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Operation "Rheinübung"

18 May 1941 / 1000
Admiral Günther Lütjens inspects Prinz Eugen at Gotenhafen.
A commanders’ conference was held on Bismarck following the inspection. In attendance were Kapitän zur See Harald Netzband (Lütjens Chief of Staff), Generaladmiral Alfred Saalwächter (Commanding Officer, Group West) and the two commanding officers concerned. It was then that Lütjens revealed the details of Operation Rheinübung to Lindemann and Brinkmann. The goal of the operation was to attack merchant shipping in the North Atlantic, especially the convoy routes to and from Britain. The ships were to break out into the Atlantic undetected. They were also instructed not to engage enemy warships of equal or greater strength and to maintain the integrity and safety of their own vessels. Lütjens also informed the captains that he planned to refuel from the tanker Weissenburg in the Norwegian Sea, and afterwards to use the 180-mile-wide Denmark Strait.

18 May 1941 / 1130
Operation Rheinübung officially begins.

Prinz Eugen and Bismarck left their berths in Gotenhafen to the tune of ‘Muß i denn, muß i denn zum Städtele hinaus’ played by Bismarck’s band. They anchored in the roadstead to embark supplies and fuel. The Bismarck had around 2,221 officers and ratings aboard, including an admiral’s staff of nearly 65 and a prize crew of 80 to crew merchant shipping seized in the Atlantic. A rup¬ture in a fuel line saw that the Bismarck could not be refuelled to her full capacity, leaving her short of 200 tons of fuel. During the afternoon, Bismarck conducted routine exercises in the Baltic, then returned and dropped anchor at Gotenhafen roadstead.

18 May 1941 / 2118
Prinz Eugen weighed anchor, left Gotenhafen and headed west.

19 May 1941 / 0200
Bismarck weighed anchor and made for Danish waters.

19 May 1941 / 1125
Prinz Eugen and Bismarck rendezvoused off Cape Arkona, the northern tip of Rügen Island. Lindemann addressed his crew informing them that they were heading into the North Atlantic and the objective was to attack British supply lines. Both warships headed due west, now escorted by two destroyers: Z-23 and Z-16 Friedrich Eckoldt.

19 May 1941 / 2230
Destroyer Z-10 Hans Lody joined the formation. The German task force approached the Great Belt at 2234. All German maritime traffic had been suspended in the Danish Belts for the night of 19-20 May.

20 May 1941 / Morning
The German task force reached the Kattegat where they spotted Danish and Norwegian fishing boats as well as coastal freighters. A squadron of Swedish aircraft flying a routine reconnaissance mission about 20 nautical miles west of Vinga spotted the German ships and reported their sighting to the naval headquarters in Stockholm.

20 May 1941 / 1300
The German force was sighted by the Swedish cruiser Gotland. Gotland’s captain informed the Swedish Admiralty of the sighting.

Admiral Lütjens gave the order not to pass through the cleared opening in the Skagerrak mine barrier out of fear that British submarines might be lurking just beyond. Instead, he ordered Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Lell of the 5th Minesweeping Flotilla to open a new passage through the field. It was a time-consuming operation.

Photo: Bismarck in the wake of a minesweeper shortly after the beginning of Operation "Rheinübung".

20 May 1941 / 1600
Lindemann changed course to 300° through the new opening in the minefield. Bismarck was making 17 knots and steaming on a zigzag course. Lütjens assumed that Gotland would report his position, and at 1737, informed Group North about the incident.

20 May 1941 / 1900
In Stockholm, Colonel Alfred Roscher Lund, the Norwegian government-in-exile’s military attaché, informed Captain Henry Denham, Britain’s naval attaché, that two large warships were steaming through the Kattegat heading north.

20 May 1941 / 2058
Captain Denham reports the sighting to the Admiralty in London.

20 May 1941 / 2200
The German ships, now making 27 knots and heading due west, passed the Kristiansand minefield. The three destroyers, Z-10, Z-16, and Z-23, ahead, followed by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen respectively. On shore, Viggo Axelssen and others of the Norwegian Resistance spotted the Germans and radioed the Admiralty in London. The British now had independent confirmation of Denham’s earlier report.

Photos: Photographs taken from Prinz Eugen on her the way to Norway. On the left photograph Prinz Eugen can be seen in the wake of a mine destructor ship and in front of this, the battleship Bismarck. On the right photograph the three escorting destroyers can be seen in the wake of the Prinz Eugen.

21 May 1941 / During the night
The Germans headed north following the Norwegian coast.

21 May 1941 / 0900
Bismarck, Prinz Eugen and their escorting destroyers entered the Korsfjord south of Bergen. Admiral Lütjens had wanted to continue to the north without stopping in Norway. However, due to the clear weather, he decided to enter the Korsfjord and continue that evening under the cover of darkness. Pilots were taken aboard the German ships, and at noon, the Bismarck anchored in Grimstadfjord. Prinz Eugen headed further north and anchored in Kalvanes Bay. As a measure of precaution, merchant ships were laid alongside Prinz Eugen and Bismarck as torpedo shields. The three destroyers were sent to Bergen to refuel.

