Iain Ballantyne, Agora Books 2021
Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom is an intensely readable account of the final days of the titular battleship, centring the voices of those who were directly involved.
The Bismarck is probably the most written-about warship in history. Whatever it is about the vessel – the tragically brief nature of her career, the spectacular highs and lows packed into it, her undeniably beautiful lines – the Bismarck has prompted millions of words to be committed to paper over the decades.
It may seem difficult to meaningfully add much to the canon, therefore, even accepting recent discoveries as the wreck has been found and examined. Nevertheless, Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom unquestionably earns its place through a unique approach that sheds most of the background and context, and just about everything that isn’t the direct experience of the men fighting the battle. The focus is overwhelmingly on the end of the Bismarck’s fateful mission in May 1941 as experienced by those who took part in it, from just about every conceivable angle. Other than a brief scene-setting prologue leading up to the destruction of HMS Hood, the narrative zeroes in on the final hours over 26-27 May, taking in the RN’s hunt for, discovery of, and assault on the Bismarck.
The author has assembled a broad cross-section of voices of those involved from his own interviews, interviews from other sources, and materials such as official dispatches and Admiralty interrogation of survivors. There are occasional snapshots of Hitler’s reactions as he receives updates on the ongoing crisis at the Berghof, and equivalent insights from the British Admiralty co-ordinating the hunt.
These experiences are presented in a concise fashion lending an almost cinematic feel to the narrative as we switch rapidly from Bismarck to pursuing capital ship, to hunting destroyer, to prowling U-boat, to storm-buffeted aircraft, and occasionally to the seats of naval power in the UK and Germany. The pace is relentless; I read the book in two sittings. It is short, at just over 200 pages, but packs an awful lot in.
The recollections of U-boat crews dispatched to try to help the battleship in her increasingly futile struggle to avoid destruction at the hands of the Royal Navy are particularly noteworthy. The U-boats were unable to do much to tackle the RN directly, but their role in shadowing surface warships and relaying communications has received relatively little emphasis before now. It is fascinating to hear from the men who unwittingly found themselves with a ringside seat to the final battle, powerless to do anything to influence its outcome. The Ark Royal’s Swordfish biplanes and their crucial role is well served with material from 818 Squadron Observer Terry Goddard, interviewed by Ballantyne. Admiral Vian’s reckless charge up the Atlantic with his destroyer squadron is similarly eye-opening, not least in the suicidal charges of the Polish ORP Piorun.
For such a concise book, Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom presents a thought-provoking sense of the emotions felt by the men involved in those violent hours. On the RN side, the determination to see the Bismarck brought to account, whether it was to avenge the loss of HMS Hood, to protect the vital supply convoys that the UK relied on, or to uphold the reputation of the Royal Navy among friend and foe… on the German side, the initial surprise and elation at having bested the pride of the Royal Navy gradually turning to apprehension, desperation and finally, resignation as the enemy closed in.
One of the stand-out aspects of the viewpoints assembled by Ballantyne is the horror of the RN personnel who witnessed the terrible destruction inflicted on the German battleship. The contrast between the Hood, which blew up catastrophically in a matter of moments, with the Bismarck, which withstood hours of pummelling by an overwhelmingly superior force, is stark. The final battle is unquestionably one-sided and yet the Bismarck did not blow up or suffer any large, significant failure sufficient to cause her loss. The RN was therefore compelled to keep hitting her with shells and torpedoes until any capability as a fighting vessel was degraded completely, and Ballantyne’s narrative does not shy away from the carnage that resulted. This is witnessed from both sides – given the lopsided nature of the fight, the RN sailors (and some airmen) were able to witness the destruction at far closer range than would usually be expected in a naval battle. Their reaction at seeing the effects of the assault are not softened; neither is the unenviable task of the commanders who simply had to keep dishing out the punishment until the Bismarck was destroyed and the threat she posed ended permanently. It is sobering and affecting.
This sense is emphasised through the attitude of most sailors – with a few notable exceptions – on opposite sides to one another as brothers in the service of the sea. Perhaps surprisingly, many saw the battle as a human tragedy and regretted the slaughter that had befallen – not that they did not recognise the necessity of dealing with the considerable threat the Bismarck represented.
Particularly moving is a brief rundown of the ships involved, touching on their careers after May 1941. It is sobering indeed to note how many of them were subsequently lost, in several cases soon after their brief triumph against the Bismarck. The battle may have been won, but there was a long and bitter struggle ahead for control of the seas to come, especially when Japan entered the war seven months later.
Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom is a superb read, entertaining, informative and affecting. There are plenty of books that will go into immense detail about the nuts and bolts of the technology involved, the strategy and tactics, the context and background, but for a sense of what it was like to be there, this one is hard to beat.
Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom is available from Agora Books here, and all the usual bookshops and online sellers