Operation Battle of the Denmark Strait

The 'Battle of the Denmark Strait' was a naval engagement between ships of the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland (24 May 1941).

In this battle, the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Hood tackled the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as the latter attempted to break into the North Atlantic to attack Allied merchant shipping in their 'Rheinübung' undertaking. Less than 10 minutes after the British opened fire, a shell from Bismarck struck Hood near her after ammunition magazines, and soon after this Hood exploded and sank within three minutes, with the loss of all but three of her crew. Prince of Wales continued to exchange fire with Bismarck but suffered serious malfunctions in her main armament: the British battleship had been completed only late in March 1941, and used new quadruple gun turrets that were unreliable. Prince of Wales soon broke off the engagement.

The battle was thus a tactical victory for the Germans, but its impact was short-lived. The damage done to Bismarck's forward fuel tanks forced the abandonment of the break-out and an attempt to escape to dry dock facilities in German-occupied France, producing an operational victory for the British. A large British force pursued Bismarck and sank her three days later.

In April 1941, the German navy intended to send the recently completed fast battleship Bismarck into the Atlantic Ocean to raid the convoys carrying supplies from North America to the UK. The operation was intended to complement the U-boat attacks on British supply lines within the 'Battle of the Atlantic'. The fast battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had just completed a similar operation as 'Berlin' in the period between January and March of that year. The number of major warships available to the Germans was limited: Bismarck's sister ship Tirpitz was not yet operational, Scharnhorst was in need of a boiler overhaul after 'Berlin', and Gneisenau had been torpedoed while in the French north-western port of Brest. Work on the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer, both under refit in Germany after their own raiding operations, was delayed by British air attacks that struck supply depots in Kiel. Admiral Günther Lütjens, the fleet commander who was to command German forces during the planned 'Rheinübung', sought to delay the operation until repairs to Scharnhorst had been completed or Tirpitz could join Bismarck, but the Oberkommando der Marine instructed Lütjens to begin the operation as soon as possible to maintain surface-ship pressure on the UK’s supply lines. As a result, the only vessel available to support Bismarck was the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

The Royal Navy learned of Bismarck's sortie after the Swedish light cruiser Gotland spotted the vessels passing through the western part of the Baltic Sea on 20 May: Gotland's report was passed to the British naval attaché in Stockholm, who forwarded it to the Admiralty. British reconnaissance aircraft confirmed the presence of the two German ships in Norway. Now aware that major German warships were at sea with the clear intention of breaking into the Atlantic, the Royal Navy began to despatch vessels to patrol the likely routes: these vessels included the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk to cover the Denmark Strait, while another group, comprising the brand-new battleship Prince of Wales, the elderly battle-cruiser Hood and a screen of six destroyers (Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra and Icarus) under the command of Vice Admiral L. E. Holland in Hood, cruised to the south of Iceland to intercept the Germans once they had been detected. Norfolk and Suffolk spotted Bismarck and Prinz Eugen during the evening of 23 May, and Suffolk was fitted with radar that allowed the two British cruisers to shadow the German ships through the night while remaining outside of the range of the German ships' guns.

Prince of Wales was a newly commissioned 'King George V' class battleship, similar to Bismarck in size and power, but had not yet been properly 'shaken down', and her crew was inexperienced. She still had mechanical problems, especially with her main armament, and the ship had sailed with shipyard workers still aboard to continue their work on her.

