Monday, 29 August 2011

Book Review - Pursuit : the sinking of the Bismark by Ludovic Kennedy

Pursuit : the sinking of the Bismark by Ludovic Kennedy

London : Fontana, 1975                       ISBN 0006340148

The Bismark was the pride of the Nazi German Navy. At over 800 feet long, she was the largest battleship in the world, and with her sweeping bow and elegant superstructure, she was certainly one of the most beautiful. At the time of her sinking in May 1941, she was also one of the newest big gun ships afloat, and one of the most potent. So when the Royal Navy heard that she had escaped the Baltic sea along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, they were very worried.

Ludovic Kennedy's account of the hunt, chase, and final destruction of the Bismark is short and to the point - he jumps straight into the planning for operation Rheinubung, the Nazi plan to send surface raiders into the Atlantic to disrupt the allied convoys from America - and he unveils a few little-known facts along the way.

The Germans didn't manage to keep their breakout secret very long. The Swedish cruiser Gotland spotted the Bismark and Prinz Eugen and their attendant destroyers before they had passed The Skagerrak, and thanks to sympathetic members of the Swedish Navy, the Naval Attache at the British Embassy was radioing the information to the Sea Lords the same day.

The key to Bismark's success was her ability to get into the open Atlantic unscathed, and hopefully un-noticed. That this didn't happen was partly due to good intelligence work, and some mystifying decisions by the German Admiral Lutyens, who spent a day and a night in the fjords of Norway, which gave the British time to get some ships together to track her down.

Lutyens' failure to refuel while in Norway turned out to be his greatest error, but more of that later on.

Kennedy tells this story in an almost cinematic way, constantly changing viewpoints from the Allied forces, to the Germans, and back to land HQ of both sides. This style allows him to cover all the bases, and to keep building tension until the final denouement. He often relies on an "I was there" style, describing what crew might have been doing or even thinking during the interminable hours of the chase (Kennedy was a junior officer on HMS Tartar, a ship in Captain Vian's destroyer flotilla that harassed Bismark the night before she was sunk). Sometimes his turn of phrase is a little clunky, but his description of the last moments of HMS Hood send chills up the spine, and his description of the chaos on Bismark just before she went down is horrifying - there is no romance of the sea here.

Because he was a naval officer and a journalist, Kennedy has been able to combine his innate knowledge of the sea with his ability to find facts, and come up with some fascinating insights into - as is emblazoned on the cover of my paperback edition - "one of the great sea sagas of all time". For instance it is little known that one of the key allied weapons in the search for the Bismark - their Catalina float planes - were crewed by US airmen seven months before the US declared war on the Nazis. Another amazing fact is that a German U Boat, U 556, actually sailed in between the two capital ships of the Allied "Force H" - HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal - but could not do a single thing as she had run out of torpedoes! Shortly after this incident the Ark Royal launched the torpedo bomber raid that crippled the Bismark's steering gear and sealed her fate.

The only reason those planes were able to reach Bismark was owing to her lack of fuel. She had to get to the French coast, and because she had not refueled when she had the chance, she couldn't move further into the Atlantic to outrun her pursuers. If she'd had that freedom of movement she might have survived, as she would not only have avoided the bombers, but also the battleships that finally sealed her fate. HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were perilously short of fuel themselves, and had to head straight for port before the blazing hulk of the Bismark was finally dispatched by the torpedoes of the allied destroyer flotilla. In some ways this fact make the fate of the Bismark even more tragic.

The story of the Bismark is indeed one of the great stories of naval warfare. Two great ships were lost, along with thousands of lives, and this engagement turned out to be the last great battle fought by ships of the line. Ludovic Kennedy has brought the story alive, and if you think you might like to know more about this interlude of World War Two - the entire saga from Bismark's sailing to sinking took only nine days - it's well worth hunting out this book in your local library or second-hand book dealer.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

1 comment:

  1. One of my favourite books. I read this about 20 years ago, whilst working at Sunshine Library in Victoria. It was a well worn copy that had been refitted numerous times to stay afloat in the rough seas of public library circulation. A sad and thrilling saga of the horrors and valour of death on the high seas. Moral of the story, always reinforce your ammunition hold!!!