The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Modoc (WPG- 46), under command of Lieutenant Commander H. Belford, got under way from her berth in Boston on 12 May 1941 for the North Atlantic. She was to relieve the cutter Northland (WPG-49), whose mission was to patrol the convoy lanes and pick up survivors of merchantmen sunk by German U-boats. The mission itself was risky enough, since an inexperienced U-boat skipper might fire a torpedo at a military target he failed to recognize as neutral. But the situation was to become immensely more dangerous, as the German battleship Bismarck would soon be at sea, and the Royal Navy was bound and determined to chase her and her consort, the Prinz Eugen, down.
Not surprisingly, the Modoc was not in the same league as the Bismarck or any of the other ships soon to become involved. A Tampa (WPG)-class cutter of early 1920s vintage, the Modoc was positively minuscule compared to the Bismarck or to any of the pursuing British warships. The smallest main battery of any of the major participants was 8-inch—more than large enough to overwhelm the tiny Modoc. She could respond only with fire from her two old 5-inch guns, without adequate fire control.
Belford knew his ship would be entering dangerous waters and took suitable precautions: flying an oversized Coast Guard ensign; remaining well lit at night; and broadcasting position reports at regular intervals for anyone who might be listening. Time would prove this last precaution particularly wise. Beyond these measures nothing could be done except to keep a sharp lookout. A visual sighting might be the ship’s only chance should the prowling U-boats, or something else, decide to take a shot at it.
On 22 May 1941, the Bismarck left Bergen with her “little brother” on their first commerce-raiding cruise. Admiral Gunther Lütjens’ orders included a directive to avoid combat with superior British naval forces, but they included nothing about how to deal with any U.S. warships. The less-than-completely-neutral stance of the United States made meeting U.S. warships a distinct possibility. Furthermore, those same ships might even shadow the Germans and send homing signals for British ships and aircraft. As fate would have it, though, the Modoc was the only U.S. ship sighted by the Bismarck, and she was obviously no threat. The Bismarck would pose no threat to the Modoc, either, since the German Navy was regularly monitoring her position and passing it along to Lütjens.
In the early morning of 24 May 1941, the Bismarck engaged the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood, and sank her in eight minutes. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen also roughed up HMS Prince of Wales (a King George V-class battleship) and the cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy determined to resume the pursuit, still keeping its ships in contact with the recently victorious German raiders. The senior surviving officer of the shadowing force, Rear Admiral W.F. Wake-Walker—who flew his flag from the Norfolk—was determined to exact revenge for the loss of the Hood and to ensure the security of Great Britain’s maritime lifelines. Emotions ran high, and anyone who steamed into this pursuit was likely to be fired on first and identified later.
The Modoc had been patrolling the track of eastbound convoy HX-126, looking for survivors. Weather conditions had driven her east in her search, and she found nothing more than wreckage. Naturally, her radiomen were listening and heard the incredible news of the Hood’s destruction. It seemed unlikely that the Modoc would see the Bismarck or any of her pursuers. Even if she did, she could do little. Firing back at an attacker would be futile, and tagging along to see what happened would be virtually impossible, with a top speed of only 16 knots. Besides, no orders had been issued other than to patrol her assigned station and pick up survivors.
Lookouts were keeping a sharp watch for anything out of the ordinary. The Officer of the Deck, Lieutenant Richard Bacchus, Jr., was monitoring the watch as well as the seas. On a generally easterly course, the ship was well into the routine of any ship on patrol. Suddenly, everything changed. A surface contact was sighted off the port bow on a southward course proceeding at high speed. It was the Bismarck, alone since Lütjens had detached the Prinz Eugen to continue on the raiding mission. With her guns trained on the center line, she seemed to overlook the small cutter completely. The Germans showed no sign of recognition, either, though they probably knew of her presence in the area. The Modoc’s position reports had been intercepted by the shore-based German naval signals interception service, and probably the interception unit on board the Bismarck, as well. The Bismarck continued on her way, and not surprisingly, the Royal Navy was not far behind. Though it appears that Admiral Lütjens knew of the Modoc’s presence, it seems that little or no mention was made to the majority of the officers in the Bismarck. Burkard Baron von Miillenheim-Rechberg, the Bismarck’s assistant gunnery officer and the senior survivor, makes no mention of any vessels in the area.
Unfortunately for the Modoc, the Royal Navy was not as well informed as its German counterpart. This was to give the Modoc one of the liveliest moments of her career. The first hint that the cutter’s crew might be in the wrong place came from the air. Fast on the heels of the Bismarck came old Swordfish torpedo planes and Fulmars from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. They were bent on slowing the German giant so the pursuing Home Fleet could close in for the kill. When they took off from their carrier, no one had briefed the pilots and crews about the Modoc. Consequently, when the planes came out of the clouds, they approached the first surface target they saw.
