We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Our Recent Essays Behind the Front Page
Tuesday, January 22. 2013
Hitler's Germany has conquered all of Europe; all except for one resolute island nation. And, with his eye on Russia, Hitler has no interest in fighting Great Britain, he simply wants to relegate it to the inconsequential. This means stopping the supply convoys from America. A relatively simple task, given the right equipment.
Which he had.
The terrifying armada of U-boats had already caused the American supply ships to huddle in close-knit convoys; perfect targets for the long guns of a battleship. And even if the convoy was accompanied by a cruiser, or even a battleship, that's not much of a challenge when your own battleship is so big and new that you can outgun the enemy by five miles.
It was a fairly simple plan, really, and it should have worked.
And if it had?
Britain would have sat on the edge of starvation for the year or so it would have taken Hitler to conquer Russia, since now he wouldn't have to divide his forces, then would have easily fallen once he turned his eye upon it.
And that means, without a stepping stone or 'bridgehead' to gather our forces on, America never could have effectively invaded Europe.
And that means Hitler's Germany would have developed the atomic bomb long before we did. They were already working on it by the time we invaded, and it was only our intervention (like bombing the 'heavy water' facilities) that curtailed its development. Without that, Germany would have had the atomic bomb within a few years. At the time, they were considered the finest machinists in the world.
And then, after taking out Boston and Detroit, the same way we took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as a small warning of what's to come — what would our government have done? The same thing the Japanese government did when faced with certain annihilation.
That's how important this moment in history was.
So, why did this great plan fail? It was, after all, the maiden voyage of the largest battleship ever built, the Bismarck, and with four other battleships in the fold, there was simply no way Germany could have failed to wreak havoc on the convoys, isolating Britain and effectively curtailing any further involvement from America.
How did it fail? By a few great strokes of luck and an incredible number of blunders on Germany's part. And that's despite three major screw-ups by the Brits.
But the one major error on Germany's part, the one that signaled the end, was the one that created a situation that was perhaps the most surreal moment in the history of modern warfare.
When you picture the sinking of Bismarck, you're imagining the pounding of the large British naval guns and the brave aviators in their fast Hellcats launching deadly torpedoes at the massive warship, right?
That's what the Germans were thinking, too.
Little did anyone know.
First, just to get us in the mood, here's a nice slideshow of the big ol' girl. With accompanying music track, no less.
Bismarck had 88 large guns, the biggest with a range of over 35 miles. She also had a new state-of-the-art automated anti-aircraft system that was guaranteed to blow the fastest enemy planes out of the sky. She could do 30 knots, 5 knots faster than the fastest British ship, the pride of the British Navy, HMS Hood. Her armor plating was so thick it was deemed impenetrable by shell, bomb or torpedo.
But, despite three colossal blunders on the Brit's part, the Germans still managed to out-blunder them to the point where everything hinged upon this one incredibly surreal moment in time.
Here's how the cascade of ten errors unfolded:
1. The original plan was to set sail with at least four battleships, if not five. One was active and sailed with Bismarck, but the other three were in various states of repair in France. If Hitler had merely waited a few more months, you'd being eating sauerkraut for dinner tonight. But, figuring he had stealth on his side and an invincible warship, he ordered the plan to commence with only two ships.
2. German High Command vastly underestimated the network of British spies on the mainland, and how quickly British Intelligence was being updated. When the two battleships set sail from Norway under cover of dense fog, they thought they had escaped undetected. In truth, British Intelligence knew about the departure within hours. If Bismarck had known this, she would have started taking evasive maneuvers (such as zig-zagging) and probably wouldn't have been located until she slaughtered her first convoy.
3. Because of the sudden arrival of dense fog, it was decided to embark before the refueling had completed. Because of this, when they later sustained a fuel leak in the first battle with British forces, they didn't have enough fuel to continue on the mission and thus had to decide where to make repairs and refuel, a decision which turned out to be fatal.
4. Due to their foreknowledge, Britain sent her largest warships to engage Bismarck before she reached the Atlantic. The admiral aboard Bismarck was under orders not to engage the British fleet, but to simply outrun them and head for open seas and the convoys.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, two of Britain's largest warships, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, appeared out of the fog, firing away. The Admiral wanted to keep on going, but the ship's captain, claiming his first duty was to the safety of his ship, interceded and ordered the gunners to open fire.
