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Sink the Bismarck!

Original theatrical poster, showing Kenneth More and Dana Wynter.
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Produced by John Brabourne
Written by Edmund H. North
Starring Kenneth More
Carl Möhner
Dana Wynter
Music by Clifton Parker
Cinematography Christopher Challis
Editing by Peter R. Hunt
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) February 11, 1960
Running time 97 min.
Language English

Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white British war film based on the book The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck by C. S. Forester, and recounts the true story of the Royal Navy's attempts to find and sink the famous German battleship during the Second World War. It stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert. It was the inspiration for Johnny Horton's movie tie-in song, "Sink the Bismarck".

Contents

Plot

The film begins in 1939, with actual footage of Germany's largest and most powerful battleship, Bismarck being launched, in a large ceremony in Hamburg with Adolf Hitler attending. The launching of the hull of the ship to later be completed is seen as the beginning of a new era of German power in the sea.

Two years later, in 1941, the British convoy routes are being ravaged by U-Boat and surface raider attacks which are cutting off the vital supplies which Britain needs to continue its war against Germany. In May, British intelligence discovers that the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen are attempting to make a breakout into the North Atlantic to raid convoys.

The man assigned to coordinate the hunt for the Bismarck is the Admiralty's chief of operations, Captain Jonathan Shepard (More), who has been deeply distraught and embittered over the loss of his wife during a German air raid, and later the loss of his ship when it was destroyed by German ships commanded by Admiral Günther Lütjens (Karel Stepanek). Upon receiving his new post, he discovers that his nemesis, Lütjens, is the fleet commander aboard the Bismarck. Shepard's experience of conflict with Nazi Germany's naval forces and his understanding of Lütjens' thinking allows him to predict the decisions of Bismarck's crew. Shepard is initially aggressive towards his staff, but comes increasingly to rely on the coolness and skill of his assistant, WREN Second Officer Anne Davis (Wynter), to plot the operation against the Bismarck.

Meanwhile, on the Bismarck, Lütjens, like Shepard, is also an embittered man. After Germany's loss in World War I, he perceived himself to have received no recognition for his efforts in the war. He compares his situation to that of Germany after World War I. Lütjens promises the captain of the Bismarck, Ernst Lindemann (Carl Möhner), that this time he, Lindemann, and Germany will be remembered in greatness after this war.

The film goes on to depict the hunt of the Bismarck, including the sinking of HMS Hood. Shepard, already obsessed with Bismarck, must endure the likely death of his son, who flies as a rear-gunner on a Swordfish torpedo plane from Ark Royal and is reported missing. Driven to sink Bismarck without knowing the ship's heading, Shepard gambles that Lutjens is returning to friendly waters where U-boats and air cover will make it impossible to attack.

Shepard commits large numbers of forces stripped from convoy escort duty and uses Catalina flying boats to search the ocean for the battleship. Shepard's hunch proves correct, and Bismarck is apparently sailing back into German-held territory. With Bismarck located again, British forces know they have a narrow window to destroy or at least slow their prey before German support and their own diminishing fuel supplies prevent further attack. Swordfish planes from Ark Royal have only two chances at Bismarck. The first is a total failure: using torpedoes with new magnetic detonators, British fliers misidentify HMS Sheffield as Bismarck. Luckily, the new torpedo detonators are faulty, and most of the torpedoes explode as soon as they hit the water. The second strike proves narrowly but critically successful - with a British torpedo jamming Bismarck's rudder. Unable to repair the rudder at sea, the Germans are forced to steam circles in the Atlantic, buying more time for the British. A night attack by a force of British destroyers successfully torpedoes Bismarck, but the battleship returns fire, destroying HMS Solent. The main force of British ships (including battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V) finds Bismarck the next day, raining a punishing fire down on the German ship.

Lütjens in his final moments in complete disbelief, insisting to Lindemann that German forces will arrive in time to save them, is killed when a British shell destroys Bismarck's bridge.

After the sinking of the Bismarck, and having been told that his son has been rescued, an emotionally relieved and reinvigorated Shepard asks Davis out to dinner, believing it to be nine o'clock at night, only to realize it was really nine in the morning. Davis suggests breakfast, and they walk off together.

Cast

Historical inaccuracies

Director of Operations during the actual event was Capt. R.A.B. Edwards and the end credits of the movie identify Capt. Shepard as a fictional character. The Shepard-Davis interplay was a human interest angle added to the original story.

