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Sunday Book Review: Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom

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Iain Ballantyne has followed up Killing the Bismarck (review here) with Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom. The action focuses only on Bismarck’s last day; Ballantyne includes allusions to the rest of the war when necessary, but keeps his attention squarely on the mission to catch and kill the Germans. Ballantyne tells the story through the stories of individuals who participated in the battle; he includes a number of interviews conducted in the last four years of personnel (on both sides) who experienced the destruction of Bismarck first hand.

The narrow focus is also helpful insofar as it allows Ballantyne to avoid bigger questions about Bismarck’s role in World War II.  The battleship Bismarck surely posed a significant threat to the Royal Navy, and had she made it back to France would have proved an annoyance for years to come. But victory in World War II did not depend on the destruction of Bismarck in late May of 1941; had the ship survived, she would have contributed in marginal, non-decisive ways to the war.  By concentrating on the lived experiences, Ballantyne is able to frame the chase in terms of what it meant to the men who conducted it (and it surely meant a great deal, especially given the loss of the Hood a few days before), sparing us the overstatement that books like this sometimes fall into.

Ballantyne works from both new interviews and published works, and his subjects include  rating on the destroyer HMS Cossack; a marine and a midshipman on HMS Rodney; a Canadian Swordfish pilot on HMS Ark Royal; a sailor on HMS Dorsetshire; a gunnery officer on Bismarck herself. As expected, these account humanized the chase, from the rage felt by the Royal Navy upon news of the destruction of HMS Hood, to the terror experienced on the cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo bombers that pursued Bismarck, to the collapse in morale upon the German battleship as it became clear that she could not escape.

He doesn’t dwell on one of the central arguments of the last book; that some sailors on Bismarck were trying to surrender the ship after it came under assault from the Royal Navy.  This book includes the testimony from one British sailor about witnessing what looked like German attempts to strike the colors, but the tone of the remarks makes clear that everyone understood the necessity of destroying Bismarck, notwithstanding the possible desire of some within the German battleship to give up.

Nothing in this book is particularly shocking; Bismarck is damaged, caught, and destroyed, just as in hundreds of other accounts of her pursuit.  Still, Ballantyne has as good an understanding as anyone of how to approach veterans, and of what questions to ask.  He structures the narrative in what he himself has termed “cinematic” fashion, giving the narrative a gripping immediacy. As I’ve argued before, the technology now exists to do justice to a variety of World War I and World War II battles on film; we just need to wait for Hollywood to trend back towards historical war films. More importantly, as the number of veterans of the major actions of World War II dwindle, works like this will become increasingly valuable. Fortunately, many good historians and journalists appear to be doing just this; making stories concrete before we lose them forever.

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  • junker

    So you’re saying that this book is not an action thriller starting Otto Von Bismark?

    • Rugosa

      Just something I’ve noticed recently – the “the” has disappeared from before ship’s names. I see they’re still female, though, which makes the usage sound even weirder to this old fart.

    • Ahuitzotl
  • MikeJake

    What recent(ish) films/TV would you say have done some justice to World War battles? Did you like the tank battle in Fury?

  • Just_Dropping_By

    the technology now exists to do justice to a variety of World War I and World War II battles on film; we just need to wait for Hollywood to trend back towards historical war films.

    I agree with the first part of this statement (I was watching The Battle of the River Plate recently and thought how much more effectively it could be done with modern CGI to allow a “drone’s eye” view of the battle and give more of a feel for the position of the ships), but I’m not convinced that Hollywood is ever going to trend back towards historical war films, at least not if you’re meaning the sort of films like The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, Patton, etc. that tried to be somewhat educational. I think the importance of international markets, combined with ever shrinking attention spans and ever great demands for action (I’m very depressed at the number of people I encounter who think Saving Private Ryan was a “great” war film, but think The Longest Day was “boring”), has put a permanent halt to things like that.

