Sink the Bismarck! - Wikipedia

 SINK THE BISMARCK! (1960)                 

One thing the British have always been very good at doing, is making World War Two movies about actual events, particularly those that have anything to do with the Royal Navy, pictures such as In Which We Serve (1942), The Cruel Sea (1953), The Man Who Never Was, The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). When the German battleship Bismarck broke out into the North Atlantic in May 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, acutely aware of the threat the vessel presented to Allied shipping, gave the order to ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ When thirteen Allied warships eventually caught up with her, no quarter was given as they sent the ship to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

The Royal Navy has been unfairly criticized in several quarters over its handling of the rescue of German sailors off the Bismarck. After the sinking, HMS Devonshire and HMS Maori rescued one hundred and eleven survivors from the sea (one of whom later died of his injuries), before having to leave the area due to reports of a German U-Boat nearby. Both British ships would have been stationary, sitting ducks for a torpedo attack had they continued picking up survivors.

Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

Dana Wynter & Kenneth More

Popular British actor Kenneth More was given the male lead playing the fictional Captain Jonathan Shepard, the man handed the difficult task of finding and destroying the German battleship. Historically, the real Director of Operations, ordered to handle the situation, was a Captain Ralph Edwards, (later Admiral Sir Ralph Edwards). Four players here, More, Laurence Naismith, Michael Goodliffe and Russell Napier all appeared in the iconic A Night to Remember two years prior to making this film, arguably the best movie ever made about the sinking of R. M. S. Titanic in 1912. Dana Wynter, a German-born actress, plays Captain Shepard’s able assistant in the War Room and does so with her customary aplomb. Ms Wynter was a class act.

Sir Ralph Alan Bevan Edwards - Person - National Portrait Gallery

Admiral Sir Ralph Edwards

More was offered The Guns of Navarone (1961) because of his work in Sink the Bismarck! The Managing Director at Rank Organization, John Davis, gave him permission to work outside his contract to appear in the blockbuster feature, but the inebriated actor made the mistake of heckling and swearing at Davis at a BAFTA dinner at the Dorchester. As a result, he lost his contract at Rank and the ‘Navarone’ role was given to David Niven instead. The film was a huge success.

An interesting member of the cast is Esmond Knight. He portrayed the captain of HMS Prince of Wales in Sink the Bismarck! Back in 1941, he was serving aboard the real Prince of Wales during its battle with Bismarck and he suffered serious injuries during the exchange of fire. An explosion cost him an eye and most of his sight in his remaining eye. His injuries did not prevent him from accumulating over 150 film and television credits in a career that spanned almost sixty years until his death in 1987.

The scene where the navigation bridge of HMS Prince of Wales takes a direct hit during the battle is based on accounts of the real battle. There was a small tube connecting the bridge to the plotting room directly beneath it. In the movie we see what appears to be (given the black and white film) some kind of machine oil dripping onto the plotting table from the tube. In reality, it was actually blood dripping from the many casualties on the bridge above.

45cat - Johnny Horton - Sink The Bismarck / When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below) - Columbia Hall Of Fame - USA - 4-33027

Incidentally, the popular hit song, ‘Sink the Bismarck’ recorded by Johnny Horton is not heard in the movie. It was released in the United States to promote the film prior to its opening. As for its British release, it appears that the previous Horton hit, ‘The Battle of New Orleans’, had offended a great percentage of the UK population, particularly the lines about the conduct of the British redcoats in the 1814 battle, ‘…they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles, they ran through the bushes where the rabbits couldn’t go; they ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ‘em…’. ‘Sink the Bismarck’ was recorded as a kind of ‘apology’ to the British record-buying public.

Günther Lütjens - Wikipedia

Admiral Gunther Lutjens

Edward R. Murrow portrays himself in this film. In 1941, (when the action takes place), he was a young man of thirty-three. By the time he appeared in this movie in 1960, however, he was fifty-two years old, yet no attempt was made to make him look as young as he was when the events depicted occurred. German Admiral Gunther Lutjens (played by Czech-born actor Karel Stepanek), is depicted here as a zealous Nazi, a fanatic who denies reality until the end. The real Lutjens was nothing like that. Furthermore, he himself was not a Nazi, a fact borne out when he famously refused to perform the Nazi salute for Hitler before Bismarck set sail. He would never have told his crew to ‘remember you are Nazis!’, as he does in this picture. Indeed, the vast majority of the officers and crew aboard were not Nazis either.

German Battleship Bismarck in World War II

The Batleship Bismarck

Losses for both sides in this engagement were severe, especially regarding the two principle combatants – HMS Hood and the Bismarck. Of the one thousand four hundred and eighteen men aboard the Hood, only three survived! Aboard the German battleship there were just over two thousand souls, but only one hundred and fourteen survivors were rescued from the sea. It is interesting to note that Tommy Byers, a sailor on the British battleship HMS Rodney, maintained until his death in 2004 that the German battleship hoisted a black flag – the naval sign calling for parley. Byers and a second seaman also saw a Morse code flash from Bismarck, which they both interpreted as ‘surrender’, along with a German waving semaphore flags conveying the same message. Royal Navy officers were advised of the signs but were determined to follow Churchill’s order to ‘sink the Bismarck’. Had the British accepted the surrender, the lives of hundreds of German sailors could have been saved. Capturing the Bismarck would also have given Navy engineers an insight into the design of her sister ship, Tirpitz.

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