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|The First Contact|
Early in the morning of 23 May the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen entered the Denmark Strait. By the late afternoon of 23 May, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were approaching the pack ice off the coast of Greenland. From there, they turned on a southerly course. The German squadron proceeded cautiously down the dangerous channel during the rest of the afternoon. The narrow passage was the most dangerous part of the breakout. At this time of year not more than 48 kilometer (30 miles) to 64 kilometer (40 miles) wide.
In the early evening, at 1922 the alarm bells on the Bismarck sounded again. The hydrophones and radar had picked up a contact on the port bow of the Bismarck (the distance were about 11 kilometer (7 miles)). Bismarck signalled the alarm to the Prinz Eugen and her lookouts saw a dim shape disappearing into the mist about 20 degrees on the port bow. It was taken to be an auxiliary cruiser (actually it was the British heavy cruiser Suffolk). But the encounter had been so sudden that neither of the German ships had been able to make a definite identification and neither had been able to bring its guns to bear. As soon as the lookouts on Suffolk spotted the German ships. the Suffolk turned toward the coast of Iceland to hide there inside the fog. Suffolk later came around and fell astern of the German task force to begin shadowing it.
A few minutes before 2030 the radar of the Bismarck detected a new contact closing from the port bow (the distance was about 10 kilometer (6 miles)). It was another British heavy cruiser, the Norfolk, which had come up to assist the Suffolk after receiving her sighting report. The British cruiser was in the clear, and the Bismarck immediately took her under fire with her main armament. Five salvos in all Bismarck fired before Norfolk raced into a fog bank as the Suffolk had done earlier. Some straddled, and splinters came on board, but there were no casualties or hits. The Norfolk fell back and joined Suffolk shadowing the German squadron.
The German ships had picked up the sighting report from the Suffolk and advised the German headquarter that they had been detected. The Germans was able to decode the British radio meesages and was aware that the British cruisers were able to shadow the German ships with their radar equipment.
The blast from Bismarck's guns when firing at Norfolk had put her forward radar out of action, and she was now blind ahead. A desire to have eyes in front of him and also perhaps a fear that the shadowing british ships might creep up on Prinz Eugen in bad visibility, caused Lütjens to signal to Prinz Eugen to take station ahead. Now Prinz Eugen was in the lead, Bismarck astern of her, Norfolk and Suffolk ten to fourteen miles astern of Bismarck, all going at nearly thirty knots.
Throughout the rest of the evening, both forces continued on their convergent courses. The Germans made several attempts during the night to shake off their pursuers, but to no avail. At about 2200, the Bismarck doubled back on her course hoping to catch the British cruisers by surprise, but they were nowhere in sight. The Suffolk had detected the manoeuvre on her radar, and both cruisers disappeared in the fog as the German ship approached. When the Bismarck returned to her original course, both British cruisers resumed their shadowing duties astern of the German task force.
The Germans kept on a course of about 220º parallel to the coast of Greenland.
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