Interview with Iain Ballantyne
- Published: 02 December 2011 02 December 2011
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
AHF: How do you select topics for books?
Ballantyne: First of all, my specialization, so far, has been naval history books. Secondly, the majority of them have sought to tell the stories of famous British fighting ships, framing the human experience within the great events the vessels themselves sailed through. When I first discussed a naval history series with Pen & Sword, back in 1999, we agreed it would be the equivalent of the regimental histories they did so well. I had pointed out that it would therefore require selection of illustrious ship names with a good history. HMS Warspite, HMS Victory and HMS Rodney were obvious choices as they are among the most famous warships of all time. Rodney and Warspite had amazing fighting records in WW2, so, with that conflict enduringly popular with the public they were ideal vehicles for an exciting yarn. Victory was selected because we wanted to produce a new biography of the ship in the Trafalgar 200 year. I also wrote a profile of HMS London, which was a slightly off-piste selection, because hers is not the most glorious name, but rather has been associated with two disasters – the loss of America by Britain in the late 18th Century and the tragedy of convoy PQ17 in WW2. I had a personal connection to HMS London, as I sailed to Soviet Russia in the last ship of the name in 1991, on a historic voyage that signaled the end of the Cold War between the UK and Soviet Union. She was a Type 22 surveillance and Anti-Submarine Warfare frigate and had a superb ship’s company. I spent two weeks in her on the run north from Rosyth to Murmansk and Archangel in the wake of the Hardliners’ Coup. It was a magical trip, a real moment in history. Having covered Desert Shield and Desert Storm as a reporter for the evening newspaper in her home city of Plymouth I also knew London had a great story as flagship of the Royal Navy task group in that war. I had visited other warships in the Gulf, but not the London, so it was great to finally go aboard her. In looking at HMS London, I was determined to produce a book that also looked at the Navy I knew as well as the fleet of the past. Throughout all my ‘warship biographies’ it has been conveying the human experience that has been most important – taking the stories of so-called ordinary men, most of them untold, or forgotten and placing them within the context of big and small events, to change perspectives. Getting the veterans memories into print was I feel the major achievement of those books, as that generation is all but gone now. I feel it makes the Warspite, London and Rodney books unique. ‘Killing the Bismarck’ shares the same objective of getting sailors’ eye witness testimony into print for the first time. What also drove me to choose that topic was that I had a lot of material held over from ‘HMS Rodney’ that needed a home. It was too long in its original draft. Among the elements we decided to cut – because we realised it could make the basis for another book - was superb, fresh material for a new, different look at the whole Bismarck Action.
AHF: How did you go about making contact to publishers when starting out?
Ballantyne: I decided I wanted to write a book. I identified likely publishers and – bearing in mind this was the late 1990s – wrote a formal letter asking what I should do if I wanted to put a book proposal forward. At the lower end of the scale, in the deeply specialist area, you don’t need an agent to do so. Therefore, it was down to me to work up a book proposal and agree a deal, such as it was.
AHF: Have you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?
Ballantyne: I have been a journalist since I was 18, when I started out as the office junior on the internal newspaper of IBM UK. Then I trained as newspaper reporter at college. That’s it. Everything else has been on the job. My first proper work of history writing was my A-Level thesis on an aspect of the Vietnam War, which pushed me up a grade. The next time I did anything approaching a naval history book was 12 years later, in the shape of a special supplement for the Evening Herald in Plymouth on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. That really was the genesis of my approach of telling the story of big events via the experiences of the little guys, so to speak, and building a narrative out from there. I found five soldiers in the city who had been in the thick of the action at Arnhem and told the story via their experiences. I also had to research the bigger picture and that all taught me a lot in terms of research techniques. I remain very proud of that piece of work. It was only 12,000 words, but it was very well received and contained a lot of new material. I interviewed the veterans at length, learning how to tease remarkable stories out of unassuming, reticent men who were really too modest to realize what they had done for us in WW2.
AHF: Which archives have you used and how do you find working in them?
