UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Destruction bismarck cover

Sinking the Bismarck through Personality and Policy

Book Essay on: David Bercuson,
The Destruction of the Bismarck:

(New York: Overlook Press, 2001), 385 pages.
UCSB: D772.B5 B37 2001

by Marc Ramos
March 13, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com Page

About Marc Ramos

I am a junior political science major with an international relations emphasis. I lived for three years in Germany near Trier and the border to Luxembourg. I chose to write about Bercuson and Hedwig's book because I have always been interested in World War II, have been curious as to the logic behind using a battleship to raid commerce, and how the greatest battleship of the Atlantic theatre was defeated.

Abstract (back to top)

The Destruction of the Bismarck is an examination of the events leading up to the sinking of the Kriegsmarine's most powerful battleship. It begins with the political maneuvering by Kriegsmarine's commanders, primarily Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, includes a look at the personalities of those involved, and has sections with more personal stories from American, and British sources. Throughout the book, Bercuson and Hedwig show the effects of these personalities, and strategies and their contribution to the sinking of the Bismarck. The evidence in their book provides a convincing view on the follies of the upper leadership leading to the death of the Bismarck and over two thousand of her crew.

Essay (back to top)

In their book The Destruction of the Bismarck, David Bercuson and Holger Hedwig draw together the personalities involved, the strategies planned, and the operational difficulties that led to the destruction of the battleship Bismarck. They blame the destruction of the battleship on the culmination of problems between the leadership and misuse of strategic resources. With the evidence provided in the book, I support the conclusion reached by Bercuson and Hedwig in that the ultimate destruction of the Bismarck and the failure of the Rhine Exercise was caused both by the conflict of personalities within the Third Reich’s command structure and a misuse of resources in a failed naval strategy. I will go over the people involved, the strategies intended, and the failures that led to the eventual scuttling of the Bismarck.

With the differences in background, views on naval engagement, style of command, and individual interests of the command structure of the Third Reich, as pointed out by Bercuson and Hedwig, the victory of the Royal Navy over the Kriegsmarine was won before the Bismarck even put to sea. Großadmiral Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, had a vision of a grand surface fleet to deal the deathblow to the Royal Navy and secure the Atlantic for Germany. A man with a strict sense of discipline yet a distanced personality; he was a product of the Imperial German Navy under Kaiser Wilhelm II and believed that, while the U-boat was an effective tool, only a surface fleet could truly break Britain. Raeder’s tight control over all naval operations and intricate written instructions for his commanders to follow cut out personal initiative in tactics (16-17). This first conflict setting the Bismarck on its course for destruction, was the disagreement between Hitler and Raeder on the need for a surface fleet. Hitler was a fan of the U-boat, noting they were more effective than the massively expensive battleships (17). Equally important was the conflict between Raeder and Field Marshall Hermann Göring on the subject of a naval air arm (34). Göring refused to provide aerial reconnaissance west of the 25th parallel, leaving the raiders, U-boat and surface ship alike, in the dark. When the Bismarck put out to sea, the ship was left with only its complement of floatplanes to provide scouting, which were plagued with their own problems inhibiting use.

Aside from the top-level clash of personalities between the leadership of the German Navy and other leaders of the Third Reich, the personalities present on the Bismarck itself were in stark contrast. Admiral Lütjens was the fleet chief for the Rhine Exercise, the name of the operation the Bismarck was sunk on, was a stern and stubborn man. He was strictly military, refusing to wear the sword of the Kriegsmarine with its swastika in favor of his dirk from the Imperial German Navy, and even refusing to salute Hitler himself in the familiar party “heil” salute, instead making a military salute (18). Dissimilar to Lütjens was the Captain of the Bismarck, Ernst Lindemann. Described as unselfish, professional, full of zeal, and dutiful, he was strict in tasking his crew but levelheaded and had a heart for his crew (19). While the gunnery expertise of Captain Lindemann and his strict training regimen ensured his crew was ready for action, the stubborn nature of Lütjens, and his refusal to argue with Raeder on matters of strategy or preparedness set the stage for the destruction of the Bismarck, and the failure of the Rhine Exercise.

