Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Sinking of the Bismarck

The Cruel Sea is a work of fiction but recently I have also seen one of the two films about important actions at sea. One is the Battle of River Plate and the sinking of the pocket Battleship Graf Spee which had sunk nine allied ships in two months in the autumn of 1939 before being cornered in Montevideo as the year ended.


The other film is Sink the Bismarck, The 1939 completed Battleship pride of the German Navy, superior to anything else afloat and launched with international publicity by Hitler. Britain received intelligence that the Battleship was ready to leave anchorage in a Norwegian fjord and cause havoc to the convoys in the North Atlantic as she broke cover with the pocket battleship Prinz Eugen. All the available British Warships are put on alert  based North of Scotland at Scapa Flow between the Shetland Islands some 300 square kilometres and forming the great natural harbour of the world and used as the Headquarters of the British Fleet throughout the two World wars, continuing until 1956.


The 1960’s film centres on the coordination of the British attempt to stop the Battleship getting into the North Atlantic by patrolling all the four of the recognises routes into the Ocean, organised from the Admiralty  Operations room in London where the head of operations is played by Kenneth Moore, a man deployed in London after the sinking of his ship by the German Fleet Commander who he learns is sailing on the Bismarck, a  staunch Nazi who persuades its Captain to demonstrate the new power of the German Navy as a means that they both find glory and favour with the German leader and his hierarchy. All fictional speculation.


At first the Battleship has dramatic success in blowing up and sinking the regarded best battle cruisers in the British Navy the Hood, and damaging other vessels so that they had to disengage. This was a great blow to the UK as the German triumph was announced worldwide. In the film Churchill tells the Admiralty that they must do everything they can to find and sink the Battleship in retaliation. The course of war let alone the fate of the convoys hang in the balance.


In addition to losing his ship Kenneth Moore returned home to find that his house had been destroyed in a bombing attack killing his wife. Fortunately their son was away, also at sea, on station with the Mediterranean Fleet at Gibraltar. The mission is personal one for him and refusing to give way to emotion except in relation to work performance, he sets the tone, intolerant of slackness, spending days and nights without leaving his post except to snatch a few hours on a bunk in his personal office.


In the film given the demand of Churchill Moore appears to be the man who recommends taking naval vessels away from convoys in order to locate and destroy the Bismarck In fact by the time the ship was sighted and destroyed more than 100 allied and German ships were involved plus respective airforces.


Although the ship is sighted it is then lost because of poor visibility and the adoption of a zig zag pattern. It was on the 26THE May that an aeroplane using a secret corridor provided by the  Irish Government spotted an oil slick which led to sighting the Battleship and the Admiralty were aware that a fuel tank had been damaged in the previous encounter than the Battleship was heading to port for repairs, but which? In the film Moore also advises that in his view the battleship would head for the port of Brest in France where other major German ships were now moored and thus with the support of submarines and the German airforce they would break out in force into the Atlantic where the combined power would cause great damage.


The plan was to hope that a battle group which was diverted from Gibraltar would be able to intercept before they ran out of fuel and German submarines and air cover from the mainland would enable to ship to reach port. In the film this poses a challenge for Moore as his son serves as a pilot on an aircraft carrier. He is notified that his son is missing along with several other pilots after searching for the Battleship having run out of fuel or developed engine problems. The film then faithfully records what a near disaster there was when planes with torpedoes from the Ark Royal launched an attack and mistook the British light cruiser HMS Sheffield. Fortunately the detonators were defective and this not only prevented a blue on blue disaster but ensured that the problem was remedied before the next attack search was made.


The Bismarck was found in darkness and a single torpedo fired by John Moffat hit the vessel in the stern and damaged its steering so that it could only sail in a circle. Although short of fuel the advancing British ships were able to corner the battleship and destroy its potential firepower before causing irreparable damage to an extent that the captain ordered the ship to be scuttled with the consequence that many of the 2000 crew on the lower decks did not survive before the sinking. While here was an attempt to rescue those in the water the effort was limited by the appearance of U Boats so that British ships only rescued just over 100 men. It is my understanding that only five members of the crew were rescued by German ships with the deaths of some two thousand. The sinking was times at 10.39 in the morning. The ship had refused to surrender in he accepted tradition of the German Navy and thus fact gives  some authenticity to the view of a  command set on ending with glory than ignominy.


The sinking was timely because the Mediterranean Fleet was to suffer enormous losses where four destroyers and six cruisers sunk, and an Aircraft carrier, two Battle ships and four cruisers were damaged at the Battle off Crete leaving only two battle ships and three cruisers to oppose four battleships and eleven cruisers of the Italian Navy.


As is the custom in such films the opportunity is taken to feature one or two “human interest” stories.  His son reported as missing is found and the iceman breaks down in tears of relief and joy. Early on he establishes a good working relationship with a Wren personal assistant one of several who has lost her fiancĂ©e, when she is given the opportunity of going on an official visit to New York she decides to accept his request that she should be assigned as on a permanent basis. With job done re invites her out for a meal that evening only to realise when they exit the Admiralty that it is morning so the invitation changed to breakfast. However the tone is not one of romance but rather of comrade friendship having successfully been part of a distressing and dangerous time.


In addition to Kenneth Moore Maurice Denholm, Michael Horden, Geoffrey Keen, Jack Watling also featured and Dana Wynter played the Wren. The Famous USA Wartime Newsman Edward R Murrow appeared as himself. Next I shall continue with the Cruel Sea and the War in the Air.



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