Ballantyne: Primarily I have used the Imperial War Museum, department of documents, photographic archive and sound archive, the National Maritime Museum, also in London, and the Royal Naval Museum, at Portsmouth. For the Bismarck book I also managed to carry out some research at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, while the Naval Studies studies sections of Plymouth and Portsmouth city libraries have also been most useful. Other sources have included the National Archives and the museum at Dartmouth naval college. Actually working in the archives is very grueling. As somebody who lives distant from the primary naval museums, I have to maximize my time on target, as it were, which means each day of research – all by appointment – has to be pushed to the limit, no lunch break, no breathers at all. It’s just hard graft with pencil and notepad. You feel quite drained at the end of it. However, to touch documents that Nelson himself would also have handled, or to find some nugget of new revelations about WW2 is a totally thrilling experience. Sometimes it can take hours just to decipher what one particular letter or journal says, the picture slowly coming into focus. As it does so you have to suppress your excitement and not laugh out loud at having found something truly amazing. Museums are meant to be silent. Expressions of delight at finding something perspective-altering are to be suppressed, or merely expressed with a silent smile.
AHF: What in particular needs to be kept in mind in archival research?
Ballantyne: As indicated in the previous answer – make the most of it, gird up your loins and press on. I think you also need to to be clear what you are looking for before you go. Do some on-line research into archives if you can and explain to the staff either on the phone or via e-mail what it is you want. That way you do not waste your time or theirs. When it is time to kick you out at the end of the day, they will. It is up to you to ensure you achieve all your objectives within the limited time you have in there – so get your priorities in research terms straight. There will be no stretching of the closing time. Also, in places like the National Maritime Museum there is a particular system of safeguards, which includes letting you only have a few documents at a time, and so it takes time to get each set up from the archives. Also, if you find you suddenly can’t make a research appointment, let them know so they can give your slot to someone else.
AHF: How do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books?
Ballantyne: The Internet is a good swift check source – but really only to confirm what you already know. Subsequent double-checking with other sources is essential and you need to have a nose for what is rubbish. There’s a lot of disinformation on the Internet, but there again there are one or two genuinely fantastic web sites that are as good as any naval reference source in hard copy. You can’t beat original sources from museums as it means there are no barriers, or very few, between you and the people who were there. In terms of secondary sources, properly research and presented books are the product of an entire selection process that weeds out those who are not serious about a subject, or who are likely to present over biased and blatantly untrue information. That doesn’t mean there are not books out there you cannot rely on, and every author tells the story from a particular point of view. You need to make up your own mind what is useful for your purposes and what is not. The process of writing a decent book is very demanding and the same applies I am sure to a brilliant web site – they are complementary efforts, not a competitor. The utility of a book cannot be beaten and the new digital books are simply a different format – they do not alter the art or aim of producing a book. You have to get past the matter of medium and so a good book will be a quality product whether it is displayed in hard copy form, with a spine and pages, as a digital book or within hundreds, or thousands of web site pages.
AHF: Have you tried to contact veterans and interview them - if so, how did this work out?
Ballantyne: They have all been brilliant, very kind with their time, their tea and biccies. There can be problems when age means they simply can’t remember things.
It helps to know the topic well before you sit down for the interview, so you know what they are talking about and where it fits. Only two have ever asked ‘what’s in it for me?’ My answer, slightly tongue in cheek, was: ‘Immortality.’ Most veterans are simply grateful to have their chance at finally getting their experiences into print, though they are mostly very modest. They are aware time marches on, so they know it is important to let people catch their memories before they are lost to us.
AHF: What is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?
Ballantyne: At the moment WW2 is very popular, too popular really, as it blanks everything else out, with the exception of Afghanistan of course – that’s a thriving industry in books, too. Try and find a topic related to WW2 that hasn’t been done to death or, if it is a familiar one, at least come up with a genuinely new angle.
AHF: What has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?
Ballantyne: Lack of budget, lack of time, distance from the archives.
AHF: In hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?
Ballantyne: Yes, but I’m not letting on; that’s between me and the perfectionist that lurks in my soul and who gets irritated by the inevitable flaws of the writing and publishing process. Every book is written to a time-scale, and inevitably you have to surrender your child to the big bad world where critics may rip it apart. You have to live with imperfections and move on to the next book, learning from your errors and vowing to do better next time. Often it can be a mere matter of getting one or two details wrong, losing sight of them in the massive endeavour that is finishing a book, or it may be wistful realization a few years later that you could now do that book much better. The mistake is to go back. Press on and live with it.
AHF: How did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?
