WHAT WE CAN LEARN OF THE PAST AND PRESENT
In 1960-61, I was a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School and preparing for college. When not preparing to further my education, I ran cross country and listened to music. The top 5-tunes of that year were Tossin' And Turnin' by Bobby Lewis, I Fall To Pieces by Patsy Cline, Michael by Highwaymen, Cryin' by Roy Orbison, and Runaway by Del Shannon. However, I was still enamored by Johnny Horton's Sink the Bismarck that was also very popular that year.
Granted, it wasn't a song that I'd dance to at a high school sock hop, but I loved the story of the British naval battle with the Bismarck, which is pictured below.
The Bismarck and her sister ship, the Tirpitz, were the largest battleships in the German navy and also were very large in comparison to the navies of Western Europe. The Bismarck was commissioned on August 24, 1940 and spent several months on sea trials testing getting ready for war. She returned to Hamburg for needed adjustments and the final fitting out. After several other delays, it was prepared to go to war. Ironically, the Bismarck was sunk on May 27, 1941 having lasted hardly more than a week in the actual war. Here is its very brief history:
May 19, 1941
The map shows that the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen had set sail from Gotenhafen on May 19. Gotenhafen was the German name for the Polish city, Gdynia, which is about 11-miles from Gdansk where Lech Walesa started the Solidarity movement several decades later. The British suspected that the German navy would be conducting exercises in the North Atlantic and had a large number of their ships looking for the Bismarck.
May 20, 1941
The battleship, Bismarck, and the heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen, were spotted the next day, May 20 by the Gotland, a Swedish cruiser, which reported its sighting to the British Admiralty.
May 21, 1941
The Bismarck arrived at Bergen and dropped anchor at Grimstadfjord nearby. They repainted the camouflage paint, which is standard for Baltic sailing, with what was called outboard gray for ships sailing in the Atlantic. Late on May 21, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen set sail for the open sea heading into the Arctic Ocean.
May 22, 1941
Early on May 22, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen set sail shrouded by fog into the Atlantic. Along with the fog issue, there were ice flows to avoid.
May 23, 1941
The two British heavy cruisers: HMS Norfolk and Suffolk spotted and shadowed the Bismarck as it sailed southwest between Greenland and Iceland. Admiral Lütjens didn't realize that the Norfolk and Suffolk were following until early evening that day. Prior to that, Lütjens planned to sail into the North Atlantic to disrupt Allied merchant shipping.
May 24, 1941
However, the British battleships, Hood and the Prince of Wales, also spotted and engaged the Bismarck in what is called the Denmark Strait, which is the waterway between the Greenland and Iceland. The Bismarck fired upon both British ships resulting in badly damaging the Prince of Wales and sinking the Hood. The Hood blew up killing all but 3-sailors of the 1,400 member crew. Nevertheless, the Bismarck had been hit by the Prince of Wales and was leaking oil from the forward fuel tank. The Bismarck needed to sail to the port of Brest or St. Nazaire, France for repairs. Lütjens zigzagged his way toward the French coast. As a result, the British lost contact with the Bismarck.
May 25, 1941
The Bismarck was out of range of radar of the British ships, which allowed Lütjens to double-back behind the Suffolk without being detected. Lütjens then sent a 30-minute long radio message to his superiors at the German Admiralty. Why he sent such a long message has been debated by military scholars for over 7-decades. The British luckily intercepted the message and would have been able to find the Bismarck had they not made an error in the plotting Lütjens' course.
May 26, 1941
On the morning of May 26, the British located the Bismarck's due to the oil slick. The British Norfolk, Rodney, Dorsetshire, Edinburgh, Force H, Ark Royal, Renown, and the Sheffield all came upon the Bismarck from different directions to the very slow moving and leaking vessel. The Ark Royal sent up 15-Fairey Swordfish, which were biplanes equipped with torpedoes.
