Archive | May, 2022

Review of Hunt the Bismarck: The Pursuit of Germany’s Most Famous Battleship, by Angus Konstam

17 May

I first discovered the music of Johnny Horton (along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and other famed performers from the 60s and 70s) during the exploration of my mother’s old vinyl record collection as a child. I guess that at least some degree of credit for the historical stories that first interested me is due to him, and every time I read about a subject he composed a tune for, I can’t help but have his music in my head. His iconic songs about important events in American history (“Johnny Reb,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska,” etc…) all intrigued me as a musical interpretation of things I had heard about in school. In hindsight, they helped me understand the stories they told better by presenting them with a unique human emotion. Perhaps no single song of Horton’s has stuck with me over the decades as much as “Sink the Bismarck.” The song describes the incredible story of the hunt for the legendary battleship in the waters of the North Atlantic in May of 1941 in a way that helped me visualize the ship, its pursuit, the emotion of the sailors, and the two climactic naval battles for which it is remembered in a compelling way. I think it is the best of Horton’s odes to historic events, in truth, because it finds a way to connect the actual facts without some of the humor or exaggeration of tunes like “The Battle of New Orleans”; there is no “powdering of alligators behinds” to use them as artillery in the ballad about the Bismarck! The lines of the song about the clash with the HMS Hood (The Battle of Denmark Strait) that struck me as particularly descriptive and powerful nearly forty years ago still fascinate me now:

“The Hood found the Bismarck and on that fatal day,

The Bismarck started firing 15 miles away!

We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound,

But when the smoke had cleared away the mighty Hood went down.”

Recently I got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of Angus Konstam’s acclaimed book about the pursuit and sinking of the most famous German warship in history, Hunt the Bismarck. Needless to say, Horton’s song has been on a loop in my head for a little while as I listened to Konstam’s version of the epic story of the short life of the battleship. Konstam is author of over a hundred books, and may be best known to many readers as a frequent contributor to Osprey Publishing’s military history series. I found his effort here to be an intriguing and approachable story that manages to make the pursuit and battles on the high seas a human drama rather than one that gets bogged down in tedious details about the complicated navigation involved in British efforts to find and sink the elusive ship. The poignant story of the battle with the Hood and the final showdown which sent to Bismarck to the bottom are among the finest narrations of naval warfare I have read.

The Bismarck was launched in early May of 1941, and immediately sent to prey on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. It was discovered and confronted within days by the venerable HMS Hood, flagship of Royal Navy for two decades at the time. The less-well armored and older British ship sustained hits early in the action that detonated ammunition stores in its hold. In a fight lasting mere minutes, 1,500 men died and the pride of the British Navy sunk beneath the surface. It was a devastating and shocking blow to British morale, and one that Winston Churchill vowed to avenge in an all-out effort to hunt down the Bismarck. The resulting days-long chase, in which the German ship’s captain tried to elude pursuers and endured multiple daring combined-forces attacks by aircraft and underwater torpedoes, Konstam relates as a riveting tale of adventure. At last sustaining rudder damage that prevented the mighty battleship from reaching the protection of German-held French ports, the British Navy pounced. With multiple ships it staged an incredible bombardment that at length put the Bismarck out of action. With orders to sink it, though, the Royal Navy continued to pound the ship long after it could not return fire or even navigate. It disappeared beneath the waves, apparently scuttled by its German crew, a little after 10:30 AM on May 27, 1941. Only 114 of its 2,200 man-crew survived.

Hunt the Bismarck is one of several attempts to chronicle this enduring story of naval warfare. I have not had the pleasure of reading much about the subject, I will admit. I can nevertheless say that after reading Konstam’s account, it should be on your radar if you ever have an interest in reading about the saga that inspired Johnny Horton to write one of his catchiest tunes and became one of the most celebrated naval clashes of the second World War.

JMB

Review of The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War, by Malcolm Gladwell

3 May

Admittedly owing in large part to the Alabama connection to the story contained in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia, I chose to listen to the audiobook a few weeks ago. I did it with some hesitation on two counts. One, Gladwell is not a historian by trade, and I was aware that there has been some minor criticism of his book by experts in World War II military history. Two, the production was not the audio version of a book, but rather an original audio recording arranged as an audiobook by an author who is as famous for his podcasts as writing. Still, I found The Bomber Mafia to be one of the most unique and entertaining listens I have run across.

The book seeks to highlight the early advocates of the type of aerial warfare that has today become so commonplace we sometimes forget how revolutionary it was when first suggested. Relying on high level, precision, daylight bombing rather than large bodies of troops as a way to avoid casualties and collateral damage, this type of bombing was nothing but a fantasy prior to the second World War owing to technological limitations. Yet, as Gladwell shows, the idea was formulated even before the technology of the day caught up with the proposition by a small group of army officers in the 1930s at what is now Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery. Shocked by the useless carnage exhibited in World War I and convinced aviation had untapped potential, these men sought a way to better utilize emerging technologies in that sector to meet military goals previously only ground forces could achieve. So radical was the proposal, though, and so preposterous did the concept of precision bombing seem at the time, that the advocates of the idea, including key players in the book Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell, that they were at first sidelined and deemed crazy. Their argument quite literally threatened their careers. The “Bomber Mafia,” as they became known in some circles, was anything but a compliment, in other words.

Author Malcom Gladwell is the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, including The Tipping Point and Outliers. He weaves a good story in The Bomber Mafia, in synopsis highlighting the irony of the fact that after finally embracing the concept that high-level precision bombing the technique actually facilitated the very type of destruction it alleged to avoid.  Gladwell points to the firebombing of Japanese cities in the closing days of World War II as the most glaring case in point. His is a philosophical approach, seeming to argue as much for the uncontrollable violence inherent in war and the hubris involved in assuming it can be minimized than crafting a solid military history. Hence some military historians have taken him to task.

Regardless  of the details about some of the historical decisions it sheds light on—and about which I have no expertise—I must nonetheless admit The Bomber Mafia is thoroughly entertaining. It sounds more like the audio track to a documentary than a traditional audiobook, mixing in dramatic background music, the sounds of aircraft engines and explosions, and numerous short segments of decades-old interviews with many of the very people on whom the book focuses. Gladwell speaks in a conversational tone throughout, less narrating than exploring and developing his subject. Perhaps, as I have noted some scholars have suggested, Gladwell overlooks how the course of the larger war influenced the developments in the Pacific Theater he draws so much attention to in the book. And he probably does rely on more secondary sources than a more academic analysis might, but this is a little hard to discern in an audiobook format.

What I can say without hesitation is that this is one of the few audiobooks I have listened to that was engrossing from beginning to end, and seemed to end all too soon. It made me think about a subject I had not before pondered and I felt like I gained new insight as a result.

JMB