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Sunday Book Review: Killing the Bismarck


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.

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  • blowback

    I can remember reading somewhere that the Germans were not keen on accepting the surrender of military units that had fought until their ammunition ran out or continued fighting after their situation became hopeless. Might this have coloured the Royal Navy’s decision to sink the Bismarck as her main guns continued firing after it was obvious that she would not survive.
    And don’t forget the ever present danger of U-boats. After Bismarck when down the RN started rescuing survivors but broke off in response to reports of U-boats in the neighbourhood

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  • dave

    Is there any actual example of a major combat ship surrendering under fire in the twentieth century?

    • Yes, SMS Emden actually finally did haul down it’s battle flag in November 1914, while aground, pretty much totally wrecked, and under reluctant but heavy fire from HMAS Sydney. Emden’s is a fascinating story if you haven’t read it.

  • Excellentand fair review. I read the book right after you first mentioned it a year or so ago and didn’t find it very compelling although it was fascinating. Certainly sailing warships were surrendered by people not at the top of their command tree, but generally only after the top was all dead or incapacitated. There’s a pretty clear case that the top officers were not calling the shots by 9:10 or so and Rodney at least did get close enough for folks on its decks to get a good look through optical devices at people on the deck of Bismarck, but closest approach was about 2 miles. From experience, I’d not want to guess emotions or most small actions from that range, especially as the sea was up. Too many of Ballantyne’s accounts struck me as retrospective guilt, and I could never buy into the black flag accounts. You’re recap is very fair, even if he is your editor at Warship :), and it is a book worth buying or reading if the subject interests you.

    • No retrospective guilt at all. I presented the accounts of British sailors and marines and the surrender element was but one part of a much bigger narrative. The aim – having spent more than ten years interviewing war veterans for various books – was to do something that would redress the balance in the literature on this remarkable episode. Aside from the men I interviewed, there was a lot of material in the archives that was simply being ignored due to the overwhelming focus on Bismarck or Hood. For me one of the most remarkable accounts was from Sam Wood, a medic in HMS Prince of Wales. As someone who has met a number of men from that particular ship who somehow survived her various scrapes and sinking, then being prisoners on the Burma Railway, I was most keen to ensure PoW featured prominently rather than be ignored. There are many ways to come at a book and merely reproducing what people had done before was not something I wanted to do. Regarding the back flag and the semaphore, and the morse lights making signals that may have indicated one part of the ship seeking to parley, or even just desperate individuals wanting to surrender, it’s not a case of buying into it or not. It is what two sailors, possibly three, saw and so, if I am presenting an account of Rodney’s close up destruction job, and they were among the few to be in position to see what was happening, and with high powered optics, then I will present it. I just convey what it is they saw. It’s not some crazy theory I came up with. They witnessed these intriguing signs. As you will know if you have ever sailed in a warship at Action Stations, the last place to be is inside the warship herself if you want to know what is really happening. The best view of what was happening in the Bismarck was in the British ships, and among the gunnery control teams of those vessels. An officer in the air defence position in Rodney claimed he saw surrender signs. A rating in the gunnery control position says he saw surrender signs. A rating in Dorsetshire may have also seen something. What should I do? Because it does not agree with the orthodoxy of the event then I should not include it? With the optics those men had and at that close range in the final stages, they would have seen everything with shocking clarity.
      As for guilt – far from it, if you read the narrative you will see that it positively not retrospective guilt. The Royal Navy was an enormous fighting machine, tough and capable of soaking up huge damage and seeking, and gaining revenge. It was a dirty job and they did it. They didn’t like it, but this idea that we Brits are ‘jolly nice chaps’ and all that is rather far from the truth. Even the posh officers in the RN of WW2 were tough customers. Hard as nails mate. Have you read ‘The Cruel Sea’? Much more bleak than the movie.
      The mercy came after the guns were silent. As the Editor of WARSHIPS IFR there is nothing I hate more than a book review that doesn’t deliver an honest reaction and I am sure Rob would only be honest. Just as you are in saying you did not find my book compelling. I will have to live with that, but plenty of other people disagree with you, or at least enough to provide me with the reassurance I need that it’s not a bad effort. I would not have written any of this were it not for the bizarre claim that my book – which spends a fair amount of time conveying the desire for vengeance felt across the RN in the wake of Hood’s loss -contains too many ‘episodes of retrospective guilt’. I must have missed that one….

