WARSHIPS AFTER LONDON: THE END OF THE TREATY ERA IN THE FIVE MAJOR FLEETS 1930-1936 & HUNT THE BISMARCK: THE PURSUIT OF GERMANY’S MOST FAMOUS BATTLESHIP

Reviewed by: CDR CONOR O’NEILL RN

I’ve elected to review these two books together as, despite being very different works, Warships after London provides a prologue for Hunt the Bismarck.  Whilst the outcome of that battle was ultimately as a result of the way those in command played their respective hands, the cards they were holding were in no small part due to the constraints and machinations of the treaty era, a short but complex period of naval history.

Jordan’s Warships after London is a sequel to Warships after Washington.  The latter covered the signing of that agreement in 1922 up to the London Conference in 1930, and this volume picks up the narrative from then until the lapsing of first Treaty of London in 1936.  It is a detailed account of the building programme of the major maritime powers, the technological developments that accompanied those programmes, and the ways in which they adapted their designs to observe the constraints that the treaties had imposed.  It is rich in pictures, diagrams and tables and by organising the chapters by class; capital ships, cruisers, destroyers etc, it permits easier comparison of the relative approach of each of the powers, than if sections for each nation had been used.

The author makes clear that he wishes to “bridge the gap between the technical and the political”, and the book does offer some commentary on the development of naval thinking of the period, for example in its section on aircraft carriers, which details the ways that the Atlantic and Pacific powers diverged in their policy and doctrine for the use of air power afloat, and the consequences for ship design.  The impact of the extension of the ‘Battleship Holiday’, which banned new battleship construction until 1937, is also discussed in detail, and the critical point that “January 1940 [would be]…the earliest a vessel laid down in January 1937 might be expected to complete”, is one that would have direct bearing on the battle for the Bismarck.  However, it is weighted towards the technical, and that is where is strengths lie.  It probably also is best read, or at least considered, alongside its predecessor, as it is the interaction of the two treaties which set the stage for the maritime conflicts of the Second World War.

Hunt the Bismarck starts as Warships after London begins to finish, in 1935, as Konstam describes how Hitler’s abrogation of both the Versailles Treaty and the Geneva Naval Conference, and subsequent negotiation of the short-lived Anglo-German Naval Agreement, gave him sufficient diplomatic cover to accelerate the naval building programme that was already well underway.  This short introduction is valuable context for the battle to come, not least as Jordan’s volume only mentions Germany’s naval construction programme in comparison to those of the other powers, rather than considering it on its own merits. As a non-signatory to the treaty, this is understandable, but it does provide a slightly imbalanced account of the period.

Konstam offers quite a harsh critique on previous accounts of this extended battle, arguing that many previous books either focus excessively on technical detail and are thus inaccessible, or alternatively are full of cliché and speculation.  He aims, accordingly, to provide both a human account of the encounter whilst being true to the technical reality.  Overall, he manages this tension well, and has produced a very readable and comprehensive book in just 300 pages.

Doctrine aficionados will enjoy his examination of the aims of Operation RHEINUBUNG, as the Kreigsmarine moderated their desire for command of the sea to a form of local sea control, and the politics involved in planning the operations of capital ships are clearly evidenced – plus ça change.  The impact of the treaty limitation of the British fleet is also examined – the battleship holiday described above resulted in the RN’s capital ships being either fairly elderly or very new at the time of the battle.

The personalities of the Commanders involved are covered well, and the human stories he alludes to in his introduction also add a valuable dimension to the account, such as the story of the brother of one of Bismarck’s officers, serving in Bergen, who made a short visit to the ship before she weighed anchor for the final time.  The photographs are comprehensive, and they include the actual photo reconnaissance shot of Bismarck in the Grimstadfjord which triggered the first sailing of the Home Fleet.

The climax of the book is fast paced descriptions of the series of actions which made up either the hunt for Bismarck or Operation RHEINUBUNG, depending on your perspective. Konstam balances those perspective well, with the narrative never feeling unduly weighted one way or the other.  He makes excellent use of survivors’ accounts from all the major units that were lost, and this, combined with clear and consistent charts that detail the movement of the multiple task groups that were pursuing the German force, sets up the account of each battle, and the chases in between very effectively.  Those battles span almost the whole range of potential warfare scenarios, from night destroyer attacks and long-range stalking through to major fleet actions and, of course, the carrier-launched air strike which brought Bismarckunder the guns of the Home Fleet.  They are described salvo to salvo, but this detail doesn’t detract from the excitement of the story, indeed it builds it, as I found myself willing each broadside onto its target. An epilogue rounds off the story with both the immediate aftermath of the battle and how the starring characters, the ships, spent the rest of the war, before concluding with some fascinating detail about Bismarck’s wreck.

Taken together, these very different books book-end, in a way, the legacy of the inter war years – the vast majority of the ships involved in the battle were conceived of or laid down prior to the outbreak of the war, their designs shaped by the treaties and politics of those years, forensically described and analysed by Jordan. The consequences of these various compromises and limitations from a decade earlier were then exposed across two brutal weeks at sea, as Konstam’s book vividly describes.