The Sinking of the Bismarck

By Casey Byrne

Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 naval war film that shows the fateful last days of the great German battleship Bismarck as it is chased through the Atlantic Ocean by the English Royal Navy. Movie Poster The motion picture was based from C.S. Forester’s novel, The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck and directed by Lewis Gilbert. After the movie premiered, the World War II drama earned excellent reviews with particular praise for the historical accuracy of the film which portrayed the naval operations pursued by the British Admiralty headquarters. Film critic, A.H. Weiler, while praising the authenticity of the film, criticized the amount of time used in constantly switching between the scenes in the Admiralty War Room and on the British and German war ships. This lessened, Weiler argued, the effectiveness of the scenes. Although historical accuracy of the movie was not perfect, the plight of the Bismarck in the movie did not stray in any major way from the real destruction of the ship in May, 1941. Thus, an essential veracity of history remained intact.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were the only two battleships that actually sailed as part of the Operation Rheinubung. Their objectives were to break out into the Atlantic Ocean and pressure the British supply lines. The Bismarck Captain Jonathan Shepard (played by Kenneth More) had just assumed leadership of the British Admiralty Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC) when reports arrived: the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were heading toward the Denmark Strait. The Fleet Commander for the Bismarck was Admiral Gunther Lutjens (played by Karel Stepanek) who had destroyed Shepard’s ship the year before, and now was tasked with commanding the new mission into the Atlantic Ocean. The German ships were spotted by spies on May 23rd and nearby British ships, the HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk were immediately assigned to tail the two enemy ships. The first major confrontation came the very next day. The German vessels were intercepted by HMS Hood, pride of the naval fleet, and HMS Prince of Wales. HMS Hood was destroyed by the Bismarck, and HMS Prince of Wales was severely damaged.

At this point, Lutjens had two options, either to return to port in Norway or head into the North Atlantic. Following the fight, the Admiral Lutjens played by John Horsley Bismarck did not go unscathed, suffered internal damage that decreased the amount of fuel carried, and slowed down their maximum speed. However, with these two factors came some important but incorrect information. Lutjens received word that the main British Home Fleet was still in British ports. This "alternative" fact influenced his decision to enter the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Suffolk and Norfolk continued to trail the Bismarck, not only to monitor the movemen, but also to ensure the German ship did not escape surveillance.

Capt. Shepard ordered air bombardment by Swordfish aircraft from the Ark Royale which hit the rudder of the German giant and further limited the ship's movement. As the British Home Fleet began to advance on the German battleship, the Bismarck desperately attempted to get to the French port of Brest while calling for air cover. Collecting the survivors Admiral Lutjens dodged the ships shadowing the Bismarck on the morning of May 26th. Meanwhile, the British Home Fleet located and began to further cripple the giant with torpedoes. In the end, the film maintains that Lutjens realized that the promised air support would never arrive, and Shepard and Naval intelligence had outwitted him. The film ends with British ships collecting prisoners from the wreckage and the Admiralty IOC celebrating the successful chase. The significant extent of the film split between the Admiralty IOC and the various bridges of the British battleships shows the vital roles that improved technology, intelligence collection, and structure of the naval command system contributed in chasing and sinking the Bismarck. This alone might inspire a modern audience watching an old but stirring war drama.

Years before World War II, the rapid growth of technology spurred modern naval warfare. Ships were faster and covered a larger operational range. Improvements in communications technology allowed for less uncertainty and delays in commands between ships. The ability to move faster and develop more consistent lines of communication made combat more efficient and capable of joint air and naval missions. Bismarck,the great ship, was ultimately doomed by the air attack from Ark Royale and the constant surveillance; both of which required extensive cooperation between air and naval command. This improved line of communication led to the restructuring of the naval command system in order to achieve efficient coordination with all naval and air forces.

At the beginning of World War II, the German radar system was superior to the British radar system, allowing German ships to initially slip into the Atlantic and wreak havoc on the British supply lines. Radar Tower The Admiralty IOC recognized the weakness and began to immediately spend more time developing better radar technology and ensured that radar was equipped for all combat and reconnaissance ships. These newly renovated boats were sent out immediately to help aid reconnaissance missions and protect friendly ports and bases. Poster on radar Originally, the ship's radar was essential for shadowing enemy vessels. The HMS Suffolk and the HMS Norfolk were both British ships that trailed Bismarck when the battleship entered the Atlantic Ocean until May 25th when it escaped their pursuit. The radar on these ships allowed them to shadow Bismarck but maintain a safe distance. Thus, the British Fleet was able to locate the Bismarck using intelligence from reconnaissance missions as well as reports from the shadowing ships. Capt. Shepard relied primarily on these to predict the German movements. In the motion picture, Capt. Shepard predicted the German ship's movement based on his previous experience with Admiral Lutjens. In real life, the Admiralty's IOC commands were more influenced by the radar information received from the British ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps both theories played a role?

