After the failure of the air attack at Grimstadfjord, Norway, Winston Churchill declared the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck the top priority of the British Empire. If it broke out into the Atlantic and began sinking convoys, the war would be over for the British.
The Bismarck’s first obstacle was the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap. It (Germans refer to ships and boats in the neutral) had four choices, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. In summary the closer to Scotland, the more likely a confrontation with the Home Fleet and aircraft from airbases in Scotland, but it was also the least expected, and a confrontation with the Home Fleet was inevitable, better to do it on its own terms. And in a text book case of the Sicilian Vizzini choosing the poison, Adm Lutjen’s chose the obvious choice, but not-not-obvious because he should choose the not-obvious choice of closer to Scotland, of the Denmark Straits between Greenland and Iceland (get all that?).
In any case, the British only had three battleships, one battlecruiser, and one aircraft carrier to cover all four gaps. Two were the only brand new battleships in the Royal Navy (Both still far inferior to the Bismarck) The HMS King George V, and HMS Prince of Wales, a WW1 BB – the HMS Rodney, the aircraft carrier Victorious, and the Pride of the Royal Navy – the battlecruiser Hood. In their very peculiar way of doing everything and doing nothing at the same time i.e. “spreading the jam too thin”, the Admiralty sent a screen of destroyers and cruisers to cover all four with the Hood and Prince of Wales to cover the Denmark Straits and Iceland Faeroe’s Gap, while the KGV, Rodney, and Victorious covered the other two.
On 23 May 1941, the British cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk spotted the Bismarck in the treacherous iceberg and fog laden Denmark Straits. Lutjens tried to engage them but because of radar the Brits retreated beyond the range of its guns and shadowed. Lutjen’s had no choice but to continue.
Upon sighting, the shadowing cruisers radioed Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland on board the Hood to intercept with the Prince of Wales the next day.