Month: May 2014

Which Classics?

British Flag Flying

Today, we’re going to do something that we normally don’t, which is discuss current events, specifically, something going on in the UK, which has global implications (well, global except for the US), and which we believe also opens us to a wider discussion which can be 100% global.  I am referring to the recent decision to include more British-literature (as in literature created in Britain) on the GCSE examinations.  There has been a public outcry (details here) because, in essence, this will mean removing many 20th, century American books from the syllabus.

The global implications arise because the GCSE guidelines are the basis for most of the important international examinations for anyone who is studying English abroad (yes, there are American examinations, but in secondary education, at least, worldwide the British model still rules the roost).  Everything from IGCSEs on are based on this model.

So, do we agree with the critics?  Well yes and no*.

It seems pretty clear that the focus on British literature will leave out many, many worthy books, especially from the 20th century.  Without thinking too hard, The Great Gatsby comes immediately to mind as one of the best pieces of literature ever written in the English language – if I had to rank the 20th century, that one would be at the top of the list.  The Mosquito Coast was on there once, and it will probably get taken off.  Hemingway will also get ignored, which is just silly, and there are many, many more omissions which we are probably not thinking of, but are important.

Of mice and men

Where we disagree is on the books that are causing the outrage: Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The central criticism from this front seems to be that the Literature portion of the GCSE is there to teach kids morality, humanism and how to be a better person.  That if we leave off books that improve us socially, we are doomed to… well, The Guardian isn’t particularly clear on that point, but we are doomed to something!

This is an admirable feeling, as far as it goes, but misguided.  You see, we feel that social studies is a perfectly good place for that kind of thing, and that Literature GCSEs should be about literature, not pushing agendas.  Both Mice and Mockingbird are strongly political books, which is fine, and both strongly humanist and leftist, which is also fine, especially in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a seriously moving book that everyone should read.

musty tomes

But, as literature, they are not the best of the best.  Yes the Steinbeck is more easily defensible in that regard that the Lee, but there are other, much better books and authors that could have been pointed at to justify the anger without being too obvious about the underlying agendas.  If you read the article to the end, there’s even a mention of the Diary of Anne Frank – a must for everyone, but as literature?  Nope.

Anyhow, the discussion is worth having, but there needs to be a little more focus on literary merit, and a little less on the politics behind the decision (and there are a LOT of politics in this, on both sides).  Should other cultures and voices be represented?  Yes, but only when the writing merits it – you have social studies to teach us how a modern human should think, whether you are defending Ayn Rand or Steinbeck!

All thoughts appreciated, especially well-argued disagreement (there are some grays here, convince us!)!

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*Being called “Classically Educated” should have given you a hint that we weren’t exactly going to fall over ourselves agreeing with The Guardian

A Very Different View of the War

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Poster


If, a few weeks ago, you’d asked me what films about contemporary events produced during WWII were like, I’d have mumbled something about a combination of ra-ra morale building and propaganda.  In many cases, and for many countries, I’d have been absolutely right, but the British have always marched to a different drummer, it seems.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)is not a film that could have been filmed in Nazi Germany, and I seriously doubt that it is something that would have been permitted in the US.  In fact, it was filmed in Britain despite a certain Mr. Churchill attempting to stop production and making it difficult for the producers to film.

And yet, years later, we can watch it in its original glorious technicolor, and enjoy the fact that it was filmed.  Only in England…

Colonel Blimp

Of course, why it was not quite popular among the governors of that island is a much more interesting tale than the production itself.  The first clue is in the title.  Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character from the 1930’s who made proclamations such as “Gad, Sir! Lord Bunk is right. The government is marching over the edge of an abyss, and the nation must march solidly behind them!” from various Turkish bath locales.  The cartoon, clearly well-intended, and quite left-leaning (a google image search should find some more examples) was probably not the most popular of motifs by 1942.

The only real link to the cartoon, though, other than the title is that the main character, in his middle age, looks quite a bit like the Colonel in the cartoons, plus the fact that the action starts in a Turkish bath could possibly make it a bit confusing to the modern viewer, but that never detracts from the entertainment value of a film which, in essence, is a bit of a romp.

The second thing that was objectionable to many is that the film portrays a German (and a WWI officer at that) as a likable character. The fact that this German was not a Nazi, in fact was running from the Nazis, seemed to cause little impression amongst the naysayers.

It’s not actually clear why, Specifically, Churchill was against the film, but it was rumored that he thought it was a satire of him.  After production, he promptly banned it for export.

Deborah Kerr

It does seem, however, that resistance was mainly from a few sectors, and audiences enjoyed it, which is unsurprising, as it follows the career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey as he falls in love with three different iterations of Deborah Kerr’s character: once as a young firebrand disobeying orders, once as a mature WWI officer looking for a wife, and once as an older man whose feelings are more paternal towards her – and of outrage towards the actions of her boyfriend in whom, eventually, he sees a reflection of his younger self. 

This is essentially a story of coming of age, of the wisdom of age, and the value of friendship, as shown by our German officer who becomes the good Major-General’s best and oldest friend.

And, for a romp and a romance, it’s surprisingly good at showing what growing old means – and a good way of coping with the realizations one has along the way.

Plus, it’s fun.  We here at CE give it four Schlemmons on our newly introduced five-Schlemmon scale (invented this very to give this movie four Schlemmons on it).  We will be rating all movies on the Schlemmon scale from now on, in honor of the guy who told me how Titanic ends (the ship sinks), and thereby saving me a couple of hours of maudlin lowest-common-denominator awfulness.  We may use the Schlemmons for other things, too, depending on whether we feel like it.