They blew Hood completely out of the water. A shell hit the magazine and cracked her right in half. Prince of Wales, badly damaged, turned tail and ran as Bismarck plowed on. While a seeming victory, this was actually a tremendously critical error, because there's an immense gulf between chasing after some enemy warship because that's what the war book calls for, and doing it out of enraged revenge.
5. The one shot the Brits landed on Bismark was up near the bow, but it opened a fuel tank, which then demanded a decision be made. The admiral wanted to continue to France for repairs, but the captain, always thinking of the safety of his ship, wanted to turn around and return to Norway. Ahead of them might lie trouble. Behind them was a safe journey back to port. The admiral had the final say, so they continued south to France, the next in a series of fatal decisions.
6. But this isn't to say that Britain didn't do its part in screwing up. Although it's a relatively easy task to keep radar contact with the largest goddamn battleship on the planet, the Brits managed to lose her. Not knowing Bismarck was leaking fuel, they assumed she was still heading to the open Atlantic and thus misdirected all their search efforts. It wasn't anything but blind luck that a scout plane spotted her heading toward France, and the hunt was back on.
7. Except they initially got their bearings wrong and thought Bismarck was headed north back to Norway. After blazing north and away from Bismarck for half a day, they realized their error, but by now it was too late to catch the massive battlewagon with the best of Britain's fleet.
8. But a small convoy composed of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and a few cruisers was coming up from Africa to help with the hunt, and they had time to intercept Bismarck before it reached the French coast.
Because it had been relegated to a lesser theater of the war, Ark Royal was equipped with what was effectively a holdover from World War I:
With a top speed of only 80 knots and sporting open cockpits, the lightweight Swordfish biplanes took off into the teeth of a storm, vengeance in the pilots' eyes, determined to hunt down Bismarck and sink her.
Suddenly, a warship was spotted! The brave Swordfish pilots attacked the vessel, which strangely didn't return fire — because it was the HMS Sheffield. Before the pilots could sort things out, a few of them had already dropped their torps, enough to sink the big ship.
None of the torpedoes, armed with a new magnetic detonation device, rather than the trusty old impact device, exploded. They were all duds.
So, incredible blunder that this was, if it hadn't happened with Sheffield, it would have happened with Bismarck, and there would have flown Britain's only chance to stop her. The quite-relieved Swordfish pilots hustled back to Ark Royal, hurriedly rearmed with the older style torpedoes, went back on the hunt and this time found Bismarck.
9. And then came what was perhaps the biggest error of all, and yet it's such a touchingly poignant, human error on the designers' part that it's almost hard to fault them.
At this point of the attack, given normal British aircraft, Bismarck's slick new anti-aircraft system probably would have blown most of them off the map. A torp or two might have gotten through, but would have been rendered more or less ineffective by the immense steel armor plating.
But the state-of-the-art anti-aircraft system had been designed to repel standard war planes.
Standard war planes from World War II, not World War I.
Because of the Swordfish's ultra-slow speed, the automatic anti-aircraft tracking devices couldn't get a bead on them and not one of the fifteen Swordfish was shot down.
Bismarck also deployed the latest anti-torpedo devices, from cannon to depth charges, so an actual hit was expected to be somewhat rare. Of the one torpedo that made it through, it struck her in the one and only place that was vulnerable; the rudders.
A biplane took down the mightiest battleship ever built.
At this point, all Bismarck could do was turn in large circles and await her fate.
10. But Britain didn't know this and thought Bismarck was still heading toward France. They searched high and low for her, beaming out their most powerful radar signals. The last error on Germany's part was that they didn't understand the limitations of radar and thought the British knew where they were. Because of this, in desperation the admiral broke radio silence and called German High Command, demanding immediate naval and air support.
The British picked up on the signal, zeroed in on the location, and, while puzzled at Bismarck's actions, didn't hesitate to send every warship they had after her. One of the first batteries knocked out the bridge, and then it was just a matter of putting enough torps into her to put her on the bottom.
A handful of shaky old World War I biplanes had thwarted Hitler's master plan, beaten the greatest battleship ever put to sea, and saved the world as we know it today.
So here's to you, Swordfish pilots, and to your mighty craft. Your moment in the storm shall not be forgot.
And the rest, as they say, became history.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
Spectacular post, Doc. Absolutely riveting. I'm off to watch the video now. What a story!
I gotta agree with Kath, Doc, that was really nicely portrayed. The only thing I knew about the sinking of Bismarck was what's in the song. :-)
HMS Hood was sunk by a salvo fired from the Bismarck, from a range of thirteen nautical miles. Out of a crew of thousands, only three Hood sailors survived. [The Hood's decking was made of wood, which was easily pierced by the battleship's 2,800 lb. shells.]