In the film, the German fleet commander, Admiral Lütjens, is portrayed as a stereotypical movie Nazi. This characterization is completely fictitious and is meant to make Lütjens the villain of the film. In reality Lütjens was the opposite of this characterization — he was pessimistic over the chance of success of Bismarck's mission and, along with two other navy commanders, had publicly protested the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitic crimes during Kristallnacht.[1]

The film makes a mistake in the sequence of events aboard the Bismarck, showing Lütjens ordering Captain Ernst Lindemann, to open fire on the Hood and Prince of Wales. In the actual event, Lütjens ordered Lindemann to avoid engaging the Hood; Lindemann refused the order and ordered the ship's gun crews to open fire on the Hood and Prince of Wales.

Importantly, the film also oversimplifies the movements of the Hood and Prince of Wales during the early part of the battle. The film shows an order being given to turn, thus allowing the Hood, and presumably the Prince of Wales, to fire full broadsides at the German ship. In reality, the British sought to close the distance first, thus only firing their forward turrets and reducing their firepower advantage since the Bismarck was firing full broadsides. Only in its final moments did the Hood begin a turn to present all her guns to the Bismarck. However, the Bismarck was able to score a hit and the Hood exploded. This tactical deployment has often been called into question and cited as a possible cause for the British defeat, an issue the movie simply sidesteps.[2]

The film fails to note that Hood at first engaged the wrong ship, firing at heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in the belief it was the Bismarck. And in the film, the Hood is shown firing to port while the Bismarck is firing to starboard; in reality it was the other way around.

The film includes a scene aboard Bismarck where Lutjens speculates about the aftermath of Bismarck undergoing its expected repairs in Brest, France, considering the possibility of two German battlecruisers based there, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, going out with the Bismarck after the ship has undergone repairs. There is no record of such a discussion at that time, though the idea of Bismarck going out to sea with the two battlecruisers from Brest to raid Allied shipping in the Atlantic would have been a possibility if Bismarck had reached the port. This concept was not an original idea of Lutjens, however, and it had already been proposed by German naval staff before the battle but was scrapped because of the serious repairs that the two German battlecruisers needed from damage sustained during an air raid. (In real life before the operation started, Lütjens had requested that either Scharnhorst or Tirpitz join Bismarck and Prinz Eugen; his request had already been denied.)

Another mistake was made during the night time engagement between British destroyers and the Bismarck. The film portrayal shows three British hits by torpedoes, while the British destroyer Solent is hit and destroyed by the Bismarck. In reality, there was no destroyer Solent and no successful torpedo attack. May 26 a Royal Navy destroyer squadron did have exchanges of gunfire in unsuccessful torpedo attacks and Bismarck inflicted some minor damage to the British destroyers. The destroyers that attacked were HMS Cossack, HMS Maori, HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu and ORP Piorun. Aboard Zulu, a sub-lieutenant in the gunnery control tower lost a hand to shell splinters when a shell landed on the destroyers forecastle, but did not explode. Cossack had its radio antenna sheared off by a shell[3]. The Royal Navy did lose a destroyer later in the operations — the Mashona was sunk by the Luftwaffe on May 28.[4]

The attacks by the Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers in the movie show some of the planes being shot down. Shepherd receives a report his son's Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal did not return. In the actual event, no Swordfish was shot down by Bismarck's anti-aircraft guns and all Swordfish were succeessfully recovered. However, from the HMS Victorious air raid two Fairey Fulmar escort fighters ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. Three fliers were picked up from a rubber boat. The Bismarck anti-aircraft guns are represented by stock footage of British QF 2 pounder naval gun.

The film does not show controversial events immediately after the Bismarck was sunk, including HMS Dorsetshire's quick departure after rescuing only 110 of Bismarck's survivors. The Dorsetshire's crew suspected that a German U-Boat was in the area; the captain called off rescue efforts and withdrew. Hundreds of German sailors were left behind in the sea to die.

Some minor mistakes involve the visual appearance of the Bismarck. When a spy in Kristiansand, Norway sees Bismarck arrive in Norwegian waters, the ship has no apparent camouflage on it. Actually, upon arriving in Kristiansand, Bismarck had striped camouflage along its sides which was removed shortly before it headed out to sea. Upon sustaining significant damage during its battle with Hood and Prince of Wales, flooding caused Bismarck's bow to be barely above the sea level; in the film, Bismarck's bow remains at the same level before, during, and after the battle.

See also

References

  1. ^ Bismarck: A portrait of the Men Involved
  2. ^ Warship.org
  3. ^ Ballard 1990, p. 117. Bismarck: Germany's Greatest Battleship reveals her secrets
  4. ^ The Slip up Movie Archive

External links

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