The Swordfish thought that the Sheffield was the Bismarck and launched several torpedoes with a new magnetic detonator, which fortunately didn't detonate on any of the torpedoes. Learning from the first failed attempt, the British resorted to the older detonators and used the old torpedoes when it finally found the German ship.
When the Swordfish spotted the Bismarck, one of the torpedoes hit the port side of the Bismarck and damaged the rudder shaft. While it could still sail slowly, it could only sail in a circle. The only slight steering of which the Bismarck could do was by decreasing one set of propeller on the starboard side and increasing the speed of the port side...thus causing a slight change of direction.
Just prior to the Bismarck's end, Lütjens said to his crew, "Seamen of the battleship Bismarck! You have covered yourself with glory! The sinking of the battle cruiser Hood has not only military, but psychological value, for she was the pride of England. Henceforth the enemy will to try to concentrate his forces and bring them into action against us. I therefore released Prinz Eugen at noon yesterday so that she could conduct commerce warfare on her own. She has managed to evade the enemy. We, on the other hand, because of the hits we have received, have been ordered to proceed to a French port. On our way there the enemy will gather and give us battle. The German people are with you, and we will fight until our gun barrels glow red-hot and the last shell has left the barrels. For us, seamen, the question is victory or death."
Lütjens requested that some U-boats would come and attack the British armada so that the Bismarck could escape. He also called Hitler very late on the night of May 26 and promised this: "To the Führer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler. We will fight to the last in our trust in you, my Führer, and our firm confidence in Germany's victory."
Within two hours, Hitler sent this message early on the morning of May 27: "I thank you in the name of the whole German nation - Adolf Hitler. To the crew of the battleship Bismarck: all Germany is with you. What can be done will be done. Your devotion to your duty will strengthen our people in the struggle for their existence - Adolf Hitler."
May 27, 1941
King George V and Rodney finally sank the totally destroyed but floating hulk of the Bismarck. Just prior to its sinking on the morning of May 27, Lütjens asked for a U-boat to pick the remaining sailors of his ship. The ship had 2,224 men onboard prior to the battle. Many of the men had been killed during the engagement. Those that avoided death during the battle died, because the British, who had started to rescue the survivors, feared some U-boats were on their way.
Therefore, they abruptly left many sailors still in the sea. Only 118 members of the Bismarck's crew survived, and 2,106 lost their lives.
Now, you know about the sinking of the Bismarck. I want you to listen again to the Johnny Horton's singing Sink the Bismarck. Caution—what you hear to be true and accurate isn't necessarily true and accurate...
Do you hear the historical disconnect? Johnny Horton wrote and sang the song almost exactly two decades after the sinking. This May 27th will be the 71st anniversary of the sinking of the Bismarck. The song sounds like it was a done deal? It was like a high school football pep rally. They would win the game, and that was that. In reality, what we think is true is not automatically true. That is why a complete education is so very critical. We need to learn in school and in travel.
Today, we are involved in a war with the terrorists. It is a fearful time for all of us. It has been over a decade since 9/11. Years from now, there may be another Johnny Horton who will write a song about the sinking of the terrorists' efforts to destroy us like the Bismarck during WWII. What does Horton's song tell us historically about courage, determination, courage, etc.? Not much. For Horton, the song, Sink the Bismarck was like a military pep rally.
What you and I should learn historically about the real sinking of the Bismarck is that our future will take guts and determination. Therefore, we need to suck it in and approach our problem with terrorism or anything else with a will to win. Our future will not be like some high school pep rally.
One further historical note of importance is that the Admiral Lütjens, who was put in charge of the Bismarck, was not at all a great admirer of Hitler. When Hitler visited the Bismarck, the crew all gave him the Nazi salute. Lütjens was the only one to give Hitler a military salute. Look at his salute to Hitler. That salute would be called by naval personal in any navy, a very sloppy salute. Notice Lütjens hand and thumb. Look at all the rest of the officers' salutes. Lütjens is not even wearing the military dress of an admiral of that time.