For 20 years after her commissioning in 1920, Hood had been the largest and heaviest warship in the world. Combining a main battery of eight 15-in (381-mm) guns with a maximum speed greater than any battleship on the sea, Hood was the pride of the UK’s navy, and embodied the world dominance of British naval power. Despite this, Hood possessed one conspicuous flaw as compared to the super-dreadnought battleships alongside which she served: as a battle-cruiser, much of her bulk was dedicated to extra engine power rather than comprehensive armour coverage. This resulted from Hood's design as an 'Admiral' class battle-cruiser to meet the threat of the German 'Mackensen' class battle-cruisers during World War I. While her 12-in (305-mm) belt armour was considered sufficient against the main guns of most capital ships she was likely to encounter, her 3-in (76-mm) deck armour left her vulnerable to plunging fire at long range. At the time of her commissioning in World War I, naval gunnery was severely inaccurate at the ranges necessary to produce plunging fire, and Hood's greater speed and manoeuvrability were seen as an acceptable trade-off. However, as the accuracy of naval gunfire increased in the inter-war period, Hood was eventually scheduled to receive an upgrade in 1939 that would have doubled her deck armour to 6 in (152 mm), but the outbreak of World War II meant the upgrade never took place. She thus sortied to war at a marked disadvantage against the new capital ships of the Axis powers.

Aware of Hood's inadequate protective armour, distant to the south-east of where the battle took place, Holland’s superior, Admiral Sir John Tovey, considered ordering him to have Prince of Wales steam ahead of Hood. With the ships in this position, Tovey concluded the better-protected Prince of Wales could draw the German battleship’s large-calibre gunfire. Ultimately, Tovey did not give the order, later saying 'I did not feel such interference with such a senior officer justified.'

The Kriegsmarine had hoped that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen would enter the trans-Atlantic commerce lanes from the Norwegian Sea via the Denmark Strait, undetected and unopposed. The Germans based this hope upon a transit from German territorial waters on the North Sea; and, through the territorial waters of German-occupied Norway into the Norwegian Sea, undetected by aerial searches, encounters with neutral ships and traditional 'coastwatching' observations performed by formal and informal efforts of maritime intelligence gathering, in the neutral and occupied countries surrounding the North Sea.

In the event, the ground-level coastwatching observations from both neutral and occupied territories identified the principal combatant units sortied for the 'Rheinübung' operation from the moment they left German territorial waters. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were identified by in-country coastwatchers located in Denmark, who were able to identify the ships and communicate the dates and times of the German surface units moving in their designated coastwatch areas of responsibility.

The ships of neutral Sweden acknowledged the transit of the main combatants in the normal shipping lanes in the North Sea, and reported on them in their standard routine to their maritime authorities. Swedish territory also hosted individual ground-level coastwatchers who were able to follow and report on movements in Swedish coastal waters. These observations were passed directly to Royal Navy intelligence by routine maritime diplomatic channels maintained by the British naval attaché in Stockholm. Thus, when Bismarck and Prinz Eugen moved into the fjords of German-occupied Norway for final coastal refuelling and topping off of the ships' stores and supplies, when the weather permitted aircraft of the RAF were able to keep a final watch on the location and timing of the German raider force.

The battle plan conceived by Holland, who was the second in command of the Home Fleet and commander of the Battle-Cruiser Squadron, was to have Hood and Prince of Wales engage Bismarck while Suffolk and Norfolk engaged Prinz Eugen which, Holland assumed, still steamed behind Bismarck and not ahead of her. He signalled this to Captain J. C. Leach of Prince of Wales but did not radio Rear Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker, who as commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron directed Suffolk and Norfolk, for fear of disclosing his location. Instead, he observed radio silence. Holland hoped to meet the Germans at about 02.00. Sunset in this latitude was at 01.51 (ship’s clocks were four hours ahead of local time). Bismarck and Prinz Eugen would be silhouetted against the sun’s afterglow while Hood and Prince of Wales could approach rapidly, unseen in the darkness, to a range close enough not to endanger Hood with long-range plunging fire from Bismarck. The Germans would not expect an attack from this quarter, giving the British the advantage of surprise.

