Hamburg as a port is synonymous with two very different legends; The Beatles and the Bismarck. And, while the first became a worldwide legend for all the right reasons, Hamburg’s other great claim to fame was birthed and nurtured for a much darker purpose. None the less, her story is every bit as much endemic to the great city’s past as the musical masterpieces that immortalised the ‘Fab Four’. It’s another facet of a uniquely fascinating city, and I’ll recount some of that connection here, in this blog.
February 14th, 1939, dawned grey and miserable in Hamburg. A biting cold wind roared in off the River Elbe, surging through the rows of red brick warehouses like some invisible tidal wave. At the Blohm and Voss shipyard, preparations were well in hand for an epic launch event; one that would unite both past and turbulent present in a moment of pure, theatrical bombast.
With Nazi Germany just one month away from devouring the sundered rump of Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler had arrived in Hamburg on February 13th, staying overnight with his retinue at the Hotel Atlantic. He laid a symbolic wreath at the tomb of Otto von Bismarck, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ who had first united Germany back in 1871. It was a carefully choreographed prelude to the events of February 14th, 1939.
Later on that Valentine’s Day afternoon, Hitler climbed a podium erected in front of a vast steel edifice, more than eight hundred feet long, and some one hundred and twenty feet across at its widest point. This squat, cathedral like colossus was actually Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship.
Below the podium and the poised hull, a sea of blood red banners snapped and whipped in the glacial breeze. Thousands of spectators milled around the great bulk of the ship like hordes of worker ants, waiting for the moment of release. It was not long in coming.
On the podium, a small, well wrapped woman walked forward. She stepped past Hitler to address the crowd. In front of her hung a bottle of champagne, poised to be smashed against the prow of the beast. She was Frau Dorothea von Loewenfeld-Bismarck, the grand daughter of the first chancellor. Her job was to honour this new monster with the ancient family name.
“On the order of the Fuhrer, I baptise you with the name Bismarck……”
The bottle swung deftly to connect with its unmissable target, but then everything seemed frozen in time. For a moment, the battleship refused to move. Someone in the crowd called out for the portly Hermann Goering to give her a push.
In the end, no push was needed.
A shore side band thumped away at the national anthem as the vast bulk of the ship began a slow, stately procession down the Hamburg slipways. As she gathered way, huge placards that bore her name, spelt out in Gothic letters, were draped over both sides of her bow. With a symphony orchestra of clanking, squealing and hissing drag chains just barely holding her in check, the biggest warship ever built in Europe hit the water with one almighty splash. Adolf Hitler smiled darkly.
The irony of the ship’s chosen name was not lost on many. Chancellor Bismarck had never seen the need for Germany to have a navy at all, and had always set his face firmly against any war with Great Britain. On the day after the launch, the London Times commented favourably on the choice of name for that very reason; incredibly, it chose to interpret this as a peaceful gesture on behalf of the Nazi regime.
To this day, the Bismarck and the town that gave birth to her remain inextricably linked, both by time and tide. Despite the grim nature of her purpose, local people today still retain a sense of pride in the achievement that she represented, and in the epic fight that she put up just two years later.
Her first shots in anger were not fired at sea, but rather right there in Hamburg harbour. Churchill quite rightly made delaying her completion an absolute priority once war broke out, and the RAF visited the Hamburg yards almost nightly in a series of attempts to hobble her before she ever got to sea in the first place. As construction on her progressed, the battleship’s own anti-aircraft guns joined in the defensive fire from the Hamburg AA batteries.
Hitler himself did not understand either battleships or sea power, though he retained an almost childish fascination for the former. When first shown the plans for Bismarck and her twin sister ship, Tirpitz, Hitler opined that they were ‘insufficiently gunned, and too slow’. Subsequent events would prove him wrong on both fronts.
His ignorance of naval strategy was self confessed. He once said; ‘On land, I am a hero. At sea, I am a coward.’ It was a rare, honest admission, but one that was have to have baleful future effects on the German side.
Technically, the Bismarck came in at around 35,000 tons, in order to conform with the Anglo-German naval treaty of 1936. In reality, she was a full six thousand tons bigger than that.
Today, Bismarck remains a ship of contradictions. Though she was ultimately destroyed, an air of faux invincibility still clings to her very name to this day. To many people, she remains, quite simply, ‘the’ battleship, and for sure the most famous example of that doomed breed of beasts ever to be built.
This is all the more strange when you consider that both the Americans and the Japanese built bigger, more powerful battleships than her. And the Italian Littorio class can claim to be at least technically as good as Bismarck and Tirpitz in many respects, too.
She has always been portrayed as a ship of quite remarkable, aggressive striking power, but the truth is that her main strength was actually defensive. Around forty per cent of her total weight was made up of foot thick, high tensile armour plating. Subsequent events would prove that she would be a very tough nut indeed to crack.
As a ship, the Bismarck has two principal claims to fame. The first was her lightning victory over HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales in the Battle of Denmark Strait. Here, she served up the most devastating display of single ship gunnery seen over the entire twentieth century.
The second was, of course, her final, hopeless stand against overwhelming odds, just three days later. More than anything, this was to make her truly the stuff of legend.
The hunt for the Bismarck was the biggest single ship sea chase of all time. Over nine days and almost three thousand miles, this one battleship was hunted by every Royal Navy warship located north of the Equator. Ships were even taken out of the Mediterranean, and from absolutely vital convoy escort duties. Every card was thrown into the fray and, even at the end, it was a very close run thing. Despite everything, she still almost slipped through the net.
Decades later, finding her wreck became almost an obsession. In 1989, she was relocated by Robert Ballard, the Woods Hole oceanographer who, four years earlier, had found the wreck of the Titanic. At that time, the find was considered so potentially controversial that Ballard would only reveal the precise location of the lost ship to the (then) West German government.
Another Titanic devotee to become hooked on the Bismarck saga is James Cameron, the Hollywood film producer. Cameron has made several dives to the wreck of the Bismarck, and has documented her current condition quite extensively on film.
For the cameras, James Cameron would refer to Bismarck as ‘the 1941 equivalent of the Death Star’, a bit of theatrical sledging that is not actually too far wide of the mark. For sure, the Bismarck was the equivalent of some truly voracious Tiger Shark at the very least.
That both Ballard and Cameron should be jointly taken in by Titanic and Bismarck is hardly surprising. There are so many parallels between the story of those two lost ships-each one built, as it was, for vastly different purposes- so as to make those connections almost borderline spooky. But that is a story for another time and, indeed, another place.