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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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