A needle in a haystack, at night, in a blizzard

Monday Book Review

January 14, 1991|By Geoffrey W. Fielding

THE DISCOVERY OF THE BISMARCK. By Robert D. Ballard, with Rick Archbold. Warner Books. 232 pages. $35. JUST A FEW months short of 50 years ago, the German battleship Bismarck plunged to its grave almost three miles deep in the North Atlantic. She had been scuttled by her crew -- seemingly a tradition in the German Navy when one thinks of the Graf Spee at Montevideo and the German fleet at Scapa Flow -- after being battered to bits by the Royal Navy.

World War II reached a low point for Britain in 1941, when it fought the war against Germany alone. It depended on the North Atlantic convoys, a vital life-line to the factories and fields of the New World.

The Bismarck, pride of Hitler's Kriegsmarine, commissioned only a year before, was on her maiden voyage, a sortie out into the North Atlantic to cut that life-line. Detected by radar as it passed through the Denmark Strait, it was tracked by the Royal Navy. In its first battle, it sank the British battlecruiser H.M.S. Hood. Three days later it was brought to bay and destroyed.

Some 29 years earlier, another vessel on a maiden voyage, the Lusitania, had struck an iceberg and had sunk two miles deep in the North Atlantic.

The vessels had one thing in common. Their wrecks were discovered by the same man, Robert D. Ballard, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod. He is a pioneer in he development and use of deep, underwater exploration technology.

Following up on his previous best-seller, "The Discovery of the Titanic," Ballard has written an account of his two-year search for the German battleship. It tells of the days and weeks of disappointed searching for the wreck, first in 1988, then a year later with a new ship but the same equipment.

Working from the positions given by the three British warships involved in the final showdown, Ballard found he had to search an almost 200-square-mile area -- a task, he writes, comparable to looking for a needle in a haystack, at night, in a blizzard, with only a flashlight. In this case, however, the light was at the end of a three-mile cable. It consisted of side-scan sonar, lights, television cameras, altimeter and control mechanisms mounted on a steel skeleton called Argo.

Argo was controlled by joystick from the ship as it followed the contours of the ocean bed. It had to be guided gently, for any sudden jerks could snap the three-mile-long line. It was, says Ballard, like handling a 20-pound fish on a five-pound test line, except in this case the fish was millions of dollars worth of equipment.

For seven days in the second summer the search trolled up and down, spotting bits of wreckage, none of which could really be identified with the Bismarck. Then the trail got hot when, slowly, the image of a huge ring, with teeth on the inner rim, crept slowly onto the video monitor. It was one of the 15-inch gun turrets which had fallen off the Bismarck as it rolled over and sank.

But it was another 36 hours before the main wreck was found -- the Bismarck sitting upright on the ocean floor looking almost as though it were ready to go into the fitting-out yards to be given guns and superstructure.

It was a magnificent discovery, one that was faithfully recorded by Ballard, except for the precise location of the wreck.

The book, too, reflects that magnificence, for it intertwines the two stories -- the first of the two battles between German and British ships against the background of the personalities involved, the second of the search for the Bismarck, itself a thrilling account.

Added is a superb collection of photographs old and new, drawings and paintings, which brings the events, separated by almost 50 years, to life.

For anyone at all interested in marine warfare or underwater archaeology, this account is a must. It is also a worthy memorial to Ballard's 20-year-old son, Todd, an important player in the discovery, who died in an automobile accident a few weeks later.

Geoffrey W. Fielding is a Baltimore writer.

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