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Friday, May 10, 2013
Out of the fast-fading twilight of memory for World War II comes a flurry of books commemorating an era of noble heroism and sacrifice, and despicable cowardice and brutality. Patrick Bishop is handsomely styled “one of Britain’s leading military historians ,” and this well-researched and lively account ought to add to his already-gilded laurels.
For the tale of the mighty Nazi battleship Admiral von Tirpitz , its conception and construction, its setting-forth to battle and ultimate destruction while cowering in the narrows of a Norwegian fjord, may some day inspire a German poet to write of the tragic comedy in tones worthy of a Wagnerian opera. And that destruction was the result of the implacable, near-obsessive purpose of one man — Winston Churchill , who never ceased to thunder “Sink the Tirpitz!” until the deed was done.
The far northern reaches of the Atlantic form the background of this saga — its endless sweep of freezing waters, its storms and fogs, icebergs and darkness, its hostility to human endeavors of every kind. Were it not for the necessity of supplying Soviet Russia with war materials, by convoys of merchant vessels under escort of British and American warships, none of it would have taken place. But those convoys, under constant attack by German aircraft and submarines, and the threat of surface forces led by Tirpitz and battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau — wolves among the sheep — kept plodding doggedly onward, some to their slaughter by bombs, shells, mines or torpedoes.
Against this formidable array of foes stood the Royal Navy, with battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers, and the additional mission of seeking out and dealing with the Nazi battle group. The Royal Air Force, too, was tasked to send its aircraft on long flights with the heaviest bombs available, despite the hellish weather, the clouds and smoke, and swarms of fighters.
This volume treats both German and Allied forces with admirable balance, and the editing and printing are first-rate. It includes 14 pages of chapter notes, eight of photos, and four of excellent maps (none, by some peculiarity, having a mileage scale). For the British, it required nearly four years of unrelenting effort, and the loss of almost-uncountable lives and ships, to accomplish — examples of incredible bravery on the part of ship and air crews. And behind it all, the driving power of Churchill’s order: “So long as Tirpitz remains afloat … it remains a threat to our sea communications with Russia.”
In November 1944, the RAF “Dam Busters” squadron sent 18 Lancaster bombers, carrying 10,000-pound “Tallboy” armor-piercing monsters. And in fire and smoke, Hitler’s last battleship rolled over and sank, taking with it nearly a thousand seamen. For the past 60-odd years, at a small monument standing near Wilhelmshaven , the birthplace of Tirpitz, a handful of survivors and their families have attended memorial services. Seems fitting enough — though deluded, they too were brave.
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