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Classically Educated Looks Forward and the Result is… A Coffee* Mug

Garden of Eternla Delights

Here at Classically Educated, we love to look into the past.  Parting the mists of time is not just educational, and it doesn’t just keep humanity from repeating the past’s errors (although, it doesn’t seem like we’re very good at that), but it’s also fun.  We know we definitely enjoyed the series of articles on the Bismarck – and we are always looking for interesting takes on history.

The present, too, is fascinating, as long as it involves travel to new places or experiences with new groups of people who have interesting, thoughtful takes on life – or who simply cross the street very differently from what you and I might be accustomed to.  Romance is also interesting

But we don’t often look into the future all that much, which is kind of ironic considering that Classically Educated is a blog, with contributors from all over the world, most of whom have never spoken, much less met face to face.  Most have never even been in the same country as the rest.

So let’s look forward – specifically, let’s try to guess what will change people’s lives the most.

It has been said that new communications were going to change our lives fundamentally, and it’s indisputable that they have… except not fundamentally.  Having fingertip access to information and entertainment has created changes that range from the way people learn, to the way people date.  But it hasn’t really changed the fundamental way people interact with each other.  We still make friends with the people we have physical contact with, mainly.  We still – despite Google having the answer to everything – ask ourselves why we’re here, and where we’re going.  We go through teenage angst (and read Stepanie Meyer books), fall in love, get married, get jobs, some people get divorced, and then we die.

We could posit that immortality would be a big-and fundamental-change, but I sincerely doubt that it’s the next one coming down the pipeline.

So we’ll look into the one thing that has been – and will probably continue to be the biggest motor to social change since the Industrial Revolution: production methodology.

Wait, what?

Industrial Revolution London

Bear with me.  Factories were the innovation that began the migration of people from the country to the production centers in a major way.  Factories needed workers, the population was growing, and there was really no need for more mouths to feed in most peasant hovels (yes, this is an insensitive oversimplification, but it is still accurate).

Ford Production Line

Then came Henry Ford, and his production line.  While the clear, obvious consequence of this is that distances for the common man suddenly became much shorter in practice, mass production also meant that people could have stuff, lots of stuff, for reasonable prices – and they could have the same stuff as their neighbors.  This actually did change the way people interacted, and we’ve been living in the automobile age ever since.  Computers are a byproduct of this age, but have served to accelerate it and make it more efficient as opposed to shaking the foundations.  Ditto the internet and smartphones – refinements on the social structures of the industrial/automotive age, not really a huge change except in efficiency (even the supposedly doomed music industry is still around, it seems).

Perhaps the single biggest missed opportunity to really change things so far has been space exploration, but the imbecilic insistence on solving Earth’s problems first has scuttled that until private industry can afford to take humanity’s next step (so, despite his electric cars, I find myself rooting for Elon Musk…).  The gentler, kinder world we live in means that the timid rule the public budgets.  Too bad.

So, what’s next?

We believe that the next big change will be atomized production.  Not just decentralized, but atomized.  Yes, we are still some years from the home nano-factory, but it will get here sooner rather than later, though hopefully not as described in Nancy Kress’ story “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (you can read the first part of the story here).  The first steps – Print on Demand and 3-D printing are already here, refinement will take things to another level, as it always has.

But back to nano.  Just think about it for a second.  When you can produce anything you want at home (or in a communal nano-factory a few blocks away), limited only by the availability of plans and the cost of materials, factories will disappear.  So will the factory worker…  A lot of literature which talks about the proletariat will be tossed out (or more likely, subjected to obvious revisionism), as that word will cease to have its original meaning, at least as regards to the productive part of the value chain.

I actually believe that this will be better in the long run, but a LOT of governments are going to try to block it, especially those that produce tons of stuff…  And if it isn’t the government, it will be the unions.  Countries will suffer revolutions because of this, but at the end of it, humanity will have taken a huge step forward.

Are you ready for that change?

Classically Educated is.  In fact, we’re so enthusiastic about it (assuming most of us survive the cannibalism while we work out the implications) that we have joined the first wave.  We have created a Classically Educated Mug on Zazzle, and anyone else who loves the site, or just the concept of a classical education can buy it here (all photos of you – or your cat – posing with the mug that you send our way will be included on future posts)!

The Completely Awesome Classically Educated Coffee Mug

*We recommend you fill it with tea, which is the correct beverage for reading the classics…  But this, of course, is a strictly non-commercial exercise done for scientific reasons 😉




The Only Conspiracy Theory Book You Need to Read

Foucalt's Pendulum

I was once told by someone extremely wise that the best thing about Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose, is that it didn’t disappear up its own arsehole like so many of his other books.  He’s Irish, so the extra “r” and “e” are his, but he is also a critically acclaimed writer, so it’s necessary to keep his opinion in mind.

Since I actually thought that TNOTR is brilliant on many levels apart from the anatomical, so I proceeded to purchase Foucault’s Pendulum, and place it in my TBR file, where it gathered dust for some time before I finally cracked it open.  And then I couldn’t put it down.

Does it disappear into dark cavities?  Well, yes, I have to admit that it does, a bit.

Is it worth it?  Yes.  You see, the intricate texture of the book, the way it weaves together everything Eco could find on different pseudo-Christian secret societies in history is hugely fascinating, although once Eco starts doing his completist thing, it’s easy to understand why the sheer volume of info can turn people off to the book.  But not me – and, I suspect, not anyone who loves learning about history’s strange little nooks and crannies.

It is, essentially a conspiracy theory book, a kind of Da Vinci Code for deeper thinkers and skeptics (disclaimer: I enjoyed the Dan Brown book, so please feel free to dismiss anything I may say from here on out!), except it seems to take into consideration ALL of the theories that state that there is “more than meets the eye” with regards to where the world’s ultimate power – or at least that in the western world – lies.  It shows you what kind of theories could be born if the regular theorists were also extremely good at research, as opposed to the more feeble-minded exponents that make up the majority of the group.

