Today, we wonder how the Bismarck was
sunk. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Some history, right or wrong,
is sacred. We pin our sense of self upon it. We
don't want it changed. American schoolkids learn
that Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807. The
fact that a French
inventor ran a successful steamboat 24 years
earlier is one we do not welcome.
But historical icons do come under attack.
Just as medicine only approximates the healing of
broken bodies; just as engineers only approximate
the perfect machine; history only approximates what
really happened in the past. Recent headlines about
the 1941 sinking of the German battleship
Bismarck show how this works.
On the Bismarck's first voyage into
battle, it caught up with the British battle
cruiser Hood in the North Atlantic and
sank it. Over fourteen hundred British sailors
died; only three lived. It was a terrible blow in a
war that the British were losing. However, the
British had shot a hole in Bismarck's bow,
letting enough water in to slow her down.
Bismarck turned back toward France with
the British Navy in furious pursuit. They finally
caught her in the Atlantic, west of France, and
went after her with antediluvian torpedo-carrying
biplanes. Most torpedoes missed, and those that hit
didn't do much until one torpedo damaged its
rudder. After that, the Bismarck became a
sitting duck. When she finally did sink, over two
thousand German sailors died, and the British
managed to rescue only 115 surivors.
This was an enormous morale boost to the British
during the darkest days of WW-II. But it was
clouded by German survivors who claimed they'd
scuttled their ship, thus seeming to blunt Great
Britain's victory. So we ignored the scuttling
reports when we put the story into our history
books; and thus things stood for 61 years.
Then James Cameron, who'd made the movie
Titanic, launched an American expedition
into the Bismarck wreck. Bismarck
was only slightly smaller than Titanic, and it was three
thousand feet deeper -- three miles deep!
There they found evidence to support the scuttling
story. They found torpedo holes, but none seemed to
penetrate beyond the protective outer hull. So what
had really happened?
Well, toward the end, Bismarck's upper
decks were in flames, she could no longer fire her
guns accurately, and sailors were leaping from the
decks to bob in the water. When Bismarck
finally did sink, she sank very fast. The Germans
probably did try to keep the burned-out ship from
falling into British hands by detonating preset
charges on the ship's bottom. But did they speed
Bismarck's sinking by minutes or by hours?
Who knows? (For that matter, who really cares?)
Yet there are those who still feel that the British
victory is tarnished by a German coup de
grace. I don't get it, but then I was raised
in an American grammar school, not a British one.
My concern is with Fulton and that French steamboat
-- not with German sailors hastening the
Bismarck to her inevitable grave.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nagorski, A., Spying On the Bismarck.
Newsweek, Dec. 9, 2002.
A great deal of material is available on the
Internet. You might see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_battle_of_the_battleship_Bismarck.
I am grateful to three colleagues for extensive
helpful conversation concerning this episode: Ralph
Metcalfe and Lewis Wheeler, UH Mechanical
Engineering Department, and Sarah Fishman, UH
(Images from the National
Aeronautics Council, Inc. Aircraft Spotters'
The Fairey Swordfish Mk II torpedo bomber.
Max.speed: 138 mph, Range: 550 miles with torpedo. It
is shown equipped with wheels (above) and with
pontoons (below). The Swordfishes that attacked the
Bismarck were launched from the British
aircraft carrier Ark Royal.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.