immediately by radio to either the Suffolk or Norfolk by VADM Holland (because of the radio silence of both British warships) and was never received by the heavy cruiser commanders nor by Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker thru any other communication channel.
At 02:03, while the brief arctic night was vanishing, the two German ships having changed their relative positions un-noticed, keeping the same course south, 170°, VADM Holland, concerned that the Bismarck could sail away south to the Atlantic ocean without being intercepted, ordered his two warships to change course to 200° at 25 knots. Now the course of the British ships was almost parallel to the German formation.
The Prince of Wales turned on her Type 284 radar (Leach asked permission to use his Type 281 radar, but was refused due to interference between the Type 281 and Type 284 on board Hood). The destroyers were ordered to continue to search to the north, for precautionary reasons, taking a position of 15 nautical miles one from each other.
It was only at 02:47 that Suffolk resumed radar contact with the German ships and transmitted their exact position, course and speed (course 220° at 28 knots). Consequently, Holland could again verify their position in relation to his battle group. The Germans were now 35 nautical miles (64,800 meters) to the North-West. It was not until 03:40 that VADM Holland ordered a change of course to 240° and only at 03:53 that he ordered an increase of the speed to 28 knots, both absolutely necessary to prevent an increase in distance to the German ships.
At 03:19 the Suffolk transmitted one of her reports on the enemy. This was very useful for VADM Holland to evaluate the whole scenario. The Suffolk reported a battleship at 188° (from Suffolk) at a distance of 24,000 yards (21,900 meters) and one heavy cruiser at 185° at a distance 22,500 yards (20,500 meters). From this message it is clear that Suffolk was still reporting the Bismarck position as ahead of Prinz Eugen by1,400 meters (1,500 yards), without having realized that the two German ships had changed their own positions a few hours before. The naval formations were now approaching on converging paths, but the British warships had lost their initial advantage. They could have cut across the course of the German formation establishing the best course and angle of approach to the enemy during the coming engagement ( the classical “crossing the T ”).
At 04:30 the daylight was as such that the visibility was 12 nautical miles (22,000 meters).
On board the Prince of Wales the “Walrus” seaplane was prepared for takeoff with the intention of using it for spotting purpose during the coming battle. Due to the presence of water in the fuel, the launch was postponed; the airplane was later damaged during the battle and jettisoned.
At 04:50 the Prince of Wales passed ahead of the British formation, on the Hood’s starboard side, and kept that position until 05:05 when the Hood resumed the lead position, again to port of Prince of Wales. Meanwhile VADM Holland ordered preparation for the upcoming battle. At 05:10 ‘’Action Station’’ was ordered aboard the British warships and everybody assumed their battle stations.
At 05:21 the German ships changed course to 170° at 27 knots. At 05:32 they went back to a of course 220° at 27 knots (13), with the Prinz Eugen leading the Bismarck by 2700 yards (2500 meters).
At 05:35 the spotters on board Prince of Wales reported smoke on the horizon and at 05:37 the British battleship transmitted her enemy report radio signal from 38,00 yards (34,700 meters):
“Emergency to Admiralty and C in C Home Fleet. One battleship and one heavy cruiser, bearing 335, distance 17 nautical miles. My position 63-20 North, 31-50 West. My course 240. Speed 28 knots.“
This message could have been intercepted by the German ships, in fact at 05:37 the Prinz Eugen identified a ship (suspected light cruiser per the B-Dienst) on the port side (14), at a distance of 37,300 yards (34,100 meters). At the same time, the two British battleships turned 40° to starboard to a course of 280° still at 28 knots.
At 05:41 the Norfolk, closing the distance from east established visual contact with the enemy at 15 nautical miles or 30,000 yards (27,780 meters) and transmitted an enemy report (15).
While distances were closing in, the Hood transmitted her enemy report at 05:43 :
“Emergency to Admiralty and C in C Home Fleet. One battleship and one heavy cruiser, bearing 337, distance 17 nautical miles. My position 63-20 North, 31-50 West. My course 240. Speed 28 knots.”
Probably intercepting this message from Hood, the Prinz Eugen identified another unit closing in at 05:43 and evaluated the distance at 34,446 yards (31,484 meters) or exactly 17 nautical miles, just as reported by the Hood’s radio message, and with same bearing of 337°, or to be precise it should have been the opposite so 157°; the presence of 337° and 17 nautical miles. This was confirmed by the decryption of the Hood radio message from Prinz Eugen (16).
At 05:47 the ‘’Alarm’’ was given aboard the German ships and everybody took to their battle stations. (17).
At 05:49, not satisfied with the approaching angle of his own ships, which would have exposed the lightly protected Hood decks to the long distance plunging fire from Bismarck, VADM Holland ordered another turn of 20° to starboard (12), changing course to 300°, closing the distance with the closest angle that would have still allowed the Hood to utilize her full set of main gun turrets (18). Consequently he would have closed the distance as fast as he could utilising maximum firepower and exposing Hood for a minimum period of time to the Bismarck's long range firing; however, in doing so, unfortunately, limited his ships to using only the forward turrets, their aft turrets being unable to bear on the enemy due to the acute angle of approach chosen (19).
At 05:50 on board Prinz Eugen (20) the enemy (Hood and Prince of Wales) were calculated to have been 32,882 yards (30,000 meters) distant. The Norfolk was at 26,000 meters, the Suffolk at 30,000 meters, while the Hood and the Prince of Wales were only 25,000 meters away.
Compared to what Admiral Tovey had probably ordered (21) and that VADM Holland had also communicated to Prince of Wales a few hours before – namely a simultaneous surprise attack by 4 British ships in which Hood and Prince of Wales would have engaged the Bismarck (obviously utilizing the full set of artillery from very favourable positions) while Norfolk and Suffolk would have engaged the Prinz Eugen – this had turned into a much different situation. The Prinz Eugen was ahead of the Bismarck and not behind to her, the Norfolk and Suffolk were still too far away and probably had not received any order to attack the Prinz Eugen which was now in a non favourable position, plus the two British heavy warships were attacking from a position where their full artillery could not be brought to bear. Meanwhile the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could use their full artillery against them; just the opposite of what was supposed to have been executed.
The surprise was the only thing that worked, as the German ships were caught unprepared by the fast approach of the Hood and Prince of Wales. This, however, was the only thing that worked well . In fact, on board the Hood, due to the fact that the profile of the German ships were very similar at a great distance, they had not noticed that the leading ship was not the Bismarck but the Prinz Eugen. Consequently, VADM Holland, at 05:49, signaled to the Prince of Wales “G.S.B. 337 L1” meaning engage the first ship on the left of the enemy formation bearing 337°, which was the Prinz Eugen.
On board Prince of Wales the 1st Artillery Officer, Lieutenant Commander Colin W. McMullen, just transferred from Hood, recognized the Bismarck and ordered the artillery to be directed to the second ship on the line and not to the first one as was wrongly ordered.
It has been reported that on board the Hood they noticed the error just before opening fire and that VADM Holland ordered a target switch to the second ship in the line (“G.I.C. and G.O.B. 1” = shift target one ship right ). But even if VADM Holland’s order was really issued, apparently it was never executed and consequently the Hood fired only on the Prinz Eugen all the way thru the engagement (22).
Continued in Part 2