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Nothing like it since Trafalgar.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

IN 1960 the city's movie-goers flocked to the Capitol Cinema to watch a starry cast, recruited from the stiff-upper-lip school of acting, re-fight the "greatest air-sea battle of the war".

This epic starred Kenneth More, promoted from Battle of Britain fighter ace (Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky) to Director of Naval Operations. His job was to sink the Bismarck, not surprisingly the name of the film.

And that was precisely what the nation's newspapers were calling for 70 years ago this week. In Crete, British, Australian and New Zealand troops were being pushed back by invading Nazis supported by overwhelming air power. At home we were being blasted nightly by the Luftwaffe.

But only the Bismarck mattered that week. Politicians and newspapers trumpeted that we HAD to sink it - to avenge the Hood. The battleship described by the Echo as "the finest fighting ship in Hitler's fleet" and the pride of the Nazi Navy had sunk our own most celebrated warship, HMS Hood, only a few of her 1,300 crew surviving.

She was the Bismarck's first victim after Hitler's "invincible ship" left her Norwegian base to prey on merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

The loss of the Hood was a huge blow not only to the Navy but to the country's morale. The response was overwhelming. Four battleships, two battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, four cruisers and a flotilla of destroyers plus ships hastily summoned from the Mediterranean fleet began what we called the biggest sea chase ever. Their order was simple: Sink the Bismarck. But not so simple to obey.

With her escort cruiser Prinz Eugen she was somewhere in the vastness of the North Atlantic, a shifting, shadowy shape. Canadian planes from Newfoundland joined the RAF in a search from the skies and on May 23 they sighted "an enemy force of one battleship and one cruiser" in the Denmark Strait. It was the beginning of an historic four days - Catalina flying boats and Sunderlands shadowing the great warship as she tried to get back to base. Here was the "greatest air-sea battle".

Pilots reported ferocious anti-aircraft fire. But despite the firestorm the planes, according to the official report, "were not only able to guide our warships towards the Bismarck, but also to attack a capital ship with torpedoes, disable it and prepare it for the final slaughter".

Those attacks from the air crippled the mighty Bismarck as she steamed towards safety. But on May 27, after a four-day battle over 1,750 miles, she was finally "engaged by our heavy ships", the great battleships Rodney and King George V with their 16-inch guns, 550 miles off Land's End. The cruiser Dorchester was called in to deliver the coup de grace and her torpedoes did the job (although some reports claimed it was the aircraft carrier Victorious).

Whatever, Winston Churchill would be told later: "The Bismarck sank at 11.01 this morning." Most of her 1,000 crew died with her.

The Echo rejoiced at the triumphant end to "the greatest sea chase ever" as the details were released slowly, very slowly, in the House by a Churchill exercising his sense of the dramatic to the full.

He paused frequently, the Echo reported, producing small pieces of paper from his pockets. And though he knew what was coming he spoke first of the Hood.

"Great as is our loss in the Hood the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful enemy battleship, as she is the newest enemy battleship." Therefore, he thundered, she would have to be eliminated. So he built up the image of the Bismarck as a terrifying monster until MPs were salivating at the prospect of its destruction.

Then, after returning to his seat, Churchill was handed yet another piece of paper. He rose, with an apologetic glance at the Speaker. "I do not know whether I might venture to intervene, with the very greatest respect." A pause. "But I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk."

The cheers, we reported, "were loud and long". Vengeance was ours.

And so it ended, a sea battle that had captivated the public like no other since Trafalgar.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 24, 2011
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