Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

Battleship Bismarck

A survivor's story

Müllenheim-Rechberg, Burkard

1990, United States Naval Inst.
ISBN 0870210270
467 pages

Type. Personal Narrative
Pros. Scholarly German account, filling almost all the few gaps, especially revised 1990 edition
Cons. Stiff style, too brief chapters

Baron von Müllenheim-Rechberg's formal personal account suffers from a somewhat stilted style which is not helped by translation. It is however enormously valuable as the only precise scholarly and non-commercial German view of the operation. Until recently it was the only such view of the events, there being an earlier bevy of patriotic commercial German books between 1955 and 1970. Most were by a few prolific authors concerned to give an open, light, accessible account for a large general German readership. They were less concerned with analysis and more with presenting positive and enduring values and ideals through adventure and sacrificial struggle, the hallmark of most middlebrow and all lowbrow German accounts of both World Wars.

Müllenheim-Rechberg by contrast set out his own restricted view of the story. He wrote partly to quash rumours by other German authors about what he had said or thought postwar. He told what he could from a combination of official and private sources, interviews, and diaries, the view from his position as senior surviving officer, as 4th Gunnery officer, aft, away from the main control positions. He also wrote as a non-Nazi, and as a man who had lived in the UK before the war, with British friends and colleagues both diplomatic and naval. This is another distinction between his work and that of the German mainstream.

The book is punctuated and enriched with official and personal photographs of every stage, as well as a consistent set of maps with positions, courses, and the all-important 'lat and long' which give them an extra veracity and accuracy. The chapters are at times too short, and too shallow, especially when read in concert with British texts. There is always the sense the reader is missing details, anecdotes, events, played out on the other ships at the same time, while the Baron's tale is [naturally] limited to his ship, and what he saw or heard, as well as events onshore in Germany. However, no text can ever be complete or the entire story. As such, Battleship Bismarck needs to be read in concert with and in comparison to other works, both commercial [which often have minor details relating to events or personality] and academic, which have deeper and wider analysis, less bias or prejudice, and commonly, greater accuracy about all matters, in addition to more restrained style and tone.

Müllenheim-Rechberg's remains the only wholly substantial non-commercial operation account of the events from the German position. Later technical works only add to our understanding of the ship, not her crew or life. The Baron's involvement in the book and documentary of the rediscovery of the ship also gives his views an extra weight, in formats and about information simply not available when he wrote in 1980.

The reviewer welcomes your comments on this review.

Review written by Ian Campbell.

Published on 5 Jan 2001.

This title is highly recommended.

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