I have always thought that conspiracy theorists were a bit deluded at best.  At worst, they seem to be the kind of people who can’t bear to face that, when they fail, it is their own fault, and not that of some shadowy power.  If they are powerless, it is because power, riches and glory generally go hand-in-hand with both talent, perseverance and hard work.

Eco seems to share these feelings, but he has a genuine affection for humanity’s weaknesses that comes through in his text, and it is this which makes the deeply-flawed characters in his book come to life.  Yes, everyone in here is a caricature, more an idea than an actual human, but they are ideas that represent the perfect initial conditions for the ultimate in conspiracy theories.  And while the characters are parts of humans, they are extremely human.  We see many of our own hopes, fears and desires painted on the canvas of his good guys and bad guys.

Eco's Cosmic Joke

This book is clearly a Cosmic joke on Eco’s part.  He is certainly poking gentle fun at the kind of people who will twist history and science with a foregone pseudo-scientific conclusion in mind, but one feels that he isn’t necessarily laughing cruelly at them, but more ribbing them affectionately for their own human foibles, but in a way that only a scholarly genius could possibly pull off.

We should also stop to mention that the whole thing is one long series of cultural and literary allusions.  Anyone even slightly widely-read will enjoy the satisfaction of spotting the little nuggets tossed in, almost carelessly, to give the book texture.  The most amazing thing is that the pockets of knowledge break up what is, in essence, a huge speculative history lesson.

And, of course, any book that tosses in an offhand reference to Finnegan’s Wake, while assuming the reader has read and understood it gets major kudos in my book – for sardonic irony if nothing else.

This one is a delight to read.


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Bismarck Excerpt – Final Installment!

Well, with this post, Stacy Danielle Stephens is wrapping up her story of the Bismarck, part of a much larger tale, which, we are certain, will be just as good as this was!  It’s been an honor to be allowed to print this excerpt of her Historical novel, and we, at least, can’t wait to read the rest when it becomes available!

bismarck sinking

After the Bismarck had sunk and Admiral Lutjens was dead, an inquiry by Germany’s Naval High Command[1] ruled that Lutjens, in failing to make for Trondheim by returning through the straits between Iceland and Greenland on the morning of May 24th, was personally responsible for the loss of the Bismarck.  This court of inquiry disregarded the presence of the Norfolk and Suffolk and disallowed their radar.  This court of inquiry ignored the King George V, the Repulse, the Rodney, and the Victorious, all of which, guided by the Norfolk and Suffolk, would have intercepted the Bismarck more easily en route to Trondheim than in the open Atlantic.  This court of inquiry did establish a precedent which continues to this day.  A legion of gainsayers, few of whom commanded any vessel powered by anything larger than an Evinrude, consistently find fault not only with everything Admiral Lutjens did in the last days of his life, but with the man himself.  A more accurate assessment can be discerned in the reticence of his crew.  Among the 115 men who survived, there is not one who wrote a book or article critical of their fleet commander.  Each of them, whenever asked, has said that in light of what Admiral Lutjens knew, and, more importantly, did not know, all his decisions were reasonable, and with the exception of his failure to maintain radio silence, his every action was correct.


* * *


In a television documentary produced fifty years after the sinking of the Bismarck, a crewman of HMS Dorsetshire said that the glory of naval warfare is that your enemy is a monster some miles away.  As you feel the fury leap from your vessel and pour itself out on this enemy, you’re caught up in the wonder of it.  You and your mates are simply and clearly engaging an enormity and destroying it.  When the cease fire order comes, you have a moment to take up your binoculars and asses your work.  Ragged steel torn and burning is an awesome sight, particularly when you know that you have helped to bring it about.  But as you study this scene, admiring your work, you see tiny things emerge from the tumbling walls of flame and smoke.  Fascinated, you watch them scurry across the horror you’ve created.  It isn’t until they leap from the ship, their arms and legs flailing, that you recognize human figures.  Only then do you realize what it is you and your mates have done.

Interviewed in that same documentary, a German sailor said that he had not felt as if he were abandoning ship.  It seemed to him that the Bismarck was a dream from which he had wakened to find himself in a butcher shop that had been bombed.  The men with whom he sailed had all faded away in the light of day, and now, as he struggled through incomprehensible wreckage, what surrounded him was merely cuts of raw meat scattered everywhere.


* * *


Only once did Hitler rail about the sinking of the Bismarck after the fact, and that was in a private conversation with Admiral Raeder.  Those nearest to him noted that he–strangely, for him–gave no sign that it had affected him at all.  But with his nearly impeccable memory and facile recall, and his capacity for detail, he very likely remembered the face of every young sailor who gazed into his eyes with total admiration on that magical, brilliant morning in May when he had toured their ship.  In June of 1941, he issued strict and explicit orders that no other German surface vessel was ever to be put in jeopardy as the Bismarck had been.


* * *

Bismarck today

Beneath three miles of cold atlantic water, the Bismarck, robbed of its eight fifteen inch guns and denuded of its superstructure, rests upright and nearly level.  The stern is broken off, and the lowest arm of the aft deck swastika, where Hitler himself once stood to salute the ship’s complement, has gone missing.  The personal effects of more than two thousand German sailors, mostly boys fresh from Hitler Youth, and all as young as a morning in May, are still inside.


[1] In any navy, such inquiries are normal when a ship is lost.  However, in this instance, one can feel certain that the inquiry was a sham intended to draw Hitler’s attention away from Admiral Raeder’s very questionable decision to send the Bismarck into the Atlantic with only a cruiser to support it.

Bismarck Excerpt – Part 4

So, will we finally sink the Bismarck today?  Read on to find out, in another exciting episode of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ amazing historical novel.

