Over the long weekend, I watched a film on Ballard’s 1989 discovery of the sunken German battleship Bismarck. The British struggled to bring that monster to ruins in the treacherous North Atlantic. Yet the loss of over a thousand German sailors, which followed the loss of sailors from HMS Hood, only accents the horrid toll of war. With such great capital ships, the cost was terrible indeed.
Bismarck was the largest warship afloat in World War II until the Japanese built Yamato. She followed in the steps of the Great War dreadnoughts, a modern product of engineering and gunnery. Had she slipped undeterred into the Atlantic and fulfilled her original mission, Bismarck would have blasted Allied shipping and brought nightmares to every sailor. If her 15-inch guns didn’t scare you, her sheer size would certainly do the job. Hull paint was schemed with dark portions and a fake bow wave to render (from a distance) her appearance as a cruiser to enemy spotters, but her overhead profile was hard to miss. An aerial photograph taken of Bismarck over Norway in 1941 depicts the armored beast in relation to other natural formations; had she been an amorphous blend of earth and trees, Bismarck could have been an island. When the battleship left Norwegian waters to hunt, it was like a man-made titan unleashed on the world.
I highly suggest watching the National Geographic documentary or reading up on the story of Bismarck. The warship’s breakthrough with cruiser Prince Eugen is full of incidents and engagements, most notably her fast sinking of HMS Hood on 24 May 1941 in Denmark Strait. The Royal Navy was determined to sink Bismarck at all costs. Even after so many lives lost on Hood and damage on HMS Prince of Wales, the British continued to track the German warship and her escort with cruisers and radar. When the aircraft from HMS Ark Royal joined the hunt, the German battleship’s chances were drastically reduced and she was eventually sunk on 27 May.
Bismarck and other ships of the era were built for a second Jutland that never occurred, and the performance of British Swordfish, regardless of their mechanical simplicity, demonstrates that armor and heavy guns were permanently checked by air power. But in my opinion, this is a story of great tragedy. In the documentary by National Geographic, Robert Ballard refers to the ship as a war tomb. When a grand ship is sink, the loss is too great to bear. There is a certain futility in avoiding or ignoring one’s chance of destruction. In a demonstration of this futility, Bismarck‘s massive turrets, allegedly secured by their own weight, toppled off the hull when the battleship rolled under the sea. Decades later, one of Ballard’s ROVs would stare into those chasm-like turret wells, and I wondered how many dead were buried in those magazines. How many were left in the machine spaces, under ladders, and in passageways? Men also died away from their mighty ship: upon report of a U-boat in the area, HMS Dorsetshire abandoned rescue efforts of the Bismarck crew and abruptly departed, leaving many to drown. There is always cost to war, no matter how it is blurred or embossed by those who start them. And the sailor, like his comrades on land and in the sky, pay that bill in legions. If you doubt such things, search for images of the sunken Bismarck, and she will tell you.