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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Pursuit and Sinking of the Bismarck

Audiobook: I remember seeing the classic movie Sink the Bismarck when I was a teenager and it was one of those formative things that changed my mind about joining the Navy. It was based on the eponymic book by C.S. Forester written in the fifties (the movie came out in 1960, I believe. Wikipedia reports Forester wrote it as a the screenplay before the book.)

Kennedy’s book, published in 1974, is a clear, page-turning, recounting of the actions of the British and Germans in a rather astonishing game of hide-and-seek as the Bismarck and the Prince Eugen tried to break out into the Atlantic where they could easily overwhelm convoys to England. The Bismarck was the biggest and best battleship ever constructed and the irony of its being taken out of action leading up to its sinking by a WW I Swordfish biplane dropping a torpedo was not lost on navies after WW II. Pearl Harbor and the Bismarck's sinking ended the reign of the dreadnought. (Not to mention the two-minute destruction of the HMS Hood, pride of the British navy.)

The assumption is that the British admiral running the show turned the Hood in such a way that the vulnerable upper decks were presented to the German guns. I'm skeptical they gave it much thought but perhaps they did. In any case no one was left after the explosion of the Hood who could say one way or the other. Whether a few more inches on the deck would have saved it from the direct hit it took from a 15 inch shell is problematic. Lots of luck was present on both sides, both good and bad showing how, in war, happenstance is always present. Lots of “if” we had done this, of “if” we had done that, perhaps the outcome would have been very different.

Lots of heroes, if you can call following orders under extreme conditions, heroism. The captains of the Suffolk and Norfolk, the two British cruisers who located the Bismarck (of course, if they had not had the new longer range radar that would not have happened) and shadowed her for days getting almost no sleep for the crew, is worth a citation. Not to mention the inexperienced pilots of the rickety old Swordfish biplanes who flew off the carrier Victorious, knowing they might not have enough fuel to make it back and that they would have to make a carrier landing at night, something they had never done before. In spite of very heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Bismarck all made it back safely, even the pilots of two aircraft that ran out of fuel and had to ditch.

Note that the book was published before the 1975 revelations of the role of Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine. (The Luftwaffe enigma code had been broken early in the war; the naval version not until later.) In a delicious irony, it was revealed only after the war, that the Catalina, which located the Bismarck after it cleverly turned back across the wakes of the two British cruisers and headed toward France (and unknowingly towards the Ark Royal , was flown by an American on patrol. That fact could not be revealed at the time because the United States had yet to enter the war, Pearl Harbor being yet six months in the future.

Excellent read (listen).
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