Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sink the Bismarck! by C. S. Forester

I read about the Bismarck—a famous German battleship from World War II—and the British campaign to sink it in one book or another. I remember the author, whoever it was, describing it as one of the most daring and thrilling episodes of the Second World War, so I thought I would see if anyone had written a book about it. The search results included just one tome—Sink the Bismarck! by C. S. Forester.

The exclamation point should have cautioned me. Here’s Forester’s opening line:

This is a story of the most desperate chances, of the loftiest patriotism and of the highest professional skills, of a gamble for the dominion of the world in which human lives were the stakes on the green gaming table of the ocean.

And it goes downhill from there. I think this book might have appealed to members of the Winston Churchill Admiration Society when it came out in 1959, but it suffers painfully under a modern reading. The patriotism is, I fear, more jingoistic than lofty, and the desperate chances and professional skills Forester likes to portray in his fiction are largely supplanted by the indiscriminate and bone-crushing technology of modern warfare.

Far down below decks in the Bismarck, walled in by armor plate, a group of officers and men sat at tables and switchboards. Despite the vile weather outside, despite the wind and the waves, it was almost silent in here; in addition to the quiet orders and announcements of the radar fire-control team there could only be heard the low purring of the costly instruments they handled. Centered in the room was the yellow-green eye of the radar, echoing the impressions received by the aerial at the masthead a hundred feet above; the room was half dark to enable the screen to be seen clearly. And in accordance with what that screen showed, dials were turned and pointers were set and reports were spoken into telephones; save for the uniforms, it might have been a gathering of medieval wizards performing some secret rite—but it was not the feeble magic of trying to cause an enemy to waste away by sticking pins into his waxen image or of attempting to summon up fiends from the underworld. These incantations let loose a thousand foot tons of energy from the Bismarck’s guns and hurled instant death across ten miles of raging sea.

The strategy employed to trap the Bismarck is not gripping—lots of scenes of admirals and captains in control rooms with fingers pointing to sea charts saying “here,” the Bismarck is “here”—the kind of thing, I suppose, that really happened, but which pales in comparison to any typical Tom Clancy novel.

It also helps tremendously if you have a rooting interest in the fight, especially the one you’re supposed to have, the one in favor of the British and against the Germans. The Germans portrayed in the novel are, in fact, more or less monolithic in their evil devotion to their Reich and their Fuhrer—something, I think, the real Germans would have called patriotism—but clearly not the kind of patriotism we’re supposed to respect. They, of course, get what’s coming to them, and the final destruction of the Bismarck is almost orgiastic in its devastation.

The smoke was pouring from the battered, almost shapeless hull of the Bismarck, stripped of her upper works, mast, funnels, bridge and all. Yet under the smoke, plainly in the dull gray light, he could see a forest—a small grove, rather—of tall red flames roaring upward from within the hull. But it was not the smoke nor the flames that held the eye, strangely enough, but the ceaseless dance of tall jets of water all about her. Two battleships were flinging shells at her both from their main and from their secondary armaments; and from the cruisers twenty eight-inch guns were joining in. There was never a moment when she was not ringed in by the splashes of near-misses, but when the leader forced his eye to ignore the distraction of this wild water dance he saw something else: from bow to stern along the tortured hull he could see a continual coming and going of shellbursts, volcanoes of flame and smoke. From that low height, as the Swordfish closed in, he could see everything. He could see the two fore-turrets useless, one of them with the roof blown clean off and the guns pointing over side at extreme elevation, the other with the guns fore and aft drooping at extreme depression. Yet the aftermost turret was still in action; even as he watched, he saw one of the guns in it fling out a jet of smoke towards the shadowy form of the King George V; down there in the steel turret, nestling among the flames, some heroes were still contriving to load and train and fire. And he saw something else at the last moment of his approach. There were a few tiny, foreshortened figures visible here and there, scrambling over the wreckage, incredibly alive amid the flames and the explosions, leaping down from the fiery hull into the boiling sea.

My favorite bit there is line about the heroes. Yes, I guess it’s okay to call the Germans heroes in death. We certainly aren’t allowed to call them heroes in life.

It ends predictably, with an appeal for humanity and the equality of man.

“Bismarck sunk,” said the young officer in the War Room. “Bismarck sunk.”

Those words of the young officer were spoken in a hushed voice, and yet their echoes were heard all over the world. In a hundred countries radio announcers hastened to repeat those words to their audiences. In a hundred languages, newspaper headlines proclaimed , Bismarck sunk to a thousand million readers. Frivolous women head those words unhearing; unlettered peasants heard them uncomprehending, even though the destinies of all of them were changed in that moment. Stock exchange speculators revised their plans. Prime ministers and chiefs of state took grim note of those words. The admirals of a score of navies prepared to compose memoranda advising their governments regarding the political and technical conclusions to be drawn from them. And there were wives and mothers and children who heard those words as well, just as Nobby’s mother had heard about the loss of the Hood.

The Hood is an English ship sunk by the Bismarck, and Nobby one of the English sailors who died as a result. The juxtaposition of two deaths and two mothers is false pathos as its finest, coming as late as it does in the story. Too bad the author didn’t think of those mothers sooner.

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