Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Looking Back at Rheinübung

Edit: Oops, missed a reference!

There's this new thing called "entangled history," which per Wikipedia auf Deutsch is post-world-history. I'm going to take the metaphor as an excuse to go historiographic, and plunge into the middle of a network of discourses that link future and past and yanking the threads to see where they lead. (Dangerously misleading metaphor, meet ill-digested understanding.) Then after the self-indulgence, I'll talk about steam plants and radar  and stuff.

Anyway, if you're going to understand the Bismarck campaign that ended 70 years ago the day-before-yesterday (yes, I'm late, but on the bright side, I have a nice chunk of overtime pay to show for it) you could start with worse than Johnny Horton's 1959 hit. Not because it's accurate or anything, but because of the entangling. Horton's song entered my consciousness thanks to a Star Fleet Battles scenario. Then I learned that the favourite song of my geographically closest nephew's (very early) childhood was by the guy who recorded this catchy bit. Which is an ambiguous sound to Canadians, at least youthful nationalist Canadians who have been led down the garden path by George Grant.

Take it another way: this may be just my personal obsession, but given that the becoming of Canada and the United States was a cultural event rather than one of colonisation and settlement, is it perhaps time to consider how Johnny Horton's Battle of New Orleans came to replace The Hunters of Kentucky, a song that, as recently as a few months ago, lacked even have a Youtube version. (As opposed to this haunting performance.)

If there is innocence to 1959, it's a willed innocence. The downside of the will to innocence is that Hunters of Kentucky went down the memory hole. The upside is that  you can change the hunt for the Bismarck from a sideshow of the real war into an epic of the sea. Which it was.

(Apologies to fellow Canadian CBC nerds for not posting the Stan Rogers original. Notwithstanding the maudlin introduction, I like this one better. Also this, BTW.)

After the break, no more music blogging.

In the spring of 1941, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder was fighting as commander-in-chief of the lead service for a Germany deprived of a land enemy. He knew that would end soon, on 22 June. Sieges are supposed to ripen with time, but he'd run out of time, and weapons. Only the battleship (and the Mediterranean) was left. As Bismarck, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen made their final preparations for their sortie, the Mediterranean Fleet stood out from Alexandria with a force of 3 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 12 cruisers, and 20 destroyers. The existence of the Italian fleet forced the gunline sortie, but the main enemy in the Battle of Crete that would be the German Air Force. It would inflict, over the next 10 days, the loss of 2 battleships, 1 carrier, 7 cruisers, and 14 destroyers damaged, and 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers sunk.
Before the war, many commentators had predicted that the main threat to British trade would come from the air. (I'm going to gesture at Fairplay here. That's where my straw men are hiding!) As with so many other predictions of immediate airborne Armageddon, the outbreak of war proved anticlimactic, but the 17 September 1940 London attack destroyed millions of tons of cargo by itself. The second half of November saw heavy attacks on the western Channel port of Bristol. And attacks on the Liverpool docks caused huge losses of logistical lift. (I use this concept to signify that while, say, the flooding of a train station is temporary, the lift lost during it is lost forever –like the time I spent playing Colonization last night.) The spring offensive against Liverpool was more conventionally successful. On 17/03, 340 bombers sank 2 ships. Later attacks sank 80,000 tons of shipping while blocking about half the port’s more than 300 berths. Yet when the raiders moved on to Glasgow with 280 aircraft, they only revealed the limits of the campaign. Glasgow was simply too far away.
