Book Review – Bismarck: The Final Days of Germany’s Greatest Battleship

[Cross posted from Birmingham "On War"]

Niklas Zetterling and Michael Tamelander, Bismarck: The Final Days of Germany’s Greatest Battleship. Newbury: Casemate, 2009. 319pp, Illustrations, Maps, Notes, Index, £19.99 (Hbk)

The story of the KMS Bismarck has all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. The Bismarck was the centrepiece of the Kriegsmarine’s new ocean going fleet that would allow it to challenge the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic by 1945. However, by 1941 this plan laid in pieces as the Bismarck sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic on 27 May 1941. It is a story that illuminates much about the problems of German strategic planning in the Second World War. Germany’s failure to prioritise its strategic outlook led to competition between the services, which the surface fleet of the Kreigsmarine ultimately lost. In addition, changes in the strategic landscape meant that the Bismarck became part of a much smaller Kriegsmarine that struggled to force a decisive surface battle on the Royal Navy. Hitler’s decision to go to war in 1939 meant that the Kriegsmarine’s expansion plan, Plan Z, would never see fruition as priorities shifted from the surface fleet to U-Boats, and most importantly the campaign on the Eastern Front. Indeed, the greatest impact that the sinking of the Bismarck had lay in Hitler’s decision to accept Vice-Admiral Karl Donitz’s claim that heavy surface units should not be involved in plans for the North Atlantic.  From late 1941 onwards, the Kriegsmarine’s heavy units were concentrated in Norwegian waters. This decision created different problems for the Royal Navy seeking to protect convoys to the Soviet Union.

In this book Zetterling and Tamelander, recount the final mission of the Bismarck, Operation Rheinubung. This book has two aims, first, to examine the underlying reasons of why the Bismarck went to sea in May 1941. Second, to analyse the action that led to her demise at the hands of Force H and HMS Dorsetshire. However, in doing this, Zetterling and Tamelander are covering well-covered ground beginning with the first volume of Stephen Roskill’s Official History, The War at Sea (1954), and Ludovic Kennedy’s Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck (1974). More recently, the German Official History (2001) has illustrated the reasoning behind the Bismarck operation. Both Roskill and Kennedy’s books are quoted in this book but the German Official History is noticeable by its absence. However, it is within this historiographical framework that this book fits.

Concerning its first aim the book does what could be described as a good job of analysing some of the reasons why the Bismarck went to sea. The authors attempt to consider some of the developments in naval thinking in the inter-war period, in particular the development of idea of cruiser warfare in the Kreigsmarine. This concept emerged in the 1930s as an attempt to overcome the Kriegsmarine’s deficiencies in numbers, and as an attempt to attack British shipping in the North Atlantic. It also provides some context the geo-strategic problems faced by both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine. However, there are areas that could have been explored when seeking explanations for the ill-fated operation. In particular, the dynamics of inter-service rivalry in the Wehrmacht form an important context the operation. Given that each of the services were competing for resources, was this an element that played a part in Grand Admiral Eric Reader’s decision-making process? Was he seeking some pyrrhic victory in order to strengthen his position? In addition, while the book does look at role of the German Naval War Staff it could have looked more closely at Raeder’s role and his background, and those of other key officers. This raises important questions about organisational culture and how innovative the Kriegsmarine was, or was not as the case may be, in dealing with its strategic situation. In many respect the description of the actions itself are a well-trodden path and this book could have gone much deeper into the strategic background, and indeed the culture of the both the Wehrmacht and the Kriegsmarine in order to understand why it launched an operation that it knew to be risky. Indeed, since the sinking of the Graf Spee in 1939 the Naval War Staff had argued that major surface unit should avoid engagement with enemy forces where possible.[1]

While the Kriegsmarine’s priorities had clearly changed by 1941, the Bismarck remained a clear and present danger to British shipping in the North Atlantic. As Corelli Barnett makes clear, once the Bismarck set out on Rheinubung it had to be sunk at all costs.[2] That cost was high for the Royal Navy with the loss of HMS Hood in the Battle of the Denmark Straights. However, the Bismarck would eventually be caught by the Royal Navy and sunk. This action forms the core of the second part of the book. It provides a very good overview of the course of Rheinubung. One particular area where this book does add value is in its discussion of the sinking of the Bismarck itself. The authors attempt to clarify whether the Bismarck was sunk by the British or by its crew. The authors make it clear that orders were given by Commander Hans Oels to scuttle the ship. Oels had taken command after both Admiral Gunther Lutjens and Captain Ernst Lindemann were killed in action. This stands in contrasts to most accounts that claim that HMS Dorsetshire sank the Bismarck. The truth may well be that it was a combination of both factors. This section of the book illustrates the author’s grasp of operational factors and the creation of a narrative of the action. However, there could have been greater use of primary sources. References to the Admiralty’s Naval Staff History Battle Study No. 5 and the ‘Report of Operations in Pursuit of the Bismarck’ abound but there is little else from the British perspective. References are made to the Kriegtagebuch (War Diary) of the various German ships involved but no mentioned is made of equivalent Royal Navy Ship Logs. This would have provided more balance to the actions described.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, the layout of the notes is frustrating. While they are consecutive, they are not set out concerning their respective chapters. This can be confusing. It would be better if these were treated as either footnotes or chapter endnotes, which this author finds more agreeable. It should be noted that this might not be the fault of the authors but an issue with the publishers. In addition, given the literature that does exist on the Bismarck it would have been useful to provide a bibliography. However, bibliographies are increasingly becoming noted by their absence in many books, which is very frustrating for those seeking further avenues of research.

This author has been critical of some aspects of this work because in some respects it is a missed opportunity to analyse some of the structural factors that were present in the decision to launch the Bismarck on its ill-fated operation. However, does this book set out to do what it claims to do? Yes. It is not a groundbreaking study, and I do not think it adds anything significant to the story of the Bismarck’s final days, but it does bring the story up to date. It is a useful introduction to the story of this ill-fated ship, and it will be interesting to see how the authors have treated its similarly doomed sister ship, the Tirpitz. Indeed as the authors noted, if the Kreigsmarine had one real chance to challenge the Royal Navy, it would have been if Bismarck and Tirpitz had ventured into the North Atlantic together.

N.B. The review copy was supplied by Casemate Publishing.


[1] Horst Boog et al, Germany and the Second World War, Volume VI: The Global War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 407

[2] Corelli Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992) pp. 278-316

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