Frederic Wake Walker

Whether Admiral Lutjens’ report had been decrypted[1] or Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker (above), now in command of the British task force, simply guessed that Lutjens hoped to reach St. Nazaire, the Suffolk, Norfolk, and Prince of Wales remained to port and slightly astern of the Bismarck, zig-zigging as they followed.  Shortly after three AM on the 26th, Admiral Lutjens ordered an increase in speed, and brought the Bismarck around in a clockwise circle, placing it almost directly into the path of three ships diverted from convoy escort to assist in hunting it down.  This would not be the only assistance Lutjens would inadvertently render to his enemies.

The Norfolk, Suffolk and Prince of Wales spread out to search for the Bismarck, assuming it had turned southwest, away from the coast of France, but it was now behind its pursuers, and moving further away, having effectively given them the slip.  However, Lutjens failed to realize that his trick had actually worked.  Precisely why is unclear, but bearing in mind that the ship’s radar detection apparatus had previously malfunctioned, one can assume that it was either giving false readings, or wasn’t working at all.  At 7 AM, Lutjens radioed to report that he had failed to escape the Task Force dogging him.  Confused by this message, Naval High Command evaluated the British radio traffic intercepted that morning, and concluded that he was mistaken.  At 8:46 AM, they radioed to inform him of this.  Twenty minutes later, Admiral Lutjens radioed a full report to Naval High Command.  That he should do this makes no sense at all, unless one recalls that the Bismarck had previously experienced radio malfunctions, or unless one remembers that by this time, Lutjens knew that he had been lied to more than once.  He either had not received that transmission, or did not believe it.

Whatever his reasons for sending his rather lengthy report at that moment, it disabused the British–for the most part–of their earlier misapprehensions.  It was obvious to everyone but Churchill, in England, and Admiral Tovey, on board the King George V, that Lutjens was still heading for St. Nazaire, and the ships which had spread out to search for the Bismarck now began to converge on an area to the southwest of Ireland, intending to intercept the Bismarck by the 27th, hopefully before it came within range of Luftwaffe bases in France.

At noon, Admiral Lutjens addressed the crew, first commending them for having destroyed the Hood, then reminding them that the enemy was now seeking revenge.  He either told them or led them to believe that he had received orders to proceed to a French port[2], and concluded with the admonition that they faced either “victory or death!”  This was perhaps an ill-advised remark, but it was an accurate paraphrase of the orders he had received.  Since battle could not be avoided, it was to be conclusive, regardless of the outcome.  Throughout the afternoon and evening, morale deteriorated as the crew’s youthful optimism gave way to a sullen, almost childish, gloom.  Although it was neither the Battleship Potemkin nor an Otto Dix painting, there was a growing realization of ultimate despair.


* * *


On Monday morning (the 26th), the foul weather, which had been of considerable help to the Bismarck up to that point, became a detriment by remaining foul.  At 1025, the Bismarck was informed that support from the Luftwaffe would be delayed until meteorological conditions improved.  At 1030, an American reconnaissance aircraft[3] sighted them.  By noon, a carrier aircraft was following them, just beyond range of their anti-aircraft guns.  Shortly after six PM, a cruiser, HMS Sheffield–which had survived a misguided torpedo attack[4] conducted by aircraft from the Ark Royal that afternoon–began shadowing them.  An hour later, Lutjens radioed–perhaps pointlessly–that the Bismarck’s fuel situation was urgent.

Shortly after 8:30 PM, fifteen Swordfish torpedo planes flew over and beyond the Bismarck, then returned a few minutes later, having at first been misdirected by the Sheffield.  Reports of how many torpedos struck the Bismarck and where they struck vary from one account to another, but all accounts agree that in addition to a variety of damage throughout the vessel, at least one torpedo struck and disabled the rudder.  Subsequent efforts to repair, remove, or disconnect[5] the rudder all failed.  After completing several circles, the Bismarck helplessly settled into a northwesterly course, and Admiral Lutjens slowed to 6 knots, just speed enough to prevent the ship bobbing like a shingle in the rough, stormy waters.


* * *


Admiral Tovey had hoped to attack the Bismarck at dawn, and set his Task Force on a course which would put them west of the Bismarck at sunrise.  During the night, the Bismarck, still tossed by the wind and waves, moved erratically, and fired on any ship that approached.  Tovey decided it would be more prudent to approach directly from the North.  This would allow them only a few hours of engagement before they would have to withdraw to refuel.


* * *


At the Berghof, shortly after three in the morning, Eva heard Major von Below answer the phone.  He listened for a moment, then repeated something slowly as he wrote it down.

“We will fight…  to the last…  believing in you, my…  Fuehrer and with…  unshakeable–yes, got it.  The Fuehrer’s reply?  One moment.”

She heard him set the phone down and wait, as if he were leaving the room to speak with Adi.  After a minute or so, he picked it up again.

“To Admiral Lutjens, I thank you in the name of the entire German nationality.”  He waited briefly.  “To the crew, all of Germany is with you…  what can still be done will be done…  your performance of duty will…  strengthen our nationality in its struggle…”

Eva fell asleep before the call was concluded.  It was not until morning, when she woke, that she grasped the implications of what the Major had said.


* * *


At 3:51 AM, Admiral Raeder radioed confirmation that Hitler had agreed to award The Knight’s Cross to Commander Schneider[6], in recognition for his part in the sinking of HMS Hood, as Admiral Lutjens had requested.  At dawn, High Command radioed to the Admiral that fifty-one bombers sent to assist the Bismarck had taken off between 5:20 and 6:45 that morning.  He doubted they would be of much help in the face of the fifty mile per hour winds surrounding the ship, but asked Captain Lindemann to inform the crew that eighty-one bombers were on their way.  Whether he misspoke, or exaggerated in the interest of morale, is not clear, but the crew was happy to hear of it.  They were under the impression that the Luftwaffe would destroy the British ships approaching, and somehow bring the Bismarck safely into a French port.  Admiral Lutjens was under no such illusion.  Neither was Captain Lindemann.  No longer cheerfully chain-smoking, he had already put on a life jacket and was simply waiting for his ship to be shot out from under his ass.


