A retelling of the best news the British had apart from Pearl Harbor in the dismal year of 1941: the sinking of the fearsome German battleship Bismarck.
Canadian military historians Bercuson and Herwig (Deadly Seas, not reviewed, etc.) have supplemented the usual sources with newly opened diplomatic files. The result is the most detailed history yet of this dramatic episode. Even military buffs will be surprised to discover how flyblown and out-of-date the Royal Navy was after 20 years of neglect. Except for their radar, its warships were technologically inferior to Germany’s and even to those of France and Italy. The Bismarck was at once the largest and the fastest battleship in the world. Its maiden departure in May 1941 to raid Allied commerce galvanized the British navy. Dozens of ships gave chase. The first encounter was a disaster. Britain’s largest battleship, the Hood, was blown to bits, a second badly damaged. Ironically, the blow that doomed the Bismarck was delivered by an airplane that was as obsolete as much of the British fleet. A Royal Navy Swordfish, an ancient, open-cockpit biplane, and the Royal Navy’s torpedo bomber, disabled the Bismarck’s steering, allowing an overwhelming force to close in. Despite their thorough research, the authors do not examine the traditional assessment of the Battle of the Atlantic: that the Germans came within a whisker of winning. The truth is that U-boats plus commerce raiders like the Bismarck frightened the Allies and produced a long, bitter struggle. Yet the outcome was never in doubt: 99% of convoyed Allied merchant ships reached their destination.
Berucson and Herwig add little to the big picture here, but the story of the Bismarck, the technical details of naval warfare, and the biographies of the major participants remain endlessly fascinating. (21 illustrations, 3 maps)