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