It would be even better to attack ocean convoys in the Western Approaches, but the Luftwaffe lacked specialised aircraft for this role. As a substitute for the operational solution that could not and did not yet exist, in the course of 1939–40 the air force obtained a supply of the prewar four-engined Focke Wulf 200 “Condor” long range transport aircraft. Despite its makeshift status, from their first effective sortie on 20 February 1941, the FW 200 earned an impressive reputation as a direct antishipping weapon, but, lacking the capacity to supply accurate navigational fixes for the submarine arm, could not do more. The submarine force lacked numbers, and British ASW forces had rebounded in recent months. The Royal Navy was recovering from its heavy casualties in the spring of 1940, and solved the maintenance problems of its expanding force, driving escort availability rates from 50% in February 1941 to 65% in June. (John E. Cooke, “The Changing Pattern of Maintenance and Repair of the Machinery of the Fleet,” Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. 169 (1955): 936.) Worse, in the 17 days 2–19 March 1941, the Germans lost 5 submarines, 25% of the operational force, and an additional two boats were heavily damaged in action. Type 284M radar, rushed into service and deployed at sea only months before, played a critical role this.
And so capital ships it was. One thing you can say for the tyranny of the treaties. It brought out the ingenuity in German engineers. Want to challenge the Washington Versailles/Washington Treaty regime, build ships to the draconian Versailles limits that threatened Washington, and which, furthermore asserted Germany's Weltmacht status. Cruisers and “battleships” could have a worldwide range and disproportionate fighting power. All it took was high-speed diesel and multifuel engines. That these were not even vaguely up to the pressures of battle was of less importance in May of 1941, in the wake of Admiral Scheer 's cruise that winter. Despite being nearly being caught by the old carrier HMS Hermes at one point, the cruise was a success.
In 1935 German designers decided to build super-ships that precisely didn't challenge Britain. The outcome of an even more Byzantine design process than the one through which the regular run of battleships move, was a pair of heavily armoured 31,300 ton, 160,000 hp, 32 knot, 9 11" gun battlecruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisnau operating on a new marine boiler design supporting extreme steam conditions, with controllable superheat. Only a little less heavily protected than the Bismarck, they were supposed to obliterate convoys, gobble up light escorts and shrug off the occasional hit from slow battleships' guns. Unfortunately, two ships do not a scouting line make, and they were fatally compromised by overreaching engine design. Again. (Instead of courting controversy, I'll point you here.) Poor engine reliability ultimately cost Rheinübung the participation of a battlecruiser and a heavy cruiser. (The latter, Hipper, was, doing its dockyard queen act in Brest after a spring raid.)
The Germans and Italians also equipped a fleet of converted merchant ships as commerce raiders. They, too, were at sea in the spring of 1941, forcing the British to disperse their cruisers to defend convoys. Also vital to the Bismarck’s sortie was a small fleet of weather ships, supported by Axis submarines.
Raeder’s siege concept called for an escalating series of attacks on the British Commonwealth’s worldwide maritime communication network, culminating with the first joint sortie of Bismarck and Tirpitz in the fall of 1941. The first blow was landed by the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, which slipped through the Denmark Strait in October 1940. The Strait was an ideal body of water for such operationss, with severe weather, short winter days, poor flying conditions, and floating ice, and Scheer had little difficulty making its passage in the wake of the raiders and supply ships. Once in the Atlantic, Scheer “annnounced” herself by attacking an Atlantic convoy. It was crucial that Scheer not be left the sole focus of the Royal Navy for very long, and Hipper soon followed, only to have its cruise aborted by a mechanical casualty, but not before it fought a a heavily escorted outbound Middle East convoy on 25 December, pushing the Admiralty towards panic. Next, Scharnhorst and Gneisnau sortied under the command of the Admiral Gunther Lütjens. Lütjens reached the coast of Norway on 31 December, the same week that the seventh German merchant raider successfully passed the Straits outward, but storm damage forced the squadron to abort for repair. The battlecruisers made their next attempt south of Iceland rather than through the Straits. They did so with great caution, knowing that they had been spotted early in their passage, and that the Luftwaffe had been unable to locate the British Home Fleet. Was it at sea? In the early morning of 28 January, the battlecruisers’ radar detected unknown contacts on both quarters that in the ensuing hours closed as near as 7,000 yards, but visibility was poor and the shadowing British cruisers were unable to vector the Home Fleet onto the Germans with radar only before they turned north to try the Strait, through which. Lütjens broke on 3 February, while simultaneously, Hipper left Brest, finally taking the pressure on Scheer. In the first two weeks of February Lütjens cast for British convoys in the central north Atlantic, east of the turnaround where the two old British battleships based in Halifax turned around (intended for decommissioning when the second tranche of King George V-class battleships entered service, their machinery had not been modernised and they lacked endurance.) But Lütjens miscalculated, and encountered HX 109 with the 27,500 ton, 42,000 hp, 23 knot, 8 15" gun 1912 battleship Ramillies in company. It was no business of Lütjens to risk a crippling 15” hit, and he veered off. No shipping was destroyed, but the pressure increased again.
