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The plan was for the Bismarck to break out into the Atlantic — the very phrase indicates one of the problems faced by German sea power, getting past the British Isles — and operate beyond land-based air power, running amok amongst allied convoys.
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C. S. FORESTER
This is a story of the most desperate chances, of the loftiest patriotism and of the highest professional skills, of a gamble for the dominion of the world in which human lives were the stakes on the green gaming table of the ocean. There was a pursuit without precedent in the history of navies; there were battles fought in which the defeated gained as much glory as the victors, and in which the most unpredictable bad luck was counterbalanced by miraculous good fortune. For six days that pursuit lasted, days of unrelenting storm, of tossing grey seas and lowering clouds, without a single gleam of sunshine to lighten the setting of the background of tragedy. Those actors in the tragedy who played their parts at sea did so to the unceasing accompaniment of shrieking wind, leaping waves, flying spray, and bitter cold.
And all this took place against a background of events of vital importance in the history of the world, when England stood alone, almost ringed in by enemies of unbelievable power and malignity. She was friendless and yet unafraid, guarded and vigilant, although the world's newspapers were pouring from the presses with headlines telling of disasters yesterday and predicting new disasters tomorrow.
'Britain's last ally conquered. Greece overrun,' said one headline. 'Attack launched on Crete,' said another. 'Jugoslavia overwhelmed.' 'British in full retreat in North Africa.' 'Rommel advances.' 'Will Hitler move into Spain next?' 'German submarines claim huge successes in Atlantic.' 'Scharnhorst and Gneisenau awaiting their moment in Brest.' 'Blitz again rocks England.' And each succeeding map that the daily papers carried showed how the black stain of Nazi conquest was spreading over frontier after frontier.
Now at this moment, when Britain's resources and will to survive were being strained to the utmost, preparations were being made to strike another blow against her lifelines. The battleship Bismarck was making ready in Kiel harbour to proceed to sea after a prolonged period of training and working up in the Baltic. The largest, the most dangerous, the most modern ship of war yet launched. She was completing her stores, cramming herself as full as her store-rooms and her shell-rooms and her bunkers would hold. There was meat for her refrigerators and flour and vegetables for her food lockers; oil for her bunkers, fresh water for her tanks, and, above all, shells for her magazines. A fussy little steam train brought up a long train of trucks alongside the ship, each laden with the monstrous fifteen-inch shells, three-quarters of a ton each, deadly even in appearance, for the ship's crane to lift and swing into the air, down, down, down, through deck after deck, into the shell-rooms far below water-line. While this was going on a new contingent came marching along the wharf to reinforce—or at least to augment—the ship's company. It was a detachment of young naval officers, very young indeed, hardly more than boys. They were newly promoted cadets, proud of their new status and their new uniforms, swinging briskly and proudly in formation to the gangway leading down from the ship's side; the band which had preceded them so far halted at the foot and continued to play as the young men turned with military precision to march up the gangway, saluting as they reached the quarter-deck, the senior officer saluting the officer of the watch and reporting the arrival of his party on board. A word of command brought them into formation facing the bridge at the moment when the work on the dockside was completed. The officer on the dock supervising the loading of the ammunition shouted 'Last one!'
'Last one' echoed the officer on the deck, waving one finger in reply to the finger waved to him. The last fifteen-inch shell, grim and ugly, swung up in the crane to make its descent into the shell-room. The busy gangs of workers on the dockside melted away; the band, still playing, marched off towards the gate, its music dying away slowly. Admiral Lutjens, brisk, efficient, and active, came out of his sea cabin and made his way to the loudspeaker on the bridge. Only the sailors standing by the lines remained, apparently.
'Gentlemen!' he began his speech, as the young officers stiffened to attention to hear him, listening enthralled. The words he uttered were carried throughout the ship by the public address system. He welcomed the young officers aboard, and he explained to them that they had been expressly detailed to make this voyage by the highest authority, so that on their return they would disseminate through the Navy the details of the triumphs they had witnessed. They were in the newest and most powerful battleship afloat, and they were going to experience high adventure. There was no ship in the British Navy that could face them in single combat; there was no large ship that could escape them. Four months of harsh training in the Baltic had made it the most efficient ship in the world. British convoys covered the Atlantic—Bismarck could make short work of convoys and escorts with the aid of the Prinz Eugen, accompanying them on this voyage of honour. The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, the pride of Britain, were crossing the Atlantic over and over again without escort, relying on their speed. Bismarck was faster than them. What would the world say when the news came out of the sinking of the Queen Mary with ten thousand troops on board? One or two blows like that and England would not dare to send a merchant ship to sea. For as long as Bismarck could maintain herself in the Atlantic England's commerce would be disrupted, and the British people, shattered and shaken already by the blitz, would starve. He had already ranged the whole length of the Atlantic in command of the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and then had sunk a quarter of a million tons of British shipping. A quarter of a million tons. Now they could set themselves a target to aim at of two million tons, dealing a blow from which England could never recover.
