Iain Ballantyne’s Killing the Bismarck undertakes the almost absurdly difficult job of saying something new about the Royal Navy’ hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. I’ve mentioned Ballantyne’s book a couple of times before, and I should note with for the purposes of full disclosure: Iain Ballantyne is my editor at Warship: International Fleet Review. On one occasion, he shared more than a few pints with myself and Dave Brockington at a series of Plymouth pubs. In spite of this unsavory company, Ballantyne has managed the very difficult, and has given an important new account of how the Royal Navy hunted and eventually destroyed Bismarck.
The microfoundations of warfare remain understudied, even if the best military historians have brushed by them. Thucydides gave the microfoundations of the phalanx, probably without precisely appreciating how his approach differed from contemporaries. Hans Delbruck employed an explicitly micro-perspective on warfare, to the extent that one could have been explicit before the development of the vocabulary of neo-classical economics. Delbruck explained and elaborated Thucydides’ approach, contrasting it with that of Caesar and other ancient historians. The phalanx functioned as it did, Delbruck interpreted, because of the natural tendencies of individual swordsmen to protect themselves. A micro approach to warfare suffers from the same limitations as a micro approach to anything else, but this shouldn’t obscure its power. An understanding of German military power in the 20th century, for example, requires close attention to both macro and micro factors, from the close relationship between German industry and the German military, to the functioning of a German infantry squad.
In naval warfare, however, the tracing of the microfoundations of military power has lagged. There are some exceptions to this, including a few ancient explanations of the effectiveness of particular groups of rowers, and so forth. For the most part, however, accounts of naval warfare have concentrated on macro level factors, from procurement and technology, to doctrine, to the crucial decisions of important men. To the extent that we have any micro explanations, the unit of analysis tends to be the individual ship, which is itself, of course, a collective with its own rules and processes. Again, there are exceptions; in the interwar period Japanese naval architects argued that the individual characteristics of Japanese sailors (smaller, “tougher”) saved enough weight to pack more armor, engines, and weapons onto Japanese cruisers. The macro approach to naval history tends to end when the ship sinks; we have many accounts of how sailors act when they’re in the water and close to death.
Ballantyne, traveling extremely well-trod ground, watches the hunt for Bismarck from the perspective of British sailors. Through interviews and other personal accounts, he explains how attitudes towards Bismarck shifted from fear to hatred. The sailors on Hood, Prince of Wales, Suffolk, and Norfolk all had their reasons to fear an encounter with Bismarck. Hood’s crew was well acquainted with her age and shortcomings, just as Prince of Wales crew understood that the ship was not yet ready for battle. After Hood’s destruction (and Ballantyne gives an excellent account of the survival of Ted Briggs, Robert Tilburn, and William John Dundas), the attitude in the Royal Navy changed. The crews of Rodney and King George V wanted a chance at Bismarck, though they doubted until the end that they’d have the shot. When they caught Bismarck, which had destroyed Hood and 1415 of hew crew, the desire for vengeance was as important as the need to destroy a major unit of the Kriegsmarine. The attitude at Number 10 was rather the opposite; Churchill was eager to catch Bismarck, then utterly terrified of the possibility that Bismarck might (to great embarrassment) escape “justice.”
This perspective gives him particularly good perspective for asking the key question of the book: Was Bismarck trying to surrender to HMS Rodney? Ballantyne doesn’t concentrate over-much on Bismarck, instead keeping his gaze on the Royal Navy. However, he discusses good evidence that morale collapsed aboard Bismarck in its last night, with officers opening the stores to the men and discipline relaxing. He also pays careful attention to the human costs of the final battle, noting the likely effect of each of Rodney’s shell hits on Bismarck’s crew. Part of the crew remained utterly untouched by the battle, deep within the ship far from harm. Most in the upper parts, however, were torn apart by British shelling. In this context, the idea that some portion of Bismarck’s crew may have attempted to strike the colors is hardly unreasonable. Parts of the crew simply wanted to MAKE THE SHELLING STOP. Other elements, relatively untouched, continued to execute their duty. The destruction of communications (and of the senior officers) onboard Bismarck meant that there was no one left to coordinate defense, or surrender. Of course, those that may (or may not) have witnessed the effort at surrender had little sympathy for the crew of Bismarck, who were held collectively responsible for the destruction of Hood.
Under such circumstances there was no chance that the British would accept a surrender, even if offered. Both macro and micro factors prevailed against it. Nevertheless, an appreciation of how the sailors both on Bismarck and on the task force that destroyed her understood the final battle is most definitely a good contribution to the literature on the destruction of Bismarck. Killing the Bismarck thus manages the very difficult; saying something new and interesting about one of the most well known operations in naval history.