Meanwhile, Lütjens’ squadron, on the basis of a newly developed staff appreciation, moved west. Radio and air searches by onboard aircraft bore fruit on the night of 21/ 22 February, when radar led the battlecruisers to a previously-detected outbound convoy that had just dispersed to their various North American ports. Radio jamming prevented reports getting out, and the convoy was destroyed, but the difficulty of the operation brought home to Lütjens the fact that a 2 ship search line was just too small to locate convoys, and that his air outfit of his force was inadequate. Meanwhile, simple human strains were severely restricting operations, to the point that the next phase of operations consisted of a rest break, a planned 5 days in the sun southwest of the Azores, with the 24 February order of the day calling for “today, sleep, fully clothed in hammocks, tomorrow undressed.” This south Atlantic idyll was cut short, however, when his onboard intelligence division correctly suggested a prompt move to the southeast to catch a Middle East convoy. It was in this interval that Admiral Scheer was almost caught.
Lütjens’ command intercepted the northbound SL 67 off the northwestern coast of Africa on 8 March, but found that the convoy had picked up the battleship Malaya at Freetown for escort. This 27,500 ton, 75,000 hp, 25 knot , 8 15" gun member of the 5 ship 1912 Queen Elizabeth class had not had the engine upgrade and could not catch the battlecruisers. Damaged by submarine torpedo soon after, Malaya took no further part in the spring campaign.
This was not true of the fast task force that responded to Malaya’s alert, the fast carrier task force based on Gibraltar, Force H, built up around the modern fast carrier, Ark Royal and the battlecruiser Renown. Renown was the elder of an extraordinary pair of 1915 27,000 ton, 30 knot, 6 15" gun battlecruisers. The power plant required to generate its 112,000 hp in 1915 was enormous, and accommodating it had required reduction of armament and armour to levels that only made sense in World War One. Fortunately, it also made displacement available for a full-scale and very expensive refit that opened up the ship to the keel plating. The new Renown was a hugely useful ship, but far too expensive to justify a similar refit to its sister ship, Repulse. It would operate at peak efficiency with Admiral Somerville’s Force H, spending almost a full year at sea before a serious structural casualty put it out of action in July 1941.
The battlecruisers evaded Force H at high speed, but it was the last straw for their delicate machinery. Lütjens docking at Brest (after dallying to destroy another westbound tanker convoy headed towards the Western Hemisphere oil ports on 15–16 March, sinking two ships and captured 14. This would have been a strategic catastrophe had it been an east-found, fully laden convoy.) Lütjens was left lusting for the larger, hangar-borne air group of the Bismarck and despairing of the battlecruiser machinery. Only one was available for spring operations, and at the end of a long and costly bombing campaign, the RAF finally knocked it out in early May, notwithstanding the 1000 guns, searchlights, smoke generators, and fighters the Luftwaffe rushed into Brest to defend the naval assets there.
