Sunday 14 July 2019

Book Review: Battleship Bismarck, Garzke, Dulin, Jurens

When this weighty tome arrived I was tremendously excited. Around about A4 portrait size - as tall, roughly, but slightly wider - this handsome hardback, just shy of 500 pages, looks terrific. I'm gradually growing ever more fascinated with war at sea, with a special focus on WWII and the Napoleonic era, i.e. in conjunction with my other main areas of mini-military modelmaking and figure collecting.

My very small WWII naval collection is slowly growing: I have models of Bismarck and a U-Boat, several films, such as Sink The Bismarck, Battle of theAriver Plate, Das Boot, etc, and a number of books, ranging from general histories such as Jonathan Dimbleby's War in the Atlantic, through to more specific titles, such as this handsome new one from Seaforth.

It's interesting to note the involvement of film-maker James Cameron, of Titanic and Avatar fame [1]. His interest in nautical and naval subjects is longstanding: he filmed Bellard's discivery of the Bismarck wreck for National Geographic, and then some years later explored the wreck himself. His research, drawing and many images from this latter expedition are a part of this new work.

Anyway, on to the meat of the issue: the book itself. Well, first off I started this review whilst only part way through the book - at the time of first penning this segment I was at the point where Bismarck, Prinz Eugen and several other vessels are embarking on Operation Rheinübung, heading for the northern Atlantic to engage in commerce raiding.

So far the book has been heavily weighted towards a textual rendering of the history of the Bismarck. And much more besides. The plus side of this is a great deal of detail, not just about the Bismarck, but about naval warfare in WWI, post-/inter-War developments, the Kriegsmarine at large, and even the Royal Navy and beyond. The down side of this is that it can be heavy going, especially when information is repeated.

I estimate that the text could fairly easily have been judiciously trimmed by somewhere around 10-25%, without losing any detail. This would in turn free up more space for more/better pictures. There are lots of photos, many of them of the 1:50 Blohm and Voss shipbuilders' model of Bismarck. But there could - indeed, I think should - have been more from, for example, the Bundesarchiv. 

For example, whilst the text goes into great detail about the building and modifications made (both to Bismarck and many other vessels, British and German), there are very few corresponding images of the building or maintenance of Bismarck. It would also have been nice to have had more use made of builder's plans, of the type that appear in the 'from original drawings' series that Seaforth gave published.

Having made these critical observations, this book remains a fantastic resource, and a beautiful object, clearly the work of men who are both passionate about and deeply knowledgeable on this very interesting subject. I've also now more or less finished reading the vast bulk of the text - and it is, like Bismarck herself, a vast bulk of text! - admittedly skimming through certain parts; probably around 10% of the text was either speed read, or skipped altogether.

With the keel laid down in '36, the incomplete hull launched in '39, and being officially commission in 1940, Bismarck's genesis was far lengthier than her active operational life. This latter, comprising the sole effort of Operation Rheinübung was to last just eight days! So, just over a week of active service, to be followed by nearing eighty years on the seabed. It's an amazing, exciting and tragic tale.

This book has helped deepen my interest in WWII naval history. And as a result of reading it I've subsequently watched several superb documentaries on the subject, ranging from Cameron's film of Ballard's discovery of the wreck (perhaps the best of the docs on the subject I've seen so far?), to Cameron's own exploration of the wreck. It's also caused me to re-watch several movies in WWII at sea, including both Battle of River Plate and Sink The Bismarck. And I'm hoping to find the time to build my Bismarck model over the summer as well. So it's not just been an informative and stimulating read in itself, but has also been the ctatlust for further activity.

For my Amazon review I gave it the full fuve stars, as they font give the option to award half-stars. But here on my own blog I can do half-increments, and have therefore scored this magnificent boom four and a half balkenkreuz. I dock the half star for a variety of reasons, the major ones being that there could and should have been more photographs, in particular of the building of Bismarck. There should also have been more technical/plan type illustrations. And some hardheaded textual editing, removing repeated material in particular, could've created space for this extra visual material.

But this is a stunning book, chock-full of a staggering degree of information, including a good deal of info on and testimony from survivors and adversaries. Not quite the total and thorough history of its subject that I'd anticipated, in receiving it, but nonetheless an exhaustively thorough analysis within its own more limited and largely technical terms of reference. And definitely recommended to those interested in such subjects.


[1] I've seen the former, but not the latter.

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