21 May 1941 / 1100
British Coastal Command dispatched two Spitfires from Wick airfield in Scotland to investigate the Norwegian coast.

21 May 1941 / 1315
A Spitfire flown by Flying Officer Michael F. Suckling sighted and photographed the German ships from an altitude of 26,200’ (8,000 m). He immediately returned to Scotland and landed at Wick airfield at 1415. Couriers rushed his film to London for development. All Royal Navy commands received the message that one Bismarck class ship and one Hipper class ship were sighted by reconnaissance at Bergen on 21 May.

While covered by Luftwaffe aircraft, both ships had their camouflage painted over with the navy’s standard outboard grey. Prinz Eugen, which had a shorter range, was refuelled from the tanker Wollin. However, Bismarck was not refuelled.

Photo: Aerial photograph of Bismarck on her way to Norway.

Route of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen entering fjord system near Bergen, Norway.

Photo: Bismarck (left) anchores in Grimstadfjord while Prinz Eugen (right) sails farther north to anchor in Kalvanes Bay together with the destroyers.

21 May 1941 / 1930
Bismarck weighted anchor and rejoined Prinz Eugen and the three destroyers. The German force steamed through Hjeltefjord at 20 knots. Shortly after they exited the fjord at Fedjeosen, five British aircraft dropped flares and bombs over Kalvanes Bay in search of the Bismarck. The weather turned favourable for the forthcoming break¬through into the Atlantic as the sky became overcast and a southerly moderate breeze drove heavy rain clouds into the area.

21 May 1941 / 2340
The German task force cleared the Norwegian coast and headed due north at course 0°.

21-22 May 1941 / Around midnight
Admiral Sir John Cronyn Tovey ordered Vice-Admiral Lancelot Ernest Holland to patrol the Iceland-Faeroes passage north of 62° latitude. Holland’s force consisted of Hood and Prince of Wales, screened by destroyers Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra and Icarus. The heavy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk, under the command of Rear-Admiral William Frederick Wake-Walker, were to patrol the Denmark Strait. Tovey stayed at Scapa Flow with King George V and Victorious.

22 May 1941 / 0420
Lütjens dismissed the escort provided by the 5th Destroyer Flotilla. With the Bismarck in the lead and Prinz Eugen in its wake, the Germans maintained their course due north at 24 knots.

22 May 1941 / Afternoon
Orders were given to paint over the aerial recognition markings on the forecastle and quarterdeck.

22 May 1941 / 1800
Due to rain, visibility was down to between 200 and 400 yards. Searchlights were used to maintain contact between the two ships. The ships were making 24 knots, but speed was later increased to 27 knots.

22 May 1941 / Evening
An American Glenn Martin Maryland bomber of 771 Squadron took off from the Fleet Air Arm base at Hatston in the Orkneys for a reconnaissance flight near Bergen. The pilot, Lieutenant Noel Goddard, reported that the German warships had left the area.

22 May 1941 / 2200
Admiral Tovey received news that the German ships had left Bergen. He immediately set sail from Scapa Flow with his battle force that included King George V, Victorious, cruisers Aurora, Galatea, Hermione, Kenya, Neptune and destroyers Active, Inglefield, Intrepid, Lance, Punjabi and Windsor. Repulse was on its way from the Clyde and was to join them the next morning. Arethusa was ordered to reinforce the two cruisers, Manchester and Birmingham, on patrol between Iceland and the Faeroes. Coastal Command conducted air searches over all three possible routes that were available to the Germans. Finally, Tovey ordered Vice-Admiral Holland, en route to Hvalfjordur, to steer to a position of 62° north. The Home Fleet would cover those south of 62° north.

22 May 1941 / 2322
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen change course to 266°, almost due west. Dr. Heinz Exterbrink, Bismarck’s meteorologist, advised Lütjens that the weather might clear before morning. Due to this and the risk of being sighted, Lütjens decided not to refuel from the Weissenburg. There was also the risk of being spotted during the process and delay in reaching the north Atlantic.

22-23 May 1941 / By midnight
Lütjens received a series of messages from Group North reporting that aerial reconnaissance over Scapa Flow showed no change. Four battleships, a possible aircraft carrier, six light cruisers and numerous destroyers were observed. High Command assumed that the breakout still was undetected by the British. No photos were taken due to bad weather and it is assumed that the observer had been careless in his identification. Due to continual bad weather, this was the last Luftwaffe report before the German ships entered the Denmark Strait.