The plan’s success depended on Suffolk's ability to maintain continually unbroken contact with the German ships. However, Suffolk lost contact from 00.28, and for 90 minutes, Holland neither sighted the German ships nor received any further information from Norfolk or Suffolk. Reluctantly, Holland ordered Hood and Prince of Wales to turn to the south-south-west and at the same time detached his six destroyers which continued searching to the north. However, the loss of contact should be understood only as temporary and tactical, and not as strategic in terms of the tactical outcome. Suffolk lost contact with the German ships in what was essentially a closed, confined rectangular space aligned generally from the north-east (the entrance to the Denmark Strait) to the south-west (the exit of the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic). The German ships were firmly constrained by the Greenland ice pack to the north, and the extensive Royal Navy minefield to the south along the coast of Iceland. Given the prior warning of the German sortie, there was ample time for the Royal Navy to place armed reconnaissance at both ends of this narrow alignment. Suffolk and Norfolk were at the eastern entrance to the Denmark Strait, where contact was made immediately upon Bismarck's entry. Holland was waiting at the western end as the German ships exited the Denmark Strait.

Operationally, it was an unquestioned fact (including the approximate timing) that the entrance of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen into the Atlantic was known from the moment the German force departed German territorial waters, and this was a period of time long enough before the fleet’s final fitting out for passage to the Denmark Strait, that Lütjens could not have helped but to realise that his force would not under any circumstance enter the Atlantic undetected or indeed that would it enter unopposed. And by the time it was opposed, it would occur with forces that would probably ensure his force’s ultimate destruction. Such destruction would take place before any supply convoys, which were the whole purpose of the operation, were threatened by 'Rheinübung'.

Before contact was re-established, the two squadrons missed each other narrowly. Had the German ships not altered course to the west at 01.41 to follow the line of the Greenland icepack, the British would have intercepted them much earlier than they did. The British destroyers were just 10 miles (16 km) to the south-east when the Germans made this course change. If the visibility had not been reduced to something between 3 and 5 miles (4.8 to 8 km), the German ships would probably have been spotted as, in general, on a calm, clear day ship look-outs can spot large objects and ships at a distance of about 12 miles (19 km) on the horizon. And if the ship’s look-outs are in a crow’s nest, the observable distance is even farther.

Just before 03.00, Suffolk regained radar contact with Bismarck. At this moment, Hood and Prince of Wales were 35 miles (56 km) distant and slightly ahead of the German ships. Holland signalled an alteration of course to close the German ships and increased speed to 28 kt. Suffolk's loss of contact had placed the British at a disadvantage: instead of the swiftly closing head-on approach he had anticipated, Holland would have to converge at a wider angle, much more slowly. This would leave Hood vulnerable to Bismarck's plunging fire for a much longer period. The situation worsened further when, at 03.20, Suffolk reported that the German ships had made a further course alteration to the west, placing the German and British squadrons almost abeam of each other.

At 05.35, look-outs on Prince of Wales spotted the German ships 17 miles (27 km) away. Already alerted to the British presence by means of their hydrophonic equipment, the Germans saw the smoke and masts of the British ships 10 minutes later. At this point, Holland had the options of joining Suffolk in shadowing Bismarck and delay his attack until Tovey had arrived with King George V and other ships, or ordering his squadron into action. He opted for the latter at 05.37. The rough seas in the Denmark Strait kept the destroyers' role to a minimum and the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk would be too far behind the German force to reach the battle.

Hood opened fire at 05.52 at a range of about 26,500 yards (24230 m). Holland had ordered the initial fire to target the leading ship, Prinz Eugen, believing from her position that she was Bismarck. Holland soon amended his order and directed both ships to engage the rear ship, Bismarck. Prince of Wales had already identified and engaged Bismarck, whereas Hood is thought to have continued to fire at Prinz Eugen for some time.

Holland was a gunnery expert and well aware of the danger posed by Hood's thin deck armour, which offered weak protection against plunging fire. Holland therefore wished to reduce the range as quickly as possible, because at a shorter range the trajectory of Bismarck's shells would be flatter, and the shells would therefore be more likely to hit the thicker armour belt protecting the sides of the ship or glance off the top deck, rather than penetrate vertically though the thinner deck armour. Holland closed the range at an angle that placed the German ships too far forward of the beam, which meant that only 10 of the 18 British main-calibre guns (eight 15-in/381-mm weapons on Hood and 10 14-in/355.6-mm weapons on Prince of Wales) could train, and presented the Germans with a larger target than necessary. One of Prince of Wales's forward guns became unserviceable after the first salvo, leaving only nine still able to fire. Suffolk and Norfolk tried to engage Bismarck during the action but both were out of range to use their 8-in (203.2-mm) guns and also possessed an inadequate speed advantage over Bismarck to close the range rapidly.