* * *

Roosevelt Broadcast

On the morning of the 27th, The London Times reported that President Roosevelt’s speech to the Pan-American Union, to be broadcast from the East Room of The White House, would be undergoing substantial last-minute revisions due to “rapidly changing conditions abroad.”  At the moment that report was filed, Roosevelt didn’t know if he would be informing the nation that the USS New York had been sunk, or fired upon, or if Congress might be on the verge of declaring war because it had.

As it happened, none of these dramatic eventualities unfolded.  Even so, in his speech of May 27th, the President announced an unlimited national emergency.  This was the next logical progression in his series of speeches preparing the United States for entry into a war most Americans still did not wish to be involved in at all, let alone to the extent that they already were involved in it.

Without mentioning the Bismarck by name, Roosevelt referred to the Axis Powers’ “desperate attempts to break through to the command of the ocean.”  And without mentioning Charles Lindbergh by name, or America First, he referred to “a small group of sincere, patriotic men and women whose real passion for peace has shut their eyes to the ugly realities of international banditry and to the need to resist it at all costs.”[7]


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[1] German codes used during the war were machine cyphers, all of which could be decrypted by Bletchley Park.  However, the encrypting machines on a ship were much larger than those on an airplane, and so Kriegsmarine messages used a more complex encryption pattern, requiring a greater length of time to be spent decoding them.  Consequently, German naval transmissions were only decrypted when there were no concurrent Luftwaffe transmissions from which the naval message could be inferred.  This has led to a widespread and erroneous belief that the German Naval Code had not been broken.

[2] Lutjens had received no such orders.

[3] Also nominally on a training mission.

[4] The magnetic detonators had failed.  Consequently, contact detonators were used  in the later attack on the Bismarck.

[5] Had the rudder been blown off, the Bismarck could have turned by reversing the spin of one propeller.

[6] Raeder was lying.  He didn’t expect Schneider or Lutjens to be alive by the time the Fuehrer woke, but guessed that he would approve giving the medal posthumously.

[7] Roosevelt’s statements should not be construed as hyperbole.  He was not ignorant of what was already being done to Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.  Furthermore, he had been fully advised of Germany’s atomic research program, and had every reason to believe that Hitler would have atomic weapons by 1950, or perhaps as early as 1945.

Bismarck Excerpt – Part 3

 We continue in our efforts to sink the Bismarck today.  Part 3 of the excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ fascinating historical novel.

HMS Prince of Wales

With its guns malfunctioning and having sustained no small amount of damage, the Prince of Wales, dodging the whirlpool of scrap that had been the Hood, managed to put three substantial hits into the Bismarck before turning away from the battle at 6:13 AM.  Captain Lindemann wanted to pursue it, feeling it was nearly destroyed.  Admiral Lutjens, however, had to make sense of the orders he had received, and make sense of the orders he had to give.  The Bismarck was tilting, and damage control was thus far losing their fight against the water coming in.  The British had six battleships and four aircraft carriers operating in the North Atlantic, and Lutjens now realized that all these ships, along with dozens of smaller vessels, were converging on the Bismarck.  He recognized that his mission had changed.  Convoys were now the least of his concerns.  His only responsibility, perhaps for the rest of his life, was to bring the Bismarck home.  Since this would necessarily involve fighting their way out of an encirclement, neither fuel nor ammunition could be wasted on a crippled vessel, particularly as it might be attempting to lure them into a trap.  The Prince of Wales was allowed to flee to safety.

* * *

In his novel, The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson mentions a joke that actually made the rounds after the First World War.

In 1919, aboard a transport ship of former German prisoners of war, one Fritz suddenly says to a British sailor, “Your King is an ugly, syphilitic idiot.”  The limey makes no response.  Fritz says, “Every man in the Royal Navy is no man at all, but a pansy.  Every one of you is a repugnant flaming homosexual.”  Still, the limey says nothing and does nothing.  Fritz, quite pleased with himself, leans against the rail, clears his throat, and spits into the water.  Instantly, the limey grabs Fritz by the collar and cold cocks him.  In a few minutes, Fritz, supine on the deck, recovers his consciousness.

“Every man is entitled to his opinion,” the limey then explains to him, “but no one will spit in our sea without regretting it.”

* * *

It had been unusually wet and chilly throughout the first three weeks of May, but had finally turned warm, although the rain became even more frequent in the final week.  Still, we felt that if rain were the only thing falling from the sky, it was a good day, so we set out for Marshall & Snelgrove.  It was just a little past nine that we noticed something in the air, perhaps; a feeling that swept around us.  The traces of conversation we overheard were no longer casual, and people were asking, “What?” and “Have you heard?”  Finally, we overheard someone say, quite clearly, “Jerry sunk the Hood with his new dreadnought.”

For a few moments, I was afraid Ellie would lean over and vomit on the street.  I had never seen her so shaken.

Initially, I was surprised that the loss of the Hood stirred so much emotion in London.  Yes, one thousand four hundred and fifteen men had died in a matter of minutes, but this was actually seventy-one fewer deaths than London had experienced in a single night not three weeks earlier.  There was no doubt that the men of the Hood had died courageously in the line of duty, but neither death nor duty nor the cost of one’s devotion to it had seemed particularly remarkable to me.  And although I wouldn’t have called them bloody cowards, hadn’t the crew of the Hood gotten off rather easy, after all?

I soon realized that in addition to sympathy for the sailors’ families, there was a universally held feeling, so profound it was hardly mentioned, that in sinking the Hood, the crew of the Bismarck had, in effect and for all intents and purposes, sworn out and subscribed to their own death warrants.

