Management lessons from the sinking of the Bismarck

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“Sink the Bismarck”

Quote attributed to British Prime Minster, Winston Churchill in 1941

Just over 80 years ago this month, the Bismarck was sunk.

What was the Bismarck?

The Bismarck was a World War II German battleship. With over 2000 sailors, it was the flagship of the German Navy and was the largest battleship then commissioned. In late May 1941, the recently launched Bismarck and another German warship, the Prinz Eugen evaded the British Navy and escaped from the Baltic Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission was to destroy as much Allied shipping as possible, and together with the U-boats, force the suspension of the supply convoys from the USA, vital for Britain’s survival.

The Bismarck was the most advanced battleship at the time. More modern, faster and more heavily armed than any ship in the British Navy. The Bismarck had a special anti-torpedo belt made of nickel-chrome steel. The Germans believed that no torpedo could penetrate the shield and were convinced that the Bismarck was almost unsinkable. Furthermore, the Bismarck had a sophisticated anti-aircraft fire control system to protect it from attacking aircraft.

The British Navy sent the flagship of the Home Fleet and their largest warship, the HMS Hood and another ship the Prince of Wales to hunt down the Bismarck. In the ensuing battle in the North Atlantic, the Hood was sunk within three minutes and over 1400 sailors lives were lost. Only three survived. The loss of the Hood was a significant blow to British morale. Although also hit, the Prince of Wales managed to damage the Bismarck before retreating from the battle. This forced the Bismarck to abandon its raiding plans.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill then issued the order “Sink the Bismarck!” and the relentless pursuit of the two German warships by dozens of British Navy ships began.

The damaged Bismarck, leaking oil, limped towards Nazi occupied France where protective air cover and a destroyer escort were waiting. However, by a stroke of luck an RAF Catalonia flying boat sighted the Bismarck’s oil slick and reported her position. From then on, the British Navy used radar to track it and over a dozen warships followed the battleship.

One of the British ships shadowing the Bismarck was the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. On it were 16 obsolete open cockpit Swordfish bi-planes. With time running out, and with the Ark Royal being the closest ship to the Bismarck it was decided to attack the Bismarck from the air. In atrocious weather and in the fading light the slow-moving Swordfish attacked using torpedoes. Bismarck’s sophisticated anti-aircraft guns were too advanced to shoot down the slow-moving bi-planes. In the final attack, a single torpedo hit the Bismarck’s rudder and steering gear, and from then on it was unable to maneuver. It could only steam in a wide circle.

Unable to repair its rudder and steaming in a circle the Bismarck was doomed. The next morning the British Navy opened fire on the crippled battleship. With its large guns partially out of action, and unable to maneuver, the Bismarck was sunk within two hours, on its maiden voyage, with the loss of over 2,000 men.

What do you think are the management lessons from the sinking of the Bismarck?

Here are three lessons to consider.

1. Do not rely on technology.  The Germans considered the Bismarck as virtually unsinkable with superior firepower, advanced torpedo shields and sophisticated anti-aircraft guns. However, the low-level technology of the Swordfish bi-planes managed to cripple the Bismarck.

2. Technology is an enabler. It indirectly resulted in the sinking of the ship. The British used radar, which was a very new technology to track the Bismarck. Without it, the Bismarck would have escaped to the safety of Occupied France.

3. Persistence pays off. Despite the superiority and perceived danger of the Bismarck to Britain and its navy, a well-planned and persistent chase managed to find and sink the Bismarck. Furthermore, in the dying light in atrocious weather and against all odds, a single outdated Swordfish bi-plane managed to damage the Bismarck just when it looked like the Bismarck would escape the Royal Navy.

What other lessons can you find?

Remember: We can learn from history.  The use of well-known historic examples helps paint a more vivid picture and storytelling helps communication.

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