Down on the dockside one last worker was lingering over some remains of his job, half hidden by piles of stores. The sound of the speech, conveyed over the loudspeaker, just reached his ears. He heard those words about the Atlantic, about the Queen Mary. With the last words of the speech he sauntered down the dock, with every appearance of innocence. His papers were quite in order as he showed them to the police. Already sailors at the lines were singling up and then casting off. Bismarck swung herself about and headed out to sea; the dockyard workers massed at the gate watched her go, and the band played.
At a small port in Sweden a long pier ran out to sea, and on it someone in civilian clothes was quietly fishing. He was surrounded by proof of how closely Sweden guarded her neutrality, how much she feared a surprise attack—Swedish soldiers and Swedish coastguards were constantly patrolling and gazing out to sea. He sat there endlessly, leisurely eating his lunch, changing his bait and occasionally securing a fish. The sun was setting and the Northern day nearly at an end when, looking southward, he saw something silhouetted against the remaining glow of the sky. He had binoculars hanging round his neck; he whipped them to his eyes, gazed long and carefully, rested his eyes, and gazed again. There was no mistaking what he saw. Two almost identical silhouettes, one large and one small; the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen with a crowd of merchant ships—eleven all told—accompanying them. He dismantled his fishing rod, picked up his gear, and hurried shoreward along the pier, through the Swedish guards, into the main street, past the post office.
It was into that post office a few minutes later that an elderly Englishman came striding. He filled out a telegraph form with a few rapid words and handed it over the counter; the girl there read the address and summoned a waiting Swedish policeman with her eyes. He came up and began questioning. The address was that of a London company in Cheapside; the message said 'pit props and battens rising. Eleven points at least'—no more. 'What is this firm?' asked the policeman.
'Timber importers—everyone knows them.'
'What does this message say?'
The Englishman satisfied his questioner, showed his papers, and a nod from the policeman allowed the message to be sent with a small apology—'Our country has to make sure her neutrality is not violated, you understand, sir.'
In a London telegraph office the keys began to chatter as a message came through. A girl dealt with it in the ordinary routine manner, but a supervisor noticed the address.
'Just a minute,' she said with a hurried reference to a file, running her finger down a list.
A moment later a motor-cyclist was roaring through the blitzed streets of London. He dismounted at the Admiralty and delivered the message. It passed rapidly from hand to hand until it reached a rear-admiral. The clock showed eight o'clock in the morning; the calendar showed May 21st. There it was. 'Pit props and battens rising.' He looked at the chart of the Baltic beside him on the wall, identified the town of origin—Malmo—and flipped through a code book.
'Well,' he said to a colleague. 'Bismarck's on the move. Heading north in the Kattegat. Here.'
He pointed to the chart.
'She's been exercising in the Baltic for four months,' said his colleague. 'It's about time we heard from her.'
'Prince Eugen's with her,' said the rear-admiral still referring to his list. 'And eleven merchant ships.'
'It could be something very big indeed.'
'I'll take it along this minute.'
An admiral was in the War-Room when the rear-admiral found him, and heard the news and began to comment on it, moving his pencil slowly from point to point over the chart.
'Bismarck moving. It could have happened at a worse moment, I suppose, but not much worse. But the enemy never troubles to consult us as to what would be a convenient time for us, somehow. You know the attack on Crete has begun? Cunningham has all he can do in the Eastern Mediterranean. Somerville at Gibraltar has his hands full too. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are at Brest; we have to watch for their breakout at any moment. Convoys here—here—here—all over the Atlantic. Prince of Wales hasn't finished her training yet. Not by a long shot. You can't call her a fighting ship by any means. Same with Victorious. And what is Bismarck going to do if she comes out? Merchant ships with her—she may just be convoying them to Norway. But—we have to guard against every move. There's The Faeroes. There's Iceland. I wouldn't like an attack upon either at present—it would hurt. And supposing he's going to break out into the Atlantic? Which route? Pentland Firth? Fair Isle? East of The Faeroes? West of The Faeroes? Denmark Strait? Which? A thousand miles of water to guard, and precious few ships to do it with.'