The Germans also had the weather gauge, meaning that the British ships were steaming into the wind, with spray drenching the lenses of the 42-ft (13-m) coincidence rangefinder of Prince of Wales's 'A' turret and the 30-ft (9.1-m) rangefinders of both the British ships' 'B' turrets. The shorter 15-ft (4.6-m) rangefinders in the director towers had therefore to be used. Holland had Prince of Wales stay close to Hood, conforming to Hood's movements instead of varying course and speed, which made it easier for the Germans to find the range to both British ships. It would have aided Holland’s gunners had both ships fired on Bismarck as originally planned as they could have timed precisely each other’s salvoes to avoid mistaking one ship’s fire for those of the other. The British could also had employed 'concentration fire', in which both ships' main armament salvoes would have been controlled by one ship’s fire-control computer, probably Prince of Wales's modern Admiralty Fire-Control Table.

Prince of Wales struck her target first, and ultimately hit Bismarck three times. One shell struck the commander’s boat and put the amidships seaplane catapult out of action. The second shell passed through the bow from one side to the other without detonating. The third shell struck the hull below the waterline and detonated inside the ship, flooding a generator room and damaging the bulkhead to an adjoining boiler room, partially flooding it. The last two hits caused damage to Bismarck's machinery and medium flooding. The hit also severed a steam line and wounded five of Bismarck's crew by scalding. The damage to the bow cut access to 1,000 tons of fuel oil in the forward fuel tanks, caused Bismarck to trail an oil slick and reduced her speed by 2 kt. Bismarck was soon listing 9° to port and lost 6.6 ft (2 m) of freeboard at her bow.

The Germans held their fire until 05.55, and then both German ships fired on Hood. Lütjens did not immediately give the order to begin firing. Bismarck's first gunnery officer, Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Schneider, asked 'Frage Feuererlaubnis?' (Permission to open fire?) several times without receiving a response until Kapitän Ernst Lindemann, Bismarck's captain, impatiently responded 'Ich lasse mir doch nicht mein Schiff unter dem Arsch wegschiessen. Feuererlaubnis!' (I’m not letting my ship get shot out from under my arse. Open fire!)

One shell hit Hood's boat deck, starting a sizeable fire in the 4-in (101.6-mm) ready-use ammunition store, but this fire did not spread to other areas of the ship or cause the later explosion. It is possible that Hood was struck again at the base of her bridge and in her foretop radar director. There has been contention over which German vessel struck Hood: Kapitän Helmuth Brinkmann’s Prinz Eugen was firing at Prince of Wales, following an order from the fleet commander, but the gunnery officer of Prinz Eugen, Paul Schmalenbach, has been quoted as saying that Prinz Eugen's target was Hood.

At 06.00, Holland ordered his force to turn once again to port to ensure that the after main guns on both Hood and Prince of Wales could be brought to bear on the German ships. In terms of the force balance, this would nominally give Holland’s force the advantage of 18 large-calibre guns to Bismarck's eight 380-mm (14.97-in) guns.

During the turn, a salvo from Bismarck, fired at a range of about 15,300 yards (14000 m), was seen by men on board Prince of Wales to straddle Hood abreast her mainmast. This straddle meant that some of the salvo’s shells fell to port, others to starboard and some precisely aligned over the centre of Hood's main deck. It is likely that one shell struck somewhere between Hood's mainmast and 'X' turret abaft the mast. A huge pillar of flame shot upward 'like a giant blowtorch' in the vicinity of the mainmast. This was followed by an explosion that destroyed a large portion of the ship from amidships clear to the rear of 'Y' turret, blowing both after turrets into the sea. The ship broke in two and the stern fell away and sank. The bow rose clear of the water, pointed upward, pivoted about and sank shortly after the stern. 'A' turret fired a salvo while in this upright position, possibly from the doomed gun crew, just before the bow section sank.

