Victory or death

Bismarck

David J Bercuson and Holger H Herwig <em>Hutchinson, 385pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0091795168

There are several modes in which one can consider the epic story of the sinking of the Bismarck, and my own choice is the tragi-romantic. In this treatment, we see the brand-new German battleship, the most formidable afloat, crewed by impeccably trained ex-members of the Hitler Youth, sinking with a single shot near Iceland the elderly British battle-cruiser Hood, the "Mighty Hood", for 30 years the best-known warship of the Royal Navy and the prime public symbol of Rule Britannia. Down from the northern seas and up from the Mediterranean then comes a creaky assemblage of British ships, battleships, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, commanded by imperturbable boyish admirals, equipped with ancient aircraft and ill-functioning guns, to sweep the seas in search of retribution. Until, at last, at point-blank range, amid heaving seas and swirling mists, the British pour shells and torpedoes into the upstart behemoth and send her, impotently defiant to the last, to the bottom of the sea.

Where she has recently, like so many other famous vessels, been visited by film-makers - the immediate cause, perhaps, for the publication of this book about the oft-told but always compelling tale. Its authors are Canadian academics, both consultants for the forthcoming film by James Cameron (of Titanic fame), and their approach is anything but Wagnerian. Here and there, Bercuson and Herwig make efforts towards populism - orders are barked, giant screws churn, mighty bows swing - but in general they are dispassionately efficient and professional. They have used every imaginable German, British and American source; they have read every book published on the subject; they have consulted ships' logs and war diaries, admiralty records, signal files and interrogation reports.

But, in what must surely be the definitive popular reconstruction of the affair, they still confirm the old myth. The personality of the beautiful, 50,000-ton battleship itself seems to have been just as we imagined it, so innately ruthless and technologically brilliant that its commander, Captain Ernst Lindemann, formally ordered that the Bismarck should never be called "she" - "so powerful a ship as this could only be a he . . ." Its crew were marvellously proud and diligent, only quailing a little, it seems, when told by their melodramatic admiral Gunther Lutjens that they would be fighting, to the cry "Victory or death", until their barrels glowed red-hot and their last shell had been fired.

By then the British were gathering in such overwhelming force that death was the almost certain alternative - in the end, more than 2,000 Germans were to drown. Admiral Sir John Tovey (who had merely said, when told that the Hood had been sunk, "All right, no need to shout") had much of the Home Fleet with him. Admiral Sir James Somerville was steaming fast from the Mediterranean ("crashing along towards the party", is how he described it) with his resolute Force H. Yet, as the legend has always told us, victory was desperately hard to achieve. Sometimes Bismarck was lost in the storm and cloud. Sometimes guns jammed. The rickety Swordfish biplanes ("my brave old Stringbags", Somerville called them), with their open cockpits and begoggled pilots, staggered off the tossing decks of their carriers into winds as fast as themselves; once, they attacked one of their own cruisers by mistake. Fuel ran critically short. Churchill wildly ordered that, if necessary, the battleship King George V should be towed into action (the stupidest signal ever made, Admiral Tovey thought).

For far away, as Bercuson and Herwig ably demonstrate, far greater issues than the destruction of a single ship were at stake. The Americans were not yet in the war, and if the Royal Navy lost the command of the Atlantic, whether to U-boats or to surface raiders, Britain might well face defeat before they entered the struggle. Churchill, Hitler and Roosevelt all recognised the fateful, almost symbolical significance of the action: if Bismarck reached the safety of German-occupied France, whether or not she emerged again, her very existence would preoccupy the Royal Navy - as indeed did her sister-ship the Tirpitz, almost until the end of the war.

I do not think anything of great importance is new in this account. It is not a revisionist history. The authors make a great deal of undeclared American participation, notably in the supposed assistance of a US coastguard ship in guiding the torpedo-bombers of HMS Ark Royal to their last and decisive strike, and we may perhaps expect more along these lines in the forthcoming film. Otherwise, it is still more or less as we supposed. The Germans fought with their usual skill and courage. The British displayed their traditional talent for naval distribution and persistence. Hitler was proved right in arguing that money and time would be better spent on building U-boats than on building surface ships, however magnificent. Churchill slept easier. Roosevelt was able to persuade his countrymen that the war was worth fighting. And, after the days of foul weather, gales and mists that had confused the chase and the battle, the sun came out over the North Atlantic.

"Well we have sunk the Bismarck," wrote Somerville to his wife, "and am I tired? Well you're asking me." The Royal Navy, in the last of its immense Nelsonic sweeps, had won. Hood was lost with almost all her sailors, but the ships with the grand old names - Rodney and Ark Royal, Victorious and Prince of Wales - had come out of the fog, grey and unforgiving, to deliver Gotterdammerung.

Jan Morris's most recent book is Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (Faber and Faber)