Rheinubüng began at noon, 19 May 1941, when Bismarck and Prinz Eugen slipped their berths in the Baltic port of Gotenhafen on their way to the Atlantic via the Denmark Straits, although the Admiralty’s battle did not begin until it received definite information on 20 May. Repeated false alarms since early April had desensitised it, and the fighting off Crete was a further distraction. There was a real danger that, as at the time of the battlecruisers’ breakout, the Home Fleet would be mobilised too soon, and be forced to break off for refuelling. Nevertheless, it was clear that the cruiser forces in the Gap had to be reinforced. On 23 May, HMS Norfolk arrived in the Denmark Strait with noted explosives expert Rear Admiral Wade-Walker (the man who unravelled the loss of the battlecruisers at Jutland) aboard as commander designate of an ad hoc cruiser squadron built around radar pioneer HMS Suffolk, already on station. Admiral Tovey, CinC Home Fleet, took posting in the Iceland–Faeroes gap with King George V, Repulse, and the 3 ship Second Cruiser Squadron under command, with a picket line of 5 cruisers and the brand new carrier HMS Victorious in support, with an improvised air group of training squadrons. This minimally adequate force was simply all that was adequate, with a Fast Battleship Squadron comprised of Hood and the not-yet fully fit for action Prince of Wales in the Denmark Strait. Hood, the only survivor of a planned 1916 class of 35,000 ton, 144,000 hp 32 knot 8 15" “fast battleships,” was by far the largest and fastest capital ship laid down up to that point, a slightly-unhinged baroque masterpiece designed around the first small tube boiler/geared turbine plant authorised for a capital ship, giving 144,000shp on little enough displacement that the first specification called for 32 knot speed and the same armament and armour of the 28,000 ton Queen Elizabeth-class on 35,000 tons. Once post-Jutland rejiggering was done, Hood reached 45,000 tons at 30 knots. The largest war machine on Earth for over 20 years, it was a symbol of British sea power, a striking contrast with the undersized, undergunned Prince of Wales. It was also a desperately overworked structure in urgent need of refit.
Besides Force H and the ancient battleships on the North American station, the whole force available on the Atlantic now consisted of, Nelson, replacing Malaya at Freetown, and Rodney, preparing to sail for the United States for a refit at the New York Navy Yard. Three battleships were fighting off Crete, Resolution was out for refitting, two battleships and two aircraft carriers were under repair in the United States. The old carriers Furious and Argus, were operating as ferry carriers without embarked carrier air groups. Cruiser forces besides the 12 already noted on picket, Home Fleet, and Force H, included 15 in the Mediterranean, 3 operating independently in the Atlantic, and 6 in the Indian Ocean. Virtually every warship in the Royal Navy was fighting off Crete or against the German raiders, or docked for repair. This high rate of readiness only made possible by the navy’s living on its capital of prewar maintenance, a reserve that was as much Raeder's target as Britain's sea lines of communications. Consider: Renown’s failure in the summer of 1941, pushed Force H's speed down 7 knots. This led Somerville to shape a dangerous course back to Gibraltar in November, with the result that Ark Royal was torpedoed. Renown's casualty occurred after the ship had steamed 330 days out of the previous 365. It was an achievement that vindicates the Selborne Scheme, but also points forward to the near-debacle of 1942.
At 19:22, May 24, the 14 year old British heavy cruiser Suffolk, 9,800 tons, 8 8" guns, was sweeping the north side of a search pattern in the Straits of Denmark when it showed up on German radar at 13,000 metres. All this year, a bizarre Scapa Flow-side workforce of radio technicians and academics had laboured to get the new Type 284M 150kW, 50cm surface search radar at sea, six times more powerful than previous naval radars. Sets were built by hand on test benches, then directly installed on the warships of the fleet during refuelling stopovers whose pace may be gauged from Renown. Type 284, although very accurate for rangefinding, provided a technical tool (lobe-switching) that allowed crack men to extract bearing information, as Lütjens would soon learn, when 284 beat the very similar German Seetakt.