* * *

Admiral Raeder

At the Berghof that morning, when Adi had received a telephone call from Admiral Raeder, Eva noticed that he betrayed no emotion.  When he had rung off, he simply asked himself, “Why hasn’t he tried to get out of there?  Why hasn’t he turned around?”  She remembered what Adi had said to Admiral Lutjens upon boarding the Bismarck a few weeks earlier–”On land, I am a hero, but at sea, I am a coward.”  She saw now that although he had laughed at the time, he had not really been joking.

* * *

The hole in the port bow was too large to be plugged.  The pumps which should have alleviated the problem were themselves damaged beyond repair.  Hoses connected to other pumps were inadequate.  The crisis could only be resolved by intentionally flooding aft compartments on the starboard side, tipping the ship backwards to raise the hole in front above the waterline until canvas matting could be secured over it to slow the influx of water.

The same shot which had caused that hole had also severed a fuel line, so that 1,000 tons of fuel in the forward storage tank could not be pumped to the boilers.  This, too, was beyond repair, and attempts at an improvised solution failed.

A larger, lower fuel tank had been punctured.  That fuel, contaminated by sea water, would be useless.  Furthermore, the leaking fuel left a slick that was visible at close range in the overcast, and would be readily sighted in full sun, if the overcast cleared, at very great distances, or at any altitude, pointing directly at the Bismarck and revealing its position to any ship that crossed its path, or any aircraft that came within a few miles.

Two of the four boiler rooms had been hit, one flooding so deeply that it had to be abandoned.  The second, still functioning, could not be relied upon indefinitely.

The radar equipment had been damaged, and was now inoperable.  The Bismarck would have no advance notice that another vessel was approaching, unless they were lucky enough to intercept radio transmissions.  However, they were not yet aware that their radio was malfunctioning intermittently.

The German Naval Intelligence reports given to Admiral Lutjens had been dangerously inaccurate at best, and perhaps were nothing more than outright lies.  He now knew that any further intelligence reports he might receive were devoutly to be ignored.

On the morning of May 24th, the Bismarck was already in serious trouble, although with any bit of luck, it could make St. Nazaire, on the West coast of France, where repairs could be made, and the decision to venture back into the Atlantic would not be Admiral Lutjens’ responsibility.  He remembered what Hitler had said to him the day of the inspection, that the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy could not be disregarded, and he vowed that he would never again lightly dismiss any opinion of the Fuehrer.

The crew, emotional youngsters ecstatic with their first success–and that an achievement beyond anything they would have hoped for–had the mistaken impression that they were still under way toward the Atlantic convoy routes.  This misconception was good for their morale, so the Admiral allowed them to linger in it, delaying the necessary course change until almost two o’clock that afternoon.  At 6:00 PM, he ordered the Prinz Eugen, which hadn’t taken any damage, to continue the original mission as well as it could without the assistance of the Bismarck, which turned and fired at the British cruisers shadowing them, allowing the Prinz Eugen to depart unobserved.

* * *

USS New York

At that same moment, the USS New York, one of the two oldest battleships still in use by any navy, was steaming toward the Bismarck.  This was not by coincidence.  Nominally on a training exercise in the North Atlantic, Captain J. G. Ware, in command of the New York, had received written orders requiring him to observe all protocols appropriate to vessels of a neutral country.  Verbally, and in the utmost confidence, he had been instructed to render all possible assistance to the British, and to afford the Bismarck every opportunity to fire on his ship.  The sinking of an American battleship, or the loss of any of its crew, could prompt a formerly reluctant congress to declare war on Germany, perhaps without President Roosevelt requesting it.  At that point, not even Charles Lindbergh could have talked them out of it, nor did it seem likely that he would wish to.

Hitler had given specific instructions that no German vessel was to fire on an American vessel under any circumstances.  He had no desire to undermine the efforts of America First.  Admiral Raeder, however, had made it clear to all officers of the Kriegsmarine that American nonsense was not to be tolerated.

Although neither Adolf Hitler nor the United States Congress would acknowledge it, the two nations had been at war since April 9th, 1941[1], when President Roosevelt authorized the occupation of Greenland by United States forces, in order to preclude the installation of U-boat bases and the construction of airfields in what was, with the surrender of Denmark a year earlier, German territory.  Viewed in retrospect, it seems unlikely, but had Germany retaliated, Roosevelt might have faced impeachment for involving the United States in a war without the consent of Congress.  He considered it a risk worth taking.  Operating from Greenland, the Nazis could have struck at New York City.

Officially, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Modoc was patrolling the coast of Greenland to enforce the neutrality unilaterally imposed by the United States, and would leave the coast to search for survivors of merchant ships attacked by U-boats.  At 6:37 PM on May 24th, the ship’s log noted that a squadron of Swordfish biplanes circled overhead before flying toward a “large unidentified man-of-war.”  Crewmen on the Modoc saw the leading aircraft flash a recognition signal, and saw their own signal operator flash a message back to the British flyers.  Surreptitiously, the Modoc had been shadowing the Bismarck.

* * *

Approximately one half hour after the Prinz Eugen had left them, the men of the Bismarck saw aircraft approaching in the narrow layer of sky between the sea and the heavy clouds just above it.  Except for the torpedoes each of them carried, these aircraft appeared comical[2].  They moved so slowly that one wondered how they stayed aloft.  In contrast to a Messerschmitt, they seemed not to move at all.  Still more astonishing was the fact that the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft gunners were unable to hit these laughable anachronisms[3] which hung in the air like baubles suspended over an infant’s crib.