Splinters rained down on Prince of Wales 880 yards (805 m) away. Hood sank in about three minutes with 1,415 members of her crew, only three men surviving to be rescued two hours later by the destroyer Electra.

The Admiralty later concluded that the most likely explanation for the loss of Hood was a penetration of her magazines by a 280-mm (14.97-in) shell from Bismarck, causing the explosion. Recent research with submersible craft suggests that the initial explosion was in the after 4-in (101.6-mm) magazine and that this spread to the 15-in (380-mm) magazines via the ammunition trunks. It has been suggested from examination of the wreckage, found in 2001, that the magazine explosion in the 4-in (101.6-mm) ammunition near the mainmast caused the vertical blast of flame seen there, and this in turn ignited the magazines of the after 15-in (381-mm) guns that caused the explosion that wrecked the stern. This explosion might have travelled through the starboard fuel tanks, igniting the fuel oil there, setting off the forward magazines and completing the destruction of the ship.

The wreck of Hood reveals the bow section bereft of any structure. A huge section of her side is missing, from the 'A' barbette to the foredeck. The midship section has its plates curled outward. Moreover, the main parts of the forward structure, including the 600-ton conning tower, were found about 1,200 yards (1100 m) away from the main wreckage, and this has sparked theories that the 15-in (381-mm) forward magazines exploded as a result of the force, flames and pressure caused by the detonation of the after magazines. However, a team of marine forensic scientists has found that implosion damage to the forward hull, as a result of Hood's rapid sinking, is the most likely cause of the state of the forward hull, and they do not support any theory that the forward magazines exploded.

Prince of Wales now found herself steering toward the sinking Hood. Leach, her commanding officer, ordered an emergency avoidance turn away from Hood's wreckage. This violent change of course disrupted her aim and put her in a position that made it easier for the Germans to target her. She resumed her previous course but was now under the concentrated fire of both German ships. Prince of Wales was struck four times by Bismarck and three times by Prinz Eugen. One shell passed through her upper superstructure, killing or wounding several crewmen in the compass platform and air defence platform. Pieces of another shell struck her radar office aft, killing its crew.

A 203-mm (8-in) shell from Prinz Eugen found its way to the propellant charge/shell handling chamber below the after 5.25-in (133.4-mm) anti-aircraft gun turrets, and a 380-mm (14.97-in) shell from Bismarck hit underwater below the armour belt, penetrating about 13 ft (4 m) into the ship’s hull, about 25 ft (7.6 m) below the waterline, but was stopped by the anti-torpedo bulkhead. Fortunately for Prince of Wales, neither of these shells detonated, but the battleship nonetheless suffered minor flooding and the loss of some fuel oil.

By this time, serious malfunctions had caused intermittent problems with the main armament, leading to a 26% reduction in the number of shells fired. According to Leach, he decided that continuing the action would risk losing Prince of Wales without inflicting further damage on the German ships, so he ordered the ship to make smoke and withdraw, 'pending a more favourable opportunity'. Prince of Wales turned away just after 06.04, firing from her after turret under local control until the turret suffered a jammed shell ring, cutting off the ammunition supply and making the guns inoperable.

Despite the efforts of the crew and civilian technicians to repair the shell ring, this took until 08.25 for all four guns to be back in service, although two of the guns had been made serviceable by 07.20. This temporarily left only five 14-in (355.6-mm) guns operational, but nine of the 10 such weapons were operational in five hours. The last salvoes fired were ragged and are believed to have fallen short. The ship retired from the battle at about 06.10. Some 13 of her crew had been killed, and nine had been wounded. The timing of Prince of Wales's withdrawal was fortunate for her, as she had come into torpedo range of Prinz Eugen and turned away just as the German cruiser was about to fire.