None of the pilots knew quite what to make of this interloper. One report was on the mark: “American patrol boat, perhaps Coast Guard cutter, on course 000.” The rest of the attackers described the contact variously as, “a small white yacht,” “a cable layer,” or “a small vessel which appeared to be stationary.” Perhaps the best description was in Captain Russell Grenfell’s account, The Bismarck Episode. There he states, “. . . the target object was not after all the Bismarck but a strange vessel, which fortune had chosen this of all moments to place on this particular spot on the ocean.” The planes recognized their mistake and pressed on past the stranger toward their target, still in sight of the Modoc, which had been informed of the planes’ arrival. The Bismarck put up a heavy curtain of flak, and the Modoc had a ringside seat. She was so close, in fact, that some of the battleship’s misses landed very close by.
On board the Modoc, the reaction was one of wonder. In a letter home, Richard L. Davies noted that the possible consequences of the attack by the Swordfish torpedo planes were quite clear. “The executive officer shook hands with me and asked if I had warm clothes. I went below, got my ulster, put the Testament, yours and Bud’s picture in my pockets, and went above again to watch.” Realizing this piece of ocean was no place for a small cutter to be, the Modoc crew turned away from the engagement to safety. As if this was not enough excitement, more pursuers were on the way.
Having seen the Hood sink so quickly, the crew of the Prince of Wales was probably just a little bit trigger happy. She and the heavy cruisers were still in hot pursuit of their fleeing enemy. Wake-Walker was determined to take advantage of any favorable opportunity to renew the fight with the Germans or slow them down even further. All three ships were trailing their quarry closely, wary of any sudden change in course or position that might lead to sudden battle. The Bismarck had already done this twice in an attempt to evade or surprise her followers. The second time the Prinz Eugen had broken away to continue on the commerce-raiding mission. Consequently, any ship that appeared unexpectedly was likely to be fired on unless she was recognized quickly.
The Modoc came into British view. Already the day had been far more exciting than expected or desired—first, the Bismarck, then torpedo planes, and after turning away quickly from that attack, now a British battleship and two heavy cruisers. Unlike the Bismarck, however, these ships were not expecting another warship in the vicinity. The planes had not passed on the Modoc’s position to the Victorious, nor had the Royal Navy corvette Arabis signaled that Coast Guard cutters were in the area. (She had met with the cutter Northland earlier, but had not seen the Modoc). The stage was set for a potential catastrophe in U.S.-British relations.
The Norfolk was first to spot the Modoc. An unexpected contact was at a target angle of 000 and just ahead of the port beam. Immediately, the pursuers focused on the new threat. Almost simultaneously, the target’s identity was in doubt. But on board the Norfolk, Flag Captain A. J. L. Phillips was able to convince his skeptical commander that this was the Bismarck. Wake-Walker had originally doubted this identification, since the contact had a yellow super structure (actually buff). But no one had told him about the Modoc, so he assumed the worst. On board the Prince of Wales, the main battery had already been brought to bear and was waiting for the signal to fire.
On board the Modoc, the reaction was a quick turn for the mists and away from the huge guns threatening to blow her out of the water. After some tense moments, the Modoc made the safety of the mists. Her less-than-sterling speed, however, did not contribute much to her survival. On board the Prince of Wales, the answering pendant had jammed, and before it could be cleared, the stranger had vanished. Wake-Walker was upset that he had missed his chance to engage the Bismarck, but he may have been slightly relieved later when a signal from the Prince of Wales expressed reservations about the strange contact’s identity. On board the Modoc, everyone probably breathed easier, and the patrol continued without further excitement. In his letter home, Davies noted, “By good maneuvering, good guessing, and good luck—the good Lord having us by the hand— we got away from the scene, bumping along at unnaturally great speed. We made such black smoke as the engineers pushed the boilers. Doubtless this acted as a screen which prevented the Bismarck from firing on the British ships.” While this last claim may not have been entirely true, the Modoc escaped without a scratch.
The Bismarck was sunk on 27 May, ending one of the longest chases in naval history. Many of the British ships involved, including the Prince of Wales, would be sunk in later campaigns. The Modoc completed her patrol, survived the war, and was scrapped shortly thereafter.
What if the Prince of Wales’s answering pendant had not jammed? Had the Modoc been sunk, U.S. citizens undoubtedly would have been outraged and made continuation of vital lend-lease aid to Great Britain much harder to justify. Would the British have made an attempt to downplay the loss, as in the 1938 Panay incident, or would they have blamed the Bismarck in an attempt to push the United States closer to war? No one will ever know for sure. And it is safe to say the crew of the Modoc was eternally grateful that being sunk remained only in the realm of “What if?”