Herman Wouk's "The Winds Of War" gives an excellent account. Highly recommended for history buffs.
Hitler's biggest blunder by far was declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941. We had our hands full with Japan at the time, and FDR could not have united the country behind a war with Germany [which he desired, and which he helped goad Hitler into].
Hitler ignored a prime precept of conflict: never expand your circle of enemies needlessly. Hitler converted the U.S. from an ostensibly neutral country into a declared enemy, and succeeded in uniting most of the world against Germany.
I disagree with most of this.
german capital ships were horrendous choices for anti-convoy work for many reasons.
there weren't enough BBs or BCs available, for one thing. a task force of BBs would spend the majority of time in port, under repairs, refitting or transiting to and from its base.
these ships were too valuable to risk. the german admiralty issued standing orders for raiders to turn away from convoys escorted by RN capital ships; the risk of damage to the german ship did not justify the potential gains. damaged german ships had a long way to go for repairs, especially after the french atlantic ports became vulnerable to allied air attacks when they had to break out of and back into home port at Kiel.
think of the USAF using F-4s to bomb bamboo bridges in VN, a questionable idea to begin with, but truly stupid if there were only a handful of F-4s available.
the RN vastly outnumbered the german fleet, and the appearance of any german BB would always bring out hunter-killer groups of BBs and CAs. note that Bismarck did not sink any merchantmen, and the loss of Hood was an unacceptable bad tradeoff. none of the german BBs were cost effective commerce raiders, and after the loss of BB Scharnhorst in '43 for minimal gain, Hitler ended operations for the surface fleet with shipyards concentrating on the U-boat fleet.
the german surface fleet was totally inadequate for the job, both in numbers, ship types (no CVs) and naval aviation; among the reasons is the building plan for more BBs and a CV was due for completion in '43, assuming peacetime status. historians give credit to the U-boats for nearly winning the battle of the atlantic.
if nothing else, the war in the pacific graphically illustrates how badly capital ships without their own air cover fare against attacking aircraft.
its not even correct to call the Swordfish attack lucky, the aircraft was adequate for the job. in the Med, in '40, at Tranto, a deckload of Swordfish sank one BB and damaged two others. these stats were typical of early WW2, comparable to USN and IJN performance.
I don't recall the exact stat in the documentary, but in the war up to Bismarck, battleships, alone, had accounted for something like 700,000 tons of shipping. So, while vulnerable, they were certainly effective. All it would have taken was for one of those monster shells to put a convoy ship on the bottom.
"its not even correct to call the Swordfish attack lucky"
So it's a good thing no one did. The only thing 'lucky' was that they hit Bismarck in the rudders. Otherwise, it was an incredibly brave attack.
the attack was "lucky" in that they found Bismarck, got a hit in, got that torp to actually dot its job and explode (which was a major problem for allied torps all through WW2), hit in the only place it'd actually do serious harm, get back home in one piece despite the weather and encroaching darkness, and do all of that without losing a single aircraft.
They were indeed not lucky in that they knew how to employ their aircraft to their optimal effectiveness.
several sources give the 700,000 tons lost to surface warships, without breaking down the type, which would include BBs, BCs, CAs and auxiliary cruisers. this was prior to the convoy system, which makes a huge difference.
the point is, BBs aren't cost effective commerce destroyers.
one has to ask, what are your ships for? commerce raiders don't need 16" shells and heavy armor. BBs are designed to fight it out with enemy BBs. BCs which are as well armed and only slightly less armored are intended to deal with enemy cruisers.
they are expensive and there aren't many. they're also magnets for enemy countermeasures. the german admiralty was well aware of the chance of a lucky hit disabling one of its capital ships, so when the allies started the convoy system, and WW1 era BBs began accompanying convoys, modern german BBs were ordered not to engage, because of potential damage. if you're the german admiralty, you can't put a modern BB at risk of an outclassed WW1 veteran just to sink 5,000 ton freighters. any serious damage could be catastrophic.
the effectiveness of the surface raider ends about this time.
look at what happened to Scharnhorst, on its last battle, it had to deal with convoy escorts and hunter-killer groups looking for it. it had to shed its escorting destroyers and was run down by superior, radar directed gunfire from RN ships it couldn't fire back at. its a colossal disaster.