A crewman of the Bismarck later said that he believed it was the last torpedo launched which struck the ship, and it appeared to him that the ship had actually steered into that torpedo’s path while dodging another.  The ship itself was not damaged by the torpedo, although one crew member was killed and five others injured.  The zig-zagging undertaken to avoid the torpedos, however, had loosened the material covering the hole in the port bow, and ruptured the previously damaged bulkhead of a boiler room, so that it, too, flooded, and had to be abandoned.

Assisted by a ridiculously small American ship, a squadron of equally ridiculous aircraft flown by men on their first combat mission had utterly failed.  And yet the Bismarck was now seriously crippled.  Still, Admiral Lutjens felt that he could bring the ship safely to St. Nazaire, if there were no worse run of luck awaiting them.

For the sake of morale, he said nothing about the number of British ships he was sure must now be seeking the Bismarck; not even to Captain Lindemann.  The Captain, also for the sake of morale, told the crew that five of the attacking aircraft had been shot down.  No one questioned this.  Not even the anti-aircraft gunners, who had seen for themselves that not a single plane had been hit.

The crew of the Bismarck was young and naive.  A more experienced crew, such as that on a U-boat, would have known that so much bullshit portended no good for them.


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[1] Two days later, the USS Niblack released depth charges against a sonar contact which they believed to be a U-boat.  The Niblack was en route to pick up the 63 crewmen of a Dutch freighter which had been sunk a few hours earlier by U-52.

[2] Although the Swordfish  torpedo plane looked nothing like a doghouse, it is the sort of aircraft one would imagine Snoopy flying in pursuit of the Red Baron.

[3] Other than divine intervention, three explanations have been put forward to account for this odd fact.  One argument contends that the Bismarck’s AA guns were automated to track moving aircraft, and that this automation caused them to fire ahead of the slow-moving Swordfish.  Another argument is that they flew below the lowest angle the guns could reach.  The third possibility is that the Bismarck’s zig-zagging made the gunners’ task impossible. 



Bismarck Excerpt – Part 2

HMS Hood

Today, we continue to track the last days of the Bismarck in this excerpt of a sweeping historical novel by Stacy Danielle Stephens.  The Plot, as they say, thickens!

Admiral Holland, commanding the task force which included The Hood, The Prince of Wales (a battleship so new that civilian contractors were still on board), and several smaller ships, might have chosen to wait prudently for the two German ships to meet his, but decided instead that it would be better to intercept the Bismarck.  This may have been reckless pride, or a justifiable confidence, or simply a willingness to do his duty by promptly bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Technically a battle cruiser, the Hood was slightly larger than the Bismarck, and slightly faster.  It, too, had eight fifteen-inch guns.  For twenty years, HMS Hood had been a key player in the British Empire’s public relations program.  It had toured the world, demonstrating to everyone who saw it that the Royal Navy was, and always would be, everywhere, and verifying what Mussolini himself had once observed: No one comes or goes anywhere unless the British have first said that he may.

On the morning of May 24th, 1941, the crew of the Hood anticipated an awful battle in which superior seamanship–a legendary attribute of the Royal Navy–would prove decisive.  They could have felt little doubt that the Bismarck would go down somewhere to the west of Iceland later that morning.  In addition to their task force, there were also two cruisers, the Suffolk and Norfolk, behind the Bismarck, precluding its escape.

* * *

At 5:27 AM the Germans noted the smoke plumes of two approaching vessels, which they assumed to be another pair of cruisers sent to assist the Norfolk and Suffolk in shadowing them.  Admiral Lutjens had been ordered to slip out into the Atlantic.  His mission was to disrupt convoys and destroy shipping.  He had been explicitly instructed to avoid battle if he could; but he had also been advised that if battle could not be avoided, he was not to enter into it timidly, and under no circumstances was he to withdraw from an inconclusive battle.  He could turn away from these cruisers now, and attempt to elude the four cruisers that would then be following his task force.  Or he could make for these cruisers, and attempt to sink them.  Either way, if things went badly, it was he alone who would face a court martial for failing to adhere to his essentially contradictory orders.  This exasperating contrariness was in the nature of orders given to any fleet commander in any navy.

Admiral Lutjens

Hedging his bet, Admiral Lutjens ordered a forty-five degree turn to starboard.

* * *

In Spain, I had learned something about modern artillery methods while translating for American gunners relying on Spanish spotters.  In the era of smooth-bore muzzle-loading cannon, artillerymen would adjust their firing angle for distance, but always saw for themselves what they were shooting at.  The invention of breech-loading pieces with long rifled barrels made it possible to fire a weapon at targets beyond the line of sight.  A forward spotter was necessary to identify and locate the target.  If the target had not been hit on the first shot, the spotter would inform the gun crew of the distance and angle by which the shot had missed, and the crew would adjust accordingly.  Accuracy, and with it success in combat, requires a quick facility with trigonometric functions.  On land, with a stationary target two or three miles distant, this is difficult enough.  At sea, with a firing platform that moves up and down on the waves, and targets moving laterally at a fairly brisk speed and distances of ten miles or more separating combatants–an error of one fiftieth of a degree will put a shot several hundred yards either side of a target–the necessary skill rivals that of a cardiac surgeon.

* * *

In order to hurl a three-quarter ton projectile a distance greater than seven miles, the barrel of the gun must be at a fairly steep angle to horizontal.  When this projectile reaches its target, it will be descending at an even steeper angle.  Aware that the speed of the Hood was only possible because its deck armour was ridiculously thin, Admiral Holland thought it best to close with the Bismarck as rapidly as possible, so that the majority of shells striking the Hood would arrive in a  horizontal trajectory, and be unlikely to pierce the deck.

Approaching the German task force, Admiral Holland mistook the Prinz Eugen, which was the closer of the two ships, for the Bismarck, and ordered that all fire be directed at it.  The Captain of the Prince of Wales, upon recognizing the Admiral’s error, countermanded the order, so it was his ship which actually fired on the Bismarck first.

