Sink The Bismarck, by C.S. Forrester
In dealing with this short and immensely popular WWII book , one is forced to confront the question of genre. Is this book a history or is it a historical novella? This is not as straightforward a question as one might imagine. For one, the author purports to be writing a history of the sinking of the Bismarck, placing it in the context of a desperate hunt and the destruction of the Hood, but at the same time, the author notes that he creates speeches and assumes that his created speeches are close to life. One would normally assume that the creation of speeches would put a book in the genre of historical fiction, but the author appears to be copying the example of Thucydides and Tacitus, and it is hard to consider this book as unhistorical because of its adoption of ancient genre conventions. At any rate, this should be left to the reader to determine for themselves whether they associate this book with ancient historians dealing with the way that people bravely face the likelihood of death or with the beloved historical fiction stories of Horatio Hornblower.
The book is a taut 120 pages or so, and manages to describe the last nine days of the Bismark, as it escaped from the Baltic Sea and made for the Atlantic Ocean. Feeling as if the battleship was a mortal threat to British logistics routes to North America, the British pulled every possible resource to sink the ship, even if they had no single ship that offered enough capabilities to match the Bismarck in the open seas. The result was a series of attempts at coordinated attacks. The maps are useful and although much of the dialogue seems a little bit contrived, the book as a whole has a picture of a book that seems to have been custom-made for encouraging a film adaptation that gave a surprisingly high degree of respect to the German mariners of the doomed battleship. Only a few hours before it is to reach the safety of the German fighter shield, the ship is disabled and then sunk by a large assault. One wonders whether the ship sank in large part due to hubris, as the ship was fast and powerful but by no means invulnerable and was lacking a destroyer escort, which ultimately proved to be the ship’s undoing.
Looking back on World War II history many decades later, the Bismarck does not strike many readers as being a particularly noteworthy ship. Battleships are not viewed with the same degree of favor today as they were in the early days of World War II before it became readily apparent that carrier-based aircraft were the wave of the future. And this book gives some indication of the transition between a focus on big battleships and one on the planes that aircraft carriers were able to put into action whose military power could be exercised at far longer ranges than the largest and most powerful guns on battleships. The Bismarck’s size and speed gave it vulnerability because a slower and less powerful ship would not have seemed enough of a threat to be worth destroying at all costs. Ultimately, this book is a tale of the desperate straits to which Great Britain was driven in order to defend its all-important trade routes, and the way that German abilities to make the rare powerful battleship forced Britain to react with a high degree of panic in order to defend its own survival. Yet at the end the Bismarck seems like a cornered and heavily outnumbered ship fighting a doomed battle for survival itself, giving both sides the appearance of desperate and ferocious underdogs, a rare and significant achievement for a work that shows a remarkable degree of balance.
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