The long term plan to stop the break out of German ships into the Atlantic Ocean was to improve and increase the quality of signals intelligence resources that were available to the IOC. Signals intelligence is information gathered from the enemy lines. This intelligence gathering occurred when they electronically crossed into the ranges of each other and allowed a transmission. Although the film does not go into much detail concerning how the Home Fleet discovered the Bismarck after escaping on May 25th, the signals intelligence was pivotal in identifying the path the battleship was taking. The Map Room The Admiralty IOC was able to map out the direction Bismarck was heading before the German crew went on radio silence. A scene in the movie shows Capt. Shepard positioning German and British naval forces on a map based off the intelligence gathered that day. These intelligence reports had to be hasty, but correct as the lives of seamen and civilians depended on the knowledge of where the German naval fleet was located. With all of the new radar and communications technology improving intelligence collection, spies still played a role.  In fact, a spy in Norway was the first to alert the Admiralty IOC of the location of the Bismarck. Although the spy's death in the movie was during mid-transmission, it did not include the Bismarck. In reality, the Admiralty already knew where the German battleship was located.

From the onset of the war, there was a major effort to decipher the famous German Enigma Code that allowed the Germans to secretly communicate orders, battle plans, and intelligence reports with each other. The Enigma Code operated differently between the Kriegsmarine, the German navy, and the Luftwaffe, the German air force. An Enigma Code Machine When the Luftwaffe Enigma Code was finally deciphered which helped alert the Royal Fleet if there was an imminent air assault or as to where the Germans were flying reconnaissance missions. Originally, Kriegsmarine codes began to be deciphered in March, but the codes took weeks to be completely deciphered, so information was delayed before the British Fleet received the intelligence. Even with the delay, the motion picture accurately portrayed the partial knowledge of a large German surface operation to commence in May. This knowledge is backed up by records of deciphered Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine Enigma Codes that confirmed a large German presence in Norway. The ability to decipher these Enigma Codes gave the Admiralty IOC and other naval shore commands the ability to predict the German operation and move reinforcements throughout the Atlantic in preparation for the Bismarck’s break out.

With the improved communication and the increases in signals intelligence, both the naval and the air force recognized a need for a restructuring of the naval and air force command structures. There needed to be an emphasis on coordination between the respective commands to achieve successful operations in the Atlantic Ocean. The naval command became more centralized as more shore command bases were built. These bases provided a central hub since all information and activity went through their area and made it possible to communicate quickly with other bases or fleets. The Admiralty IOC in which Capt. Shepard was Chief of Operations was an important post where logistics and strategy for numerous operations were developed. The centralized system that the British Navy had developed was certainly superior to the structure of the German Kriegsmarine.

Grand Admiral Eric Raeder Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, believed that the German captains and fleet commanders should be able to adapt to the situations that arose on the seas. Therefore, operations such as Operation Rheinubung were commanded by the Fleet Commander and often had little direct communication with Kriegsmarine headquarters to discuss the exact details of the missions. The faith placed in the decisions of the German admirals and captains was sometimes rewarded with successful operations, but the lack of communication encouraged a disorganized naval fleet that pursued an unclear path of command. Moreover, the cooperation between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine was often inferior to the British naval and air force standards.

Indeed, the German navy was reliant upon the reconnaissance and photo intelligence that the Luftwaffe provided. The Luftwaffe appeared apathetic or reluctant to meet the basic naval requirements that were requested. Furthermore, the German aircraft were not built for long distance missions, so their range was often limited. In the film, Admiral Lutjens references the prearranged air support for their operation multiple times, but at the end of the movie, he realized that the air support would not arrive. The Bismarck had agreed with the Luftwaffe in 1940 that air cover would protect the break out into the Atlantic Ocean, but but that promised support never materialized. This deficit of air support and an organized infrastructure greatly aided in quick chase and sinking of the most powerful warship of the time.

The film captures the difficult cooperation efforts of the British ships and the Admiralty IOC involved in the chase of the Bismarck. HMS Suffolk of the English Royal Navy, WWII Together, by following a standard naval command structure and maintaining clear, consistent lines of communication, they were able to destroy one of the most feared battleships of the century. The victory was major morale booster for the English who were, at the time, being bombarded by the Luftwaffe, as well as a major accomplishment for the newly restructured naval command. The English Royal Navy now had evidence that backed up their long term plan of implementing new technology to improve communication and intelligence gathering. Ensuring that the intelligence gathered went through a centralized command system allowed for the collection of valuable information for the Admiralty IOC and other naval bases to utilize when tracking German movement. The historical accuracy and the focus upon the unsung backroom planners made this movie a classic naval war film that helped viewers understand what planning went into sinking the Bismarck which, in the end, proved a major victory in winning a war.

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