Though it was not a miracle technology. It was Suffolk’s lookouts who first spotted the Germans at 19:45, the same duties as the men who seem to have protected English trollers from Inuit (or, more likely, culturally hybrid) pirates in sea kayaks in the late 1400s. With radar, Suffolk could track Bismarck as it attempted to separate, and evade when it attempted to close. At 20:00, Suffolk alerted the Admiralty, as well as Wade-Walker aboard Norfolk. Monitored on long wave right around the north Atlantic basin, Suffolk announced the battle to come to the entire world. Only Whitehall knew that two battleships were homing in on Wade-Walker. By 22:00 Lütjens grasped, or, rather, overestimated the new British capability. Raeder's arrogance, already exercised against the hapless submariners, would not relent, but Lütjens realised that things had changed, even if he did not realise just how much, for he believed that the British Home Fleet was at anchor. Still, none of the strategic thinkers who had argued for and against a raiding war against British commerce over the last century had ever thought about how something as simple as vision could swing the balance between raider and pursuer so far. And he had not yet met the aircraft-mounted surface search radars now at sea on British carriers.
Still, only Victorious, Ark Royal, Hood, Renown, and Repulse could maintain 30 knots, and only Victorious and Ark Royal could keep up with Bismarck. Destroyers could deal with the enemy battleship, but only in fair weather, when they could make breast through the seas. Otherwise, it was down to carrier-borne torpedo aircraft or a brilliant interception. Which is what happened. Holland broke sight of the German squadron at long gun range and converging quickly, albeit with Hood and Prince of Wales at highly oblique angles that masked their own rear arc guns and offered excellent targets to German gunnery. Much would hang on the luck of the guns.
The Germans were slow to identify the approaching ships, having warning fatigue due to multiple false alarms from Prinz Eugen’s hydrophone operators. More useful information came in a transmission from OB West at 5:37, after the British ships had gained visual touch, because shore stations picked up fire control chatter between Hood and Prince of Wales. (One can criticise too much, however. Bismarck's performance would have been considered stellar off Guadalcanal next year. The ships expecting to make visual contact almost always do so first.) At 14,500 yards distance, decisive range for gun duels, where accuracy rates were likely to be as high as one hit per salvo, shells could penetrate any practically conceivable belt armour, while the deck armour of the actually not-particularly-vulnerable Hood would be immune to plunging fire. At this range Prince of Wales and Bismarck could exchange penetrating hits indefinitely, knowing that a critical hit that penetrated and exploded was highly unlikely due to the flat trajectory of the shells. The expected result was that the two modern battleships would pound each other into sinking condition in about 30–40 minutes, but this is not what happened, probably because Hood suffered structural or (strength or firewall) after a shell from Bismarck initiated a deflagration in a 4” magazine. Moments after the loss of the Hood, having shifted its fire to Prince of Wales, Bismarck struck another damaging blow when a shell passed through the lightly armoured space in the superstructure that accommodated Prince of Wales’ command group. The light armour, as intended, did not detonate the shell, nor were the cables from fire control damaged or deranged in their carefully balanced relationship with the predictor, but splinters nevertheless caused heavy casualties. For precious minutes Prince of Wales was under local control as Captain Leach hurried to the auxiliary control station. When he got there, he was faced with the loss of his ready aircraft, not yet launched and now riddled by splinters, and one of his 4 gun turrets disabled by a mechanical casualty and decided to retire into the fog and regroup. Although some hotheads among Lütjens’ staff were eager to follow and “finish off” the British battleship, Lütjens more sensibly declined to tangle further with unknown but substantial torpedo forces and a battleship that, despite the inefficient performance of its main armament, scored three hits on Bismarck. One hit was trivial, but a second had passed through the soft structure of the bow forward of the armour just ahead of the trim waterline without exploding but flooding several compartments, while the third shell, striking water just short of Bismarck, plunged beneath its rather shallow belt to pass through unarmoured hull and burst against the high tensile steel of the torpedo bulkhead, splitting welds to flood Number 4 generator and threaten the Port 2 boiler room. Damage control had little success in recovering the compartments or turbogenerator, but at least contained the flooding and kept the boiler operating. The loss of the machinery compartments damaged mobility somewhat, and speed was cut to 28 knots. Unsuspected at this point was a steady oil leak. Still, Rheinübung was over. Bismarck had to abort, and Lütjens. To justify the effort, decided to make at least some strategic gain by making for Brest.
