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|Operation "Rheinübung" (Part One)|
|The purpose of the Operation "Rheinübung" ("Exercise Rhine") was to conduct warfare, in the North Atlantic for a period of several months, against the allied convoys from USA and Great Britain. The objective was to destroy as much enemy tonnage as possible.
Originally it was planned to use Germany's newest, and the worlds largest, battleship (Bismarck) and two other German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, for the operation
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had, between 22 January and 22 March 1941, conducted a successful operation called "Berlin" in the North Atlantic. Within 2 months they had sunk 22 allied ships totalling 115,622 brt. The man in charge of this successful operation was Admiral Günther Lütjens.
Admiral Günther Lütjens was chosen to lead Operation "Rheinübung" as well.
However it was not possible to use Scharnhorst and Gneisenau due to damage caused by British air attacks and mechanical failure. At this time they were both stationed in Brest, France. Instead the Germans decided that their newest heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen, should sail together with Bismarck during Operation "Rheinübung".
On Sunday 18 May 1941, Admiral Lütjens briefed the officers of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen on his intentions. The Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were to proceed independently to the island of Rügen, where the task force would be formed on the morning of 19 May 1941.
Towards midday on Sunday 18 May, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen sailed out of the harbour of Gotenhafen. Just outside the harbour the ships dropped their anchors to refuel and take on additional provisions. The Operation "Rheinübung" ("Exercise Rhine") had begun. They finally got underway in the early morning hours of Monday 19 May (the Bismarck sailed at 0200). The ships first circled around the Hel Peninsula, a thin finger of land jutting down from the Baltic coast, and then headed westward.
The battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were escorted by the destroyers Z-23 and Z-16 (Friedrich Eckoldt) and preceded by a minesweeper. The task force sailed as a unit after leaving Rügen. Around 2230, the destroyer Z-10 (Hans Lody) joined the formation. By nightfall the task force, reached the western end of the Baltic Sea and turned north to pass through the Great Belt (Denmark). On the following morning of Tuesday 20 May, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen had reached the Kattegat.
On 20 May around 1300, the German task force were sighted by the Swedish aircraft-carrying cruiser Gotland who immediately reported the passage of the Germans.
Before the report from the Gotland the British had been informed of the German operation gained by an aerial reconnaissance, during which five picket vessels had been sighted about 1200 around twenty nautical miles west of Vinga, followed about ten nautical miles astern by a task force described as three Leberecht Mass-class destroyers plus a cruiser and a very large warship. At this point it was not confirmed to the British that Bismarck was participating in this operation.
After clearing the northern tip of Denmark, the German task force headed west through the Skagerak towards Norway. Admiral Lütjens intended to continue to the north. But due to the clear weather he dicided to anchor in Norway and wait some hours in order to continue the journey at night protected by the darkness.
Around 1600 on 20 May, the task force were escorted through their own minefields by the 5th Minesweeping Flotilla.
When the formation left the minefield, the minesweepers were detached and the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, still escorted by destroyers, steered a zigzag course at 17 knots to avoid submarines.
Following the line of the coast, they turned westward. They would resume their northerly course after they had rounded the southwestern tip of Norway. Between 2100 and 2200 they passed through the southernmost channel in the Kristiansand minefield, then proceeded at a speed of 27 knots.
The German task force was sighted by several Norwegian resistance members. They reported that "two unidentified major ships, escorted by several smaller ones" had passed by the coast.
Early the next morning Wednesday 21 May the Bismarck went to general quarters. Not long thereafter, they reached the entrance to Korsfjord. The Bismarck went into Grimstadfjord, south of Bergen, and anchored at the entrance to Fjörangerfjord, about 500 meters (455 yards) from shore. The Prinz Eugen and the destroyers went farther north, to Kalvanes.
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