Bismarck Was Made ‘with Blood and Iron’

But Hitler was dubious of the battleship’s worth and feared her loss

The mighty Bismarck was launched on Valentine’s Day 1939 at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg and her beautiful lines seduced many present among the cheering crowds. However, the leader of the Third Reich provided signs he would not fall head over heels in love with her.

The Bismarck being launched in February 1939. Photo: US Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

The day after the big event, Captain Thomas Troubridge RN, British Naval Attache in Berlin wrote a report on Bismarck’s christening and launch for the Foreign Office, copied to the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) and Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet.

Troubridge noted that the ceremony was presided over by ‘the Fuhrer, who was assisted by practically every leading personality of the State and fighting services and a vast concourse of people.’

As was the German tradition, the name of the new warship was kept a secret until the moment of christening, just before she went down the slipway, when a wooden name board was unveiled on the bows.

A massive crowd looks on as Bismarck is afloat for the first time on launch day. Photo: NHHC.

The new vessel was named after the man who forged a unified German super-state in the late 19th Century, Otto von Bismarck. Troubridge observed in his report that, aside from saluting the powerful boost to German prestige represented by the new warship, Hitler used his speech to send a message of restraint to the Kriegsmarine’s chiefs.

The Fuhrer indicated they could not expect to claim more than their fair share of rearmament resources. Furthermore, Hitler seemed to be telling his admirals that Germany, a Continental state founded via the use of its large army under the guidance of Bismarck, would not some 70 years later devote more resources to its Fleet than necessary.

“The new construction of a Navy sufficient to our requirements follows hand in hand with the rebuilding of the Army and the creation of a new Air Force,” Hitler told those assembled in the shadow of battleship Bismarck’s great hull.

The Fuhrer stressed that Bismarck, as a tool of the state and its people, would serve the greater good. Perhaps Hitler sought to resist the German Navy’s drive to accelerate its Plan Z regeneration scheme, which he had reluctantly approved in January 1939.

Hitler was quite happy to use the restrictions agreed under the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935 as a means to contain the ambitions of his admirals. He did not necessarily want war with the British and he knew that building a fleet to rival the Royal Navy would provoke them.

THE Bismarck’s commissioning ceremony was held on 24 August 1940. The new battleship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Ernest Lindemann, quoted the following passage from a speech made to the Reichstag by Otto von Bismarck: “Policy is not made with speeches, shooting festivals, or songs, it is made only with blood and iron.”

Hitler was in attendance for the commissioning and sea power along with the mechanics of naval warfare seemed altogether too mysterious for the former infantry corporal and veteran of trench warfare in the First World War.

He toured the ship and received a detailed briefing on how Bismarck’s gunnery systems worked, but remained uncharacteristically silent. Hitler appeared struck dumb by the sheer complexity of it all, which no doubt reinforced his aversion to naval matters.

Battleship Bismarck fitting out at the Blohm and Voss shipyard, Hamburg, December 1939. This image shows her forward 15-inch main gun turrets being installed. Photo: NHHC.

Lieutenant Burkard von Mullenheim-Rechberg, fourth gunnery officer and adjutant to Captain Lindemann, gained a clear impression of the Fuhrer’s disconnection from matters of naval warfare.

While conceding Hitler ‘was very much interested in military technology’ the young gunnery specialist recorded that Germany’s political boss ‘could not find a single word to say about this masterpiece of naval construction and weapon technology. He was not moved to comment.’

The Fleet Commander, Admiral Gunther Lutjens, gave a presentation about his experiences during a recent Atlantic sortie. He had just returned from France having disembarked at Brest from the battlecruiser Gneisenau following her successful commerce-raiding voyage in partnership with sister ship Scharnhorst. They had sortied into in the Atlantic at the same time as the fast and heavily armed cruisers Hipper and Scheer. The four German warships accounted for 45 enemy merchant vessels, with around 270,000 tons of shipping sent to the bottom of the ocean or captured.

Lutjens said he thought a similar deployment involving Bismarck could be even more successful, especially working with Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and supported by the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

Possibly even Tirpitz could break out with her sister Bismarck? Certainly, Lutjens told Hitler, no single British battleship could hope to take on Bismarck and win. This did nothing to settle the Fuhrer’s mind, for he privately believed war against commerce might be better pursued via (much more expendable and cheaper to build) U-boats.

Hitler reminded Lutjens of the lethality of British aircraft carriers and their torpedo-bombers. They had several months earlier put the Italian battle fleet out of action, with a daring raid on Taranto. The admiral conceded they were a threat.

However, having constructed Bismarck and Tirpitz – the latter vessel was also visited by Hitler that same day – the Kriegsmarine was not about to let them stay confined to the Baltic.

The mighty Bismarck completed and ready for a visit by Adolf Hitler. Photo: NHHC.

Like their counterparts in the Royal Navy – indeed in all the world’s leading fleets – Germany’s admirals still put their faith in battleships. However, not only did potential enemies tremble at the sight of a battleship’s menacing silhouette steaming over the horizon, so did governments faced with finding the money to maintain them or build a new generation.

Also, every time a battleship set sail it was a gamble with national morale – to lose such a powerful symbol of nationhood would be a serious blow indeed, never mind the potentially huge loss of life. This was probably very much on Hitler’s mind during his visit to Bismarck.

After eating a one-course vegetarian meal in silence, Hitler launched into a monologue about the need to invade Romania to protect ‘German minorities’. He also declared America would not enter the war, something Captain Lindemann disagreed with, much to the dismay of staff officers present.

Hitler’s four-hour visit to Bismarck came to an end after another speech by Lutjens in which the admiral reiterated the success that might be achieved by the new capital ship. Lutjens stated that the objective would be to defeat the British wherever they could be found. Von Mullenheim-Rechberg saw that from the Fuhrer there was, again, no response.

During his visit Hitler heard no specific reference to the battleship’s likely sortie into the Atlantic. The German naval high command had decided to keep the Fuhrer in the dark about it until after Bismarck and her heavy cruiser consort, Prinz Eugen, sailed. They feared not being allowed to proceed if he found out about Operation Rheinubung.

 

• This is an edited and compressed version of text in the award-winning book ‘Killing the Bismarck’ (Pen & Sword Books). More details here.