Battleship Bismarck: A Design and Operational History

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

The battleship Bismarck is one of the most-written about World War II Nazi German capital ships (Admiral Graf Spee and Tirpitz are close seconds). Eliminating USNS City of Bismarck (JHSV-9), often cited as Bismarck (and named after Bismarck, North Dakota, USA) and other specious references in WorldCat, there are nearly 450 citations to published books or monographs documenting the history of the German Battleship Bismarck  www.worldcat.org/search?q=Bismarck+ship&qt=results_page.

Construction began 16 November 1935 at the Blohm & Voss Shipyard, Hamburg, with the keel laid down 1 July 1936, launching 14 February 1929, commissioning 24 August 1940, and scuttling (or sinking) 27 May 1941; “Who sank the Bismarck, the British or the Germans?” is a question that has perplexed naval and military historians. The authors provide the definitive answer in “Appendix D.” Bismarck had a brief eight-month career under Captain Ernst Lindemann with only a single eight-day offensive operation to her credit (18-27 May 1941). Four officers and 111 enlisted men survived; 2,092 officers and crew perished. 

Bismarck’s design, construction, and operational history are recounted in the massive, 6.7 lb., 621-page encyclopedic volume under review here. In 26 chapters augmented by 191 illustrations (images, plans, and maps — some in color), 267 tables, 607 scholarly endnotes, and five appendices, the four contributors have collaborated professionally over 56 years in order to document the battleship’s history. In addition, there is a valuable “Selected Bibliography” with 95 Primary Sources (American, British, and German documents) and 38 interviews and correspondence – mostly drawing upon survivors’ accounts; and 121 Secondary Sources (98 books, 12 articles, and six journals) accompanied by an extensively detailed 20-page “Index.”     

The four contributors share one fundamental characteristic – all are long-time members of the Marine Forensics Committee of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. William H. Garzke Jr. is a 1960 graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering and earned his MS degree in applied mathematics from Adelphi University. Robert O. Dulin Jr. is a 1961 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who earned his MS in naval architecture and marine engineering from MIT. Garzke and Dulin co-authored the classic “Battleships trilogy” (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1976-95), dedicated to the battleships of World War II. William J. Jurens spent his working career teaching engineering graphics at the university level, and currently serves as an associate editor for Warship International. James Cameron is a well-known Canadian filmmaker and a deep-sea explorer with a long-time scientific interest in Bismarck. After the wreck of Bismarck was discovered in June 1989, the authors served as technical consultants to Dr. Robert Ballard, who led three trips to the site. James Cameron contributed a chapter which provides a comprehensive overview of his deep-sea explorations on Bismarck. This and other chapters are illustrated with his teams’ remarkable color photographs of the wreck annotated the reader with compelling, informative captions.

The chapters are chronological arranged. For summarization, I have organized them into four groups. Chapters 1-5 provide essential political and military background. “1: The Origins of the Battleship Bismarck” summarizes the Versailles Treaty of 1919, war reparations, the Washington Naval Conference of 1921, and Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935. In addition, designs for battleships, armaments, and propulsion were developed and finalized by the early 1930s, mostly with covert funding.  In“2: Bismarck Joins the Kriegsmarine” the construction of Bismarck and sister ship Tirpitz are documented and specific details as to armament, armor, propulsion plant, hull characteristics, radar and gun control, habitability (crew and officers’ quarters) are detailed,  as well as her trials, final outfitting, and combat training. The run-up to war, naval strengths and weaknesses, Plan Z, U-boat warfare, British codebreaking, the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic, and American Lend-Lease destroyers transferred to the Royal Navy, are reviewed in “3: German Naval Developments.” Included is a brief description of the Battle of the River Plate and the loss of Admiral Graf Spee by scuttling after major engagements with British warships off Montevideo in December 1939 (pp. 88-92). “4: Prelude to Operation Rheinübung” provides a synopsis of several German plans: Operation Sea Lion (the invasion of Britain), Operation Berlin (the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sorties), and shifts in strategic emphasis with the deployment of U-boats and German raiders Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper to attack Atlantic convoys. With this background, Grand Admiral Raeder and his staff, including Admiral Lütjens, planned Operation Rheinübung.

