BATTLESHIP BISMARCK

Reviewed by: R. G. Melly

Battleship Bismarck – A Design and Operational History is literally not a book to be taken lightly.  At 610 pages (230cms x 310cms), it is a handsomely presented, extensively researched summary of the origins, construction and short career of this remarkable ship. This wide-ranging book is a collaboration by three American authors, all of whom are well-suited to the task: William Garzke Jr and Robert Dulin Jr have worked together before as the co-authors of the Battleships trilogy, dedicated to the vessels of World War II; and William Jurens is an active member of the Marine Forensics Committee of the Society of Naval Architects and Engineers.

The section of the book detailing the genesis, design and construction of the ship is actually quite brief, with the larger part of the tome describing the short operational life of the ship.  The ship’s final fateful mission, Operation RHEINÜBUNG, is set against the context of the relative strengths of the two protagonist navies and the conduct of the war at sea up to that point.  However, it was the relative success of Operation BERLIN, the sortie by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into the North Atlantic between December 1940 and March 1941, that convinced Admiral Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Reichsmarine, that German surface ships could operate in that area and prove their worth as surface raiders.

Having set the scene, the book goes on to describe, in impressive detail, the conduct of Bismarck’s fateful sortie, in company with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. With the narrative given from both perspectives, the loss of HMS Hood in the Denmark Straits is detailed, followed by the frantic attempts by the Royal Navy to track and contain the Bismarckagainst a background of atrocious weather and rapidly diminishing fuel states.  Meanwhile, the Bismarck, also low on fuel and surprised at the effectiveness of the British radar, was desperately endeavouring to shake the tailing ships.  Finally, crippled by the torpedo damage to the ship’s rudders caused by a Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal, the brave last stand is reported in clinical detail, drawing extensively on reports on the action, eye-witness accounts and an examination of the wreck site.  Just short of 3,000 shells were fired at the Bismarck, of which it is estimated between 300 and 400 were hits; the resulting damage knocked out all of the guns but failed significantly to damage the ship’s armoured citadel.  The ship finally sank as a result of seven torpedo hits, hastened by the actions of the crew in setting scuttling charges.  As with so many wartime actions, it was a close-run thing: Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both at Brest, were unavailable either for the Operation or as an intervention force; the U-Boats in the vicinity of the action had no torpedoes; the Bismarck was disabled by a torpedo in the only spot which would stop her; foul weather and the extreme range prevented the Luftwaffe intervening; and the fuel states of the pursuing warships were close to exhaustion.

The book is well-written and is complemented by an interesting array of black and white images and diagrams and a few colour photographs from the wreck site.  It is also a little repetitive, perhaps reflecting the contributions of multiple writers.  Irked by an assertion in the prologue, attributed to an RN Vice Admiral, that the Bismarck was sunk by the US and the British, I was concerned that this book was going to have an unduly American bias; however, apart from the American spelling, this did not prove to be the case.  Instead, I found that I was drawn into the compelling narrative, with its astonishing level of detail underpinned by thorough research.  Indeed, with the impressive bibliography and extensive use of notes, this book must surely lay claim to being amongst the most definitive accounts of the Bismarck’s career.

A little to my surprise, I found this book to be a thoroughly good and authoritative read.  Perhaps the final word should go to Winston Churchill, in a letter sent to President Roosevelt in May 1941: “She was a terrific ship, and a masterpiece of naval construction”.