Ballantyne: I have always been interested in history. As a child, I loved the novels of Ronald Welch – all full of heroic British warriors, but containing loads of real historical fact. They inspired me and filled me full of a desire to learn more. They were written for lads, but actually so well put together adults were drawn to them, too. They have stood the test of time and it is amazing how similar their plots are to some recent Hollywood epics – elements of Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ could almost have been taken from ‘Knight Crusader’, which won Welch a literary award back in the 1950s. I have read several Welch yarns to my own sons. We are currently getting into his ‘Captain of Dragoons’, which is set during the War of the Spanish Succession culminating in the Battle of Blenheim, though Welch presents action-packed adventure, not yawn-inducing digressions on 18th Century politics and military strategy. He inspired me as a boy and he inspires me today. The Welch novels are out of print now and very hard to come by, at least at a reasonable price. More generally, I liked the medieval period at the age of 10, by the time I was 14 it was WW2, then by the age of 16, the Vietnam War. I only came to naval history after I became the Defence Reporter of the Evening Herald in Plymouth and not only went to see front line warships at work, but also met a lot of war veterans when writing a series of articles on their experiences. HMS Warspite was, as I mentioned earlier, an obvious starting point if you want to start a series on famous British fighting ships. She garnered the most battle honours of any in Royal Navy history and her story is simply spectacular, from Jutland through WW2. From Churchill to Admiral Andrew Cunningham and all the ordinary sailors and junior officers I interviewed, her story is peopled with remarkable human endeavour and triumph in the face of adversity.
AHF: How did you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards to work time on the book?
Ballantyne: I am Editor of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine for the majority of a month, which is a pretty demanding schedule in itself, and then I go flat out on whatever other projects I am working on between editions. I am a freelance and the world of the freelance is all about time to get the latest thing out the door so you can move on, so you work as and when required. Time off and doing the 9-5 is a minor consideration. Fortunately I have an understanding wife and still manage some quality time with my kids.
AHF: Who decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what's listed and what's not?
Ballantyne: The publisher will say how detailed they want it. In the case of Pen & Sword they expect you to do it but, quite frankly, having written a book the last thing I want to do is index it, so I contract it out to a mate who owes me a favour and will do it for a reasonable rate. I get on with earning the money to pay him.
AHF: How did your interest in the Second World War begin?
Ballantyne: Commando comics. I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s and I loved ‘em. Battle Picture Library and Warlord comic, too. Every summer holiday I would buy a stack of Commando books to read in the car on the way to the seaside and then when I was there would spend some of my summer dosh on a Battle Picture Library summer special. Boys will still be boys and today we need to feed their imaginations in the right way – Horrible Histories helps, but it isn’t exactly a fully rounded or entirely accurate portrayal of the past. Had ‘Horrible Histories’ books been around when I was kid I would have loved ‘em, though. We all love the gory and disgusting side of history, don’t we?
AHF: What is your opinion of the recent rise of interest in the Second World War in popular culture?
Ballantyne: I think it is propelled by people of my generation, who want to know the reality of WW2 that they first encountered in comics. Their dads, grandfathers or uncles fought in WW2. I guess it is also the old chestnut about us yearning for stories of simpler conflicts in which the enemy was supposedly easily identifiable and we knew who was good and who was bad. Of course it wasn’t like that in reality and anyone who delves into museum archives to read the accounts of those who were there will often uncover a somewhat different, less clear-cut reality. I find that quite thrilling as it means we can still challenge what have become some pretty standard myths. One problem I see is the narrow focus of WW2 naval history literature, revolving, for example, around a few topics, such as the Battle of Britain, U-boats, or indeed Bismarck. However, it is good to slay a few of those myths - and to do that you have to write about the same topics, hence my ‘Killing the Bismarck’ – and maybe tell it in a way that restores balance but I do wish the spread of topics attractive to both the public and publisher alike was broader. There again, a writer who fancies a challenge and has the skill to assemble an attractive proposal still stands a good chance of broadening our collective knowledge. The surge in interest does at least mean publishers may be willing to take a punt on a book that is slightly different, though of course you will always find the hardy perennials on the book shelves.
AHF: What effect might it have on the historical research community?
