- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

By David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig
Overlook, $35, 385 pages

In the 20th century, 1941 was a critical year for the survival of liberal democracy. Winston Churchill knew it. So did Franklin Roosevelt. The Nazis, more or less, knew it as well. Fortunately, these self-proclaimed supermen blew their opportunity.
Nothing was more crucial in Berlin's ultimate failure than the opening shots of the Battle of the Atlantic. German U-boats were to play a large role in attempting to sweep Britain from the seas (and thus assure the island-nation's starvation and surrender), but the Kriegsmarine's surface fleet was to serve a huge purpose as well. The critical pieces on that chessboard were two super battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz respectively. But the Tirpitz never saw action, spending most of the war in a quiet Norwegian fjord until sunk by British bombers four years after the death of its twin.
Bismarck was different and its story is well told in David J. Bercuson's and Holger H. Herwig's "Destruction of the Bismarck." The battleship was in 1941 the most awesome weapon of war afloat. Thickly armored and mounting a dozen 15-inch guns it moved through the North Atlantic like a destroyer. It could take on anything in the Royal or the U.S. Navies and proved it with the blitzkrieg destruction of HMS Hood, the pride of the British fleet.
With the end of the Hood, the Bismarck with its companion cruiser, the Prinz Eugen were free to run amok through the merchant marine to the absolute horror of London and Washington. The pair didn't, but there was as much luck as naval skill in the hunting down and sinking of Adolf Hitler's biggest maritime toy. And like an expensive toy, the late Chancelor of Germany, himself a formidable landlubber, was reluctant to play with it lest it be broken.
Grand Adm. Erich Raeder had other ideas, however. He saw hard use of the surface navy as a key component of victory. A huge naval force including the Bismarck and the Tirpitz would break out of the North Sea and systematically destroy British commerce or that of any other nation's (read the United States) that was keeping Britain alive.
The British knew the stakes but as the authors demonstrate the Royal Navy with its largely obsolescent capital ships many of them dating before World War I and undersized aircraft carriers in contrast to the U.S. and Japanese versions were stretched to the absolute limit. The Royal Navy at the same time had to protect the home island, the numerous convoys in the Atlantic, plus its interests in the Mediterranean, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.
To be sure, the Germans had their share of problems. Raeder never quite knew where Hitler was on any given day about deploying his Kriegsmarine. Navy budgets were subject to Hitler's whim of iron. The invasion of Norway (which cost a good deal of Germany's destroyer force) made the Fuhrer even more cautious. Nor did the Germans quite understand the need for air cover for their capital ships. Those that did got little cooperation from Luftwaffe boss, Herman Goring. Naval aviation, meanwhile, did not exist.
Then, too, in play was the psychology of the Bismarck/Eugen task force commander, Adm. Gunther Lutjens. He was a fanatical warrior, but blended in was a weltschmerz, a fatalism, that was quickly communicated to the crew, profoundly affecting morale. After one Ltjen "pep talk," the crew was so shaken that the ship's commander, Capt. Ernst Lindemann spent hours personally cheering the ratings up, assuring them the old man was not a Jonah bent on a suicide mission. And all this to a crew who were for the most part former, fanatical Hitler Youth who were not quite prepared for a trip to Valhalla, however.
Portraits of other actors in this high drama are equally well drawn, especially the Former Naval Person himself, Winston Churchill, who on any given day had five good ideas about what to do about the German naval threat and 10 bad ones. Then there is U.S. Adm. Ernest King who was quite prepared to go to war with either Germany or Britain.
Roosevelt, of course, saw it slightly differently and began changing the rules of engagement, often secretly, while only hinting as to what the commanders on site were supposed to do. For example, when a German U-boat was shadowing the destroyer Niblack the American captain had no clear standard operating procedure. Should he run away which he could easily have done? Or drop depth charges? He chose the latter sending Berlin a powerful message stay away from us or take the consequences.
All this is told in gripping fashion that combines an impressive mastery of naval tactics and strategy, ship design, and high politics. There is, too, the simple thrill of the chase in the turbulent Atlantic. How those primitive British torpedo biplanes ever got off the decks of the HMS Ark Royal is still nearly impossible to believe. But these young fliers would find and then cripple the Bismarck leaving the great ship making great circles near the coast of France as the big guns of the King George V blasted her to bits.
The British ended Germany's surface threat forever with the sinking of the Bismarck on May 27, 1941. As for Hitler, he was strangely detached from the loss, being only weeks away from invading the Soviet Union. But his time, as well, had clearly begun to run out. And as for the Royal Navy, its win was a close-run thing. Seamanship and better radar helped in the Bismarck's destruction, but tenacity of purpose seems to have made the real difference. As a former Cold Warrior who appreciates the defeat of a dangerous adversary, that may be the greatest lesson of all.

Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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