Sunday, June 04, 2006

Kennedy: Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Battleship Bismarck

This book is something of a departure for me; I don't think I've ever read a detailed military history book before. I read quite a lot of history books for my own research, but I don't tend to intersect with military topics and WWII is much later than my research period. Pursuit was recommended by my brother, though, who has always been interested in the Bismarck. So I thought I'd give it a try.

This book details the first voyage of the German battleship Bismarck, which encountered and sank the H.M.S. Hood and then was chased across the Atlantic by a large chunk of the Royal Navy, finally getting bombarded and sunk itself near France. Some of the blurbs on the back cover note that it's a "first-hand" account, which surprised me since it isn't at all in first person. Kennedy was apparently on the H.M.S Zulu, one of the destroyers which chased after the Bismarck, but I had to go digging into the footnotes to find that out. Kennedy himself seems to be an interesting guy; he has been a journalist and producer for the BBC for decades (I assume he's now retired since he's 97). The journalistic sensibility shows in this book; he includes several details from the ships' crews that make the whole thing much more readable than it would be without them. The producer sensibility comes out in the framing of the narrative--it opens with an intelligence officer who gets word of the Bismarck's sailing, then slowing introduces the "major" characters: the admirals and captains of the British and German Navies. The authorial decisions about what to include and how to structure things are effective, and if you think you might like to try reading about some military history, this is probably a very good book to start with.

Kennedy also works hard to keep the Nazi officers and ships from being flat villains, mostly by distancing them from Nazism itself. According to him, the German Navy was not as politically involved in the Facist party as other branches of the armed forces; the German admiral of the fleet gave Hitler the naval salute not the party salute and most of the sailors were indifferent to the positions of the party. He also provides human interest detail from the Bismarck and its crew, and by the end the reader isn't really pulling for the Royal Navy to find and sink her. Like most war narratives that I've heard, the whole operation was a series of a thousand little accidents and decisions that might have altered things: if UB 556 hadn't shot its last torpedo at a convoy earlier, if the Bismarck had fully fuelled when it sailed, if the the Hood and the Prince of Wales had changed positions, things might have been very different.

Kennedy has a striking aversion to the common conjunction, and hard-core adherents to Strunk and White will probably lose patience after a while. He runs sentences on badly, and I have to admit it was distracting for the first half of the book. If you push on, though, the book is a fascinating read. One final caveat--I found a used hardback version from 1974 that had a map of the Atlantic and the routes of the ships on the inside front cover. If you get this book, make sure it has that map printed somewhere you can refer to it often--the book would have been incomprehensible for me without it.

I'm going to have to confess that I haven't cooked much recently. Moving etc. is getting hectic (and we're over a month away from an actual move). I'll go ahead and post this, and put up a recipe separately sometime tomorrow.


Anonymous Dan Brackmann said...

Yes! I got mentioned; now I'm famous!

Author's now famous brother

2:21 PM  

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