Unknown to Lütjens, Group West had received new intelligence from U-boats that had spotted an American coastguard vessel about 240 nautical miles southwest of Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. This was the planned operational area for Bismarck, Prinz Eugen and their supply ships. The supply ships were only some 120 nautical miles away and were repositioned to a safer area. (It was the USCG Modoc WPG-36.)

23 May 1941 / 0800
Bad weather continued and this was favourable for the Germans. A wind shift from south-southwest to north-northeast at 30 miles per hour raked over the stern. The Germans knew that the Denmark Strait had been mined, but the exact location of the barrage was unknown.

23 May 1941 / Shortly before 1400
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen change course to 240° in order to avoid ice off Greenland.

23 May 1941 / 1830
The German task force was in quadrant AD 29 making 27 knots. They switched on their FuMO radar.

23 May 1941 / 1911
Alarms sound on Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. Ships were spotted off to starboard on course 240°. Lütjens ordered a zigzag course.

23 May 1941 / 1922
A lookout shouted ‘Alarm!’ The silhouette could hardly be seen through the fog and shortly thereafter disappeared into the fog bank. It reappeared for a brief moment at 14,000 yards (12,800 m). The ship was identified as a heavy cruiser. B-Dienst (a German naval code-breaking operation) aboard Prinz Eugen (and probably on Bismarck as well) intercepted radio signals sent by the ship and were able to decipher them quickly: ‘One battleship, one cruiser in sight at 20°. Range seven nautical miles, course 240°.’ The next signal left no doubt on the identity of the ship. She sent her call sign: Suffolk.

At the same time when the German ships were located, Able Seaman Alfred Robert Newell was the first British seaman to report the sighting of the Bismarck. To avoid combat at such close range, Captain Robert Meyrick Ellis ordered that Suffolk turn into thick fog.

23 May 1941 / Shortly after 2000
Vice-Admiral Holland’s task group (Hood and Prince of Wales) was steaming past the southwest coast of Iceland when they received the report from Suffolk. This placed Bismarck about 300 miles away, east of due north from the British warships, steaming southwest. Holland’s ships mounted 18 heavy guns to Lütjens’s eight (not counting Prinz Eugen). Holland intended to "cross the T" and bring all his 18 guns to bear on the Bismarck when the German battleship could only use its forward four heavy guns.

23 May 1941 / 2030
On sighting Norfolk, the Bismarck opened fire. Five salvos were fired, three of which straddled Norfolk, showering her in metal splinters. Norfolk laid down a smokescreen and retreated into the fog. Lütjens informed Group North and Group West about the engagement: ‘My position is quadrant AD 29. One heavy cruiser.’

In the wake of Bismarck, Prinz Eugen reported that an unidentified ship had fired at her. Lütjens immediately ordered ‘Full speed ahead!’ Lütjens was soon informed that the concussion from Bismarck’s 15” guns had knocked out her forward FuMO27 radar. Lütjens ordered ‘Number change!’ Prinz Eugen would take the lead since her radar was intact. Bismarck would now be astern of Prinz Eugen and be able to use her heavy guns against the British ships shadowing her. During the manoeuvre, the electric push-button wheel on Bismarck jammed causing her to turn to starboard, directly towards Prinz Eugen. Brinkmann ordered a 40° turn hard to starboard and avoided a collision. Group North and Group West had assured Lütjens that he had not been detected and the British heavy units were anchored at Scapa Flow. However, the encounter with Norfolk and Suffolk left no doubt that they had been discovered.

23 May 1941 / 2032
Captain Alfred Jerome Lucian Phillips, Commanding Officer of Norfolk, sent another sighting report: ‘One battleship and one cruiser sighted 330°, 6 miles distant ... course 240.’

Norfolk remained on Bismarck’s port quarter while Suffolk took the starboard quarter, both steaming at 30 knots. Admiral Tovey on King George V, received Norfolk’s contact report placing Bismarck about 600 miles to the northwest of the home fleet. Tovey ordered a course change to 280° and increased speed to 27 knots.

23 May 1941 / 2100
Holland ordered Hood and Prince of Wales to change course to 295° northwest and increase speed to 27 knots. He also ordered all radar be turned off so that the Germans would not pick up the impulses.

23 May 1941 / 2200
In an attempt to shake off the cruisers, Bismarck turned 180° towards Suffolk. However, this is detected by Suffolk’s radar and the cruisers turn to avoid an attack. Contact was maintained throughout the night, the cruisers keeping a distance of 10-14 miles. On five occasions, Norfolk lost radar contact and Suffolk once, but each time contact was re-established.

23-24 May 1941 / Around midnight
A Catalina PBY flying boat, most likely from Iceland, flew over the Bismarck then quickly disappeared.

Group North signalled Bismarck: ‘Until now, no discernible deployment of enemy naval forces.’ The report was probably a relief to Lütjens, but it was incorrect.

Holland ordered a course change to 000° due north and reduced speed to 25 knots.



© John Asmussen, 2000 - 2013. All rights reserved.