Quick and to the point: A review of Hunting the Bismarck by C.S.Forester.
Mayflower, 1974 (118 pages)
The Bismarck was one of a pair of battleships completed for the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, early in World War II, the other being the Tirpitz. Often lauded as a fearsome ship, the Bismarck in fact showed signs of being derived from a World War I design; in particular its disposition of armour was more suited to dealing with shells than ordnance delivered by aircraft, and its anti-aircraft armament, while substantial, was not as comprehensive as later experience in the war would suggest was necessary. It was one of a relative handful of capital ships operated by the Kriegsmarine, which served to focus attention on it all the more. Hence it gained almost mythological significance, which Forester buys into almost completely. In this book the ship is the largest, the most modern, the most dangerous and so on. The outcome of the war hinges on her fate. I’m not sure that’s true, but I am sure that in the grim days of 1941, when the Third Reich had been stopped at the English Channel but remained everywhere else victorious, a victory of this magnitude was no doubt a fillip for the Brits. Even after the loss of the Hood in an early engagement with the Bismarck, in the end the RN could absorb the loss of a capital ship far more easily than the Kriegsmarine. One need only look at how the Tirpitz was used to see the effect; it spent most of the war hiding in various Norwegian fjords, too psychologically valuable and too practically vulnerable to risk. It played a strategic role in tying up enemy resources, but it never fought a real battle.
The plan was for the Bismarck to break out into the Atlantic — the very phrase indicates one of the problems faced by German sea power, getting past the British Isles — and operate beyond land-based air power, running amok amongst allied convoys. In the end, she copped one shell in the engagement with Hood and Prince of Wales, decided to head for France for repairs to a damaged oil bunker, was crippled by Swordfish torpedo planes which enabled British battleships to catch up with her, and sunk by sheer volume of fire.
Forester brings this to life by getting close to the men involved. He presumably invents much of the dialogue — this is not solely a history but a careful re-enactment, so we get conversations between Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann on the bridge of Bismarck, we get tense words in the British HQ. Presumably when he quotes a signal or similar it is correct, but it is not clear what is exactly as happened and what has been imagined for dramatic effect; which is not the say the imaginings lack authenticity or overstate things. They are there to bring us closer to the real lives. When we read that two thousand men went down with the Hood or the Bismarck, we must recall that those are lives, not numbers. Indeed, the book ends with a reference to wives and children and mothers of those who died — and on both sides.
It is a very ‘easy’ read. The prose is workmanlike, the terminology sound, the events very easy to follow. Maps illustrate every step of the action. The handling of the chase and the deductions made by the pursuing British is well drawn — we can see how they eliminate possibilities, make reasonable guesses, cover every option when resources allow, and in the end succeed, with the aid of a little luck and much determination and organisation.
The events here are seventy-five years old. They are, I am sure, receding into the past and few younger people know them in any detail. This book, brief, to the point, riveting, does a great job of illustrating an important event.