On Bismarck there was elation at the sinking of Hood, and also a keen expectation that the German ships would close on Prince of Wales and possibly sink her, and Lindemann requested that Lütjens allow Bismarck to do just that. Even if Tovey’s squadron had left Scapa Flow the previous day, he would still be more than 350 miles (565 km) away from Bismarck even if Bismarck diverted to sink Prince of Wales, which Lindemann believed would require only two or three hours.

Lütjens refused to allow Lindemann to give chase, giving no explanation. Lindemann repeated his request, this time more assertively, but Lütjens held firm orders from the commander-in-chief of the German navy, Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, to avoid unnecessary combat with the Royal Navy, especially when it could lead to further damage that could hasten Bismarck's delivery toward the waiting hands of the British. He broke off combat instead of pursuing Prince of Wales and ordered a course of 270°. Bismarck had fired 93 of her 353 armour-piercing shells during the engagement.

This clash between the two senior German officers reflected their different and distinct command roles. As captain of Bismarck, Lindemann operated first and foremost as a tactician and, as such, had no doubt that his ship’s immediate objective was the destruction of Prince of Wales. He had thus pressed his case as far and as hard as he should. As fleet chief and task force commander, Lütjens operated at the strategic and operational levels. To some degree, his orders were clear: his priority was the delivery of attacks on convoys, not the risking of 'a major engagement for limited, and perhaps uncertain, goals'. Nevertheless, Raeder had also ordered Lütjens to be bold and imaginative, to accept battle if unavoidable and conduct it vigorously to the finish.

The reality was that Lütjens’s orders did not cover a spectacular success such as that just achieved. His priority therefore was to adhere to his instructions to concentrate on sinking merchant shipping and avoid encounters with British warships whenever possible. Moreover, before leaving Germany, Lütjens had told two senior admirals that he would adhere to Raeder’s directives. This meant he did not intend to become the third fleet chief to be relieved for contradicting Raeder’s orders. Marschall, one of his two predecessors, had been relieved of command for not following his orders to the letter despite the fact that Marschall’s analysis of the changes in the tactical situation since the orders were issued resulted in the sinking of the British aircraft carrier Glorious and its two escorting destroyers.

Even had he known that it was the untried Prince of Wales that he was fighting and not King George V, Lütjens would probably have stuck to his decision. Following her would have meant exposing the squadron to further gunfire as well as to torpedo attacks from Norfolk and Suffolk. He would have risked his ships and crews on an expressly forbidden opportunity, and would also have been facing an opponent which was still combat effective, despite the hits taken. The Royal Navy’s assessment was that the damage sustained was limited and caused no significant reduction in combat efficiency.

Between 06.19 and 06.25, Suffolk fired six salvoes in the direction of Bismarck after mistaking a radar contact with an aeroplane for Bismarck. Suffolk was actually out of gun range of both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen at this time.

On Holland’s death, responsibility for Prince of Wales fell to Wake-Walker in Norfolk. With this command came the responsibility of coping with Bismarck until enough British warships could be concentrated for the destruction of the German battleship. Wake-Walker’s choice was either to renew the action with Bismarck, or ensure that she was intercepted and brought to action by other heavy ships. Wake-Walker opted for the latter, continuing to shadow the German ships. Further offensive action, he concluded, would cause more damage to Prince of Wales than to Bismarck and endanger his cruisers, and he also knew that Tovey was on his way. He ordered Prince of Wales to follow Norfolk at her best speed, so that Norfolk and Suffolk could fall back on her if attacked. At 07.57 Suffolk reported that Bismarck had reduced speed and appeared damaged.

