Since sinking Hood, two days before, Bismarck had enjoyed some incredible luck, which, in retrospect, can hardly be considered undeserved. Several British units, including the battleship Rodney, had missed her by only a few miles, and now the pursuing forces were far astern.
Except one. Force H was only 120 miles to the eastward of Bismarck’s position and, more relevant, between the German battleship and Brest.
The Catalina’s sighting report was hammered out on area broadcasts HD, BN and CN within minutes by Whitehall W/T, read by Renown, Ark Royal and Sheffield. At this time the carrier’s search aircraft were still airborne, but minutes later one of them. Swordfish 2H, reported to Ark Royal on H/F the sighting of a heavy cruiser which could only be Prinz Eugen.
Sheffield’s Walrus was not employed, and her observer Charles Fenwick, was on the ship’s bridge. ‘For some reason’, he remembers, ‘Charles Larcom had a personal feud with the German cruiser Prinz Eugen, and he was often saying that he wanted to meet her in single combat. I believe … he would rather have found her than the Bismarck herself …’
But it was decreed otherwise. Within seven minutes Swordfish 2F reported the same enemy — but this time a battleship.
‘I was PCO of the Forenoon watch’, Ross’s next letter told, ‘when the voicepipe from the W/T Office buzzed at us, and the Sub hauled up a pink signal on the end of the usual piece of string, then read aloud that the Ark’s aircraft had found [Bismarck] steering towards Brest — which was just the sort of shot we were meant to field … It was a thrilling moment …’
Somerville, however, was not totally convinced; it was vitally necessary to know if both Swordfish were referring to the same ship and, if they were, whether it was indeed a battleship or a cruiser, so that the depth settings of torpedoes could be adjusted accordingly. Fie ordered off two more search Swordfish and all others to be landed and armed. The Admiralty had already ruled that Somerville’s Renown was not to engage Bismarck unless King George V and/or Rodney were in company, but the Admiral was intending to get to the north-west of the enemy and engage from astern, compelling Bismarck, if she washed to respond, to turn away from Brest, into a Force 6 wind and towards other British heavy units closing at speed. If Renown, older even than Hood, outgunned and creaking in every joint, was going to fight, then Somerville needed to steal every advantage possible.
And he would make quite certain that the enemy battleship would not twist away this time. At 1300 he ordered Larcom to increase speed, make contact with Bismarck, shadow and report.
Sheffield, released, lifted her bows as she smashed into the swell, and, on both flanks and astern, the sea creamed. In the boiler rooms below, the fans were roaring, burners and turbines screamed, artificers among the labyrinth of ladders, catwalks and asbestos-covered pipes watched their brass-rimmed gauges. Within minutes the paint on both funnels was beginning to blister and peel. By 1500 the cruiser was steaming at 31½ knots and increasing, the wind WSW, Force 6. Above the funnels the heat shimmered, smokeless.
At 1630 it was piped: ‘The ship is now steaming at 38 knots’ — which was six knots more than her engines had been designed for. ‘It thus seemed rather unfair’, recalls AB Allen, ‘that when a small puff of smoke escaped from the forward funnel, we heard the double click of the Captain’s microphone, and then his voice. “Stop making smoke.” A few minutes later there appeared another smoke-ball — and again the ominous click-click. Larcom’s voice was coldly angry. “Engines — come up here!” The sympathy of the entire ship’s company followed Engineer Commander Baily as he climbed ladder after ladder to the compass platform. After all, we were doing thirty-eight knots!’
Meanwhile Renown had raised Portishead W/T on ship/shore H/F to inform the Admiralty, in cipher, of the detachment of Sheffield. At this time Ark Royal was several miles away, landing-on aircraft and beyond visual range, so Renown’s signal — which would be immediately re-broadcast by the Admiralty to all ships in the area — was repeated in its address to CinC (Tovey) and Ark Royal. This procedure might seem to be cumbersome, but it was the surest means of acquainting Ark Royal with the intentions of her own squadron.
When the signal regarding Sheffield’s deployment was received in Ark Royal, however, the carrier’s communications personnel were already occupied with a back-log of incoming signals traffic. Fresh shadowing reports were still being read. One Swordfish of the returning reconnaissance sortie had crashed on landing, while newly armed aircraft were being lifted from the hangar in the bell-clanging after lift. Somerville’s signal, seen to be merely ‘repeated for information’, was not immediately deciphered. Thus when, at 1450, fourteen attack Swordfish lifted off Ark Royal’s deck, their crews knew nothing of the presence of Sheffield on their flight path; the first warship to be sighted, they had been briefed, would be Bismarck.
Within Force H, only Sheffield was equipped with air surveillance RDF (Radio Direction Finding), soon to be renamed Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging) but several of Ark Royal’s Swordfish had been burdened with ASV (Anti-Surface Vessel) radar assemblies, the use of which nobody had confidently mastered. Within only forty minutes of lifting off, the cockpit radar warned of a vessel just ahead, and it had to be Bismarck. The strike CO, Lieut-Commander Stewart-Moore, waited for a gap in the cloud — and there she was below, pounding into the grey sea with a tumbling, silver wake stretching astern.
Ark Royal’s airmen were thoroughly acquainted with Sheffield; she had steamed thousands of miles in company, shared the same anchorage on numerous occasions. Sheffield had two funnels to Bismarck’s one, while the German was 330 feet longer and almost five times the cruiser’s tonnage. It might seem impossible that Ark Royal’s aircrew could fail to identify Sheffield, but they saw only what they expected and wanted to see, and Stewart-Moore led his aircraft above the cloud to deploy for attack.
‘We had closed down our RDF for fear of enemy detection,’ says Al Hurley. ‘I will always remember the words coming down the voicepipe that the Ark’s bombers were sighted, and then the excited retort, “My God — they’re attacking us!”’
Larcom called for emergency full ahead and ordered all guns to refrain from firing. Hurley had hurriedly climbed to the after end of the bridge where, he recalls, ‘the scene was one of dismay, but certainly no panic …
Larcom was a cool customer. As each group of three (aircraft) lined up to make a run at us he would bring Sheffield beam on to their approach, hoping they would recognize our profile. When they failed to do so, and dropped their torpedoes, he had to bring the ship around smartly to meet the fish head on. We had just avoided one such attack on the port bow when I saw, from my vantage point, another three forming up to starboard. I could not resist shouting: “There are three more attacking on the starboard bow, sir!” — which was a bit presumptuous for a Sub-Lieutenant, RCNVR, Special Branch, from a position in which I should never have been in the first place!’
Only three pilots realized their mistake in time; nine released their torpedoes. ‘I reckon that Sheffield showed great restraint,’ wrote Charles Fenwick, the cruiser’s own pilot. It was certainly a very frightening affair. The last straw came when one of our Swordfish, having dropped its torpedo, flew across our bow and sprayed us with its rear gun.’
Larcom had handled his ship with remarkable skill. Even so, Sheffield’s survival was hardly less than a miracle. As the incredulous sailors stared up at the Swordfish climbing away, torpedoes gone, an Aldis lamp was blinking apologetically from the tail-ender: ‘Sorry for the kipper!’
In Sheffield there was little time for anything more than a few obscenities, because at 1740 Bismarck was sighted off the starboard bow — according to the deck log at 068 degrees 10 miles. Hurley says, ‘The first man to sight her masthead was Sub-Lieutenant Paul McLaughlan of Toronto, the only other Canadian aboard.’ From that moment until a destroyer flotilla joined the action four hours later Sheffield never took her eyes off Bismarck.