This book is about the five-day cruise of the German battleship Bismarck from May 22 until May 27, 1941. The ship, a huge 50,000 ton monster, was the pride of the German Navy and the terror of the Royal Navy, but like many peacetime projects turned out to be rather less effective in wartime.
The operation, code-named “Rhine Exercise” was intended to be a commerce raiding venture, with several ships breaking out into the Atlantic to attack convoys. But damage to the other ships from previous tries limited the sortie to the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, a cruiser. Since the point, supposedly, was to overwhelm the possible response with numbers and mass, paring down the attempt to one small group would limit the success you would expect. And given that battleships invite battles, the thought that the German ships could poke about the North Atlantic and sink cargo ships seems strange.
This uncertainty about the goal persists in the orders. Previous expeditions had led to Admirals being accused of lack of aggressiveness in engaging the enemy on return. And the Navy was, as a service, desperate to have some success to match those the Army and Air Force were having. But sending a few vessels with a limited operational range out would surely provoke a concentration of effort on that one opponent. And so it did.
Reports of the sailing were coming in even before the operation began. Neutral ships leaked info to the British, and planes soon tracked down the ships near Norway, and then spotted the empty harbor after the operation started. Bad weather made it difficult to track them more closely.
But now the hunt was on. Light elements spotted and tracked them coming south out of the gap between Greenland. The first major units, the battlecruiser Hood and the new battleship Prince of Wales met at the gateway to the North Atlantic on May 24. The Royal Navy, egged on by Churchill to be even aggressive in turn, engaged at once. The Prince of Wales suffered failures that made it virtually unable to fight due to its newness, and the Hood, its thinner armor no match for the heavy guns of the German ship, took a hit in a magazine and blew up, killing virtually everyone on board.
Tactically, the situation remained unchanged – the German units were located and tracked, and unable to attack commerce until they either evaded or destroyed their opposite numbers. The British merely needed to assemble enough force to destroy them, or even wait for them to run out of fuel.
Isolated far from any bases, almost any damage would be serious, and the Bismarck had suffered a hit that reduced its already narrow fuel margin. The cruiser was in even worse state, and was released to refuel. Evading the pursuit, the Prinz Eugen managed to shake the British and get back to Brest, in France.
The Bismarck remained the focus, and soon forces collected for a final battle. A fortunate torpedo hit by carrier plane crippled the steering, and it was all over but the killing. The ship was hammered to a ruin and sunk in a short action.
The surface vessels of the German Navy were something of a white elephant. There wasn’t enough of them to really affect the outcome of the war, but they were too powerful to ride out the war in port. Some were run down and sunk in action, others were bombed in port and sunk there.
An interesting thread in the book was the extent to which the US Navy was ready to confront the Bismarck. Although outmatched, the US sent a fleet with the battleship Texas out to confront it. If things had turned out differently, this might have been an early ‘Pearl Harbor’ and brought us into open warfare sooner.