Ballantyne: I’m not sure I know what the ‘research community’ is. I certainly don’t belong to it – I am a member of the ‘compelled to tell a ripping yarn’ community. But, seriously, I suppose the impact of too much focus on WW2 could result in other areas of history become neglected, such that, perhaps, the people of Britain know more about the exploits of Stalin and Hitler than they do about, for example, Francis Drake or Scott of the Antarctic. National identity is lost without heroes from your own neck of the woods who inspire you with tales of not just fighting, or in the case of Stalin and Hitler mass liquidations of whole ethnic groups, but also exploration and scientific achievement, which all explain how we got here. In naval terms, there is too much emphasis in the UK on Nelson and WW1 or WW2, which is a shame, but who am I to complain? Four out of six books in my published list have heavily featured WW1 and WW2, while another has starred Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. The next book to carry my name is also about HMS Victory and her career, though primarily a photographic portrait of the ship for which I have provided words. However, I am proud to say that most of my books have also included chapters covering the span of British naval history from the Spanish Armada, through the Victorian era to the modern day. One book, ‘Strike from the Sea’ was about the US Navy and the Royal Navy at war in the Middle East from the 1940s to the Iraq War, but it has, to be honest, been the least successful of the whole lot. That’s not because there is not a great story to tell, or I failed to put in the effort…but rather, I feel because the over emphasis on WW2 has blinded people to the fact that navies are still active, still taking risks and even fighting today. Is that a rather obvious plea for people to give ‘Strike From the Sea’ a fair reading? Yes, because I feel the men and women I have met in my time, who have been involved in more recent naval operations, are every bit as remarkable as those who fought in WW2.
AHF: What are your plans for future books?
Ballantyne: As indicated above, I have just supplied words for a new book on HMS Victory with my friend and colleague Jonathan Eastland – he did the photos for my biography of the ship in 2005, and also contributed some words. In return I have written some essays for what I believe is the best photographic profile of Nelson’s ship ever created, ‘HMS Victory – First Rate 1765’. That’s the latest book, out this summer. I am of course mulling over other topics, but nothing is fully underway yet. Even I need a break from writing books, having written, or contributed to, seven since 1999.
AHF: Can you live off the proceeds?
Ballantyne: You must be joking. Writing books can lead on to other complementary benefits, but very few writers, especially in the field of naval history, stand a chance of making decent money, indeed of reaping a level of financial return of any significance. The rate per hour is pathetic and the expense of putting the book together, if you visit archives and have to pay for photographs and indexes, wipes out making any profit from the advance. The return from subsequent royalties is very minor indeed. You have to love writing or be insane to start on this lark. A little of both helps. Still, even I live in hope of earning the odd mouldy crust of a profit from the naval history lark.
AHF: What areas of naval history do you think deserve a lot more attention that they receive at present, and why do you think they are overlooked?
Ballantyne: I think the post-WW2 era of naval history is somewhat ignored, but I do not see that as changing anytime soon, with a few exceptions such as the dramatic side of the Cold War, or operations connected to Afghanistan or the war on terror. Fortunately the Internet, and enterprises such as your own, keep the flame alive.
AHF: The night action with Vian's destroyers is one part of the Action that is often given little attention, and the torpedo hits on the Bismarck claimed by Cossack are often dismissed with little comment by some authors, do you too rule out all chances they may have hit?
Ballantyne: Hard to say. If you read the ‘Hood and Bismarck’ book by David Mearns and Rob White, it does mention more torpedo hits/penetrations - found when the 2001 expedition went down to look at Bismarck’s wreck - than perhaps we may have been aware of before. Will we ever know for sure what truly happened aboard, and to, Bismarck during the desperate hours of the night action? No. Captain Donald Macintyre RN, the distinguished naval historian of the 1950s -1970s era, suggested the Germans would habitually deny hits and damage as a matter of policy to minimize the enemy’s achievements. The truth is that those who survived might not have been aware of any hits as they were not in a position to know. It could have been that hits - by not only Cossack but also other destroyers in Vian’s flotilla - were achieved but nobody aboard Bismarck was aware of it. The likelihood of hitting Bismarck in such dreadful weather, at night was extremely slim and you have suspect that Vian’s flotilla did indeed fail to score hits. The effects of their efforts - in wearing down the Bismarck’s men amid an already demoralizing, despairing atmosphere onboard - would have been considerable and, I feel, would have played a major part in making the German battleship combat ineffective from a human point of view. You just have to read Mullenheim-Rechberg’s book to see that the morale of the Bismarck’s men was utterly shattered by the morning of the battle. With a few notable exceptions, such as Mullenheim-Rechberg in command of the aft 15-inch gun turrets and the members of engineering department, the men of Bismarck were all-but spent.
AHF: The Kriegsmarine offensive against Allied trade is often said to have come close to defeating Britain. What's your assessment of this threat?
