This Date in History: May 26th.1941
Battle of The Bismarck: The Chase
After the Battle of the Denmark Straights and the destruction of the HMS Hood on May 24th.
The Bismarck was successful in alouding it’s pursuers and for a brief time disappears
into the North Atlantic Ocean.
The location and destination of the Bismarck became a matter of wide speculation among the British.
If she had been heavily damaged by the Prince of Wales, would she double back and return to Germany?
If she was only slightly damaged, would she head for the French coast for repairs or rendezvous
with a naval auxiliary vessel to accomplish any necessary repairs at sea? Would she rendezvous
with a tanker to take on more fuel? Would she immediately begin operations against convoys in the North Atlantic?
The British did not have sufficient resources to adequately cover all of those possibilities,
so it became a matter of assessing their probabilities and prioritising the allocation of resources
to cover the various alternatives.
During the day of 25th May
, the Bismarck was forced to reduce her speed during the day
to a more economical 20 knots instead of her maximum sustained speed of 28 knots.
A repair crew was later able to bypass some of the damaged pipes and valving and thereby
allow part of the fuel reserves earlier cut off to be tapped for use, but this only slightly alleviated the problem.
At 0300 on 26th May
, two American-built Consolidated PBY-5 (Catalina) flying boats
assigned to RAF Coastal Command took off from their base in Northern Ireland
to conduct a long-range search for the Bismarck.
At about 1030, an observer aboard one of the aircraft spotted the wake of a ship below,
and the pilot (Dennis Briggs) immediately turned the plane toward the ship for a closer look.
As soon as the ship could be identified as a large warship, possibly a battleship,
its position was radioed back to their base.
As soon as the Catalina flying boat had come into view, the Bismarck immediately opened fire on it
with her anti-aircraft batteries, thereby advertising the fact that she was an enemy warship.
About an hour after being spotted by the Catalina, the Bismarck had another unwelcome intruder,
a Swordfish on a scouting mission from the Ark Royal, which had just arrived in the area with Force H
After more than 31 hours of breaking contact, the Bismarck had been discovered again.
Now that the Bismarck had been discovered, it would just be a matter of time before all
of the available resources of the Royal Navy would be thrown against her.
The only hope of destroying the Bismarck was to slow her down sufficiently for the battleships
to be able to catch up with her. This task obviously fell to the aircraft carrier Ark Royal,
as only her torpedo planes had the range and weapons to do the job.
Preparations were immediately undertaken to launch an air strike against the Bismarck as soon as possible that afternoon.
The Swordfish aboard the Ark Royal were fuelled, and 18in torpedoes were latched to their underbellies
as their crews were being briefed. At 1450 on 26 May, 15 Swordfish aircraft took off from the Ark Royal
and headed for the last known position of the Bismarck. Their pilots had just been advised that their target
was alone in the area, but in fact the light cruiser Sheffield had been ordered to move up astern of the Bismarck
and keep her under observation. The signal concerning the Sheffield had not been deciphered on the Ark Royal
in time to alert the Swordfish pilots.
The Swordfish pilots obtained radar contact with what they thought was Bismarck (Sheffield) at 1540
and pressed their attack against the ship shortly after. Fortunately, the Sheffield was not hit
by any of the 11 torpedoes that were launched against her. All of the Swordfish aircraft returned safely
to Ark Royal at about 1700.
Aboard the Ark Royal they knew they only had one more attempt in trying to stop or at least slow down Bismarck
as the German battleship would reach the French coast the next day.
At 1915, another fifteen Swordfish took off from the Ark Royal.
The Swordfish attack took place at 2047. Bismarck was hit by a torpedo amidship which caused no damage.
But then she was hit by a torpedo in the starboard rudder area. According to the rudder indicator,
the rudder was jammed at 12º or 15º to port. Despite that the German anti-aircraft fire
was very intense none of the Swordfish aircraft was shot down.
At 2140, Admiral Lütjens sent the following message to Group West: "Ship unable to maneuver.
We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer".
(the battle continues)