In chapter 5, “The Royal Navy in 1941,” the authors review the strengths and weakness of Germany’s adversary which included seven battleships, three battle cruisers, four aircraft carriers (including Ark Royal and Victorious), and 35 cruisers. Brief biographies of three key British naval officers are also recorded: Admiral Sir John Torres (commander of the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow), Captain John Leach (captain of Prince of Wales), and Admiral Sir James Somerville (commander of Force H in Gibraltar). Chapters 6-13 recount the exploits of Bismarck and initial combat engagements. “6: Operation Rheinübung Commences” recounts the orders and depositions of German capital ships (damage to Gneisenau and Prince Eugen), training and systems testing, training problems, and pre-deployment operations, led to the final assembly of the German force at Cape Arkona on the island of Rütgen on 19 May and breakout from the Baltic the next day.  Swedish surveillance of the force was passed along to the British. “7: Bismarck’s Norwegian Interlude and the British Reaction” focuses on Bismarck, Prince Eugen, and their destroyer escort that reached Bergen Norway on 21 May; their arrival was noted by British RAF Spitfire aerial reconnaissance. Immediately, Prince of Wales and Hood were dispatched from the Home Fleet along with Victorious (carrying Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers) and Force H and the First Cruiser Division deployed from Gibraltar. President Roosevelt had promised assistance so that US Navy battleships New York and Texas, already on patrol in the North Atlantic, were alerted.       

“8: Prelude to Battle” documents the German breakout into the North Atlantic. At this point in time, Hitler was notified of Operation Rheinübung but was also contending with the revelation that Rudolf Hess had just unexpectedly flown to flown to Scotland and that the planned German invasion of Crete had begun. Hitler apparently had reservations about Bismarck’s breakout and the knowledge that the British had mined areas of the Denmark straits north of Iceland. 

“9: Contact!” traces the movements of battleships Hood, Prince of Wales and cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk to intercept Bismarck. The Germans were having difficulty with their radar, radio, and steering rudder, while the Americans provided 12 PBY Catalina aircraft to the British as scout planes. An “Enemy in sight” message was broadcast by Prince of Wales and the Germans would soon learn of their intelligence failure regarding the location of British capital ships as both Hood and Prince of Wales unexpectedly appeared on 24 May. The authors describe the situation in the German ships prior to the engagement and battle plans as well as the attack that lead to Chapter 10 “The Destruction of HMS Hood.” There is a summary of the 18 salvoes fired at Bismarck by Prince of Wales and the fateful moment when Hood was “blown up” when cordite ignited in three aft magazines. Only three men survived from Hood’s 1,418 officers and men; eyewitness accounts of the ship’s “quick demise” are reported.  In addition, Prince of Wales was temporarily disabled as the Battle of the Denmark Strait broke off. In “11: Aftermath” recounts the British decision not to pursue, due to seven hits on Prince of Wales by Bismarck and Prince Eugen, so that the British ship retired to dry dock for repairs in Iceland.  Bismarck suffered two serious shell hits; Prince Eugen was undamaged. The authors offer summaries of their maritime forensic analyses and images of the damage to Hood from the 2001 and 2002 underwater expeditions (the latter by James Cameron who provides magnificent color images. In “12: Decisions,” a detailed damage assessment of Bismarck records the loss of 1,000 of fuel and an oil trail, plus destruction to 50% of her electrical system. Lütjens was forced to develop a new plan of action following a damage control estimate, observing that British radar was “unexpectedly efficient”; the German Naval Command reaction is also documented. Likewise, British Admiralty deployments of Force H, and other craft – some pulled from troop convoy duty – were dispatched to hunt Bismarck. The force now included five battleships, two battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, and 11 cruisers (Cruiser Divisions One and Two). Fuel losses by Bismarck, the sinking of German supply ships and tankers, and the initiation of Operation Barbarosa (the German invasion of Russia), and issues of coordinating with U-boats limited the Kriegsmarine options. “13: Torpedo Attack by Victorious Aircraft” by nine Swordfish torpedo bombers on 24-25 May resulted in one hit that damaged the area of Bismarck’s starboard boilers, but she was able to evade her pursuers and detached Prince Eugen. American naval (New York and Texas) and air assistance played a role, while the USCG Cutter Modoc was an “uninvited spectator” to the battle.

Chapters 14-23 detail the rediscovery and fate of Bismarck. In Chapter 14 “Bismarck Strives to Escape,” the reader learns of the plan to sail to St. Nazaire on the French coast for repairs, the deployment of 11 U-boats, British intelligence intercepts from U-110, and a fateful radio transmission from Bismarck. “15: Discovery” documents Force H and the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla’s role and that of a Coastal Command PBY Catalina  (commanded by US Ensign Tuck Smith) in locating Bismarck. There is a detailed account of the British maneuvers for attack and the inadvertent and unsuccessful attack on Sheffield by Swordfish from Ark Royal – 11 duds or misses. Chapter 12, “The Fateful Torpedo Attack,” undertaken by 15 Swordfish from Ark Royal is presented in great detail. Both German and British maneuvering, shelling, and damage control reviews of this phase of the battles are presented. Notably, Bismarck was hampered by problems with her 105-mm antiaircraft guns. Three torpedo hits were recorded, one on Bismarck’s starboard rudder; four aircraft were damaged.  In “17: Crippled,” the 1989 Ballard and 2002 Cameron Expeditions to the Bismarck are documented by color images and line drawings. The figures illustrate shell and torpedo damage, resulting flooding, and details of damage to the steering gear, rudder, and propeller blades. German attempts to repair the steering controls were unsuccessful due to rudder damage, sealing her fate; armament, propulsion, and fire-control systems remained intact. “18: The British Destroyers Attack” recounts the events of the evening of 26 and early morning of 27 May. Bismarck’s radar had failed and the weather worsened with heavy rain, squalls, and cloud cover. Action assessments indicate that submarines U-74 and U-556 were ineffectual and Sheffield and the ships comprising British Fourth Destroyer Flotilla were very low on fuel but that the latter suffered only splinter damage.

