Friday, March 01, 2013

Bismarck: A Comedy of Errors

I love history. The parts of history I especially love are when events did not occur the way they were supposed to. I'm going to have to string together some YouTube videos to make my point, but I hope it will be worth it.

Growing up, my Dad often played that song "We Gotta Sink the Bismarck". I wasn't entirely sure what that meant at the time, but having studied WWII, I know what it is. It was supposed to be a really bad assed battleship, yet it didn't work out the way they wanted it to.

In this video below, Nazi Supership, I learned something I didn't know before. OK, I know the Bismarck set sail and didn't refuel, although how can such a large ship be low on fuel after just 3 days? I could see the destroyer I was on doing that, although we once spent 2 weeks doing 20 knots across the Pacific from Pearl Harbor until the USNS San Jose refueled us near Guam. Then in the Persian Gulf where we were doing only 2 knots, we refueled every other day.

I also knew the Bismarck was pretty much shut down by a lucky hit from a British torpedo bomber that knocked out its rudder.

But I didn't know this:

According to "Nazi Supership", there were even more comedies of errors. Bismarck set sail with an out of date, not quite finished, anti-aircraft system. I worked on an anti-missile/anti-aircraft system in the U.S. Navy. In addition to apparently having a 5 gallon gas tank, the first time the Bismarck fired its main guns, it knocked out its RADAR. Idiots. The Bismark was operating with a heavy cruiser, but they split up to accomplish a mission.

I can't say the RADAR going down with the first gun fire is entirely the engineers' fault though. On the destroyer I was on, occasionally the shock from firing our 5" 54 caliber guns resulted in circuit boards in our Mark 86 Gun Fire Control System shutting down. They had to find the circuit board, reseat it, and continue with the shoot. It didn't happen often. But our ship was designed to survive the shock of its own guns. Bismark apparently wasn't. At least, the sensitive and primitive RADAR wasn't.

The British apparently underestimated the Hood, which was a WWI veteran. Hood was the flagship, but one "lucky" hit by Bismarck sent Hood to the bottom of the ocean faster than you could finish a smoke.

Prince of Wales (the other British ship) scored a "lucky" hit on Bismarck's bow, rupturing a fuel tank, compounding the decision to not refuel earlier in the voyage.The video says Bismarck had to reduce speed, but didn't say why. My guess is, faster speeds equal more fuel burned. Apparently, Bismarck had enough to make France (which the Nazis occupied at the time) at a reduced speed, but not if it went at full speed. That's only my guess at this point.

The final comedy of errors was a single lucky hit by an antiquated British torpedo bomber, right in Bismarck's rudder. Without a rudder, a ship is toast. Remove your steering wheel and see how far your car gets.

I like science fiction, but when I watch shows like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc, and I see the "epic" ship battles, I keep wanting to scream "Just hit them in the engines! Without propulsion, they're toast!" But, even Sci Fi has to take a long walk to get a a faulty plot. Without the "epic" battles, the show or movie would be far shorter. The Battlestar Galactica pilot would have lasted about an hour if the Cylons took out Galactica's engines at first. Nope, hit them with a nuke in the side. Yeah, that should do it. At least we got 4 seasons out of it.

It would have been cool, if, after taking Bismarck out of the game, the British towed it into port. But they decided to finish it off. I have to admire the German engineering. Bismarck took a hell of a pounding. Even after losing the ability to fight back, it still took a lot of abuse before finally sinking. And there's speculation the Germans scuttled the ship, rather than the British sank it on their own.

So, what can we learn from Bismarck?

1) Just take on gas. If you're on a maiden voyage on an untested vessel, just keep the tanks full when you can.
2) Don't get cocky. All it takes is one lucky hit to shut you down.
3) Just keep the ship under construction a few extra weeks until all the fire control is up to par.

But we can be glad the Germans followed precisely none of this advice.
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