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Dr. Ballantyne. It is much appreciated. I think I may have used the term guilt in an incorrect manner. Where I was trying to go is that eyewitness accounts tend to change over time and in general are about the least reliable form of evidence. Of course, in the situation you are working with here, it’s a good portion of your evidence. I’m currently a volunteer with the Innocence Project of Florida and some of the work involves getting eyewitness testimony to be given far less credence in trials. There’s a lot of data about the reliability of such evidence. And yes, I have been in a warship at what amounted to action stations, and when in combat, it’s a scary place to be. I’m sure you covered it, but I remember little about the sea state on the site that morning (I donate your book to my library system; I do that for most books as I am of the age when it’s time to start getting rid of “things.” I assume though that Rodney was a fairly stable platform, but her optics were old and well used. I wonder if they could resolve small detail all that well.

        Slightly off topic, SMS Emden was requested to surrender by HMAS Sydney towards the end of their engagement. But for whatever reason nothing was done. Given the photos of the physical state of Emden that is not surprising. Sydney fired a few more salvoes and the flag was hauled down. Somewhat later Capt. Glossop, RN and captain of the Sydney, said he felt like a murderer ordering those final shots. So if the national ensign was still flying on Bismarck the battle wasn’t truly over.

        And I would never question the toughness of a RN sailor. What the RN has accomplished in its proud history proves the toughness of its officers and other ranks.

        I would still and have recommended the book to others. I don’t need to agree with a text to find it useful and interesting. I think you are an excellent writer and this book was not the first of yours I’ve bought and read and I’m sure it’s not the last.

        The same goes for Dr. Farley. The reason I first found LGM was his battleship blogging which I wish he would restart.

  • strategichamlet

    Regarding micro and macro analyses of naval warfare, isn’t the conventional understanding of Trafalgar relatively micro? In my layman’s understanding Nelson determined that although he was at a significant numerical disadvantage in ships and guns, he had a major advantage in that British gun crews could fire 3 broadsides for every 2 of French and Spanish crews (as well as better discipline, morale, and seamanship) and so shaped his strategy to make his (micro) advantages decisive.

    • Murc

      Really? My impression has always been that the conventional understanding of Trafalgar has been just the opposite; people don’t discuss the training and discipline advantages of individual British sailors and collective British crews nearly as much as they draw a diagram of Nelson breaking the French lines and then lean back looking smug while making comments about how Villeneuve was a shitty Admiral.

      • dave

        I guess it all depends on exactly how watfer-thin the individual’s acquaintance with the historical record actually is.

        • Richard J

          I don’t think I’ve ever recalled anyone saying ‘hah! look at how stupid Villeneuve was.’ It’s mainly, AFAICT, ‘he was a good admiral who did the best he could with a poor hand.’

    • ajay

      he had a major advantage in that British gun crews could fire 3 broadsides for every 2 of French and Spanish crews (as well as better discipline, morale, and seamanship) and so shaped his strategy to make his (micro) advantages decisive.

      I don’t think he did though. A strategy to take advantage of a higher rate of fire would have been to form a classic line of battle opposite the enemy and try to outgun them. Breaking the line meant that, during the approach, very few of his ships could fire at all, and none could bring broadsides to bear, while the Combined Fleet could fire broadsides. That’s a strategy designed to take advantage not of a higher rate of fire but of greater tolerance to damage – the result of better crews.

  • To what extent can it be said that sinking the Bismark had an effect on the outcome of the war? I suppose that once she was out on open water there would have been some effect on troop transport, but it seems as though this was a ship that was rather flawed in design, and therefore somewhat vulnerable anywhere it operated.

    I’m sure I’m missing the point, but I really would like to know what people who have studied this think about the question.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Re. the Bismarck episode, I think it unlikely that even had she survived & reached Brest relatively undamaged, the course of the Battle of the Atlantic would have been altered all that much.

    Re. Trafalgar, I doubt Nelson or other British admirals & captains worried much about the disparity in numbers (33-27). Nelson’s approach to battle was simple: traditional 18th century line-of-battle tactics didn’t produce decisive results; closing with the enemy & bringing about a melee at yardarm-to-yardarm range DID produce decisive results, given overall British superiority in gunnery, seamanship, & discipline. As he demonstrated on other occasions, unless given an opportunity for close action with an enemy fleet Nelson was an undistinguished naval strategist & tactician.

  • CWD

    The phalanx functioned as it did…because of the natural tendencies of individual swordsmen

    Shouldn’t this be “spearmen?”

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