Setting the Scene: A Bitter Contest and a Desperate Chase in the Atlantic

The new documentary ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, which is based on my book of the same name and soon to be broadcast on Channel 4, plunges viewers into a desperate chase, in which the British fleet is trying to avert disaster by catching and sinking the flagship of Hitler’s navy.

The twists and turns of those May 1941 days during the Second World War are reconstructed with high drama.

This is achieved by using fresh eye-witness testimony of war veterans – going up against the Bismarck in warships during a close quarters fight or flying against the enemy in Swordfish torpedo-bombers – along with stunning CGI imagery, dramatic reconstructions, archive footage and analysis from naval historians.

It was the latest episode in an already cruel struggle at sea between the naval forces of the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany and the democratic nations.

Spread across six gruelling years of conflict at sea from September 1939, the Battle of the Atlantic was a bitter affair from the very beginning. For within days of Britain and Germany being at war, a U-boat sank a liner attempting to carry more than 1,000 civilians to safety across the Atlantic.

U-30 put a torpedo into the Athenia, causing a fatal explosion and she went down 200 miles to the northwest of Ireland with 117 passengers and crew losing her lives due to the attack.

The sinking of Athenia on 3 September 1939 was the starting gun in the Battle of the Atlantic, the fulcrum around which triumph or defeat during the war in the West turned.

For without Allied dominance of the Atlantic and ability to convoy war supplies – such as aviation fuel, iron ore and weaponry – and safely transport troops across it, then there would have been no victory in the Battle of Britain and no D-Day invasion of Normandy.

While the focus of much that is written about the Battle of the Atlantic is quite rightly about the contest between the U-boats and the Allied escorts protecting convoys, in the first two years of the war the threat from German surface raiders was serious. Their forays into the North Atlantic took a major toll on merchant shipping.

This was especially the case in early 1941, with Germany’s surface raiders sending 270,000 tons of shipping (45 ships) to the bottom of the sea, while U-boats claimed a further 243,000 tons (41 ships) that March.

It was their depredations, alongside the successes of Condor anti-shipping bombers of the Luftwaffe, that persuaded British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to issue his famous ‘Battle of the Atlantic Directive.’ It ordered an intensive offensive against maritime marauders wherever they could be found.

Meanwhile, the prospect of the world’s newest and most powerful battleship – the Bismarck, which was fast and heavily armed with eight 15-inch guns – entering the struggle in the spring of 1941, via a sortie into the Atlantic, deeply troubled Churchill.

The prospect of a Bismarck breakout also vexed the globe-spanning fighting force tasked with holding the enemy bay on the oceans: the Royal Navy.

Already pushed hard in the Atlantic, the RN was also locked in a fight for control of the Mediterranean with the Italians and Germans, while readying itself for likely conflict with Japan. Shipyards in the UK were at full stretch to try and build new battleships to take on the Bismarck and other enemy capital ships, while also reinforcing fleets elsewhere.

There were just two King George V Class battleships in service – HMS King George V herself, along with the brand-new HMS Prince of Wales, the latter with teething problems in her main guns that did not augur well if forced to tackle Bismarck.

Those other British capital ships in service included elderly Nelson Class vessels – HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney, the latter badly in need of a refit – along with battle-cruisers like HMS Hood (a global fighting steel legend almost as big as Bismarck, though 20 years older).

The rest of the UK’s capital ships were reconstructed First World War battlewagons, such as Warspite (in early 1941 leading the RN’s Mediterranean Fleet), or unreconstructed Revenge Class battleships.

And yet, the Royal Navy was large, with many more cruisers and destroyers, including modern vessels such as Tribal Class destroyers and Town Class cruisers. The Kriegsmarine also had nothing like the RN’s aircraft carriers yet in service. The RN’s men were also the finest fighting sailors the world had ever seen while its centuries-long record of victory at sea gifted it a major psychological advantage over any enemy.

It was hoped that that, when Bismarck made her breakout from her the Baltic into the Atlantic, the net could be thrown wide enough to catch her. However, if it failed – and finding even a 50,000 tons battleship in the vast Atlantic was a tall order – and Bismarck slipped through, then chaos and destruction could be inflicted on the shipping lanes.

Britain could suffer a terrible blow that would show the world that the once mighty Royal Navy had lost its crown as ruler of the seven seas and that the beleaguered British were a lost cause.

 

More on the forthcoming documentary here.

Further details of the book ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ 

Illustrations: CGI imagery from the forthcoming TV documentary ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’. Copyright © ScreenStory, 2021.