    • Cheerful

      The Battle of the River Plate really shows how hard it is to make a warship movie without actually having the right warships. As I recall, to show the menace of the Graf Spee, equipped with 6 11 inch guns, they used shots of an existing heavy cruiser they had around, with nine 8 inch guns.

      On another point, i grew up with the image of the Bismark and Tirpitz as fearsome battleships, but how would they have fared against some of the U.S. later battleships known in the Pacific, like the Missouri. At the very least they would seem to be outgunned.

      • cpinva

        there’s that, and the soon-to-be aircraft carrier battle groups. had both Bismark & Tirpitz survived one more year, that would have been the extent of their run, as they would both have been destroyed by carrier planes, from distances well beyond the range of their big guns. Germany had no existing naval air wing, and putting one together, after you’ve already started the war, is just a tad late. Germany was one war behind, with respect to its naval forces, with the exception of its U-Boat fleet, and that wasn’t enough to defeat both old blighty’s and the US Navies.

        • witlesschum

          The German surface fleet’s more valuable use was probably sitting in port in Norway, protected by the German air force and threatening the convoys to Russia. By tying down a couple British carriers who could have been better used in the Mediterranean or even the Pacific, they contributed something.

          The Bismarck would have been best served to get back to Norway ASAP after it destroyed the Hood, or it should have tried to run down and destroy the Prince of Wales, too, and then run back to Norway and air cover.

          If the Germans could have kept Tirpitz, Bismarck, their two battlecruisers and assorted cruisers and destroyers as a “fleet in being” it probably would have tied down more Royal Navy and U.S. warships longer.

          • cpinva

            “By tying down a couple British carriers who could have been better used in the Mediterranean or even the Pacific, they contributed something.”

            which would have inevitably led to at least two US carrier groups being sent out to help the Brits, and completely exterminate what was left of both their surface fleet, and the Luftwaffe.

            by the time of the Normandy landings, German military industry, though at still a greater capacity than before declaring war against the US, wasn’t able to replace, 1:1, lost fighters and bombers, and especially not the pilots/crews of those planes. had the US put those carrier groups in a year or two earlier, in the north atlantic run, the surface navy would have been done, and the Luftwaffe would have been even weaker than it was on June 6, 1944, which was pretty damn weak, having been eviscerated by the Russians in the east.

            • so-in-so

              yeah, but, I don’t think we had a couple of carrier groups sitting around without anything to do. A delay in the Pacific theater operations is the likely result. Might not have hurt in the long run (unless you were someone in Japanese occupied territory, or a POW).

    • Warren Terra

      Given the importance of the Chinese market and Chinese co-production to blockbuster movies these days, and the continuing (and possibly cultivated) bitter memories in China of Japan’s actions during WWII, you could easily imagine a lavishly CGI’d film reconstructing some WWII battles in the Pacific.

      • AcademicLurker

        I’ve heard one person who lived in China for a while say that cheesy WWII melodramas are huge on Chinese TV.

        • cpinva

          you can catch them on youtube as well. and yeah, they are cheesy.

  • JustRuss

    Bismarck is damaged, caught, and destroyed,…

    Hey, no spoiler alert?!

    • Warren Terra

      I think the big giveaway was the blog post being written in English, not German.

      (yes, I realize I’m vastly overstating the importance of destroying the Bismarck)

      • AcademicLurker

        The true importance of destroying the Bismark is that it led to this song.

        • Emily68

          Or maybe this song
          https://youtu.be/Da6rYqI8z_4

          • AcademicLurker

            Ha! I’d never heard of that song before (also, never read youtube comments…).

          • cpinva

            hey, check out the “Doyle & Debbie” number, farther down the list on the right of that page. they are hysterical.

  • Ahuitzotl

    The thing that really struck me? – Do we really need yet another book gumming to death a fairly trivial action in the first place? Is there anything significant uncovered that hasn’t been reported before?

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