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The Bismarck Chase Reconsidered
The indirect approach to historical analysis
Operation Rhine, or Exercise Rhine, for those of you whose German is weak. This was the German plan to send its most powerful fleet units, battleships Bismarck, Gneisenau, and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, out to pray on British convoys in the spring of 1941. At the outset, this looks line a somewhat foolish plan, since Britain’s Royal Navy (RN) outnumbered and outgunned the entire German surface fleet. So, why…?
For answers, look east…
By the spring of 1941, German plans for Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, were so far advanced that there was nothing to stop them. The naval portion of this massive undertaking was minimal, involving only light ships in the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were not necessary. There were no peer-level ships for Bismarck to engage and destroy there. Sending them into the Atlantic was a demonstration of the power of Germany that was important to frighten other states from helping either Russia or Britain from the destructive power of the Third Reich.
While this was important for the optics of the imminent onslaught against Russia, it was also important to frighten current British allies such as Canada and potential allies like the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. A successful convoy raid—especially one that might wipe out a convoy that the U-boats could not do—might convince Canada to reduce her help to Britain, or even leave the conflict altogether. A successful raid on a convoy could also intimidate America’s policy of “observing” convoys with US Navy warships.
Despite the RN’s numerical superiority, the Germans were playing a “fleet in being” game that would draw resources from elsewhere, especially the Mediterranean, where Allied forces were occupying most of the Italian and far too many German resources. The war in North Africa was one of furious land activity followed by building up supplies by sea. The British could move supplies from anywhere in the world to Egypt via the Suez Canal. Further, she had bases on this rock called Malta that, well, hard to sink an island. But take away RN assets and an amphibious strike could knock Malta out. And, in the spring of 1941, the Greek campaign was ending, and so was Crete. The RN's ability to contest the Middle Sea restricted German and Italian strategic options. That and a lack of suitable ports for Bismarck in the Med.
And to Berlin.
And, as with everything else in the Thousand-Year-Reich, there were the politics of the Navy. Not within the fleet—those were bad enough. The Nazis had a habit of not putting complete responsibility for anything on any one pair of shoulders. Land warfare was the purview of the army, Das Heer. The navy, Kriegsmarine, did its thing on the water. The air was the purvey of the air arm, Luftwaffe. And therein lay a problem. The head of the Luftwaffe was Hermann Goering, who was also the Plenipotentiary of the Five-Year Plan. That made him a powerful force in the allocation of industrial assets like steel. Continued idleness on the behalf of the German surface fleet would restrict its growth politically while the Luftwaffe got all it wanted, failure to prepare for the invasion of Britain notwithstanding.
But the “fleet” wasn’t a fleet at all…
Germany’s relationship to its naval forces had always been ambiguous. The German naval buildup that led to—and arguably helped trigger—World War One was in part vanity and in part strategic ambition. Spurred by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the “risk fleet” of 1914-18 mostly stayed in port because they didn’t dare risk engagement with the RN—they simply weren’t numerous enough to take casualties. They showed this in 1916 when they did venture out. Though Jutland was a tactical victory for Germany, it was a strategic defeat as well—and for Russia, but that’s another story. After WWI, the Versailles treaty forbid Germany a large seagoing navy, and what ships they had were scrapped, scuttled or turned over to the victors. When Hitler took power, he allowed the construction of a surface fleet.
Surface it was, a fleet it was not.
There was no realistic world in which the Germans could challenge the RN or the US Navy at sea. Everyone knew that. Therefore, the Germans designed their large “fleet units” for commerce raiding. All the German surface ships were oil-fired; the largest were steam turbines, the rest were diesel-electric. The big ships did not need the tremendous range, speed and endurance for fleet operations that raiders need to catch merchantmen and run from stronger pursuers. Furthermore, there weren’t enough German destroyers or other light units to protect or maneuver with a surface fleet. Erich Raeder, the senior officer in the Kriegsmarine, told Hitler and anyone who would listen that his fleet wouldn’t be ready for war before 1942, and the full building plan wouldn’t be completed before 1946. Of course, 1939 came along, and…
So this was what Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had to live with.
On 19 May 1941, Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, and several smaller ships left the Baltic bound for the Atlantic. The raid was well planned; there were pre-positioned supply ships scattered all over the Atlantic and prize crews on Bismarck. As the flotilla headed for sea, they knew that operational security had been lost, but they didn’t know when it had been lost. The raid was an open secret in British circles, and Winston Churchill directed all resources to stop the raid.
Danger to the convoys? Danger to their relationship with Canada and the US? Fear of stretching resources too thin? The first two; no. The third, some. But mostly, Churchill was determined to undermine the German surface naval efforts altogether. The German invasion of Norway had cost Germany nearly a third of her destroyers and light cruisers. While the Bismarck threat was real, her sister, Tirpitz, was still being finished and was yet another threat. The two other German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were undergoing repair and overhaul. Germany lacked the shore facilities to have all her major surface units operational at once. Stopping Bismarck, Churchill and his admirals calculated, might convince the Nazi leadership that a surface fleet wasn’t worth the trouble, or the steel and concrete to keep them going. The Nazis were land creatures, and they had their heads in the clouds.
And we all know how it ended…
On 24 May, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen tangled with battlecruiser Hood and new battleship Prince of Wales in the Denmark Straight between Greenland and Iceland. Hood blew up; Prince of Wales was badly battered; Bismarck was slightly damaged. The bizarre decision to separate Prinz Eugen meant continuing the raid would be hazardous. With two RN light cruisers nipping at her heels, Bismarck made for France. On 26 May, British carrier aircraft damaged Bismarck’s rudder. On 27 May, battleships King George V and Rodney caught up to Bismarck. After a gun dual where Bismarck was hit over 400 times by shellfire and at least two torpedoes, Bismarck sank.
Churchill and his admirals were correct.
Regardless of how, she sank, and with her, the crippling of German surface naval ambitions. The St Nazaire raid in March 1942 damaged the only drydocks on the Atlantic coast that could handle either Tirpitz or the other two large ships in the German fleet. This was a boon for the RN, which could concentrate their surface units on the Mediterranean or the Pacific, where they knew the next war had started the previous December. Already strapped for manpower, sinking Bismarck was worth the large expenditure of RN resources.
This is one method historians use to analyze the past: indirect consequences and motives of actions and events. The 1960 film and the spate of books in the early ‘60s were accurate enough. However, they were primarily concerned with the actual battles and the intrigue surrounding them. While Bismarck was a serious threat to the convoys, the motives for both the Germans and the British in the spring of ‘41 were more complex that the popular histories show. But nowhere was she as powerful or fast as the Johnny Horton song.
Science History: Telling Or Quaint?
Independence Day Vilifications
On 24 June:
1509: Henry VIII is crowned in Westminster Abbey, London, England. He had been king since his father, Henry VII, died that April. He had married Catherine of Aragon on 11 June—his brother’s widow—and two days after his coronation, arrested two of his father’s unpopular ministers, later beheaded. The quick arrest and beheading of his father's unpopular ministers cemented Harry's reputation for decisiveness and quick action.
1964: Picturephone service began between New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago. For those who may dimly remember seeing these demonstrated, especially on “The Jetsons,” the system was an expensive marvel, but not a commercial success.
And today is NATIONAL PRALINES DAY. Those of you who can still eat pecans in any form, indulge. Those who cannot, just remember that in the 1860s, the price per pound of pecans was twice that of cotton in Europe. The pecan was first domesticated in the American South, and Europe was quite mad for them, especially their oil with its high flashpoint.