Since the German battleship had received the first hit in her forecastle, all six of the ship’s 26-man damage-control teams had worked to repair the damage. When it was reported that the tips of the starboard propeller could be seen above water, Lindemann had ordered the counter-flooding of two compartments aft to restore the ship’s trim. He then sent divers into the forecastle to connect the forward fuel tanks, containing a much-needed 1,000 tons of fuel, first to the tanks near the forward boiler then to the rear fuel tank by way of a provisional line running over the upper deck. Both of these endeavours failed, and Lindemann had then requested permission to slow Bismarck and heel the ship first to one side then the other to weld patches from the inside to the holes in the forward hull. Lütjens refused, again without comment, but eventually had to agree to slow the ship to 22 kt to allow hammocks and collision matting to be stuffed in the holes of the No. 2 boiler room and the auxiliary boiler room to stop the growing ingress of seawater. This attempt also failed. Boiler Room No. 2 was shut, resulting in a loss of speed to 28 kt.

As well as taking on seawater, Bismarck was leaking fuel oil. Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to drop back and see how much of a trail the battleship was leaving in her wake. The carpet of oil was broad enough to cover both sides of the ship’s wake, was all colours of the rainbow and gave off a strong smell, all of which helped disclose Bismarck's location.

The damage to Bismarck's forward fuel tanks, combined with a missed opportunity to refuel at Bergen earlier in the voyage, left the ship with less than 3,000 tons of fuel, which was not enough to operate effectively against the Atlantic convoys. The element of surprise, which had been considered essential for the operation’s success, had by now most decidedly been lost, all the more so as the German ships continued to be shadowed by Wake-Walker’s squadron. Lütjens concluded that he had to abort Bismarck's mission and head toward a convenient dockyard for repairs. The question was to which dockyard he should head. The nearest friendly ports were Bergen and Trondheim in Norway, each of them a little more than 1,000 miles (1600 km) distant. Steaming in that direction meant a return passage to the north or south of Iceland, with the British air forces now fully alerted to the German ships' presence and the possibility of other heavy units between them and Scapa Flow. Lütjens knew his intelligence was unreliable. Hood had been reported by Gruppe 'Nord' to be off West Africa and there had been no reports of a 'King George V' class battleship in the vicinity.

Disregarding Lindemann’s recommendation to return to Bergen, Lütjens ordered that Bismarck be headed toward the French port of St Nazaire. Prince of Wales pursued for several hours and re-engaged on several occasions before the German ships evaded pursuit. Although the French coast was 600 miles (970 km) farther away than Bergen, St Nazaire held the potential of longer nights and wider seas in which to shake off Bismarck's shadowers, as well as the possibility of luring them across a line of U-boats. It would leave Bismarck poised on the edge of the British trade routes once the damage had been repaired, and also offered the potential support of the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Both the latter had been stationed at Brest in France since the end of 'Berlin' earlier that year but had been kept in port for repairs and overhaul. While Brest was closer than St Nazaire, it was within range of British bombers.

Lütjens detached the undamaged Prinz Eugen to continue raiding on her own. The cruiser steamed farther south into the Atlantic, where she refuelled from a tanker at sea, but then suffered engine trouble, abandoned her commerce-raiding mission without having sunk any merchant ships, and made it to Brest.

News of Lütjens’s decision was received with shock in Berlin, Wilhelmshaven and Paris. A blizzard of urgent telephone calls raced across German-occupied Europe. While the admiralty in Berlin was satisfied with Lütjens’s success, this was tempered by news of Bismarck's damage and the decision to head for France. It was not clear to Raeder whether Lütjens intended to steam for St Nazaire immediately or after shaking off his pursuers and oiling in mid-Atlantic. Raeder immediately conferred with his chief-of-staff, Admiral Otto Schniewind, who in turn telephoned Admiral Rolf Carls, who commanded Gruppe 'Nord' in Wilhelmshaven. Carls had already drafted a message recalling Lütjens to Germany, but had not yet sent it. Schniewind pointed out that at 12.00 Bismarck had crossed the demarcation line between the northern Hebrides and southern Greenland, thus passing from the operational command of Gruppe 'Nord' to that of Gruppe 'West', so the decision to recall Lütjens was no longer that of Carls to make. A subsequent call to the commander of Gruppe 'West', Admiral Alfred Saalwächter, revealed that he did not plan to recall Lütjens and that he felt such a decision should be discussed between Schniewind and Raeder.