'And not one as dangerous as the Bismarck, sir,' said the rear-admiral.
'That's something I don't need reminding about.' The admiral led the way into his own office. 'Anyway, put Coastal Command to work. I want air reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast. I want photographs. That telegram's eight hours old now. She could be'—the dividers turned in a circle over the chart—'anywhere from Bergen southward. Photographs of anything suspicious from Bergen, Oslo Fiord, and south from there.'
'I'll tell Coastal Command, sir.'
It was now nine o'clock.
The reconnaissance Spitfires roared off on their mission, searching the whole tangled coast of southern Norway. The pilot of one of them thought he saw something in Grimstad Fiord south of Bergen, circled, made sure of what he was looking at, and photographed it. He noted the time on his wrist-watch—one-fifteen. Then he headed for home. On board the Bismarck they had seen his coming on their radar, and had turned out to man the guns, the young supernumerary officers eagerly standing to see the action, but there was only time to recognise the type—'Schpitfeuer'—before she was gone again.
The pilot landed and climbed out of his plane. 'Two cruisers in Grimstad Fiord' were his first words to the eager people who greeted him. They seized his camera and hastened off with it. Steady hands took out the film, developed it, and printed it, and enlarged the prints, with the hands of the clock creeping along all the time, so that after his landing at two-forty-five it was three-fifteen by the time the enlargements were in the hands of experts.
'Two cruisers!' said one of them. 'No, that's the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen.'
Telephones began to buzz.
'Bismarck in Grimstad Fiord!'
Someone in the Admiralty received the news; his clock showed three-forty-five.
'We've been lucky,' he said. 'We saw her off Sweden and now we've found her in Norway. We'll have bombers over her by six o'clock.'
'Lucky!' said the man he addressed. 'Look at this.'
It was a meteorological report from the Orkneys, to the effect that mist and rain were closing in and visibility deteriorating rapidly.
'By six o'clock it will be all shut down. They'll never find her. Don't you ever say we're lucky again. That's the unluckiest thing to say there ever was. Lucky!'
So it was to prove. The reports began to come in as the hands of the clock turned on to midnight and beyond, as someone tore off the sheet showing May 21 on the calendar to reveal May 22.
'No luck.' 'No luck.' 'Cloud down to 200 ft.' 'Visibility nil.' 'Couldn't see a thing.'
Exhausted R.A.F. pilots said these things to the officers who questioned them.
Meanwhile at midnight a German naval officer came into Admiral Lutjens' day cabin; the Admiral was dozing in an armchair, his head propped on his hand.
'Meteorological forecast, sir,' said the officer.
Lutjens was immediately awake.
'Call the captain,' he said after a glance at the paper, and then, on the captain's arrival, 'Here's the forecast. Two days of thick weather at least. Now's the time. I want to be out of here in ten minutes.'
'Aye aye, sir,' said the captain.
Bismarck was in the second degree of readiness, with the A.A. guns manned. In the hardly relieved darkness on deck there could just be seen the men at their stations, with the mist swirling round them in wreaths. Below decks half the ship's company was sleeping, or trying to, when at this moment the loud-speaker began to blare, giving orders for the anchor parties to go to their stations, and all hands to their posts. There was immediate orderly bustle as the men tumbled out, the supernumerary officers in a state of great excitement. A shaded lamp was flicking a message to the Eugen and received acknowledgment. The capstans began to turn, the dripping cables came in link by link, messages passed back and forward from forecastle to bridge, the engines began to turn, the propellers turned with them, and the huge ship gradually got under way and moved ponderously along through the swirling mist.
It was at this time that through the blacked out streets of London a motor-cyclist was picking his way as hurriedly as he could manage, to deliver his message, as before, to the Admiralty, and it passed, as before, to the rear-admiral. It looked like an ordinary letter, but it was read with extreme care, and with constant reference to code books. Soon he was hastening to the admiral with his news.
'Here's something that looks important, sir. About the Bismarck.'
'It's four days old, sir, but it's from our contact in Kiel dockyard, and it had to come through Switzerland and Portugal.'
'I didn't know you had a contact in Kiel dockyard.'
'The fewer people who know that the better, sir. We don't hear from him often—he daren't risk getting into touch too often, as you can guess, sir. But he's good—he's never failed us yet.'
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