Ballantyne: I don’t think I am qualified to give a verdict on such a lofty matter, but I suspect the result was always going to be the same due to the shipbuilding capability of the USA – its ability to replace what was sunk – and its amazing ability to be the ‘arsenal of democracy’ and supply Britain with food and otjher supplies. The breaking of Enigma, the Ultra product provided by Bletchley obviously helped hugely, but it is ludicrous to suggest, as movies such as ‘Enigma’ would have us believe, that one element on its own could have won the Battle of the Atlantic. The reality was that the U-boats were beaten by a variety of factors, not least, in fact above all, by the inexhaustible economic resources of the allies, their technological edge and the sheer guts of the naval and merchant marine seafarers, aviators and soldiers at sea.
Having said that, if you had to narrow it down, I would say without American support Britain would possibly have been defeated by the U-boats. Churchill admitted as much, but the German economy was flawed. Its ability to actually deploy a large Navy was undercut by the need to devote its resources to the Eastern Front. There are so many variables and ‘what ifs’. If Hitler had decided not to invade Russia could he have defeated Britain? But you could also say, if the British had paid more attention to Anti-Submarine Warfare between the wars and had not forgotten the lessons of the convoy system, if they had never given control of the Fleet Air Arm to the RAF, had built more carriers, had better carrier aircraft might they have found it easier to defeat Germany? It was what it was. The battle was fierce and horrific. The British, Canadians and Americans ultimately prevailed in the Atlantic. The horrific casualty rate among the U-boat crews tells the story of who won that bitter victory.
AHF: Both Nelson and Warspite were hit with two torpedoes each in 1939 and 1940 - but the torpedoes failed to explode. Would be interested to know what the chances were of the ships being sunk if the four torpedoes that hit them had actually detonated. My understanding is that it was almost impossible to sink a WW2 battleship with a single torpedo hit - but was it possible with two hits?
Ballantyne: I have no idea. You would get a better answer from a naval architect. The loss of Barham to torpedoes in the Mediterranean possibly suggests what might have happened to sister ship Warspite, but the latter had been extensively rebuilt while the former had not. Nelson was badly damaged in the bows by a torpedo hit during a Malta convoy and had to limp home yet was never in danger of sinking. I think luck and efficient damage control have a lot to do with it. A U-boat just had to hit a battleship in the right place to cause catastrophic damage while the British would have to be incompetent at damage control, and also they would have needed to be lax in their ‘closing up’ for action. The Royal Navy was usually very vigilant on both counts. A single bomb was more likely to sink a battleship. As outlined in my book ‘HMS Rodney’ a lucky, single hit by a 1,100lbs armour-piercing Luftwaffe bomb managed to penetrate Nelson’s sister ship deeply and almost penetrated a cordite handling room. Fortunately, the fuse was detached from that bomb’s explosives and did not therefore set off an explosion. A senior rating had also violated safety precautions by leaving a hatch above a shell handling room open for a moment. This meant that had the bomb exploded then a chain reaction in the magazines could have sunk the ship. However, it didn’t happen due to luck or Rodney would have been the first capital ship sunk by air attack on the open ocean, in April 1940. Repairs to that damage were a major reason for Rodney being sent to Boston in May 1941, which is why she was on the scene to attack, and play a major part in sinking Bismarck. Such are the strange twists in fate during war. Had the Luftwaffe not damaged her so badly, would Rodney have been somewhere else just over a year later? Probably not as there were other elements of Rodney that needed substantial repair and refitting. It’s an intriguing thought, but illustrates the cause and effect of seemingly random things, such as, for example, the German torpedoes being defective technically saving both Warspite and Nelson.
AHF: Many of the WW2 Naval Associations are now winding-up as time marches on and former shipmates pass away. Many of these Associations have valuable archive material. What is or what should be being done to protect these valuable resources being lost to the local skip etc?
Ballantyne: Some associations have archivists who are already working closely with the Imperial War Museum and others, but these are generally the ones that are still very active. The archives of those associations that have disbanded already will be in the hands of individuals who will I am sure be keen to let museums have the material, while disparate individuals will have other fragments which they will also want to pass on. I think a more important question is: How will the museums ensure this material isn’t just lost in their archives? I am sure they are doing their best and there will be a limit to what they can do with scarce funds and staff. There is also a question mark over whether or not some museums are even interested in having the stuff in the first place. I do know of cases where local museums are simply not that interested in naval artifacts, which is when they may go for sale at auction and disappear never to be seen again except in the privacy of the new owner’s home. To be honest I think we can only save a certain amount of what is out there and inevitably a good proportion will always end up thrown away due to lack of interest or appreciation of its value.