Raeder himself was against the issue of a recall, telling Schniewind they did not know enough about the situation at sea and that the person who would best know would be Lütjens. Raeder then telephoned Adolf Hitler, who was at the Obersalzberg in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler received the news of Hood's sinking stoically, exhibiting neither joy nor any other triumphant behaviour. After listening to Raeder’s report, Hitler turned to those him and expressed his personal thoughts: 'If these British cruisers are now maintaining contact and Lütjens has sunk Hood and nearly crippled the other, which was brand new and having trouble with her guns during the action, why did he not sink her too? Why has he not tried to get out of there or why has he not turned around?'

News of Hood's destruction was seized upon more enthusiastically by Dr Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. That evening it was broadcast to the nation, accompanied by martial airs. The German public, already enjoying the news of Luftwaffe victories over the Royal Navy off Crete in 'Merkur', received the news of Hood's sinking with delight.

The British public was deeply shocked that the UK’s most emblematic warship had been destroyed so suddenly, with the loss of more than 1,400 of her crew. The Admiralty mobilised every available warship in the Atlantic to hunt down and destroy Bismarck. The Royal Navy forces pursued and brought Bismarck to battle, and the German battleship was sunk on the morning of 27 May.

Moves were subsequently made to court-martial Wake-Walker and Leach. The view was taken that they were wrong not to have continued the battle with Bismarck after Hood had been sunk. Tovey, the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, was appalled at this criticism, and an argument broke out between Tovey and his superior, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord. Tovey stated that the two officers had acted correctly, ensuring that the German ships were tracked and not endangering their ships needlessly. Furthermore, Tovey added, Prince of Wales's main guns had repeatedly malfunctioned and she could not have matched Bismarck's firepower. Tovey threatened to resign his position and appear at any court-martial as a 'defendant’s friend' and defence witness, and no more was heard of the proposal.

A British board of enquiry quickly investigated the cause of Hood's explosion and produced a report. After criticism that the initial enquiry did not record all the available evidence, a second board of enquiry investigated Hood's loss more extensively, and examined the vulnerabilities of other large British warships still in service in light of the probable causes of the explosion. It, like the first enquiry, concluded that a 380-mm (14.96-in) shell from Bismarck caused the explosion of Hood's after ammunition magazines. This led to refitting some older British warships with increased protection for their ammunition magazines and some other related improvements.

Many naval historians and writers have analysed Bismarck's engagement and weighed the participants' decisions. One of the most debated is Lütjens’s decision to proceed into the Atlantic rather than continue the battle.

A number of parallels could be drawn from Holland’s actions in this battle and those of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty in the opening stages of the Battle of Jutland in 1916. From his actions, it seems clear that Holland felt he had to engage Bismarck immediately, rather than support Wake-Walker in shadowing until the heavy ships of Force 'H' could arrive from Gibraltar. Beatty, likewise, had felt that he needed to engage Vizeadmiral Franz von Hipper’s battle-cruisers with his own forces instead of drawing the Germans toward Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. Like Beatty, Holland possessed superiority in the number of heavy ships he possessed, yet he was encumbered by an inferiority in the fighting effectiveness of those units. Moreover, Holland’s deployment of his units compared to Beatty’s deployment at Jutland. Beatty and Holland both attacked while German units were well before the beam. As a result, the midship and after turrets of Beatty’s ships could barely fire on the German ships. Holland’s ships could not use their after turrets until the final turn to port just before Hood was sunk.

Beatty placed his more lightly armoured battle-cruisers at the head of his line, leaving the more powerfully armed and better-protected 'Queen Elizabeth' class battleships in the rear. Likewise, Holland placed the old and vulnerable Hood ahead of the better armoured, but new and untested, Prince of Wales. Both admirals exercised tight tactical control over their units from their flagships, and this prevented Leach from manoeuvring Prince of Wales independently and possibly taking a different line of approach that might have confused the Germans.