The integral part of Großadmiral Erich Raeder’s grand scheme for the Kriegsmarine was the Z Plan, formulated in January of 1939 it called for a symmetrical blue-water fleet consisting of ten battleships, fifteen pocket battleships, four aircraft carriers, forty-nine cruisers, sixty-eight and around three hundred U-boats (348). Unfortunately for Raeder, his Z Plan would never reach fruition as Hitler's promise not to enter a war requiring sea battles with the Royal Navy until 1944-1945 does not hold up after the invasion of Poland (20). The Rhine Exercise (Rheinübung), was planned to be an incursion into the Atlantic by the battleships Bismarck, Tirpitz, Gneisenau, and Scharnhorst to disrupt allied shipping between America and Britain and prove the effectiveness and capabilities of Raeder's surface fleet in order to carry favor to continue development of the Z Plan (345). However, the plan had to be abandoned in its original form. With the Tirpitz suffering from numerous problems of quality control, the Scharnhorst in dock for a month minimum due to engine trouble, and the Gneisenau also in dry dock after sustaining major damage from an allied torpedo bomber while it was in harbor, the Bismarck was the only remaining participant of the original plan (43). Lütjens made the suggestion to Admiral Raeder that the plan be put on hold until such a time as the Tirpitz was completed or the Scharnhorst completed its repairs. Raeder however would have none of it, and instead offered Lütjens the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (44). A bold strike at changing the balance of power in the Atlantic quickly became a stubborn man’s vain attempt to prove the need and use of a surface fleet of warships. Raeder’s mind was pre-occupied with the scuttling of the Imperial Germany Navy years earlier at Scapa Flow, a concern noted also by Hitler, and deigned to show that “[the fleet] knows how to die gallantly” and create the needed support to build a surface fleet further (24).

Bercuson and Hedwig’s tone of writing gives the impression that the entire strategy of using the battleships for commerce raiding, and the go-ahead of the Rhine Exercise with only the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen was a major strategic misstep by Großadmiral Raeder. In agrument against Bercuson and Hedwig however, it can be said that Raeder took the sensible course of action. With the problems besetting the other ships and the resources involved in repairing and maintaining the battleships coupled to Hitler’s view of them as expensive and less effective than the U-boats, the flow of resources could have very easily been threatened by a lack of results. The Rhine Exercise was Raeder’s plan at gaining support for further development of a surface fleet, with the problems preventing the full intended deployment of ships and the high probability that further delays could lead to other problems such as a successful allied bombing run on the Bismarck in port, it could be said that Raeder was acting in a manner that was needed to achieve his goals for the Kriegsmarine. I believe along the same line as Bercuson and Hedwig however, that Raeder's decision to rush the Rhine Exercise into execution without the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau had the opposite effect he had hoped for and ultimately defeated the Z Plan and other developments for Germany's surface navy. Had he waited for even the Tirpitz to be completed before launching the operation, the outcome likely would have been entirely more favorable and the Bismarck may not have been sunk.

These strategic decisions examined, erstwhile do not explain the complexity of the German command structure, a problem that plagued the entire Wehrmacht throughout the war. The command structure in place over the Bismarck was a clumsy organization leading to delayed decision making, as well as an inability of the Captain to make decisions necessary to the survival of his boat. The top-down management started with Großadmiral Raeder in overall control of the operation, and through his strict orders exercised this control. The next level of command was divided between Naval Group Command North and Naval Group Command West. Based out of Wilhelmshaven and Paris, respectively, Command North had the Bismarck till it passed between southern Greenland and northwestern Scotland, at which point the reins were passed to Command West. While Lütjens officially had the option to exercise free control over tactical decisions, the stream of orders flowing down from the upper echelons of the command structure prevented this on numerous occasions (58).

With the complexity of the command structure and adherence to the orders handed down by the upper echelons, confusion was almost sure to occur. According to Bercuson’s evidence, the operational orders from Raeder to Lütjens, the Bismarck was to “Avoid battle with superior forcers; but if this proved unavoidable, assume battle with full might” (62). With the Royal Navy’s numbers, any engagement would likely be against superior forces, so on the one hand Raeder’s orders said to flee, but in the same breath he wanted them to show the resolve of the surface fleet and prove that they could die gallantly. Equally problematic was the order to “Reach open ocean undetected; but if this proved impossible, proceed with the primary mission” (62). With the entire strategy of the Rhine Exercise relying on surprise, by proceeding with the primary mission goal they would be sailing into certain defeat, but on the other hand by retreating should they be discovered, it would weaken Raeder’s fight for a surface fleet. And more contradiction appears in the form of their communication orders to “At all times remain in contact with shore commands at Berlin, Wilhelmshaven, and Paris; but out at sea, operate silently but independently” (62). This particular order I feel is a problem caused by Raeder’s tight micro-management of his forces, this being a problem in that radio transmissions could be intercepted and lead to the discovery of the Bismarck’s location. These orders alone on their own may have caused small problems, but with Lütjens following each order in the manner in which he felt would best please Raeder, problems compounded and became worse, especially when coupled to a strategy already riddled with problems. But Lütjens had his mission, and he was resigned to do exactly as ordered, to raid commerce in the Atlantic, and according to Bercuson “He was not about to become the third fleet chief to be relieved of command for crossing the commander in chief of the Kriegsmarine” (167). Looking at Lütjens personality as described by Bercuson and Hedwig this could almost be expected. He was a strict disciplinarian and stickler for orders which resulted in unwavering adherence to orders when hesitation and questioning could have been beneficial.

