Hunt the Bismarck – Royal Navy Home Fleet sets sail

The main armament of HMS KING GEORGE V.

HMS KING GEORGE V BACK FROM THE USA. 1941, AT A BRITISH PORT ON THE BATTLESHIP’S RETURN. Paintwork shows marks left by the rough weather she encountered during the voyage. First job on her return was to repaint the whole ship using about five tons of paint for the outside and superstructure.

The possibility that the powerful German battleship Bismarck might make a breakout had long been contemplated by the Royal Navy. However when the time came there were many factors to be taken into account. The precise location of the Bismarck was uncertain and her intentions even more so.


ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS KING GEORGE V. MARCH 1941. A look-out aloft in the battleship. Because of cold and eye strain his watch never lasts for more than an hour. His post is over 100 ft above the sea.

Admiral Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, had to make fine judgement as to how he disposed of the ships available to him. First he had to decide how best to locate and then track the Bismarck. Naval radar was at a very early stage of development. For the most part he expected to have to rely on a visual sighting. Only after that could he consider how he was going to concentrate his force for an attack.

For a good analysis of the battle see the 2019 book British Cruiser Warfare: The Lessons of the Early War 1939–1941.

A report was received by the C-in-C Home Fleet that two large German warships with several escort ships had passed through the Kattegat, and later that day they were spotted by British air reconnaissance at anchor near Bergen. ln the light of this news, Admiral Tovey, with his flag in the battleship King George V, made the Following dispositions of his forces:

– Battlecruiser Hood, battleship Prince of Wales, with five destroyers sailed from Scapa Flow to Hvalfiord, Iceland.

– Cruiser Suffolk ordered to join cruiser Norfolk, which was already on patrol in the Denmark Strait.

– Cruiser Arethusa ordered to remain at Hvalfiord to be at the disposal of Admiral Commanding 1st CS.

– Battleship King George V, cruisers Galatea, Aurora, Kenya, Neptune with three destroyers at Scapa Flow, were brought to short notice for steam. Joined on the same day by cruiser Hermione and two destroyers.

– The carrier Victorious was held at Scapa Flow, and the battlecruiser Repulse sailed from the Clyde to join the force at Scapa Flow.

In anticipation of making a torpedo attack on the German ships at Bergen, the Admiralty had transferred Albacore aircraft of 828 Squadron to Sumburgh. Admiral Tovey had wished to embark these on the Victorious, but this proved abortive, because the news that the Bismarck had left Bergen was received too late. At this time (May 1941) there was no regular air reconnaissance patrol line in place between the coast of Norway, the Iceland/Faroes passage and the Denmark Strait, extending northwards on an arc that would reach Jan Mayen Island.

In the evening of the 22nd, a locally-authorised reconnaissance flight had ascertained that the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen had definitely departed Bergen. This report reached Admiral Tovey at 2000 on the 22nd. Tovey postulated the possible German alternatives: (a) To cover a convoy to Northern Norway. (b) A raiding force for an attack on Iceland. (c) Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to break out into the Atlantic, with the Denmark Strait being the most likely route.

The third possibility appeared to Tovey to be the one most likely, and on this basis he immediately disposed his forces so as to forestall any possible attack or landing at Iceland, and to intercept, if in fact the Denmark Strait passage scenario was the correct one.

Suffolk departed Havalfiord to join Norfolk already on patrol in the Denmark Strait. Arethusa sailed to join Manchester and Birmingham already on patrol in the Iceland/Faroes passage. Hood and Prince of Wales to cover the patrols in the Denmark Strait and to operate north of 62° N, so as to be able to support 1st CS (Norfolk and Suffolk).

At 2245, King George V, Victorious, Galatea, Aurora, Kenya, Hermione with seven destroyers departed Scapa Flow, to be joined by Repulse and three destroyers north-west of the Butt of Lewis in the AM of the 23rd.

At the same time that orders for the above dispositions were made, Tovey requested extending the air reconnaissance from the coast of Norway to the east coast of Greenland. Instructions For Norfolk and Suffolk were to patrol within distance of the ice edge on a north-west/south-west line.

See British Cruiser Warfare: The Lessons of the Early War 1939–1941 for a day by day history of the individual actions of cruisers during this period, and much additional material on naval warfare at this time.


ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS PRINCE OF WALES. 20 APRIL 1941. Bow view of HMS PRINCE OF WALES. One of her aircraft is being hoisted on to the catapult deck.

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