For his part, Admiral Tovey expected Lütjens to either cash in and head back towards Norway, or head west into the trade routes, where 11 convoys were at sea, the two nightmare scenarios. The Admiralty imagined British ships aborting to refuel, while Bismarck refuelled from oilers hidden along the barren coast of Greenland before rampaging across the shipping lanes. Ramillies was ordered to depart her convoy in the western waters and sail to interpose herself between the enemy and the trade, with Revenge to follow as soon as refuelling at Halifax was complete. Force H, just returned from Gibraltar on a Malta convoy, was summoned into the Atlantic, Rodney, loaded with parts for its American refit, was ordered into action. Three cruisers were disposed in a patrol line in the Norwegian Sea, while 3 others were summoned up from anti-raider patrols. A motley assortment of 3 oilers spread right across the Atlantic were called up. In total, 7 battleships, 2 carriers, 11 cruisers, 10 destroyers, and 6 submarines were now under way.
For Admiral Wade-Walker, the problem was whether Prince of Wales should re-engage, or else join his shadowing force, and he cautiously decided for the latter., sparing his cruisers the worst of the lethal game of hide-and-seek they had been playing. The battleships would exchange fire once more, but the Germans could not shake the British deliberately. It was a powerful illustration of the battleship’s power to support the other naval arms.
Miles to the north, the Home Fleet was running on a converging course. Unfortunately, this convergence might be long delayed. Bismarck and Tovey were running along two legs of a triangle converging towards an interception point somewhere in the western Atlantic, but Bismarck might turn away and make it a stern chase, and Home Fleet was beginning to run low on fuel. Tovey decided to detach Victorious, and send it south to cut off the Bismarck with its much greater engagement envelope. Yet Bismarck (or Eugen) could easily run right into Victorious. At their highest convergence rate, the two ships would cover the difference between the maximum effective air strike range of WWII and gun range in 3 hours. Victorious had armoured protection for just such situations, but a cruiser screen was better protection, and Tovey attached Victorious to Second Cruiser Squadron, the upshot being that the British now had two fast carrier task forces at sea, even if Victorious' ll-trained air group accomplished nothing except to lose all but two of the fighter/reconnaissance Fairey Fulmar fighters of 800Z Squadron to navigation errors.
Victorious' CAG did score, via unintended consequence, Bismarck’s radical manoeuvring and defensive barrage caused renewed flooding in both the bow compartments and the machinery spaces. Lütjens ordered a minor change of course to make directly for the French repair base of St. Nazaire, and now, accidentally, he finally broke contact with Holland. Lütjens himself remained unaware of this. Between 0812 and 0848 GMT, he sent to OB West that he was under continual surveillance by British forces employing “detection equipment with minimum range of 35,000 metres” that severely affected Atlantic operations, vital intelligence had it been true. Considering that he had arrived at his current fix by virtue of a plan that simply assumed that the British had no seaborne radar, and that several intelligence “tells” of Bismarck’s sortie had been ignored, it was about time that someone in the German High Command took a pessimistic stance. It's just a pity that it occurred now, even if British command and control now also broke down, so that Intelligence's accurate fix of his current location and destination was not passed on to Tovey, whose embarked staff was instead only supplied with the raw data, which they managed to misinterpret per worst-case scenario and shaped a course that took them 100 miles further away from Bismarck. Rodney (and Edinburgh), sailing on their own best estimate of an intercept course were closer to the mark, but it was Force H that made the running.