In the end, though its own crew through the use of scuttling charges sank the Bismarck, and the Royal Navy had done its part to stop the behemoth in its tracks, what truly sank it were a failure of strategy, a complex chain of command, and a conflict of personalities. Raeder had gambled a risky strategy and pushed ahead with it despite the numerous setbacks in the number of ships he had available for the operation so as to prove a point to Hitler, that a surface fleet was a necessity to defeat Britain, and not just a parade piece. While Lütjens carried out his orders to the last, fighting to the death and disproving the stigma of the previous war in which the navy was wasted without a fight, it did more damage to Hitler’s support for a surface fleet than anything. Recalled in by one Major Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, after learning of the number of lives at stake aboard the Bismarck, “Hitler became ever angrier and more enraged. He stated that he would never let another battleship or cruiser out into the Atlantic” (267). Having lost the support of Hitler for the use of surface ships in the Atlantic, Raeder’s strategy had failed to produce his intended results. On 3 January 1943, Hitler chose to scrap the large ships. Erich Raeder resigned on 30 January and Karl Dönitz succeeded him as Großadmiral, signaling the rise of the U-boats, and the final death of Germany’s envisioned surface fleet.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/13/09)

Book Reviews

  • Schuster, Carl O. “The Destruction of the Bismarck – Book Review,” Naval War College Review. Autumn (2002).
    Schuster compares The Destruction of the Bismarck to the mainstay of books on the subject that had been written primarily on the operational history of the ship. He points out that this book brings a new look at the subject from the standpoint of overall strategy and the personalities involved in the resulting sinking of the Bismarck while he criticizes its lack of heightened detail on the lower level naval aspects of the events surrounding the Bismarck.
  • Rodman, David. “The Destruction of the Bismarck.” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 1231-1233. Published by: Society for Military History.
    Rodman gives a brief history of the Bismarck's operations. He brings up how the book contains a clear progression of events, political and strategic, that cover the ship's intention to be used as a Commerce Raider, making reference to how she could easily slug it out with any ship of the time. He also mentions the effects of sinking the Hood on the Royal Navy, and the weakness of the U-boats envisioned by Hitler in supporting Raeder's wish for a surface fleet. He praises the book's on its attention to detail and scholarship, but accessibility to those with a general interest on the subject, but criticizes it for not concluding with a chapter laying out the strategic implications of the Bismarck's destruction.


  • Wikipedia, “German battleship Bismarck,” (accessed Mar. 3, 2009).
    Wikipedia article giving a broad range of information on the development, armament, deployment, battle operations, and sinking of the Bismarck. Includes a section on the failure of the Luftwaffe to provide needed air cover and design flaws of the ship as compared to other battleships of World War II.
  • Kbismarck.com, “Battleship Bismarck,” (accessed Mar. 3, 2009). http://www.kbismarck.com/
    Website dedicated to the battleship Bismarck. Sections dedicated to the technical aspects of the battleship as well as the complete operational history of the Bismarck from design to sinking. Number of photos and drawings of the ship and operation area.
  • John Asmussen, “Bismarck & Tirpitz,” (Updated Jan 11 2009) http://www.bismarck-class.dk/
    Website dedicated to the Bismarck class battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. Sections dedicated to a large number of pictures, detailed technical data on the ship design, depictions of the engagements in battle maps and analysis of the material, and complete operational history of the ship from launch to sinking. Includes detailed information on other ship classes in addition to the Bismarck-class battleships Tirpitz and Bismarck.

Other Books

  • Rhys-Jones, Graham. The Loss of the Bismarck: An Avoidable Disaster. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2000. 272 pages. Amazon.com.
    The book primarily examines the operational and strategic details of the Bismarck's deployment and voyage. The focus is on the actual tactical decisions made by the men in charge and the operational challenges on both sides of the battle for the Atlantic. The focus of the book is looking at where the blame should be placed for the ship's destruction, drawing the conclusion that it lies in the commanders of the German Navy and their faulty and outdated strategies.
  • Baron Burkard Von Mullenheim-Rechberg. Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor's Story. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1980. 290 pages. Amazon.com.
    This book is written by the highest ranking survivor of the battleship Bismarck's crew, Baron Burkard Von Mullenheim-Rechberg. His story covers the ship's entire voyage from commissioning to his witnessing the Captain's final salute and the sinking of the ship. The book provides a first person account of life aboard the vessel, the technical details of the ship's destruction and battle damage, as well as a look at the author's stay as a prisoner of war in England and Canada.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/22/09; last updated: 3/x/09
back to topProf. Marcuse's homepage > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page