The Golden Age of Speed

Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English.  On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.

The Book of Speed

One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone).  This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).

But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects.  The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.

The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book.  Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field.  It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well.  It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.

Book of Speed - Speed in Modern Warfare Chapter

That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book.  That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating.  Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.

Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water.  Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text.  And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop.  Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.

It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay.  If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Hirohito’s Pearl Harbor

Nakajima B5N1 Torpedo bomber

Stacy Danielle Stephens is back with yet another fascinating insight into the thought processes of the leaders in WWII.  We love receiving these pieces, as they make everyone think…  this one in particular!


In the spring of 1940, Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, and Rear Admiral Shigeru Fukudome were watching torpedo planes in a training exercise when Yamamoto wondered aloud if a carrier strike against the Americans at Pearl Harbor might be possible.  A long war with the United States could only end in Japan’s certain defeat and likely destruction.  The Japanese government was under no illusions about this.  But Yamamoto anticipated that a surprisingly powerful strike at America’s Pacific Fleet would cripple the US Navy long enough for Japan to secure a number of strategic island chains, forcing the United States to negotiate a settlement.

Japanese Aircraft Carrier

For the next several months, Commander Minoru Genda prepared a preliminary plan, aspects of which were then tested and refined throughout the spring and summer of 1941, although no formal decision was made until September 6th, when an Imperial Conference was brought to a conclusion by Emperor Hirohito’s recitation of a short lyric verse[1] his grandfather, Emperor Meiji, had written almost forty years earlier at the beginning of Japan’s war with Imperial Russia.  All officers and officials at the conference were taken aback.  Not only it was this poetry reading unprecedented, but the Emperor’s intent was not clear.  Meiji’s poem was generally seen as voicing an Emperor’s concern and anxiety over the uncertain fortunes of war.  However, in light of the outcome of that war, one might wonder if Hirohito were, in fact, openly endorsing pacifism and urging diplomacy, or in reality expressing confidence in his military, in spite of their failure to subdue China as handily as he had wished, and tacitly encouraging them to proceed toward a victory which only appeared doubtful at the outset?

Emperor Meiji


Admiral Yamamoto understood the Emperor to mean that the Navy’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor should be considered operational, and immediately set it into motion, so that the fleet would be ready to weigh anchor by November 26th, with the understanding that it could be recalled at any time prior to the first wave of aircraft leaving the carrier decks.

General Hideki Tojo, Minister of the Army, understood the Emperor to mean that the Army’s plan to attack the Philippine Islands, as well as British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, met with approval, and should be finalized, and that all preparations necessary to carry out these attacks, in the event US acquiescence could not be garnered within the next twelve weeks, should be made immediately.

Prime Minister Konoe understood the Emperor to mean that he was determined to avoid war with the United States.  So Konoe renewed his attempts to negotiate the restoration of US oil exports to Japan, although he had no reason to believe any agreement on this matter was possible.


* * *


As he let slip the dogs of war in September of 1941, what was Emperor Hirohito about?  Within four years, his country would be reduced to wreckage strewn upon ashes, and he would not be held responsible.  Had no one heard him cry havoc while those summer days faded into an autumn that would culminate abruptly on a day which would live in infamy?


[1] Across the four seas, all men are brothers.  In such a world, why do the waves rage, the winds roar?

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.