* * *

The average age of the Bismarck’s crew was twenty-one.  Few of them had served on any other ship, and even fewer had ever been on the Atlantic, or seen any hostile action.  Any one of them could have distinguished an aircraft carrier from a tugboat, but it was the gunnery officers–when they saw the flash of fourteen and fifteen inch guns–who realized that these British ships were not cruisers.  And it was a gunnery officer who first shouted, “The Hood!  It’s the Hood!”

Admiral Lutjens, not wishing to explain to Admiral Raeder how it happened that he had compromised his mission by fighting an avoidable battle with a pair of British cruisers, had not given an order to either open or return fire.  Now that the Bismarck had been hit, and he had heard positive identification that it was HMS Hood–The Hood!–approaching, he assumed that the second British ship was the King George V, and he realized that if he survived this impending action, he may have to explain to Hitler how he had lost the largest battleship in the world by accidentally placing it in the path of the two enemy craft most able to sink it.

At this point, Captain Lindemann allegedly said, “I refuse to have my ship shot out from under my ass!”  Within moments, the Bismarck’s eight fifteen inch guns fired on the Hood.  The sound of this first salvo was heard in Reykjavik, more than three hundred miles away.  Six minutes later[1], the men of the Bismarck saw what one described as a ball of flame so huge it “seemed near enough to touch” and another described as “a pillar of black smoke reaching into the sky.”  A hurricane of debris–some of it molten–filled the air, and then wreckage surrounded the space where the Hood had been a moment earlier.  Other than that pulverized debris and fragmented wreckage, all that remained of the Hood was tons of steel plunging toward the ocean floor and three men thrust to the surface by a subsequent explosion.

* * *

Wreck of the Hood - Bow

Conventional wisdom holds that the Hood was sunk by a shot that was, consistent with one’s frame of reference, either very lucky, or very unlucky.  For the crew of the Hood, that shot was misfortune at its most extreme.  For the gunnery officers and gunners of the Bismarck, it was only the nearly instantaneous realization of their success that had been unexpected.  They had practiced sinking the Hood any number of times.

In the battle of Jutland, twenty-five years earlier, three ships identical to the Hood had been sunk in much the same way.  It was fortunate for the Germans that the Hood had been built before their proficiency at long-range naval engagements was a given.  Other than that, putting a shot precisely where you want it to fall involves very little luck.


[1] 5:57 AM  By this time, four dozen shells had been fired at the Hood, although the number that actually struck may have been as few as three.  A gunnery officer on the Bismarck saw a shell penetrate the deck of the Hood, but concluded that it was a dud.  That shell had landed in the magazine, amid dozens of shells weighing three quarters of a ton each.  It almost certainly detonated every shell it contacted, and each of these shells would have detonated adjacent shells.  In a matter of seconds, every shell in the magazine had exploded.  Investigations by the Admiralty concluded only that the Hood had broken apart, with both sections submerging within a minute as they rapidly filled with water.

Bismarck Excerpt – Part 1


Contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens returns to Classically Educated.  I’m sure you remember her post on Zeppelins (and if you haven’t seen it, please remember that Zeppelins are so cool that you will hate yourself for not reading it).  Stacy is a writer and publisher, and we have the honor of having been allowed to print an excerpt of her forthcoming historical novel.  In the following few posts, we join WWII in progress, and join a legendary ship, too.  Consider this episode the teaser!


In his memoirs, written just a few years before he died, Otto von Bismarck said that a man could only float with the current of events and steer.  The ironically prophetic quality of this sentiment would become all too clear in May of 1941.

* * *

On November 16th, 1935, Blohm & Voss Shipyard, of Hamburg, was awarded a contract for the construction of Battleship F, with an official displacement of 35,000 tons.  Work began on July 1st, 1936.  On February 14th, 1939, the ship was named The Bismarck during its launching ceremony.  Placed under the command of Captain Ernst Lindemann the following spring, the Bismarck was commissioned on August 24th, 1940.


Captain Lindemann was described by everyone who met him as a cheerful chainsmoker, and by everyone who knew him as both very industrious and highly conscientious.  He had entered Murwik Naval Academy in 1914, but never formally graduated, because the whole class was put on sea duty in 1915.  By 1918, he was ranked as second in his class.  After the war, he served as both a staff officer and gunnery officer on several different ships, and as an instructor at gunnery school.  In 1938, he was promoted to Chief of Naval Training, and was later given command of the Naval Gunnery School.  There may well have been no other man in Germany so fully qualified to command the Bismarck.

On May 5th, 1941, Admiral Raeder, having avoided any questions from Hitler[1] by simply avoiding Hitler himself, decided that the Bismarck and its crew were ready to sortie into the North Atlantic, on a mission to raid commerce[2], even though the only other ship available to form a task force was a cruiser, the Prinz Eugen.  Late in the morning on the 18th, the two ships, under the command of Admiral Lutjens, left their Baltic port and headed west.  Because the Bismarck had briefly run aground the first time it went through the Kiel canal, it now left the Baltic by the longer course along the coast of Sweden.  Although the Swedes were officially neutral, the British Spitfire which spotted the vessels near Bergen, Norway, on May 21st somehow knew where to find what it had been looking for.  That night, the crews of both ships saw anti-aircraft guns firing from the Norwegian coast, but had no idea they were the intended targets of a failed RAF bombing mission.  Nor had they any idea that HMS Hood was already on its way to meet them.


[1] It is generally believed that had Hitler been fully aware of the risks involved, he would have expressly forbidden the Bismarck to enter the Atlantic without the Tirpitz.  Raeder hoped to garner an increase in the  navy’s budget by impressing Hitler with what the Bismarck could accomplish.

[2] The smaller German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst had successfully sunk twenty-two merchant ships earlier that year.