You all know the story of the Bismarck if you haven’t read a book on it you must have seen the film. If you have read a book or seen the film you’ll know it’s a straightforward story: German Battleship breaks out to wreak havoc on British Convoys. The British send their most famous ship and a brand new Battleship to hunt her down and sink her and her escort. Bismarck sinks the Hood practically with her opening salvo’s. Outraged Churchill orders The Royal Navy to find and sink the Bismarck.
Royal Navy finds and sinks the Bismarck.
Told you a nice straightforward story, but was it really that easy?
Niklas Zetterling & Michael Tamelander have produced a gripping account about the final days on board the Bismarck. They take us from the building of the Bismarck at Blohm & Voss starting in 1936 through to the sinking in 1941. The book is remarkably descriptive of life in both Navies during the war. Britain has 4000 merchant ships of which 2500 are sailing at any given time. The German Battleships aim to track and sink as many as possible.
That soon proves to be harder than it sounds.
What is interesting the amount of planning involved for a relatively low return in tonnage sunk. For the Germans this means sailing from occupied countries in full view of the locals who may report it to the British. Then there are tankers to be positioned and route to be planed just to get to the North Atlantic and avoid the Royal Navy. Then there are more tankers to meet and hopefully British Convoys to find and sink.
Also included in the plans were “prize crews” who would sail captured ships back to ports in the Bay of Biscay. All this had to be planed and prepared long before the ships set sail just so they could get to the North Atlantic. This all had to be achieved without being detected by the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm.
One of the things that also strikes home is the conditions on board. After two months at sea Scharnhorst required ten weeks in dock for repairs to allow her to be operationally serviceable. After five months at sea the Admiral Scheer requires three months in dock for the same repairs. This is not battle damage but general wear and tear in the rough seas these ships operate. Given the number of ships the Germans have to have two or three in a dockyard starts to render operations impossible. When Gneisenau docks at Brest she is attacked and bombed by the RAF.
Once Bismarck sets sail we get a gripping account of the breakout and the battle. The authors are highly descriptive of conditions for both sides as the British try to find Bismarck and Bismarck tries to find unprotected convoys.
Using eyewitness’ from both side namely Ted Briggs from Hood and Burkhardt von Mullenheim – Rechberg from Bismarck.
Bismarck’s heavy 38cm guns can throw an 800kg shell over 25 KM her crew however have had limited practice due to the barrel life of 200 rounds. The British eventually track the Bismarck and her escort Prince Eugen and initially Hood and Prince of Wales mistake the latter ship for Bismarck. As both side close two officers on board Bismarck bet bottles of champagne on which British ships are approaching. Shortly both British ships open fire and the Germans are in no doubt that they are fighting two British Battleships.
One thing that runs through this book is the accuracy of theGerman guns and this was to be no exception; within the first three salvos Bismarck had hit Hood. As Hood turned away Bismarck’s fifth salvo scored a direct hit on the powder magazine which held fifty tons of cordite. A 15 metre hole was blown in the side and observers on Prince of Wales described seeing her blowing up like a two hundred metre vertical blow torch.
There is shock aboard Bismarck also at the speed of the sinking. Admiral Wake- Walker sends the signal informing the Admiralty what has happened to the Royal Navy’s most famous ship. Churchill is woken at Chequers “Have we got her “ he asks “No sir Hood has been sunk and the Prince of Wales has disengaged”. “I don’t care how you do it” he orders the First Sea Lord “but sink the Bismarck”
What follows is an engrossing, unable to put down read as the British hunt down and destroy Bismarck. A fascinating story of errors, bluff, counter bluff and above all luck. The British on board various ships and in London
try to plot Bismarck’s course. The Germans try to steer her back under air and u – boat cover.
All this must be done under fuel constraints and the need to meet tankers and refuel. The British attack from the air and the Germans having practised on fast moving ME 110’S AND ME109’s have trouble actually hitting the swordfish because they are so slow.
One Sqn attacks HMS Sheffield by mistake “Right Height, Right Range, Right Cloud Cover, Right speed, wrong F---ing ship says the C.O. at the debrief.
Eventually the British locate her and close for the kill HMS Suffolk shatters the glass in her bridge with the concussion of her guns.
After only 9 days at sea the Bismarck is sunk by the British
This is an excellent book combined with some astonishing photo’s of the Bismarck firing at Hood. You can almost hear the booming guns and smell the cordite. Once the World has stopped being fascinated with the sinking if the Titanic it would do well to revisit the Bismarck story. This book would provide an excellent reference for any prospective film to be made.
Even if you’re not interested in the Navy this is still an enjoyable book to read.
The authors flowing style of writing keeps the reader engrossed right to the very end. It’s not full of technical jargon and strikes the write balance between facts and storytelling. Well worth the price and a useful addition to any collection.
5 Mr Potato Heads from me
The final days of Germany’s greatest Battleship by Niklas Zetterling & Michael Tamelander. Published by Casemate. Click here to buy from Amazon