Remembering the Bismarck: A Case Study in Naval History

By Robbin Laird

In their seminal study of the Battleship Bismarck, the authors, William H. Garzke Jr., Robert O. Dulin Jr., and William Jurens have written the definitive history of the legendary German battleship.

This is more of an adventure than it is a book.

To call it a book would simply to describe how this lifetime of work has been encapsulated.

The authors have used every scrap of evidence which could reasonably be found to provide the “design and operational history” of the Bismarck.

The evidence comes from interviews, artifacts, published sources, and from the sea floor as well. With a wealth of diagrams and photographs the Bismarck event is told in breathtaking detail and mastery.

When I took my PhD exams prior to be able to work on my dissertation, the first question on the exam was a very good one: “What is a case study?”

Although the book details the Bismarck, the authors do so in terms of making it a case study of naval warfare within the larger context both of the prelude to World War II and then the War itself up to the time of the destruction of the Bismarck.

The book provides fascinating details on the role of the German Navy within the thinking of the German leadership and how the unwillingness of Hitler to allow for a mature German naval modernization effort led ultimately to the destruction of the German navy.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Royal Navy in confronting the German challenge are also detailed in the book as well.

And throughout the book, there are fascinating stories and tidbits of information that provide perspective not just with regard to Bismarck but to the larger details of naval warfare during World War II.

Among my favorite tidbits is about the presence of a USCG Cutter in the North Atlantic at the time which the British took to be the Bismarck and was pursued by them as such.

Another is the role of a young French Vichy naval officer in providing information to the British with regard to the destination for the damaged Bismarck as well as information with regard to assessing its damage.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is chapter 12, which focuses on the context within which the Bismarck commanders made their decisions with regard to what to do after they had destroyed HMS Hood.

That chapter also focuses on the decisions being debated as well with regard to Royal Navy leadership as well.

We know the final outcome, but a chapter like this puts us back into the moment of time where the outcome was not known and the decisions were made that would put the Bismarck into the situation where the British could finally achieve mission success.

The book provides as well an outstanding review of the core capabilities of the Bismarck and based on the new evidence from the seabed provides an assessment of how those capabilities performed under attack.

And one of my favorite vignettes is how the Germans honoring a contract for naval construction in the Soviet Union deprived the Bismarck of a key technology, which could have allowed its air defense system to function more effectively.

“One of the problems in the poor performance of the antiaircraft armament may have been the mixing of two different directors and gun mounts forward and aft.

“Obligations to the Soviet Union necessitated the delivery of the tri-axial, fully stabilized directors for the completion of German-built heavy cruiser Petropavlosk being completed for the Soviet navy in Leningrad.

“The delivery was accomplished using the tri-axial directors slated for Bismarckand Prince Eugen.” (Page 496).

The authors are to be thanked by those of us who have found the hunt for and destruction of the Bismarck to be a turning point in a crucial period of history.

But the US Naval Institute Press is to be thanked as well for producing such a superbly presented volume as well.

This is truly a masterpiece and obviously is highly recommended by this author for our readers.