With champagne glasses raised, Admiral Arleigh Burke, Captain Edward Beach, and others present joined in a toast: “Captain Lindemann and his brave crew!” The tribute, delivered 37 years ago at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Officer’s Club, was to former foes—the commander, officers, and men of the German battleship Bismarck—one of whom was the guest of honor that evening, Burkard Baron von Müllenheim-Rechberg.
The toast deeply touched Müllenheim. His book—Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story—was nearing publication by the Naval Institute Press. As a lieutenant commander, the baron had been the senior-ranking officer to escape the Bismarck’s sinking on 27 May 1941, and his recollections of service on board her quickly became a World War II classic.
The fearsome Bismarck figures in three of this issue’s articles. Peter Hooker’s piece “Unprepared but Undaunted” examines an underappreciated aspect of World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic—the role German surface raiders played in buying time for the buildup of a strong U-boat force. As a gunnery officer in the battle cruiser Scharnhorst, Müllenheim participated in an early raiding operation, during which his ship and her sister, the Gneisenau, sank the British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi on 23 November 1939.
Hooker recounts that the peak period of German surface raider activity began in January 1941, when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau set out on the most successful such operation of the war. By then, Müllenheim had been transferred to the Bismarck, which left port in May for a several-month-long rampage in the North Atlantic. “Our objective was to destroy as much enemy tonnage as possible,” the baron wrote. But while passing through the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, the Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen encountered the near-legendary HMS Hood, accompanied by the battleship Prince of Wales.
In “The Royal Navy’s Ill-Fated Symbol,” Michael Hull encapsulates the battle cruiser Hood’s story—from keel-laying amid the Great War to majestic Royal Navy ambassador during the 1920s and ’30s to aged but much-needed capital ship during World War II. By the time she had intercepted the Bismarck in the strait, decades of near-constant use without needed upgrades had rendered the Hood virtually obsolete.
But that wasn’t the German impression. As the British warships closed the distance on the German pair, Müllenheim intently was watching the enemy through his gun director. When the Brits made a slight turn to port, revealing more of their profiles, he heard another gunnery officer shout: “The Hood! It’s the Hood!” The awestruck baron recalled: “It was an unforgettable moment. There she was, the famous warship, once the largest in the world, that had been the ‘terror’ of so many of our war games.” But within several minutes, the Bismarck sent the Hood to the bottom, reinforcing the German behemoth’s reputation as the most powerful warship afloat.
Robert Winklareth, author of “The Not-So-Mighty Bismarck,” disagrees with that claim and backs up his position by comparing the broadside firepower of World War II battleships. He also notes that the Prince of Wales was able to score some hits on the Bismarck. One shot passed though the ship’s forecastle, resulted in her taking on 2,000 tons of seawater, losing the use of 1,000 tons of fuel, and making a run to the friendly French port of St. Nazaire—during which she was tracked down and sunk.
This issue also features two award-winning essays:
Trent Hone’s “Guadalcanal Proved Experimentation Works” earned second price in the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest, professional historian category, which is sponsored with General Dynamics.
Alan M. Anderson is the author of “Mahan’s Interference in U.S. Policy,” which earned him first prize in the 2017 U.S. Naval Institute Naval History Essay Contest, sponsored with the William M. Wood Foundation.
Richard G. Latture