Monday, May 28, 2012

Sink the Bismarck: Fact and Fiction

Forgotten By Cinema

71 years ago today, the British Navy sank the German Battleship Bismarck,   Three days earlier, in the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the Bismarck had sunk the British Battlecruiser HMS Hood and damaged the Battleship HMS Prince of Wales while attempting to break out into the Atlantic.  The Prince of Wales had itself scored a few hits on the Bismarck, which began to trail oil, and the latter changed course for Brest, in Nazi-occupied France. 

The film Sink the Bismarck (1960) portrays British efforts to prevent Germany's finest battleship from reaching the Atlantic and raiding British convoys.  The film, one of this blogger's favorite war movies, departs from the actual historical record in several ways worthy of note on this anniversary.

1.  In the film, both the Hood and the Prince of Wales open fire on the Bismarck at the outset of the Battle of the Denmark Strait.  In fact, the Hood initially targeted the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen, which it mistook for the Bismarck, firing at least six salvos at the cruiser before realizing its error.  (By contrast, the Price of Wales correctly directed its fire at the Bismarck from the outset, scoring a hit before the Hood redirected its fire.)  By the time the Hood realized its error, the Bismarck and Price Eugen had already found the range and begun scoring hits on the Hood. Bismarck's fifth salvo struck the fatal blow to the Hood.  (See Zetterling and Tamelander, Bismarck: The Final Days of Germany's Greatest Battleship, 163-71 (2009).  We can only speculate what would have happened if the Hood had targetted the Bismarck, a larger target than the Prinz Eugen, at the outset of the battle.

2. In the film, the British heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk continue to shadow the Bismarck after the Battle of the Denmark Strait, until the Bismarck evades the pursuers and steers toward Brest.  The Norfolk and Suffolk did shadow the Bismarck as depicted, but they did not do so alone. Instead, the battleship Prince of Wales, although damaged in the Denmark Strait, accompanied the two cruisers in the continued pursuit.  Indeed, the Bismarck and the Prince of Wales exchanged fire for several minutes on the evening of May 24, with neither ship scoring a hit.  Eventually the Prince of Wales and Suffolk broke off pursuit and sailed for Iceland to refuel.  (See Zetterling and Tamelander, Bismarck: The Final Days of Germany's Greatest Battleship183-85, 196-97 and 233.)

3.   The film portrays the destruction of a Swordfish torpedo plane by the Bismarck's anti-aircraft fire during the first attack on the Bismarck by planes from the aircraft carrier Victorious.  In fact, the Bismarck did not shoot down any British planes.

4.  The film depicts a torpedo attack on the Bismarck by several British destroyers, one of which the Bismarck sinks shortly after the attack.  Several British and one Polish destroyer did launch torpedoes at the Bismarck during the night of the May 26th and the very early morning of May 27th.  Moreover, the Bismarck did fire on several of these destroyers and exchanged fire with one of them --- the Polish destroyer Piorun.  However, the Bismarck did not score any hits.  (See  Zetterling and Tamelander, Final Days, at 251-56.)

5.   Late in the film, Admiral Lutjens expresses hope that, once in Brest, the Bismarck could put to sea with the pocket battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisnau and together raid British convoys.  The scene implies that this is a new idea    In fact, the initial plan for the operation called for the two pocket battleships to sortie at the same time as Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.  However, Scharnhorst required extensive repairs after returning from a previous sortie with Gneisenau (led by Lutjens), and an attack by British torpedo planes had damaged Gneisnau.   Thus, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had to sortie alone in search of convoys.  (See Zetterling and Tamelander, Final Days, at  82-86.)

6.   The film's portrayal of the final engagement between the British and the Bismarck departs from the actual events in several respects.  For instance, in the film the Bismarck opens fire first.  Moreover, the British Battleship King George V, flagship of the British Home Fleet, is the first to open fire in return and scores a hit on the second or third salvo.  In fact, the British Battleship Rodney (pictured above), performing escort duty and on her way to Boston for an overhaul, opened the final attack on the Bismarck, at 8:47 AM, shortly before the King George V itself opened fire.  (See Zetterling and Tamelander, Final Days, at 265-69)  The Bismarck answered three minutes later. (See id.)  Moreover, while Zetterling and Tamelander are ambiguous on this point, some sources report that Rodney struck the first blow, at 9:02 AM.  (It should be noted that the film does mention the diversion of the Rodney to intercept the Bismarck several scenes before the final engagement.)   Finally, while the King George V witnesses the Bismarck sinking in the film, the Bismarck did not in fact sink until both British Battleships, low on fuel, had left the scene and headed for Scapa Flow.  (See Zetterling and Tamelander, Final Days, at 280.)  The heavy cruiser HMS Dorchester, which had joined in pummeling the Bismarck with her eight inch guns, fired several torpedoes into the Bismarck after the British battleships departed.  (In the film, the Dorchestire joins the King George V at the end of the engagement and launches her torpedoes in full view of the British battleship.)