It had already had a busy May for Force H, including a convoy mission towards Malta during which Lieutenant (Air) Mark Somerville was lost in air-to-air combat during a fierce air-sea battle on 8 May. Somerville, a very air-conscious admiral, was still impressed when his air group began flying off Ark Royal at dawn on 26 May in spite of weather blowing 50 knots over the deck and a measured 55 foot rise and fall of the flight deck ends. They had to find Bismarck, and, well, they “had to cut her down,” or she would make Brest and join with the battlecruisers, Hipper, and Eugen. It was another command staff, Coastal Command, directed by old RNAS hand Philip Joubert, that laid down the search pattern that found Bismarck at 10:30. Somerville later reported that his command closed within 16 miles of Bismarck at one point, easily within gun range in better visual conditions, a forceful reminder of the risks entailed when high speed naval forces were manoeuvring in searches.. But it was his Swordfish that scored, a single torpedo hit that found a weak point in the German battleship design (and one repeated in their other capital ships), a weak welded join between stern and main structure. It failed, leaving the battleship’s rudders jammed so seriously that it was not even possible to steer with the propellers. Bismarck was doomed, not that the British knew it.
With his characteristic alacrity, first on the scene was Captain Philip Vian, whose 5 destroyer half-flotilla had recently been detached from a troop convoy to join the hunt. His 32,000 hp, 34.5 knot, 1970 ton, 8 4.7" “Tribal” class destroyers had been specifically designed to deal with enemy raiders without heavy support, but accomplished little except to wear out Bismarck’s gunners. The weather remained too difficult for torpedo action.
Within an hour and a half of sunrise, King George V and Rodney were both up in range of Bismarck and ready to engage. His situation was not comfortable. His ships were very low on fuel, and he knew that German bombers had been on their way since dawn, perhaps within an hour of contact, granted perfect navigation. It was not even inconceivable that they could drive off the British tugs and an oiler now at sea, putting the great battleship in difficulties. But soon after Rodney opened up at 0843, 27 May, it was all, effectively, over. Rodney scored a straddle with the third salvo. King George V got her first straddle and a definite hit off a Type 284 radar range fix soon after. By 0859 both battleships were on target and firing steadily. At 0902, a 16" round from Rodney fell forward of the superstructure, and according to after-the-fact reconstructions, penetrated Bismarck’s thin upper belt to detonate in a space between its lightly armoured weather deck and the main armoured deck. It appears that centralised fire control was now lost Soon after, a turret was penetrated by a British shell, and the fire control centre itself was lost to a massive explosion and fire. In the midst of the action, a shell detonated in the engine spaces, probably not a design failure, since this whole campaign demonstrated the underestimated risk of shorts passing under the belt. After 15 minutes of fighting, Bismarck was a mission kill. The wreck reveals multiple penetrations of even the heaviest armour, not that anyone is likely to care or be surprised save Correlli Barnett. To be sure, Bismarck did not blow up, and it probably sank mostly due to scuttling, but that reflects the fact that it is hard to sink a ship quickly with holes punched above the waterline. Like the Japanese battlecruisers off Guadalcanal, it would probably have floated for hours after the fight had water not been let in somehow.
The final takeaway is that Johnny Horton was right. Okay, Bismarck wasn't the fastest ship ever to sail the seas, and I'm not even sure what “guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees” even means, but he was right to describe this as a campaign in which the entire British people and Royal Navy put out their last efforts, because the fate of the free world depended on them. Rheinubüng could have been a success. A further escalation in the Fall could well have driven the Allies to the wall. And in retrospect the key issues were technological. The Germans could not act within the time window granted by the speed of British radar development. One can also single out their decision to proceed with high rate steam plants. That, I cannot judge so easily. It was a horrible warfighting error, but you build battleships for complicated reasons. Had Germany not gone to war when it did, it might have worked out like America's flirtation with turboelectric; bad naval engineering, good industrial strategy. One thing that a consideration of events should encourage is a revisionist interpretation of the RAF's campaign against the German battlecruisers. Terraine wrote it up as a grand exercise in futilit. But it worked! 

No comments:

Post a Comment