AHF: In your most recent publication about the Bismarck, you mention a possible intention by some onboard to surrender the ship. Obviously after some 70yrs many are suspect as to why this news has only just come to the fore. Why is that and why do you think none of the German crew has made note of this event and only 3 witnesses on the British side?
Ballantyne: I think the answer is connected to the previous question. The simple truth is that more material is always coming to light, all the time and being given to museums or emerging in some other fashion. One thing I have learned over the past decade or more I have been writing naval history books is that the accepted view of how events happened collapses, or at least is open to question, when you go deep into the archives. People are perhaps just not looking for it, or perhaps they find something but it does not agree with the line they are pursuing, so they ignore it. With specific regard to the Bismarck Action and the testimony from two sailors in Rodney and one in Dorsetshire who also saw the same signs of an attempt to surrender, I came across those accounts in three different ways. In the case of one I found an account in the archives of the HMS Rodney Association, some years after it was disbanded, in another I wrote to the son of the man involved and he volunteered transcripts and sound recordings, while the Dorsetshire account was in the Imperial War Museum and was a fairly recently submitted account. With the Bismarck Action I do, as the Editor of a magazine that reviews plenty of naval books, share the weariness of some who groan when they see yet another tome on that episode. Will it offer anything new at all in the wake of such excellent accounts by Ludovic Kennedy and Baron Mullenheim-Rechberg? Possibly, but more likely not. However, I thought it worth writing ‘Killing the Bismarck’ because I realised the ignored side of the action was the British, not only from the point of view of seeing some people in Bismarck trying to surrender but also the Fleet Air Arm attacks, the destroyer action, the Dorsetshire’s dash and also from the point of view of cruisers such as Norfolk. There was plenty of material that had arrived in the archives of the museums, and that I managed to uncover myself, that was not in those earlier classic accounts. With regard to the surrender possibility, I don’t see why these guys would lie. I believe they saw some of Bismarck’s men trying desperately to surrender under a devastating weight of fire that in the fore part of the ship slaughtered hundreds of their shipmates and potentially killed the entire command team. It is well known that Bismarck’s morale was destroyed even before the final action began. The British sailors I quote were in a very good position to see what was happening. They were in Actions Stations with an excellent view of the enemy and certainly in Rodney’s case they had high-powered optics and could see with shocking clarity what was happening. I don’t think people realize just how close Rodney was in the final moments. Did other sailors see the same signs? Possibly, but they chose not to write it down, or perhaps their accounts are out there but have yet to appear, or be discovered in some duty archive? The rescued German survivors came from areas of Bismarck in which they would not have been able to see what was happening for’ard. I know from my own limited experiences as a journalist, visiting front line warships closed up at action stations in the Gulf and Adriatic, that the last place you want to be if you wish to know what is going on in your own ship is…in that ship, if that makes sense. There is no way you know what is happening beyond your own compartment, what is happening to it or within its command and control areas when closed up. Therefore, the men who were best disposed to see what was happening in the fore part of Bismarck were sailors in British warships, not German survivors. They couldn’t write it down because they didn’t see it. Was it possible for the British to take Bismarck’s surrender? No. Some sailors may have been trying to surrender in the fore part of the ship, but their shipmates elsewhere continued to fire on the British. Was it an attempt to surrender on authorization of the Bismarck’s commanders, or just an initiative by some sailors who understandably wanted the killing to stop? No battleship in the heat of action has taken the surrender of another. Yes, there was an incident of Russian battleships surrendering at the Battle of Tsushima in 1904 – but a radically different set of circumstances, so different as to be incomparable. With the Luftwaffe expected to send 200 bombers over the horizon at any moment, U-boats lurking in the area, with the Royal Navy’s ships running out of fuel – never mind the technical impossibility of putting a tow across – to have attempted to take the surrender would have been insanity. Don’t forget Rodney and King George V were two very important capital ships. The British didn’t have many of them and the Royal Navy was in May 1941 also taking a hammering in the Mediterranean during the Battle of Crete. Bismarck’s sister battleship, Tirpitz, was expected to set sail from the Baltic at any moment while there were other German high seas raiders lurking in Brest, waiting to come out and savage Allied shipping. To risk King George V and Rodney in such a mad move would have been a gigantic strategic error, putting Britain at risk. Bismarck’s ensign continued to fly, she was still firing and for the sake of Britain’s security she had to be destroyed as a fighting entity. After the guns fell silent, on both sides – and its worth pointing out the Bismarck’s guns did not fall silent until the British put them out of action - it was a different matter as the brotherhood of the sea will see the hand of mercy extended.
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