U-boats were vastly more effective in any way effectiveness can be measured, so when the surface fleet was stood down in '44, all shipyards continued to service U-boats.
I disagree with the tone of the article. the Swordfish was a good tool for the conditions, it flown by brave men and they all did their duty, as expected.
The builders of the Yamato might quibble with that greatest battleship stuff.
Yamato came several years later. At the time, Bismarck was unrivaled.
The standard British 15 inch naval gun of the time had a range of about 18.4 miles. The Bismark mounted eight of the standard German 15 inch naval gun, with a range of 22.1 miles. The American Mark 2 16" naval gun of 1922 had a range of 25.4 miles.
I think your source for the "ten miles" figure may have been mistaken.
In any case, if the Bismark hadn't been sunk in that raid, she'd have been sunk in another. She was certainly a threat, but the British did still have a navy and an air force. Scharnhorst was a threat, too, and they sank Scharnhorst as well. Bismark's sister ship, Tirpitz, was sunk by modern precision bombers in 1944, not having materially affected the course of the war.
 The Mark 7 16" gun of the Iowa class wasn't introduced until a couple years after the Bismark was launched, so we can disregard that one.
Three days after Pearl Harbor, six months after Bismarck was sunk, Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk in the South China Sea by Japanese aircraft carrying torpedoes and bombs. The advent of naval aircraft and carriers was the death knell of the battleship/battlecruiser. Yamato and Musashi were sunk the same way in 1945 and 1944 respectively. Aircraft are why we have no battleships today. Hood was sunk primarily because of inadequate armor protection from plunging fire. The Brits lost 3 battlecruisers at Jutland (31 May 1916) due to similar inadequate armor protection and poor handling of cordite, which was flash-initiated by shell splinters. (Interestingly, almost NINE THOUSAND MEN, both German and British, lost their lives at Jutland.) HMS Hood was already under construction when Jutland took place with a similar lack of armor protection (although it was somewhat corrected later, but was not up to the late-'30s standards of a Bismarck or Tirpitz.
For some reason, the Germans chose a 3-screw design for Bismarck. If it had 4 screws, Bismarck might have had more propulsive steering capability and possibly could have made Brest. Even so, RAF Lancs, Sterlings, and Halifaxes would undoubtedly have eventually bombed her to oblivion there. Tirpitz was eventually sunk in Norway through bombing by the "Dambusters", 617 Squadron, dropping 12,000lb "Tallboys".
Nevertheless, the Germans had the best-lookin' heavy surface combatants of WW2.
there's some argument for BBs in the north atlantic where visual conditions aren't always good for CV operations, and a good argument for them in the Med, where land based aircraft could provide CAP, and where narrow confines mitigate against CVs especially at this time, when there were no night flight operations. a BB/CA surface force could use darkness to bring a CV task force within gun range. this was a tactic attempted in the Pacific by both sides, it would have been even more effective in confined waters, or where air ops were limited because of weather.
Probably just a typo, but the Bismarck had 8 large [380mm] guns, not 88; two in each of 4 turrets. She also had a range of smaller guns, 150mm, 105mm, 37mm & 20mm.
Plenty of pics here:
Doc, if all this is direct from the documentary, then I gotta say that the documentary sucked.
1) Hellcats didn't exist in 1941. Hellcats are also fighters, not torpedo planes.
2) Operation Rheinubung was never supposed to include five battleships. It was originally supposed to include one battleship (Bismarck), two battlecruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) and one heavy cruiser (Prinz Eugen). In the event, only Bismarck and Prinz Eugen actually sailed.
3) There was no way Bismarck could reach the open Atlantic unobserved, unless she got very lucky weather. The Royal Navy had cruiser patrols watching every possible route from Norway into the Atlantic.
4) Bismarck didn't have 88 heavy guns. She had 8 15" guns, 20 5" guns, and the rest were antiaircraft guns. Her guns' maximum range was about 35 kilometers, or 22 miles, not 35 miles.
5) "Although it's a relatively easy task to keep radar contact with the largest goddamn battleship on the planet, the Brits managed to lose her. " Nonsense. Radar sets in 1941 had a maximum range of about ten miles, and a lot less in bad weather. If you were tracking from long range and zigged when your target zagged, losing contact was a pathetically easy thing to do.
6) "Because it had been relegated to a lesser theater of the war, Ark Royal was equipped with what was effectively a holdover from World War I" is a crock. Ark Royal was assigned to Force H, one of the major naval forces covering the Mediterranean -- a pretty major theater of the war at sea. The Swordfish torpedo planes that she carried were not holdovers from WW1. They were an early-1930s design that had never been replaced because the Fleet Air Arm was starved for funds. And they were very effective in their assigned roles throughout the war.