Chapters 19-23 provide nearly 70 detailed pages of almost minute-by-minute accounts on German repair attempts, the arrival of the cruiser Norfolk, Force H,  and the British positioning for the final battle: “19: The Final Battle: Prelude,” “20: The Final Battle: 0847-0930,” “21: The Final Battle: 0930-1021.” German and British perspectives (the latter from King George V, Rodney, Norfolk, and Dorsetshire), augmented by Cameron Expedition images and descriptions from 2002, document the encounter. “Much of the battle took place at a devastating close range,” notably the Bismarck suffered from ten underwater hits by Swordfish from Victorious and Ark Royal, and shells from Prince of Wales. The authors provide a comparative forensic account of the damages to the USS South Dakota similarly struck 22-23 November 1942. “22: The Final Battle: Commentary” provides a forensic assessment of damage to Bismarck and heavy damage to British battleship Rodney. In “23: Survival and Aftermath,” the authors report that fires and heavy seas swept many Bismarck survivors overboard before she capsized to port; heavy oil impeded swimming, and all wooden cutters and whaleboats had been destroyed by shelling. Hence, 2,092 officers and men died; only 115 of Bismarck’s crew survived; defying orders, cruiser Dorsetshire picked up 85 and destroyer Maori 24 (one died from his wounds), three men escaped and were picked up by U-74, and two were rescued by a German weather ship. Bismarck’s spotted black-and-white cat was rescued by destroyer Cossack. Prince Eugen had escaped and remained in the Atlantic before returning unscathed to Brest, France. Remarkably, the builders model of Bismarck was boxed and buried by her builders, Blohm & Voss, and survived the war intact — the images of this model are spectacular.

Three final chapters complete the narrative. “24: The Wreck” recounts Robert Ballard’s initial search for the wreck in 1988 and his discovery in 1989 as well as James Cameron’s 2001 and 2002 expeditions. The detailed descriptions and color images provide forensic evidence on the condition of the wreck, the debris field, the four detached gun turrets, impact on the seabed, downwash, trough, slide scar, and avalanche, as well as “rusticles” (first seen on Titanic, these are bioconcretions found on deep ocean wrecks resulting from microorganisms that consume iron). “25: Reflections” is a summary of Hitler’s reactions, an evaluation of actions by Admiral Lütjens, technical conclusions, and comments on the loss of Hood, Swordfish aircraft, and Prince Eugen’s performance. An “Epilogue” notes that among the vessels involved in the British pursuit, five would be lost during World War II:  Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, Repulse, cruiser Dorsetshire, and destroyer Cossack.  Chapter “26: Research” documents the authors’ research before and after 1985, the importance of the Titanic discovery, German and British naval perspectives, and marine forensic studies.

There are five “Appendices”: “A: Operation Order for Operation Rheinübung” – a five page English translation; two technical studies “B: HMS Rodney Gunnery Action with Bismarck” and “C: King George V 356-mm Turret Problems.” Appendix “D: The Scuttling Debate” (pp. 522-525) provides a review of the evidence on the placement of scuttling charges versus torpedo hits. The conclusion: “scuttling merely hastened an inevitable demise.” Of particular note, Captain Paul Ascher who placed the scuttling charges was also aboard the Admiral Graf Spee and was involved in setting her scuttling charges in December 1939. Lastly, “E: Bismarck’s Last Moments: Survivor Reports,” includes 31 German survivors’ oral histories – well worth reading.

This unique, comprehensive, and definitive account of Bismarck is both an encyclopedic and engrossing account of the events surrounding one of the most epic naval battles of World War II. The authors’ combined decades of experience in naval architecture and command at sea and meticulous research are unmatched in offering a forensic marine analysis of the design, operation, and loss of this ship. The sobering oral histories of the survivors add a great deal to the documentary research. The photographs in color and monochrome are distributed generously throughout the book, and James Cameron’s contributions make this an unsurpassed account.


William H. Garzke Jr., Robert O. Dulin Jr., and William J. Jurens; with James Cameron. Battleship Bismarck: A Design and Operational History. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press: 2019.

Reiviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

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