7) Ark Royal's Stringbags did more than just torpedo Bismarck. They were also watching her. So was Sheffield. From the moment an Ark Royal aircraft sighted Bismarck until she sank the next day, not a minute went by that she wasn't being directly watched by the British.
Recommended reading: PURSUIT by Ludovic Kennedy. See also the National Geographic special "The Search for Battleship Bismarck", of which roughly half is devoted to a description of the battleship's first and last sortie. Or the 1960 film SINK THE BISMARCK!, an only-somewhat-fictionalized account of the operation.
In the spirit of Predator vs Alien, I googled for Iowa vs Bismarck. The consensus was the that the Bismarck would have gone down unless it was very lucky. Comparisons here.
interesting side by side comparison, but I suggest that given the nature of most capital ship encounters, the winner of any duel would be the one who got off the first effective shots. google "lanchester's law" for an explanation.
The Wikipedia article was quite interesting. As it points out, though, all related 'laws' became somewhat irrelevant when cruise missiles, aka 'smart bombs', arrived on the scene. Ditto for seagoing warships, like the one that got taken out during the Falklands War with one Exocet. No longer do you have to be 'lucky' to hit the ship's magazine -- now you can tell the missile to aim for it.
the salvo combat model takes the lanchester equations into the modern age. both models examine the effect of a continual degradation of a ship's combat effectiveness. the earlier equations considered gunfire -- a continual stream of cannon balls or shells. the salvo combat model looks at the stream as an attack arriving as a single pulse, as in an anti-ship missile, and factors in counter-missile defense.
the lanchester equations or the salvo combat model can be modified to work with CV launched strikes, all of the attacking aircraft arrive as a "pulse". there's also an interesting overlap, a kamikaze is comparable to a cruise missile.
there's a very readable explanation in Wayne Hugh's Fleet Tactics And Coastal Combat (Naval Institute Press, 2000); the combat in David Weber's space opera novels work under these rules.
HMS Glamorgan was hit by the exocet during the falklands war.
According to British codemaker/codebreaker Leo Marks, we would have done even better in the North Atlantic if the Germans hadn't broken our codes. Even with supply ships going down, the Dept of War refused to go through the inconvenience of changing our style.
If someone knows more than I on this, I will defer. I only quote Marks.
Marks would have been the expert on this - guy was freakin' genius. He got the British to drop the transposition ciphers and worked out the one time pad technique although it was independently developed by the Bletchey Park operation at the same time. He was also the cryptographer who figured out that the majority of Dutch agents had been turned or flipped, but nobody believed him. Eventually, one of his opposites in the German crypto operation verified his suspicions in a book published shortly after the war.
Sometimes war is just one series of blunders with the "winner" eventually being the one who made the fewer mistakes.
Great story, although others have made the major objections to the narrative. My Dad commanded a DE during the major English convoy operation crossing the North Atlantic, there and back, over thirteen times before he his command to the South Pacific on anti-sub duty. His XO, who was his BFF, said the one thing destroyers were afraid of in the North Atlantic was the German if they ever came out with a fleet of heavy battle cruisers (much like the Graf Spee)..
I've heard the story about the Swordfish being too slow for Bismarck's AA fire-control system to track, and have wondered about it...(a)torpedo planes at the time were generally pretty slow, and (b)if a plane is too slow for the AA predictors to track, then it would also be slow enough to make manual tracking and lead-estimating easier.
Just did a little googling and came up with the following discussion thread:
"The main problem was that the after port and starboard batteries were controlled primarily by the two after directors which in the case of Bismarck, were unstabilized, twin axis directors installed as a stopgap measure until the proper ones could be manufactured and fitted. The German government, in keeping to its obligations under the Soviet-German trade agreement, had provided the Russians with four of their most modern FlaK directors--the two after ones from Bismarck, and the two foreward ones from Prinz Eugen. Thus Bismarck and Prinz Eugen each went to sea with a pair of inferior directors which were not fully integrated into the FlaK fire control system. "
What is 'hard water'? (Besides that stuff that makes my dishes spotty?)
I think he means heavy water.
The Graf Spee had a nice but short run at commerce raiding. Might have gone on longer if she had kept to the North Atlantic-able to run for cover.
All I know is, the crews of those "Stringbags" had GUTS!